Singing songs and carrying signs

17 01 2017

My Congressional representative, Yvette Clarke, is not attending the inaugural. Yay!

My senators, Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, are attending. And that’s fine, too.

I have, over the years (decades. . .) come to appreciate the importance of institutional norms and of the necessity of recognizing the peaceful transfer of power. That a nation is able to vote out leaders and peacefully replace them is an accomplishment.

That’s why I’m fine with my senators attending the inauguration. But why then cheer Rep. Clarke?

Because the President-elect has no interest in institutional norms, has stated his disdain for the notion of a peaceful transfer of power when the voting citizenry elected someone he didn’t like, and has barely acknowledged that he is, in fact, the president-elect of the entire nation, not just the minority that voted for him.

Regular folks (i.e., non-political scientists) are often frustrated by what they see as the hypocrisy of politicians—the paeans to “my dear colleague” in the Senate, the inclusion of members in the opposite party in the Cabinet, a partisan president vowing to rule for all of the people, etc.—but these gestures matter. They are way of saying politics isn’t war, and we are not enemies.

That matters. A lot.

So some Democrats will attend the inauguration to uphold the principle that we, however fractious, are a people, and we honor the institutions by which we are so constituted, and some will boycott to uphold that same principle.

That seems about right.





No time for dancing, or lovey dovey

10 01 2017

I’ve never been accused of optimism.

Well, okay, I was a happy happy kid, likely to believe that the Good will out, but nothing like a bout of life to kick the stuffing out of such positivity.

That said, I do think part of our political resistance ought to have nothing to do with politics at all, that it is not enough just to resist: we must celebrate the Good in the world. There should be dancing, and lovey-dovey: We want bread and roses, too.

~~~

In my piece on Modernity’s Ideologies I divided the response to the historical moment, Modernity, into particular worldviews (Liberalism, Totalitarianism, and Reaction), and extend the various ideologies out from those worldviews.

This can lead to a bit of confusion, insofar as I identify both Liberalism as a worldview, and liberalism as one of its ideologies. I’ve considered changing Liberalism to, say, Pluralism (which would then contrast nicely to Totalitarianism), but I think the term as I mean to use it is so entrenched in political theory that switching it up might simply lead to greater confusion. (I still might be convinced otherwise, but at this point, I’ve stuck myself with Liberalism and liberalism.)

What does this have to do with anything? Well, Liberalism can itself contain and tolerate a variety of illiberal elements, but its ideologies (liberalism, conservatism, and reform socialism) will generally seek to uphold and even further a Liberal worldview, even as they may, at times, be used to further what its opponents might argue are illiberal goals.

See, for example, disputes over whether business must serve all customers or if they may choose to turn some away. Those in favor of serve-all refer to principles of equality and justice, while those against might call on individual liberty and, yes, justice as well. These partisans are using Liberal values to advance/defend their particular ideology.

Now, various disputes about campus activists, safe spaces, trigger warnings, etc., often bounce back and forth between worldview and ideology, and often in ways which obscure the level at which the dispute is taking place. So, for example, someone like Jonathan Chait or Mark Lilla might chastise those campus activists as behaving illiberally, when it seems their real beef is that they appear to be acting against pluralism and tolerance, i.e., against Liberalism.

I’m not convinced of this, not least because I think Liberalism can also contain fierce partisanship and passionate, intemperate, even intolerant argument. I think, for example, that instead of smacking the activists as bad Liberals (which they probably could give a shit about, anyway), the tut-tutters should engage the argument at the level of ideology—by which I mean, actually engage the fucking argument instead of dismissing it as impolitic.

In other words, while I do think it’s necessary for liberals (and conservatives and reform socialists) to defend Liberalism, I also think that liberals (and conservatives and reform socialists) and anyone else gets to fight for what their version of the Good, and to do so without apology. If you disagree, fight back.

That, I would argue, is a great way to defend Liberalism.

