by Robert Gressis
I suspect that there’s a displaced desire for conflict animating a lot of political junkies: we can’t very well go and raid another tribe anymore, so we settle for destroying them in discourse. This is a rather preferable arrangement: both sides can leave a political debate telling themselves they have destroyed the other guy, whereas with plunder, it’s clear who the winners and losers are.
But of course, even this benign political strife creates a lot of losers. To the extent that politics sublimates our desire for murder, political discussions become more fraught. People are quick to judge each other’s character based on their stated political beliefs. I think that by and large, this is dumb. Just as judging a waiter to be a rude person because he was rude to me today is an instance of what psychologists call “the fundamental attribution error,” so too is judging a person to be evil because he supports Trump; an instance of getting ahead of your skis. Even if voting for Trump were an evil act — I don’t think it is but bear with me — it wouldn’t follow that a person who votes for Trump is an evil person.
Part of the reason for this is that it’s very difficult to know what a vote expresses. Jason Brennan made this point in his book, Against Democracy:
In the  US presidential election, I voted for a certain candidate, regarding him as the lesser of two warmongering, corporatist, paternalistic, plutocratic evils. A colleague voted for that same candidate, regarding him as a truly positive change he could believe in. Suppose someone else voted for that same candidate because they wanted to fit in with their friends. Suppose a fourth person cynically voted for that candidate because they wanted to hasten their country’s demise. What did any of our votes express to others? Just by knowing whom someone voted for, you cannot infer what someone meant to express. (Brennan, 135-36)
Let’s say, though, that someone voted for Trump because she thinks he’s a great man who has, when unfettered, done a great job, and that Biden is both demented and in thrall to radical, America-hating socialists. This certainly tells you something about her, namely: what world she lives in.
What’s the world of the enthusiastic Trump-voter like? Though there are a lot of different kinds of enthusiastic Trump-voters, I think most of them have the following views.
First, they distrust and hate “the media” (by which I will mean the non-right-wing media; it’s worth noting that there is a large, powerful right-wing media). I chose that word order deliberately: I think the distrust preceded and caused the hate. There were too many times when major media outlets (New York Times and CNN seem to the main sources of ire) framed a story in a misleading way, proved overly credulous, were overly cautious, or left out crucial details. Because these – well, let’s just call them goofs – are so frequent, not only do several Trump supporters think that the media is biased against Trump, they think that it literally fabricates stories about him. In other words, they think that elite organizations – whose purpose, remember, is to provide the common facts around which political debate is supposed to revolve – will stop at basically nothing to harm one side and help the other. That’s why they hate the media. And I don’t think “hate” is an exaggeration.
Second, they either don’t see Trump as a liar or they think his lying is justified (some, of course, believe both). The reason some don’t see him as a liar is that claims that he lies come from the press, whom they think of as liars. If Jim, a liar, says that Donald is a liar, you don’t believe Jim—especially if you know that Jim hates Donald. But some of them will admit he’s a liar; it’s just that they think it’s justified. After all, when the press lies as much about Trump as they do, then they’ve made it clear that they’ll play dirty. So it’s ok for Trump to play dirty too. They started it.
Third, they don’t just see the media as liars. They also see academics as liars. Not just liars, but liars paid by tax-dollars to spew anti-American propaganda at Trump-voters’ children. This matters, because it means they’re highly distrustful and fearful of expert opinion, whether those experts are professors of international relations, public health officials, or climate scientists. It also gives them a persecution complex. And it makes them hate media-dubbed “experts,” too.
Finally, there is a kind of intellectual coherence to their views as well. Basically, their worldview is this: there are a bunch of well-heeled, well-educated people who travel in the same circles and who want the same things: free trade, more immigration, more environmental regulation, more social liberalization, and more restrictions on business. The reason this group of people—the “elites”—want these things is that they, personally, benefit. Business people benefit from free trade and the cheaper labor provided by unskilled immigrants; universities benefit from the tuition dollars that immigrants provide; rich tech bros and finance types in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, and Washington, DC benefit from having cheap housekeepers, gardeners, and produce; big business can absorb the costs of more environmental regulation in a way that small businesses can’t, and upper-middle-class liberals can afford environmentally friendly cars without worrying that environmental regulations will kill their own industries; and social liberals want to indulge in sexual experimentation without sanction while condemning evangelical Christians and rust-belt laborers for their benighted social views.
In short, the worldview of the elites, according to Trump supporters, is: we hate you, we’re better than you, we’re going to destroy what you care about, and we’re going to make you pay for the privilege of our doing this. And, they hate Trump above all. So that means Trump is great.
I regale you with all this, not because I accept it, but because I think someone who accepts it isn’t necessarily a bad person for accepting it. I think large portions of it are false — I think the media very rarely fabricates, I think most experts really do have genuine expertise, I think Trump is incompetent and malevolent, and I think a lot of the policies that the neoliberal elite favor are good policies, arrived at only partly out of motivated reasoning. But I can totally get how someone can end up in this world, just as I can understand how someone could end up in the alternative, social justice world.
