Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Correspondence: The bowl is cracked

Edited by Moristotle

Personal note from the editor: One of my wife’s and my small serving bowls has had a hairline crack for months. I finally removed it from the cupboard this morning and suggested to my wife that we use it for decoration. She said, “Has the crack gotten worse?” No, I said, but it can’t get better – only worse.
    Such is the state of politics and government (and social fabric) in the United States. Trump has been elected – but he hasn’t taken office yet. He has named Steve Bannon his chief adviser – but Bannon’s advisee hasn’t taken office yet. And so on. Trump hasn’t taken office yet; it can only get worse.
    Of course, many Americans are saying that the bowl has already broken in two – we just can’t see it yet. Maybe we are still in denial – the first stage of grief.
    Perhaps appropriately, my wife and I are currently watching NSU: German History X (2016, on Netflix). “NSU” stands for the neo-Nazi National Socialist Underground, which, after German reunification, began a killing spree while cops fought an uphill battle to catch them.
    NSU, though fascinating, informative, and “entertaining,” is sometimes hard to watch, the ugly, vicious bigotry portrayed – like taunting and shoving a young Jewish mother (with babe in arms) at a Jewish cemetery at which the young neo-Nazis have just desecrated a tombstone – the seemingly mindless (or soulless?) adolescent destructiveness and perverted “idealism” of twenty-somethings. There’s one scene of their watching the news out of Oklahoma of Timothy McVeigh’s bombing the government building and their being awe-unspired by his amazing “achievement” – “He was just one man,” one of them says, “but explosives are harder to obtain here [harder in Germany than in America].”

Albrecht Dürer’s “The Rhinoceros,” 1515
“A Time for Refusal” [Teju Cole, NY Times Magazine,November 11]. Excerpt:
Eugène Ionesco was French-Romanian. He wrote “Rhinoceros” in 1958 as a response to totalitarian movements in Europe, but he was influenced specifically by his experience of fascism in Romania in the 1930s. Ionesco wanted to know why so many people give in to these poisonous ideologies. How could so many get it so wrong?....
    On Aug. 19, 2015, shortly after midnight, the brothers Stephen and Scott Leader assaulted Guillermo Rodriguez. Rodriguez had been sleeping near a train station in Boston. The Leader brothers beat him with a metal pipe, breaking his nose and bruising his ribs, and called him a “wetback.” They urinated on him. “All these illegals need to be deported,” they are said to have declared during the attack. The brothers were fans of the candidate who would go on to win the Republican party’s presidential nomination. Told of the incident at the time, that candidate said: “People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country, and they want this country to be great again.”
    In the early hours of Nov. 9, 2016, the winner of the presidential election was declared. As the day unfolded, the extent to which a moral rhinoceritis had taken hold was apparent. People magazine had a giddy piece about the president-elect’s daughter and her family, a sequence of photos that they headlined “way too cute.” In The New York Times, one opinion piece suggested that the belligerent bigot’s supporters ought not be shamed. Another asked whether this president-elect could be a good president and found cause for optimism. Cable news anchors were able to express their surprise at the outcome of the election, but not in any way vocalize their fury. All around were the unmistakable signs of normalization in progress. So many were falling into line without being pushed. It was happening at tremendous speed, like a contagion. And it was catching even those whose plan was, like Dudard’s in “Rhinoceros,” to criticize “from the inside.”
    Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it. It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else. This is not a process that began a week or month or year ago. It did not begin with drone assassinations, or with the war on Iraq. Evil has always been here. But now it has taken on a totalitarian tone. [read more]
It is also important to notice the disciplinary action taken against the teacher in Northern California (himself an expert on World War II and the Third Reich) for referring to Trump as a Nazi. The Alt Right IS Nazism; White Nationalists ARE Nazis. They are anti-Semitic, anti-blacks, anti-Hispanics, anti-women, anti-gays. If we all keep pussy-footing around the label, we are all lying. They are Nazis, pure and simple. And the head of the Alt Right, a self-proclaimed White Nationalist, is the new president’s chief advisor. And the vice-president (or president-to-be if Ed is right*), will mandate Christian prayer in all schools and try to legislate conversion therapy for gays and lesbians (if he doesn’t just have them gassed).
    Monday’s smear by Mr. Carney [“Reflections on weeping over the US Presidential election”] made me so ill I am going to turn off the option for getting automatic email notifications. Yes it’s important to look ourselves in the mirror, but not this soon, not while we are still bleeding and weeping and mourning those soon to be hurt. And to do it with such self-righteous glee….
    I am thinking about resigning my staff position on Moristotle & Co. You will say that we need to hear all points of view, but for the next four years we will hear only one point of view, and we don’t need it amplified by the likes of Mr. Carney or any others. I’m sorry, Morris, but these are hard times. If we don’t resist at the start, by the time of Kristallnacht it will be too late. Everyone’s counting on the Constitution’s checks and balances. But the Constitution is a fragile thing when the whole works is in the hands of one party. If Moristotle & Co. is not going to be a resource for resistance, then I’m not sure I should waste any time or thought on it.
    The one thing we have to keep in mind in the face of taunts of “Crybaby” from the likes of Rudy Giuliani is that this was not a normal election and does not call for the usual post-election behavior.
    But I also don’t want to beat you up in my rush to the barricades. Sigh.

