I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: thats what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that hes up agen middle class morality all the time. If theres anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s always the same story: “Youre undeserving; so you cant have it.” But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I dont need less than a deserving man: I need more. I dont eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything.
—G. B. Shaw, “Pygmalion” (1914)
The embrace of Donald Trump’s shameless serial lying by the Republican Party did not fall suddenly out of the sky. It began in the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency, and first surfaced in an article published in the New York Times Magazine. Wikipedia:
The phrase was attributed by journalist Ron Suskind to an unnamed official in the George W. Bush administration who used it to denigrate a critic of the administration’s policies as someone who based their judgements on facts. In a 2004 article appearing in the New York Times Magazine, Suskind wrote:
The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.
International relations scholar Fred Halliday writes that the phrase reality-based community (in contrast to faith-based community) was used “for those who did not share [the Bush administration’s] international goals and aspirations”. . . .
The term was used to mock the Bush administration’s funding of faith-based social programmes, as well as a perceived hostility to professional and scientific expertise among American conservatives.
This attack on reality by the political Right developed further as “post-truth politics,” a
term . . . used by Paul Krugman in The New York Times to describe Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign in which certain claims—such as that Barack Obama had cut defense spending and that he had embarked on an “apology tour”—continued to be repeated long after they had been debunked. Other forms of scientific denialism in modern US politics include the anti-vaxxer movement, and the belief that existing genetically modified foods are harmful despite a strong scientific consensus that no currently marketed GMO foods have any negative health effects. The health freedom movement in the US resulted in the passage of the bipartisan Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which allows the sale of dietary supplements without any evidence that they are safe or effective . . . .
So after Trump is gone and Republicans want to blame him for everything, don’t let them off the hook. And don’t let the Democratic establishment off the hook, either, for their support of elitist policies that enriched Wall Street, drained the middle class dry, and turned vast swaths of rural America into a desperate, meth-lab-strewn wasteland.
Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
You’ve heard about the “Greatest Generation” and how Americans all pulled together in the 1940s to win the war against fascism, right? Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her book No Ordinary Time (1994) tells a different story.
As Hitler occupied most of France and began attacking England, FDR appealed to business leaders to shift their production to defense materials. They refused unless they would be given preferential status in bidding for defense contracts. In the end, FDR gave in.
When the revenue bill [giving favorable terms to corporations taking on defense contracts] finally passed later that fall, the capital strike [by big business] came to an end and war contracts began to clear with speed.. . . In the months ahead . . . new legislation would be enacted to try to increase the relative share of small business in total army procurement. But by then, the basic pattern—the link between big business and the military establishment, a link that would last long into the postwar era and lead a future president to warn against the “military-industrial complex”—was already set.[pp. 158-59]
In 1940, . . . approximately 175,000 companies provided 70 percent of the manufacturing output of the U.S., while one hundred companies produced the remaining 30 percent. By the beginning of 1943, the ratio had been reversed. The hundred large companies formerly holding only 30 percent now held 70 percent of all government contracts.[p. 399]
To this day, Franklin Roosevelt remains the symbol of big government and the controlled economy. Yet, under Roosevelt’s wartime leadership, the government entered into a close partnership with private enterprise . . . . Business was exempted from antitrust laws, allowed to write off the full cost of investments, given the financial and material resources to fulfill contracts, and guaranteed a substantial profit. The leader who had once proclaimed his intention to master the forces of organized money had become their greatest benefactor.[pp. 607-08]
So angry was the outpouring of public sentiment that a resolution was introduced in the Senate requiring members to renounce their claim of special privilege. When the defiant Senators defeated the resolution by a vote of sixty-six to two, the public mood darkened.[p. 357]
A granfalloon is a proud and meaningless association of human beings.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (1974)
As COVID-19 wends its way through North America, I have been noticing recurrent news items regarding the behaviour of young people in the early stages of this massive public health crisis: continuing to go out to bars, movies, and restaurants; thronging beaches in Florida; and so on. Most young people, it appears, don’t vote, even when inspired by old socialists like Bernie Sanders. They like the rallies, but they don’t vote. And they don’t follow the news, which seems to account for some of their recent clueless activities.
Most of them haven’t stopped eating meat or driving cars, either, or done much of anything else to reduce their “carbon footprint,” as far as I can tell.
All of which reminds me of that internet meme, “Okay, Boomer,” mocking my generation, telling us to get out of the way since we’ve made such a mess of things. Let the younger generations take over and try to repair the damage before it’s too late.
But it’s not about generations. It has never been about generations. When my friends and I were protesting the Vietnam War and marching for civil rights and advocating for gender equality, we were always a minority among our generational peers. When we were educating ourselves about the imperialist crimes committed by the U.S. government, and becoming conscious of the racist and sexist ideas we had grown up with, and learning to prepare vegetarian meals and grow our own food, we were always a minority. Most of our fellow “Boomers” were always unenlightened, materialistic, and conventional.
In every generation, the enlightened minority sees most clearly, pays attention, raises the alarm, protests against injustice, agitates for necessary change. The majority, as Thoreau wrote in his great essay, “On Civil Disobedience,” lags always at least a step behind.
To those “woke” young people tempted to mock the Boomers: have a look first at the majority of your peers, who are just as unenlightened and clueless in the face of climate change or COVID-19 as most of my peers were in the face of Vietnam, segregation, and CIA coups all across Latin America and beyond.
Boomers are not the problem. The problem is the clueless majority—of all ages.
