just have to say…

… that Nancy Pelosi tearing up the SOTU speech is the best thing I’ve seen all year. And then that perfect response when asked why: “It was the courteous thing to do — considering the alternative.” — oh yes. She speaks for millions around the world in this gesture which will reverberate down through the ages. I bow.

417e7090fe5b491d82f7d5d0becbc092.jpg

Dear Denmark

Any chance at all you might consider buying Vermont? Just wondering. I think you’d like us a lot, and you’d gain mountains! As for us, sanity levels would rise by several orders of magnitude. Win-win! Please prioritize. På forhånd mange tak.

elephant in the meditation hall

For the past year or so I’ve been absorbing the scandals which have been rocking the worlds of Tibetan Buddhism and yoga. A great many people have had to rethink their allegiances to one organization or another. Many feel deeply betrayed. Too many have been harmed.

I’ve been thinking about our relationship to spiritual communities for a long time, but more recently I’ve been pondering the question: what, specifically, do we tend to bring to them of our own? If the teacher is mature, genuine, they will not encourage students to treat them as a spiritual dictator. Their purpose is to uplift the student, after all, not to dwell above them. But at the same time why should we expect — in the spiritual supermarket which extraordinary economic prosperity and the free flow of all the world’s information inevitably has brought us — that spiritual communities would not inhabit the same full spectrum of integrity as everything else? In other words, banally, power corrupts. Safeguards are always needed.

I think two areas of work must be engaged with. The first is to call out genuine abusiveness where it has been shown to exist, and help all who have been afflicted by it. The further educational need here is this: Asian religious traditions retain an aura of exoticism and unfathomable depth in the West, while at the same time very few people actually know anything about them. This means: a very human situation, in which insufficiently critical seekers long for meaningful spiritual community, and certain others come along to exploit them. The latter group seems to fall into two different categories: those who know what they’re doing all along, and those who become corrupted by power. But the point is that it’s an interdependent situation: without naivety/uncritical thinking, the exploitative teacher doesn’t succeed. So I think we need to focus on both sides.

The larger point is a truism which is nonetheless true: we’re all just human beings in the big human soup together. Our mistake lies in thinking that anyone teaching something “spiritual” dwells above or outside of that soup. Of course, some might profess some kind of enlightenment (personally, my own reaction whenever I hear this is the opposite of what might be intended), and straightforwardly build a power structure from the beginning. But more usually abusive communities hold together as a result of a number of other people silencing in good faith some nagging doubt in their minds — again out of the very human fear of losing their world, their friends, the warmth, the certainty.

Serendipitously, I just thought of a late poem of Allen Ginsberg’s called “Elephant in the Meditation Hall.” It begins by referencing all the religious scandals of his time, then continues:

… And New Left carried psychedelic pictures of Mao, Che Guevara &
++++Castro up and down Empire State’s stairways
A scandal of the sixties! …
What US president hasn’t sponsored war, Lumumba’s assassination, an
++++H-bomb, …
Scandal hundreds homeless under Brooklyn Bridge freezing Xmas &
++++New Year’s Eve! Millions homeless in America!
Who’ll gotta pay for 500,000 U.S. boys & girls visiting Arabian Deserts!
Who’ll cough up billions for Iraq War to save a President’s face?
Twelve Billion dollars mickeymouse the year’s drug wars?
El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala we paid death squads for decades
Nobody does anything right! Gods, Popes, Mullahs, Communists,
++++Poets, Financiers!
My own life, scandal! lazy bum! secondhand royal scarlet ties & Yves St.
++++Laurent Salvation Army blazers …

it really is all on the line

Two Novembers ago we definitively left what now seems like a quaint old world where Democrats and Republicans shaped our governance. I refer to a time where a certain percentage of the populace psychologically tilted towards broadly “progressive” values, and another group psychologically tilted towards broadly “conservative” values, but they could have respectful conversations about their respective affinities. They could touch common ground — quite a lot, in fact, if the listening was really attentive — beneath the different choices they made.

That country has been fraying at the seams for some time. But two years ago a guy unambiguously, not to mention ferociously, declared war on it, and hasn’t let up for one day since. It took me a little while to come up with a single word which comes close to encapsulating the governing “ideology” (if that is the proper term) of our current rulers. The so-called president’s behavior is so uniquely nauseating in so many ways — the delusions and continuous lying, the viciousness, the proud abysmal ignorance, the self-adoration: how to get a handle on it all? But I suggest that we do, it turns out, have a term that gathers together all of these qualities, and it is nihilism.

What we are seeing today emanating from the White House and all its abject apologists in Congress, from the media sector which is driving us over the cliff and all those who swallow that agenda entirely uncritically, is a rejection of values themselves. Which makes it, of course, the precise opposite of conservatism, because it is purely destructive — destructive even for its own sake. It is the pursuit of pure naked power, at virtually any cost. All of the genuine conservatives saw through it from the very start (and they have been amongst the most eloquent and impassioned dissecters of this madness).

