In the past few weeks, things have not gone well for political philosophies based in traditional formulations. Right or Left (but more so on the self-identified Right) there is a kind of flailing, a death throe undulation that looks like grasping for anchors in something that feels historically relevant but in fact turns out to be sunk in air or sand and simply gets torn loose the moment any real strain is put on it. At its most discernable, there are a lot “I know what you mean” moments, but even these are more “I think I know what you mean, maybe” moments that later turn out to be coincidental brushes with familiar syntax and not much in the way of substantive connection.
Take healthcare. Whatever your personal feelings about what we should do, nothing being done is what anyone seems to want. Trump said “We’re gonna fix it!” the GOP nodded sagely, then wrote a bill that would not fix it, but would return the state of American healthcare to some rough semblance of how it was back in 2007, but isn’t, because now no one, not even the insurance industry, wants that. They have redrafted the bill to do less damage, but that’s not what they want to do, nor is it what Trump promised, although he keeps cheering congress on as long as there is some kind of repudiation of the ACA, which is not what the voters want, either. In their case, they never really knew what they wanted other than for things to not cost so much, but as to how to “fix” that, those who voted for the current administration have no idea and distrust every single attempt to do so. In the meantime, the professionals who might have some insight into this are being ignored, congress is pretending it’s serving the People by doing something which can only drive up costs, and Trump is offering zero sense of direction other than “Change something!”
Meanwhile, he has modified his requirements of the propose border wall by asking that it be transparent “so no one on this side will be hit in the head by the packages of drugs being thrown over it.” Which has so many layers of problematic misapprehension of the problems it’s intended to address as to qualify as some form of mystic pabulum handed down from an airless mountaintop.
(He also bragged in an interview how great the G20 meeting was because there were, like, 20 countries represented. Ahem. Two things about that–either he is ignorant enough to think that is useful information or his supporters didn’t know that was what the G20 is. Or, well, he thinks his supporters wouldn’t know this, so….never mind.)
Meanwhile (again) at the state level, the Illinois legislature finally found the spine to tell the governor that they’ve had enough of his party fundamentalism, the state needs a budget, and for it to have even a prayer of being relevant, the state needs revenue, so yes, we’re raising taxes. The fact that this is significant is reflective of the dissociation across the entire political spectrum with regard to taxes. In Missouri we have a strong cadre of very wealthy people who do whatever they can to eliminate any tax that dares raise its head, like some manic game of economic whack-a-mole that serves none of the purposes it is purported to serve. Along this line, our state legislature has decided to repudiate attempts at the city and county level to address minimum wage issues and bar St. Louis—or any other municipality—from raising local minimum wages above the state level, which is a joke. Why? None of the excuses make any sense. Basically there seems to be some attitude at work that poor people need the incentive to become middle class and if we pay them enough that they might be able to feed their families and possibly attend classes to try to better themselves, then they will have been handed an unfair advantage and not properly appreciate it. If there were not evidence at hand that this is a bullshit argument it would still be laughable because it ignores the current economic realities and instead seems to assume the situation is no different than it was in 1964.
And again meanwhile the people who are supposed to understand such things are scratching their heads at the puzzling data that while productivity has been rising steadily for the last seven years, along with job growth, wages have stagnated. The increased profitability of all these companies has not resulted in an increase share of the wealth with workers, as it would have (again) back in 1964, and they don’t understand what’s happening. What’s not to understand? Two things have changed since then that explain it quite well—one is that technology has become significantly more effective, which results in the need for fewer and fewer actual employees (I saw a resent example from, I believe, Kentucky about a steel mill that produces wire, which thirty years ago would have employed a thousand people, but which has been replaced by one which produces the same amount of product but employs fourteen, none of them on the shop floor) and we have seen a gutting of unions, which were always the most effective way to force management to pay an equitable share of profits. But people at the top, charged with analyzing and interpreting this kind of data, are “confused.”
Everyone is confused when no one is willing to face the realities of our new present.
The normally natural affinity for a comforting past has been distorted by the manipulations of identity politics and the toxic overuse of pointless nitpicking combined with an endemic ignorance of context to create a situation in which constructive change is becoming less and less possible, at least on a national level. If every suggestion for change is met with swords drawn and blood oaths taken to resist, all possibilities fail. (A sensible approach to healthcare would be a single payer system, but it requires people to back up, give it some breathing space, and a chance. Instead the immediate response among too many is “No! That will lead to—!” Fill in the blank. Death panels? Rationing? A complete destruction of a healthcare system which is, at the level of public service, is already dysfunctional? None of this is rational, but we have frightened ourselves enough that unless it is something we are completely familiar with we see it as threat. But in the case of health care, no one is familiar with its workings, only its results, and not even then do most people know why the results are as they are.)
In the meantime—once more—we have a widening disparity between rich and poor which has opened a chasm. Such chasms have happened before and they always precede revolutions. The question for us will be, how bloody this time?
All because those who might ordinarily be trusted to supply meaningful context and useful direction are either ignored or just as helplessly clinging to a nostalgic hope of “returning things to the way they used to be”—on both sides.
Which leaves the vast majority of people in an awkward kind of stasis. Waiting. Struggling. Clinging.
Into this moves the impulse to control absolutely. Travel bans, surveillance, behavioral rule-making that does nothing but hobble, identification requirements that do nothing but isolate and segregate, public events that end up defining in-groups and shutting others out, calls for a kind of public piety that serves only to make some people targets while reassuring no one. These are the components of tyranny, the necessary elements of fascism. Both those terms have of late been used too freely and consequently are losing some of their prognostic power. When you have a combination of too much fear and too little sense of sanity, that’s when the power mongers—who never, ever have solutions—have the best chance of seizing power.
As we move forward, it might be a useful habit to start asking of every proposal, “Who does this serve?” If it does not serve you and yet you are inclined to support it, ask why? And if the answer is, “It makes me feel safe from Those People” then it’s a good bet it’s a bad proposal, especially if “those people” are your neighbors. Get in the habit of seeing things this way. Like any rule, it won’t track a hundred percent every time, but we have gotten into the opposite habit of thinking that any proposal that seems to benefit someone we either don’t like at the expense of people we like to pretend are “our people” (the rich, the powerful, the right skin color) or we believe will limit our “rights” in some vague way (and usually rights we either don’t have to begin with or are not really rights but privileges) are automatically bad. Again, sometimes this might be true, but it’s a horribly limiting, fearful way to see the world and will lead ultimately to exactly what we think we’re trying to prevent.
Habits of thought anchored to the sand of a past that no longer pertains. Praising a history more hagiographic and mythic than factual. Preserving symbols that don’t mean what we think they do and believing that by protecting all this we will solve the problems of tomorrow. We’ve been indulging this kind of nostalgic political nonsense for decades now.
Do you like where it’s brought us?
Once in a while, something comes along to knock us out of our course, drives us to take a look at things from a perspective long discarded, and calls upon us to reassess. Shocks that set us not only back but prompt the kind of deep re-evaluations we sometimes believe we do all the time. It’s fair to say one such shock is this election just past, which many of us, on both sides of the political divide, are puzzling over, conservatives no less than liberals.
Coming upon the heels of that we may be fortunate to find a book or two, hear a lecture, find revelation in an analysis that brings us up short and calls into question everything we took for granted for, well, decades.
Thomas Frank, known for his first book, What‘s the Matter With Kansas?, most recently published such an examination—Listen, Liberal is as complete an indictment of the Democratic Party and the assumptions of liberalism as I have seen in one place in many years. What is particularly troubling for me—and perhaps for many like me—is that all the points he raises are based on history which I knew, events that I remember, paths taken that at the time seemed inevitable, but which I never interpreted this way. I indulged a fairly banal process of explaining it to myself so that all these things became acceptable, even normal, in a way that now, looking at the shambles of where I always thought we were headed, I find bewildering. None of us, ever, are free of self-deception, especially in the face of specific alternatives we find unacceptable at the time.
Then Frederick Dutton, Democratic Party power broker, went farther: he identified workers, the core of the New Deal coalition, as “the principle group arrayed against the forces of change.” They were actually, to a certain degree, the enemy. Dutton acknowledged that it was strange to contemplate such a reversal of the moral alignment that had put his own party into power, but you couldn’t argue with history. “In the 1930s,the blue collar group was in the forefront,” Dutton recalled. “Now it is the white-collar sector.” Specifically: “the college-educated group.” That was who mattered in the future-altering present of 1971.