Dear Premier Horgan,
Difficult as it might be, I hope you will call for a pause on construction of the natural gas pipeline through Wet’suwet’en land—a pause during which all parties will seek a consensus.
The government has won in the courts, but there is no consensus among the Wet’suwet’en, and opposition to the pipeline remains fierce.
In the tradition of Western democracy, a majority vote and a court decision are enough to go forward. In First Nations cultures, however, the community needs consensus before going forward.
Reaching consensus will be a long, difficult process. It may not even be possible, in the end. But in such a worse-case scenario, would abandoning the pipeline project really be more costly than the damage that will be done to relations among Canadians by going forward without consensus?
With my best wishes,
So, summing up, we have a situation with multiple baked-in weaknesses:
- Major media, easily manipulated
- Social media, a cesspool of propaganda and disinformation
- A public divided into tribes
- An anti-democratic Electoral College
- An anti-democratic U.S. Senate
- An election process that costs each candidate millions and millions of dollars, i.e., an open invitation to corruption
And who, looking at all that, could possibly foresee a good result?
Rules for following the U.S. presidential election on social media:
- Any message on social media that makes you think, “That’s it, I will NEVER vote for THAT Democrat!” is, until proven otherwise, part of a disinformation campaign, and should be ignored.
- And people described as “progressive activists” who do & say disgusting things should be regarded as provocateurs working for Republicans, until proven otherwise.
If you are wondering whether the best strategy to defeat Trump is “move to the centre” or “go left!” this podcast conversation with data-nerd political scientist Rachel Bitecofer will interest you:
Why are crimes not called crimes if they are committed by the US government?
Can we stop calling the murder of Qasem Soleimani a “mistake” or a “blunder”? It was a crime. Murder.
Those who refuse to call it murder are complicit in excusing it.
Soleimani, we are told, deserved to die because he was a bad man who committed terrible crimes. Fine. The proper response to crime is arrest, indictment, and trial—not summary execution.
Imagine if nations behaved like citizens governed by the rule of law, instead of organized crime families trying to maximize their power and putting out hits on their rivals.
Slaveowners declaiming eloquently about freedom, and
merchants declaiming eloquently about the evils of taxation,
create a new nation
populated largely by brash, ignorant, racist know-nothings
who spin a wonderful myth about Success and the American Dream
and convince themselves that they are both the Good Guys
and (eventually) the Greatest Nation on Earth,
smugly confident that power and virtue can be perfectly aligned
Ignoring the crimes committed in their name,
they are astonished when their victims strike back.
“They hate us because we are free!” they cry,
as if that makes any sense at all.
And even now, after Civil Rights and Vietnam,
after Iraq and Afghanistan,
after Roe v. Wade and marriage equality,
after legalized marijuana and Black Lives Matter,
when everyone who’s woke gets their news
from TV comedians,
when a self-proclaimed socialist finishes second
in the Democratic presidential primaries—
even after all that, Hillary Clinton (!) gets three million more votes
but still loses the election
because of the anti-democratic Constitution
written by those slave-owning Founders,
and the anti-democratic Republicans in the Senate refuse
to acknowledge the obvious crimes committed by their president
whose re-election will depend on a few thousand votes in a handful
of white-majority midwestern states cast by
people who know nothing about
The love of Heaven and Earth is impartial,
and they demand nothing from the myriad things.
The love of the sages is impartial,
and they demand nothing from the people.
The cooperation between Heaven and Earth
is much like how a bellows works!
Within the emptiness there is limitless potential;
in moving, it keeps producing without end.
Complaining too much only leads to misfortune.
It is better to stay in the center of serenity.
—Laozi, Dao De Jing, Chapter 5, translated by Yuhui Liang
How many stupid things can a nation do, and how stupid can its leaders and its people be, before the nation falls into an irreversible spiral of decline?
The underlying factor behind the stupidity is addiction. Modern society is an addiction culture. Everything that drives economic activity involves some kind of addiction, and addiction makes people stupid. Try using charts, data, and facts to explain to a junkie why he should stop using heroin. Now do the same and try to convince people to give up junk food and junk entertainment and junk consumerism.
Neil Postman was right in 1985 in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: in the television age, everything is entertainment. In the internet age, all the factors Postman identified have increased geometrically. So we are told that in the UK people are “tired” of hearing about Brexit, and that in the US people are “fed up” with talk about impeachment. Low entertainment value. Change the channel.
Timothy Leary’s 1960s call to the hippie generation to “turn on, tune in, drop out” has been co-opted by the commercial addiction juggernaut—as has been everything else that dissidents of any sort have put forward. The society as a whole has turned on to addictions of all sorts, tuned in to culture as entertainment, and dropped out of any serious engagement with political life.
Decline and fall, baby.
For a more technical and data-based version of this analysis, read “This is How a Society Dies,” by Umair Haque.
Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.
—John Adams, Letters to John Taylor (1814)
From “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” (1942):
The broad truth about the war is simple enough. The Spanish bourgeoisie saw their chance of crushing the labour movement, and took it, aided by the Nazis and by the forces of reaction all over the world. . . .
The Fascists won because . . . they had modern arms and the others hadn’t.
. . . the British ruling class did all they could to hand Spain over to Franco and the Nazis. Why? Because they were pro-Fascist, was the obvious answer. . . . Whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time . . . .
. . . the people who support or have supported Fascism . . . are all people with something to lose, or people who long for a hierarchical society and dread the prospect of a world of free and equal human beings. . . . the simple intention of those with money or privileges to cling to them. . . .
