Tag Archives: discrimination

Papers, Please

Something that seems to get overlooked in all this sturm und drang over immigration is the visceral reaction those of us who oppose current policy experience over seemingly innocuous terms. “Undocumented” being chief among them. This one causes a chill to run down my spine almost every time I hear it. And it does not stop with illegal immigrants but goes directly to such things as voter registration and ID requirements. The idea that someone who has been living in a community all their life and simply lacks this month’s card can be denied a fundamental right appalls me.

While I understand the perfectly reasonable rationale behind much of this, I am, as an American, opposed to it on principle.

It took me a little while to figure out why. I grew up with the Hollywood and television state villain who, at some point in all such melodramas, walked up to someone and snaps “Papers!” I had it drilled into me that this was a tool of oppression. That having or not having “proper” documents could get you killed. That, in fact, your entire identity and therefore the safety of you and your family hung on the possession of the appropriate documents. Most of these villains wore a particular uniform, but it was clear that all totalitarian states used this as a means of controlling their populations. And that losing your papers meant losing any legitimacy in the eyes of the state.

And we all know where that leads.

This is not an entirely rational reaction on my part, but it nevertheless connects well with certain principles. As an American I reserve the right to be secure in my person without having to prove to some apparatchit that I “belong” here.  It’s up to you to accommodate me.

Of course, in my case that’s relatively easy. I’m the right color, I speak without an accent (mostly), and I have history.

Undocumented is a term that I react to with the same loathing as I would to Goebbels, Himmler, Eichmann, Stalin, Mao, Pinochet, Stroessner, Pol Pot, Kim Jung Un. It suggests that you are not a person without state-sanctioned proof, and I grew up believing that was not American.

It’s difficult to walk that line between necessary documentation—for credit, for benefits, for licenses to operate specific things—and a card asserting you have a right to Be. It makes it too easy to strip away everything by simply losing or having stolen from you that bit of identification, that seal of approval.

We need to rethink where we’re heading with this. We have, collectively, a too-easy tendency to indulge our tribal affiliations by sorting people into categories. When the state is indifferent or benevolent, such things don’t become toxic. But a change in the weather, and what may have been a convenience last year is now a threat. I do not appreciate the idea that we will be the ones walking into a room snapping “Papers!” as if that alone represented the totality of what it means to be a person.  That’s not who we used to be.  That’s not who I want us to be.

Middle Interim

Primary season has begun. Eight states have already held them and the numbers are beginning to come in.

November is going to be significant, no matter what the outcome, because it may tell us something about who we think we are. Midterms are notorious for low voter turn-out. That has to change. After a year and a half of incompetence (actually much more than that, but I’m addressing the current manifestation of mediocrity) we cannot afford to be our usual “oh, who cares about midterms, it’s not like they’re important” attitude that usually seems to dominate at them.

A few things to keep in mind. Midterms have traditionally been decided by far less than half of eligible voters. Which means that the winning party usually wins by virtue of less than a quarter of the voters. The rest of us then spend the next two years complaining about the idiots in congress etc, but rarely do the people who blew off their civic responsibility (and who are often the loudest complainers) own up to the mess they allowed to occur. Well, to those of you who fail to vote, two things: you have basically permitted yourselves to be irrelevant; and you will probably be bypassed by the generation coming up. Until that happens, though, the rest of us have to suffer the consequences of your voicelessness.  You did a number on the country this last election by sitting it out.  If you’re happy with the results, well, so be it. But if you’re one of the ones regularly complaining about the state of the country, all I can say is, either show up from now on or shut up.

Moving on.

I do not intend to write another thing about Trump after this. As far as I’m concerned, he is a giant ball of mediocrity. He is, however, being consistent according to his past. His “style” if you will is to dance around and take advantage of openings like a boxer and punch. He has no plan in the usual sense. His goal is to win the present argument and hope it comes out in his favor. The trail of bankruptcies, half-finished ventures, and lawsuits is a testament to this. He is not orderly, coherent, or conscientious. He is an improviser. It may well be that he is someone you might want on your negotiating team going into a difficult discussion, but he should never be the lead. There is no evidence that he has any longterm strategy. He is all about tactics. Example: note the photographs of the recently concluded G7. The roundtable, where every single person attending has a collection of papers, notebooks, reference material at their seat—except Trump. He did not prepare, he was not prepared. He was looking for a chance to “go with his gut” as he likes to say.

No doubt people who have done business with him have made money. He’s in that game, stirring the pot, and just by the law of averages certain people will know how to play, and will make out well. Some of his ventures have been “rescued” by people who then turned them around and made them work. Let me be clear—there’s nothing especially wrong with that. If everyone at the table is there to play the same game and they all know the rules and are willing to take the risks, fine. That’s a species of American business. You improvise, you deal, you roll with the punches, you look for some way to land on your feet, and sometimes things align and it looks like you came out okay. A survey among those with whom he has done business in the past reveals a very mixed assessment, but mostly he is regarded by some of our more consistently successful entrepreneurs as a rogue factor at best, a rank amateur, or a lucky incompetent at worst. Even so, that’s a game and he plays it. It’s questionable if he ever gets the result he started out wanting, but the definition of a win in this case is fluid. If he walks away able to play the next round—and can find people willing to play it with him—that counts as a win.

You can’t lead a country that way. You have to know what the end result is supposed to be and thus far there is no blueprint.

This would not be as great a problem as it is if we had a congress that possessed collective competence. The problem is, congress is filled with people who are either cut from the same cloth or are just as mediocre. The majority in control seem incapable of accepting that whatever vision they may have carried into the job is not working out and maybe, just maybe they have to compromise on some things in order to do the People’s Business. Many of them are looking at Trump in alarm, but those who might be in positions to do something are caught by the fact that large parts of Trump’s tactics align with what they’ve been trying to do for years, namely destroy the safety net, establish (often unstated) class hegemonies, and hand over as much power and resources to those they believe will work to the benefit of the country as a whole from the private sector. They have done this under the guise of “getting the government out of people’s lives” but then turn around and enact laws that allow private corporations to get very deeply into people’s lives. They see no contradiction in this. Since those corporations are dependent on government assistance to do what they intend to do, it ought to be obvious that taking one hand off so the other can replace it is little more than a shell game wherein the only difference is who gets scammed.

