Monday, May 23, 2016

Reading the messy tea leaves of politics and history

Michael Lind has done some good work over on analyzing the far right in US politics. His book Made in Texas : George W. Bush and the Southern takeover of American politics (2003) is very helpful in understanding not only the Shrub Bush Administration but also the evolution of Republican ideology and, in particular, why so many crackpot ideas are churned out by the Texas Republicans. His Rev. Robertson’s Grand International Conspiracy Theory from the 02/02/1995 issue of the New York Review of Books is a classic.

But the whole complex of issues around multiculturalism seems to have always bugged him. And it can lead him astray, which I would argue is what happens in This Is What the Future of American Politics Looks Like Politico 05/22/2016. His analysis of the current consituencies of the two major US parties is both too neat and not specific enough: "Today’s Republican Party is predominantly a Midwestern, white, working-class party with its geographic epicenter in the South and interior West. Today’s Democratic Party is a coalition of relatively upscale whites with racial and ethnic minorities, concentrated in an archipelago of densely populated blue cities." And it leads him to constructions like this:

The rise of populist nationalism on the right is paralleled by the rise of multicultural globalism on the center-left.

For multicultural globalists, national boundaries are increasingly obsolete and perhaps even immoral. According to the emerging progressive orthodoxy, the identities that count are subnational (race, gender, orientation) and supranational (citizenship of the world). While not necessarily representative of Democratic voters, progressive pundits and journalists increasingly speak a dialect of ethical cosmopolitanism or globalism — the idea that it is unjust to discriminate in favor of one’s fellow nationals against citizens of foreign countries.
I have a big problem with the corporate-deregulation treaties like TTIP and TPP that are passed off as "trade" treaties. They have become a major tool in forcing neoliberal economic policies on countries who badly need something else.

Tunisia's situation doesn't have to do specifically with corporate-deregulation trade treaties. But it is yet another addition to the already long list of neoliberal failure stories: Clara Capelli, Tunisia in Turmoil: When Supply-Side Orthodoxy Meets an Angry Citizenry Institute for New Economic Thinking 05/23/2016.

But Lind's framing of the partisan realignment in his article appears to be heavily influenced by the notion that emphasis on multicultural tolerance is in practice hostile to progressive, Keynesian economic policies. At best, that's way too simple an assumption to describe what's happening in US politics.

Another recent article expresses a sentiment with which I sympathize gets lost between considering "America" as an ideal and the real existing United States of America, The right wing hates America: The loudest flag-waving patriots are always the dangerous hypocrites

In their opposition to immigration, mockery of diversity and advocacy of theocracy, the right wing demonstrates that it not only hates what America has become, but has no understanding or appreciation for what America has always been.

What has always made America great is its promise of freedom expansion and enlargement, its integration of various people with different beliefs and behaviors into a shared community, and its foundation as a secular republic with the ability to adapt to new information and make ethical improvements.

The philosophy of the American Revolution was beautiful, but the brutality and hypocrisy of its implementation made the words of the Constitution seem like a cruel joke to those who could not vote, could not live in safety and freedom, and who could not even find a government willing to recognize their humanity. Martin Luther King saw those words not as cynical, but as a “promissory note,” and he, more than most, gave legitimacy and credibility to the American experiment in self-governance.

America triumphs whenever it succeeds in extending freedom and opening opportunity. While still far from perfect, it has made magnificent progress in the expansion of freedom for women, blacks, Hispanics, gays and a variety of other people once locked in the basement of American institutions and culture. It is this exact measure of progress – the fulfillment of the American promise – that frightens and angers much of the right wing constituency. Consistently derisive toward women, supportive of voter suppression and indignant over the protection of rights for gay and transgendered Americans, the right wing illustrates nostalgia for an America that was still in the process of evolving into America. [my emphasis]
Those first two paragraphs just quoted express the contradiction, which I would argue is a contradiction in real history and society, not just a logical/ethical contradiction.

This: "In their opposition to immigration, mockery of diversity and advocacy of theocracy, the right wing demonstrates that it not only hates what America has become, but has no understanding or appreciation for what America has always been" doesn't really fit well with this: "What has always made America great is its promise of freedom expansion and enlargement, its integration of various people with different beliefs and behaviors into a shared community, and its foundation as a secular republic with the ability to adapt to new information and make ethical improvements."

The United States went from being a newly-independent former colony after the Revolutionary War of 1776-1783 to being a major world power by the end of the First World War. And did it while practicing slavery, Indian wars, segregation, and xenophobia. Women's right to vote wasn't even part of the national Constitution until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. It correct that extending freedom is as American as apple pie. So is white racism. Recognizing that doesn't validate the latter. It's just recognizing what happened in US history and continues to happen in the present.