~~~

But let’s get back to the fighting-for: we need to do more of this, without apology. I don’t mean nastily or triumphantly, but sincerely (jesus, did I just write that?) and profoundly and yes, even giddily.

As a bread-and-roses socialist, I want more dancing, more music, more art, more celebration of all we could possibly be. These are good, and part of the Good of human life.

This celebration needs a political grounding and goes beyond it—and in so doing, helps to justify the grounding itself. Liberal politics are often criticized—I’ve often criticized it—as deracinated, worn-out, and in its pure-procedural form, it is; but Liberalism is not just proceduralism, it’s also about possibility, an openness to what we can’t yet see. It’s about something more.

So let’s claim that, that openness and art and possibility, without apology.

I don’t want to reduce all of life to politics—too totalizing—nor demand that all celebrations celebrate all things—again, too totalizing. But when we have the chance to say, This is good, this song, this movie, this dance, is good, let’s take it.

When we have the chance to dance, let’s take it.





It’s another round in the losing fight

6 01 2017

Yet again.

John Mellencamp might have seemed the go-to guy for the title of this post, but there’s something about Emmylou’s weariness that seemed more appropriate.

Anyway. Native Iowan and newsman Robert Leonard writes (in the Times, natch) about how the hard-working, conservative, Christian folk of rural Iowa view those of us beyond the cornfields:

They are part of a growing movement in rural America that immerses many young people in a culture — not just conservative news outlets but also home and church environments — that emphasizes contemporary conservative values. It views liberals as loathsome, misinformed and weak, even dangerous.

He goes on to note that these rural folk may be alienated not just from the fabled coasts, but the cities in their own states.

Overwhelmingly the blue counties are along waterways, where early river transportation encouraged the formation of cities, and surround state capitals. This is also where most investment in infrastructure and services is made. Rural Americans recognize that this is how it must be, as the cities are where most of the people are, yet it’s a sore spot.

Rural roads are crumbling, he notes, while lawmakers spend money to shave “a few seconds off a city dweller’s commute to his office”, where firefighters and EMTs are volunteers, and local police go begging.

Do note he offers no stats to back up these assertions, no graphs on spending patterns, nothing on relative need. He sees the potholes in the two-lane no-shoulder highways cutting through the fields, but not, apparently, in the on-ramps to the cities. “In this view, blue counties are where most of our tax dollars are spent, and that’s where all of our laws are written and passed.”

Note that he prefaces this with “In this view,” which suggests that the view and the reality may not match up, where, in fact, it’s likely that the view and the reality don’t match up. More money overall may be spent in cities, yes, but it is also the case generally (with some exceptions) that more money per capita is spent in low- versus  high-population areas.

That said, that perception that rural folks are getting jobbed is not uncommon. Hell, I remember as a kid watching the news out of Milwaukee and wondering Why don’t they say anything about what’s happening in Sheboygan Falls? We matter, too!

Of course, little newsworthy happened in Falls, then or now. Again, there are exceptions, usually when something terrible happens, as when a child died in a house fire trying to rescue her younger siblings (two of whom also died), but most of what happens in Falls is like most of what happens in Milwaukee: not newsworthy. It’s just that if the newsworthy only happens to 1 of 20,000 people, well, you’ll have more to talk about in places of 200,000 than in 8,000.

I knew that, even then, but resentment does not always welcome reason.

And it is true that services are more scattershot in rural areas (and I should note that Sheb Falls is not super-rural: Sheboygan is only a few miles away, and Milwaukee, less than an hour). There is no hospital in Falls, no paramedics, and the fire department is, indeed, staffed by volunteers—one of whom is my brother (who has also trained as a first responder). When I was in high school, a kid in my brother’s class, who lived out in the country, was slammed in the chest by a piece of farm equipment; the ambulance took, I dunno, half hour? 45 minutes? to get there. Too late, and Rocky died.

In New York City, a fire call that takes more than 10 minutes to answer is a scandal.