There truly does appear to be no decency at all in Trump’s mind, no connection whatsoever to the notion of truth, no sense of constraint to speak of. He is only for himself, and in the crudest, most vulgar way at that. He is precisely the sort of person who should never be given any power over others. And yet he managed to con about 28% of the voting-age population sufficiently to acquire as much power as anyone on the planet has. And they continue to believe the continuous lies he tells on a daily basis — a full 80 in one day a week or so ago. They believed him when he told them they would get a tax cut before election day, despite Congress not even being in session. They believe him when he tells them his wall is being built. They believe him when he tells them that a group of poor, unarmed men, women, and children seeking to apply for asylum in this country entirely legally, coming here on foot, and still 800 miles away, constitutes an “invasion” of disease-ridden Middle Eastern terrorists.

They believe literally everything he tells them. He could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, and his media minions would call it a fake story, and they would believe it.

I’m so exhausted having to inhabit a culture which has become untethered from reality itself. I have not wished to fill this website with daily testaments to just how exhausted I am by it all. How utterly disgusted. And heartbroken. There is something truly poisonous here which needs to be thoroughly defeated. I’m not talking about the triumph of progressivism over conservatism. Again, what we are facing is the antithesis of conservatism. True conservatives and true liberals really do have a lot more in common than many in each grouping often realize, and they can speak to each other, respect each other, and find areas of shared understanding. I’ve had many such conversations online. We need to be under no illusions about the fact that the choice on our plates at this point is between a (certainly flawed) republic, and the triumph of nihilism, with an accelerating cascade of horrors to come if it is not stopped in its tracks, and reversed. It’s that stark.

When (for my own mental health I have to think “when” and not “if”) the delirium breaks and we can return to some kind of basic sanity, then lesser differences can, and should, resurface. At that point Democrats can continue the full range of debates on how they conceive of their party. But now … there is only one party which even recognizes climate change, for heaven’s sake! There is only one party that appears to believe in press freedom! An independent judiciary! An unequivocal right to vote! The full humanity of immigrants! I could go on, but I don’t need to. Vote for the survival of this country — and the greater health of the world. It’s certainly imperfect, but it will get massively, unrecognizably worse if we don’t counter all the poison that has been released into the body politic in recent years.

Simply retaking the House is only a first step, but it would restore at least some measure of divided government. We would still be in a very perilous state, but it’s where we have to start.

I’m not an uncritical fan of Bill Maher, but I do occasionally catch a clip and find that he is capable of saying certain kinds of things well. As he does here. We don’t have the luxury at this point, unfortunately, of insisting upon pure voting choices. The fate of voting itself — among so much else — is on the line. The Republican Party has become a fascism-enabling party, and it seems clear that unless it is repeatedly pummelled in elections it will not edge away from the abyss. So on Tuesday we must pummel them.

Sade — “Immigrant”

Earlier today I had a conversation, with an apologist, about our so-called president’s recent remarks on Haiti and Africa. The depth of sophistry, the mindless shuffling around of words, the unthinking pure reactivity and inability to acknowledge straightforward facts, left me actually shaking in despair. It really has felt like the very death of civilization over the past year and a half. Without at least some level of good faith and commitment to truth, nothing works, nothing is possible. There only remains a bottomless fall into barbarism.

More specifically, this subject can render me a bit ballistic. I keep trying to imagine what it must be like arriving in an alien country with, typically, very minimal proficiency in the native language to start with, where every day contains all kinds of logistical, communicative struggles someone like me never has to think about for a moment. Doing many of the hardest, most unpleasant, most poorly-paid jobs, generally working exceptionally hard, navigating frequent subtle and unsubtle slights — and worse.

These are simply heroes in my book, and this is supposed to be the country that recognizes and welcomes them more than any other on earth. It breaks my heart to see this moronic, astoundingly uneducated, surreally self-obsessed, endlessly foul, utterly lawless man who has never had to materially struggle a day in his life say such things — and be defended, always, by virtually the entire congressional delegation of his party. Really beyond the pale disgusting.

Listening to Sade’s “Immigrant” is helping restore some sanity:

Isn’t it just enough
How hard it is to live
Isn’t it hard enough
Just to make it through a day

The secret of their fear and their suspicion —
Standing there looking like an angel
In his brown shoes
His short suit
His white shirt
And his cuffs a little frayed

Coming from where he did
He was such a dignified child
To even the toughest among us
Don’t you know that would be too much …

He didn’t know what it was to be black
‘Til they gave him his change, but didn’t want to touch his hand
To even the toughest among us
That would be too much

discotecha?

Impossible to determine on the face of it whether the below is genuine or a parody. But in fact it’s real. Wyatt is the son of one of the four Koch Brothers (Bill). And he’s actually wearing a shirt covered in bags of money! … Entirely appropriate of course as the American people’s supposed representatives in Washington have just seen fit to transfer yet more of it — much, much more of it — to people like him, the super-rich.

Note the one made up entirely of what appear to be pink handcuffs. ?! All in all, good to know someone out there is designing louder than loud pajamas which can be worn in the boardroom and … on the yacht.

Oh, and in the “discotecha” (discothequa? discotekka?) …

We have to take the lightness wherever it comes from these days…

“Keep Quiet” (2016)

Earlier this evening I watched a Hungarian documentary called “Keep Quiet.” It concerns a man named Csanád Szegedi, who was in on the far-right nationalist party Jobbik from the beginning, rising to become the number two man in it, cofounder of the Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary organization now banned), and even an MEP. Until the day he discovered he was actually Jewish, and that his grandmother was a survivor of Auschwitz (the family had entirely hidden their background from him). Over the course of an astonishingly brief period of time — a couple of years — he fully embraces Orthodox Judaism and is now in the process of immigrating to Israel.