I've had occasion to complain recently about what seems to be the dominant approach of both the left and the center-left to see earlier American history, especially pre-Civil War history, as a chain of immoral horrors broken only by the occasional voice of dissent against slavery. The idea that some part of that history developed in the direction of what we think of today as progress (or improvement or advancement) in democracy and freedom gets lost in such a one-dimensional view of history. Whether or not it's packaged with a heavy dose of moral outrage.

Hegel no doubt had some backward and reprehensible ideas. But the American left and center-left could gain some important insight from that tainted and imperfect vessel. For instance: "World history is not the ground of happiness. The periods of happiness are blank pages in it ..." - Hegel, Philosophy of History (German original: "Die Weltgeschichte ist nicht der Boden des Glücks. Die Perioden des Glücks sind leere Blätter in ihr ...") But he also realized that development and progress happened anyway. Without that, we're not left with much more than cynicism or nihilism in how we look at the real history of real countries and peoples.

And, not incidentally, we allow the right and the far right to hijack even the most progressive, democratic, revolutionary thought of real American history. In a review of Conor Cruise O'Brien's The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800 (1996), Gordon Wood writes (Liberty’s Wild Man
New York Review of Books 02/20/1997 issue):

Because Jefferson the prophet has become so important to America’s civil religion, traditional historians, O’Brien says, have sought to make a sacred icon of the man and have blurred and distorted the real, historical Jefferson. Not only was Jefferson a slaveholding racist who wished to send all blacks out of the country, but he was an extreme fanatic who believed that any number of people could be killed for the sake of a cause. Although O’Brien admits that Jefferson didn’t often say fanatical things, he said enough to be a prophet. Besides, “the fact that the prophet is mostly silent does not mean that he is not always there. He is a brooding presence, possessor of the standard of Liberty, by which all things are to be measured. And the prophet in Jefferson, as in so many others of his kind, is a ruthless prophet.”

Jefferson, it turns out [O'Brien's telling], is responsible for most of what O’Brien dislikes about modern America. Its racism, of course, but more than that. Jefferson is ideologically responsible for the Ku Klux Klan and for lynching and maybe even for the South African doctrine of apartheid. “Someone,” O’Brien suggests, “should write a thesis on ‘The Influence of Thomas Jefferson on Hendrik Verwoerd.”‘

But this is not the worst of Jefferson’s influence. All those militia rebels in “the wilder parts of the American Middle West and Northwest”—those “tens of thousands of Americans ready to fight the Federal Government in the cause of liberty”—are the modern heirs of Jeffersonian ideals. After all, didn’t Jefferson say that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” thus setting forth “something very like a Jeffersonian charter for the most militant section of the modern American militias”? Since Jefferson set no limits to “the holy cause of freedom”—“neither geographical boundaries, nor limits assigned by conventional ideas of morality and compassion”—apparently anything goes if it is done in the name of liberty. If Jefferson had accepted that the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City was “perpetrated in the cause of liberty—as its perpetrators and their admirers appear sincerely to believe that it was — then he would have condoned that act.”
Wood does not approve of this approach:

One would like to believe that much of this book is written tongue in cheek, with some sense of irony and compassion for a country that has as its principal spokesman for its beliefs in democracy and equality a slaveholding racist aristocrat. But no: O’Brien is too enraged and engaged for any humor or ironic lightness of touch. Because he takes ideas seriously and considers them the equivalent of action, he puts more emphasis on what Jefferson said than on what he actually did. And he pays no attention whatever to James Madison’s warning of allowing “for a habit in Mr. Jefferson as in others of great genius of expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment.”
Wood concludes that, in important senses, O'Brien didn't know what he was talking about. At least not well enough:

O’Brien does not seem to possess what should be the basic instinct of a historian—the realization that the past is fundamentally different from the present, with different assumptions, different expectations, different feelings. O’Brien does not seem able to accept the fact that the people of the past did not know what the future was going to be like. Because he also believes that “rational people are generally assumed to intend the consequences of their acts,” he has difficulty in accepting that many of Jefferson’s actions had unanticipated consequences. Finally, he does not know enough about America in the late eighteenth century to develop a full context for understanding Jefferson’s beliefs and actions.
And he notes the perhaps modest but real advantage that careful empirical history can provide in terms of theoretical perspective:

Pathetic as it may seem to present-minded people, he must suggest that Jefferson was a man of the eighteenth century and not our age, that he was not the best of his time perhaps but he was better than most, that on most matters he did not and could not share our ideas, that in fact he could not even imagine our world at all. Jefferson belongs in the eighteenth century [well, 19th century too; Jefferson died on July 4, 1826 after having served as President for the first eight years of that century], but he did make many ringing statements in celebration of liberty and equality that have resounded throughout our culture, indeed the world’s culture, for the past two hundred years.

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