My favorite of the signs which have appeared online:
My favorite of the signs which have appeared online:
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.
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.”
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:
Earlier tonight Mahershala Ali won a Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role, in Moonlight. His acceptance speech rocked the house:
From Dan Guterman, writer for the Colbert Report, the Onion, and Rick and Morty:
On the bright side, the ACLU just had their best weekend ever for online donations: $24 million.
On this inauguration eve, like so very many in this country and around the world, I am feeling an overwhelming, inarticulable sadness. Often it does feel as if we learn nothing whatsoever as a people — ever — that we have to continually reinvent the wheel.
But I am trying to remind myself tonight of what is in fact the truth: that so many, many millions know there is a vaster, more reverent and celebratory and sublime way to live, beyond the prison of tribalism and fear. We have, in fact, grown up in many respects as a people. As Mr. Charlie Chaplin reminded us in 1940:
We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful.
But we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.
The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.
To those who can hear me I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men which will pass, and dictators die. And the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.
So a deep bow to all those who had a hand in producing the bottle of junmai daiginjo I am drinking, and a bow to Mr. Sibelius, whose 7th symphony — one of the greatest pieces of music there is or could ever be, in my view — I am listening to right now. And a reminder that the times call upon us to be the very best we can be.
The Chronicle Project site, a tribute to the life and teachings of the extraordinary Tibetan Buddhist lama Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, has a “quote at random” feature, and the other day when I visited this one came up (from “One Stroke” in Dharma Art, page 100):
Genuine inspiration is not particularly dramatic. It’s very ordinary. It comes from settling down in your environment and accepting situations as natural. Out of that you begin to realize that you can dance with them. So inspiration comes from acceptance rather than from having a sudden flash of a good gimmick coming up in your mind….Inspiration has two parts: openness and clear vision, or in Sanskrit, shunyata and prajna. Both are based on the notion of original mind, traditionally known as buddha mind, which is blank, nonterritorial, noncompetitive, and open.
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
And one more in honor of Leonard today:
“I don’t know which side anybody’s on anymore, and I don’t really care. There is a moment, there is a moment when we have to transcend the side we’re on and understand that we are creatures of a higher order. That doesn’t mean that I don’t wish you courage in your struggle. There is, there is on both sides of this struggle men of good will. That is important to remember. On both sides of the struggle. Some struggling for freedom, some struggling for safety. In solemn testimony of that unbroken faith which binds the generations, one to another, I sing this song: “If It Be Your Will.”
you can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
you can strike up the march
on your little broken drum
every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee
like a refugee
ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering
there is a crack, a crack in everything
that’s how the light gets in
We lost a deep and true soul yesterday.
Baruch dayan emet
Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ
All great and vast enjoyments.
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! —
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.”
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.”
This is the best thing I’ve read on the appalling events of the past week:
Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other? Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us? And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human….
Because with an open heart, we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes, so that maybe the police officer sees his own son in that teenager with a hoodie who’s kind of goofing off but not dangerous — (applause) — and the teenager — maybe the teenager will see in the police officer the same words and values and authority of his parents. (Applause.)
With an open heart, we can abandon the overheated rhetoric and the oversimplification that reduces whole categories of our fellow Americans not just to opponents, but to enemies.
With an open heart, those protesting for change will guard against reckless language going forward, look at the model set by the five officers we mourn today, acknowledge the progress brought about by the sincere efforts of police departments like this one in Dallas, and embark on the hard but necessary work of negotiation, the pursuit of reconciliation.
With an open heart, police departments will acknowledge that, just like the rest of us, they are not perfect; that insisting we do better to root out racial bias is not an attack on cops, but an effort to live up to our highest ideals. (Applause.) And I understand these protests — I see them, they can be messy. Sometimes they can be hijacked by an irresponsible few. Police can get hurt. Protestors can get hurt. They can be frustrating.
