The Nation looks at the Green Question

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In 1999, I toyed with the idea of setting up a website called “The Nader Question.” It would have asked whether Ralph Nader ought to run as an independent candidate in the 2000 US presidential election, and have featured short statements pro and con by various commentators, as well as giving readers the opportunity to post their own replies. If it were a hit, after the election this site would morph into “The Green Question,” a forum set up along similar lines devoted to presenting contrasting views on whether US nationals who find the Democratic Party consistently too cozy with the Power Elite to merit their support ought to coalesce behind a new party under a “Green” label.

“The Nader Question” would have been in many parts. For example, should the Democrats have moved left, and if so was such a run a logical step in an effort to push them left?  The first question could have been answered negatively by someone wanting the Democrats to move further to the right, to continue on their Clinton-era course, or to go out of business altogether.  The second could have been answered negatively by someone regarding campaigns by candidates outside the two major parties as pointless, by someone regarding them as so unpredictable in their consequences that such a run would be as likely to make the problem worse as to make it better, or by someone supporting the idea of a campaign but deeming Mr Nader an unsuitable candidate. It should be easy to see that many such questions would be open to just as wide a variety of answers.

The state of blogging platforms at the end of the twentieth century, combined with my lack of entrepreneurial spirit, scanty computer expertise, even scantier connections to political and media figures whose writing might draw the public to such a site, and nearly non-existent financial resources combined to discourage me so that “The Nader Question” never got off the ground. I hadn’t thought about “The Nader Question” in many years, not until looking at the latest issue of The Nation magazine. It examines Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s campaign from several angles, much as “The Nader Question” would have examined Mr Nader’s candidacy.

Columnist Katha Pollitt and Nation Institute fellow Joshua Holland argue that Dr Stein is unlikely to make an impression on the race, and that voters who cast one of over 100,000,000 ballots for one of the major party candidates will somehow be more likely to influence subsequent national policy. Difficult as it might be to imagine circumstances in which this would happen, it is even more difficult to restrain laughter when Mr Holland claims that the United States opposed the military coup in Honduras in 2009. That coup was led by officers of the Honduran Air Force, a service all of whose aircraft are supplied by the US defense firms.  These aircraft cannot fly without spare parts and other materials provided at regular intervals by these companies. No officer of any air force is going to join an enterprise which, if successful, will ground his or her aircraft.  The idea that the leaders of the coup did not act with firm assurances from the Obama administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, that if successful they would continue their dealings with their aerospace contractors in the USA, is simply a joke.

Seattle City Councillor Kshama Sawant argues that there is a perverse relationship between the Democratic Party and the right wing, that the Democrats regularly provide cover for policies that the public would not accept if proposed by the Republicans and that this relationship has been a necessary a condition for the increasing consolidation of power in the hands of the financial elite in recent decades.  A vote for Dr Stein, and continued support for parties to the left of the Democrats, is an indispensable step towards breaking this link.

Other pieces that do not bear directly on the question of whether voters should support Dr Stein shed light on it indirectly. Four pieces deal with the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet: a 1976 essay by Orlando Letelier; Naomi Klein’s recommendation of the essay; a memorial by Susan George of Letelier‘s work in exile against the Pinochet regime; and Peter Kornbluh’s call for the US government to release the documents it still keeps secret which cover the assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in Washington, DC in 1976 by agents of the Chilean secret service and the collaboration between US administrations under presidents from Gerald Ford through Bill Clinton to keep the particulars of the assassination from the public and to continue security cooperation between the US and Chile.  The active roles the Carter and Clinton administrations took in this cover-up, along with the refusal of the Democrats who held the majority in the in the US Senate for 8 of those 14 year and in the US House of Representatives for the entire period to do anything to stop it, and finally the Obama administration’s continued embargo of these documents, show that Ms Sawant is not entirely wrong when she says that the American right could not perpetrate its worst misdeeds without the assistance of the Democratic Party.

Bryce Covert argues that the welfare reform act signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 has been a disaster for low-income Americans and that we must hope President Hillary Rodham Clinton will undo its worst provisions. This does seem rather like trying to escape bankruptcy by hoping that the thief who impoverished you will refund your stolen goods. It’s true that HRC’s opponent, Don John of Astoria, has shown no inclination to make a change for the better in the welfare system or much of anything else, but neither is HRC likely to do so unless the political reward of doing good outweighs the political cost. If welfare recipients and those who are directly interested in their well-being either do not vote or vote for the Democrats no matter what they do, then they have no political incentive to do anything for them. They won’t act without such an incentive, not because they are evil, but because there are so many other things they could be doing that might perhaps be good and would certainly bring strong political rewards that they will not find the time to do unprofitable good deeds. Only a left of center movement capable of seriously inconveniencing Democratic politicians, a movement partly working inside the party to reward it for moving left and partly working outside the party to impose a costs on it for moving right, can make it rational for the Democratic Party to pay real attention to issues like welfare. That’s how the welfare state was created in the first place, in a time when the labor movement not only gave the Democrats the backbone of their party’s organization but also included major unions that regularly considered endorsing candidates to the Democrats’ left.

The cover story is an interview with Senator Bernie Sanders, who of course urges those who backed him in the primary to throw their allegiance to HRC in the general election. I had assumed that the Sanders campaign would end up like the Bill Bradley 2000 campaign, gaining some publicity and intriguing poll numbers in the early going, only to collapse when people started voting. Mr Bradley did not win a single statewide contest, losing every primary, every caucus, and every state convention to the Tennessee Turd, then-US Vice President Albert Arnold “Al” Gore, Junior. I was glad when Mr Sanders won enough votes to show that a very large percentage of the Democratic voter base was so desperate for a change from the Clinton approach that they would vote for a 74 year old Jewish Socialist with a thick Brooklyn accent and only tenuous ties to the Democratic Party.

A candidate in Mr Bradley’s mold, a party regular with a substantial record in high office, a celebrity background as a professional athlete, and no habit of donning labels that large segments of American society regard as equivalent to treason, could well have taken the Democratic Party this year away from the Finance First approach that the Clintons fastened on it almost a quarter-century ago.  I backed Paul Tsongas in 1992, because I thought the time had come for a Finance First approach; I preferred him to Governor Bill Clinton, because Tsongas tried to combine Finance First with as much of the New Frontier/ Great Society liberal agenda as he could. Had Tsongas won, I suspect that the party would have been more flexible in later years, using Finance First in the early 1990s when it made sense, but turning to other priorities as the country’s circumstances changed. A powerful force outside the party would still have been needed to actuate those turns, but at least the party’s leaders would have remembered where the intersections were.

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The Nation, 2 February 2015

Art by Doug Chayka

Several interesting things in the 2 February edition of The Nation magazine.

Gary Younge predicts that the January 2015 massacres in Paris will strengthen France’s far right Front National.  I suspect that the opposite will in fact be the case.  The way I read opinion surveys like this one, France is like other Western European countries in that about a third of the electorate wants to alter immigration policy radically, either to stop immigration altogether or to eliminate all restrictions on it, while about two thirds of the electorate wants some or other kind of reform that will welcome a steady flow of law-abiding skilled immigrants, encourage immigrants to assimilate to the established norms of society, and keep as many criminals and other troublesome individuals outside the borders as possible.  These have long been the familiar goals of immigration policy everywhere, and I very much doubt that the mainstream parties will have any real difficulty finding ways to promote them once it becomes clear that the alternative is to start losing important elections to the Front National. Once the mainstream parties come up with something helpful to say about immigration, law and order, and similar issues, the Front’s level of support will recede, leaving its core of chronic sore-heads high and dry.

Stuart Klawans reviews a number of recent films, including The Interview.  I myself will never forgive actor Seth Rogen for the 2011 Green Hornet movie, but Mr Klawans praises Mr Rogen’s character in The Interview as the embodiment of what the world most likes about the USA:

The Interview is about a gossipy TV talk-show and the universal contempt that adheres to its host and producer, both of whom imagine that they will become respectable if they can secure an interview with Kim Jong-un. Being half-wits at best (the host’s capacity is perhaps closer to one-quarter), the characters fail to understand that Kim grants them an interview precisely because they’re imbeciles, whom he can easily manipulate. The CIA recruits them to assassinate Kim for pretty much the same reason—because they’re expendable dopes, who might as well be sent to their deaths.