This was in the aftermath of the 1968 debacle of Democratic failure which put Richard Nixon in office and announced the coming Age of Plutocracy which has come upon us with the inevitability of an ice age glacier. The “student” movements of the Sixties aligned with the perceived betrayal of the Johnson Administration over Vietnam and the chasm of perception between generations that placed the youth movements on the opposing side against their traditionalist parents’ generation. The Republicans capitalized on the Old Guard vote in the wake of Johnson’s resignation and the year of political chaos that was 1968. The anger exploded in Chicago and the Democratic Party leadership saw the future as one in which the educated class would be the group to court.
Yet somehow this was seen as something that had to be done at the expense of labor, which was suddenly perceived as hopelessly archaic, a drag on change. Even though Labor, as an organized body politic, was still solidly Democratic, they were seen as a burden. Of course, they were also seen as a reliable source of votes. They were, in short, taken for granted.
This is the story Frank narrates in his new book and it is a hard thing to realize how correct he is. That basically the Democratic Party—and by extension America itself—left Labor in the ditch and committed itself to fostering a class of voters who are in many ways indistinguishable from the so-called upper 10%, if not in money then in aspirations. And it is in those aspirations that the tale is told most painfully, because we have witnessed the betrayal even of them, despite the fact that they are exactly who the Future was supposed to be about.
I have a slightly different take on the path Mr. Frank describes. I remember all that with a different emphasis.
My parents were born during the Great Depression. One thing that bound many of them together, ideologically, was a conviction that their children and grandchildren would not have to suffer through what they did. They were solidly blue collar people. College was a fantasy for most and I think it was understood that the upper reaches of white collar sinecure would always be for the few. But they would try. If at all possible, they would get their kids into college. I remember my father telling me that he wanted me to be able to make a living without having to cut my fingers. Also, the assumption for many was that white collar was more secure, despite the realities at the time that union jobs represented the better security.
They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, but it didn’t turn out the way they hoped, for many reasons.
The other thing was the Space Race.
I know, this seems an unlikely cause of our present calamities, but consider—with Sputnik, the United States entered into a technology showdown of unprecedented configuration. We were suddenly in a do-or-die competition over knowledge-based innovation. This was a Cold War initiative that got sold to the public in the guise of exploration—which it was, in many of its parts—so we could count political coup and perfect missile technology along the way. Industry had to be conjoined with science and for the coming Age of Space we needed scientists and engineers—not Teamsters or Auto Workers. The National Science Foundation made a big push to transform education to meet the coming requirements. Education had to be remade.
The experiment turned out to be a disaster in slow motion. In spite of the success of the space program, teachers found themselves at odds with the new requirements, students were being short-changed in basics, the ability of the massive edifice of public education to turn on a dime and create the Future turned out to be a pie-in-the-sky wish. And of course in the midst of all this came the convulsions of the Sixties, by the end of which even the basic assumptions of education were called into question, along with all the confidence in government that had existed since FDR. Unions were seen more and more as stodgy repositories of old school billy-club thinking (not without some justification—but there’s the rub, of course: all of this transpired with “some” justification), more in the way than not.
(My father was screwed over by his union over technological innovation. This was a real thing. Many unions sensed the coming problem all this innovation was bringing, because the basic question that was asked last if at all was “What about the displaced workers?”)
We were about to Build The Future. As of 1969 we were on the Moon, we were going to the other planets, space stations would soon be orbiting the planet, the future the future the Future!
And it didn’t happen.
Instead we were made ripe for a political realignment that sidelined Labor in the name of that Future which was then turned into a source of votes to undo the New Deal. Instead of going to Mars, we got the Shuttle; instead of universal healthcare, we got the benefits of skyrocketing medical technology along with skyrocketing costs the government refused to take on, leaving more and more people unable to pay for what should have been medical care the envy of the world; instead of full employment, we got a war on the poor and demands for “welfare reform” that created a permanent underclass of poor by which management threatens workers with banishment if they unionize or demand a fair share of the burgeoning wealth owned by fewer and fewer.
All aided and abetted by a Democratic Party that decided its political fortunes were best cast with those people who didn’t want to cut their fingers to make a living.
Frank calls it the Professional Class. These are the people who don’t join unions because they more or less see themselves as independent contractors, quasi-libertarians, loners, wannabe entrepreneurs. Without benefit of the formal structure, they also make up one of the strongest unions in history because they keep nonmembers out more effectively than any organized union ever did. They do it by social category, not by skill set or paid dues. Although if one wished to see it this way, college degrees represent paid dues of an extortionate level. They like to believe they represent a merit-based social hierarchy, but in fact out-of-the-box skills trouble if not frighten them. The idea that someone may be able to “do what they do” and in some cases do it better without benefit of matriculation through the unofficial union membership program they prefer is inconceivable and anyone who comes along to show that this is an error on their part is not welcomed for his or her abilities but shut out because they have rough table manners.
And just as the base of the GOP seems unable to see how their party is not doing well by them, these shiny professionals are dismayed by their party’s inability to challenge the GOP on the state and congressional level because the Democratic Party is serving a class that is simply in most ways too like Republicans to draw a base of natural allies, namely Labor.
What should be a merit-based society has become what might be called a Credentialist Society, which is not the same thing, though in many respects the two resemble each other. Bernie Sanders’ call for free college is a blunt attack on the chokehold universities have on who is or is not to be allowed to participate. The price of that union card has grown all out of proportion to the benefits it confers on the membership.
There’s nothing anti-American about this, though. While we boast of our founding as a nation of immigrants and a society based not on pedigree but ability, the fact remains that we have a history of exclusion, attempts to keep certain people out. We are functional snobs. Real equality scares us, because individually we fear we won’t measure up on a level playing field. Some of us, anyway. And both parties have played on that fear to achieve essentially the same result. While the Republicans are an Us vs. Them party for the rich, the Democratic Party has become an Us vs. Them party representing those who want to be the rich—and feel like they have a shot at it if they can just find a way to free themselves of their declassé roots. Consequently, most of us have been left in the lurch.
A friend of mine who is a thoughtful conservative once told me, when I asked, that one of the things about the Democratic Party that troubled him most was its racism. I thought that was odd, since in recent years it was fairly obvious that most of the racists seem to adhere to the Republicans. I’ve since rethought that. Not that I believe the racism of the GOP is any less real, but the Democratic Party exhibits a kind of circumstantial racism, a racism by default because the economy has been engineered in such a way to assign poverty along broad racial lines, casting such people into labor pools that suffer the most when the jobs are lost and technology displaces them and the housing prices of the upwardly aspirant make it impossible for them to live in desirable neighborhoods. The Democratic Party would rather fob them off with entitlements than do anything to address the economic situation that makes them, essentially, the Left Behinds. The GOP at least is more honest in saying they aren’t interested in those people at all, if not in word then deed.
But going back to Thomas Frank’s argument, the Professional Class is where we all wanted to be. And we didn’t want to be unionized because unions are drags on upward mobility—or so we believed. We collaborated in the current situation by failing to understand our own preferences—our own prejudices.
Which has brought us to our current situation.
There is nothing natural about the the 1%. There is everything natural about their success. Why? Because that’s who we wanted to be. Many of us. And we went along with changes in our political reality because we were told that the Future was going to come about by virtue of innovation and technology and the concomitant methodologies of investment portfolios and fey capital. We were played—by both parties in their own way, yes, but also by our own conceits.
There are a number of quibbles I have with Mr. Frank’s narrative—those technological innovations are not phantoms and are having very, very real effects on the way work is done. The reality we have now is that we simply do not need as many people to make all the things we need to have made. When Obama talked about “shovel ready” programs, the reality he evoked no longer pertained. When Roosevelt did that, building a highway could employ ten or twenty thousand men. Today a hundred people can built that same road. What we have failed to realize is that while the labor requirements of the mid-20th Century no longer pertain, neither should the economic structures of the 19th Century, which is what we have. Just because a business owner can do the same work with less than half the workforce previously employed doesn’t automatically mean said owner gets all that money personally. “Share in the wealth” used to mean one thing by participation in its creation, but the human component in that creation has changed and now it means something else.
In any event, I recommend Thomas Frank’s new book. Argue with it, by all means, but if nothing else it should dislodge preconceptions and open us to the possibility of redoing our political expectations.