Trump has been the beneficiary of a long trend in this direction. He did instinctively understand that about the Republican Party, so that just about everything he said, including the way he said it, conformed to the deep desires of the GOP, its funders, and its base. His crudity exposed it to the glaring light of day and he managed to turn that into a positive for his campaign. He parlayed what we mistake as “plain speaking” and honesty into a slogan-driven campaign that eschewed nuance, comprehension, and decency and embraced vulgarity, bluntness, and condescension on behalf of a strain of impatience, intolerance, and frankly ignorance parading as common sense.

A few words about that. Judging by the evidence, what he tapped into can be called a collapse of caring capacity among a certain strain of self-identified American Firsters. Some decades ago the lid came off of a Pandora’s Box of vileness in the American collective culture—racism, misogyny, greed, all supported on a deep loam of myth that extols a readiness to do violence, ignore what is shown to be weakness, and an assumption that the successful American is somehow the product of an elemental “natural man” model of human nature, that if left alone we are all basically successful, entrepreneurial, independent, and highly competent. This is where all the arguments about “level playing fields” come in.  One faction of our culture assumes we already have that and people complaining that the system, however you define it, is stacked against them are only seeking unfair advantage. Admitting this latter to be true opens the possibility that our renowned self reliance is also a fable and that there is no such thing as an Independent American, not in the sense intended. It attacks a self image we have used to push ourselves up various ladders since we claimed national independence. The idea that we all rely on others and on advantages not of our creation to do anything runs counter to that myth.

Most of us know better. Some of us know better but have found advantage in perpetuating that myth.  Some people really don’t seem to get it. They don’t want to accept that their skin color, at a minimum, can be an advantage or a disadvantage. We want to believe that ability and merit are all that matter.

Trump’s hardcore supporters not only don’t want to believe it, they are willing to reject the idea with prejudice, and use Trump as their poster boy. They see all criticisms of America, his boorishness (and by extension theirs), charges of sexism and racism, as nothing but barriers intentionally placed to prevent them from being recognized for their innate greatness.

More, they seem to believe that all the people they see as taking unfair advantage have only done so by virtue of certain elected officials who were “on their side” in opposition to them. Now they have “their guy” in charge and so advantage will accrue to them.

Never mind the people who came to depend on certain progressive social policies who are now losing them and can’t understand why. Let’s just look at business. These tariffs are punitive. But they will likely not hurt the countries they are ostensibly leveled at nearly as badly as they will hurt home industries. Yet this has been one of the demands of a certain mindset for a long time—why aren’t we charging tariffs on those imports? Can’t those people in Washington see that “unfair competition” is destroying American business?

But the costs of tariffs will fall massively upon the very businesses they’re supposedly meant to protect.

Why? Because the world is more complex than such simply thinking.

It might not even be a bad idea, to adjust import duties, but not this way.  This is where his mediocrity manifests destructively. Instead of using a scalpel, he used a hammer.  (Perhaps understandably so, since his “expertise” is overwhelming in real estate.  He even compared his recent agreement with North Korea to a real estate deal. Pay attention—this is going to cause serious problems.  On the one hand, real estate is seen as a longterm, tangible commodity, but the deals surrounding it are almost always short term, high profit affairs that seek a quick agreement so the parties involved can take their money and walk away as quickly as possible. Any longterm benefit goes to banks, and we’ve seen how well they manage such things.)

The average American has been under the idea that the last forty or fifty years of international trade dealings have been in favor of the rest of the world to our detriment. The basis of this belief is a holdover from the post-World War II period when we were actively trying to help rebuild a devastated world. We understood in our bones that if the imbalances of the 19th Century and the injustices of the post World War I era continued, we would be facing another calamitous war in the near future. In order to do avoid that calamity, certain international conditions had to change.

When engaging in this resulted in the economy of the 1950s and 1960s, no one complained. We had the technology, the labor pool, and the financial resources and it put millions to work at high paying jobs which many people came to believe would be the way things were going to be from now on. In reality, the perceived “loss” of American hegemony has been the result of our success. The world is today as it is because we were tremendously successful. But obviously that meant our relative status would change. As the world recovered and the global economy took shape, industries grew in places where they previously did not exist and in those places where they had, things became more efficient and productive. The novelty of imported automobiles in the 1960s, which were the brunt of jokes then, have now become part of the accepted, normal landscape, including factories for such cars being built and operated on American soil. For better or worse, the world is catching up, and consequently the American worker has been complaining about those “lost” jobs when by the end of the 1970s the proverbial writing was on many walls.

But as a country we adapted to the new conditions and the path forward has been made obvious—we will live in a global economy.

(An aside here. I write science fiction. One of the main conceits of SF for decades has been a global government and economy. Borders would become lines on maps, movement relat8vely unrestricted. We saw some of what this would look like in the EU. But in order to achieve that, some things must change, and one of them is the idea that any one country gets to be “in charge.” I think the erosion of that myth has been one of the drivers of the reaction that put Trump in office. Some Americans want to believe in American Exceptionalism. The idea that we might be just one of the club seems a step down, nationally. What they see in Trump—and what his performance at the G7 supports—is someone who is willing to validate their perceptions. The whole “Make American Great Again” appeal is far broader than the racial aspect (make America White again), which is part of it. It’s born out of an impression that there was a time we could do what we wanted and the rest of the world listened to us. Well, that was never fully or legitimately the case, and by the end of the 1970s everyone should have realized it. But comforting illusions are difficult to dismiss and when someone comes along willing to tell us that they aren’t illusions, that we can be that way, again or otherwise, reason takes a back seat to national pride.)