All that the working man demands is what these others would consider the indispensable minimum without which human life cannot be lived at all. Enough to eat, freedom from the haunting terror of unemployment, the knowledge that your children will get a fair chance, a bath once a day, clean linen reasonably often, a roof that doesn’t leak, and short enough working hours to leave you with a little energy when the day is done.
From the “History Doesn’t Repeat, but Sometimes It Rhymes” Dept:
In the early days of France’s Third Republic (ca. 1870 – 1890), the major political divide was between monarchists, who wanted a king again, and republicans, who favoured parliamentary democracy.
The moderate republicans, called “opportunists” because they thought new laws should be introduced only when they were expedient, wanted to avoid disruptive issues, to limit the scope of reform, and to deal with one problem at a time. “Nothing must be put in the republican program that the majority of the nation cannot be induced to accept immediately,” Gambetta had said, as spokesman of the opportunist point of view. The radicals, on the other hand, wanted to carry through sweeping reforms at once. . . .
Meanwhile, the mass of the French people remained indifferent to the republic or were becoming increasingly radicalized as a result of the government’s resistance to programs designed to improve the lot of industrial and agricultural workers. . . .
Meanwhile, in the Austro-Hungarian empire,
In 1890 militant German and Slavic nationalists combined to prevent . . . compromise on the nationalities question. In 1891 both Czech and German moderates were routed in the parliamentary elections. . . .
[Prime Minister Taafe failed] to solve the serious financial problems of the empire. . . . Instead of meeting the problem with a large-scale program of tax and financial reform, Taafe simply increased the rate of state borrowing, thereby raising the cost of servicing the national debt.
. . . [His] efforts at social reform were also ineffective. . . . Taafe’s proposals for universal suffrage and labor reform offended every vested interest in the country. . . .
The political response . . . was the spectacular growth of the Christian Socialist movement [led by Vienna mayor] Karl Lueger (1844 – 1910) [who] championed the rights of the worker, peasant, and small businessman against big business and “Jewish” capitalism. He advocated a socialist welfare state . . . where Slavs, Jews, and Protestants would not be welcome. Lueger was enormously popular and was repeatedly elected mayor of Vienna.
—Norman Rich, The Age of Nationalism and Reform, 1850 – 1890 (1977)
The obvious parallels with current events in Europe and the U.S. should concern all of us. The Industrial Revolution, the growth of the middle class, and the rise of Western democracies are not finished stories. Neither is the U.S. struggle over slavery and its transformation after 1865 into a struggle over racial equality. These stories continue; the history continues. Our era did not begin in 1945, or in 1900, but in Paris in 1789, and we still do not know how the political, economic, and racial issues unleashed in the French Revolution will finally sort themselves. A racist, authoritarian triumph is not out of the question.
The failure of genuine parliamentary government . . . was due . . . to the absence of the feature most necessary for its successful operation: broad agreement among the main power groups in a country about fundamental issues.
. . . The crucial power to determine government policy remained in the hands of the executive leadership. Hence the quality of leadership in every country was at all times of paramount importance.
—Norman Rich, The Age of Nationalism and Reform, 1850-1890 (1977)
In England and the United States, in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, in Switzerland and Canada, democracy is today sounder than ever before. It has defended itself with courage and energy against the assaults of foreign dictatorship, and has not yielded to dictatorship at home. But if war continues to absorb and dominate it, or if the itch to rule the world requires a large military establishment and appropriation, the freedoms of democracy may one by one succumb to the discipline of arms and strife. If race or class war divides us into hostile camps, changing political argument into blind hate, one side or the other may overturn the hustings with the rule of the sword. If our economy of freedom fails to distribute wealth as ably as it has created it, the road to dictatorship will be open to any man who can persuasively promise security to all; and a martial government, under whatever charming phrases, will engulf the democratic world.
—Will Durant, The Lessons of History (1968)
“We are convinced that liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice; and that socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.”
—Mikhail Bakunin, 1867
In no particular order . . .
- Many American voters simply want to extend their middle fingers to the establishment elites. Trump is that middle finger.
- He has bought the Christian Right’s votes by packing the courts and making the overturning of Roe v. Wade possible.
- The economy is booming; many will ignorantly credit Trump for that.
- He has bought the support of big business with massive tax cuts, deregulation, and zero action to counter climate change.
- Many white people support his attacks on people of color; many more simply ignore those attacks because they just don’t care much about the problems of brown people and foreigners.
- The polls are meaningless because Trump supporters will either lie to pollsters or refuse to talk to them at all.
- Nothing has been done to counter the massive propaganda machine of Fox News, Facebook, Twitter, and the Russian intelligence services.
- Nothing has been done to stop dark money from flooding into the American election. You can bet that the Russians, the Saudis, and the Israelis will be heavily invested.
- Some of that dark money will finance a 3rd-party candidate on the left who will siphon votes away from the Democratic candidate.
- No one the Democrats nominate will be able to withstand the onslaught of lies thrown at them by Trump and the Fox News / social media propaganda machine.
Is that enough?
Here’s the problem.
Democracy depends on an informed citizenry: people who read, people who are educated about how law and government work, people who are well informed.
As democracy made slow progress in Europe and later in what became the United States, political power—most obviously, the right to vote and to hold political office—was restricted to property-owning men. The merchant class, who had wrested these rights from the nobles (after the nobles had wrested them from the kings) fiercely resisted expanding them to larger groups.