The question came up in a recent discussion, “Why are you so sure if more people had voted they would have voted for Hillary?” Well, I’m not. I am fairly certain most of them would not have voted for Trump. I base that on a very simple number: Trump pulled the base that always votes that way and in fact received fewer votes than Mitt Romney. You can try to spin that any way you like, but to my mind that says something very significant. Namely that the GOP in its current manifestation is utterly dependent on two things to stay in office—that base and keeping the rest of the country disaffected from the political process. They do this by a number of strategies, the two most important being propaganda about their opponents and redistricting in key states. A host of lesser strategies added to these have effectively suppressed votes in some areas while largely throwing the opposing electorate into a bog of ambivalence about their political choices.
For their part, the opposition—Democrats, liberals, so-called socialists, and a variety of smaller categories with perhaps less clearly defined boundaries—have played into this by a combination of solicitude and poor explication of their positions. As well, it seems that they have failed to connect with the ground level concerns of those who normally would be their natural constituents, namely working class people being displaced by the changing economic and social ecology.
To be clear, when I say solicitude, what I mean is the perfectly reasonable and basically preferable practice of bipartisan cooperation in order to move the business of the people forward. We have a rich history to show that this always works best and it is natural to assume it is the way to govern most effectively. However, it presumes a two-way street, give and take. When one side or the other decides that no matter what, cooperation is not on the table, then it behooves the other side to understand the new paradigm and respond accordingly. When you see the kind of obdurate obstruction on the part of your opponent that we have seen for the last eight years, it becomes frustrating to see your preferred representatives continually yielding in an attempt to “work with” the other side. That willingness is being used quite opportunistically to undermine programs and run a cynical power grab to their own benefit. The Democrats for their part seem not to be willing to risk losing what seats and positions they have to form a line and push back against this, possibly because what information they get from whatever sources they use tells them people wouldn’t like it. They might even feel retributions for such resistance could cost ordinary people. Whatever the reason, they have been unwilling to play as dirty as their Republican counterparts, at least in the public’s view, and this has resulted in continual loss of confidence.
To be clear, “playing dirty” is not something either side should be doing on our behalf, at least not with each other, but it is a reality. The Right has a plan, or at least a goal, and they have adhered to it with religious fervor. One thing we should note is that criticisms of that goal based on the undesirability of it play poorly. Telling someone that what they just voted for will result in a loss of civil liberties for a particular group has no moral traction because that is exactly what the desired outcome is. When you say to someone who seems to be on this bandwagon “But you’re taking away their rights!” it is as if an imp of the perverse in the depths of their psyché claps its hands in glee and shouts “They shouldn’t have those rights in the first place!”
We must be clear about this. Legislation based on the notion that certain groups, however they’re defined, should not have certain rights—which in the parlance of the Right comes out as “privileges” instead of rights—we cannot confront this by trying to explain to them how they misunderstand the nature of such things. As far as they’re concerned, they misunderstand nothing. Their desired outcome is to suppress. What needs to be done—and is being done by many—is to confront and declare that they are flat wrong. And their success will bite them in the end when they lose their rights. Or are they privileges?
It is unpopular and unpleasant to recognize a basic misapprehension about rights. We have floated for centuries now on the belief that rights are somehow Natural. The Natural Law argument which informed most Enlightenment thinking, which is the thinking that defined the context in which the Founders constructed our national image, may have considerable to recommend it, and we could have a very healthy discussion about it, but we aren’t talking here about nature but politics. The reality is, and has always been, that a right is an artificial construct, and is only as true as our ability to assert it in the face of antagonistic forces seeking counter-advantages. This is why we put such stock in so-called Rule of Law. If a right were so self-evident, as we like to say, why would we need law to establish it, define it, and defend it? We may wax philosophical about “natural rights” all we want, but rights do not exist in nature, they are the product of intellect and political will.
This is unpopular for many reasons, but one of the chief in our present era is that it demands responsible participation, and for people who do not wish to be bothered this is burdensome.
Seldom in our history have the consequences of not wanting to be bothered come so viscerally home.
Why do I say that? Because, depending on which breakdown you look at, the entire edifice of the current Right is in power based on less than a quarter of the electorate. Somewhere between 35% and 50% nonparticipation in regular elections—all of them, not just national, but it is in national elections where the consequences are so dramatically evident—means that a minority always determines the political complexion of the country. It may well be that the true majority of Americans prefer what we have now, but we don’t know because people do not vote.
Voter suppression is real, however. Let’s not forget that. In fact, that alone is illustrative of my point above about rights. The right to vote ought to be a given, so how could it be possible to deny it to so many people? One example that rarely rises to the surface in such estimates is the approximately six million people denied the vote outright due to felony convictions. If voting is a “right” then why should that be allowed? Redistricting—gerrymandering—has resulted in distortions of state elections and subsequently a distortion of the electoral college outcomes. The Supreme Court overturn of the Voting Rights Act resulted in the closing down of several hundred polling sites, overwhelmingly in the south and overwhelmingly in African American and Hispanic districts.
But this kind of thing has been the case for a long time now and we have seen higher voter turnout even when it has been difficult for many people. Ninety million people did not participate this past November, which suggests that all the effort to dissuade as well as suppress paid off. Because Americans have traditionally disdained politics, advantage was taken.
All the major news sources failed to behave ethically, some morally. Trump received an inordinate amount of free air time and in a culture that values celebrity the way we do, negative coverage can be just as useful as good coverage. Any careful analysis of what he said on the campaign trail shows he had very little of any substance. Hillary Clinton demonstrated clear superiority in all three of her debates with him—command of facts, comprehension of the global situation, a set of policy positions—while his entire rebuttal amounted to “She’s a nasty woman.”
Uncharitably but realistically, one can only conclude that people did not vote for her because they didn’t like the way she dressed.
The argument that she carried a “lot of baggage” is simply another way to avoid the responsibilities of reason and the requirements of citizenship. During the course of the campaign, as details emerged, and material was made available, it became increasingly clear that most of the negativity about her was baseless, that in fact she proved to be even more honest than her chief rival, Bernie Sanders (a fact which surprised even me), but overcoming well-nurtured antipathies and working through the tsunami of rightwing invective about her apparently proved to be too much effort.
During the campaign one could make the argument that Trump’s opposition was based on the same kinds of detractions—smear—and that once he was in office it would be different.
I doubt any reasonable person, even one who voted for him, in the secret chambers of their own heart, thinks he is doing the job they may have imagined him doing.
On the other hand, maybe he is. Maybe what was desired was no more than validation in the office of the president of their basic belief that government does not work. Maybe they put him there purely to prove their opinion—uninformed, ill-considered, often bitter and sometimes malevolent—was right.
Whatever their reasons, what should concern us all is that so many who most likely feel otherwise felt it acceptable to stay home.
But to return for a moment to the current situation. Trump’s selections for his cabinet demonstrate a clear misunderstanding of the purpose of the office. He is surrounding himself with mediocrities. Nixon did the same thing, but he also had a few people who actually knew what they were doing. The conflicts of interest alone ought to disqualify most of these people, but the Republican majority is proceeding to try to rubberstamp them. To be clear, Rex Tillerson is not a mediocrity—but clearly he has no business being there. I’m sure some would disagree, but his financial ties to Russia alone argue against him, and right now a bill is being introduced in the Senate to repeal a disclosure law that sheds light on foreign bribes which has been a thorn in the side of Exxon.
Trump did not seem to be aware that Steve Bannon would have to be approved by the Senate before taking a seat on the national security council. This is basic knowledge.
We can continue, but his supporters will not care. What is important is that those rights of which I spoke must be recognized as at risk and that relying on the privilege of never having been a target to remain uninvolved is inexcusable.
Lastly, regarding Trump, is the question of moral suitability. “Giving him a chance” is an empty plea. When he mocked Serge Kovaleski, he demonstrated a clear absence of moral capacity. How can I say that? He was just goofing? No. This is basic. This was at the level of courtesy, it is so basic. We don’t even consider it in the context of moral failing because we view it in terms of good manners. But this was a powerful man making fun of a less powerful man in public (South Carolina) in order to discredit him. Rather than attack the news article that prompted the attack, he attacked Kovaleski’s handicap. That is the tactic of a bully.
No. Special pleading, “Oh, he didn’t mean it”, attempts at recontextualizing it after the fact, none of that alters the fact that he behaved boorishly, without regard for another human being, attacking—mocking—the thing that had nothing to do with any issue at hand, and then lying about it afterward. That was a test and he failed. And if you voted for him, you failed, too.