Unfortunately, most of our problems cannot be laid at the feet of international trade. Our problems are internal and Trump is doing nothing to address them. By now that should be clear. And these tariffs and his juvenile exhibition at the G7 will do far more harm than such fantasies of a Triumphant America cherished by our own strain of authoritarian absolutists could possibly be worth.

But the reason I intend to stop writing about Trump (and I admit I may have occasion to do so regardless) is that Trump is not the problem. He is representative of a point of view that is, intentionally or otherwise, wrongheaded and in many ways toxic. When arguing about him with his supporters, a curious thing happens. The conversation ends with the first criticism. Even in instances where the facts underlying the criticism are inarguable, the Trump supporter shuts down and will concede nothing. (If you could argue about the issue without ever naming him, you might find a different reception.) This has become the flip-side of Obama Derangement Syndrome. When you criticize Trump to a supporter (just as when you tried to defend Obama to a detractor), you really aren’t talking about Trump anymore—you’re talking about your conversant. At the first volley, they think they know who and what you are, walls descend, the conversation is over, because now it is tribal. You aren’t criticizing Trump in their minds, you’re criticizing them.

Trump is stomping on and tearing up agreements and damaging relationships which have taken, in some instances, 70 years to build, acting as he assumes his supporters want him to act. There is no regard for consequence because, after all, how will this hurt him? He has billions, he’ll be fine. He can shit all over our allies and throw hissy fits about trade and never miss a meal.

His cheerleaders with considerably less reserves will pay for all this.

But just consider one aspect of this performance. The idea that America is supposed to come out of this more respected, or more feared, is a pitiful ambition when by acting this way he is proving that America cannot be trusted. When we have to go to our allies (or former allies) and say “This needs to be done” they can, and probably will, say “Maybe, but not with you. We can’t depend on your keeping your word.”

There may have been ways to renegotiate some of these agreements to gain a bit. But not this way. These are playground tactics. All he is doing is destroying the confidence we really did once command from others.

But this isn’t really about Trump.  This is about the walking wounded who put him in office and still think he’s doing a great job, even as they lose what health care they had and see their last remaining jobs disappear because local companies go under, broken by the burden of higher costs for imports they can’t function without.  They put their faith in a Pied Piper and he’s leading them all to a cave which is about to collapse.

We will survive. America is a big place and there is much good here. In some very important ways, we are great and never stopped being so, just not in the blunt-force-trauma ways Trump supporters seem to want. But it should never have been this hard or this costly to get to the new condition we will have to embrace in order to live on this planet and do all the worthwhile things. It’s not 1955 anymore and it never will be again.

I hope we will be better.  We can be. But maybe we just have to molt, get rid of the old skin, and leave this nonsense behind.

In the meantime—vote. Help others to vote. If you don’t vote, you surrender you voice. None of this will work without participation. Vote.

 

Ol’ Time Deaf & Blind

Recently I had one of those exchanges which can be intensely frustrating, more so for the thoughtful participant than the antagonist, who often seems to feel that ramping up the frustration of the deponent constitutes a “win.” Never mind the substance of the argument.

It was over the question, now almost continually asked, “How can those self-proclaimed christians support Trump now that_____?”  Fill in the blank. Of course, most of these are rhetorical, “gotcha” memes that do not seem to really want an answer.  The answer is not all that complicated. A few weeks ago a friend of mine relieved me of the burden of trying to over-analyze the question by pointing out, in a marvelous example of applying Occam’s Razor, that the question assumes all the wrong things. They support him for the same reason anyone supports “their guy.”  They’re partisan.  There’s no mystery, it’s not rocket science, and we who might legitimately wonder about the conflation of theological militancy and dubious standard-bearers often jump down rabbit holes of historical, theological, and psychological analysis.  Much to the mirth, I imagine, of those we seek to understand.

For the majority of evangelical and/or fundamentalist supporters of our current president, this answer is more than sufficient. We who lean a bit more to the left do the same thing, albeit perhaps less dramatically, excusing lapses we may decry in our elected officials when they aren’t “our guys.” The simple fact is, purity of ideology and private life are chimeras not to be found. No one, on either side, will ever meet that standard and we are wasting our time and energy hoping for one.

(I’m not altogether sure I would trust someone who appeared to meet those criteria. I want my leaders human, thank you very much, warts and all. Saints tend to have or develop agendas that are eventually at odds with human needs and, if convinced of their specialness by undue popular acclaim, stop listening when they start acting on such beliefs.)

But there are a couple of instances where the question has ancillary aspects that drift back into the office of the analyst. One, the biggest possibly, has to do with the leaders of such groups who loudly conjoin a biblical spin with support. Of course, they’re ridiculous, but the problem is, people listen to them, and here we do see the source of the original question.  The answer remains the same—they are partisan and they have agendas, usually along the lines of condemning homosexuality, ending abortion, and bringing back some kind of Mosaic aesthetic to apply to civic and private life. This is as political as you can get, but they wrap it in the sugarcoating of “god’s will”and sell it along with the hundred dollar bibles. There’s no way to tell how many of their adherents actually act on their preachments and I believe they are in the minority, just very, very loud, but it cannot be denied that there is an element of perhaps very cynical theological redaction going on. How can they support this guy out of one side of their mouths when they claim to be christians out of the other? More to the point, when they make the argument that this is wrapped up with supporting their guy. As I said, like anyone else, they’re partisan and, like most people. they compartmentalize. How can they preach that this guy was chosen by the lord to do whatever it is he’s going to (presumably what they hope he will do) and gloss over the incompatibilities over things they would never hesitate to condemn someone who is not their guy for doing? Because they are opportunistic shams who are more worried about their own power an influence than anything genuinely christian.