So , yes, low-population areas are less blanketed by visible services than high-pop areas, and in ways that do harm those in the low-pop areas. Leonard isn’t wrong when he notes “If I have a serious heart attack at home, I’ll be cold to the touch by the time the volunteer ambulance crew from a town 22 miles away gets here.”

But it is also true that low-pop areas are nonetheless serviced. Farmers are subsidized, as are roads and bridges, by urbanites in both the home states and elsewhere. And, of course, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, along with mortgage tax deductions flow to people everywhere—although this is not always noticed. And those few who do still farm rely on those of us in the cities, or other parts of the world, to buy their products.

This country is highly politically polarized right now (although not, perhaps, for the reasons pointed out by JC Watts), but we are also tied together in all kinds of ways. The farmers need someone to buy their food, and the land-grant universities across the nation have performed research which has greatly increased agricultural productivity. And New York and LA and Chicago and Houston and DC are crowded with residents who moved there from those small towns.

Leonard notes that this movement into the cities contributes to the resentment by rural of urban folk, but doesn’t consider how this complicates the simply rural/urban narrative he outlines. I don’t live in Falls, will never again live in Falls, but I talk regularly to family and friends who still live in the area, and I plan on going back for visits for as long as I’m alive.

And, it should be admitted, hard feelings also run outward from city centers. I couldn’t wait to leave Falls, and for years and years I resented “having” to return. Yes, there were other things going on, but I flat-out disparaged my childhood town long after I left it. I’m now long over that, and enjoy my visits home—it’s still home, even decades after it’s been home—but I’d bet that not a few of my fellow Brooklynites have been happy to leave their small towns behind.

What does this all mean? I don’t know. I think that at least some of us should pay attention to the perceptions of those in rural areas, if only to figure out how to deal with it. But if I as a city-dweller am asked to consider the complexities of life in the outer boroughs (jk!) of America, then it seems only fair to ask for a similar consideration.

Folks in the boonies don’t want to be dismissed. That’s understandable. Neither do folks in the cities.





They’ll think that white hood’s all they need

6 01 2017

So, waaaay back in 2013 I wrote this:

So I’ve been turning over this thought in my head about the whiteness of the GOP and arguments (click here for a Crooked Timber post that has the various relevant links) that Republicans don’t have to worry about being the party of the pasty.

I think they do.

I don’t have this all worked out, but it seems that in order for the GOP to be the White Party they’re going to have to entice voters based on their whiteness, and I don’t know how many folks think of themselves primarily as white.

This is the crumbling underside of the default standard of white: regular [i.e., non-academic, non-race-politicized] white folks haven’t had to think about their whiteness. To bring them to you, you first have to bring them to their whiteness, convince them that their whiteness ought to be their primary concern, then further convince them that their candidates will do the most to preserve their white privilege.

Yes, whitey-first appeals have worked and will continue to work in a number of districts, but I don’t see how this appeal can be expanded, largely because I don’t know how much white folks who aren’t already racialists really want to be racialists. I think white-first appeals would turn them off, maybe make them less likely to vote Republican.

Most Americans don’t want to think of themselves as racists—even the racists don’t want to be seen as racists—and aren’t in a hurry to separate themselves (in their imaginations, at least, if not always in practice) from their fellow Americans. We’re not always large, but an awful lot of us aspire to be.

I don’t know, I’m probably talking out of my nose. It just seems like  focus-on-the-whites is a losing proposition with many of those very same whites.

Boy o boy, was that wrong. Mostly.

I was clearly wrong about the appeal of whitey-first (and what was up with my use of “racialist”?)—horribly, painfully wrong. Whatever votes Republicans may have lost prior to 2016 may be traced less to their appeals to whiteness than the covertness of those appeals: make it explicit, and you win.

Maybe.

But at the risk of being wrong yet again, I do think I got one thing right back then: I still don’t believe most white people want to think of themselves as racist.