At no point in the movie do James Franco (as the host) and Rogen (as the producer) violate this premise by winking at the audience or appealing for sympathy, even when they achieve their unlikely triumph. All they do is invite derision—buckets and buckets of it—for being professionally blinkered, emptily ambitious, chronically intoxicated, crudely chauvinistic, indiscriminately horny.

And you mock them for it—hypocrite voyeur, leur semblable, leur frère! Who do you think we are, a nation of Leon Wieseltiers? If we were, let me tell you, the world would not love us as it does. On that point, The Interview is absolutely clear and correct. We are indeed hated, as reflected in the anti-American ditty that begins the film, with lyrics that no venerable journal of opinion could reprint. But we are also adored, as the real Kim Jong-un adores Dennis Rodman, for the exact same lavish vulgarity that Franco and Rogen embody, and that can be preferable to the stern, manly virtues (I refer you to American Sniper) that so often win us the enmity of other people.

As Brody wrote, The Interview confronts the possibility that Americans might need to use deadly force, perhaps even pre-emptively, in their own defense. But the film does more. At a time when respect for military professionalism has become almost worshipful, The Interview might remind us that our army used to make do with grousing, goldbricking conscripts—people whom we are now pleased to call the Greatest Generation, but who were disdained in wartime England as “overpaid, oversexed and over here.”

Let us never forget that Hitler was defeated by the likes of James Franco and Seth Rogen. That’s the best laugh of all.

I’m sure the conscript soldiers of the allied forces in World War Two did their share of grousing and goldbricking, though if they hadn’t from time to time risen to “the stern, manly virtues” of which their officers and NCOs so fondly dreamed them capable the world would be a much drearier place today.

Anyway, Hitler is a bit miscast in his cameo appearance at the end.  For all that he preached the stern, manly virtues, Hitler himself rarely exemplified them.  Between his time lounging about the streets of Vienna under the rather ludicrous delusion that he was a budding artiste and his latter days sleeping into the afternoon and sitting up through the night watching movies in his private screening room while others fought in his name, virtually the only time Hitler practiced the demanding code he would so famously preach was when he was himself a conscript soldier in the trenches in the First World War.  And that service, though it earned him two Iron Crosses (one of them First Class,) had its match and more than its match in the service of many hundreds of thousands of other common soldiers in the armies of that planetary conflict.

Indeed, it may have been precisely Hitler’s ordinariness that made his political career such an extraordinary success.  A man somewhat below average height, tending to overweight, a face utterly forgettable except for a most unfortunate mustache, originating from the middlemost of the middle classes, a failure in every youthful pursuit, devoid of originality in any avenue of thought, Hitler had no notable characteristic that would distinguish him from anyone else.  As a cipher, he was the perfect choice to symbolize a whole generation.  As Wolfgang Schivelbusch suggests in his book The Culture of Defeat (Picador, 2004, pages 235-239,) Germans in the period following the First World War had an urgent need for such a symbolic figure. The nations that sent their young men to the trenches were wracked with guilt at the slaughter.  Nothing about Hitler prevented Germans from identifying him with the war dead collectively and individually.  While most families, looking at a man with a truly impressive war record like Hermann Goering or Benito Mussolini or Oswald Mosley, or later on Leon Degrelle, might find it hard to believe that their own dead son or brother had acted so heroically, Hitler’s achievements as a regimental dispatch runner were a drama that would plausible with virtually any able-bodied soldier in the leading role. His lack of any dashing qualities made Hitler not only a blank screen, but a sacramental object.  Channeling their guilt through the figure of Hitler, the Germans developed a civic religion that made it possible for them to accept the horrific realities of the industrial age as they were revealed in the mass killing on the Western Front.

As it turned out, devotion to Hitler was not an altogether successful means of purging Germany of national guilt.  Since 1945, the usual theme of German efforts to work through the guilt that is Hitler’s legacy has been ostentatious renunciation of the stern, manly virtues.  Germans and other Europeans who sympathize with those efforts make up a sizable percentage of the people whose enmity Americans might earn by occasionally celebrating those virtues.  This civic religion has gone seventy years without starting a world war or committing genocide, so it must be ranked higher than its immediate predecessor, but “preferable to Naziism” is rather a low standard to meet.

Worlds in Collision

There have been several interesting items in recent issues of The Nation.

Reviewing John Judis’ Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, Bernard Avishai argues that President Harry S Truman had far fewer options in formulating policy towards events in and around Mandatory Palestine than Mr Judis claims.  Mr Avishai’s closing sentences are worth quoting:

Understanding Israel’s founding in 1948 as a necessary event with tragic consequences, and not as a presidential mistake forced by political pressure, will not make Obama less wary of AIPAC or his relationship with Netanyahu less tortured. But it could make his tact more obviously noble.

“Tact” may itself be an extraordinarily tactful choice of words to characterize Mr O’s relationship with Israel and the Americans who support the Israeli right-wing, but I would say that “necessary event with tragic consequences” is usually an accurate description of major occurrences in world history.  There may be some agent or other who was at some point in a position to alter the course of events, but that point may have passed long before anyone realized the significance of what was going on.  Certainly by the time President Truman took office, the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was beyond the power of any US president to prevent, even assuming any US president were to be so heedless of public opinion as to want to prevent it.  The fact that President Truman so thoroughly convinced himself of the contrary as to announce to the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1953 that “I am Cyrus” serves to remind us that the extreme self-confidence that men need if they are to rise to high political office often leaves them vulnerable to the most absurd self-deceptions.  Not that politicians have a monopoly on self-deception; Mr Avishai mentions Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Culture of Defeat, a book which shows how little relationship the commonly accepted opinions on all sides in the USA have to any facts concerning their country’s Civil War of 1861-1865.

A book about Immanuel Velikovsky prompts Paula Findlen to write an engaging essay about Velikovsky’s career and her own youthful enthusiasm for his work.  For my part, I wonder if Velikovsky’s eccentric theories about comets and colliding heavenly bodies set science back significantly.  Scientists are now comfortable talking about impacts that led to the formation of the Moon, triggered mass extinctions, etc, but in the 1970s, when Velikovsky’s work was in vogue, they were noticeably reluctant to consider such theories, perhaps for fear of being mistaken for Velikovskyans.

In September 2000, Kurt Vonnegut gave a speech in which he spoke ill of Thomas Jefferson, and explained why he had the right to do so.  I speak ill of Thomas Jefferson myself quite frequently.  I often read Jefferson’s deplorable works and study his deplorable acts, the better to deplore them, and my education advances in proportion to the amount of time I spend in his deplorable presence in this way.

In a recent issue, Richard Kim expressed exasperation with social conservatives concerned that the declining popularity of their views on sex in general and on gender neutral marriage in particular has destined them for marginalization.   Mr Kim points out that social conservatives still wield a great deal of power in the USA and that American courts have been quite deferential to religious liberty concerns.  The magazine rather undercuts Mr Kim’s point by running his piece under the headline “The Bigot’s Lament” and giving it a subhed saying that “the religious right nurses its persecution complex.”  If people are going to label you a bigot and dismiss your concerns as symptoms of a “persecution complex,” you are probably right to worry that you are being pushed to the margins.  Rod Dreher wrote a series of posts on his blog at The American Conservative a few weeks ago in which he speculated that in the future, people who share his belief that homosexual relationships are not the same kind of thing as heterosexual relationships may have to keep that belief a secret or face loss of employment and public humiliation, even as same-sexers have long had to keep their sexuality secret in order to avoid the same penalties.  Responding to a critique from Andrew Sullivan, Mr Dreher wrote:

This line from Andrew is particularly rich:

In the end, one begins to wonder about the strength of these people’s religious convictions if they are so afraid to voice them, and need the state to reinforce them.

This is the crux of the problem. Let’s restate this: “One begins to wonder about the strength of the love of gay couples if they are so afraid to come out of the closet, and need the state to protect them.”

How does that sound? To me, it sounds smug and naive and unfeeling, even cruel, about the reality of gay people’s lives. If they aren’t willing to martyr themselves, then they must not really love each other, right? And hey, if they need the state to protect them from a wedding photographer who won’t take their photos, how much do they really love each other?