On the one hand, this sort of limited democracy ensured a relatively well-educated, well-informed cohort of voters and office holders by severely limiting the power of the poor and working classes. In the U.K., only gentlemen could become Members of Parliament, and only men could vote them into office. In the U.S., the House of Representatives was more broadly democratic, but the Senators were elected by state legislatures (until the 17th Amendment changed that provision of the Constitution in 1913).
These arrangements (and others like the U.S. Electoral College) did ensure a relatively well-educated electorate. On the other hand, they were clearly undemocratic attempts by an elite ruling class—white men of property—to hold on to their power. Such men, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and other leading thinkers of the early United States, argued that a pure or complete democracy was nothing less than an invitation to mob rule. Give every ignorant, unwashed working man a vote? Unthinkable. The new nation, they insisted, would be a republic, not a democracy, and the republic would be controlled by men of education and property. Or at least, men of property.
Since then, political power has slowly, grudgingly, and imperfectly been given to previously excluded groups—first to all white males, then to women, then to people of colour. But this expansion of political power has not been accompanied by an expansion of political education. It reminds me of the reform campaigns against the horrific mental institutions of fifty years ago, which were sometimes little more than medieval prisons for the mentally ill. Public sentiment against these institutions grew until, during the Reagan years in the U.S., they were largely abolished. The poor souls previously confined so cruelly were set free. Freedom! But freedom alone meant that most of these people ended up homeless, living on the streets, with little or no care at all.
The expansion of political power without an expansion of education and social justice has had a similar result: millions of voters or potential voters who do not read, do not understand how law and government work, and who are woefully uninformed or misinformed about the facts. Such an electorate is laughably vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues.
But it’s worse than that.
The propertied middle classes, who live in decent neighbourhoods and send their kids to decent schools, are turning into the same kind of ignorant, uninformed, easily manipulated voters that the Founding Fathers and Edmund Burke feared when they warned about mob rule.
Years ago I read an essay by the Canadian-American novelist, Saul Bellow, in which he warned that the U.S. was turning into an “amusement culture.” The phrase stuck with me, and I kept noticing ways in which it seemed true. In older cultures people defined themselves by what they made or did. In the culture I saw around me, people defined themselves by what they bought. And what they bought, overwhelmingly, was entertainment. Amusement. Stimulation. Relief from boredom. I noticed, too, how closely this quest for entertainment resembled drug addiction: the dose that initially produced quite a strong effect gradually lost its power, and so had to be increased—a process whose logical end is overdose and death.
Saul Bellow’s description has now been superseded. We no longer merely live in an “amusement culture.” We now live in an addiction culture.
TV, sugar, junk food, shopping, pro sports, pop music, Hollywood movies—practically all of the major features of popular culture function as addictions. People even say “I need a fix” to explain why they must watch a TV program or eat a donut. Meanwhile, the literal addictions to alcohol and other drugs continue apace and have been multiplied geometrically in recent years by the opioid crisis.
But it’s worse than that.
The neo-Romantic idealists and geniuses who brought us the Internet and, shortly thereafter, “social media,” believed that their inventions would usher in a new era of freedom, empowerment, and global communication. Like Mary Shelley’s idealistic, naive dreamer genius, Victor Frankenstein, they have created a murderous monster. Someone should write a 21st-century version of Shelley’s novel and title it Zuckerberg, or The Modern Frankenstein. The internet has not only added to our list of popular addictions such things as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. It has also created a propaganda organ of instant, almost worldwide scope. No longer do demagogues need to print pamphlets or travel from town to town making speeches. A “tweet storm” or a series of inflammatory Facebook posts can do the work infinitely faster and better, as all of us have seen in the Age of Trump.
There are, of course, pockets of resistance. Some people do read books, exercise, eat healthy foods, avoid popular culture, play musical instruments or paint or write, go on long walks, etc. They are a small minority, vastly outnumbered by the millions of avid participants in the Addiction Culture. And since the Addiction Culture is not only self-perpetuating but self-multiplying and almost completely empowered, there’s no end in sight. No way to turn this ship around.
Which is why democracy is breaking.
If history is any guide, nothing short of a violent crisis can change the trends, and if such a violent crisis comes, it is as likely to make things worse as it is to make them better. And if after all of this pessimism you think the world is worth saving and want to give it a try, I suggest that you become a teacher and inspire your students to read, think, and become well-informed.
Coda: If becoming a teacher is out of your reach, or not enough, try working on one or both of these essential problems: 1) Ensure that access to large sums of money gives zero advantage to a candidate for political office. 2) Establish an independent, publicly-funded news service that does not need to compete with commercial media.
Yes, 1875. In his novel, The Way We Live Now, Trollope presents Mr. Auguste Melmotte, a thorough-going fraud and swindler who, for a brief period, takes hold of English finance and politics. The following excerpts require no comment.
The chief crime laid to his charge was connected with the ruin of some great continental assurance company, as to which it was said that he had so managed it as to leave it utterly stranded, with an enormous fortune of his own.
The belief naturally to be deduced from such statements, nay, the unavoidable conviction on the minds—of, at any rate, the Conservative newspapers—was that Mr Melmotte had accumulated an immense fortune, and that he had never robbed any shareholder of a shilling.
“Couldn’t he draw it a little milder?” Lord Alfred made his reply almost in a whisper. “If you ask me, I don’t think he could. If you got him down and trampled on him, you might make him mild. I don’t think there’s any other way.” “You couldn’t speak to him, then?” “Not unless I did it with a horsewhip.”
Melmotte was not the first vulgar man whom the Conservatives had taken by the hand, and patted on the back, and told that he was a god.
Rumours, therefore, of his past frauds, rumour also as to the instability of his presumed fortune, were as current as those which declared him to be by far the richest man in England.