Are many of them (us) racist? You bet! Do we want to be called racist? HELL NO.

As has been pointed out by just about every black and brown (and a few white) political commentators, calling a white person “racist” is about the worst thing you can do. Even people who post pictures of a Klan member and caption it with I’m dreaming of a white Christmas don’t want to be called racist.

Not that this is much a wedge between the enthusiastic racist and those tolerant of the enthusiasts (the racist-adjacent?), nor even a slender reed. More like an onion skin, and about as strong.

But there is a gap, however thin. And that unwillingness to claim racism gives those of us committed to anti-racism something to grab on to, to try to peel those people away from a tolerance of racism.

It’ll be damnably difficult. Many people think racism is bad, think of themselves as good, and in so doing, deny that they themselves are racist. They—we—take the accusation of racism personally, which creates both the incentive for denial and the chance to say I get it, you think of yourself as a decent person, so how about acting like it?

Trying to reverse an upside-down virtue ethics is not enough, of course: it won’t wipe out systemic racism or uproot the white supremacy entangled in the history of this nation, but I do think if you give people an out, if you tell them, You don’t have to be racist, and give them ways to fight against it—to act decently—then maybe, maybe, some of them will say, Huh, that might be worth doing.

I am not, of course, optimistic, and I don’t much hope, but nothing happens on its own. Tolerance for racism will not disappear on its own.

This is a task for anti-racist whites. As I noted on Twitter, people of color have had to carry the burden of racism for far too long, and for far too long, (thinking-of-themourselves-as-) non-racist white people have considered it enough not actively to have added to that burden. We thought non-racism enough. For too many us—and you betcha I include myself in this group—the fight has been optional.

No more: to be truly anti-racist, the fight must be seen as necessary. And this piece of the fight, confronting whites who are comfortable enough with racism, is our (white) burden, my burden.

I’m sorry it took a kick in the head, i.e., Trump’s election, to see this.





We do what we’re told, told to do

4 01 2017

Downfall was very satisfying.

Like every other person with an internet connection, I’d seen all of the dubbed parodies of Bruno Ganz’s Hitler in the bunker, but not until tonight did I finally watch the real (well, as-filmed) scene.

There are a fair number of things which I am just not in the mood for, namely, anything in which women have to put up with shit or where shitty people are coddled, and I don’t know that I could deal with even a really good noir flick in which the good are vanquished.

I want the shitty people vanquished, and, really, there are few people shittier than Nazis.

That said, it was discomfitting having some sympathy for Traudl Junge, Hitler’s young secretary. No, she didn’t kill anyone, but she was excited to work for a man who had dragged Germany and much of Europe into an inferno, and stayed with him to his end. That later in life she came to see that she willed her own ignorance does not erase her responsibility for that will. You can’t volunteer to work for Hitler and come away innocent.

Anyway, Ganz was terrific as Hitler, and if he seems histrionic in the role that is likely because by all accounts that’s how Hitler was in life. Ulrich Matthes, who played Goebbels, didn’t really look like him, but he captured his weaselly-ness; Corinna Harfouch, as Magda Goebbels, also doesn’t much resemble her character, but she was magnificent in her fanaticism.

And while I don’t know if it was only Magda who killed their six children, as was portrayed in the film, it seemed fitting that Joseph is depicted as shirking this duty, and thus deserving of her contempt.

Some critics thought the film too sympathetic toward its characters, and there’s something to that: Junge, Schenk, Haase, and Mohnke each come across, in her or his own way, as not thoroughly corrupted. Speer, on the other hand, seems appropriately self-interested, and Eva Braun, as determinedly frivolous. I did feel bad when Blondi the dog was killed.

But I don’t know that there’s much danger of the film’s distorting Hitler’s, for lack of a better word, reputation. If you don’t know much about him or the war, you’d probably find Downfall boring and not worth the two-and-a-half hours it takes to get through those last 10 days of Hitler’s life: as good as Ganz’s performance is, it won’t resonate if you know little about what had happened outside of and before the bunker.