So, reality check: Supposedly, you voted to “Make America Great Again.” How is that working out? We have a bully in the White House who instead of “draining the swamp” is importing more alligators. None of them have a thing in common with you unless you’re a member of the seven figures annually club (and most of them probably did not vote for him). He is threatening to end longtstanding agreements around the world, given verbal approval to Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear programs, annoyed China to the point where a war is at least imaginable, appointed people to his cabinet with zero expertise in the fields chosen for them, thrown hissyfits on Twitter over the size of the crowd at his inauguration, placed gag orders on various agencies, made promises he is either backing out of or revising to fit the feedback he gets from FOX News, has anointed a xenophobe as his chief strategist, threatened long-settled law with Executive Orders, allowed that a man dead since 1882 is an African American who has done great work that is being recognized more and more, asked for prayer at the first national prayer breakfast for the new host of one of his reality shows, and has yet to release his tax returns while threatening American businesses and playing with their futures by indiscriminately tweeting about them. He has given tacit approval to the president of the Philippines for his “program” of murdering alleged drug dealers in the streets without due process and he has gotten into a flame war with the president of Mexico over a wall that would do nothing to alleviate a problem he has no real concept about in the first place. He has signed an order barring immigration based on religion—no, it is, because we have it on record that he asked several people, especially Giuliani, how he could legally keep Muslims out of the country, so his backpedaling on that is for naught—while not barring immigration from countries we already know have originated terrorists that did us harm. He is restarting the antipathies with Iran that over two decades of diplomacy was beginning to alleviate and get us to a point of normalizing relations with, in spite of their presumed leadership, what is really is a moderate country and could be an ally given the right moves on our part. He has placed people’s lives in jeopardy over this for no reason other than apparently a lot of his supporters are scared to death of people who dress funny and speak with an accent. The only reason he has apparently, for now, backed off of attacking LGBTQ rights is that a “friend” of his called and asked him not to.
There is no thoughtful consideration evident in any of this.
While all this is going on, at the state level we have a sea of Republican controlled legislatures and governors who are passing Right To Work bills designed to strip unions of any serious power and although we have seen the consequences of such laws in state after state wherein standard of living and even environmental conservation erode in their wake, somehow the people voting for these representatives believe it won’t happen to them.
My conclusion is that such votes are driven by spite. The almost volcanic eruption of people who suddenly realized that they might loser their healthcare under the man they voted for is telling. It’s just probable that they thought it would only affect Those People Over There, the ones they’ve been told to fear and hate, who have been “getting away with things” and “cut in line” and “get things they don’t deserve.” Along with that, the number of people who apparently did not understand that the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare were one in the same thing, while marginally amusing on one level, is stunning example of the corrupting power of corporate media.
Next up is the privatization of Social Security and MediCare. I’m sure some people think doing so won’t change a thing and then maybe congress can balance the budget and pay off the national debt. I’m sure some feel that way.
I was raised never to blame anyone else for my failures. If things didn’t work out the way I hoped or intended, well, suck it up and own it. I didn’t follow through, work hard enough, smart enough, long enough, plan, save, do the necessary, make the sacrifice, or pay sufficient attention. It was no one’s fault but my own if things went wrong or simply never came to fruition. Blaming someone else for your problems was the surest way to never succeed. If it doesn’t work out this time, start over, try again, slam your head against that wall until it caves in, but don’t quit and under no circumstances complain that forces are arrayed against you.
Every time I’ve been tempted to do a rant about the unfairness of any situation, that upbringing hauls me up short and makes it difficult, even when I know for a fact my failure was not my fault. Such things get in deep in the psyché, etch pathways, trenches, ruts that will not let me divest of the feeling of responsibility for a failure I had nothing to do with but still had to suffer.
I suspect most Americans have been infected with some version of that idea. It has its virtues. We work hard, we rarely quit, we harbor notions of boundless achievability. We think highly of ourselves and everyone knows a poor self-image can be deeply damaging. One might assume this is a component of our much-vaunted work ethic and maybe it is.
On the downside it makes us blind to real circumstances that do in fact hinder people. Especially Other People.
Congress is about to vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The senate already has. I doubt the house will fail to follow suit. Throughout the campaign last year we kept hearing that this was going to happen. Yet we elected the man who said he would do it. No no, his occasional “softening” of that position doesn’t count, because in no instance did Trump say he wouldn’t support it. More than that, we sent back to congress all the incumbents who said they would repeal it.
“Repeal and Replace” has been the mantra, but there is no replacement. There isn’t. How do I know? Because after seven years of listening to them complain we have heard nothing of such a thing. The GOP has had seven years to get their collective heads together and devise a replacement. Seven years. Nothing. Because they never intended to replace it. They just intended to repeal it.
You might say this is another give-away to the moneyed interests, but that’s too simple. The fact is, large segments of the health care industry have figured out how to make money under the ACA. There are now jobs at stake as well. It has become a substantial part of the economy. Just repealing it will raise everyone’s costs, damage parts of a now-working industry, and raise unemployment, and that’s before throwing millions of people off their health care and letting many of them die. This is sheerest negligence on their part.
Seven years and they could have hired experts to help them come up with a better plan. Seven years, we could have heard proposals, but all we got was a continual vow, a screed, that they wanted to repeal this horrible law. Seven years to devise an alternative, air it, meet with the industry that would have to work with it, get the public on their side, have a debate. Nothing.
This is presumably the way things are supposed to work here—you see something that doesn’t work right, come up with a better idea to replace it.
So why are they voting to repeal something which they have no replacement for? Something that actually benefits millions of Americans?
There is a video going around of a small business owner talking to Paul Ryan and defending “Obamacare” because without it he would have been dead. Unequivocal. Without the ACA he would have died. Ryan just keeps smiling that vacuous smile of his, like “I hear you and I’m glad you’re alive but it’s beside the point.”
What is that point?
That business owner didn’t deserve it.
Hold on a second, that’s kind of cold. Didn’t deserve it?
When you dig down deep into the driving myths that we use to define ourselves, yes, you find that in the mix. It has to do with that upbringing I talked about above. Your situation is no one else’s fault but your own.
There is no replacement for the ACA because the people voting to repeal it believe, deep down in that vast pool of American myth that informs who they think they are, that people without the means to pay for something should not have that something, whatever it is. You don’t—ever—give people things. It is just the nature of the universe that if they can’t find the resources within to step up and make enough money to have what they need, it is their fault, no one else’s, and therefore their situation is no one’s responsibility but their own. “I’m sorry, Mr. Independent Business Owner Who Had Cancer, but how is your misfortune my problem? You should have found a way to come up with the money to pay for good healthcare.”
Because blaming others for your failures is not American.
This is the only thing that makes sense. This is the only thing that explains the visceral and programmatic opposition to any social program designed to assist the less able, the disadvantaged, the underprivileged, the marginalized, the unlucky. They don’t want to do anything that appears to “give” something to someone who doesn’t deserve it.
Doesn’t deserve it. What does that actually mean?
If, as many of them claim, they are christians and look to god, then by their own philosophy none of us “deserve” anything. We should all be slowly dying in a pool of under-resourced misery. But then, the flip side of that is the charge that the more fortunate should be charitable to the less.
It would not surprise me to learn that most of those voting to take away the ACA support numerous charities and probably do so generously.
Here’s the thing. Charity like that, though, has never effectively addressed poverty. Some recipients of the charity manage to clamber up out of it, but most remain dependent.
They get what they deserve, perhaps, which is always less than enough to right their circumstances.
Because their poverty is no one’s fault but their own. They don’t deserve to be made…
To be made equal.
I’ll let that thought simmer for a while.
The bottom line is, there will be no replacement for the ACA. Replacing it would mean they accept responsibility for your inability to make enough money to buy your own health care. They will not accept that because doing so opens the possibility that they are responsible for a whole lot more social inequality than just low incomes and joblessness and the fact that resource manipulation is the primary tool of the wealthy. Because admitting to that responsibility would mean that a lot of people live in situations which are not their fault. In fact, are some one else’s fault.
That’s a can of worms they have no intention of opening, because, well, we’re Americans, and we make our own way, taking no hand-outs, accepting no one’s charity, and getting by on our own effort. Anyone who can’t manage just isn’t trying hard enough and that’s just not our fault. Or responsibility.