When he first discovered his ancestry and mentioned the fact to the party, Jobbik’s suggestion was that he remain, to counter the neo-Nazi supporters (look, how can we be anti-Semitic when this guy is part of our leadership?). But he did leave and began a long process of renunciation of his entire past identity. He talks for the first time with his grandmother and mother about their experiences, he begins studying with a prominent rabbi (who after some contemplation of the Talmud decides he must accept Szegedi and try to help him), and he visits Auschwitz with a survivor of the camp, in an almost unbearable-to-watch scene.

When he did leave, he got slammed from both sides: threats from Jobbik members who felt betrayed, rejection by many Jews who didn’t (and still don’t) believe his transformation was genuine. We see him speak to a Jewish conference and be confronted with angry questioners. We see him attempt to visit the large Jewish community of Montréal (a failed visit, as he is not allowed entry, is sent back to Budapest).

It’s a fascinating and powerful film, beautifully shot and assembled.

“Strangers in Their Own Land” — Arlie Russell Hochschild

Arlie Hochschild is Professor Emerita at UC Berkeley and one of the most distinguished sociologists of her generation, and her most recent book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, has received much acclaim over the past year. Rightly so. I have just finished it and can add my voice to all those who have found it a remarkably fine and illuminating study.

Between the years 2011 and 2016 Hoschshild made ten trips to southwestern Louisiana — an area dominated by the petrochemical industry — in order to try and better understand what she calls the Great Paradox: how is it that the residents of the most polluted, toxic areas of the country tend to be members of the Tea Party movement, which vigorously supports the dismantling of environmental regulations? How have they come to oppose the federal government so comprehensively, to deem it so inherently corrupt, when their own states tend to benefit disproportionately from its expenditures? Why do they continue so unquestioningly to trust the very industries whose chemicals, indeed whose environmental disasters, have made them sick and rendered entire towns and regions uninhabitable?

Going further, Hochschild wanted to see if she could manage to, as she puts it, scale the “empathy wall,” the barrier which keeps coastal liberals like herself from being able to meet her counterparts on “the Right” halfway and see the world through their eyes. To this end she interviewed many dozens of Tea Party supporters in Louisiana and followed them around as they lived their lives. She went to church with them, ate dinner at their homes, accompanied them to political meetings and crawfish festivals, drove around to see their childhood homes and other places important to their life experiences. They became her friends, and Strangers in Their Own Land among other things proves to be a hearteningly successful exercise in sustained empathy and openness.

The book is in four parts. The first of these paints the bleak picture of environmental devastation in the region. Hochschild vividly describes several of the catastrophic accidents (not all of them, in fact, even accidents) which have landed Louisiana at the bottom of most measures of ecological and human health — the section on the Bayou Corne sinkhole is particularly chilling. And we’re introduced to a number of people who have suffered enormously, in any number of ways, from the state of things. Yet it is these very individuals who form the core of support for anti-government, anti-regulatory activist groups like the Tea Party. Thus: the “Great Paradox.”

Part Two examines the sociocultural landscape to see how, respectively, industry, state government, the churches, and the media help shape political attitudes in the region. But it is in Part Three where the book really begins to shine. All along Hochschild knew that her questions could only be better understood if she found a way into the feelings of others, their emotional landscape, their “deep story” (in her words). The chapter bearing that title, and the four profiles which follow it, become the heart of the book. To anyone utterly baffled by the electoral success of Trump, I highly recommend these chapters, which show rather than merely tell of a number of the significant connections leading to his political support.

Finally, Part Four then pans out to look at the South in a broader historical perspective, visits a Trump rally (the book was completed during the primary season), and ends with the author’s most recent visits to the friends she made in the region, the subjects of her book. A valuable section of her appendix counters a dozen beliefs concerning government and the environment accepted as gospel in the region she visited but unsupported by research.

One of the most toxic developments of our time is surely the extent to which political disagreements have become so routinely moralized, so that the other “side” is not only mistaken about one thing or another, but demonized for being so, their motivations assumed as a matter of course to be dark. But manichaeism sucks all the space out of a room, rendering any dialogue impossible. We need to counter this practice determinedly. In Hochschild’s portraits we see extremely hard-working, self-sacrificing, long-enduring, generous human beings grappling with their trials, their suffering, their perplexities, just like everyone else. Apart from in the final appendix, the author almost entirely abstains from adding any of her own political commentary: she lets her subjects speak for themselves, and her readers can also judge for themselves the merits of their conclusions on public policy or the nature of a healthy society. This is a great strength of a very significant, and timely, study.

Vermont galvanized

From the current issue of Seven Days:

“Since the January 20 inauguration, Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) office reports that he’s received 50,127 calls, emails and letters on issues ranging from Trump’s cabinet picks to his Supreme Court nominee to his business conflicts.

“Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) office reports an 897 percent increase in call volume from 2016 to 2017 so far, and a 1,808 percent increase in phone calls since 2015.

“‘To offer some perspective on the January 2017 data, we had 1.5 calls every minute for eight consecutive hours for every day we were open,’ writes Josh Miller-Lewis, Sanders’ deputy communications director, in a recent email. ‘There was not one minute when the phones were silent for the entire month of January.’

“Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) says that his constituent contacts have jumped at least sevenfold since last year.”

make Denmark second…

Trump is getting seriously trolled… After some folks in The Netherlands put together a comedic video response to his “America First” inaugural refrain, other European nations have been following suit, and there are currently seven with videos up. The hope is that they will all contribute eventually. You can follow the developments here.

My current favorite I think is Denmark’s:

as an aid to sanity…

Stewart and Colbert have become the great comedy duo of our time, say I. May they help you through this last (can it really be?) day of the general election of 2016. I think most of us probably couldn’t take many more at all…

The country and culture of course have some big big problems which will not be vanishing anytime soon, but this particular, execrable, phase at least ends (hopefully) today. So for now smile, and … take it away guys! —

thank you sir

The emergence — and horrible persistence — of Trump has been an event so utterly shocking to me, so smothering to the spirit, so genuinely terrifying. I have done my best to maintain a balance, a perspective. To not allow it all to dominate my consciousness.

Yet every morning I am startled at the alacrity with which it all reasserts itself. I climb out of bed and walk towards my kitchen and then it hits me in the gut, every day: this unutterably and continuously foul, juvenile, profoundly ignorant and uncurious, self-celebrating and exceptionally dangerous man is on a shortlist of two for the most powerful job in the world.

I have been trying to avoid writing about it all, too. Somehow there has been a kind of defeatism associated with this possibility, and a corresponding determination not to be forced to acknowledge the fact that we have descended this low. This low.

Yet anyone who has never been able to understand how one of the most supposedly civilized cultures in the world could have descended into utter barbarism in the 1930s has a front-row seat to the process today. They only need to watch carefully and I think they will learn more, and learn it more vividly, than many an astute monograph could teach them.

What can I say? I must confess that all of this has been having such a horrific effect on my state of mind that … I went out the other night, purchased a bottle of 15-year-old Glenfiddich (don’t bother with the 12, there’s no comparison), and while working my way through it this evening was praying that the DNC’s addresses might pick me up. As Michelle Obama’s did last night — splendid, so fine.

And actually, they did! A little. I have yet to watch the earlier ones but … President Obama’s was the finest address of its kind I may have ever heard. Pitch-perfect, and every paragraph reaching to the best of who we are as a country.

So I only wanted to say here, because I haven’t said it enough (and briefly, given my intoxicated state!): I’m so immensely proud of this man. Openness and decisiveness combined, sharp intelligence and grace, strength and tenderness: he’s got it. As fine a president as we’ve had. And what a great blessing we’ve had him for these past eight, terribly anxious years. Much we can argue over (oh for sure, and in any event we are all most imperfect), but my goodness: it’s not something I do all the time, but I have no hesitation in calling him a great and very admirable man.

I think Andrew Sullivan said it well tonight:

“It’s been a long and entirely unexpected journey with this extraordinary figure. I’ve doubted and panicked, I’ve hyper-ventilated and wept, I’ve worried and persevered. We did a lot of that together, you and me. But I have one thing to say: he never let us down. He kept his cool, he kept his eyes on the prize, he never embarrassed and almost always lifted us up. He is a living, walking example of American exceptionalism, of why this amazing country can still keep surprising the world.

“Readers know how I feel about the Clintons. But this is not about them or me. It’s about an idea of America that is under siege and under attack from a foul, divisive, dangerous demagogue. If you backed Obama, there is no choice in this election but Clinton. This is not an election to seek refuge in a third party or to preen in purist disdain from the messy, often unsatisfying duties of politics. It is an election to keep the America that Obama has helped bring into being, and the core democratic values that have defined this experiment from the very beginning: self-government, not rule by a strongman; pluralism and compassion rather than nativism and fear; an open embrace of the world, and not a terrified flight from it.

“But you know what Obama gave us tonight? He gave some of us hope. Again. That’s what he does. And we will never see his like again.”

CobDmS1UsAEMmR0

an unexpectedly respectful interview

Van Jones, walking down the street to his next meeting, is hailed by a group of Trump supporters from InfoWars. He stops and … talks to them for half an hour. Most astonishing of all: he impresses them!

As an intentionally TV-less person, and one who in any event avoids cable news like the plague, I’d never heard Van Jones speak until a year or so ago, when he gave a public talk at a nearby college (introduced by Bill McKibben). His life story was impressive, and his message inspiring.

Heartwarming to see the receptivity here.

“This is very important now: the only way this thing works is if you cry just as much when that black man dies in that police car, and I cry just as much when that horrible bigoted sniper shot down those police. If you’re crying over those funerals and I’m crying over those funerals, and we’re both crying together, we can find a way to get our cops to be better and get our kids to be better. But if we decide we’re gonna pick funerals, that’s the worst thing in America. We’re now picking which funeral we’re gonna cry over…

So listen. When we come together the right way, the Republicans talk about liberty, individual freedom, limited government. Democrats talk about justice … what about the little guys getting run over? Liberty and justice for all: that’s America. So that’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s how it’s supposed to be. But what’s happening now is: if you’re for liberty I call you a racist; if I’m for justice you call me a socialist. And then we never can get along. Well that’s gotta stop. That’s gotta stop.”

more on Officer Nakia Jones

I’m grateful for the honesty, graciousness, and compassion on display in this meeting with members of the press. And relieved to hear that, contrary to previous reports, it appears that Officer Jones has been neither fired nor suspended. According to Cleveland 19 News, “Mayor Brad Sellers said Jones did not violate the social media policy that is currently in place. She is currently on full duty at the police department and there were no violations of any policies with the City of Warrensville Heights.”