The problem is these worlds are getting bigger. The world I’m living in – my world – is getting smaller. And the people on these other worlds enjoy warfare in a way that I don’t. I try to understand them; I don’t think they try to understand me, because it seems that Trump voters think I am a rich, upper-middle-class liberal with no allegiance to America who wants to corrupt their children, while social justice types think I’m blinded by my privilege and dangerous to the extent that I don’t make actively resisting my own privilege my central life-policy. In other words, Trump-types think I’m evil, and social justice types think I’m willfully ignorant. Both think I’m dangerous. So, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before one or both groups try to destroy me.
But thinking that way amounts to falling into the same trap I’ve said they fall into. I’m catastrophizing. I’m engaging in all-or-nothing thinking. I’m painting myself as someone who’s nobly above the fray while describing people worried about disloyal cosmopolitans or white supremacy as beneath me, carried away by forces they can’t even see. In other words, exposure to these worlds infects you: the more people you meet who think that life is a Manichean struggle, the more you begin to think that life, really is a Manichean struggle, namely, between crazy Trumpkins and SJWs, on the one side, and normies on the other.
The sad fact is, I can’t deny it. I really do see people at the extremes as, well, nuts. As living in completely different worlds from me. This is the political problem, of which Trump is a symptom: I think people really are getting crazier. And I can’t help but feel like I’m sane. And yet, thinking you’re sane while thinking that everyone around you is getting crazy is a telltale sign of insanity.
This is why politics is so fraught. When you feel that two-thirds of the political world has gone insane, two responses come to mind: treat them as equals, in which case you’ll repeatedly end up upbraiding them for their failings; or treat them as lost souls, in which case you will pity them as mental cases.
My own solution is just to cut the Gordian knot: I have withdrawn. I’m trying to keep myself as ignorant of politics as possible, partly for my mental health. Hearing about our current political scene is deeply disturbing. It reminds me people are not handling each other well, which scares me; “when is someone coming for me?” is a question that abides after spelunking into the caverns of politics.
But I’m also doing it for my moral health: a lot of times, learning about people’s reactions to politics makes it almost impossible for me to see them in the same way. I lose respect for them. I fall into the fundamental attribution error: I judge them as evil, demented, or dangerous because of the things they say in the one sphere of our lives where we can feel like we’re part of a conquering horde, where we can crush our enemies, see them driven before us, and hear the lamentations of their women.
My withdrawal, then, comes from my own personal failings. It’s too hard for me to be a mensch to you when I see you being so unmenschlich. If I were a better person, I’d talk more about politics. But I avoid it when I can, because I don’t want to be a worse person.
 For example, numerous graphics or stories that talk about how right-wing terrorists have killed more people from September 12, 2001 on than Islamists have. Huh. I wonder why they started at September 12, 2001?
 See, among numerous other possibilities, journalists’ reactions to the Covington Catholic video, the Jussi Smollett hoax, or Deborah Ramirez’s gang-rape allegations against Brett Kavanaugh.
 Witness some journalists’ hesitancy to describe Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter, as an Islamist terrorist, preferring instead to see him as a self-hating gay. This despite the fact that during his 9-1-1 call during his shooting, Mateen swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
 Writing in an essay for the New York Times, Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly uncovered a hither unknown sexual harassment allegation against Brett Kavanaugh. They failed to mention that the woman on whose behalf they offered the allegation denied the allegation, nor did they mention that she had several friends who also denied that she made the allegation.
23 responses to “The New Abnormal”
There’s a type of Trump voter whom you leave out, people whose economic interests are favored by Trump’s policies, for example, people with investments in the oil industry or who have good jobs in the oil industry, people who like Trump because he denies climate change and wants to loosen or has loosened restrictions on oil drilling (remember “drill baby drill”). Perhaps also certain sectors of Wall St. who have heavily invested in industries or companies benefited by Trump’s trade policies, etc. I don’t have the full list, but it’s important to keep in mind that many people vote for the guy who favors their bank account. In the context of a capitalist system, I don’t find that to be evil and actually, I very rarely use the word “evil”.
i love this post for one reason alone: it is a coherent, well argued and maybe even persuasive case for politics not only not being everything in life, but being demoted in life further down the scale of interest and consideration. I know this might not be the intended aim of the post, at least initially, but you make the best case here on behalf for those of us who do not wish to be bludgeoned or cowered into being political and/or/activist creatures.
I live in Chile and there’s a political analyst whom I always listen to, Mirko Macari, cynical, realistic, although basically liberal rather than conservative. As to why he’s so fascinated by politics, Macari quips, “it’s more entertaining than football (soccer)”. That sums it up for me.