It’s a myth. It flies in the face of reality. And it’s time to have done with it.
For all you who voted for these people and may well lose your healthcare…well, in this case, it would seem this really was your fault.
I’ve been trying to compose my thoughts about what transpired last November that has left us with one of the most uncertain political situations we have faced in so long that I find it difficult to make a comparison. Possibly Rutherford B. Hayes. Possibly Harding.
The aspect of this that has baffled me most is the fact that sixty million of my fellow citizens cast a ballot for a man they do not trust.
An odd statement, I know, but in all the rhetoric I’ve seen, both before and after the election, I see very little that suggests anyone actually trusts Trump. That’s not to say there weren’t many reasons for those who did to vote for him, but I don’t believe trust is one of them. Maybe it’s opposite. Certainly a good dose of cynicism was involved.
I’m not going to rehearse here the various theories about stolen or corrupted elections. I’m not concerned with that at the moment. What I’m concerned about is those sixty million voters. Those and the ninety million who did not vote. For the purposes of this piece, I see them all of a piece.*
So one hundred fifty million Americans put a man in the White House they do not trust. Other metrics were involved. Other motives.
Firstly, about that trust thing.
When Obama was elected, people voted for him with a measure of confidence that he would represent their interests. That change was in the offing. That he was capable of making a difference to the benefit of the country. They talked about hope and change interchangeably. It was obvious that they felt he would do positive things. They trusted him. Both times.
And the reaction of his opponents came out of recognition of that basic reality. What his enemies had to do was destroy that trust, if possible. And because of that trust, their main weapon was denial. Because it meant their candidates did not command such confidence or trust. He had to be shown, therefore, to be ineffective.
He had to be delegitimized.
In the brawl over the last eight years, perhaps they succeeded on a level not intended. They did not, I think, manage to delegitimize President Obama. Rather, they fulfilled one of Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical dictums and managed to delegitimize the idea of governance.
No, I don’t think that’s what they intended to do, but the fight they engaged was over fundamental principles of the purpose of government. In past fights, it was easier to simply discredit the person in office, either by impugning his reputation or exposing corrupt policies. This time, though, they had neither opportunity, not in any useful way. What policies they attempted to present as corrupt were not. Some of them were mistakes, some bad ideas, some poorly managed, but none were in any way explicitly corrupt. And the man himself offered nothing to attack. Even Obama’s detractors, unless they were being programmatically obtuse, could not but respect him.
Which left them only with a fight over principles.
Which they were losing.
Why else adopt a tactic of pure and undifferentiated obstruction? This became obvious with the nomination of Merrick Garland, who had previously enjoyed more than a little praise from the very people who then refused to even have hearings about his appointment to the Supreme Court. There was no good reason to do this. It was purist petulance. The commitment on the part of GOP senators and representatives to block everything Obama attempted to do had no basis in logic or sound thinking. It was entirely party driven. A short-sighted policy to delegitimize Obama’s presidency.
The intent, no doubt, was to show Obama’s philosophy of governance wanting. That the Democrats, as exemplified by the president, had no good ideas. That based on their success at roadblocking even discussions on his policy measures the Republicans would show themselves as morally and philosophically superior.
The problem is, without that discussion there is no way to know who has the superior governing philosophy. Ideas need airing, discussion, debate in order to determine their merit. Instead, the GOP has successfully damaged, possibly destroyed, public trust in governance of any kind, at least at the federal level, for a substantial number of citizens. By blanket opposition to anything Obama attempted, nothing was shown to be superior—only achievable. Namely, the inevitable loss of public confidence in government.
They managed to strip the presidency of legitimacy.
They intended to strip Obama of legitimacy. They failed. He still retains it. But he’s leaving office. It is the office that has been damaged, though public understanding of that fact has probably not caught up with the reality.
What could be more inevitable then that we elect a man who already has no legitimacy to an office that may be badly lacking it?
The idea of legitimacy is a tricky one. It precedes trust. It is an intangible assumption that a person or institution deserves to be entrusted with representational responsibilities, that they are what they appear to be, that their actions, in part and in total, are born out of sound motives and based on confidence in the abilities and competencies required to be present and at the ready. In part, it is a kind of faith that what will be done will be done for the benefit of the community. That even in failure, the attempts to fulfill duties are done in good faith. When all these various implicit characteristics are in place and extant, then trust follows.
Legitimacy underlies all assumptions of power back to the days of kings and pharaohs and other potentates. It is the reason for such grave concern over lineage and the legal rights of heirs and successors. Because continuity is important, certainly, but the imprimatur of authority must be seen to pass rightfully from one hand to the next in order for chaos to be kept at bay. It is a delicate, powerful thing which, when in place, is hardly thought of but once damaged or absent can be seen as all important. Which explains both why we are now so troubled by possible outside interference with this election and why forms are being so rigorously defended by those who know something is amiss. Why, specifically, the Electoral College did not act in its legal capacity to change its vote in the face of evident misadventure and the clear unsuitability of the president elect—because in the absence of legitimacy in the outcome the legitimacy of the institutions must be protected. Because the office has been damaged in the eyes of the people, a changed vote by the Electors could easily have been the final blow to a marginally creditable system. Barring Trump would be seen as less a decision against a usurper than as one more reason to distrust the system.
I say “usurper” purposefully, though with full admission of the irony implied.
It was usurpation that invented those so-called popular sanctions, those speeches, those monotonous congratulations, the customary tribute that in every age the same men pay, with great prodigality and in almost the same words, to the most contradictory measures. In them, fear apes all the appearances of courage, to congratulate itself on its own shame and to express thanks for its own misfortunes. A peculiar stratagem that deceives no one! A game that impresses no one and that should have succumbed long ago to the arrows of ridicule! But ridicule attacks all and destroys nothing.
Benjamin Constant, On the Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation, 1814
Constant was talking about Napoleon, of course, but consider—Napoleon achieved a position of ultimate power in France with the assent of the people who claimed legitimacy to bestow that power. That Napoleon turned out to be other than what anyone expected made him a species of usurper. He replaced legitimate authority by virtue of pure assertion. That he did so in the wake of the complete loss of legitimacy on the power of the monarchy only underscored the fact that he had no authenticity, only the force of a manufactured popular mandate.
People loved him.
For a while, at least. And when he had been beaten and exiled the first time, the Sisyphean task of recovering legitimacy in a Restoration ran into the reality of a desolated economy and a broken public trust led to a final surge of popular support during his Hundred Days.
Now, a usurper can still do the job, but has the same problem as the delegitimized “rightful” ruler, namely a lack of trust from the people. In this instance, the office is the damaged part, which is why Obama was unable to pass on his still-intact legitimacy to an heir, namely Hillary Clinton. Large segments of the popular base that swept him into office in two historic elections did not stir itself to grant its favor upon her because she had been the one the ongoing attempts to delegitimize Obama had successfully tainted. They could not damage him so they attacked his staff. The repeated harangue over settled questions served his enemies well, because she was seen finally as corrupt—so corrupt in fact that her corruption was beyond revelation.
Constant again: Usurpation brutalizes a people while oppressing it—accustoms it to trample on what it respected, to court what it despises, to despise itself. And if usurpation manages to endure for any length of time, it actually makes impossible any freedom or improvement after its fall.
The irony in our case, of course, is that the usurpation has been done for the usurper, rather than by him.
When I say that no one who supported him trusts Trump I base this on the immediate and almost desperate sounding apologia that followed on the heels of his election, that he never really meant all the things he said, that he was speaking allegorically or metaphorically, or, more cynically still, that he was only saying those things in order to win and would never actually act on any of it. Often these apologies are made by people who months before lauded him for plain-speaking, for “saying it like it is,” for being “genuine.” And again, this was all said with no sense of irony. Wishful thinking, perhaps. But disturbingly, I think, based on a perception that it didn’t really matter, which suggests either no understanding of what was happening or an admission that all faith in the office had been lost and it was of no consequence who inhabited it.
Of course, the apologies on his behalf also suggest some understanding of how undesirable those things he said actually are. People made excuses for the visiting uncle at Thanksgiving who couldn’t stop telling off-color jokes and wondering why cousin so-n-so had to go an marry someone not of his or her ethnicity. Oh, he doesn’t really mean that, he’s just being, you know—
And no one seems to have the authority, the moral will—the legitimacy—to tell him to leave, or just shut up. Possibly because they see him as a founder of the feast.
