Sunday Readings: Texts and Commentary
The Left is very good at both recrimination and self-recrimination. While salutary, both can be carried to extremes, and thus become self-defeating. Public protest about the election of Trump is both understandable and righteous – after all, he has publically and I assume sincerely expressed contempt for the norms and restraints of the Constitution, as he has also normalized xenophobia and racial-ethnic hatred – but at the moment the protests seem like little more than spontaneous rage than the focused, organized opposition that will soon be necessary. And although all the public hand-wringing about who is to blame for the loss to an incompetent, lying demagogue (as if elections are lost rather than won) is also good and therapeutic up to a point, it is part of the reason why the Left is always snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It is a distraction, and they are distractions from the urgent task of figuring out what the hell just happened.
Marx was right, in Thesis 11, when he proclaimed “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” But this does not mean that understanding and forming a workable interpretation of the world isn’t an essential prolegomenon to change. Liberals, both traditional and “neo”, have unfortunately taken their shopworn wonkish and technocratic understanding for granted. It did not work, the received wisdom of the DLC is not true. It is now up to Social Democrats, Democratic Socialists, open-minded Liberals, and other “polite radicals” to pick up the baton Liberals have dropped and to start making better sense of things.
I will be putting my own two cents in on this topic in my next post. But for now, some liturgical readings and brief commentary thereon. They might provide an oblique entry into understanding the events of the past week.
Reading One: From Easy Rider (1969), produced by Peter Fonda, directed by Dennis Hopper, written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern
George Hanson: You know…this used to be a hell of a good country. l can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.
Billy: Everybody got chicken, that’s what. Hey, we can’t even get into a second-rate hotel. l mean, a second-rate motel, you dig? They think we’d cut their throat. They’re scared, man.
George Hanson: Oh they’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to them.
A Billy: All we represent to them man is somebody who needs a haircut.
George Hanson: Oh, no. What you represent to them……is freedom.
Billy (incredulously): What the hell’s wrong with freedom? Freedom’s what it’s all about.
George Hanson: Oh yeah, that’s right. That’s what it’s all about. But talking about it and being it……that’s two different things. I mean, lt’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. But don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, because they’ll get real busy killing and maiming to prove to you that they are. Oh yeah, they’re going to talk to you and talk to you and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s going to scare them.
Billy: Well, it don’t make them running scared.
George Hanson: No. It makes them dangerous.
Commentary: This is the famous “campfire scene” where Jack Nicholson’s alcoholic lawyer, George, talks to Dennis Hopper’s weed-smoking hippie biker, Billy, about their confrontation with hostile locals earlier in the day. In the next scene, at daybreak near the swamp, the same locals come to the campsite and bludgeon Nicholson’s character George to death. Wyatt and Billy, also bruised but alive, are stunned but continue their pilgrimage to New Orleans, and make a pact to celebrate their murdered colleague during Mardi Gras.
Billy doesn’t get it. He just thinks that the locals are a bunch of bigoted rednecks who hate him and Wyatt because they are bike-riding hippies. George gets it. He is, in fact, the only character in the film that “gets it.” He understands that his eventual murderers don’t like to be shown that they have been “bought and sold in the marketplace”, and that provokes their reaction. He understands them. He sees how they have been victimized and marginalized just like him and Wyatt and Billy. Outsiders all. Not members of the big club George Carlin spoke of, the club “You ain’t in.” Faulkneresque “white trash” and hippie loners and alcoholic ACLU public defenders are certainly not part of the elite and never will be. The difference is that George, Billy, and Wyatt know this and have taken off in their own direction. George “gets” his local antagonists. But he does not exonerate them. He says they’re dangerous. They are.
Make this a metaphor if you wish.
Reading Two: from Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country (Harvard, 1998)
Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet. (p. 89)
Commentary: Richard Rorty had, up to his death in 2007, taken a lot of flak from both the Right and the Left. He thought that being caught in this kind of crossfire was an honor of sorts: “If there is anything to the idea that the best intellectual position is one which is attacked with equal vigor from the political right and the political left, then I am in good shape.” (“Trotsky and the Wild Orchids”, in Philosophy and Social Hope (Penguin, 1999)). He was, in his own self-description, the “wettest” of liberals. But I think Rorty’s own legendary self-effacing modesty conceals just how radical his antifoundationalist liberalism was under its conventional surface. The passage above is a sign of that radicalness, precisely because it has turned out to be so prophetic. If this does not perfectly describe the 2016 Presidential election, I don’t know what does.