I’ll admit that I look at politics as entertainment. My own political views may be similar to those of Robert Gressis (author of the post). I treat what is happening as entertainment, because taking it seriously might lead to serious depression.
Trump may be a product of our times, but as President of the United States he is deliberately stoking racial hatred and division for the sole purpose of getting himself re-elected. He is like an anti-Lincoln, someone who impulsively damages the fabric that holds the nation together. A great leader heals the divide. A bad leader exacerbates it. With Trump’s election I had the opposite response of the author’s. Trump’s election is an emergency, and a sign that something is deeply wrong with the American and the global political system. Ten years ago I was much more of an environmentalist. But Trump’s election and Brexit made me realize that politics is more important – in this sense – we can destroy our own civilization a lot faster than we can destroy the environment. I know that we are doing a good job destroying the latter, but a stable and representative political system can go a long way to rectify our mistakes. But if we degrade our political and social systems sufficiently, we will succeed in making ourselves totally impotent and helpless to do anything.
I’m not sure I disagree with you … but I’ll say this much more, and maybe I’ll understand better whether we’re in agreement or not.
I think the fact that Trump was elected is extremely important. It tells you that *something* has gone wrong. Just what isn’t clear, at least to me. I think the best explanation I’ve read comes from Jonathan Rauch (here: https://media.grc.com/How_American_Politics_Went_Insane.pdf). The basic idea, if I’m remembering it correctly, is that reforms gradually stripped away politicians’ abilities to offer things to each other, which in turn made compromise more difficult, which in turn attracted more radical politicians who disliked compromise for ideological reasons. Trump is the current apogee, but there’s no reason to think that it can’t get worse.
The one political thing I’ve done is donate $100/month to the Center for Election Science (see here: https://electionscience.org/), which is trying to get approval voting passed in as many places as possible. I’m hoping that has the moderating effects it’s promised to have.
Going back to your post: I can see why it’s important to get rid of Trump. I want to get rid of him, too. But unfortunately, his approach seems to me to have some role to play in making Democrats less attractive as a party as well; here’s how Matt Taibbi described Trump’s simple, but inevitably effective approach to politics: “His schtick is to provoke rivals to the point where they drop what they’re doing and spend their time screaming at him, which from the jump validates the primary tenet of his worldview, i.e. that everything is about him” (see here: https://taibbi.substack.com/p/the-trump-era-sucks-and-needs-to).
In other words, he says and does such outrageous things that he provokes his adversaries into doing similarly outrageous things; their thinking is both “he’s such a menace that extraordinary measures are needed” and “well, if he’s allowed to do [whatever], then we should definitely be allowed to do [whatever] too!”
Although I haven’t followed the news closely lately (as my post conveys, I hope), I did listen to a podcast with Nancy Rommelmann, and the portrait she paints of how the media is covering Portland is terrifying (see here: https://reason.com/2020/09/04/youre-not-allowed-to-film-the-fight-for-control-over-who-reports-from-portland/). If she’s to be believed, it seems as though members of the non-right-wing media who cover Portland feel it is incumbent upon them to support the activists, and to make sure that nothing discrediting becomes available to the public. The fourth estate becoming a fifth column worries me immensely, but they can no doubt justify it to themselves on the grounds of the allegedly existential threat that Trump is.
That’s kind of the point of my little essay — the existence of this kind of right-wing is scary, and the existence of its left-wing is scary too, and both wings use the existence of the other as convincing justification that 1/3 of the country has become a danger to the other 2/3. They’re both right! Which makes me feel quite fearful.
In my view, Rauch is one of the best analysts on the scene.
Actually the madness that puzzles me is why a party that wants to win an election would offer Biden who is a challenged challenger and Kamala the intersectional wonder woman who claims to be black and a person of colour in a pathetic attempt to scrape the votes of African-Americans. She shares none of their history or their predicament. D.K. will cry all the way to the bank.
I recently posted this on an article by Dan Tippens, on a completely different topic; yet it seems to fit equally well here:
“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.”
-Yeats, The Second Coming
I do not accept the false “Left-Right” equivalence suggested here The Left has certainly been in a bad way, ever since the ’60s, especially in and around the academy; and it did serious damage to political discourse in the ’60s – this week Trump surfaced the old Leftist charge that the Pentagon starts wars to enrich the industrialists, in order to deflect from the discovery that he probably expressed contempt for soldiers. But the fact remains that the “youth Revolution” of the ’60s not only revealed that the Left was not going to achieve dominance, it demonstrated the many reasons why the Left could never achieve dominance, let alone a revolution, and Leftists have ignored this at their peril.
But the Right is strong, well-organized well-funded, and has connections. The Right has its weaknesses, but Trump has demonstrated that even these weakness can be deployed as strengths under certain conditions. If we ever have a truly decisive revolution in this country, it will come from the Right. (I personally fear it is already well under way.)