“either way you win”

Much attention has been paid to President Obama’s remarks — within his Commencement Address at Rutgers University yesterday — aimed at the Republican frontrunner (it’s still so hard to say or fathom) for the presidential election. But very little has been written about his addressing the state of free expression on college campuses. And this is worth highlighting. Though I’m a big Obama fan, this is one of the areas where I’ve been disappointed and concerned about the net effects of his administration. But I’m pleased to hear him speak out in the way he does here. He could certainly have avoided the topic had he chose, but I think the fact that he has addressed this on more than one high-profile occasion now in recent months demonstrates his awareness of the problem. More in future posts. (Emphasis in the following quotation is mine.)

“And if participation means voting, and it means compromise, and organizing, and advocacy, it also means listening to those who don’t agree with you. I know a couple of years ago some folks on this campus got upset that Condoleezza Rice was supposed to speak at a commencement. Now, I don’t think it’s a secret that I disagree with many of the foreign policies of Dr. Rice and the previous administration. But the notion that this community or the country would be better served by not hearing from a former Secretary of State or shutting out what she had to say, I believe that’s misguided. I don’t think that’s how democracy works best, when we’re not even willing to listen to each other. I believe that’s misguided.

“If you disagree with somebody, bring them in and ask them tough questions. Hold their feet to the fire, make them defend their positions. If somebody’s got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong. Engage it, debate it, stand up for what you believe in. Don’t be scared to take somebody on. Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities. Go at ’em if they’re not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words, and by doing so you’ll strengthen your own position. And you’ll hone your arguments and maybe you’ll learn something and realize you don’t know everything. And you may have a new understanding, not only about what your opponents believe but maybe what you believe. Either way you win. And more importantly our democracy wins.

some thoughts on Andrew Sullivan’s recent essay in New York Magazine

With reference to the previous post I thought I might highlight certain aspects of the recent Andrew Sullivan essay, especially as I feel it has been somewhat misunderstood in the liberal press.

First, Sullivan’s analysis of the social, economic, and cultural developments which have fostered the rise of Trump is I think finely expressed, and this kind of sympathetic understanding of where Trump’s supporters come from is too often lacking:

“The deeper, long-term reasons for today’s rage are not hard to find, although many of us elites have shamefully found ourselves able to ignore them. The jobs available to the working class no longer contain the kind of craftsmanship or satisfaction or meaning that can take the sting out of their low and stagnant wages. The once-familiar avenues for socialization — the church, the union hall, the VFW — have become less vibrant and social isolation more common. Global economic forces have pummeled blue-collar workers more relentlessly than almost any other segment of society, forcing them to compete against hundreds of millions of equally skilled workers throughout the planet…

“For the white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome…

“Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well… These working-class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in [Eric] Hoffer’s words, ‘disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.'”

Most of the negative commentary on the essay however seems to be directed at Sullivan’s use of the word “elite.” It is assumed that such an idea cannot coexist without a parallel denigration of “the masses” and a desire to somehow limit democratic participation in political and cultural life. This view has been no doubt helped along by an unfortunate caption at the very top of the article (“Democracies end when they are too democratic”) and by the introduction to his essay, which discusses a passage in Plato’s Republic on the same theme. Yet I think this is a misreading of what is a long and nuanced piece of writing. Nowhere does Sullivan bemoan the fact that vastly greater numbers of people now have a voice today. In fact he specifically applauds this development (as of course he ought), and in no place calls for any curtailment of democratic speech.

More to the point, his essay doesn’t pretend to have any precise answers to our current dilemma, except to point out that we are not examining the problem with as wide-angle a lens as is required. Far from endorsing Plato’s prediction that the particular variety of both political and cultural democracy we have evolved is unsustainable, he instead holds out the hope that the ingenious and resilient system America’s Founders put together may continue to flourish. However, he warns that something is being missed, something is seriously out of balance. And interestingly, the recent conversation between Jon Stewart and David Axelrod at the University of Chicago, just posted on YouTube (I will say more about this in a later post) complements Sullivan’s words in a perhaps unexpected way. There, Stewart focused largely on the catastrophic failure of our media to do its job in maintaining basic standards of intellectual and moral integrity, while Sullivan’s purview is larger. Yet Sullivan is at his best precisely when he discusses the media, as here:

“The distinction between politics and entertainment became fuzzier; election coverage became even more modeled on sportscasting; your Pornhub jostled right next to your mother’s Facebook page. The web’s algorithms all but removed any editorial judgment, and the effect soon had cable news abandoning even the pretense of asking ‘Is this relevant?’ or ‘Do we really need to cover this live?’ in the rush toward ratings bonanzas. In the end, all these categories were reduced to one thing: traffic, measured far more accurately than any other medium had ever done before.