You see my point.

I am glad we don’t live in that world anymore. We don’t live in that world anymore because people like Andrew insisted that gay lives had more dignity than the majority of Americans believed. Again, they did us all a favor by awakening us morally to what it is like to live in a country where what matters the most to you is treated in custom and in law as anathema.

I do think there is a realistic chance that in a decade or two it will be a career-killer virtually everywhere in the USA to profess religious beliefs that disapprove of same-sex sex and elevate opposite-sex sex to privileged status in the moral order.  I’m not entirely opposed to this happening; I think such beliefs are wrong, and the sooner they are consigned to the status of exhibits in a museum of discredited ideas the better off everyone will be.  On the other hand, while antigay beliefs may be losing popularity in the USA and other rich countries, and also in regions like Latin America that make a point of reminding the world of their affinities with the rich countries, they are far from dying out altogether.  That means that we can expect a sizable minority of closeted antigays to persist in the USA for quite some time to come.  And outside the rich countries, especially in Africa and the Muslim world, hostility to same-sexers is certainly not fading.  If immigration from these regions to the USA rises in the years to come, as it seems likely to do, a strong stigma against beliefs that oppose same-sex sex may lead to bitter confrontations and harsh stands on both sides.  An American counterpart to the late Pim Fortuyn may not be an impossibility for long.

These are concerns for tomorrow. The day after tomorrow, it is possible that a new stigma may attach itself to same-sexers, the stigma of membership in a genetically unmodified lower class.  In that case, it might be desirable that the period leading up to the shift should reinforce norms of mutual respect and fair play, rather than aggression and triumphalism.  Or it might not be; perhaps the collision with the new world will blot out whatever habits we may have  cultivated in the old one.  Assuming, of course, that there is enough of a genetic contribution to the physical basis of homosexual attraction for genetic modification to bring this particular collision about in the first place.

The Narcissists

Recent articles in Slate and The Nation have set me to wondering about the general uselessness of white people as commentators on race.  Not that Michelle Goldberg and Tanner Colby, the white commentators who wrote those pieces, are useless; they comment quite usefully, not on race in any very broad sense, but very specifically on the knots whites tie themselves in when race comes up.  Ms Goldberg and Mr Colby are each engaged in a sort of rhetorical analysis.  Here’s one of Mr Colby’s remarks about white conservatives:

Affirmative action is unfair to white people and the Democratic Party is a plantation—that’s about as incisive as the rhetoric usually gets. Even when Republicans have a legitimate point to make about the shortcomings of some government program, it’s almost as if they can’t help blowing their own argument. They’ll start off talking sensibly enough about educational outcome disparities and within seconds they’re rambling incoherently about how black men don’t take care of their babies. It’s really astonishing to watch.

Now I grant you, complaints about black men not taking care of their babies, when they come up in the course of a highly abstract political discussion about something else, are probably going to be less than helpful.  But at least those complaints have something to do with black people, even if they are so laden with stereotypes and refusals to listen that the black people they imagine aren’t much like the ones who actually exist on the planet Earth.  If engagement with imaginary black people doesn’t sound like much to celebrate, consider this paragraph from Ms Goldberg’s piece:

There are also rules, elaborated by white feminists, on how other white feminists should talk to women of color. For example, after [Mikki] Kendall’s #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag erupted last fall, Sarah Milstein, co-author of a guide to Twitter, published a piece on the Huffington Post titled “5 Ways White Feminists Can Address Our Own Racism.” At one point, Milstein argued that if a person of color says something that makes you uncomfortable, “assume your discomfort is telling you something about you, not about the other person.” After Rule No. 3, “Look for ways that you are racist, rather than ways to prove you’re not,” she confesses to her own racial crimes, including being “awkwardly too friendly” toward black people at parties.

“Something about you, not about the other person” and “Look for ways that you are racist.”  Racism is a million things, among them a form of self-absorption.  Therefore, to say these things is quite literally a way of saying, “Why yes, I am self-absorbed!  Let’s talk about other ways in which I’m self-absorbed!”

Ms Goldberg goes on:

“I actually think there’s a subset of black women who really do get off on white women being prostrate,” [Professor Brittney] Cooper says. “It’s about feeling disempowered and always feeling at the mercy of white authority, and wanting to feel like for once the things you’re saying are being given credibility and authority. And to have white folks do that is powerful, particularly in a world where white women often deploy power against black women in ways that are really problematic.”

Preening displays of white feminist abjection, however, are not the same as respect. “What’s disgusting and disturbing to me is that I see some of the more intellectually dishonest arguments put forth by women of color being legitimized and performed by white feminists, who seem to be in some sort of competition to exhibit how intersectional they are,” says Jezebel founder [Anna] Holmes, who is black. “There are these Olympian attempts on the part of white feminists to underscore and display their ally-ship in a way that feels gross and dishonest and, yes, patronizing.”

If the internet has taught us anything, it is that anything you can think of is a fetish for someone, somewhere.  With a global population of well over 7,000,000,000, it could hardly be otherwise.  Many millions of those 7,000,000,000+ are black women, surely a big enough population that there must be at least a handful of people in it representing virtually every possible enthusiasm.  So it would hardly be surprising if some among them could fairly be said to “get off on white women being prostrate.”  Even so, I strongly suspect that a study would show that more whites find gratification in the idea of being rendered helpless by blacks than blacks find in the idea of rendering whites helpless. I also suspect that most blacks and other nonwhites who do entertain fantasies of humiliating whites would grow tired of the reality long before the whites were sated with it.  Attention, including hostile attention, is addictive.

It’s like men’s masochistic fantasies about women; if you look at those fantasies, it usually isn’t at all clear what the “mistress” is supposed to be getting out of her “servant.”  Most of the time he wants her to put on some kind of uncomfortable outfit and do a significant amount of manual labor while he just lies around bleeding all over her furniture.  Men find outlets for these fantasies by paying women to “dominate” them; online, masochistic men sometimes lend each other a helping hand, sharing masochistic fantasies in which they are the center of attention as objects of hostility.  The whites who take the lead in the race-shaming games Ms Goldberg describes are offering the same service to their fellow narcissists.  As there are not enough domineering women to go around when it comes to satisfying the fetishes of masochistic men, so there are not enough militantly antiwhite nonwhite women to go around to satisfy the desires of certain whites for hostile attention based on race.

And why would there be?  Why should black people, male or female, be as excited about white people as white people are excited about themselves?  Besides. the particular humiliations Ms Goldberg describes require some brainpower to inflict.  If you’re smart enough to play those games, you’re probably smart enough to realize that they are what my classmates in school used to call “white people shit” and to find a more constructive use of your time.

The Nation, 25 November 2013

Three items of note:

Michelle Goldberg’s piece on “The GOP’s Poverty Denialism” includes a paragraph that very clearly expresses a phenomenon that I’ve often noticed on the political right, but that I’ve never been able to put into words:

It seems that to be a contemporary Republican, one must simultaneously believe two things: that Obama has immiserated the country and driven unemployment to intolerable levels, and that the poor have it easy and there are plenty of jobs out there for the taking. When the tension between these two beliefs gets to be too great, Republicans will usually tilt toward the latter.

I’ve spent a great deal of time around Republicans and other American right-wingers in my life, and that pair of beliefs is the single most annoying thing about them.  Whenever a Democratic president is in office, or the Democrats seem to be controlling the state or local government, they’ll bang on about the harm those Democrats are doing to the economy, then in the same breath declare that there has never been more opportunity for those who are willing to work.

I think there is another pair of contradictory beliefs underlying the right-wing addiction to this contradiction.  Most of the libertarians and virtually all of the Republicans I know tend to interpret any case of prosperity in the USA as proof of the virtue of an unfettered free market.  That applies not only to periods of economic expansion, but to any amenity, even roads and and other public works built by tax dollars.   Indeed, the wealth of rich individuals is often cited as a sign of the goodness of a free market, even when those individuals have been enriched entirely by tax schemes or government contracts.  On the other hand, the same people, faced with recessions, poverty, etc, reflexively attribute those conditions to the fact that the USA does not have and never has had an unfettered free market.

