Tag Archives: america

Post-Election Blues, First Riffs

9 Nov

In the 19th century the Morris Canal moved coal from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley to northern New Jersey and terminated in the Hudson River in Jersey City, just across from Lower Manhattan. It carried iron ore westward from the Hudson to Pennsylvania. Not so long ago there was a small industrial building near the mouth of the canal. It was abandoned and falling apart, but had attracted the work of a roving crew of graffiti writers in and around North Jersey and NYC. In May of 2014 I snapped this photo there:

IMGP6464

Consider it a metaphor for the current state of America, this November 9, 2018, the day after Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton for the Presidency. Those who won, those who lost, all of us, heartache – in some measure.

* * * * *

From Donald Trump’s Victory Speech:

I’ve just received a call from Secretary Clinton. She congratulated us. It’s about us. On our victory, and I congratulated her and her family on a very, very hard-fought campaign.

I mean, she fought very hard. Hillary has worked very long and very hard over a long period of time, and we owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country.

I mean that very sincerely. Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division, have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people.

* * * * *

* * * * *

David Porush–my old grad-school buddy, Trumposaurus Rex, Act 2: Why our psychopathology will elect the next president:

Trump narcissism, boasting, outrage, whining, lying, insulting, shouting, bullying charm is catnip for the media. But incredibly, they don’t understand the business they’re in. They think they’re dissecting his actions and informing us. But they, especially the obsessed CNN, are really providing a conduit for his hindbrain to talk to our hindbrains. During our waking moments, we try to ignore and suppress what our hind brain is singing to us, but it’s always there, whistling its seductive 500 million-year-old tune: “Feed me!” The media are feeding us a part of our brain we don’t get to taste otherwise.

That’s why everyone who tries to analyze or predict Trump’s path to the Presidency with their forebrain has been and will be wrong. Remember when everyone thought he was a joke? Remember when Trump trailed by 10% in all the polls to … everyone? This level of amnesia and denial would be astounding unless we understand it as a kind of brain defect, an aphasia, that is usually an evolutionary advantage but every once in a while blinds us to dangerous realities. We’re trying to peer into the jungle with eyes trained to see only urban architecture and orderly streets and mostly well-behaved humans. Worse, the jungle we’re trying to see is inside us, and we spend most of our time trying to deny that we’ve crawled out of it. Furthermore, the essence of reason and civilization is to declare that the jungle exists only in others, not in ourselves. Yeah, we got that lizard under control, man. It’s those Others you gotta watch out for. This is the flip side of the tune Trump is singing, and all you liberals out there should begin with a little introspection of your own hatreds before condemning the other half of the electorate.

* * * * *

* * * * *

Ross Douthat, NYTimes, The Trump Era Dawns:

I fear the risks of a Trump presidency as I have feared nothing in our politics before. But he will be the president, thanks to a crude genius that identified all the weak spots in our parties and our political system and that spoke to a host of voters for whom that system promised at best a sustainable stagnation under the tutelage of a distant and self-satisfied elite.

Paul Krugman, NYTimes, The Economic Fallout:

The disaster for America and the world has so many aspects that the economic ramifications are way down my list of things to fear.

Still, I guess people want an answer: If the question is when markets will recover, a first-pass answer is never.

Under any circumstances, putting an irresponsible, ignorant man who takes his advice from all the wrong people in charge of the nation with the world’s most important economy would be very bad news. What makes it especially bad right now, however, is the fundamentally fragile state much of the world is still in, eight years after the great financial crisis.

Thomas Friedman, NYTimes, Homeless in America:

As much as I knew that it was a possibility, the stark fact that a majority of Americans wanted radical, disruptive change so badly and simply did not care who the change agent was, what sort of role model he could be for our children, whether he really had any ability to execute on his plan — or even really had a plan to execute on — is profoundly disturbing.

Before I lay out all my fears, is there any silver lining to be found in this vote? I’ve been searching for hours, and the only one I can find is this: I don’t think Trump was truly committed to a single word or policy he offered during the campaign, except one phrase: “I want to win.”

* * * * *

Advertisements

Is the American Body Politic Crumbling?