When I researched my reading of Hitler’s Mein Kampf 25 years ago, I needed to read sociological studies of Germans in the ’30s; not only retrospective studies, but studies conducted at the time. The Germans who supported Hitler were not monsters. Even though they were anti-Semitic, they were only casually so, in the sense that anti-Semitism had worked itself into the fabric of German society. Their primary concerns were economic, and a continuing bitterness over the German defeat in World War I. There was a general sense of instability and displacement – not quite a sense that they had lost some sort of German identity during the war, but the anxiety that the war had somehow revealed that there really hadn’t been any such identity to begin with. (And they weren’t wrong; “Germany” was really the invention of intellectuals at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.) Hitler encouraged and strengthened their identity as German. He gave them something to believe, a cause that would undo all defeats of the past. He assured them that their economic problems were due to foreign impositions, which when undone would release a mighty nation into a new prosperity, with jobs and wealth for all. He stoked their fears while promising to deliver them from whatever threatened them, which he made a point of identifying precisely with certain ethnicities and certain politics. And emphasizing that note, he essentially promised that a newly united, Nazified Germany would at last rise above all politics. A single leader of a single party with a single vision would lead them into a future of collective contentment within a strong community, with no threats, no challenges, no possible further changes or crises. Of course, this would require world war and wholescale slaughter, but he didn’t lie about that, it’s there in Mein Kampf. He simply convinced them to work together, to make the effort, to trust Party leadership, to trust Adolf Hitler. And when he and the Party asked them to do terrible things, that was just part of the effort needed to secure that future. They weren’t monsters; but monstrous acts were what the future seemed to require of them.
There isn’t real difference between these Germans and the Americans who form the cult of Trump. There is not a question in my mind that such Americans would willingly partake in massacres, willingly stand guard at concentration camps and even death camps if the situation ever opened the door to these. Some would have doubts, troubled consciences; but others would engage in this gleefully. Most would simply “go along to get along;” others do it, why not they?
It is silly and overly ‘idealistic’ to consider most people “good,” in the moral sense. It is cynical and self-defeating to think of them as “bad.” But pessimistically, perhaps more realistically, I would say that most people are just morally ‘stupid.’ That is they accept the morals they inherited without thought or criticism, even when these are obviously confused or even contradictory. So they march through life without making moral judgments of their own. Their church tells them what to do, school tells them what to do, if they enlist the army tells them what do, the party tells them what to do, TV shows and advertisements tell them what to do. As long as they have some sense of job security, of belonging to their local community, some identity with those communities, they’re content. But let any of that be challenged….!
The problem is, we cannot let this disappoint us into powerlessness. If we believe that a liberal democratic state; or, if one prefers a ‘representative republic;’ or a representative democracy; or even a parliamentary monarchy with any democratic aspirations – if we believe that such states offer humans the best opportunities for cooperation, for living peacefully in community, for personal fulfillment, then we must accept politics as a necessary and inescapable part and activity of our lives Weariness with politics and surrender of obligation to be political, to engage in politics, is surrender to ideology, to authoritarianism, to totalitarianism, and all the possible horrors that might be consequent to these.
Trump has implied to his followers that the election of ’16 was really somehow the final election; that politics should now come to end; that the political can only move forward through some terrible conspiracy of media, deep state, foreign influences and the Democratic Party. He will use that to justify we-don’t-yet-know-what in the election or its aftermath. It could lead to civil war; it will certainly lead to civil unrest. We can’t let that threat keep us from voting or from remaining politically invested, even politically active.
I remarked in comment to Mark English, that debates in policy are for now moot. There is only one issue in the election, getting rid of Donald Trump. And the issues going forward have to do with how we learn to live together again, given that the differing worlds of which you complain will probably never be melded into a single world again.
Robert: I sympathise with how you feel. American presidential politics is a hopeless mess.
I have a modest proposal. The Presidency is too important, I suggest, to be left to Americans alone. Let the President be chosen by a committee made up of non-American leaders. I suggest the leaders of the UK, Germany, France, Canada, Japan, plus the Pope and the UN Secretary-General. Any American can nominate. Each nominee can make a 10,000 word statement. No money would be involved. The first to be given four votes wins. That’s it.
Everyone would be happier, it seems to me. Partisan politics would be fought out at the Congressional level.
(Dan Kaufman, you’d be a strong contender.)
I don’t know how unique the current state is. Compare and contrast the era of Newt Gingrich (I just found where he described himself as “the most seriously professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson”…), which some people see as a turning point – budget shutdowns etc. Apparently in the 1970’s Gingrich was disliked by the then Republican leadership and made his way to power via GOPAC and his famous revolution, perhaps making him comparable to Rauch’s characterization of Cruz’s destabilizing efforts.
I agree that there is more danger today from the far right than the far left.