Far better to be a radical libertarian like the late Murray Rothbard or Sheldon Richman, who denounce our regulated, subsidized economic system and call it by the name “capitalism.”  Rothbard and Richman are frankly utopian in their call for a freed market, and so are able to be logically consistent in their appraisal of present conditions.  Better still to be a real conservative like Henry Adams, who in his History of the United States Under the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison showed how even 16 unbroken years of bad government could not stop a basically healthy society from prospering, as in other works he showed that good government could not stop a deeply corrupt society from decaying.

Also in this issue of The Nation, Rick Perlstein argues that the people now leading the Republican Party are very much the same as were the right-wingers in that party decades ago.  In some ways I think Perlstein is right.  It never ceases to amaze me when Democrats are hurt and surprised to find that Republicans don’t like Democratic presidents, a phenomenon on which Perlstein comments thus:

This time, liberals are also making a new mistake. Call it “racial defeatism.” Folks throw their hands up and say, “Of course reactionary rage is going to flow like mighty waters against an African-American president! What can we possibly do about that?” But it’s crucial to realize that the vituperation directed at Obama is little different from that aimed at John F. Kennedy, who was so hated by the right that his assassination was initially assumed by most observers to have been done by a conservative; or Bill Clinton, who was warned by Helms in 1994 that if he visited a military base in North Carolina, he’d “better have a bodyguard.”

All right-wing antigovernment rage in America bears a racial component, because liberalism is understood, consciously or unconsciously, as the ideology that steals from hard-working, taxpaying whites and gives the spoils to indolent, grasping blacks.

When Senator Helms made that remark, Democratic friends of mine earnestly explained to me that the reason Republicans hated Bill Clinton so much was because of his activities during the Vietnam War.  Now the same Republicans had been every bit as hostile to Presidents Carter, Johnson, and Kennedy as they were to President Clinton, and the very people who were so concerned for the mental health of the Clinton-haters would themselves soon be making dark comments about what justice would mean in the cases of George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney.  The particular stories and images that people nurse in their hatred of Mr O are of course different than the stories and images that would feed their hatred of a white president, but I cannot see how anyone could honestly say that the degree of the hatred directed at President Obama is or could be any greater than the hatred all of his predecessors have received from their opponents.

However, I do think that Mr Perlstein exaggerates both the continuity between the irresponsible Republican fringe of yesterday and the irresponsible Republican mainstream of today and the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.  His first paragraph describes Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against the Truman administration in terms reminiscent of Senator Ted Cruz’ campaign against the Obama administration.  Mr Perlstein sums up that and several other analogies with the line: “Presto: after decades of trying, the reactionary tail finally wags the establishment dog. The recklessness of the goals, however, [has] always been the same.”

As regards Senator McCarthy, that strikes me as patently false.  Senator McCarthy’s original pet cause on Congress, before he devoted himself to an effort to create the impression that the US government was infested with vast numbers of Soviet agents, was support for public housing.  By today’s standards, McCarthy’s economic views would put him on the left wing of the Democratic Party.  Even the hallucinatory drama of a crusade against subversive influence in Washington, with the names of the players updated as the times require, is endlessly replayed by Democrats and Republicans alike in this age of security clearances, free speech zones, and universal surveillance.   World Communism may not be too frightening these days, but Republican administrations can always find sinister foreigners with whom they can accuse their opponents of sympathizing, and Democratic administrations can always find dangerous misfits in the interior of the country whom they can caricature as mortal threats to an open society.  So the cycle of Red Scare and Brown Scare continues, so the federal police powers grow steadily, so Guantanamo Bay and the National Security Administration maintain a smooth flow of operations.

As for the difference between the Democrats and republicans, consider this paragraph from Mr Perlstein’s piece:

The reactionary percentage of the electorate in these United States has been relatively constant since McCarthy’s day; I’d estimate it as hovering around 30 percent. A minority, but one never all that enamored of the niceties of democracy—they see themselves as fighting for the survival of civilization, after all. So, generation after generation, they’ve ruthlessly exploited the many points of structural vulnerability in the not-very-democratic American political system to get their way. For McCarthy, that meant using the rules of Senate investigations—in which the accused enjoy few of the procedural protections of the courtroom—to shape the direction of the government through the sheer power of intimidation. For the Goldwaterites, that meant flooding low-turnout party caucuses at the precinct and county level to win control of the Republican nomination process. In the past, such minoritarian ploys were stymied in the end by bottlenecks. For McCarthy, it was the canons of senatorial courtesy. For the Goldwaterites, it was the necessity of actually winning general elections. Now, however, the bottlenecks against right-wing minoritarian power are weaker than ever; America’s structural democracy deficit has never been greater. And that’s the biggest difference of all.

I place great importance on the integrity of the political process.  I would rather my favored side lose a fair election than win an unfair one.  People who are like me in that way have at several points formed voting blocs that held the balance of power in the USA.  The 1970s were such a time.  That was why the release of the Pentagon Papers did so much to turn public opinion against the Vietnam War early in the decade, why the Watergate scandal and the subsequent pardon of Richard Nixon so damaged the Republican Party in the middle of that decade, why the Church Committee investigations into abuses of power by the CIA raised the prospect of real reforms, and why laws were enacted to move toward public financing of political campaigns.  The public had seen that the political elite was not living up to a code of fair play, and voters who were indignant about that were able to swing elections against politicians whom they blamed for the misdeeds.

Where I disagree with Mr Perlstein is in the question of who it is who must believe in this code of fair play.  It is not the politicians, and not their most committed partisans.  I say that I would rather lose an election fairly than win one unfairly.  That is why I would not be a successful politician.  In the heat of the contest, of course candidates and their supporters will do whatever they can to win.  If they aren’t so absorbed in the contest that they will resort to any dirty trick that is likely to gain the victory, they probably won’t be able to conduct themselves effectively if by some chance they do win.  That holds regardAless of party or period.  It is for voters to hold them to a code of fair play.  The better job voters do, the less politicians will have to gain and the more they will have to lose by resorting to wickedness.  Of course, as Mr Perlstein points out, the US political system is structured to limit voters’ ability to do their job.  That makes it all the more important that we do work at it.

Also in this issue, Jackson Lears reviews several books about happiness.  In addition to the authors of the books reviewed, Mr Lears mentions the following eminences: Ernest van den Haag, Samuel Beckett, Steven Pinker, Philip Rieff, Margaret Thatcher, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Carlyle, Alexander Pope, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Milton Bradley, William James, Theodore Dreiser, Ray Stannard Baker, G. Stanley Hall, Alfred Tennyson, Theodore Roosevelt, J. W. Goethe, Dale Carnegie, Studs Terkel, William Whyte, Dwight Eisenhower, Joseph McCarthy, James Dean, Jack Kerouac, Steve McQueen, Betty Friedan, Michel Foucault, Benjamin Franklin, D. H. Lawrence, Abraham Maslow, Clifford Geertz, William Faulkner, William Shakespeare, John Brown, Barack Obama, John Muir, C. S. Lewis, John Keats, John Maynard Keynes, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Niccolo Machiavelli, Bernard Mandeville, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Day, William Morris, Edmund Burke, and Robert Frank.  Quite an impressive roll call, though a bit imbalanced in regard to gender and race.  The gender imbalance might not be quite so irritating if Mr Lears had not mentioned Frankenstein, but not Mary Shelley.  As for the racial imbalance, you can at least give Mr Lears credit for being clear as to what a brother has to do to gain his attention, since the only non-white person mentioned is currently serving as president of the United States.

Anyway, of the six books actually under review, five strike Mr Lears as silly and pernicious.  Some are pseudo-science, some are collections of platitudes, all are designed to forestall any criticism of the way American capitalism operates today.  The exception is How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky.  Of the Skidelskys, Mr Lears writes:

[T]he authors reveal an uncommon sensitivity to the abrasive impact of capitalist culture on human relationships. They prefer to focus on friendship rather than community as a nodule of the good life (claiming persuasively that “community” is too easily reified into a collective ideal that somehow transcends the welfare of its individual members). And they note the difficulties of sustaining friendship in a culture obsessed with mobility, autonomy and utility, where the speed-up is a way of life. “You need to rid your life of Leeches and replace them with Energizers,” says American lifestyle coach Robert Pagliarini. It is one of those quotations that, in its very banality and predictability, encapsulates the depth of our moral predicament. Free-market fundamentalists, the Skidelskys argue, “get things precisely backwards. It is not human beings who need adapting to the market; it is the market that needs adapting to human beings.” You cannot find a more succinct and compelling indictment of neoliberalism than that.