“You think Melmotte will turn out a failure.” “A failure! Of course he’s a failure, whether rich or poor;—a miserable imposition, a hollow vulgar fraud from beginning to end,—too insignificant for you and me to talk of, were it not that his position is a sign of the degeneracy of the age. What are we coming to when such as he is an honoured guest at our tables?”
“And yet these leaders of the fashion know,—at any rate they believe,—that he is what he is because he has been a swindler greater than other swindlers. What follows as a natural consequence? Men reconcile themselves to swindling. Though they themselves mean to be honest, dishonesty of itself is no longer odious to them. Then there comes the jealousy that others should be growing rich with the approval of all the world,—and the natural aptitude to do what all the world approves. It seems to me that the existence of a Melmotte is not compatible with a wholesome state of things in general.”
“Of course Mr Melmotte is not the sort of gentleman whom you have been accustomed to regard as a fitting member for a Conservative constituency. But the country is changing.” “It’s going to the dogs, I think;—about as fast as it can go.”
Perhaps the most remarkable circumstance in the career of this remarkable man was the fact that he came almost to believe in himself.
Melmotte had been aware that in his life, as it opened itself out to him, he might come to terrible destruction. He had not always thought, or even hoped, that he would be as he was now, so exalted as to be allowed to entertain the very biggest ones of the earth; but the greatness had grown upon him,—and so had the danger.
Very much might be suspected. Something might be found out. But the task of unravelling it all would not be easy.
With the means which would still be at his command, let the worse come to the worst, he could make a strong fight. When a man’s frauds have been enormous there is a certain safety in their very diversity and proportions.
He read Alf’s speech, and consoled himself with thinking that Mr Alf had not dared to make new accusations against him. All that about Hamburg and Vienna and Paris was as old as the hills, and availed nothing. His whole candidature had been carried in the face of that.
Of course he had committed forgery,—of course he had committed robbery. That, indeed, was nothing, for he had been cheating and forging and stealing all his life. Of course he was in danger of almost immediate detection and punishment. He hardly hoped that the evil day would be very much longer protracted, and yet he enjoyed his triumph. Whatever they might do, quick as they might be, they could hardly prevent his taking his seat in the House of Commons. Then if they sent him to penal servitude for life, they would have to say that they had so treated the member for Westminster!
He never read. Thinking was altogether beyond him. And he had never done a day’s work in his life. He could lie in bed. He could eat and drink. He could smoke and sit idle. He could play cards; and could amuse himself with women,—the lower the culture of the women, the better the amusement. Beyond these things the world had nothing for him.
There was much that he was ashamed of,—many a little act which recurred to him vividly in this solitary hour as a thing to be repented of with inner sackcloth and ashes. But never once, not for a moment, did it occur to him that he should repent of the fraud in which his whole life had been passed. No idea ever crossed his mind of what might have been the result had he lived the life of an honest man.
Fraud and dishonesty had been the very principle of his life, and had so become a part of his blood and bones that even in this extremity of his misery he made no question within himself as to his right judgment in regard to them.
Not to cheat, not to be a scoundrel, not to live more luxuriously than others by cheating more brilliantly, was a condition of things to which his mind had never turned itself.
A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
Source: Letter to W.T. Barry (4 August 1822), in The Writings of James Madison (1910) edited by Gaillard Hunt, Vol. 9, p. 103.
“This is a monstrous act of savagery.”
“Yes, it’s terrible. But can we talk about the forces that would drive some people to such acts?”
“You want to make excuses for these animals? Outrageous! They are scum, it’s as simple as that, and they need to be exterminated.”
“Well, can we talk about how an innocent baby is turned into ‘scum’ that needs to be ‘exterminated’?”
“NO! Let’s talk about the innocent babies who were killed and orphaned by these monsters. Why are you more concerned with the killers than you are with the victims?!”
Did you imagine the killers as part of a group that you sympathize with, or part of a group for whom you have no sympathy? Go back now and re-read, imagining it the other way.
Because they know that Americans almost always elect a president who is the opposite of the previous president.
President Trump is an old, reactionary, incompetent, rather stupid white male without government experience.
Therefore President Not-Trump will be a young, liberal, competent, intelligent, female person of color with government experience.
Kamala Harris matches that description perfectly.
Hence all the drooling in the media since she announced her candidacy.
Of course, her experience is limited and her track record at least questionable, and we have little idea where she actually stands on issues. But to raise such questions would be a terrible distraction from the overwhelming, vague impression that she’s the right person for the moment, and that she’s a safe choice who can be counted on not to upset the status quo—not, in other words, to alienate the ultra-rich and the corporations and the Pentagon, as Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders certainly would.
So there you are: President Harris.
Let us pray.
I’ve been meaning to read this for years and finally got around to it during these holidays. It’s one of those stories that reverberates, in a disorienting way, for a couple of days after you’ve finished it. Here are some of the bits that struck me from the third part, Ghost Road:
‘Mate’ in all the dictionaries was translated as ‘dead’. ‘No mate,’ Rivers said, breathing deeply and pointing to Mbuko’s chest. There and then, across the dying man, he received a tutorial, not unlike those he remembered from his student days in Bart’s. Mate did not mean dead, it designated a state of which death was the appropriate outcome. Mbuko was mate because he was critically ill. Rinambesi, though quite disgustingly healthy, still with a keen eye for the girls, was also mate because he’d lived to an age when if he wasn’t dead he damn well ought to be.