Now a couple of things happen when I say something like that. The first is a lot of people assume I’m talking about them when I’m not.  The label has an unfortunate effect of categorizing people of many different philosophical and personal attributes into a single group. Just as terms like “conservative” or “liberal” do. We use these labels to define what we’re talking about at the moment, unfortunately casting too wide a net and causing defenses to rise where none are needed. One consequence of this is a lot of people will start making the “well, they’re not real christians” argument, distancing themselves. Since what we’re talking about has far more to do with political partisanship than actual religion, this is unfortunate, because it’s just one more wall between people.

What to do? If someone insists on self-identifying that way and then claiming they vote in accordance with that identity, how does one deal with it without acknowledging the problematic aspects of the issue?

If you start engaging with someone over these questions by delving into what the bible actually says and how it might not be what they think it is, you discover a couple of things right off the bat that makes it either a very short or a very frustrating encounter. Firstly, your conversant may not know thing one about what you’re talking about. They have not read the bible. Not all of it, not nearly enough of of it. (I am speaking now of averages; there will always be someone who does not fill this description.) At best they have studied the parts they’ve introduced to in church. After all, those are the “important” parts. Secondly, you run into the problem that this person probably, maybe, did not come to his or her belief by a reasoned process. Which is why when you start examining the bases of their belief, they are completely at sea, and react as if threatened. Because you are threatening them.

However and for whatever reason they have come to this place, they have staked their identity on this ground and to suggest it might be sand is very, very, very threatening.

It’s not your place to tell them they’re wrong.

The best you can do is offer—not impose—more information. Or walk away.

However, when someone steps up to willingly engage with you over this and makes a show of being open to dialogue, things change.

In the encounter I mentioned above, two things were thrown at me that I found no way to deal with effectively because they represent a mindset that a priori rejected my arguments. The first that I am “misguided” and the second that I am “rebelling against god,” which is the sole reason I fail to swallow his counterarguments.

I’ve written before about how I feel that those gentle busybodies who knock on your door to bring you the good word, without intending to, are very insulting. Because in order to presume to do that they have to make certain assumptions, one of which is that you must be stupid. That something  this important just never occurred to you to think about ever before. No, they do not consciously think this, but when confronted by someone who informs them that, no, I have considered all this and chosen a different path, they conclude that you either misunderstood something or you’re in league with the devil. The discourse runs aground on the shoals of mutual incomprehension because the places you’re arguing from are wildly divergent. If you stand your ground, I suspect they think you think they’re stupid. But at some level where space for being able to acknowledge the possibility of a different view should be, something else has filled it and communication is subsequently made far more difficult.

But the judgment that I am stupid is wrapped up in that “misguided.” Clearly, I am not getting something, which is so simple and so self-evidently true a child ought to pick up on it. Because, conversely, I can’t possibly have a worthwhile point. No, of course not. That would be impossible, since it appears to  contradict the convictions of your conversant. He didn’t seem to even register those points where I agreed with him (and there were) because I kept insisting, I suppose, that there were doctrinal problems with some of this. So I’m misguided.

And I am misguided because I’m rebelling against god. I have to be. The only reason I would argue along the lines I do is if I were angrily rejecting a god I know in my heart is really there. Because that’s the only way you can rebel against something, is by rejecting the authority of something real.

This is a fallback assumption, which is one of the reasons we see the logical absurdity that atheists worship Satan.  This is flung at us with no hint of irony.

The existence or nonexistence of god aside, this is a human inability to consider the possibility of Other Views. Even to dismiss them.

But I made the observation that, no, I am not in rebellion against god. If anything, I am in rebellion against people who insist that I’m misguided. I suppose this was ignored because, on some level, the notion that people and god can be separate in the sense that I meant is inconceivable. To be in rebellion against god’s messengers must de facto mean I’m rebelling against god.

Loops within loops.

So extract god from the core question and we come back to—they’re partisan.

(This is not, in fact, inconsistent with this brand of christianity. They are stuck in the Old Testament with all its punitive constraints and vengeance and parochial judgment. You can tell because they go all Levitical on you to defend their presumed moral superiority. Yahweh is a partisan god. Look at the jeremiads against “foreigners” and the instructions on how many of another people the Israelites ought to slaughter. He is a blood-soaked deity who has chosen a Side and promised to bless these people if they do what he says. This is partisanship.  It is not at all inconsistent, given the rhetoric about building walls, reinstating intolerances, banning programs that award benefits to people Yahweh would have had put to death. He’s their guy the way David was.)

I uttered two words that sent my opponent into eloquent condemnation—doubt and skepticism. Since he felt I was misguided, I realized he saw no utility in either of these, at least not when it came to religion.

This is not confined to religion. I want to stress this. The kind of filters in place I perceived are by no means an exclusive attribute of this view. Many people simply do not want or cannot manage to think everything through. It is perfectly human to want something, some core of philosophical reliability that goes without saying and need not be questioned. To believe is held up as a virtue. Whether it is or not, it seems to be a very human necessity. When that core is called into question…

But I would like to say this: you cannot be misguided if you are open to differing opinions and always on the hunt for questions that need answers. You can certainly wander down side roads, into cul-d-sacs, blind alleys, but if you’re still looking, it doesn’t trap you. You can only be misguided by a guide who does not have your interests in mind. Gurus, prophets, stump preachers, pseudoscientists, psychics, charlatans of all stripes who all share one thing—the desire to capture you into their scam (whether they feel it’s a scam or not) and make themselves feel “right” by the headcount in the hall.

And, really—you can’t be in rebellion against something you don’t believe exists. But then a lot of people find it difficult to separate out an idea from an actuality.

But as to how all those “good christians” can support Trump? Partisanship. They may or may not be good christians, but they are definitely dedicated partisans.

Immorality Sweeps The Land!

Roy Moore lost. In a state so Red it could be on Mars, Doug Jones squeaked into the win by 1.5%.

Moore is refusing to concede. In some quarters, this is seen as principle. In the civilized world, sour grapes. But delusional.

“Immorality is sweeping the land!”