This is no surprise in a movement which on the one hand is represented by David Brooks and on the other end by Alex Jones.
The lack of trust manifests among those who must now work with him. Many stepped up to voice opposition to him during the campaign, but are now backpedaling because they see him as the one who may be useful to them. But while they may be acting as if everything is as it should be, they do not trust him, and may well believe he is not legitimate. They’re stuck, though, because the institutions they have worked so hard to control are in danger of collapse after several decades of sapping, and if they move aggressively to correct what is clearly a mistake they risk losing everything they have worked toward.
In order for a government to work effectively, a certain degree of confidence must be in place that what it does is done legitimately. The general populace may know some of what goes on, but the entire point of a government is in its function of dealing with things too vast and complex for the average citizen to access, at least in the details. We have to trust that the institutions in place are managed by people who do what they do with a minimum degree of competence and for the benefit of those they represent. When Reagan began his campaign of delegitimizing the very idea of government (“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” August 12, 1986) he put at risk that powerful, fragile trust necessary for a government to function. It has never been a question of criticizing the government—we have always done that, it is part of the very institutions we rely on that we do that—but the very idea that the general will can be legitimately expressed through those institutions that Reagan called into question.
I doubt he intended the results we see now, but this is his true legacy. This is what has become of popular conservatism.+ Whether intended or not, this has been the consequence of the struggle against progressivism.
Conservatism itself has been usurped. It has morphed from a philosophy of preservation and economic and demographic caution to one that simply rejects change. From there it has become dynamically retrograde, identifying a priori change as a viable target, rejected out of hand as having somehow violated conservative prerogatives. Hence the assault on even New Deal concepts which have long become part of the settled landscape of Things To Be Conserved. (The entire movement to privatize as many public programs as possible is part of this. Should they acknowledge the legitimacy of these programs as part of the proper purview of government, they would be forced to admit change as a necessary aspect of their philosophy.)
There is in the current manifestation of the Conservative movement a deeply-nurtured mediocrity. Partly this is a result of a mangled understanding of the nature of equality, but mostly it stems from a distrust of anything that requires imagination or innovation. The only vision put forth by their best lights is a vague ritual solemnity that masks an avarice without taste and certainly stripped of genuine morality. Form is all and even in that it is only the form of denial.
There is no climate change. There is no viable secularism. There is nothing to evolution. There is no alternative to oil, capitalism, or god.
There is no good progress.
Whether intended or not, this has been the consequence of their struggle against progressivism. Lacking a substantive alternative, they have engaged a battle of labels. Over time, the things meant by those labels have been abandoned, so we no longer know—possibly on either side—what they mean. So attempts at restructuring the economic landscape, for instance, to shift the flow of resources to a broader population are labeled Socialist, but what is meant by that within the context of the struggle has nothing to do with socialism.
So what has replaced genuine conservatism is a regressive denial of progress. Consequently, one method in play to thwart progress is the categorical dismantling of the material and legal scaffolding on which any progress depends for any success. Like social security. Or voting rights. Progress is not to be trusted. Therefore the tools and foundations of it must be denied those who would most likely pursue it on behalf of those who would most likely support its use. The so-called Safety Net must be destroyed so those it allows a degree of comfort and security to move forward cannot affect change.
This philosophy has been ideal for those who have been pouring huge amounts of money into the political process in order to secure for themselves a free field of movement to guarantee their hegemony over resources. The use of money in campaigns may have begun as a tool to support ideas and a representational legitimacy, but as the contest fragmented and the points of focus were lost, it became a means of winning. When it was no longer clear what winning served, money became the end in itself. Building war chests on the chance that one day there might be a philosophy worth supporting has become endemic to the struggle. Consider the point-free arguments over taxation. We rarely hear clear arguments over what use taxes are to be put, only increasingly strident rhetoric over whether they should even exist. Meanwhile, borrowing continues, because that feeds private coffers which then pay for more strident anti-tax rhetoric.
Through all this the one thing that is excised from our political life that will be perhaps the final brace to a damaged system is competence. Competence aligned to legitimacy is dangerous to a self-justifying mediocrity.
As I said at the beginning, I did not intend to talk about outside intervention here. I am concerned with the voters, who have chosen to reward an illegitimate candidate, both by direct ballot and, more importantly, by abstention. The work of delegitimizing our institutions is all but accomplished and this election is proof. Because popular sentiment became invested not in the office but in the persons involved, to the exclusion of much if not everything else. Once there was a time when it did not matter so much which candidate won, we all trusted that certain basic duties of the office would be fulfilled regardless.# So those who lost grumbled and went home and geared up for the next election and got on with their lives knowing the scaffolding and superstructure was in place. That the one who won at minimum would fulfill the required functions of the office to the general benefit of the community. We trusted in the legitimacy of the elected candidate. We could change our mind in four years.
That did not happen this time. One hundred fifty million voters decided there was no legitimacy to be had, so on the one hand keep the competent one out and on the other hand assume a principle aloofness and refuse to participate. Because those who voted for Trump do not trust him. This will become apparent. Nor do they have confidence in the institutions anymore, so why elect someone who would be adept at running those institutions?
They have placed themselves in a mindset that allows for no real alternatives other than the continued deterioration of systems they no longer believe in but hope will not abandon them. We have a crisis of legitimacy. Worthy candidates will be seen as more a danger than a benefit because making things work to our benefit has been characterized as somehow inimical to our identity.
In a way, we have usurped our own government. In its place will now be a set of forms that will set the stage for a series of convulsions until finally we get past the constraints of our fear.
*And yes, I acknowledge that voter suppression was an active force in all of this, but ninety million? No, suppression cannot account for even half of that.
+ To be clear, I do not see this movement as legitimately conservative. This is the name they have taken from people who are or were genuine conservative thinkers and who would never have countenanced the circus taking place under their rubric.
#No, I do not mean to suggest there were no differences between candidates, only that regardless who won, which ideology or philosophy became dominant for the duration, the institutions of the country could be depended on to continue and that certain values were held on common by both sides of the political divide.
Listening to the debates, not between the candidates but among the potential voters, it becomes clear that for many the workings of our government are a thing of deep mystery and frustratingly obscure. Donald hammered on Hillary repeatedly that in 30 plus years in office she had an opportunity to “do something” about certain issues and she did nothing.
She was a senator and then she was secretary of state.
Neither position affords anyone the power to just “do something” about any damn thing they want.
While morality may not be relative, politics is entirely so. The problem is this: you have a hundred people in a room who have been given a problem to solve. There’s perhaps a right way to solve it, there are certainly wrong ways, and then there’s what each individual wants.
How do you simply “do something” in that situation?
Let’s compound it. Each of those hundred people is working with another set of probable conflicts. There is what he or she believes ought to be done, then there is what the people they represent want done, and then there is what she or he feels can be done. Each one brings this bag of writhing conflict to the room and the task is to work with the other ninety-nine, each of whom has the same set of problems, to find a solution to the problem.
This is the fundamental nature of representative democracy.
In a word, it is impossible. It is the human equivalent of asking the centipede how it manages to walk.
Add to this the frustration of the constituency, each individual and group of individuals has a different set of desires. They harangue their representatives to “do something” and get angry when nothing or, worse, the “wrong” thing gets done. Now yet another concern is heaped on top of all the others for the people in that room—keeping their job.
It’s amazing anything happens at all.
And despite what they may tell you, this happens in business, too. All those moving parts have to be coordinated and, often—because they’re attached to people—assuaged. So no, a Ross Perrot, a Mitt Romney, or a Donald Trump cannot magically step into this with their “business experience” and suddenly end the deadlocks and solve the problems. Their “experience” ought to tell them this. For one, they can’t actually fire the people they have to work with in congress.
If Trump’s accusations that Hillary “did nothing” when she had the chance have any resonance with voters it is because, I suspect, too many voters don’t understand the nature of the country in which we live. Hillary tried to explain that she worked on several of those things, but if she can’t get people—many of whom in the last several years have publicly committed themselves to blocking any proposal that comes out of either the Obama White House or the Democratic side of the aisle—to go along with her proposals, just what do people think she could do?
That she has accomplished what she has is a minor miracle.
I received civics in grade school. We had to sit through it. It was boring. It used to be what was called social studies, which later seemed to morph into some kind of social psychology joined to history tracks instead of a study of how government is organized. Probably it is taught in some schools still, but it seems not to be as a matter of course.
