Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Saturday, December 31, 2016 11:46 pm

Friday Random 10, Saturday New Year’s Eve Edition

Filed under: Friday Random 10 — Lex @ 11:46 pm

Hollies — Long Cool Woman
The Leaves — Go Away
John Mellencamp — Small Town
Melissa Ethridge — Come to My Window
The Shins — New Slang
The Jayhawks — Smile
Kinetix — People Start Hoppin’
U2 — Gloria
Warren Zevon — Ourselves to Know
The Eagles — Tequila Sunrise

lagniappe: Telekinesis — Please Ask for Help

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Thursday, December 29, 2016 11:04 pm

Friday Random 10, Thursday-night new-laptop edition

Filed under: Friday Random 10 — Lex @ 11:04 pm

Band on the Run – Paul McCartney and Wings
Born in the USA – Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
Don’t Come Close – The Ramones
You Could Be Mine – Guns N’ Roses
Borneo Jimmy – The Dictators
Lost Mind – Diana Krall
The Fly – Chubby Checker
Please Send Me Someone to Love – Solomon Burke
Just a Touch – R.E.M.
Last Train to Clarksville – The Monkee

lagniappe: Save the Last Dance for Me – The Drifters

Wednesday, December 28, 2016 1:53 pm

“There is no kindness in them.”

Neal Gabler, author of a number of books examining the intersection of U.S. history and popular culture, has posted an essay that is, I think, essential to what we who would oppose Trumpism must stand for. It also, unfortunately, helps to illustrate why I think resistance to Trump can expect very little help from the media.

The gist of it is that kindness, and such related tendencies as community responsibility and mutual aid, have gone by the wayside in American culture in general and Republican politics in general. He traces this change from a 1961 essay by Gore Vidal on the subject of Ayn Rand and the psychopathic “philosophy” she espoused. Vidal quotes Rand:

It was the morality of altruism that undercut America and is now destroying her.

Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society. Today, the conflict has reached its ultimate climax; the choice is clear-cut: either a new morality of rational self-interest, with its consequence of freedom… or the primordial morality of altruism with its consequences of slavery, etc.

To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men.

The creed of sacrifice is a morality for the immoral …

Keep in mind here that Rand was writing in the giant shadow of World War II, which democratic countries (and, yes, the Soviet Union) would not have won without “the creed of sacrifice.” And yet she argues that altruism undercuts America, she conflates selfishness with freedom and altruism with slavery, she values money above relationships and dismisses everything that every great religion and moral code going back thousands of years has taught us about the value of unselfishness.

Gabler comments:

In most quarters, in 1961, this stuff would have been regarded as nearly sociopathic nonsense, but, as Vidal noted, Rand was already gaining adherents: “She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who hate the ‘welfare state,’ who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts.”

Because he was writing at a time when there was still such a thing as right-wing guilt, Vidal couldn’t possibly have foreseen what would happen: Ayn Rand became the guiding spirit of the governing party of the United States. Her values are the values of that party. Vidal couldn’t have foreseen it because he still saw Christianity as a kind of ineluctable force in America, particularly among small-town conservatives, and because Rand’s “philosophy” couldn’t have been more anti-Christian. But, then, Vidal couldn’t have thought so many Christians would abandon Jesus’ teachings so quickly for Rand’s. Hearts hardened.

The transformation and corruption of America’s moral values didn’t happen in the shadows. It happened in plain sight. The Republican Party has been the party of selfishness and the party of punishment for decades now, trashing the basic precepts not only of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also of humanity generally.

Yep, that’s where we are, folks. Our House speaker, Paul Ryan, who famously grew up and got educated with the help of Social Security benefits, equally famously gives his staffers copies of Rand’s works to read and is planning to privatize (read: kill) Social Security. And writ large, that is the problem with today’s GOP politicians and the large swath of the electorate that supports them, Gabler says: “There is no kindess in them.”

Moreover, Gabler blames this lack on the media:

The media have long prided themselves on being value neutral. It was Dragnet journalism: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Or: “We report, you decide” — a slogan coopted by the right-wing Fox News, ironically to underscore that they weren’t biased, at least not liberally biased.