“And what mainly fuels this is precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness. Online debates become personal, emotional, and irresolvable almost as soon as they begin… We have lost authoritative sources for even a common set of facts. And without such common empirical ground, the emotional component of politics becomes inflamed and reason retreats even further. The more emotive the candidate, the more supporters he or she will get.”

When speaking about an “elite,” then, what Sullivan mostly is referencing is nothing more controversial than a recognition, indeed celebration, of the best of our Western values, and a willingness to defend them. But — and this is the point — those values don’t begin and end with simply: let everybody say (or spew) absolutely whatever they like, anywhere, anytime. Free expression is an utterly indispensable part of it all, but it’s not the whole of what needs defending.

It’s also not going to be easy finding a way out. What’s undeniable is that our attention spans have become noticeably shorter and shorter, and that in reaction to any kind of dissatisfaction, we robotically lurch to the opposite extreme, failing (as always) to take any notice of history, falling into the same trap over, and over, and over. With regard to the necessary virtues of patience and balance, our entire culture seems to have regressed to the level of a three-year-old. The urgency of Sullivan’s essay lies in its accurate view of how profoundly reasoned moderation, compromise, and empathy have broken down.

The mocking of Trump supporters advances nothing and in fact further solidifies their loyalty. If someone feels that their basic human intelligence and/or decency are being disrespected, they are not apt to move towards the source of such denigration. What’s clear is that the grievances highlighted in the first quotation above from the essay are all too real. It’s the conclusions drawn from them which need to be far more effectively challenged. (It must also be said that Trump supporters, in the midst of their valid fears and anxieties, are all the same being very easily suckered. The Trumps of the world never end up benefiting those they claim to care about. They end up causing catastrophe.)

Of course, as a central part of countering the message emanating from Trump, we must find a way of appealing to the larger empathy, to the hearts, of those who view him as a savior. As Sullivan rightly points out: “the most powerful engine for such a movement — the thing that gets it off the ground, shapes and solidifies and entrenches it — is always the evocation of hatred. It is, as Hoffer put it, ‘the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying elements.'” It can also be the most challenging negative emotion to expose and dispel.

I don’t feel I am explaining away lurking points of uncomfortableness in Sullivan’s essay. I see it as a well-calibrated defence of the values of Burkean, “small-c,” conservatism in an age where, ironically, those values are arguably being more protected by the so-called “left” than the “right,” as the latter continues its headlong and catastrophic plunge into extremism, nihilistic obstructionism, and now racist, fascistic demagoguery. Put another way, the US was founded as a “democratic republic,” and these two components, necessarily in tension, complement each other and restrain each other’s potential excesses. Nowadays relatively few people, I suspect, could even differentiate them, so thoroughly have the claims of “democracy” alone triumphed.

In the end, Sullivan’s point about “elites” is really quite a simple one: a viable political culture needs some basic intellectual standards, and some basic standards of decency. Someone needs to uphold these. If that’s “elitism,” then it’s of a gentle, flexible, non-coercive kind, not dissimilar perhaps to what we mean by the word “integrity.” We need to recover it — and desperately — in our media, and we need to maintain it in our universities. It goes with saying also that our political leaders need to be manifesting a far greater capacity for receptivity, empathy, balance, and compromise, if the deep cultural rifts which currently paralyze political discourse are to be made workable.

Apparently Sullivan spent a number of months recovering from fifteen years of a round-the-clock, 365-day-a-year immersion in the madness that is the political media today. How anyone could write so much on so many tangled, hyperbolic, and often viciously argued subjects, day after day after day, monitoring all the attacks on one’s own writing as well, and maintain basic sanity is a little beyond me. In a recent podcast he said he actually had to learn to read again, that is to read books for their own sake and not simply with an eye to what could be useful in the posts of the day. He also revealed that he’d recently done a 10-day silent meditation retreat and was incorporating that practice more fully into his daily routine.  I don’t agree with all of Sullivan’s piece (for example, I think his characterization of Bernie Sanders is quite misguided), but I welcome his voice in this discussion and am glad he’s back writing about these matters.

how we got here (according to Andrew Sullivan)

I’d like to recommend a finely written and urgently argued analysis of the current election cycle that appeared in New York Magazine yesterday. It is here: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/04/america-tyranny-donald-trump.html While I don’t ultimately agree with Sullivan’s dissection of the Democratic race — or only in part (it is in any event a small and secondary component of the article) — his comprehensive examination of the causes and conditions of Trump’s rise is I think superb.

America’s culture of fear – in a photo (3rd and last)

I’ve been discussing (here and here) a very destructive syndrome that continues to unfold in our culture. As each decade and perhaps even year goes by, we find ourselves becoming more and more the slave of fear. Of both individual fears – which steadily multiply – and fear itself, fear as a way of life. By now I don’t think we even realize how far down the road we have travelled, but increasingly simply take it all for granted.

Fear has a thoroughly crippling effect upon freedom of thought and activity. It distorts reality by forcing it through its own unacknowledged filters. Of course, when a particular manifestation of fear is sufficiently powerful it achieves the status of taboo. At that point, we can no longer rely on a straightforward rational approach to relating to it. Instead, we find ourselves needing protection from the protection, as it were – ie, since creating any kind of rational protection requires looking into the fear, and we’re unable to do this, we need an additional layer for distance. But sometimes even that isn’t enough, and we end up with a whole construct, each layer distorting the actual nature of things more and more, stifling more and more human autonomy.