As to seeing Trump as a potential Hitler, that is far-fetched, even if Trump dreams of being another, I’d say, Putin rather than Hitler. I lived through 11 of the 17 years of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and I can assure you that Trump has not taken the first step towards being a dictator. Has he closed congress? Has he closed opposition media? Has he censored the “friendly” press? Has he rounded up and shot without trial thousands of opponents?
Has he jailed or shot people whose looks violate his conventional ethos (guys with long hair, etc.)? Does he have a secret police who arrest, torture and disappear people without any judicial process at all, not even one biased in his favor? All of the above done by Pinochet, some of which done during the first day or days of his dictatorship.
Can Trump do the above, even if he wants to? No, it’s fairly clear that he does not have the support of the Pentagon, the FBI or the CIA. He may have some local police forces on his side and the immigration police, but that’s not enough to institute a dictatorship.
I’ve read Professor Gressis’s previous posts and listened to his dialogues with Dan K. I see him as a very sensitive and overly scrupulous person and if in order to preserve his mental health, he abstracts himself from all political activity until after the election or for the rest of life, in my book his mental health goes first. Maybe the philosophical insights Professor Gressis will have during his vacation from politics will compensate his political non-activity. Maybe not, but there’s no point in him sacrificing his mental health.
I wasn’t comparing Trump and Hitler; that would be an entirely different discussion. I was comparing American Trumpists and the Germans of the early ’30s; and that’s a real problem, because this will continue after Trump is gone. Trumpists aren’t necessarily Nazis or even proto-Nazis; but they are looking for a strong Leader, and Trump appeals to them, along principles similar to those engaged by Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Peron – even Stalin, occasionally (certainly Putin today).
These principles however are largely a matter of style and general nationalistic yearnings. Unlike Communism, where variants occur along ideological or theoretical lines, Fascism has no central ideology, and variation is determined by national and cultural differences. If the trends toward fascism (which have been developing for quite some time) are ever completed in America, it won’t look anything like that of Nazi Germany. But the consequences could prove just as horrifying.
I agree with you that Trumpism will continue even if Trump is defeated in November. I don’t believe that the U.S. is ever going back to normal, if by “normal” we mean the good old days of Bill Clinton, the days of Fukuyama and the end of history. There are few instances of someone getting it all as wrong as Fukuyama did and being so widely lionized
The prime of U.S. world hegemony is over and China is a rival with more economic solidity and less ideologically blinded than the Soviet Union. There are lots of people in the U.S. unable to accept the fact that their country
is no longer the unchallenged world champion and just as the collapse of the Kaiser’s empire led to Hitler, the collapse of the U.S. empire may lead to something very ugly. Some nations accept imperial decline gracefully, the U.K. with the Beatles and James Bond, France with existentialism and Brigitte Bardot, but I don’t see the U.S. accepting its decline gracefully.
I almost included a reference to “The Second Coming” in an earlier draft of this piece. I imagine it has seemed relevant ever since it was written.
As for the left-right dichotomy that animates the piece, you’re correct that it’s there, though I don’t think it’s false. I admit there is an asymmetry in the left and the right; for example, leftists can do a better job than rightists of guilting others into giving them positions off power, whereas if there were an armed revolution, I certainly think the right would be better at it. Long story short, people of a right-wing temperament often want different things from leftists, and also find different methods of getting it more appealing.
One thing I think is true (though I could be wrong) is that right-wing politicians are generally more corrupt than left-wing politicians. Now, it could be that I’m wrong about this — my suspicion of greater right-wing corruption is based on anecdote, and that anecdote may built on more media goofs (e.g., it seemed to me that major news organizations generally undermined allegations of corruption against the Obama administration, while amplifying allegations of corruption against Bush II and Trump), but let’s say it’s true that the Republicans are more corrupt than the Democrats. Why might this be true?
One reason may have to do with the right-wing personality type who goes into politics; less interested in following Robert’s rules of order, more interested in getting things done (the political scientist Mike Munger calls a cousin of this–e.g., when it’s done by companies like Uber–“permissionless innovation”). Another possibility is that most (but certainly not all) government bureaucracies are both staffed by center-leftists and have center-left missions as their remits. Consequently, when right-wingers run the executive branch, they have to fight against their own bureacracy’s staff whereas for Democrats they’re more cooperative.
I bring this up because I want to challenge your point that “the Right is strong, well-organized well-funded, and has connections.” I take that you’re elliptically following your sentence with an “as opposed to the Left.” Well, it depends on what you mean by the Left. The American Constitution Society doesn’t match the Federalist Society, nor does Brookings match AEI, Cato, Heritage, and Hoover. But why do the Federalist Society and these right-wing think tanks exist? Because the left has a stranglehold on the academy. Far and away most professors are liberals and leftists, to the point where most intellectual right-wingers felt it pointless to continue on in the academy. It just isn’t for them.
