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.

Monday links

1. My favorite right-wing economist, Paul Craig Roberts, argues that the USA is headed for ruin.  He seems pretty happy about it.  (Counterpunch)

2.  Dana Hunter has some things to say about what happened to Pompeii in AD 79.  She isn’t at all happy about it. (Scientific American)

3. Gary Younge points out that the US states that favor the rightwardmost social policies are those which are the biggest net recipients of federal spending.  Makes me wonder when the deficit hawks will suggest kicking them out of the Union. (The Nation)

4. Do countries with ethnically diverse populations have higher homicide rates than those with homogeneous populations?  No, not particularly.  (hbd* chick)

5. Having completed a bachelor’s degree in Classics at Berkeley in 1961 doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t say something asinine about ancient Greek 51 years later.  (Language Log)

6. According to Jenny Hendrix, Evelyn Waugh’s Helena has some really good bits.  These sentences of Ms Hendrix’ are irresistible:

In recognizing the Magi as patron saints of the unnecessary (what use, exactly, were myrrh and frankincense to the kid?), he reconciles prayer and literary aestheticism. The Wise Men, though committing, as Waugh put it, “every kind of bêtise,” arrive in the end and find their silly gifts accepted. In so doing, they allow for the acceptance of the artist’s gifts as well: “For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts,” Helena entreats, “pray always for all the learned, the oblique, and the delicate.” (Slate)

7. Yes yes yes, cats doing cute things are the ultimate Internet cliche, but I defy you to look at this for less than five seconds:

https://i2.wp.com/24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_me73dawza11ql2603o1_500.gif(some tumblelog)

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.

What Acilius has been up to lately

Over the last couple of days, I’ve posted several little things in several places.  I put several links on Twitter, including these:

A post on Secular Right complaining about an Episcopalian bishop who wrote an essay called “Budgets, Leadership, and Public Service” led me to post two comments.  In this one, I expressed the opinion that one of the great advantages is that its founder’s political opinions are unknowable.  The bishop seemed to be throwing that advantage away by attributing an extremely detailed set of political opinions to Jesus.   In this one, I replied to a commenter who pointed out that Jesus seems to have been convinced that the end of the world was coming soon by saying that any number of political positions are compatible with that conviction.  Another immense number of positions are incompatible with it, of course, but by itself the idea that Jesus was an apocalyptic thinker doesn’t tell us what his political opinions might have been.

Also, here’s a nice cool jazz number by Jane Ira Bloom, called “Freud’s Convertible.”