But even those who dislike the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” surely we should be able to hear the pain of Alton Sterling’s family. (Applause.) We should — when we hear a friend describe him by saying that “Whatever he cooked, he cooked enough for everybody,” that should sound familiar to us, that maybe he wasn’t so different than us, so that we can, yes, insist that his life matters. Just as we should hear the students and coworkers describe their affection for Philando Castile as a gentle soul — “Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks,” they called him — and know that his life mattered to a whole lot of people of all races, of all ages, and that we have to do what we can, without putting officers’ lives at risk, but do better to prevent another life like his from being lost.
With an open heart, we can worry less about which side has been wronged, and worry more about joining sides to do right. (Applause.) Because the vicious killer of these police officers, they won’t be the last person who tries to make us turn on one other. The killer in Orlando wasn’t, nor was the killer in Charleston. We know there is evil in this world. That’s why we need police departments. (Applause.) But as Americans, we can decide that people like this killer will ultimately fail. They will not drive us apart. We can decide to come together and make our country reflect the good inside us, the hopes and simple dreams we share.
President Obama, July 12, in Dallas
You can watch the entire address here.
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.”
Raw and, ultimately, magnificent.
You don’t need to believe in the efficacy of prayer to be moved by the overdub in Marvin Gaye’s original of “Mercy Mercy Me,” a love song for the Earth, wherein he repeatedly sings “have mercy Father, please have mercy…”
And “What’s Going On” (the song, and the album) remains one of the great testaments of compassion in contemporary music:
there’s too many of you crying
brother brother brother
there’s far too many of you dying
you know we’ve got to find a way
to bring some lovin’ here today
we don’t need to escalate
you see, war is not the answer
for only love can conquer hate
you know we’ve got to find a way
to bring some lovin’ here today
picket lines, and picket signs
don’t punish me with brutality
talk to me, so you can see
what’s goin’ on, what’s goin’ on
yeah what’s goin’ on, what’s goin’ on…
The originals could never be topped, but this acoustic version was a sweet discovery.
Songs our world desperately needs these days. Send them round —
I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Euro 2016, with today’s 3-3 nailbiter between startlingly overachieving Hungary and majorly underperforming Portugal the most exciting game yet. Over on the other channel at the same time, tiny Iceland, with a population (330,000) about half that of the state of Vermont, continued its astonishing football journey by defeating Austria in the final seconds, sparking one of the most delirious moments of sports commentary I may have ever come upon. If you need a bit of cheering up, this man has (temporarily I hope) sacrificed his voice for you… (It goes on for at least a minute or two more. A longer version, and with live action, is here — I was unable to embed that video.)
The end of Derek Jarman’s memoir At Your Own Risk:
I’m alone again. I sit watching the sun go down, peach as my grandmother’s table-cloth behind the nuclear power station. A great orange moon hangs over the sea and the winds die bringing in the night.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun;
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away… O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; and the singing will never be done.
Siegfried Sassoon’s poem was written at the end of the First World War.
I am tired tonight. My eyes are out of focus, my body droops under the weight of the day, but as I leave you Queer lads let me leave you singing. I had to write of a sad time as a witness – not to cloud your smiles – please read the cares of the world that I have locked in these pages; and after, put this book aside and love. May you of a better future, love without a care and remember we loved too. As the shadows closed in, the stars came out.
I am in love.
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.“
The best part of the Eurovision Song Contest yesterday was not a song, but one of the interval acts. “The Grey People,” choreographed by Fredrik “Benke” Rydman and Jennie Widegren, with music by Johan Liljedahl and Calle Rasmusson, is a treatment in dance of the European refugee crisis. It’s a triumph, riveting from beginning to end, and finally moving, as the 18 dancers wash anonymity off their faces and then join the audience.
Benke Rydman explained the theme of grey thus: “For us, it is a gray mass without identities that come to our countries. So you have to wash away the gray, which becomes a filter. Once we have removed the gray filter, you can see a human being.”
At the full moon, so the astrologers say, this seems to have been the day I came into this life. That means I get to send a post out to myself.
I haven’t heard it all yet (got my order for the CD in today), but there’s this…
A succession of bardos, saying goodbye over and over and over, and finally a bit of warmth at the loneliest top of the world.
To have shared a realm and an age with such pure exquisiteness…
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.
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.