And let’s not stop there. Hollywood and the mainstream media clearly tilt left. They are not as organized as right-wing organizations, but they don’t need to be. And now, look at the Fortune 500 companies taking up the BLM banner. You may think it’s all for show, and it may have started that way, but they’re making real changes, from pledges to reform their employment numbers to donating over a billion dollars to BLM.
Finally, it seems to many on the right that, to the extent that there’s more and more immigration, the Republican party–which is, basically, a party of white grievance–is doomed, and that America will move in a permanently more leftwing direction with regard to economics, at least (for what it’s worth, I’m not sure they’re right about this).
In other words, if the right looks quite unhinged and scary, it’s at least in part because they think, rightly or wrongly, that many of the most powerful institutions in society–academia, the mainstream media (sans Fox), Hollywood, and Fortune 500 companies–are against them.
Finally, you write: “…if we believe that such states offer humans the best opportunities for cooperation, for living peacefully in community, for personal fulfillment, then we must accept politics as a necessary and inescapable part and activity of our lives.” I suppose one of the ways I’m accepting this is by writing this article. There are more ways to carry out one’s civic responsibilities than by voting or campaigning. Sometimes, you can lead by example: if I want to be the change I want to see, then the change I want to see is this: I want people to stop thinking that politics is the most important thing in their lives. Sometimes politics makes you crazy, and when it does, stop, count to ten (months, at least), and then restart.
I’m tempted to debate specifics issue, for instance how much influence conservative think tanks have had in the Executive (which I think quite a lot). or whether “most (but certainly not all) government bureaucracies are both staffed by center-leftists” (which I think demonstrably false. But let me broaden my response. I think one of the problems here is that your professional life is that of an academic, and the Academy is a bubble society all its own. My professional bubble is in private security, and most of my colleagues – no, right now, all of my colleagues, lean hard to the right. So my experience is very different than yours in a number of ways. My colleagues think the Academy is a joke, liberals are all fuzzy-headed dupes for some socialist conspiracy or other, any liberal advances in legislation are the result of somebody sleeping with somebody or drugs. While their favored pundits yowl all day and night (literally, right wing radio is never ending) about the liberal bias of celebrity culture mainstream media, Hollywood, etc.,) the fact is they don’t give a damn about what celebrities have to say; they want to sleep with Kim Kardashian, they don’t want to listen to her. George Clooney was great shooting terrorists and Russians in The Peacemaker, Syriana was just boring. Transformers – many more explosions, much more fun.
The Academy was pushed left with the arrival of degree wielding former hippies who, to be honest had nowhere else to go – the Cultural Revolution gave us FM radio, recreational drugs, and Transcendental Meditation (and its various off-shoots), and that was really about it. Oh, and of course we can grow our hair longer and wear looser fitting clothes. But the struggle for women’s right, gay rights, the ongoing struggle for civil rights and acceptance of people of color, have longer histories. Outside of the Cultural Revolution, most hippies ended up voting for Reagan. Because his people had a real goal – de-industrialization, and an end to the New Deal – that could be achieved economically, as well as a long-term agenda, a permanent majority for the Republican Party. (That failed, and Newt Gingrich came next.) In other words, in the decade when the Academy was pushed left, American politics was pushed right. This dislocation has left much confusion among intellectuals in its wake. But non-intellectuals cherry-pick the intellectual they want speaking for them, often without really paying attention to them. The Closing of the American Mind was condemned by left Academics, and praised by non-academic conservative intellectuals, and became a best-seller. Amusing; because most of the people who bought that book would not have understood it. In order to do so, one would have had to read Heidegger, and have some sense of the breach between Heidegger and his former student Leo Strauss (Bloom’s teacher). Reading Hegel, Nietzsche and Aristotle would also have helped. So how many people paid out good money to have a door-jamb made out of paper? Amusing.
Left-Right equivalence is a strong temptation, encouraged by the media ever since Reagan’s spokespeople insisted on it. But reality doesn’t quite work that way, and the media is simply spectacle whatever its dominant political bias.
If the myth of “Custer’s Last Stand” hadn’t been promulgated throughout the culture for nearly a century – by historians, politicians, military men, artists, movie-makers – books like Custer Died for Your Sins, or Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the novel Little Big Man, would not have been necessary. Eventually we learn something about our past that we have to redress; or we learn something about our present that just doesn’t fit, and we have to correct for it. That usually moves us progressively; when it moves too far forward or too fast, then we need to step back, certainly. But while anxiety over this is inevitable, the fact is, this is how a healthy society works. When things go wrong and get dangerous, it’s because some group gets angry and wants to push forward too fast, or another group gets angry and wants to step too far back too fast. And this anger gives them passion, and they seem to have a greater claim of right than is actually the case, and then differing groups conflict, and the next thing we know, someone throws a rock or shots are fired. In a relatively healthy representative democracy, such things will happen too, and political corrections on all sides will be made to adapt to them, to learn from them, to calm tempers, to re-direct the course of the society to prevent such events from recurring.