Hallet came from an old army family and had been well and expensively educated to think as little as possible;
Though it might seem callous or frivolous to say so, head-hunting had been the most tremendous fun and without it life lost almost all its zest. This was a people perishing from the absence of war.
Rivers wondered whether Sassoon and Harrington had been too much in the forefront of his mind while he was listening to Wansbeck. At best, on such occasions, one became a conduit whereby one man’s hard-won experience of self-healing was made available to another. At worst, one no longer listened attentively enough to the individual voice.
This last one made me think of my own work. As a younger teacher, I approached every student without preconceptions. Now, all these years later, I have the benefits, but also the risks, of experience. I have to remind myself sometimes that, even if the face reminds me of other students and the behaviour reminds me of other students, the student in front of me is not those other students.
What if we decided that accurate information is an essential need in a democracy, just as effective police and fire services are essential in any society that values safety?
The logic here is straightforward. Democracy cannot function properly unless voters are knowledgeable and well-informed. By funding public education, most democracies acknowledge, at least tacitly, that voters must be knowledgeable. The shortcomings and confused aims of public education are obvious, but my point here is simply that education is regarded as so universally valuable that we all agree to pay taxes to fund schools. But what about the need for voters to be well-informed?
We obviously cannot rely on private, for-profit media outlets to provide accurate information to voters. Partisan propaganda is part of the problem, but the profit motive, fundamental to any business, undercuts the desires of conscientious reporters and editors to provide essential information to voters. To understand this, imagine that all police services were privatized. It would soon become apparent that the costs of policing certain areas are just too high. To protect profit margins and please shareholders, services to those areas would be reduced or eliminated.
Similarly, many news stories that would provide essential information to voters are complicated. To explain them requires long, detailed reporting and investigation. An editor or publisher who chooses to run such stories will quickly find that he or she is losing out to competitors who feature punchy, eye-catching, easy-to-understand stories that are full of “human interest.” As a result, the mass media landscape today is dominated by scandal, gossip, and superficiality. So long as journalism remains a for-profit enterprise, this is unlikely to change.
The internet has accellerated journalism’s decline, not only by increasing the competition for eyeballs but by eviscerating what was once a newspaper’s main source of income: the classified ads. Many local newspapers have simply disappeared. Others have been gobbled up by corporate outlets like USA Today. Even at local papers that have survived, reporting staffs have been cut drastically and content is mostly from national syndication. School board meetings and city council meetings go largely unreported.
How are voters expected to make informed decisions under such conditions?
There are some alternative models. Britain’s BBC, Canada’s CBC, and National Public Radio in the U.S. come to mind. All of them have flaws. Public funding is often inadequate. Political pressure is a constant threat. Fundraising through donations, memberships, and sponsorships brings another set of challenges. Keeping a publicly-funded news service both independent and accurate requires a carefully-designed system and unrelenting vigilance. None of that is easy, to say the least. But if we accept the idea that well-informed citizens are essential to a 21st-century democracy, then it follows that a free, independent, non-profit, publicly-funded press is an essential service just as much as policing and firefighting are.
A free press is an essential service.
I saw a tweet yesterday warning that Russian bots, already at work on the 2018 elections, were ginning up fears that Democrats favor open borders. Most Democrats, of course, do not favor open borders, but I do, and that puts me in a funny position. Should I make the argument for open borders, and thus risk playing into Trumpian fear-mongering, or should I just keep my opinions about borders to myself, to help increase the chances of electing an effective opposition to Trump?
Here’s another one: since the Vietnam War I have been highly critical of U.S. intelligence agencies like the CIA and the FBI for their reprehensible activities, at home and abroad—assassinations, smear campaigns, illegal surveillance, torture, planting agents provocateurs among dissident groups, etc. Now, however, those same agencies are under attack by Trump for quite different reasons, and the nation is depending on them, among others, to protect it from Trump’s worst excesses. So is this a bad time to remind people that Jim Comey’s Boy-Scout version of the FBI is not quite accurate?
Or take Russia’s aggressions in Crimea and Ukraine, and the joint Trump-Putin attacks on NATO. Putin and Trump are both, to different degrees, criminal thugs who must be opposed. Is this the wrong time, then, to point out that Russia’s recent behavior is the predictable response to the decision to expand NATO during Bill Clinton’s presidency? “Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia,” said George Kennan in 1998. But perhaps that history would confuse the simple good-guy, bad-guy narrative we need right now.
And then there’s the Democratic Party establishment. Arrogant, elitist, smug, blind with self-satisfaction, so easy to despise. And yet, we need them if we hope to stop Trump and the Republicans from their ongoing attacks on civil rights, the environment, public education, Medicare and Social Security, etc. The Republicans’ main tactic in the approaching elections will be to turn out their base with phony fears about the Democratic Party being taken over by leftists. So by speaking out on the issues important to us, do we progressives actually help Republican propagandists do their work? Should we all just shut up and vote Democratic?
It’s a dilemma.
Problems with the European Union? Brexit will solve them.
Problems with taxis? Uber and Lyft are the answer.
Does the Veterans Administration have problems? Just privatize it.
Problems with government regulations? Deregulate everything.
Problems with the Democratic Party establishment? Vote Trump, or vote for a third-party candidate, or just stay home.
Problems with politics in general? Just forget it.
Or maybe it would be better to . . . work on fixing the problems.