5 May
The media has made a cottage industry out of analyzing the relationship between America’s crumbling infrastructure, outsourced jobs, stagnant wages, and evaporating middle class and the rise of anti-establishment presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Commentators are also tripping all over one another to expound daily on the ineffectual response of America’s political elite – characterized by either bewilderment or a dismissal of these anti-establishment candidates as minor hiccups in the otherwise smooth sailing of status-quo power arrangements. But the pundits are all missing the point: the Trump-Sanders phenomenon signals an American oligarchy on the brink of a civilization-threatening collapse.
The tragedy is that, despite what you hear on TV or read in the paper or online, this collapse was completely predictable. Scientifically speaking, oligarchies always collapse because they are designed to extract wealth from the lower levels of society, concentrate it at the top, and block adaptation by concentrating oligarchic power as well. Though it may take some time, extraction eventually eviscerates the productive levels of society, and the system becomes increasingly brittle. Internal pressures and the sense of betrayal grow as desperation and despair multiply everywhere except at the top, but effective reform seems impossible because the system seems thoroughly rigged. In the final stages, a raft of upstart leaders emerge, some honest and some fascistic, all seeking to channel pent-up frustration towards their chosen ends. If we are lucky, the public will mobilize behind honest leaders and effective reforms. If we are unlucky, either the establishment will continue to “respond ineffectively” until our economy collapses, or a fascist will take over and create conditions too horrific to contemplate.
Handwriting on the well:
Rigged systems erode the health of the larger society, and signs of crisis proliferate. Developed by British archaeologist Sir Colin Renfrew in 1979, the following “Signs of Failing Times” have played out across time in 26 distinct societies ranging from the collapse of the Roman Empire to the collapse of the Soviet Union:
  1. Elite power and well-being increase and is manifested in displays of wealth;
  2. Elites become heavily focused on maintaining a monopoly on power inside the society; Laws become more advantageous to elites, and penalties for the larger public become more Draconian;
  3. The middle class evaporates;
  4. The “misery index” mushrooms, witnessed by increasing rates of homicide, suicide, illness, homelessness, and drug/alcohol abuse;
  5. Ecological disasters increase as short-term focus pushes ravenous exploitation of resources;
  6. There’s a resurgence of conservatism and fundamentalist religion as once golden theories are brought back to counter decay, but these are usually in a corrupted form that accelerates decline.
Prospects:
Today’s big challenge is twofold. First, we need to find a way to unite today’s many disjointed reform efforts into the coherent and effective reinvention we so desperately need. This unity will require solid science, compelling story, and positive dream. Secondly, since hierarchies are absolutely necessary for groups beyond a certain size, this time we must figure out how to create healthy hierarchical systems that effectively support the health and prosperity of the entire social, economic, and environmental system including everyone within. In short, our goal must be to figure out how to end oligarchy forever, not just create a new version of it. This is a topic I will take up in my next blog.

McWhorter on Antiracism as Religion, and Beyond

28 Jul

Yesterday I published a post at 3 Quarks Daily in which I quoted a July 21 remarks between John McWhorter and Glenn Loury to the effect that antiracism has become something like a religion. In particular, they focused on the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates. McWhorter has now published a piece in The Daily Beast, Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion.

Religion vs. Practical Action

In view of that piece I’d like to continue the discussion. First, here’s a bit of the Loury/McWhorter discussion I didn’t quote. This is McWhorter at about 35 minutes in:

What we’re talking about as not worthy, what you see as condescending, David Brookes pretending to think that he has no right to question something that somebody wrote just because they’re black and they have a way with a pen, none of that has anything to do with being concerned with black uplift. And black uplift has to take place separately from that. It has nothing to do with Charles Blow and his artful prose. So all those people are going to be doing the Bible. That’s what they’re doing, I think of it these days. It’s religion and I can’t say it’s a terrible thing, but it will have nothing to do with changing poor black people’s lives.

So, the religion of antiracism is one thing while political and social action that will improve black lives is something different. One of McWhorter’s concerns, obviously enough, is that the religion will distract attention and action away from concrete action.

Here’s a passage from McWhorter’s new article:

Coates is “revered,” as New York magazine aptly puts it, as someone gifted at phrasing, repeating, and crafting artful variations upon points that are considered crucial—that is, scripture. Specifically, Coates is celebrated as the writer who most aptly expresses the scripture that America’s past was built on racism and that racism still permeates the national fabric.