But that is the hardest lesson to learn. It blind-sides people, and can be used to motivate further conflict, rather than reducing it. And right now, we are not a healthy society, we are not a healthy representative democracy. We have been demonizing each other far too long, and too many old wounds were never properly tended to and never healed.
Yet I would be untrue to myself if I didn’t say that, as a liberal, I am unashamedly committed to whatever progress we have made – in human rights, in allowance of our differences, in strengthening the respect we show our workers, in the increase of opportunities to those unlike ourselves. Consequently I can’t accept a strict Left-Right equivalence; indeed, I can no longer accept reduction of liberalism and conservativism to Left and Right respectively. Trump is no conservative, but he is well on the right. The SJWs you seem to complain about are on the Left, but they are not liberal. Making such distinctions is important going forward. A lot of real conservatives oppose Trump, and a lot of real liberals have lost tolerance for SJWs.
But more importantly, in the balance of history, the Trump phenomenon carries a lot of weight and presents the probability of lasting damage; the SJW phenomenon is light as a feather, and will ultimately fade away. It’ll be replaced by something equally obnoxious; but that’s what kids do. The question right now is whether our Constitutionally established representative democracy will survive the Trump era; and that is not so clear to me.
Although I’ve already been too-long-winded here, I wanted to add that, because I did read Heidegger, Hegel, Nietzsche, Aristotle and Leo Strauss before getting to it, I thought, and still think, The Closing of the American Mind a very good book, and probably the best criticism of Heidegger from that era one could read.
The fact that most left Academics criticizing it didn’t understand it any better than conservative pundits who touted it, tells us a lot about the sad state of American intellectualism, even then.
“But pinballing as [Perlstein’s] books feel, there is a steady theme that spans all four, he said. ‘It’s our deep American longing for consensus when there is none. It’s an unbridgeable chasm. The biggest narrative that people miss is just how fragile the working peace in this country actually is.’”
Excellent post. Mutatis mutandis for some personal things, you’ve put into words how I claim to feel about what’s going on.
I say “claim to feel” because I can’t shake ejwinner’s comparison of American society today with German society of the 1930s. While I don’t have the chops to examine the comparison and while I don’t wish to go down the Godwin’s law rabbit hole, I can say that personally, and speaking primarily only for myself, I see my own reactions to what’s going on as similar to what I imagine the median middle-class liberal-leaning German of similar background to mine might have felt. I sure hope that if things really do descend as bad as they might, I will choose to be on the side of the courageous and resist rather than on the side of the collaborationist. But in many ways, I’m probably a collaborationist already.
I have more and more withdrawn from politics–although I still vote, and come November, I will vote against Trump–and from political discussions. I do so for my mental health and (as you put it) my “moral health.” But I do fear that if I don’t do more, i.e., do more than lead by example (which isn’t nothing), most of what I’m doing is enabling.
I wonder how much we’re in an inflection point, like you and EJ suspect. Recently, as you may have heard, the University of Edinburgh decided to remove David Hume’s name from one of its buildings, on account of his racist views. Many philosophers were outraged, or at least disagreed with the decision, usually pointing out that we don’t honor Hume for his racist views, but rather for his great philosophical acumen, and that if merely having had views that are racist by today’s standards means that you can’t be honored, then most of the great thinkers of the western tradition will have to have their statues toppled.
In response to this, a person named Edward Moad wrote the following comment:
“I think most of you miss the point with your faux universalist framing of the issue. Its [sic] not a question of whether we should “cancel everyone who is not perfect.” If someone threatens or attacks me I target that person for takedown, not ‘everyone who is imperfect.’
“Brown students facing honored figures in society advocating their disenfranchisement are targeting their enemies. Its [sic] perfectly rational and requires no general commitment to cancel everyone ‘less than perfect.’
“As far as slippery slope arguments go, well yes. The more power in society non-white people are able to organize for themselves the more influence they will have on the culture. This in turn will result in more power, etc. I wish them the best. Who knows what the buildings will be named, who the statues will be, and what will be on the curriculum in the future.
“The white supremacist world order did bring a number of valuable advances – chiefly the conditions of its own demise, including a faith in perpetual progress. Now its time for some of that – a new and better culture for the future and letting go of idols.”
I think this is a really astute comment. From the point of view of many people currently living in western civilization, the fact that so many of the people who shaped it had racist views is good evidence that western civilization is hostile to them, and must be taken down. There is no love for Hume, Newton, or Milton. They may be talented, but their talent was put in the service of evil, and that’s all there is to it.
Of course, I’m not so sanguine that, if we have a new culture, it will be better. But I don’t really have a say in the matter.
I’m pretty stunned that you think this comment is astute. It’s some of the worst thinking on the subject I could imagine.