In Achieving Our Country, Rorty justaposes the old 1930s labor Left with the new 1960s antiwar Left, as well as the postmodern 1980s “academic” Left. He was fair to all three Lefts, but worried that the obsession of the latter with theory rather than practical campaigning, and their soft-pedalling of class for the sake of identity politics carries some serious risks. In the passage above, he articulates these misgivings. Without a laser-like focus on the problems with naked, laissez-faire capitalism and the domination of both white and blue collar workers by the rich plutocrats, identity politics becomes unstable, and the divisions that Lewis outlined in his novel could come to pass. Rorty is not averse to passing judgment on the academic Left, but he gives identity politics its due while he insists on a politics of economic class as well. His scenario is a plea for precisely the kind of “99%” politics that eluded us in the general election (though not the Democratic primary). Rorty can be criticized for explicitly advocating a kind of complacent incrementalism: I think that Richard Bernstein, Michael Sandel, Nancy Fraser, and others have done just that admirably and persuasively. But that should not blind us to the radical virtues in Rorty’s narrative of a possible future that could well become our actual present.
Reading Three: Robinson Jeffers, “Shine Perishing Republic.”
While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence;
and home to the mother.
You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly
long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there
are left the mountains.
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught – they say –
God, when he walked on earth.
Commentary: Talk about a metaphor. . .
Jeffers (1887 – 1962) was an American poet who lived and died in central coastal California. His poetics was guided by what he called “inhumanism” – his conviction of the need for “”a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the trans-human magnificence. … This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist. … It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy … it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty.” (The Double Axe and Other Poems (Liverlight, 1977), p. xxi)
It is tempting to draw parallels with the “antihumanism” or “posthumanism” endorsed by Heideggerians or Foucauldians, but that would be rash and inaccurate. Jeffers does not reject humane values but contextualizes them. It seems to me that his spirit is closer to that of Hannah Arendt when she speaks of “world alienation” in The Human Condition, closer still to that of Reinhold Niebuhr reflecting on sin in The Nature and Destiny of Man. Sin, for Niebuhr, is an inordinate confidence in our ability to eradicate evil in both ourselves and others. Thus we ought to be “moderate” in our “love of man”: otherwise we will latch onto a Leviathan or hero who will lead us to believe we and our works are immortal. It didn’t work for Ozymandias. We should not suppose it will work for us.
Jeffers has the US Republic clearly in his sights when he speaks of “corruption”: as it was in 1925 when Jeffers wrote “Shine Perishing Republic”, so it is today. America was and still is “thickening to empire”. The hasty pursuit of wealth and glory is the marrow of its “corruption”, which stifles individual dissent as it burns its civilization out like a meteor. Nothing is permanent, neither republic nor empire, but this stark truth does not entail that nothing is good, either. All “splendor” is mortal. (So much for “American exceptionalism.”) It is therefore wise to be cautious of humankind – a clever servant but an insufferable master. As the critic Jessica Heuter puts it, “A final warning to his children: beware entanglement with men. Love of less than God is incestuous. No saviors. You can only watch.” (Robinson Jeffers: Poetry and Response—A Centennial Tribute (Los Angeles: Occidental College, 1987).
In a world where God is either hiding or absent, Jeffers’s words are chilling. They call the faithful and the faithless alike to a kind of stony realism about what needs to be understood and, then, acted upon. What’s to be understood is that the voters of The United States of America may have elected a more-of-the-same neoliberal or neoconservative, or a neofascist, or some new amalgam of the three. It’s a rough beast that’s slouching toward Washington D.C., to paraphrase another poet. Jeffers’s recommended course of action seems to be to withdraw into the mountains, to cultivate a form-of-life away from the perishing republic. Heading off the grid of a corrupted and corrupting society is a sound strategy that I would not ridicule for the life of me. But it’s not the one I opt for, nor would I recommend it to others. I will make common cause with those who stay in the cities at the monster’s feet, to shine a light on the corruption that plagues the perishing republic, and defy any suggestion that it is compulsory.
Ite missa est. Go in peace.