The Skidelskys’ alternative is modest and deeply humane, and involves no posturing or jargon. They are social democrats, not socialists, and they want to retrieve the ethical language of social democracy—on the assumption that if we start talking seriously about the good life again, we can begin re-creating the institutions to sustain it. They believe personal autonomy is one good among others, without giving it special preference. They believe that the cultivation of personality is a good as well, and that people need “a room behind the shop,” a protected place apart from commercial transactions to pursue that cultivation. They believe in the importance of property as a base for cultivating one’s tastes and ideals—one’s personality. But they like their property small; they are drawn to the traditions of Catholic personalism and distributionism—the localist communitarianism embraced by figures as diverse as G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Day. They know, with William Morris, that the precondition for leisure is the reduction of toil. (That would include, for starters, the relaxing of demands for increased productivity, the slowing down of the speeding up.) They also know there are links between social Catholicism, the sociological liberalism of Tocqueville, and Burkean conservatism; with the thinkers in these traditions, they share an enthusiasm for mutual-aid societies and employee cooperatives—for voluntary associations that provide a meeting ground between the remote organization and the isolated individual. They might have mentioned the Protestant Social Gospel, and the need to recover and reassert it against the cult of prosperity that for several decades has commanded center stage in contemporary evangelicalism. An enlarged Protestant ethic—one that prizes commonwealth over wealth—could enrich their vision of the good life as well.

In the Skidelskys’ vision of the good society, noncoercive paternalism would be balanced by localism. The state would bear responsibility for promoting basic goods, would ensure that the fruits of productivity are shared more evenly, and would reduce the pressure to consume—perhaps through a progressive expenditure tax like the one proposed by the economist Robert Frank. This would restrain what he calls the “runaway spending at the top,” which belies the myth that the 1 percent is the “investing class” and has “spawned a luxury fever,” Frank writes, that “has us all in its grip.” To that same end—the dampening of consumption—the Skidelskys propose eliminating advertising as a deductible business expense. They are also refreshingly resistant to free-market globaloney. The good life, they make clear, is not (and cannot be) dependent on globalization: “Developed countries will have to rely more on domestic sources of production to satisfy their needs; developing market economies will need to abandon export-growth models that rely on ever-increasing consumption demand in developed countries.” Scaling back consumption means scaling down international trade. This is not an ascetic agenda—the charge so often leveled against critics of consumer culture, as if consumption is the only imaginable form of leisure. On the contrary: How Much Is Enough? is an effort to imagine possibilities for a satisfying life beyond market discipline.

In his habit of promiscuous quotation, in the deeply ingrained conservatism revealed by the sources he favors for his quotes, in his constant suspicion of and frequent dismissiveness towards fashionable opinion, and in his high esteem for leisure as a goal of civilized life, Mr Lears reminds me of the writer who has influenced me more than any other, Irving Babbitt.  Because of that resemblance, as much as the content of his argument, I am inclined to read the Skidelskys’ book.

Ange Mlinko burns a Norton

Ange Mlinko (photograph: Poetry Foundation)

Ange Mlinko wrote  a bracingly stern review of Norton’s new edition of its anthology Postmodern American Poetry for the 15 April 2013 issue of The Nation.  Ms Mlinko includes a promising bit from the introduction by the anthology’s editor, Paul Hoover: “Hoover is at pains to define [postmodernism] in terms made famous by the theorist Frederic Jameson: ‘It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think about the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.'”  What programmatic statement could set out a worthier goal for a collection of lyric poetry?  History is an entire dimension of experience, and our age systematically obscures that dimension.  We urgently need poetry that can pick us up, turn us around, and set us down with our eyes facing history.

Yet as Ms Mlinko tells it, this book loses sight of that or any other worthwhile goal.  Most of it is given over to poems whose chief merit is that they bear some “marketable label” such as “Flarf, ‘Newlipo,’ and ‘Googlesculpting,'” “‘Conceptualist‘ and ‘postlanguage lyricist.'”  The review closes with the last six lines of Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles“; my favorite bit of the review is this half-paragraph in which Ms Mlinko brings her own axe down on Professor Hoover’s book:

The traditional anthologist gathers good poems according to his sensibility; the postmodern anthologist, eager to jettison sensibility, has only fashion and popularity to guide him. Poets become mere representatives of their niche, with no relation to their neighbors in the table of contents. Pity G.C. Waldrep, “affiliated with the Old Order River Brethren, a conservative Anabaptist group related to the Amish”*: he’s sandwiched between Vanessa Place, whose Dies: A Sentence is one unrelenting 130-page sentence (only five pages of which are on offer here), and Catherine Wagner, who offers the ditty beginning “Penis regis, penis immediate, penis/ tremendous, penis offend us; penis….” There is no transcendence in poetry anymore, according to Hoover. But I assure you, some Hells are real.

Ms Mlinko mentions some of Norton’s other anthologies, among them Bernard M. W. Knox’s Norton Book of Classical Literature.  I used that one for years in one of my classes; Professor Knox was the perfect example of Ms Mlinko’s “traditional anthologist [who] gathers good poems according to his sensibility.”  Professor Knox was perhaps the last major Classical scholar to practice “taste criticism” of ancient Greek and Latin literature.  He was a throwback to the days when schoolboys started Latin at five and Greek at six, coming to university having read each of the canonical works of classical antiquity two or three times, so that by the time they emerged as university dons there was a non-trivial probability that they might have something of value to say about them.  Professor Knox’s erudition, and the taste it underpinned, formed a monument on the order of a great public building.  Reading his books is like visiting the Acropolis.  Yet even his anthology was profoundly eccentric.  The principle of selection seems to be an illustration of the roots of lyric in other genres of Greek literature and the influence of Greek lyric on Latin literature.  Greek lyric poetry is not very much represented, however.  So when I taught from it, I used to bring in translations of Greek lyric poems from outside the book and assign them in conjunction with the Greek selections to which they responded and the Latin selections which responded to them.  The students were always quite interested to see the influence lyric had on Roman prose writers, especially on the way that an historian like Livy develops a focus on individuals.  I really ought to write something about that someday.

Anyway, Professor Knox had a great advantage over Professor Hoover.  Ms Mlinko asks why any professor would assign a class a textbook like Postmodern American Poetry.  Her answer: “Either because you and your friends are in it, or because it’s hip and so are you.”  All of Professor Knox’s authors had been safely dead for many centuries before he assembled his book, freeing him from any temptation to give preferential treatment to authors who are in a position to place orders for large numbers of books.

*Ms Mlinko’s description of George Calvin Waldrep as a poet who is “affiliated with the Old Order River Brethren, a conservative Anabaptist group related to the Amish” and who deserves our pity for his placement in this book may lead one to imagine a latter-day Whittier, who contrasted his rustic Quakerism with a bewildering urban sophistication, but that isn’t quite what Mr Waldrep is like.  Here’s a set of five poems of his that appeared in Typo in 2004.  I think they make it clear that he was aiming for just the spot in which Professor Hoover has placed him.  On the other hand, his sequence “The Batteries” (published as a chapbook in 2006, then built into his 2007 book Disclamor and reviewed here) is sensational, and lives up to the programmatic statement “an attempt to think about the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.”