Says a man who allegedly hit on teenagers when in his thirties, and then relies on a biblical defense, something about Mary only being 13 or some such nonsense, and the fact that he asked their parents.  Forgive me if I find that whole scenario simultaneously dubious AND extra-creepy.  (But there is in the South, and presumably other places, a whole cult of True Believers who groom their prepubescents for marriage by parading them in adult drag in front of potential husbands, so maybe. If that’s the crowd he’s drawing from, you have to ask what standard of morality he actually subscribes to, because it isn’t that of anyone I know, even among my conservative friends.)

His issues are, in no particular order, The Bible, homosexuality as national threat, and abortion.  As far as I could tell, he had no stance of his own on education (unless it relates to the Bible), economic growth (unless that remark about slavery counts), foreign policy, the budget, or anything else that may be relevant to actual people living today.

Now, if you want to discuss morality, we can start with that: the complete apparent disregard for any issue that might have any real impact on his potential constituency. Irresponsible?  Surely. But in one of the reddest of the red states, where economic conditions still lag and poverty is a profound problem, concentrating on non-issues and counting on that to win the day, with nothing in his tool box with which to address the present realities, strikes me as a sign of someone who has a badly skewed moral compass.  Added to that the allegations of sexual misconduct, his blatant bigotry, and his disregard for law (he was a state supreme court judge and somehow did not care that he was in violation of federal law over the decor on state property)—this is not someone I would trust to tell anyone what is or is not moral.

That he relied on the entrenched aversion of the voters to anything labeled Democrat to see him into office is also blatantly arrogant, especially knowing full well that his state is one of the most problematic in terms of voter suppression.

I am not well pleased that it seems to have been the sexual misconduct allegations that lost it for him.  Maybe it wasn’t, but I would be happier if I thought people had finally decided to look at the issues and judged him an inferior candidate on the merits.  It is telling that while it appears white women voted for him in a majority, when you tease apart evangelicals from a more secular group, only evangelical white women voted for him as a majority.  White women who are not all caught up in the religious balderdash that passes for political value voted predominantly against him.

While it is true that one should not equate intelligence with religious affiliation, it is difficult to avoid when you see this sort of thing. Blindness, of course, afflicts different people in different areas, but damn, we have to stop pandering to the evangelical vote this way.  This is not 4 B.C. and this country is not, despite the aggressive wishing of many people, a christian nation, not the way they mean it.

But have it your way.  I’ll take a little honest immorality over willfully ignorant moral posturing any day.

But that’s not what we’re seeing.  Every single issue Moore saw fit to blather about, at base, was about stripping away civil rights.  Period. Dress it up any way you like, he longs for the days of the mint julep on the veranda as the master gazes out upon his plantation-fiefdom. He wants people “in their proper place.”  He wants an aristocracy.  I find it telling that people like him believe the way to achieve it is through the religious beliefs of people are afraid of the future.

Moral leadership my ass.

The Persistence of Civilization

I wanted to get this down before the thoughts and feelings of yesterday fade and I start to over-intellectualize everything.

Civilization did not end yesterday. Just in case anyone failed to notice. Nibiru did not slam into the Earth as some predicted. We did not throw down to North Korea (yet). And there remains football.

And though here in my hometown, the local politics have of late been strained, to say the least, we are not descending into mindless brutality.

Let me offer the picture of two throngs of people gathered to make cultural statements.

Yesterday the first of what we all hope will be an annual event occurred in the Central West End of St. Louis.  Bookfest.  A section of one street was closed off, there were vendors on the street, a stage where live music was performed all day, and author events held in a number of local establishments. The whole thing got started Friday night with a presentation by Sherman Alexie at the Sheldon Theater in our theater district. It continued then with events for kids, teens, and adults of all ages, featuring over forty of the best writers currently working. Poets, novelists, essayists, we had them all.

And people came.

Hundreds. Venues were filled to listen, to partake, to soak in the rarefied and uplifting gestalt of written arts, performance, and conversation.

We unveiled a new commemorative statue in front of Left Bank Books to William S. Burroughs, completing the four-star authors corner which already included Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, and T.S. Eliot.

People came to hear writers talk about craft and content, tell stories, read from their work, engage in the carpentry of culture.

In other words, Making Civilization.

It was amazing.

In other parts of the metropolitan area, others gathered, as they have been gathering since last week, to protest injustice. The response has been considerably different, and some people see this as evidence of the end of our civilization. Maybe not totally, but protest to them is viewed as cracks in the dam, as if civilization is a pool that must be contained by thick walls and held in place, immobile. Immaculate.

I humbly suggest that the protests and our gathering to celebrate the literary arts are manifestations of the same work—making civilization.

Gathering decorously to listen to speakers and then sagely nod, basking in the gloaming of nuanced cultural expression is fundamentally part of angry protest condemning abuse of power and a demand for justice. You cannot, ultimately, have one without the other—that is, Civilization without Justice—and you can have neither of those if people will not show up to build them.

I participated in yesterday’s festivities, I was on the agenda as a writer, but I also work for Left Bank Books and spent a good part of the day doing the business of facilitating the events.  I am now adding what I can to the holism that must be felt and recognized in order for our civilization to grow and become better and richer.

It is easy to watch the news and perhaps think maybe fleeing to the country, stockpiling for the coming Dark Age, fearing the people two blocks over who we’ve never met are all rational responses to a process of inevitable decay.  It’s a very myopic response.  Because while the one goes on, the other things continue and grow and make us better. We are not one thing, even if  we are all in this together, and when someone says we have a right to assemble to buy books, listen to music, and enjoy the arts but not to condemn injustice, then a major truth is being overlooked.

Or never recognized in the first place.

I was part of the discussion on science fiction.  My copanelists—Charlies Jane Anders, Ann Leckie, Annalee Newitz—all spoke to the life-affirming, onward-building, ever-optimistic nature of science fiction, which says tomorrow Will Be and more often than not Will Be Better.  But it’s not just SF—it’s the fact that people came to drink from the font of art all day long. That people showed up who not only knew who Sherman Alexie is but also who William S. Burroughs was and who responded to the resonance we all create by the work we do.