The recent revelations about Orwellian NSA activity are one prominent demonstration of this, but the syndrome is endemic now. It can be seen perhaps at its most expansive and fully hysterical in the realm of sex and relationship more generally, but that requires its own series of posts at another time. For now, I decided to focus on a simpler, more compact topic to illustrate the dynamic, namely our laws regarding the purchase and consumption of alcohol (please see previous posts).

Here is the next layer we’ve created – and this is where it gets rather interesting. Again, we’ve already raised the age, nationally, at which we might purchase even so much as a glass of beer, to five years beyond the age at which we are allowed to drive a car. And we are one of the very few countries in the world with a drinking age so high (the vast majority have set 18). One would have thought it sufficient then, with such a high age to begin with, that enforcement involve a straightforward assessment of whether or not a prospective purchaser of alcohol indeed seems to be at least 21.

In other words: a liquor store employee simply has a look at the person who has next approached the counter (while warmly greeting them, it goes without saying…), and if it appears as though they might be under 21, she/he requests proof of age. Easy, right?

Well, it doesn’t appear so. Because we seem to have lost any discretion here whatsoever. Someone who looks 21 might actually be a mere 20, or 19, or at a pinch 18 even! And how dare such a person, who is trusted with driving an extremely dangerous vehicle, trusted to marry and raise children, trusted with the ability to vote for their political representatives, trusted with the option of joining the military of their country where they might have to make genuine life-and-death decisions, and as it happens trusted in virtually every other country of the world to decide what they would like to drink – how dare somebody so terribly young conceive of buying an alcoholic beverage! Now if only they were a mere day over 21, all would be fine. But a day under? Better that all possible danger of mistake be eliminated than that one … single … person under that literally magical number ever succeed in … purchasing a couple of beers.

So here’s what we now do: in virtually every store I’ve been to that sells alcohol, there is a house policy – often posted – of requiring anyone who appears as if they might not be over 30 to prove their age. Now think about what this is really saying for a moment. An employee of a liquor store takes a look at someone and thinks: “ah, that person’s definitely old enough to drink, he looks 30, 32 or something.”

But then they stop and ponder: “although, come to think of it, they might actually be more like 29, or even 27. And in fact, despite their looks, it’s at least conceivable that they might be 24, 23.” So, because the employee’s best guess is 30 or 32, that’s not good enough, because that person might just – one time in 50 or so – be ten or twelve years off.

And if they’re wrong, that one person in however many might just be someone who not only drinks that night but also drinks to impairment and then drives a car. Forget about the inconvenient fact that the next person in line, a completely acceptable 22, might well do the same thing of course. No, all we care about is that absolutely nobody, at no time and in no place, noways and never, who is a single day under the magic Number, ever evades that almighty number and gets to … buy a drink.

Again, I can’t even be sure I’m being understood here because we have gone so far down this particular road. But in any event now let’s continue even further down this path of reductio ad absurdum. I would argue we’ve already reached it with such a policy, but clearly even this isn’t good enough, because in a large number of stores which sell alcohol I have seen signs which state that anyone appearing to be under 40 will be asked to prove their age. Forty! Is there, honestly, a single human being in this country who genuinely appears to be 38 or 39 but is actually 19 or 20? A single one? Well, who knows, just maybe there are one or two, but…

So we can see what has happened. The penalties against having served a “minor” are so crippling to a small business that they have decided all discretion has to go out the window, and we are left with a hysterical policy that has left all common sense behind. Again, remember, the law itself is only indirectly connected to drunk driving in the first place. Drunk driving requires three components: alcohol, enough alcohol to cause impairment, and then the act of driving. The original law was passed to reduce a percentage of a percentage. A certain percentage of all people will combine those three components – and we can’t do anything about it if someone decides to do so. So we simply raise the drinking age as a measure far more politically acceptable than raising the driving age.

Finally, three times now I have come across 50 given as the arbitrary cutoff point – as per my photo in the previous two posts. And you know what? If there actually does exist a single human being in this country who appears to be just barely under 50 but is in fact 19 or 20 … then please give that person a drink! Just do it, on the house, absolutely! Because clearly they’ve been through way, way too much…

America’s culture of fear – in a photo (2)

In the previous post I suggested that the capacity to be at least a little bit curious about an object of fear is essential to maintaining our humanity. Fear has a ravenous nature; if unchecked it simply keeps expanding. Over time multiple layers of protection can solidify around a core fear, like the concentric circles of an onion. We can’t even name the fear itself at that point, can’t even access it. But each of those additional layers cuts us off more and more from reality and creates various kinds of scapegoats we are unable to acknowledge. Each increasingly distorts our perception and diminishes our personal autonomy. It’s not hard to see that this syndrome has now pervaded our entire culture.

