Hello! Here are some older posts I thought worth preserving….

February 27, 2015

RIP, Leonard Nimoy. 1931-2015.

Of all the things there are to say on this occasion, I will, for now, content myself with this.

Actors are, among other things, actors— they are professional pretenders. We’ve all heard stories about actors who convincingly portray nice guys (or girls) while in reality being the exact opposite when the cameras stop. The reverse is also true— I remember Bruce Campbell saying that Billy Drago, who was the arch-villain “John Bly” on the late, great Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. was in fact one of the kindest people he’d ever met.

So there are reasons to resist any very strict identification of actors with their roles. But I’m guessing there is at least one exception to this: that it is very hard indeed— maybe even impossible— for a stupid actor to portray, persuasively, an intelligent character. This is surely one reason that actors who are famous for cerebral roles so often turn out to be genuinely thoughtful, highly intelligent people. Raymond Burr, for instance, was a serious-minded man with a deeply cultivated love of art.

From all accounts, Leonard Nimoy also exemplified this rule. He wasn’t, to be sure, a scientist or a logician, but his humane and restless mind was surely the source of Mr. Spock’s air of intellectual command. Nimoy convincingly portrayed a genius. That in itself tells us a lot about the man.

August 17, 2015

I would like to take a moment to address some of the concerns from Tim and Lennie (and numerous others on Salon’s message board) about my August 14 piece. Some of the comments here and elsewhere contain more aspersion than argument, but I think they deserve a response because they raise issues of great importance to our politics.

First of all, let me thank MGB2 for her very helpful reply to Tim. I may repeat some of her points in what follows, but not because I think she didn’t express them adequately herself. She did, and then some.

I could chew up a lot of space responding to personal charges, but I don’t think that’s the best use of anyone’s time. (For the record, I’m not a “self-hating” white dude, as many commenters have alleged, nor am I particularly angry about anyone or anything, with the possible exception  of the Toronto Blue Jays. Yes, I’m a Yankee fan.) Instead, I’d like to focus on several major political themes in the commentary, and explain my own sense of their import and value.

The least important issue here, I would argue, is Donald Trump himself. He will never be president, and it is unlikely (though no longer highly unlikely, I would say) that he will be the Republican nominee in 2016. So I will not expend much effort in rebutting claims, such as Tim’s, that Trump is a desirable candidate because he is not “beholden” to anyone— the idea being that his wealth insulates him from all those importuning lobbyists. This reminds me of the argument, common in the 19th century, that only the wealthy were fit to hold office because they couldn’t be bribed. Zola (I think it was) made the definitive reply: “They’re born bribed.” Just so with Donald Trump. He is his own lobbyist.

Similar problems attend the oft-made remark that Trump would run the government “like a business.” I’ll refrain from the obvious retort that, given his record of corporate bankruptcies, it’s  more likely he has run his businesses like the government. The real problem with this argument lies elsewhere— in the idea that what governments do is easily assimilated to what corporations do. Certainly every government should be a careful steward of public monies. If that’s all the “run the government like a business” line amounts to, then count me in. But governments must also do a wide range of things corporations do not, things which involve considerations other than profit and gain. Put very bluntly, the state cannot, and should not, be understood as simply one more exemplar of market values. Politics concerns public goods that cannot be analogized to the private goals of the market.

The important issue, I think, is what Trump’s popularity with the Republican base tells us about the latter. One thing my interlocutors have convinced me of is just how right I was in saying that they’re angry— very, very angry. Another is how right I was in saying that their anger is prompted by their ideas. Once we discard the obviously nutty stuff— Obama is a racist socialist Muslim Mau-Mau who wants to invade Texas and torture kittens— we’re left with three substantive claims. The first is that Washington, to use the now-standard term, is broken— that our politicians are a gang of corrupt time-servers who want only to feather their own nests and to preen their already luxurious egos. The second is that political debate in our country is ossified because “elites” use political correctness to police dissent and to impose a mealy-mouthed, self-protective consensus. The third, associated with the second, concerns the nature of what our overlords consider to be politically incorrect: namely, any mention that the interests of the white race are being systematically betrayed or that its members are being openly impugned.

It’s easy enough to come up with rejoinders to all these points. It’s unlikely, for instance, that our politicians are more corrupt than those of any other era in American politics. In fact, it’s much more likely they are substantially less corrupt. (Anyone remember the Gilded Age?) If Washington is broken— and I’ve agreed in print that it is— it’s because our constitutional system simply isn’t designed to manage the kind of highly ideological politics we have these days. We have the politics our politicians are capable of, and we have the politicians we have because we vote for them. In particular, I would argue, we have the Republican politicians we have— the Ted Cruzes and the Tom Cottons— because many of my angry interlocutors keep voting for them, then expressing shock— shock!— when they flout the norms, formal and informal, on which effective governance in our system depends. When the Republican Speaker of the House can’t bring himself to use the word “compromise” for fear of sparking a rebellion in his own caucus, you know something very strange is afoot in his party.