The respectable voice

The Nation magazine has a pretty clear line about US policy towards Israel; it is whatever the Israeli Left, especially the Meretz Party, is calling for at any given moment.  Any number of influential groups in the USA are willing to speak up for whatever position the Israeli Right, especially the Likud, might take, so it’s useful to have a nationally circulated weekly with an impressive list of writers and editors that will provide that view to an American audience.  The magazine has a far less clear view about US policy towards the Arab states.  In fact, sometimes they are just muddled, as for example in this recent editorial about the violence that has been perpetrated ostensibly as an objection to some video a guy in California posted on YouTube.  There are some good remarks in it, like these:

While it is true that freedom of expression has not been as firmly established, either culturally or constitutionally, in the Muslim world as it has in the West, this is far from a clash of civilizations, and there’s much more behind the demonstrations than rage at one bigoted YouTube clip. For one thing, the video was first widely disseminated by Salafi media outlets, which called for the first protests at the US embassy in Cairo. And the Salafis, who preach a fundamentalist strain of Islam, are motivated as much by domestic politics as by US policy or obscure videos (for more, see Sharif Abdel Kouddous’s report “What’s Behind the US Embassy Protests in Egypt”). Among the many seismic reverberations set off by the more democratized politics of the Arab Awakening are fierce contests between Salafis and more moderate Islamists, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, to define political Islam. For the Salafis, the video was useful both to rally followers and as a wedge issue against Egypt’s vulnerable Brotherhood, which is torn between the desire to placate Washington and the IMF—which hold the purse strings to billions in desperately needed aid—and a domestic constituency fed up with decades of imperial manipulation and support for autocrats.

So far, so good.  The video may be obnoxious and stupid, but so are millions of other videos, including thousands that insult Muhammad and Islam.  No one can explain what quality this particular specimen of idiocy exhibits that elevates it above the general run of ignorant garbage that fills the internet.  It is patently the case that individuals engaged in power struggles within predominantly Muslim countries chose it at random as a tool with which to provoke a confrontation in which they would be able to present themselves as the defenders of Islam.  I think Kenan Malik put it more forcefully on his blog than The Nation puts it here:

It is true that Innocence of Muslims is a risibly crude, bigoted diatribe against Islam. But the idea that this obscure film that barely anyone had seen till this month is the source of worldwide violence is equally risible. As in the Rushdie affair, what we are seeing is a political power struggle cloaked in religious garb. In Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, the crisis is being fostered by hardline Islamists in an attempt to gain the political initiative. In recent elections hardline Islamists lost out to more mainstream factions. Just as the Ayatollah Khomeini tried to use the fatwa to turn the tables on his opponents, so the hardliners are today trying to do the same by orchestrating the violence over Innocence of Muslims, tapping into the deep well of anti-Western sentiment that exists in many of these countries. The film is almost incidental to this.

Of course, that “deep well of anti-Western sentiment” is fed from the groundwater of imperial ventures like the recent war on Libya that brought down the Gadhafi regime and created a power vacuum that many groups are now jockeying to fill.  In Egypt also, the US has long been a violently intrusive presence in the country’s internal affairs.  As the Egyptian army’s 60-year grip on power weakens, a political space therefore opens in which anti-Western voices are likely to be heard.  And, as it is unclear who will emerge as Libya’s new leaders, so it is unclear who will rise to the head of affairs in Egypt.  One hears much about the Muslim Brotherhood, but of course the Brotherhood is not organized along lines of command and control like an army or the Communist Parties of the century gone by.  So even we knew that the Muslim Brotherhood would provide Egypt’s leadership, we would be very far from knowing who the members of that leadership would be or how they would relate to each other, to the population at large, or to Egypt’s neighbors abroad.  There is therefore much to play for in the politics of these countries, and it is hardly surprising that many political actors there are eager to establish themselves as the defenders of Islam.

The Nation‘s editors seem to agree with that assessment in the paragraph above, about the “Salafi media outlets” that were the first to pick the video up and publicize it.  Things get a little bit shaky in the next paragraph, however:

Indeed, the deepest wellsprings of resentment lie in US policy on the region. From backing dictatorships, to the strangulation by sanctions and eventual evisceration of Iraq, to drone strikes across the Muslim world, to steadfast support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine, now in its fifth decade—the list of grievances is long (see Adam Baron, “Yemen Inflamed,” for insight into the roots of the latest protests in one country). And Muslims are well aware of the Islamophobia permeating American society and government (for more, see our special issue “Islamophobia: Anatomy of an American Panic,” July 2/9). The video is just one particularly nasty example of a bigotry that has become pervasive throughout the Western world. Mitt Romney’s attack on President Obama for “sympathizing” with those who attacked the US consulate in Benghazi was, of course, a grossly opportunistic slander. But [Mr. Romney’s] ridicule of those who would “apologize” for America reflected an all-too-common cultural insensitivity toward Muslims—a bigotry many would not tolerate if leveled against Christians or Jews.

The first sentences here are pretty good, if oddly selective- the most violent episodes have occurred in Egypt and Libya, so why not mention US interference in Egypt’s internal affairs and the recent war on Libya?  Why only mention specific US actions in Iraq, Palestine, and Yemen, waving a hand at every other country, including the two countries most affected, with general remarks about “backing dictatorships” and “drone strikes across the Muslim world”?  Surely the more information one provides about the harm that US policy has done to these countries under administrations past and present, the clearer it becomes that “the Islamophobia permeating American society and government” is a clear and present danger to the well-being of their inhabitants.   In that way, anti-Islamic sentiment in the USA is at present in a different category than “bigotry” that might from time to time be “leveled against Christians or Jews”; the USA is not, at least at the moment, waging war in multiple countries where the majority is associated with these religions.  The comparison at the end of the paragraph is therefore another example of odd selection of material.

Meanwhile, the president who has ordered the vast majority of the drone strikes the US has committed in majority-Muslim countries, who was the author of the war on Libya, and who has made clear time and again that he will continue all of the other policies that the paragraph opens by condemning figures in it only as the victim of a “grossly opportunistic slander” emitted by his chief opponent in the upcoming election.  I would say that this presentation of Mr O as a poor maligned statesman explains the other oddities of the paragraph.  The Nation is edited, written, underwritten, and read by people most of whom would very much like to support Mr O for a second term as president.  At the same time, the magazine’s whole purpose is to denounce unjust policies pursued by the US government and powerful interests associated with it.  This creates a bit of tension.  How can one be simultaneously an uncompromising opponent of US policy and a vigorous supporter of the US’ chief policymaker?  One way is to be loudest about expressing one’s opposition to policies that had run their course before he took office.  So, note the emphasis on the 1990-2003 sanctions against Iraq, sanctions that were imposed when Mr O was still in law school and that dissolved in an invasion staged when he was a not-very-senior member of the Illinois state legislature.  Another is to dilate on those aspects of policy that had been in place for decades when he took office and to leave out the fact that he has done nothing to change them.  So, “backing dictatorships,” “steadfast support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine,” etc, appear by themselves, not as verbs with subjects or agents, but as abstract noun constructions untethered to the action of any person.

There is also a weasel word in the last sentence of the paragraph.  That word is “many.”  Mr Romney is judged guilty of “a bigotry many would not tolerate if leveled against Christians or Jews.”  Who are these “many,” and what form would their intolerance take?  That vagueness becomes the more troubling as we turn to the next paragraph:

Washington’s support for the Arab Spring was too inconsistent and came too late to outweigh America’s troubled history in the region. The collapse of longstanding dictatorships has allowed antipathy against the United States to surface more visibly; it has also left weapons and money in the hands of Islamist radicals, many of them funded by the Persian Gulf monarchies. Indeed, Washington must finally confront the fact that our oldest regional ally, Saudi Arabia, happens to be controlled by Wahhabi fundamentalists who have spent billions spreading their ideology throughout the Muslim world. We should hardly be surprised when it blows back in our face.

This is the sort of thing one sees on the editorial page of The New York Times, or would see there if one were sufficiently masochistic to read the editorial page of The New York Times.  As in those columns, logical consistency is thrown to the winds and the empty slogans familiar in the corridors of power take the place of facts.  “Washington’s support for the Arab Spring” was too little and too late, apparently; yet “the collapse of longstanding dictatorships” which was the point of the Arab Spring “allowed antipathy against the United States to surface more visibly” and “left weapons and money in the hands of Islamist radicals.”  What possible Washington government could regret its tardiness to promote these outcomes?  Also, note the change of direction- earlier, the piece had explained that groups which it designates by the labels “Salafis” and “the Brotherhood” (a ridiculously simplistic taxonomy to be sure, but come on, they’re trying) are jockeying with each other for power and that their positions on the controversy regarding this preposterous YouTube clip are to some extent the product of this jockeying.  In the quote I gave from Mr Malik, I saw this same point taken much further.  Now, however, it seems that the “Islamist radicals” were already there, already in their present condition and posture, with nothing added except weapons and money.  Finally, notice the complaint about Saudi Arabia’s promotion of the ideology of “Wahhabi fundamentalists” abroad.  Given the fact that the paragraph starts with a lament that “Washington” (presumably not meaning President George Washington, whose administration ended in 1797, but his current successor, whatever his name might be) was not fast or aggressive about supporting the Arab Spring,* I can only assume that their preferred response to Saudi promotion of Wahhabist ideology is not learning from the example of that policy’s bad effects and refraining from official promotion of ideologies, but a contest in which the USA, led by the president who must not be named, will try to outdo the Saudis in the promotion abroad of an official US ideology.  What this ideology might be is too depressing to contemplate, given the dismal state of intellectual life and the political system in the United States.  I can’t stifle a suspicion that such a thing, were it ever announced, might make even Wahhabism look appealing by contrast.