People are not always more reasonable than governments . . . [and] public opinion, or what passes for public opinion, is not invariably a moderating force in the jungle of politics. It may be true, and I suspect it is, that the mass of people everywhere are normally peace-loving and would accept many restraints and sacrifices in preference to the monstrous calamities of war. But I also suspect that what purports to be public opinion in most countries that consider themselves to have popular government is often not really the consensus of the feelings of the mass of the people at all, but rather the expression of the interests of special highly vocal minorities — politicians, commentators, and publicity-seekers of all sorts: people who live by their ability to draw attention to themselves and die, like fish out of water, if they are compelled to remain silent. These people take refuge in the pat and chauvinistic slogans because they are incapable of understanding any others, because these slogans are safer from the standpoint of short-term gain, because the truth is sometimes a poor competitor in the market place of ideas — complicated, unsatisfying, full of dilemma, always vulnerable to misinterpretation and abuse. The counsels of impatience and hatred can always be supported by the crudest and cheapest symbols; for the counsels of moderation, the reasons are often intricate, rather than emotional, and difficult to explain. And so the chauvinists of all times and places go their appointed way: plucking the easy fruits, reaping the little triumphs of the day at the expense of someone else tomorrow, deluging in noise and filth anyone who gets in their way, dancing their reckless dance on the prospects for human progress, drawing the shadow of a great doubt over the validity of democratic institutions. And until people learn to spot the fanning of mass emotions and the sowing of bitterness, suspicion, and intolerance as crimes in themselves — as perhaps the greatest disservice that can be done to the cause of popular government — this sort of thing will continue to occur.
—George Kennan, American Diplomacy (1951)
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of the 20th century’s greatest novelists and a constant irritant to the communist leaders of the Soviet Union until he was expelled from the country. After a brief stay in Switzerland he moved his family to Vermont in 1974, where he avoided publicity and worked on The Red Wheel, a series of historical novels tracing the end of imperial Russia and the founding of the Soviet Union. In 1978 he emerged from his rural retreat to deliver a commencement address at Harvard University.
I remember reading press accounts of the speech and thinking that Solzhenitsyn was a man stuck in the past. Like his predecessor, Leo Tolstoy, he seemed mired in a Christianity that was largely irrelevant in the modern world. Re-reading the speech today, I find passages that support those earlier impressions. He bemoans, for example, the West’s moral decadence:
Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.
He also condemns, not just communism, but any form of socialism:
Having experienced applied socialism in a country where the alternative has been realized, I certainly will not speak for it. The well-known Soviet mathematician Shafarevich, a member of the Soviet Academy of Science, has written a brilliant book under the title Socialism; it is a profound analysis showing that socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind unto death.
And in remarks on the Vietnam War, which had finally drawn to a close in 1975 after thirty years, he expresses a view that would have been welcomed by the most right-wing generals in the Pentagon.
Your short-sighted politicians who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing spell; however, a hundredfold Vietnam now looms over you. That small Vietnam was a warning and an occasion to mobilize the nation’s courage. But if a full-fledged America suffered a real defeat from a small, Communist half-country, how can the West hope to stand firm in the future?
Such views seemed retrograde and wrong-headed to me in 1978, and still seem so to me now, even though his condemnations of the moral decadence so obvious in American culture, and of the amoral materialism of capitalism, resonate undeniably. Other portions of the speech, however, read today almost like a guide to understanding the initially puzzling sympathy for Russia that Donald Trump’s supporters express.
Distrust of Journalists
Trump has consistently trashed the media, calling every news report that puts him in a bad light “fake news” and even calling the press “enemies” of America. Here is what Solzhenitsyn says about journalism in the West:
What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If he has misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? No, it hardly ever happens, because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance. . . .
The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus we may see terrorists made heroes, or secret matters pertaining to one’s nation’s defense publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan “everyone is entitled to know everything.” But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era: people also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information. . . .
Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. One would then like to ask: By what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible? In the Communist East, a journalist is frankly appointed as a state official. But who has granted Western journalists their power, for how long a time, and with what prerogatives?
There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the East, where the press is rigorously unified: one gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment and there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership, because newspapers mostly give emphasis to those opinions that do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend.
Without any censorship, in the West, fashionable trends of thought are carefully separated from those that are not fashionable. Nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally, your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevents independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life.
It is easy to find these themes being echoed today by Trump and his followers.
It is easy, too, to see the appeal of Solzhenitsyn’s views for conservative Christians:
However, in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred, or even fifty, years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries, with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.
Solzhenitsyn closes his speech by imagining a future that revives the best features of the Middle Ages without repeating the mistakes of that era:
It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more important, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the modern era.
Instead of this utopian spiritual revival, however, current events suggest a good old-fashioned upsurge of authoritarianism, tribalism, and nationalism. And so far, at least, Christian conservatives have distinguished themselves only by their craven support of a blatantly immoral leader, not least at his most racist, white-supremacist moments. “Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism,” Solzhenitsyn said in 1978. Forty years later, his dream seems even more naive while his distrust of liberal democracy is echoed far and wide—even in the Oval Office itself.
- The success myth, which tells us that anyone willing to work hard can succeed in America. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Check the flip side: if anyone willing to work can succeed, then it follows that anyone who has not succeeded has only himself to blame. As a result, most Americans either downplay or simply ignore all the other causes of poverty, refuse to pay taxes that might go to address those causes, and thus condemn themselves to living in a society with a huge, chronic gap between rich and poor, and a middle class who can’t figure out why they are having so much trouble making ends meet. (Oh yeah, it’s the illegal immigrants, the brown people, the foreigners ripping us off, etc.)