America’s current approach to alcohol is a straightforward illustration of this, and I’d like in this post to try and identify the core fear or fears – the center of the onion – lying behind it. In the following post on this subject I will then build up the onion, as it were, showing how we get from the core fear … to this (a photo I took last summer at a convenience store in upstate New York):

sign

So, what is behind our de facto national prohibition of alcohol to those under the age of 21? (Note: with the exception of those Muslim countries in which alcohol is entirely illegal, only a handful of countries in the world have a drinking age above 18. Some have set 16, a number of others don’t legislate on the basis of age at all. So, we are in the draconian bottom 5-10%.) Our first thought is likely to be: the desire to reduce incidences of injury and death resulting from drunk driving. After all, this was the stated aim of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) at its founding in 1980 by Candace Lightner, who had lost her young daughter in this way.

With the help of then-Senator Frank Lautenberg (D, New Jersey), MADD succeeded in getting the National Minimum Drinking Age Act passed in 1984, which, through financial pressure on the states, resulted in every state raising their drinking age to 21 by 1988. Since then, having achieved its objective, the organization has gone on to lobby for further toughening of existing laws and additional measures, most controversially the creation of frequent sobriety checkpoints on roads and the raising of excise taxes on beer to match that on spirits. (Candace Lightner herself moved away from the organization in the mid-’80s, stating in a Washington Times article from 2002: “”It has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned… I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”)

We need to take a step back at this point and look more closely at what is going on. What are the components of the problem as such? There are three, and they are inseparable: alcohol, drinking too much, and driving. If any of these three are absent, we don’t have drunk driving, period. Notice also that age as such is irrelevant here. When a person of whatever age a) drinks alcohol, b) drinks to the point of impairment, and c) gets behind the wheel of a car, then and only then do you have a situation of risk.

(It’s important also to note that what constitutes “too much” does in fact vary from person to person, day to day, and even hour to hour, especially at lower levels of consumption. But in a scientistic culture where, more and more, mind is being collapsed into brain, these kinds of empirical truths increasingly can no longer be seen. All that matters is whatever magic number is called into service. It’s also crucial to remember that “impairment” occurs in lots of other ways too, via any form of inattention, whether it be texting, taking too long to change the radio station, turning to stare at a beautiful guy/girl, tiredness, or whatever it might be. Any of these scenarios can and do cause accidents, and most in the long run are simply impervious to legislation.)

So: why not just maintain a law against, well … drunk driving, and leave it at that? This is the entire point, after all.

The argument given is that raising the drinking age can be correlated with fewer incidences of drunk driving, and this can’t help but be true. (Much of the decrease surely also can be correlated with greater public exposure of the problem.) But if this is our logic, then why stop at 21? Raising the drinking age to 25 would save even more lives. Going back to Prohibition – even more. And in fact, of the three necessary components to drunk driving I pointed to above, driving is actually the most proximate cause of all, because it’s the vehicle which directly brings about the harm. So why not simply raise the driving age to 21, which would bring about all sorts of additional benefits?

And it is this last option I think which points to what is going on at a deeper level here. Even though raising the driving age to 21 would be even more effective at reducing car-related deaths than raising the drinking age, no one would dream of seriously suggesting it. And why not? Because despite the fact that car accidents are one of our leading causes of death, and have brought about all kinds of other negative environmental, social, and health effects, greater mobility is seen as a pure, innocent, necessary good. Intoxication of any kind, however, the heightening of ordinary, functional consciousness? Suspicious, always, in this culture. Especially in “the young.”

And let’s go one step further. Why is heightened or altered consciousness suspect? Simply because it moves in the direction of the previously unknown and the less certain. It threatens inertia, the purely habitual. It is a catalyst of new perceptions, can enable new ways of seeing.

Therefore we have a driving age of 16 and a drinking age of 21. And this says it all. At 16 we are deemed responsible enough to operate an extremely powerful and dangerous machine, but not responsible enough to have a beer or glass of wine – or, heaven forbid, sometimes several!

I don’t want to diminish the power of alcohol either. As we know it plays a part in a high percentage of instances of violence in our culture, and there will always be a relatively small minority for whom it will become a very destructive problem. But it seems that when it comes to the realms of bodily enjoyment and mental expansiveness we have lost all sense of balance. This feature of our core collective fear is so deeply buried that automatic suspicion has become the norm. We really don’t trust ourselves to navigate our own bodies and minds, so we relinquish responsibility to an abstraction called the law, which removes more and more of our individual discretion.

I’m leaving aside the question of enforceability here, though it’s not insignificant. An 18-year-old leaving home for the first time to enter a university environment where they will be surrounded by hundreds or thousands of other students their age is going to drink if they want to, regardless of the law. Any college student can testify that such a prohibition is easily, regularly, and almost universally flouted.

Mainly what I’m trying to show at this first level of response is that it is a purely pragmatic measure that has been elevated to moral crisis. Our culture treats this number as a moral principle in itself, as witnessed for example by the portentous – and infantilizing – tones of any number of public service advertisements on the subject over the years. Someone a single day over that magic number of 21 can purchase and drink as much alcohol as they like; someone who is younger by a mere two days is treated as having a “criminal mind” if they attempt to do the same. Many 16-year-olds are perfectly capable of drinking responsibly; many who are 26, or 36, or 56 are not.

A number will never make for a moral argument. Our culture worships numbers, however, partly because we don’t trust ourselves to make intelligent discretionary decisions, partly because we have come as a society to value safety and risk-aversion above almost everything else. So: more and more and more laws aiming to create a perfectly safe world which … can never come. Hence – as I’ll touch upon in the third and last post – a process that is hysterically out of control.