It’s why so many people are afraid a sitting president can take guns away from people or remove the Second Amendment. A president can’t do that. Just can’t.
But worse, it’s why so many people seem to not understand why their personal prejudice can’t be made law.
Frustration can be a driving force for a solution, though. It seems that public frustration with the intractability we’ve endured in our politics is reaching a zenith and we may be about to witness an historic turn-over.
Ever since Reagan named government as the biggest problem we have there has been a tumor growing in the belly of our civil systems. He was flat wrong. Perhaps he was speaking in metaphor—he was an actor, after all, psychodrama depends on metaphor—but if so he delivered it with a straight face that appealed to the impatience everyone feels from time to time at the squabble in that room. With the benefit of the doubt, I believe he would be appalled at the consequences of his rhetoric. We built the strongest nation in history through government, for good or ill, so just how much of a problem was it? Depends on where you stand when you ask that question.
Because politics is relative. Compromise is essential.
But I suspect a lot of people don’t actually know what compromise is. You can’t tear down the bridge and then blame the other guy for not crossing the divide.
It might be useful to remember that the work in question is never “done” but is an ongoing, daily struggle. Out of it we find a way. But you can’t circumvent the process just because you think you’re right. If you are, that will become evident over time.
We might want to remember that. Civics. The earlier the better.
So The Donald was caught on tape saying something egregious about what he wants to do with women. This has caused much ire among those in his party of choice. Not most of the other egregious things he has said, alleged, alluded to, implied, or otherwise allowed to exit from his mouth. We have witnessed basically a year-long example of escalating reaction not to the content of his pronouncements but to the manner of their expression.
Paul Ryan has weighed in with an egregious bit of condescension of his own which adds to the evidence that he is a “classic” conservative who seems not to Get It.
As bookends showcasing the problem they could not be more apt.
The basic privilege the self-appointed “ruling class” has always tried to keep to itself is just this—that they are allowed, by virtue of their own money and power, to treat those not in the club any way they choose. The whole idea of equality and respect is anathema to one of the main reasons they act and think as they do. Trump is spilling the secrets of the inner sanctum by speaking the way he does. He is being supported by people who have long chafed under the requirements to matriculate from the high school locker room.
So why is what Ryan said just more of the same?
Mr. Ryan said: “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified.”
Now, on its face you might see nothing wrong with that statement. But remember, this is coming from a man who has consistently opposed women’s right to self-determination where it conflicted with his conception of morality. (To be clear, he never actually said “rape is just another vector of conception.” But he made it clear that he has a moral and ethical framework which would demote women’s ability to determine life choices to secondary status in the case of unwanted pregnancy)
This suggests that he sees women as having a role to fill. A role which under certain circumstances supersedes their position as individuals.
Women are to be championed and revered…
Why? Because they can’t champion themselves? And how do you revere something without putting it in a special category? Reverence is akin to a religious appreciation. We can revere life but it becomes trickier to revere an individual without bringing to bear expectations that merit such reverence. The first—life—is a concept not a person. It’s easy to revere ideas, beliefs, works of art. These are not people, they are categories of object. People are revered only when they are removed from the daily grime of actual living. Saints are never made so until they are dead and for good reason. A person cannot—nor should—fulfill the expectations of such status. And it is not a status one seeks but one that is imposed.
Women are not objects of reverence. He contradicts himself in the next phrase, “not objectified.”
This is the problem at the center of this whole issue, which is difficult to parse for some folks.
And the reason that what Ryan is saying is not much better than what Trump says. Only different.
Trump is saying out loud what has been implicit in a certain mindset among self-styled “conservatives” for a long time. They want their privilege. They want things made available to them and denied to the general public, because these things constitute the trappings of power.
Not all of them pushing this program. Some, I suspect, are just neurotic and insecure. Trump is neither. Ryan is just shallow. But the arrogance of a Trump has found a home in the shallow waters of what has become conservative philosophy.
Other Republicans, in response to Trump’s comments, have opted for the word respect, but given the repeated, consistent assault on women’s health care options, the concerted opposition to equal rights legislation, the open misogyny toward female politicians, and the general inability to understand the driving essence of the women’s movement for, well, forever, these pronouncements carry little weight outside the fact that they fear for their privilege because a loudmouth is talking out of school. They want to impose a style of respect on women that will push the real issues back into the box wherein they’ve been residing all along. These same people have had many gracious and pleasant and approving things to say about the late Phyllis Schlafly and given her quite unvarnished statements about what she thinks women (of a certain class, of course) ought to do rather than try to live lives of personal fulfillment, I take their repudiation of Trump for what it is—an attempt to put the lid back on that box. From time to time many of them have said things about women that demonstrate a vast disconnect—lack of understanding and lack of empathy and a total disregard for women as people.
They like women to be objects of reverence. Why can’t they just climb back up on that pedestal where they “belong” and smile?
I don’t want to beat up too much on them, because I also believe that they believe they’re speaking from conscience. I just wish they had taken the trouble to examine that conscience a few decades ago, before they laid the groundwork for someone like Trump, who has yet to say one thing that has not been part of the conservative playbook since Goldwater displaced liberal Republicans and started us on this road in 1964. They only say these things in well-turned, polite, and convoluted ways so the average person won’t understand that they basically want to turn this country into a “gentlemen’s club” where they can get what they want without having to respect those who are expected to provide them their services.
In my previous post I talked about the use—misuse—of a term: Snowflake. It was brought to my attention that I myself may be misusing it or at least misunderstanding it.
It derives from Fight Club, as a negative. “You are not special snowflakes…you are not unique…” More or less. Tyler Durden exhorting the new members of a club no one is supposed to speak about. Which kind of automatically makes them special. Exclusive club, deeply hidden, secret, and very radical. How much more special can you get short of joining the Masons or being recruited by the NSA?
The term then entered the language by way of gaming, applied to people claiming unique privileges—usually unearned—in the course of some rule-heavy role-playing extravaganza. It went from there to an appellation attached to Millennials of a certain mindset who had absorbed the pseudo-Montessori-esque lessons of specialness and uniqueness and then took it to the next level as sinecure that they, being unique and special, can do no wrong and are allowed to exercise a degree of privilege and intolerance based on that assumed status.
Like all such terms, obviously, it has been handed on, re-purposed, reapplied, contorted, enlarged, expanded, and now, today, it is being used to label anyone even glancingly allied to that other wonderful term that has come to be applied as a derogation, the Social Justice Warrior.
That’s the problem with labels. They start out one way, they inevitably become something else, and then history gets retroactively rewritten to incorporate the new meanings.
Democrats belong to the party of Jim Crow.
Republicans freed the slaves.
As if those claims describe what they are intended to today.
What I have witnessed and heard is the appropriation of the label Snowflake by people who are unfriendly to messages and arguments about social justice, equality, political correctness, diversity, and related issues so they can apply it where needed to shut down debate. Classifying someone as a Snowflake (or a Social Justice Warrior) is little more than an attempt to categorize what they have to say as a specific kind of rhetoric which we are not obliged to listen to or credit because it only describes the presumed delicate, unique, and supposedly privileged character of the speaker. We don’t have to listen to them because, well, it’s just the way they are.
And somehow these delicate souls manage to harass the virtuous manly men (male or female) who have right on their side to the point of silence.
I haven’t, if you’ll forgive the mixed usage here, seen the silence. On either side, frankly. What I have seen is a big fat fence raised between the deponents made up of labels.
Now, labels can be useful. I like to know which aisle contains the pet food as opposed to the household drygoods as opposed to the liquor. I like to know which building houses what services and addresses are very handy. I even like knowing what kind of music I’m likely to find on what station and it is helpful to know where in the bookstore I can find History as opposed to Humor.
But when it comes to people, labels are useless impediments to dialogue and intercourse. And just because those people over there insist on using labels does NOT justify labeling by anyone else. Because it is the nature of such things—language—that usage is hijacked, meanings change, and context shifts.
Back in the Sixties, there was an event in San Fransisco. There was a funeral for Hippy. The label, the tag, the identity. Because the people at the core of the counter culture saw what was happening—that what they were, how they dressed, talked, acted, was about to be appropriated as fashion. They knew that all they intended, all they meant for themselves, all they held important was about to be changed by the normal misuse of the American dialogue. So they declared Hippy dead and they held a funeral. There was, after that, no authentic hippy.