Of course, not even the most scrupulous journalists were ever really value neutral. Underneath their ostensible objectivity there was a value default — an unstated moral consensus, which is the one Vidal cited and the one to which most Americans subscribed throughout most of our history. But it took a lot to activate those values in the press. The mainstream white media moved ever so slowly to report on the evils of segregation. Yet when they finally did, they didn’t behave as if African-Americans marching for their rights and Sheriff Bull Connor siccing dogs on them were moral equals. Value neutrality had its limits. The reporting of the movement was one of journalism’s proudest moments, and you can read about it in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Race Beat by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanonff. It is a story worth telling and remembering in these frightening days — a story that shows how the press can serve us.

However long it took for them to grow a conscience, those journalists who covered the civil rights movement didn’t think they were violating their professional code of objectivity by exposing the heinous conduct of the Southern authorities, because they knew what they were upholding wasn’t subject to debate. The morality was stark. (I have a suspicion from the way the Black Lives Matter movement is covered that it wouldn’t be so stark today.)

Taking sides against the KKK and redneck sheriffs, however, was one thing, as was taking sides against lunatic fringe right-wingers like the John Birch Society who hated government. But what happens when those extremists who advocate a bizarre morality that elevates selfishness and deplores altruism commandeer one of our two major political parties? What do you do then?

We know the answer. You do nothing.

The media sat by idly while American values were transmogrified. Even the so-called “good” conservatives — David Brooks, David Frum, Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin, et al. — refused to speak the language of kindness, preferring the language of free markets. As far right conservatives took over the Republican Party — the very same conservatives who just a few years earlier were considered crazies — the media dared not question Republican opposition to anything that assisted the disempowered and dispossessed, which is how a value-neutral media wound up serving the cause of conservatism and Republicanism and how the moral consensus was allowed to be turned upside down.

Read those Ayn Rand quotes to your children as moral instruction, and you will see how far we have fallen. This is Republican morality. This is Trump morality. And the media, loath to defend traditional American values in an increasingly hostile conservative environment, let it happen. That is what value neutrality will get you.

Gabler acknowledges the potential pitfalls of media determining not only facts but also values. And yet, he says, the risk is greater if we do not:

It is true that we don’t all share the exact same values, though in the past I think our fundamental values were pretty close to one another’s. But even if values differ, all values are not created equal. Some are better than others. Most of us do know what is right. Most of us do know that we have moral obligations to others. Most of us understand kindness. It is just that we have been encouraged to forget it. That was Ayn Rand’s mission. Trump is proof of how well she and her acolytes, like Paul Ryan, succeeded.

This election turned on many things, but one that both the public and the press have been hesitant to acknowledge is the election as a moral referendum: the old morality against the new Randian one Republicans had advanced for years and Trump fully legitimized. There is no kindness in him. We prefer the idea that Trump voters were economic casualties, that they were frustrated with the system, that they felt marginalized and misunderstood. It lets us avoid seeming condescending.

Perhaps. But I think it behooves us to recognize that many of those voters bristled under the old morality and turned to Trump because he removed the guilt Vidal had cited when we tried to harden our hearts. Shame helped keep the old morality in force. Trump made shamelessness acceptable. We are reaping that whirlwind every day.

And so he charges the media:

“There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness and truth,” Tolstoy said. Going forward, that could be the basis for a politics. And we must press our media to understand that they can only restore the values they once took for granted by doing what the best of them did during the civil rights era: observe events through a moral lens. Appealing to our worst selves is usually a winning strategy, as it was for Trump. The media must remind us of what it means to be our best selves. This should be their new mission: a media in opposition. It should be unrelenting, regardless of the right-wing blowback.