The world is not going to end.  We’re in an awkward, in many ways ugly and incomprehensible period right now, but in the mix we have light and joy and deep connection.

Celebrate.

Observations On The Collapse of a Deal

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make some statements which may not be dependable. You are warned. I’m speculating.

But I want some optimism, so…

With the dismissal of Bannon, it is obvious—or should be—that there is no center to this administration. The Donald had no plans, no principles to defend, no competencies to bring to bear. From the beginning he was indulging in pure deal-making showmanship, and now that he has to deliver we see that the fine cloak of carnival hucksterism is draped over nothing. He is entirely about Making A Deal.  He thought that’s all he had to do, come into Washington and start wheeling and dealing as if the business of the nation was no more than a complex set of real estate negotiations that required someone who could sit down and negotiate a Deal. In his conception of that, though, you base your negotiating principles on bluff and managing to get one over on the other guy. As long as you come out ahead—however you conceive of that—you’re successful. The one thing that is de rigeur, though, is that nothing is to be allowed to get in the way of the Deal.

Not even your own biases.

So we see exactly how that works in practice with the dismal display over Charlottesville. Don’t take a side, you might have to make a Deal with those guys later.  If possible, make all positions roughly equal so that you somehow hold the upper hand.

This doesn’t work so well with people on the street and it works even worse with countries.  You try to make China look bad so you can deal on trade imbalances, but the rhetoric you choose makes it difficult to then ask for help when North Korea acts up.  And threatening North Korea as part of a bluff to get them to open up to deal doesn’t work with a leadership that thinks it has already won.

On a practical, domestic level, you make promises that require a lot of other people to sign on for without any kind of guidance on where to go with these promises, because, as a “master” dealmaker you know you can bait-and-switch.  You can get them into that turkey you’ve been wanting to unload if you can just get them to the table and pliant.  They either walk away with nothing or take your offer, and no one wants to walk away with nothing.  They do business with you now so they can do a better deal later.

It’s vacuous.

But an even deeper problem lies with the people who helped him into office.  We know them now, we can see what they are, and recognize the disregard and empty polemic and the class bias and the sheer disrespect they carry with them in lieu of an actual conscience.  They think everyone is just like them and when it turns out that they’re wrong they have nothing to fall back on.

Now, I suspect that had this bunch come into power in 2008 we would be in even worse trouble.  The country was on the ropes then, people were terrified, insecure, the economy was in a tailspin, and everyone was out to blame someone. We might have had a deeply serious  problem had this bunch gotten into power then.  They would be just as inept but we would have less confidence in our ability to challenge the obscenities.  The comparisons to Germany in 1932 are apt but they go only so far.  These folks are eight years and an economic recovery too late.

Oh, they can still do damage—they are doing damage.  But they’re doing more damage to themselves.

Bannon was dismissed because, somehow, he threatened the Deal.  Whatever the Deal might be.  The Deal is amorphous, unformed.  You throw things out there until something coalesces, then you recognize what it’s going to be, and you start arranging the furniture to make it happen.  But Bannon wasn’t interested in that.  He wanted to assert a position, he had a clear agenda.  Can’t have that and keep the Deal fluid. He was an unreliable negotiator.  His strategy, whatever it was, would have required his boss to give up options.  Can’t do that, the Deal isn’t shaped yet.  When he said the presidency he and the others fought for is over, that’s what he meant.  The goals he thought they were all going after are being traded for advantage, used as negotiating chips in some Deal.

It all has no center.  No substance.  It’s collapsing.  The scramble to make appearances count for reality is failing.

So my bit of optimism.  We’re going through a long-overdue purge.  It will be better.  All we have to do is vomit out the residue of old beliefs that, in most instances, only served to distract us from our darker selves.

It’s going to be all right.

Nazis In Our Midst

The events in Charlottesville  evoke for me the desolation that marred the American landscape in the late Sixties. Cities burned. Riots obliterated property, took lives, attempted by sheer physical exertion to assert a condition of identity too unformed and inarticulate in aggregate to mollify the majority of Americans. It burned itself out, exhausted, and with the end of the Vietnam War some years later and the appearance of normalization in relations between the races, it seemed the “long national nightmare” was over.

The complacency which followed has brought us to a condition of absurd desperation. Once more it is all too vast and amorphous to address as a whole, but I wish here to talk about one aspect that has fueled the present explosion of what too many of us believed smothered in our national psyché.

White Supremacy. Nazism.

The ignorant and frustrated attempting to turn back the ocean of maturity that has threatened their self-defining illusions have come out to protest the removal of a statue honoring Robert E. Lee, hero of the Confederacy. Heritage is used as an excuse, tradition as justification for the continued veneration of symbols which have little to recommend them other than the growing pains of a national moral conscience. The condemnation and dissolution of slavery in the United States was at the time long overdue and the defense of the institution on economic, biblical, even “scientific” grounds was a stain on the very founding principles of the country. How anyone could feel righteous defending on the one hand the liberty assumed by the words “all men are created equal” and then on the other chattel bondage enforced by the cruelest methods imaginable is testament to the unreliability of human intelligence poisoned by greed and fear. To look at it on its face, clearly the slaveholders of that time were the most dedicated Me Generation in modern history.

The attempts by latterday apologists to try to rewrite history to say that the South did what it did for other reasons than slavery is precisely the same as Holocaust Deniers attempting to mitigate the appalling behavior the the Nazi regime. To say that “It wasn’t so bad” is not much different than believing “those people had it coming.” To then go on and say they “had it coming” and then mitigate that by saying it wasn’t actually about that anyway is the sign of a mind in moral crisis that has given up on facing truth and reality.