I would also question the assumption, common to Trump and, apparently, many of his supporters, that if it would be “politically incorrect” to say something, that means it must be factually correct and socially useful. This is a mistaken inference.  It is possible for an utterance to be politically incorrect, factually incorrect, and socially null (if not toxic) all at the same time. Trump’s suggestion that a not statistically insignificant fraction of undocumented workers consists of “rapists” is just such a statement.

I think the real animus behind the political correctness charge has more to do with the third claim.  And here, I would argue, we reach a matter of real substance, one that progressives in particular should take seriously, though it has to be carefully unraveled.

It cannot be denied that there is a high degreeof racial consciousness behind at least some of the support for Trump— and in Tea Party politics generally. Some of it is overtly racist, but some of it— perhaps even most of it— is not. Lennie’s comment is a good example of the latter— why is it wrong, he asks, to be anxious about the prospect of a white-minority America as long as everyone’s rights are respected? There is a ready retort to this, of course; we simply ask why in the world we would dread the ascendancy of other races if we genuinely believe them to be trustworthy. This reply is fine as far as it goes, but it is so obvious (so facile?) that it can distract us from  the anxieties at work here.

A number of commenters argued  that the real driver of white support for Trump is the relative decline of the white working class over the last generation or two of American life. If we extend the notion of “working class” to include persons with some college but not college degrees, I think this argument has a lot of force. One thing the current discussion of income inequality tends to leave out is granular attention to the economic prospects of all those outside the upper-middle class and beyond. Phrases such as “working class” and “middle class”are blithely used with little regard for the complexity of the socio-economic orders they gesture at. For Americans without college degrees— and especially those with no college experience at all— the economy since the 1970s has been a door swinging rapidly and noisily shut. These were precisely the people whose positions in life improved most dramatically in the post-war boom— the unprecedented era of economic growth that lasted from the late-40s until the early 70s. Wage earners— and almost all of them were wage (as opposed to salaried) workers— were suddenly able to buy homes and cars, to take vacations and send kids to college,  to put something aside for retirement. The American dream seemed very real to them, and they developed an intense loyalty to the institutions, political and economic, they regarded as its custodians.

All this began to change with the recessions, oil shocks, and stagflation of the 1970s. Manufacturing jobs began to migrate off-shore, unions commenced a long decline, indiscriminate lay-offs became the automatic response to any kind of economic slow-down, defined pension plans gave way to  401-K accounts and temporary, often part-time labor increasingly replaced full-time positions with benefits. Wages for workers congealed even as stock prices soared and CEO salaries spiked.

It is one of the signal paradoxes of our era that this experience of economic insecurity coincided with the great turn of the white working class to the Republican Party— the institutional home of corporate wealth and power. Even as rural America was increasingly devastated by out-sourcing, even as it struggled with the new reality of a service economy dominated by low-wage, part-time work, its attachment to the economic royalism of the GOP grew steadily fiercer and stronger. Why?

Part of the answer, surely, is that Democrats were slow to accept blame for failed policies. Their explanations of why New Deal values were still relevant in the post-industrial age were often less than persuasive— often, to be honest, less than coherent. But they had a hard case to make, and anxious, aggrieved people are not always receptive to complex arguments. Republicans, on the other hand, kept things simple. The economy was weak because government was strong— too strong. Less government would mean more money in everyone’s wallet. And this because, in large part, a government run by the GOP would not take the rightful rewards of work and shower them on the unproductive at the expense of the productive. Just who were the unproductive? Well, take a look America— who gets those welfare checks? Who receives government assistance? Who got that unearned promotion or that undeserved spot in college? Who forces down wages because they work for next-to-nothing, having no legal title to anything else? You know who.

The concerted campaign of the Republican Party to inflame racial resentment in the service of its economic agenda was an act of political genius and moral knavery. (Resentments related to issues of gender and sexual identity are also relevant here.) It could not have succeeded unless its target— the white working class— already harbored unworthy racial attitudes. But by the same token, it could not have succeeded unless that class was in genuine economic distress. Progressives must always advocate for an ethic of equal respect for all Americans, but they must also take the economic anxiety of the white working class seriously. The two goals are not incompatible— there is a perfectly obvious way to combine them. Progressives should simply point out that the first step toward real redress is for the white working class, the African-American working class, the Hispanic working class— for workers everywhere to drop the adjectives and hyphens and begin thinking of themselves as the working class, period. If solidarity were not their greatest weapon, Republicans would not have labored so long and hard to undo it.

Once we see this, the unfitness of Donald Trump for his role as tribune of the dispossessed becomes blindingly obvious. For Trump, as well as anyone, represents the new world of integrated, globalized markets in which highly mobile capital restlessly seeks out ever-greater ROI. Trump was created by the high-leverage, low-cost finance capitalism of the 1980s, where the leverage (that is, debt) is used to fund luxurious executive compensation while costs (that is, wages) are kept as low as possible. Hailing Donald Trump as a working class hero makes about as much sense as casting Richard Dawkins as Defender of the Faith.