Moreover, Gabler observes, it’s not just that Americans are selfish. For many Americans, including Trump, it’s not good enough merely that they succeed; their competitors or opponents also must be punished (indeed, in Trump’s case, humiliated):

America is in moral crisis. Many Americans seem far more interested in making sure that those they consider undeserving — basically, the poor — get nothing than in making sure that they themselves get something. A friend recently told me a joke told him by a Hungarian acquaintance, who intended it as an example of Hungarian schadenfreude, but I have modified it because I think it is a harrowing parable for contemporary America and its strange moral turnabout. This is Trump’s America:

There were three farmers: a German, a Hungarian and an American. Each had a cow. One day, misfortune befell them, and their cows died. Each remonstrated against God, saying God had failed him, and each lost faith. God realized he had to do something to make amends. So he came to Earth and approached the German.

“What can I do to restore your faith?” He asked. And the German answered, “God, I lost my cow. Please give me another cow.” And God did so.

“What can I do to restore your faith?” He asked the Hungarian. And the Hungarian answered, “God, I lost my cow. Please give me that cow and another to compensate.” And God did so.

And finally God came to the American, and He asked, “What can I do to restore your faith?” And the American answered, “God, I lost my cow. Shoot my neighbor’s cow.”

Not only can no civilization embrace such “values” and be called great, no civilization can embrace such values and even survive. As for the media’s role, I have argued for years that media should be transparent not only about methods but also about values, a notion that went over like a rock because being transparent about values first requires you to have some. But what might a news outlet’s values be?

I have suggested such examples as loyalty to the Constitution and the rule of law. The presumption that the best government is that which governs in the open. That government service be just that, service, and not merely the opportunity to enrich oneself and one’s cronies. That policy be based on what produces the greatest good for the greatest number. And so on.

To that list, Gabler adds, and I agree, that the news media must view the personnel and policy choices of the Trump administration through a moral lens that encourages each and all of us to be our best selves. Rand argued that the pathway to our best selve was money, but we have millennia of experience to shows us that not only couldn’t she write, she also couldn’t think.

To Gabler’s point, I would add only that both the media and we, the people, must watch not just Trump and his administration through such a lens, but also the choices of government, corporations, nonprofits, and powerful individuals at all levels. If, as a lot of Christians like to suggest, God has turned his face from us, it’s because we have failed to do so.

Monday, December 26, 2016 7:40 pm

Metaphor — and other nonliteral language — under siege

Twenty-one years ago, on Jan. 14, 1996, I published this piece in the Sunday Ideas section of the News & Record. I think it has held up well and is likely to serve us well as we face the linguistic depredations of an incoming administration bent on dispensing with the entire notion of truth. I’ve added a postscript at the end.

* * *

METAPHOR UNDER SIEGE: Are we so literal-minded today that we imperil figurative speech, dumb down civic discourse and jeopardize democracy?

Whatever else Congress is full of, it can’t have many English majors. Otherwise, the proposed constitutional amendment banning the burning of a U.S. flag might never have gotten as far as it did. The Supreme Court already has ruled that flag burning is constitutionally protected, if figurative, speech.

The U.S. Senate recently rejected the amendment. But the controversy surrounding flag burning — some see it as a metaphoric protest against government policies; others see it as a threat to democracy — is but one example of America’s growing inability or unwillingness to communicate in nonliteral language.

Mankind has embraced this rich language since ancient times; the 23rd Psalm – “The Lord is my shepherd” – might be the world’s best known metaphor. It weaves itself through Aesop’s fables and Shakespeare’s tales; its irony and satire define the works of Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain.

For centuries, even the simplest people understood and enjoyed this complex language. Few Oxford dons would be found quaffing ale among the groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

But in recent years, that understanding and enjoyment of nonliteral language have come under attack, many students of the language believe. They see a growing intolerance of language that purports to express anything but the plain, literal meaning of the words. And they fear that the consequences could go far beyond duller language. They worry that our political institutions and society’s ability to solve problems are endangered.

Is metaphor dying? Can it be saved?

“Dying,” a metaphor itself, is overstating the case: To use language is to use metaphor, intentionally or not.

“We invent words through a process of association that is basic to making metaphors,” says William Covino, professor of English at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Concrete analogies help people grasp concepts more easily, he says: “What is the ‘leg’ of a table except a metaphor created by associating the structure of the table with human anatomy?”