I’m not sure what to make of that particular comment you quoted, other than I think I disagree with it. One reason is I think the distinction between honoring someone for their racist views and honoring someone for something else is quite workable. Another reason is that white supremacy has evolved over time. It’s not as if sometime, in the early modern period, white supremacy started and then continued, as the same thing, until it’s been challenged. In other words, I have little doubt that Hume chose beliefs we could call white supremacist, but white supremacy in his day wasn’t quite what it is now. While I believe white supremacy always was and always is bad, I’m not saying Hume’s was good, worse, or better than today’s version.
That said, I can’t completely reject the comment you quoted. I don’t know what I’d think if I wasn’t white. So maybe I can offer one cheer for it while disagreeing?
Probably worth going into why I think it’s astute.
First, it does the thing that people are always smart to do: it distinguishes the logic of a movement from the actuality of a movement. So, logically speaking, the protesters are certainly committed to removing the name of everyone who ever said anything that is objectionable by today’s standards, no matter what their other contributions. Against this move, Moad notes that people will only target those people who “threaten” them. This is astute, because it helps to explain why students want to remove, say, Wilson or Calhoun’s name from particular colleges, but not Yale from Yale University. Even though Yale was himself a slaveholder, it’s important to keep the “Yale” name, because it benefits the students directly — the Yale name has a lot of cachet, so you’re not going to say any movement to rename “Yale” to, say, “Douglass” or “DuBois” or “Wells” or “King.” In other words, these movements are hypocritical and self-serving, people feel “threatened” only when they can get away with removing something without suffering any personal cost.
Second, it points out, from the protesters’ point of view, all these figures — Hume, Kant, Mozart, Goethe, Shakespeare, etc. — are the pillars of western culture, and so, the enemies of black and brown people (which I think is another way of saying blacks and Hispanics?) Thus, the idea that we should keep or not keep people’s names depending on what their most salient accomplishments are is elegantly swept aside: either they’re primarily about racism or they’re not; if they are, sweep them aside; if they’re not, then they’re remembered for supporting western culture, which is racist culture, so sweep them aside. So: sweep them aside.
The neat thing about this is that it does two things, at odds with each other, and incredibly quickly: (1) it says “hey don’t worry about what the logic of a movement is; all you have to worry about is what people actually do, because they don’t follow logic, they follow emotion, namely fear”; and (2) “by the way, these people fear all of western civilization, except the parts that benefit them directly in the short term, so their feelings are, indeed, in line with most of the logic.”
So, I think it’s astute in the sense of accurately representing how certain people think (in ways they would accept) while also doing so in a way that shows both how quickly they contradict themselves and how they can do so without realizing it. Obviously, that wasn’t the author’s intent, but the comment so compactly does a great job of showing how the new leading lights think.
Lea Ypi, in a recent article for The Guardian that Brian Leiter linked to (here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/12/right-pretending-left-runs-britain), does much the same thing. (Note: Lea Ypi has a much more prestigious position than I have, and can probably philosophize circles around me; I think that most people are where they are in philosophy because they tend to be really good at how philosophy is practiced nowadays. I don’t think this is just, or mainly, a matter of networking, but largely a matter of ability. Ypi, I’m guessing, has a significantly greater philosophical ability than I have.)
In the first part of the article, Ypi talks about how the political right in Britain feels as though the left controls all institutions, and she notes in response that the left in Britain has no control over politics or industry. So she concludes that, when the right talks about how the left controls all institutions, they must mean cultural ones. She then writes,
“When the right claims that the ‘left is in control’, it is pulling a Gramscian move: they know the left has no political or economic power, but claim that it nonetheless pervades society and culture.
“For the right, those who question the legacy of the empire or making efforts to decolonise university curriculums have created a situation in which ‘the very underpinnings of western liberal democracies are being subverted and destroyed’. Instead of asking why so many of the songs we sing, roads we walk down and statues we pass contain traces of an injustice whose legacy continues to shape the present, Conservative MPs are urged to be ‘the vanguard’ of the opposition to the left’s ‘remorseless cancel culture’.”
Did you see the neat trick? On the one hand, she says that all the left wants to do is decolonize university curriculums, and she makes fun of the right for equating that to destroying “the very underpinnings of western liberal democracies.” Then, she says that instead of worrying about cancel culture, we should ask why so many of the songs we sing, the roads we we walk down, or the statues we pass “contain *traces* of an injustice”. But what does worrying about “traces” of injustice mean *in practice*? It means, of course, getting rid of all the underpinnings of western liberal democracies, because certainly all of them were born in sin, and so, have traces.
Personally, I think this is amazing. They really do believe that getting rid of any honoring of people who said things we don’t like is a small thing (why get mad about it? What’s so great about Einstein and Darwin?) and that if you don’t get rid of such honors, it’s a huge thing (don’t you know that honoring Einstein is the same as honoring sexism? Or that honoring Darwin is the same as honoring racism?).