To be clear: the South seceded in order to preserve slavery. Period. There were four formal declarations of secession outlining causes and each one of them privileges the right to maintain slavery as justification for leaving the Union. (Jefferson Davis, in a speech before congress in 1856, made it clear that he saw the preservation of “African slavery” as little less than a moral absolute.) Other articles of secession refer to these and give support and affirmation. But some of the language might be a bit complex for the obdurate revisionist to parse, so let’s look at something a bit sharper and to the point.

Vice President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens gave what is known as The Cornerstone Speech in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861. In it he laid out the principles of the new government. He said:

Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

It seems strange to read “slavery subordination” in the same paragraph with “moral truth.” But there it is. It cannot be swept away in a bit of philosophical or political legerdemain. Those people did what they did so they could hold millions of human beings in bondage. They wanted to keep slaves, to force human beings to give up or never have lives of their own.

More? He was laying out the foundation of the Confederacy and its political and philosophical bases. To whit:

The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.”

Stephens was a full-throated, hoary racist to his core. He was terrified of black people, of what they represented, what they might do, and the threat they posed to the white civilization he thought so highly of.

You can try if will to get around that, but it’s absolutely clear. It is as clear as Hitler’s statements about Jews. It is the product of a culturally-molded view that has been repudiated time and again and here we see, in our midst, these very views driving people to actions that border on the actions of the Secessionists, which were then and remain treasonous.

It might be argued that the context within which these men did what they did differed from ours and that would be fair. Lee refused Lincoln’s offer of overall command of the Union army because he did not see the United States as his country but Virginia. That was how he spoke of it, that is how many people of the day saw it. Which is why much of the nonslaveholding population of the South, even those who had some problems with slavery in principle, fought against the North, because they saw it as an invasion.

We don’t have that excuse. We have not thought of our individual states as separate countries since the Civil War ended, not in any concrete way. We know it’s not like that. (It wasn’t legally like that then, but disingenuousness goes hand in hand with self-justifications.)

So these rioting, frothing-at-the-mouth haters clamoring for the preservation of some safe space wherein they can maintain the small-minded, deformed illusions of a master race that will profit them by rewarding their inability to cope with reality or comprehend moral reasoning want us all to accept the revised view of a Lost Cause narrative that never existed. Something that will overlook their intrinsic inferiority as rational beings and privilege the things they never had to earn as qualifications to rule. “I’m white, I should be better than you!”

We are not obliged as a nation to help you maintain your delusions. We are not obliged as a people to stand by while you try to stand apart in order to throw stones at the things you don’t like. We as moral beings owe nothing to a past that aggrandized inhumanity in the name of tradition or heritage or states’ rights or—

Or White Superiority.

Which, we are beginning to learn, was never a real thing.

The South worked overtime to cover its existence in a patina of false chivalry as antidote to the poison in its own belly. The lie at the heart of every movie or book that romanticized Dixie is that gentility was ever its raîson detré. The captivity in which it held its slaves was echoed in the straitjacket in which it dressed its “society” with its balls and belles and rituals of modern-day cavaliers. And later the stranglehold it maintained on the working class, with sharecropping the most visible form, in an attempt to revive the aristocratic presumptions of the plantation system, so that some mock nobility could exist on the backs of people with no viable way out of their bondage was no more than the refusal of former slaveholders and sons of slaveholders to hold on to the shards of an imagined life of leisure and grace that only ever existed by virtue of the spilled blood and broken bones of human beings who never had any say in their lives.

Robert E. Lee in the end was granted pardon by the expedient wisdom of victors who sought only to end the bloodshed and knew if they dealt with him and the others as they deserved under the law there would have been years more of senseless fighting. The man owned human beings. You may try to dress that up any way you wish, but that is a horrible thing. He and the others who fomented rebellion in order to maintain a system steeped in a depravity that required the worst aspects of human brutality to persist.

And the excuse they used was the argument of Negro Inferiority.

Now today we see people who have been raised with a painfully redacted version of the Lost Cause and are also incapable of dealing with those who do not look like them taking to the streets and the voting booth to try to force their intolerance on the rest of us. They themselves lack the integrity, the intellectual weight, and the moral substance to be equal to the challenges of their own shortcomings and deal with the world around them with any constructive resolve. They perceive opportunities being handed to people they cannot accept as equals and rather than look at themselves and try to come to terms with what they do not possess, they seek advantage by intimidation, by violence, by brute assertions of privilege mistaken as rights. They have raised the specter of Naziism in our midst because they sense if not recognize their obsolescence. If this is all the support that will come to defense of a statue, then it is perhaps right that the statue be removed.

But this deserves no defense. Yes, they have a right to express their opinion, but that right does not extend to forcing the rest of us to tolerate their demands on how that opinion is expressed.

Human beings must not be held in bondage. This is a truth.

The South committed treason when those states seceded and took up arms against the Union. That is also a truth.

They did so not out of some rarefied position on states’ rights and misunderstanding over the nature of the union they had all agreed to join and ratified in the constitution. They did so to maintain their labor pool and property values, no matter how hideous the conditions or immoral the institution. That deserves no respect on any level.

There is no valid argument for any present-day defense of those times, that philosophy, or the so-called traditions descended from them. The mob that showed up to protest the removal of a statue glorifying an era of horrific pain and suffering based on the indignity of human subjugation may know something of that history. Or they may not. In either case, that history is knowable.

The foundations of Southern thinking were then desperately elitist, terrified of losing the throne of superiority not only to those they considered their racial inferiors but to any and all that did not meet their standards. This quote from the Muscogee Herald, an Alabama newspaper, in 1856:

Free Society! we sicken at the name. What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists? All the Northern men and especially the New England States are devoid of society fitted for well-bred gentlemen. The prevailing class one meet with is that of mechanics struggling to be genteel, and small farmers who do their own drudgery, and yet are hardly fit for association with a Southern gentleman’s body servant. This is your free society which Northern hordes are trying to extend into Kansas.