And if you do, and you come away saddened at Hitler’s and the regime’s end, then Jesus Christ you are a terrible (or, at best, a terribly deluded) person and I’d prefer it if you never read my blog again.

As for me, I had some sympathy for the German women (knowing what the Soviets would soon do to them), but was otherwise, as mentioned, thoroughly satisfied by the Nazi downfall.





There are other ways of establishing authority

2 01 2017

Trump = Hitler? Nah.

Trump = Kaiser Wilhelm II? Hmmm. . . .

Consider:

From Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers:

Like Nicholas II, Wilhelm frequently—especially in the early years of his reign—bypassed his responsible ministers by consulting with ‘favourites’, encouraged factional strife in order to undermine the unity of government, and expounded views that had not been cleared with the relevant ministers or were at odds with prevailing policy. (p. 178)

More:

The Kaiser picked up ideas, enthused over them, grew bored or discouraged, and dropped them again. He was angry with the Russian Tsar one week, but infatuated with him the next. (p. 180)

We’ve yet to see the angry part, but it’s coming.

Wilhelm wasn’t content to fire off notes and marginalia to his ministers, he also broached his ideas directly to the representatives of foreign powers. Sometimes his interventions opposed the direction of official policy, sometimes they endorsed it; sometimes they overshot the mark to arrive at a grown overdrawn parody of the official view.  …

It was precisely because of episodes like this that Wilhelm’s ministers sought to keep him at one removed from the actual decision-making process. (pp. 180-81)

Not that those ministers’ decisions were always that great, either, but let’s see how much Trump’s advisers seek to, ah, shield him from having to make certain decisions.

It was one of this Kaiser’s many peculiarities that he was completely unable to calibrate his behaviour to the contexts in which his high office obliged him to operate. Too often he spoke not like a monarch, but like an over-excited teenager giving free rein to his current preoccupations.

Heh.

And Clark is rather more temperate in his assessment of the last Kaiser than either Barbara Tuchman or Margaret MacMillan. Tuchman portrays him less the ‘over-excited teenager’ than petulance personified; in The Guns of August she notes

Envy of the older nations gnawed at him. He complained to Theodore Roosevelt that the English nobility on continental tours never visited Berlin but always went to Paris. He felt unappreciated. “All the long years of my reign,” he told the King of Italy, “my colleagues, the Monarchs of Europe, have paid no attention to what I have to say. Soon, with my great Navy to endorse my words, they will be more respectful.” (p. 6)

Like Clark, Tuchman observes a preference for aggressive words over aggressive actions:

He wanted greater power, greater prestige, above all more authority in the world’s affairs for Germany but he preferred to obtain them by frightening rather than by fighting other nations. He wanted the gladiator’s rewards without the battle, and whenever the prospect of battle came too close, as at Algeciras and Agadir, he shrank. (p. 75)

The Kaiser was also unhappy when his diplomacy/bullying didn’t work, peeved at the Belgians for their unwillingness to be peacefully invaded, and outraged at the English’s willingness to take up arms against him:

The Kaiser, in one of the least profound of all comments on the war, lamented: “To think that George and Nicky should have played me false! If my grandmother had been alive she would never have allowed it.” (p. 130)

Trump and the Kaiser also share an overestimation of their own abilities: “I need no chief,” said the Kaiser; “I can do this for myself.” (p. 331)

MacMillan most savors her roasting of the Kaiser, titling her chapter on him in The War That Ended Peace with the quote “Woe to the Country That Has a Child for King!”, but also giving him his due as an intelligent, earnest man whose position meant that his passions were never disciplined.

Wilhelm had a tendency, largely unchecked because of who he was, to know it all. He told his uncle, Edward, how the British should conduct the Boer War and sent sketches for battleships to his Navy Office. (He also gave the British navy much unsolicited advice.) He told conductors how to conduct and painters how to paint. As Edward said unkindly, he was “the most brilliant failure in history.”