The very fact that white America today cherishes this religion is evidence that Coates’s particular pessimism about America and race is excessive.
This became especially clear last year with the rapturous reception of Coates’s essay, “The Case for Reparations.” It was beautifully written, of course, but the almost tearfully ardent praise the piece received was about more than composition. The idea was that the piece was important, weighty, big news. But let’s face it—no one, including Coates himself, I presume, has any hope that our current Congress is about to give reparations for slavery to black people in any significant way. Plus, reparations had been widely discussed, and ultimately put aside, as recently as 15 years ago in the wake of Randall Robinson’s The Debt. Yet Coates’s article was discussed almost as if he were bringing up reparations as a new topic.

Here is a passage from Coates’ piece that gives some idea of what he’s looking for:

A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them.

John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.

Coates had earlier noted that Conyers has been introducing his reparations bill, HR 40, annually for the last quarter century and had gotten nowhere with it, and all it called for was to study the issue. That is, all that Coates is calling for is a grand ‘conversation on race’ inscribed within the conditions of HR 40, whatever they may be. It is not a call to action. It is, to use a word that Loury had introduced into his conversation with McWhorter, an expressive act.

McWhorter continues:

Its audience sought not counsel, but proclamation. Coates does not write with this formal intention, but for his readers, he is a preacher. A.O. Scott perfectly demonstrates Coates’s now clerical role in our discourse in saying that his new book is “essential, like water or air”—this is the kind of thing one formerly said of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

Continue reading

It’s Time for America to Reinvent itself Top to Bottom

17 Nov

But that’s not what I titled this month’s article at 3 Quarks Daily. I gave it a somewhat more provocative title, American Craziness: Where it Came from and Why It Won’t Work Anymore. The craziness is why America has to reinvent itself.

The core of my argument somes from an article I read in my freshman year at Johns Hopkins, “Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World” (full text online HERE). Parsons argues that life in Western nations generates a lot of aggressive impulses that cannot, however, be satisfied in any direct way. Why not? Because Western society is highly hierarchal and there is a great deal of aggression from superiors against inferiors, who cannot, however, respond in kind because to do so would be dangerous.

What, then, can those social inferiors do with their aggression? Well, they can let it rot their spirit and, eventually, their bodies as well. And that does happen. But they can also direct their aggression at external enemies. That happens as well.

This has certainly been the case in America. The Cold War was more of a psychic release mechanism for the nations involved – America included – than it was a collision of rational foreign policies East and West. But, as I point out in the 3QD piece, American had developed a sophisticated variation on the mechanism that was organized around slavery.

The institution of slavery in effect gave America an internal colony against which white Americans could direct their aggressive impulses. And when slavery was banished, institutionalized racism kept that colony in place. While the Civil Rights movement certainly changed the legal parameters of that social mechanism, and had real and beneficial effects in the world, the mechanism is still alive.

But, really, as I argue in the 3QD piece, this baroque contraption is ready to fall apart, hence the deadlock in America’s national politics.

I do something else in that piece, however, something of a more theoretical nature. I push Parsons’ argument a bit further than he did. As his title notes, he was arguing about Western nations, not nations in general. Yet anyone who finds his argument convincing can see that the mechanisms he describes are not confined to the West. They’re ubiquitous. Continue reading

We Live in a Culture of Fear

3 Jul

Barry Glassner. The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things. Basic Books 1999.

From the introduction, p. xxvi:

Mary Douglas, The eminent anthropologist who devoted much of her career to studying how people interpret risk, pointed out that every society has an almost infinite quantity of potential dangers from which to choose. Dangers get selected for special emphasis, Douglas showed, either because they offend the basic moral principles of the society or because they enable criticism of disliked groups and institutions.

p. xxviii:

The short answer to why Americans harbor so many misbegotten fears is that immense power and money await those who tap into our moral insecurities and supply us with symbolic substitutes. Continue reading

Is China our future? – U.S. Economy – Salon.com

17 Feb

And GE Consumer & Industrial CEO James Campbell reiterated it when he recently told the New York Times that “making things in America is as viable as making things any place” because domestic labor costs are now “significantly less with the competitive wages” — read: far lower wages — now accepted by American workers.

Now that this consensus is finally out in the open, the real question for America is simple: Do we accept an economic competition that asks us to emulate China?

If our answer is yes, then we should support current state legislative proposals to reduce child labor protections; back federal legislation to eliminate all environmental, wage and workplace safety laws; and applaud corporations that crush unions and further reduce wages in America. We should also probably encourage our fellow countrymen to follow Apple Inc.’s Chinese workforce by simply accepting $17-a-day paychecks, 12-hour workdays and six-day workweeks.

via Is China our future? – U.S. Economy – Salon.com.