Listen to what Bernie Sanders told Stephen Colbert would be the worst scenario:

The New Yorker probably intended its November 14 cover (which appeared the day before the US Presidential election) as black comedy, but the comedy was quickly blacker than it imagined.

Welcome, fellow sufferer, to the vast community of those mourning, grieving, angered by the results of Tuesday’s election, and still trying to retain their sanity and go on about their daily lives. I guess it’s easier in California, where Hillary got more votes, percentage-wise and numerically, than in any other state – it’s the most liberal state in the country. But it is painful to read the newspapers and to think national-policy thoughts, what ifs, what’s next, and so on. Periodically, my wife and I remind each other to declare a break – a Trump-free, politics free, zone – for a while. Often it is interrupted by another thought or another response. But the impulse is healthy and necessary. I have to admit that I feel better today than I did Wednesday morning, when I woke up, after 2-3 hours sleep, unable to sleep, and consulted news sites to confirm what I had suspected when I went to bed the night before, that Trump would be our next President. None of the broadcasters on national TV, while witnesssing the debacle, had emphasized that Hillary won the popular vote. I think this is a key issue, at least for the future. Whereas in the first 100 years of the republic, there was, I think, only one electoral/popular split, it’s happened twice in the last sixteen years. That’s disturbing; it also shows what everyone seems to know, but hardly anyone takes seriously into account: we’re split down the middle as a country. The Republicans certainly have not governed that way when they were in charge, and the Democrats should probably take notice when and if they return to some measure of power.
    It’s not reassuring that, given press-predilections, Trump is part of an international “alt-right” wave: Marine Le Pen, Brexit, Jobbit et al. The press, I think, likes to be part of mass think, and except in certain quarters, isn’t very analytical or self-critical. I could wish that they hadn’t given Trump so much free on-air time because he was good copy (and hence, good for commerce) or spent endless repetitive comments on Hillary’s email problem, which was incredibly small potatoes. I don’t give Comey any credit for emphasizing this at all. I suppose I could blame Hillary for giving uninspired speeches or running a lackluster campaign, but that’s really unfair: she was the better candidate by a country mile and worked her butt off, and is undoubtedly suffering more than she’s shown or anyone but her closest confidants knows.
    There was an article in this morning’s local paper about middle school children feeling fearful, traumatized, and threatened. Very moving and sad. One of the comments in the article came from a therapist helping the children and others, trying to remind them that many extreme fears aren’t actually realized in fact. Let’s hope.
    One piece of advice I’ve heard comes from Voltaire at the end of “Candide”: Cultiver votre jardin. Cultivate your garden; retreat from public and political life when it is anathema, and focus on the local, the personal, the positive, and the natural. I’m trying.

“Forgotten Man,” by Maynard Dixon
Here are a couple of reactions to the Trump election that I find illuminating:
    In “Who Is the ‘Forgotten Man’?” [NY Times, November 10], Yale historian Beverly Gage presents a list of the “forgotten man” in American political history since the progressive age:

  • In 1932, FDR listed the industrial worker, the struggling farmer, and the Keynesian consumer as the neglected ordinary citizen for whom the state should care by way of his New Deal policies.
  • After WWII the ignored black citizen was added to this group by Lyndon Johnson.
  • However, by the time of Richard Nixon’s election in 1968, the journalist Peter Schrag argued that the “forgotten American” was the white “lower middle class” voter.
Trump has created a powerful new political force out of these neglected Americans, whose definition has changed and now prevailed.
    Harvard economist Dani Rodrik wrote an interesting Harvard working paper last year, “The political economy of liberal democracy,” which provided an argument why political deals by three population groups – the very rich and asset-owning class, the general middle class, and the minorities – can result in three kinds of results:

  1. autocracy by the rich, owning class, beset by a disadvantaged majority that could threaten both political and wealth takeovers,
  2. sharing of political power, in a democracy where the majority gets political rights, and property rights for the rich are enshrined in the constitution; i.e., only a limited, small-scale wealth redistribution is possible together with political stability,
  3. liberal democracy, where minorities, who have neither assets nor political power, are also allowed participation in civil rights.
    Rodrik found that historically illiberal democracies outnumber liberal democracies, and theoretically are the most probable outcomes of political struggles and contracts. The liberal democracies of the western world, with the extension of civil rights to minorities, are actually not the norm.
    In his analysis of the Trump presidency, “What’s the Biggest Fear of a Trump Presidency?” Rodrik argues that Trump cannot bring back the lost manufacturing jobs. They were largely lost by technical change, not by globalization. Any fussing around with trade treaties and more tariffs cannot bring about a big increase in manufacturing jobs. They are permanently gone.
    Rodrik argues that when Trump realizes his attempts to restore historical numbers of those jobs will fail, he will become active politically instead and could turn the United States into an illiberal democracy, with a ruling Republican Party becoming a nationalist protest party, while the Democratic Party becomes the standard bearer of racial tolerance and free-market globalization.
    Rodrik argues that this political change of America from a liberal to an illiberal democracy is the biggest threat of a Trump presidency, not the possible economic policy changes.
    I have long found Rodrik to be a brilliant, inquisitive economist with historical depth and fine empirical articles on economic growth and on economic development. I take his warning seriously.

Steve Bannon
Alas, after hearing today that several of Trump’s newly chosen advisors are either avowed white supremacists or, like Pence, foaming at the mouth to strip gays and lesbians of their civil liberties (and that Sarah Palin may become Secretary of the Interior: say hello to oil wells off the California coast), I have done another about face. This is not like Nazism: it is Nazism. We all like to criticize those Germans who let Hitler happen. Hitler was a lot nicer than Trump, at least at the start, so it’s easy to see their mistake. History will not be as kind to us. Avoidance and appeasement (and un-friending) will not do. This Thanksgiving, instead of changing the topic away from politics, I will confront my sister’s husband for voting for a man and an administration who want to harm me and millions of my fellow Americans. I will give my niece a warning of what is to come and the option of un-inviting me. It is her house, after all. But I will never guarantee to be silent. I will fight, pure and simple. Sorry to be trending away from the Kumbaya, and sorry for the fierce rhetoric, Morris, but this is not simply another political choice: this is evil.

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s aricle There is no such thing as western civilisation” [Guardian, November 9] is excellent intellectual history of western civilization, and beautifully written. Perhaps my favorite statement: “The story of the golden nugget suggests that we cannot help caring about the traditions of ‘the west’ because they are ours: in fact, the opposite is true. They are only ours if we care about them. A culture of liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry: that would be a good idea. But these values represent choices to make, not tracks laid down by a western destiny.”
* See comment on Monday’s column “Reflections on weeping over the US Presidential election”: “…The one thing that Washington DC does not like is someone they cannot control. Pence is the insider, and the man the Rep[ublican]s want in the White House. Look for them to impeach Trump before his first year is over.”

Grateful for correspondence, Moristotle


  1. My heart is with those who feel hurt and betrayed. After Nixon's re-election I quit having anything to do with politics. I was madder the day Nixon resigned than I was the day he was elected. I felt the country deserved the sorry SOB. In truth Nixon tapped into the same people who elected Trump. Nixon also, made the person he was running against look as bad as he was. After Nixon resigned it was hard to find anyone who voted for him, which is strange as he won by a landslide. Here is a thought if you ready want to do something that matters. Change the people in congress. It two years there is an election. Democrats need to start thinking smarter. The State I live in and the county I live in is so red a democrat doesn't stand a chance so I'm going looking for Republicans that stand for the things I believe. We can't vote a Democrat into office but we as Democrats can vote the Tea Party out of power.

  2. Thank you, Ed (and Mr. Doe). Right, even fewer people vote in non-presidential elections. Personally, I don't think I've failed to vote in ANY election since 1996, when I was recovering from surgery (and I probably voted that year too). I believe that in Australia voting is (or used to be) considered an obligation of citizenship....(Maybe Vic Midyett can confirm, or clarify, this.)

  3. Yes, that's right. If you are a citizen of Australia, voting is compulsory. In fact, you have to prove you were in a coma or overseas to get out of paying a fine. I'm kidding about the coma, but the point is, it must be a very good reason. Now, if you were in a coma AND overseas, that would be a really good reason! ha!

    1. Thanks! And I'm delighted I remembered correctly, and voting IS compulsory. That's CIVILIZED, in my opinion.

  4. But, Vic, do Aussies like voting's being compulsory? Do they bitch and moan? What's the penalty for failing to vote? And when do Aussies vote? Is it convenient?
        Here in the States, alas, as you know, the parties "have history" of trying to make it harder for their least favorite demographics to vote....It's like gerrymandering in that they have the same objective - to get a lock on political power.