It didn’t stop the entire country from assuming it knew what a Hippy was and that they were all around.
In the Fifties the label Communist was horribly misapplied. A wide net of philosophical and political opinions caught people up and labeled them and lives were ruined. Because it’s easy to think in labels. Action follows thought.
I don’t care for labels like that. Especially when deployed in such a way as to shut down meaningful dialogue.
What I am seeing is the use of a term that once described something quite different being applied by people who think they have the right to determine what is meaningful by excluding what they think is without merit.
Does this go both ways? Of course. Labels have universal utility. They are shorthand. The problem with them is they make it easy to not think.
Just in case anyone thought I meant something else.
I’ve heard it a lot recently. Snowflakes. “Those snowflakes.”
It’s an insult. It means, apparently, thin-skinned, easily offended, a lightweight, someone prone to knee-jerk reactions to certain things which the ones applying the label don’t see the problem with. “We mustn’t offend the snowflakes!”
What topics? It has something to do with political correctness, which is another one of those labels which has lost valence through overuse and misapplication.
What is political correctness?
Well, others may have their definitions, but mine is to speak truly about a subject rather than resort to cliché. To find out the reality before talking through one’s hat, using whatever popular cultural handles that may be lying around.
You can pretty much pick the topic and find disagreement over things ranging from stereotyping to cultural appropriation. There’s the popular opinion, then there’s the fabrication, and then there’s the reality. P.C. ought to mean we go for the reality, which requires a certain amount of work and a bit of sensitivity, which seems in short supply. And if you have no sensitivity, why would you bother to do the work?
Of course, if you don’t do the work, where will you ever get any sensitivity.
So we have a new label, a category—actually a steel-reinforced closet—into which and by which we can dispense with the need to deal with the issues raised by the behavior being tagged as that of a Snowflake. Once so labeled we can simply use that term to dismiss whatever might be upsetting them.
It’s hard then to know if what is upsetting them has any legitimacy because the conversation has now stopped.
Here’s a thought: those applying this new label seem to believe that these are delicate people who get flustered at the mere mention of opinions with which they disagree. What if that’s not it? What if it’s more likely the final loss of tolerance for dealing with attitudes, opinions, and treatment with which they have been subjected to for years and they’ve finally reached the point of saying “You know what, if you can’t see through your own bullshit, I don’t have to either help you or put up with it anymore.”
What if a good number, maybe the majority, of people being labeled Snowflakes are actually of such a toughness that it took years and decades of being misheard, misunderstood, categorized, dismissed, and otherwise bullied before they finally just had enough and decided to slam the door in your face?
I’ve been bullied. The one thing that becomes clear, finally, is that being bullied has no rational cause. Nothing you can say or do will change the fact that the bully just wants to hurt you. It’s not rational. They will bully you because you don’t fit some cool profile or they sense that you’re vulnerable or—more relevant to this situation—that you, just by being, represent a threat to their self-image. You can’t negotiate, you can’t “be reasonable,” and you sure as hell can’t educate them out of their desire, their urge really to put you in a box and keep you there.
You abuse someone long enough they will snap back. Right now, voices are being heard that have needed to be heard and certain people, who thought as long as the room was quiet everything was fine, are trying to shut them down. This is nothing new, this has been the reality for a long, long time. Now we have some acting out. Now we have some payback. Now the “nice, quiet, well-behaved so-n-so who was never a problem before” is standing up saying enough, and so a new label is required?
What you are seeing as hypersensitivity is really just the final loss of patience. If the conversation had been engaged honestly long ago you wouldn’t be facing a challenge to authority like this. And claiming you’re the ones under siege is one more example of the myopia of too-long hegemony.
Every time now I see or hear that label being used I think “Have you looked in a mirror lately? If anyone’s being hypersensitive…” But no, that’s wrong. It’s not hypersensitivity. It’s insensitivity.
Now, go to your room. Write a thousand times “I will not be an insensitive jerk and pretend it’s a defense of conservative principles.”
You just don’t like the message and you think creating and using a new label will fix the problem. Like that ever worked before.
I debated whether or not to say anything about Phyllis Schlalfy’s passing. I have never held her in high regard and certainly anyone who has paid the slightest attention to my writings over the past three decades should know where I stand on the issues on which she and I disagreed. Violently disagreed at times.
But as her death follows upon the heels of the canonization of Mother Theresa, I find a certain symmetry which prompts comment.
These two women shared one attribute in common that has come to define them for the ages: an obdurate dedication to a special kind of ignorance. They have become icons for people who prefer their views of how the world should be and see them as in some ways martyrs to the cause of defending beliefs that require the most tortured of logics to maintain as viable.
Both apparently took as models their own examples as standards and arguments against those they opposed. Schlafly never (she claimed) understood the feminist argument about the oppression of the patriarchy and Bojaxhiu never understood the utility of situational beneficence. Consequently both could proceed with programmatic movements that blocked progress and flew in the face of realities neither could accept as valid.
Schlafly was instrumental in blocking the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Her rhetoric before and after was stridently right wing, as if the very notion of women wanting opportunities as human beings was somehow a threat to civilization. She herself apparently never suffered resistance to anything she wanted to do. She essentially told women less privileged than herself to be satisfied with their stations in life and give up ambitions of being more than wives and mothers, even as she lived a life that was anything but an acceptance of such limitations. Her inability—or refusal—to come to terms with the fact that human beings deserve to be treated by each other as individuals cost her, but she has never once publicly acknowledged that she might be wrong.
Bojaxhiu set up shop in one of the poorest areas in the world to, ostensibly, minister to those poor. Normally we hear that and believe some form of relief of suffering is involved, but apparently not. She elevated the suffering of the dying to some form of divine gift, gave them aspirin, and prayed while they died in misery. It wasn’t lack of money, either. Her order has received many millions—which she used to open convents and wage a campaign in opposition to the one thing that might make a difference in those poor districts she held in such high esteem: birth control. Of all the things she might have chosen to name as the most significant enemy of our times, providing women, especially poor women, the means to control their fertility, reduce family size so what resources they had might go further and do more, is a perverse choice. Catholic, yes, but it’s not like other Catholics haven’t seen reality for what it is and did something—anything—that might constructively alleviate suffering. From the evidence, all she did was put a noble gloss on it and exacerbate it.
It could be argued that both were “of their times” and therefore exception should be made before too harshly assessing their legacies, but I don’t accept that. In Schlafly’s case, she was educated, moved among the best minds when she wanted to, had more than ample opportunity to understand what she was doing. It didn’t matter. She had picked a side and stuck with it, reality be damned. In Bojaxhiu’s case, the daily exposure to those she supposedly ministered to should have served to snap her out of whatever quasi-Freudian obsession she had with sex and start acting like a human being. (Unless you wish to argue that she was indeed “out of her time” and would have been right at home in the Middle Ages as a flagellant.) She was not stupid, she was the head of an international organization. She put on the sackcloth of the humble village girl with simple values, but she was anything but.
That the Church has canonized her is no surprise. In Dante’s Paradiso we meet many saints and upon reading about them and their character we begin to wonder why these people are where they are. Dante makes the case—among others—that the price of admission to this paradise is a lifetime of obsessive devotion to a view of divine truth that is essentially selfless. In other words, in the consequences of their lives, the Paradisiacs are not much different than the Infernals, other than they are selfless rather than selfish. Both share a conviction that their view of the world is right, but for very different reasons.
Of course, Dante’s Paradise is not really a place anyone rational would care to spend eternity.
That Schlafly has devoted followers is also no surprise. One of the curious similarities between her and the so-called “New Woman” of the post-liberation era is the image of someone who does it all. Wife, mother, lawyer, political organizer, mover, shaker. Whatever roadblocks might have been thrown in her way, she went around, over, or through them. If she could do it, by gum, so can anyone, and we don’t need no damn ERA to do it!
Except for the privilege. No, she wasn’t born to money. But she got the advantages of a college education at a time women weren’t going to college much. She also married money. Draw your own conclusions, but without that her later ability to do all the things she chose to do would have been absurdly more difficult. However, she has the background to appeal to the self-made, the education to talk constitutional law with the best, and the security to assert herself in ways women traditionally do not. However you want to spin it, she was privileged.
Both women offered ideologies that overlooked or flatly denied certain inconvenient realities. But they had their lives, their callings, their successes. What is this reality that makes any kind of claim on the conscience of the visionary that either was obliged to respect?