The conclusion of the editorial is as follows:

The United States needs a radically new Middle East policy, based on respect for the democratic aspirations of Arabs and Muslims, with economic assistance focusing on jobs and justice, and an end to military solutions that seek control rather than cooperation. If we want a change in attitudes, we need a change in policy.

How about a radically new Middle East policy based on the fact that the USA is on the other side of the world from the Middle East, has a culture that is deeply discontinuous with the predominant cultures of most Middle Eastern societies, and has no business telling Middle Easterners what sort of “aspirations” they are allowed to have, or what economic policies “justice” permits them to adopt?  How about we start minding our own business and letting the rest of the people in the world mind theirs, in other words?  Don’t look for that proposal in this piece.  It sounds good to call for “an end to military solutions,” but to qualify that call with “that seek control rather than cooperation”- who’s kidding whom?  “Military solutions” is a euphemism for war.  As the saying goes, “War means fighting and fighting means killing.”  Replace “military solutions” with “killing,” and the editorial is calling for “an end to killing that seeks control rather than [killing that seeks] cooperation,” and you see what nonsense that expression is.  Killers can use the fear of death to control a population, but they can hardly expect cooperation.  In that nonsense, as in the rest of the New York Times editorial page-style sloganeering that crops up so often when Americans try to sound respectable, one finds a wish to be simultaneously known as a peacemaker and to be received respectfully among warmakers.  Before we can change the policies that sow such fear and anger in the Muslim world, the idea that these two wishes are compatible is the first attitude we must stamp out.

Elsewhere in the issue,  Eric Alterman notices that nobody with many interesting things to say is appearing on television in support of Mr Romney’s presidential campaign.  Apparently Mr Alterman takes this to mean that there are, really, no conservative intellectuals.  Indeed, the title of his column is “The Problem of Conservative ‘Intellectuals,'” and every time he mentions supporters of Mr Romney he calls them “conservative ‘intellectuals,'” with quotation marks suggesting that these two terms don’t go together.  Readers of this site know that I am continually reading and talking about conservative intellectuals; magazines like Chronicles and The American Conservative are written and edited by thinkers who are highly intellectual and, with some exceptions, very, very conservative.  Mr Alterman’s focus on Campaign 2012 may have misled him, as none of these intellectuals is at all enthusiastic about Mr Romney.  More contributors to The American Conservative will probably vote for third party candidates than for Mr Romney, and several contributors to Chronicles might demand that their states to secede from the Union if either he or the president wins in November.

Akiva Gottlieb reports from the Whitney Biennial’s 2012 exhibition of American cinema, and puts forth a sobering hypothesis: “from now until the final reel of celluloid is shot and projected, every film’s primary subject will be film itself.”  Arid as this prospect is, it gets worse.  Apparently film’s primary subject will be low-quality film stock, as Kodachrome and other excellent brands of film are no longer in production and projection equipment suited to them will soon be hard to find.  For some reason, the only film that can be produced during this period when digital is rising is film that is in no way way superior to digital.

*May I put scare quotes around the phrase “the Arab Spring”?  I would very much like to put scare quotes around the phrase “the Arab Spring.”  It is precisely the sort of phrase for which scare quotes were invented.

The Nation, 24 September 2012

A number of pieces this time argue that, contrary to news outlets that habitually equate the USA’s two major political parties, Republican leaders are demonstrably more likely to tell lies about public policy issues such as antipoverty spending than are their Democratic counterparts.  A piece on The Nation’s website expands on this theme, showing that Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan had privately requested that funds from a federal program he publicly opposed be sent to the congressional district he represents, and that Mr Ryan and the Romney/ Ryan campaign have made a variety of statements explaining this request.  Mr Ryan at first denied that he had requested the funds, then “confessed” (that’s the word The Nation uses) that he had when he learned that a letter with his signature had been released.  The Romney/ Ryan campaign claimed that the funds Mr Ryan requested came from an older program that Mr Ryan had supported, a claim explicitly contradicted by the text of the letter.

Columnist Gary Younge agrees that the Republicans are trying to fool us, but is not as enthusiastic about the Democrats as are some other Nation contributors.  After documenting glaring examples of tokenism he saw while attending the Republican National Convention, Mr Younge writes:

There is nothing inherent in the Republicans’ support for rapacious free-market capitalism that insists on racism. Its role is not ideological but electoral. Racism is simply the means by which the GOP wins over a huge section of the white working class—who, in the absence of class politics, feels its whiteness is its sole privilege worth preserving. Racism may be central to the Republicans’ message but not to its meaning.

Equally, there is nothing in the promotion of a nonwhite politician that need pose a challenge to racism, so long as that person works within the existing racial hierarchies and is dedicated to maintaining them. It is clear what this kind of “progress” can do for Republicans. It’s far more difficult to see what’s in it for blacks and Latinos.

Such is the nature of “diversity” in the modern age—a shift from equal opportunities to photo opportunities that eviscerates the struggle against discrimination of their meaning until we are left with institutions that look different but operate in exactly the same way. A method that, like so many, has traveled seamlessly from the corporate to the political world.

Republicans are not alone in this. Obama’s rise was not consistent with a rise in the economic and political fortunes of African-Americans but, rather, aberrant to it. Under the nation’s first black president the economic gap between black and white Americans has grown. One might argue about the extent to which Obama is responsible for that—but one cannot argue about the fact of it.

The trouble with these symbolic advances is not that they are worthless but that in the absence of substantial advances, the symbolism is all too easily manipulated, misunderstood, discounted and disparaged. The result is stasis for those suffering discrimination, cynicism for those combating it and indifference from those trying to preserve it.

Mr Younge has in the past quoted the line about “diversity” as another word for “black faces in high places.”  That sort of diversity may be preferable to a system where black faces can be found only in low places, but if the system is such that the favored few join with their white colleagues to enforce policies that keep the majority of nonwhites down, it is hardly an inspiring model.   Mr Younge is surely right to argue that it is impossible to make real progress towards equality in either race or class without a politics that challenges both racial and class inequality simultaneously.

Lawrence Joseph offers a poem called “Syria,” about the war currently underway in the country of that name.  A few lines in the middle won’t leave me alone:

“You won’t believe what I have seen”—her voice
lowered almost to a whisper—“a decapitated
body with a dog’s head sewn on it, for example.”
Yes, I know, it’s much more complicated than that.

More complicated, of course, and worse, and worse, and likely to grow still worse.  Graham Usher expresses hopes that the war won’t spread to Lebanon, at least that’s something.
Mark Mazower is a talented writer and a well-informed observer of international affairs.  Readers with high standards will therefore be glad to know that the next time they have trouble falling asleep, an author worth reading has provided that unfailing cure for insomnia, an essay about the European Union.  May almighty Brussels grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end.

The Nation, 17 September 2012

The current issue of The Nation carries a piece in which JoAnn Wypijewski remarks on the low probability that the rape charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will be investigated in a proper fashion.  Ms Wypijewski points out that Mr Assange’s status as an enemy of the US national security state renders any criminal action taken against him suspect:

This is not about the particulars of oppression; it is about the political context of law, the limits of liberal expectations and the monstrosity of the state.