- Anti-intellectualism, deep-baked into the culture from the very beginning. Distrust education, distrust “worldliness,” just read the Bible and pray. Today, even where the religion has worn away, the anti-intellectualism persists. Book-reading is effeminate; real men don’t read books. Professors are suspicious by definition. And who needs a college education anyway? Meanwhile the cost of a college education keeps rising further and further out of reach for middle-class, much less poor, students, helping to reinforce the wealth gap (see #1). And who needs to study history? or economics? Who needs actual knowledge and understanding to vote? Any ignoramus can do it.
- The religious worship of Freedom! above all other values, leading to such absurdities as people insisting that they would rather suffer an obscene rate of gun violence than give up their freedom to own weapons of war; or that they would rather risk being bankrupted by the next illness or injury rather than give up their freedom to be ripped off by private insurance companies. Freedom to live on the streets. Freedom from the humiliation of accepting government handouts. Etc. Free! The possibility that freedom is just one ideal among others like community, safety, health, security, compassion, etc., barely enters the conversation. The delusions about freedom lie so deep in that view of the world that millions of Americans actually believe, and will repeat without the slightest doubt, that “the terrorists hate us because we are free.”
- The military-industrial complex. In those irrelevant history books we can read of many a king, prince, or emperor who was infatuated with war. War they must have, but how to pay for it? Tax the peasants? They were already one bad harvest from starvation. Tax the incredibly rich nobles? They would rather overthrow the monarch than pay for his wars. And so, the only alternative (because peace was not an option!) was to borrow the needed funds. Eventually, of course, the country goes bankrupt, the ruler is overthrown, and we start over. Today the U.S. is deeply in debt and headed for bankruptcy because of its ridiculously oversized military budget. The military budget can never be cut, because that is not an option! You see where this is going.
Notice that the racist ideology of white supremacy, an ideology that permeates U.S. history, does not appear on my list except marginally (see #1). That’s because I actually think that, given demographic change (more brown people!) and generational change (“What is all this racist shit about?!?) white supremacy could suddenly flip, in the same way that opposition to gay marriage suddenly flipped. Here’s the problem: even if that happened, all four items on my list would still pertain. Because the success myth, anti-intellectualism, the worship of Freedom!, and the sacred military budget cross all classes, races, genders, and sexual preferences in American society. Those values and beliefs are not going to flip, and sooner or later they are going to bring down the empire.
I wish Hedges could write without hyperventilating, because his inflated rhetoric undercuts his message.
I share his pessimism about the future of America, but I think the reasons for pessimism go deeper than the surface-level events he lists.
- The success myth, which tells us that anyone willing to work hard can succeed in America. The flip side: anyone who has not been successful has only himself to blame, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to give such lazy sods any of my hard-earned dollars.
- Anti-intellectualism, deep-baked into the culture from the very beginning. Distrust education, distrust “worldliness,” just read the Bible and pray. Even where the religion has worn away, the anti-intellectualism persists.
- The religious worship of Freedom above all other values, leading to such absurdities as people insisting that they would rather suffer an obscene rate of gun violence than give up their freedom to own weapons of war; or that they would rather risk being bankrupted by the next illness or injury rather than give up their freedom to be ripped off by private insurance companies. Etc.
I can imagine even white supremacy finally being overturned, just as homophobia has been. But I can’t imagine the success myth, anti-intellectualism, or the religious worship of Freedom disappearing from American culture, and it seems to me that these values, deep-baked into the culture, produce most of the ills that Hedges writes about.
Read Hedges’ article here: https://www.truthdig.com/articles/the-coming-collapse/.
This is a great article about James Baldwin!
For Baldwin, the whole mythic racial nightmare was based upon “economic arrangements of the Western world [which] are obsolete.” People’s identities as Americans are built on fraudulent terms, terms founded upon criminal economic arrangements. Of the latter, Baldwin told Jamal, “Either the West will revise them or the West will perish.” This was especially acute for white folks gripped in “European hangovers” who fantasized that they had more in common with villagers in Scotland or Ireland than they did with black folks who had been their neighbors (and closer than that!) for generations. Economics and race were mutually reinforcing false witnesses.
With no control by readers (beyond tracking protection which relatively few know how to use, and for which there is no one approach, standard or experience), and no blood valving by the publishers who bare those readers’ necks, who knows what the hell actually happens to the data?
Link to full post: https://blogs.harvard.edu/doc/2018/03/23/nothing/
I suggest the OPB interview first, and then the Radio Open Source podcast. Fascinating and important insights.
- OPB https://www.opb.org/radio/programs/thinkoutloud/segment/mohsin-hamid-pakistan-literary-arts-portland-think-out-loud/
- Radio Open Source http://radioopensource.org/mohsin-hamid-unwritten-constitution/#
Mass surveillance is the business model, and we are being sold.
Another great interview by the invaluable Christopher Lydon on his Radio Open Source podcast. The “cult of wellness” is actually the inevitable result of making healthcare a capitalistic enterprise. It’s why the U.S. spends more per capita than any other nation on healthcare, with indifferent results.
Link: “Israeli government denounces Natalie Portman for pulling out of prestigious awards ceremony in protest”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—from “The Second Coming,” by W. B. Yeats
Bridges. Airplanes. Political systems. Things fall apart.
You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves.
—James Baldwin, 1961
So true. Read the latest news from Gaza and the West Bank to see what the Jews, hapless victims of that monster, Hitler, have become in Israel. Or read Dante and understand that, beyond the endlessly inventive punishments of the damned, the meaning of Hell is quite simple: our punishment is to be who we have become, people who can commit unspeakable crimes and deny them.