He did not like being contradicted and did his best to avoid those who disagreed with him or wanted to give him unwelcome news. As the diplomat Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter said to Holstein in 1891, “He just talks himself into an opinion. . . .Anyone in favor of it is quoted as an authority; anyone who differs from it ‘is being fooled.'” (p. 66)

To be fair, a fair number of us tend toward that last particular bias.

The Kaiser, as the Eulenburg case so clearly demonstrated, was not perceptive when it came to character. Nor was he good at understanding the point of view of others. Eulenburg himself, possibly the Kaiser’s closest friend and one who loved him for himself, wrote in 1903: “H.M. sees and judges all things and all men purely from his personal standpoint. Objectivity is lost and subjectivity rides on a biting and stamping stallion.” He was always quick to feel affronted but frequently insulted others. (p. 68)

More:

Wilhelm was both lazy and incapable of concentrating on anything for long. Bismarck compared him to a balloon: “If you don’t keep fast hold the string, you never know where he’ll be off to.” Although he complained about how overworked he was, Wilhelm cut back significantly on the regular schedule of interviews with military chiefs, Chancellor and ministers which his grandfather had faithfully maintained. Some ministers saw him only once or twice a year. Many grumbled even so that the Kaiser was inattentive and complained if their reports were too long. He refused to read newspapers and tossed long documents aside in irritation. Although he insisted he would be responsible for the annual fleet maneuvers of his new navy, he lost his temper when he found he was expected to consult with his officers and work out the details: “To hell with it! I am the Supreme War Lord. I do not decide. I command.” (p. 76)

I do not decide. I command.

This goes on, as do all of these brief bios of the Kaiser—and I should not that I have yet not gotten hold of JCG Rohl’s highly regarded work on Wilhelm II—to offer up example after example of his self-regard, his insecurities, his bloviations, and his sincere belief in himself as a great leader and Germany as deserving of its place on the center stage of the world.

Two further things: One, it does seem that the Kaiser was sincere and not cynical, and that, perhaps, it might have been better had he been a bit more of the latter. He sought aggrandizement, yes, but as always tied to Germany. He may have been terribly wrong in his judgements, but there remained in Wilhelm II a naïveté that lends a kind of pathos to the man himself.

I see little sincerity in Trump, and if America is somehow not made great again, he will blame us for having failed him.

That said, whatever human frailties both men exhibit, they are unable to take them into account. They see themselves as masters whom others must serve, reserve the best judgements to themselves, and seem quite incapable of seeing others (whether as people or as nations) as having their own legitimate interests. They do recognize the interests of others, but solely in terms of their own interests, such that when they conflict, those others become enemies.  They dismiss complexity and the views of any which do not align with their own. The world exists for them, and to the extent the world does not agree, all the worse for the world.

Two, even after laying out these similarities, it must, however, be admitted that this kind of comparison is too easy. With so much information on both men, all it takes to make a comparison is to pull out those bits which, on the surface, appear the same. Whatever qualities these two men share are likely shared by other leaders, and their dissimilarities are easily trivialized. That I can not-implausibly write Donald=Wilhelm doesn’t make it so.

Still, there is that not-implausibility. I tweeted about this originally as a lark, a way to amuse myself on a December night, but whatever the caveats, I think a line can be drawn between Queen Victoria’s grandson and Fred Trump’s Queens-born son.

Not that there’s much comfort to be drawn from this. No, Trump’s not Hitler and his regime will not be a Nazi regime, but his authoritarian impulses—which, in an impulsive man, are rather worrying—can lead to an incredible amount of damage.

As the memorials across Europe can attest.





It’s that little souvenir, of a terrible year

31 12 2016

This lyric has been trundling though my head the past few months. . .

I wonder why.

As for what comes next, well. No way out, but through.

Let’s hang on to each other in the meantime.