Liberals have no trouble generally acknowledging that in those [early twentieth century] rape cases against black men, the reasoned application of law was impossible. It was impossible because justice was impossible, foreclosed not by the vagaries of this white jury or that bit of evidence but by the totalizing immorality of white supremacy that placed the Black Man in a separate category of human being, without common rights and expectations. A lawyer might take a case if it hadn’t been settled by the mob, but the warped conscience of white America could do nothing but warp the law and make of its rituals a sham. The Scottsboro Boys might have been innocent or they might have been guilty; it didn’t matter, because either way the result would be the same.

With Assange, the political context is the totalizing immorality of the national security state on a global scale. The sex-crime allegations against Assange emerged in Sweden on August 20, 2010, approximately four and a half months after WikiLeaks blazed into the public sphere by releasing a classified video that showed a US Apache helicopter crew slaughtering more than a dozen civilians, including two journalists, in a Baghdad suburb. By that August, Pfc. Bradley Manning, the reputed source of the video and about 750,000 other leaked government documents, was being held without charge in solitary confinement at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, subjected to what his attorney, David Coombs, describes in harrowing detail in a recent motion as “unlawful pretrial punishment.” In plain terms, Manning was tortured. He faces court-martial for aiding the enemy and has been denounced as a traitor by members of Congress.

I am not at all convinced that the charges against Mr Assange cannot be investigated and prosecuted fairly.  Ms Wypijewski acknowledges several times that the comparison with the Scottsboro Boys is inexact; in view of the level of support Mr Assange enjoys and the conditions of the criminal justice system in Sweden, it strikes me as, well, silly.  I do lament the fact that so many people seem to think that we must choose between support for Mr Assange’s anti-imperialist activities and support for the investigation of the charges that have been brought against him.  Not so very long ago, Western publics would have responded to the sequence of events Ms Wypijewski describes above with deep suspicion of the national security state, even as the case worked its way through the courts.  So, when in 2003 it was made public that Major Scott Ritter, then an outspoken critic of the invasion of Iraq, had been arrested on suspicion of soliciting sex from an underaged girl, the news proved more embarrassing to the Bush-Cheney administration than to Major Ritter himself.  Some years later, the major was proven guilty of similar charges, and sent to prison.  In the Ritter case, I see a model for a healthy public reaction to the Assange case.  By all means one should be suspicious; if the American people were still as jealous of their liberties as they were in 2003, the Obama administration would be experiencing a public relations nightmare as long as the case is pending.  But the case should nonetheless be handled in the best manner available to the criminal justice system, and if Mr Assange is guilty of the charges against him, it would be no injustice to punish him as Major Ritter has been punished.

The best manner available to the criminal justice system in this case may be far short of what we would hope, but, as Lissa Harris points out in an unforgettable piece on The Nation‘s website, that is so for virtually every rape case.  At the age of five, Ms Harris was raped on several occasions by a sadistic teenaged boy.  Apparently the facts became known to the authorities, but no charges were ever brought.  Over the years, Ms Harris has been presented with many explanations as to why they did not act.  What she considers most noteworthy is that while she knows many women and girls who have been raped, but cannot think of one whose assailant was sent to prison for the rape.  Not one.  So, while she is horrified by the prospect that the laws against rape will be rewritten by men like Congressman Todd Akin, who recently proclaimed that “legitimate rape” rarely produces pregnancy, Ms Harris admits that she cannot see how much damage men like Mr Akin can do to the criminal justice system when the system simply does not function most of the time.  She argues that ideologies thrive on both left and right that allow us to turn a blind eye to rape, to minimize rape, to accept as normal a status quo in which the rapist faces little risk of punishment and the women and girls he has attacked can expect little support and less  respect.

In the same issue, a cartoon pokes fun at novelist-cum-ideologist Ayn Rand.  Rand did make a couple of contributions that I find valuable; I’m fond of the expression “anti-concept,” a term she introduced and defined as “an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept. The use of anti-concepts gives the listeners a sense of approximate understanding.”  Mr Akin’s immortal phrase “legitimate rape” comes to mind under this heading; unnecessary and rationally unusable, it may well enable a person indoctrinated in one of the rape-minimizing ideologies Ms Harris calls out to replace and obliterate a realistic understanding of rape with some vague approximation that makes it impossible to imagine useful action against it.

One of the examples Rand gave of an anti-concept was the term “isolationist.”  This term, never a self-description adopted by any political movement, was used in the late 1930s and early 1940s by advocates of US intervention in the Second World War to label their opponents.  Since the interventionists eventually had their way and, by most people’s lights, it is just as well that they did, the term has continued to be useful in the decades since as a means of smearing and belittling all anti-war and anti-imperial voices, especially those that emanate from right of center.  I bring this up because the issue carries Jackson Lears’ review of Christopher McKnight Nichols’ Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age.  On its face, the term “isolationist” is absurd.  Nothing could be more isolating than a habit of bombing, invading, and occupying countries; the neighborhood bully is always the most isolated of figures.  Mr Nichols writes a history of American anti-imperialism starting with those who opposed war with Spain in 1898 and leading to those who tried to prevent the rise of a permanent war economy after the First World War.  Mr Lears focuses on the book’s depictions of William James, Randolph Bourne, and Senator William Borah.

Mansplanations

The other day, Rebecca Solnit (a.k.a. America’s National Treasure) wrote a column for TomDispatch that The Nation‘s website picked up.  The title is “Men Still Explain Things to Me.”  Ms Solnit tells a little story about a strange man who responded to some comment she’d made about photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge by chastising her for not having read a new book about Muybridge that had come out earlier that year.  It turned out that the book he had in mind was River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, by- Rebecca Solnit.   Ms Solnit’s friends repeatedly tried to tell the man that the woman he was scolding for not knowing the book was in fact its author; that didn’t slow him down a bit.  Ms Solnit gives other examples of men shutting women down by loudly and persistently “explaining” to them.  Acknowledging that not all men use this passive-aggressive technique and that those who do use it  sometimes use it against other men, Ms Solnit mentions that young women nowadays call the technique “mansplaining.”

Ms Solnit posted this piece shortly before a truly spectacular example of mansplaining burst into public view and briefly dominated the US political news cycle.  US Congressman Todd Akin, Republican of Missouri, is his party’s nominee for the US Senate from that state in this year’s election.  In response to a question from a television interviewer, Mr Akin said that he did not believe that abortion should be legal.  Asked about women who become pregnant as the result of rape, he said that he would not make an exception for them, in part because he believes that such a scenario is rare.  “The female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down,” he said, launching into an explanation of physiological processes that, according to him, prevent women who are the victims of what the congressman called “legitimate rape” from becoming pregnant.

In the aftermath of Mr Akin’s remarks, several prominent Republicans, including presidential nominee Willard “Mitt” Romney, criticized him harshly.  At this writing, it is unclear whether Mr Akin will remain a candidate.  A Google search estimates over 900,000 results for “Akin vows to stay in race”; usually candidates vow to stay in a race shortly before they announce their withdrawals.

A couple of interesting pieces have appeared in response to this matter.  On The Nation‘s website, health columnist Dana Goldstein contributes a handy guide to “How the Body Reacts to Sexual Assault” (spoiler: not by spontaneously producing contraceptives.) Ms Goldstein explains that ideas about sexual response that are not informed by biology lead many people, victims of rape among them, to draw distinctions between women who are more worthy or less worthy of support and respect after sexual assault.  These distinctions, Ms Goldstein argues, turn rape exceptions to abortion bans into a means by which other people can exercise unwanted control over a woman’s body.  As such, they reenact the original offense.

And at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner writes a fascinating analysis of “The Theological Roots of Akin’s ‘Legitimate Rape’ Comment.”  Mr Akin is an outspoken member of the Presbyterian Church in America (or PCA,) the second-largest Presbyterian denomination in the USA.  Unlike the larger and quite liberal Presbyterian Church USA, the PCA is fiercely traditional both in its general theology and in its views of relations between the sexes.  Posner cites a series of PCA position papers on abortion which mirror Mr Akin’s remarks very closely.  They even go into detail about the unlikelihood of pregnancy resulting from rape, details unsupported by documentation.  Ms Posner links to a column by Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic; Ms Franke-Ruta describes some of the political infrastructure that has been developed to popularize the idea that rape rarely causes conception, including a group called “Physicians for Life” which seems to consist of physicians who trained and practice in some parallel universe.   A parallel universe which sends representatives to the US Congress, for some reason.