There is in the stunted soul of a Nazi and inability to cope with equality of any sort. The Nazis of Germany in the 1930s till the end of the war were, to their core, thieves, moral cowards, and perpetually incapable of recognizing the humanity in anything. They erected a state based on pillage and called it great. They sought a conformism of mind impossible to achieve not only because they lacked any grasp of human nature but because their standards were paper-thin, devoid of substance, and necessitated the virtual lobotimization of imagination.

We must confront and reject this intractable belief that anyone is intrinsically better than anyone else that lies at the center of the White Supremacist movement. At the end of the day, no one can be allowed freedom in the face of the amalgamated mediocrity of a mind that demands an inferiority in others in order to feel that it is safe to get out of bed in the morning and face a day everyone has the same right to enjoy. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that a civilization cannot survive the successful expression of the politics that inevitably emerge from such unadmitted terror as that harbored by those who ascribe to such movements and accept as “natural” such inhuman beliefs.

Enough.

A Chronic State of Nostaligic Disconnect

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?

Perceptual Drift

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.

Your Money

Richard Cordray, head of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, was interrogated on Capitol Hill by Republicans who want to shut his agency down. The agency was set up under Obama. Originally, it was to be run by Elizabeth Warren, but she received such violent resistance that she stepped aside, making way for Cordray, and then ran for the Senate, where she has been a burr under the GOP saddle ever. They might have been better off, by their own thinking, to leave her alone, but thinking long term doesn’t seem to be their chief strength.

You might ask why the CFPB is the target of so much bile. If you really don’t know, then you’ve never been strapped for money, in need of a loan, and then taken advantage of by a lender with all the morals of a Glyptapanteles. The CFPB stands in the way of banks picking pockets.

No, really, it’s that simple.

Back in the 1980s, we were thinking about buying a house. We went to our then bank to get pre-approved. Good to know what you can bring to the table when it comes time to actually buy. We sat with a lending officer who crunched our numbers and announced how much we qualified for. Both of us swallowed audibly. It was an absurd figure. I did some quick math and laughed.

“You’re joking,” I said.

“No,” he said. “This is was you qualify for.”

“But we can’t afford that.”

“Sure you can.”

“Not and continue to eat.” I then laid out our budgeting constraints for utilities, food, insurance premiums, and so forth. At the end of the month, we were shy the amount he had just given us and not by a small amount.

“That’s not our concern,” he said. “According to us, you can pay this much. How you manage the rest is up to you.”

We were appalled. I stopped short of telling him that was unethical to say the least, because I realized that according to him he was being ethical. He didn’t lie about anything—not technically, at least.  But the tables and formulae he used to arrive at his figures were industry standard. He was following the rules. It was entirely up to us to take him up on it.

But when you consider how innumerate people are and how little many of them understand about finance, added to the unadorned desire to own a home, you can see how being told by someone in authority—a banker—that you can afford the house of your dreams will roll right over any prudent misgivings you might have but cannot quantify.  This is what led to the 2008 meltdown—bad loans, made with the full awareness that many of the people taking them could not sustain them. Add to innumeracy the widespread illiteracy among the most vulnerable demographic groups—illiterate not in the sense that they cannot read a sentence, but in that they do not know how to comprehend complex writing—and you have a recipe for abuse.

Which is what happened.

The CFPB was established as a bulwark against such abuse. A barrier between banks that frankly don’t give a shit about people as other than ledger entries and people who are ill-equipped to defend themselves.  And really should not have to. We’re supposed to be a country of laws, but in the last few decades it seems that any law keeping a banker from your money is bypassed, repealed, set aside, ignored, or smashed into useless pulp by people who for no reason they seem willing or able to explain claim to be doing this “for the people.”

(To be fair, there were many people in lending at low to mid-level who knew this was going to be bad, some even tried to avert some of it, tried to act responsibly, and were told by higher ups to just make the loans. Many quit their jobs, unwilling to screw their customers, others were fired for being moral actors, a lot just shrugged and went ahead, because after all they had their own situations in need of tending.)

Now, if you, Representative Consumer, have a major case of the Wants and go to a bank to get a loan to satisfy it, and the bank says no, according to these guys over here (the CFPB or some similar agency) we can’t make those kinds of loans to people “like you” and you get annoyed because you still have your case of Wants, you might want to consider that you just can’t afford it. And if you do get that loan, eventually you may default and that will hurt other people.  If enough of you say be damned to “afford” and force the lending institutions to hand over the loans whether you can afford them or not, and most of you default, well, a lot of bad shit happens. (In reality, though, no one had to force the banks to do anything, because the real money was being made on bundling—part of the whole credit default swaps thing that even insiders had a hard time understanding—and it never mattered if anyone could “afford” their mortgage, it only mattered that they had one that could be bundled and sold with thousands of others.  Small banks got hurt, homeowners got hurt, but the major financial institutions made out, as they say, like bandits.)

So when critics of regulation claim that the 2008 crisis was really the fault of the people receiving those loans, they have a point.  Not much of one, but enough that it can’t be ignored.  But that point is like pretending one tree is a forest.  (Even so, if that one tree catches fire…)

When people who should know better—and do, actually—oppose regulations to keep you from being abused by a system that has no regard for your dreams or your situation, you should be very angry with those people.  You shouldn’t be voting them back into office.  They are not on your side.  They see you as sheep and they want to make it easier for you to get sheared.

Because those loans were not made in good faith. Those loans were bait. Those loans were made to be swallowed so all the rest of your money could be reeled in. Once you made one of those loans, your money ceased to be your money—for a long time.

We might debate that things are not that simple, but let’s be honest—they are that simple. A banker tells someone they can afford a loan that will consume up to 70% of their monthly income—or more—and if you don’t have the savvy to know you’re being suckered, while it may technically be your responsibility when you go ahead and take those terms, we all know an agreement based on a lie is in no one’s best interest.  Lie?  It depends on how you interpret “afford.”  If one side of the discussion is depending on the vagaries of language to get in the other side’s pocket, the result is dishonest.

Why are so many people so willing to be had?