But anatomy is the province of science, and metaphor has been suspect since the rise of modern science. Soon after the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge was chartered in 1662, it “castigated figurative language in general, and metaphorical language in particular, for veering from the ‘plain English’ that must be employed to validate scientific truth,” Covino says.

This scientific emphasis on the literal deviates sharply from the outlook of Aristotle, a natural scientist himself. In the 4th century B.C., he wrote in his “Poetics”: “But the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.”

But many linguistics experts believe that an eye for resemblances is less valued today than in Aristotle’s time.

“People only see the truth as factual truth, whereas metaphor presents the truth via analogy,” says Art Berman, professor of language and literature at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

“We suspect metaphor as fraudulent,” Covino says. “We tend to devalue metaphor in our educational systems as something that belongs to poetic understanding and stands apart from ‘facts.’ ”

Linguistics experts today fear nonliteral language faces more suspicion – even opposition – than ever. One reason is that the technique relies on shared information and a shared background, which are in short supply, particularly among youth.

“Metaphor ‘works’ when it fits the psychology of the audience – their background, education, basic premises and beliefs,” says Covino.

Dan Taylor, a professor of classics at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, says metaphor needs even more – a shared context.

“On MTV, there’s no context,” he says. “You go from one image to another, and there’s no continuity. You try to tell a story in pictures, but they’re disjointed, disconnected. Today’s kids tend to think visually rather than verbally, and they’re missing the complexity of verbal connections that metaphor makes possible.

“In classics, we have this wonderful database called Perseus. There are thousands of images in it of ancient coins, temples, archaeological sites and so on, but there’s no context for any of it; you can pull 10 images from 10 different centuries. I’ll have students go through it, and they’ll pull a 5th century statue and a 3rd century coin and try to make the two go together.

“If I’m using metaphors that deal with a cultural background that is not yours, we’re not talking to one another. We’re not communicating.”

When Jonathan Swift published his classic essay “A Modest Proposal” in 1729, it provoked strong reaction. But it did not do so on the basis of its literal message, which was that the problem of Ireland’s starving children should be solved by butchering them and selling them as delicacies. Rather, it did so on the basis of its actual message, a protest of English economic exploitation of Ireland – a problem that was widely known. People understood, then, how Swift used irony.

Has our understanding of figurative language so atrophied since then? Earlier this summer, in newspapers across the country, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette penned an editorial cartoon that depicted a black man shining the shoes of a white male executive. The executive accuses the shoe shine man of exploiting affirmative action to take the job from a white man.

That cartoon was an example of irony. But in Greensboro, some members of the NAACP said the literal depiction of a black man shining a white man’s shoes was so offensive that the newspaper shouldn’t have published it, regardless of what Marlette’s real meaning was.

Tom Lisk, head of N.C. State’s English department, doesn’t worry as much as some linguistics experts that nonliteral language is in trouble. Ensuring that writer and reader have shared information is not a failure of metaphor but “a challenge to any writer,” he says.

But he acknowledges that more and more people struggle with nonliteral language. And he’s not surprised that irony is in the most trouble of all.

“Irony is a pretty subtle form of communication because it depends on shared values as well as shared information,” Lisk says. In a culture in which politicians such as Patrick Buchanan speak of coming “wars” about societal values, finding shared values is hard to do.

“We’re much more interested in what differentiates than what assimilates, the ties that bind,” says Doug Northrop, professor of English at Ripon College in Wisconsin. “Critics used to be interested in those responses people had in common: What was the central quality of a play, poem or short story that we agreed on? Now critics are interested in how responses differ.”

Another reason we lack that common background and context, some professors believe, is that we don’t read as much as we used to, or read for the same reasons. We need not all have read the same works, but we need to have read the same kinds of works — works that incorporate metaphor, irony and other complex language.

“After Dr. Seuss, we abandon the genre — both at home and at school — in favor of novels, popular songs, television and film,” says Pat Hargis, associate professor of writing and literature at Justin College in Illinois. “But these modes of literature seldom teach us to think in metaphors. We are teaching the current generation to read only for information, not for pleasure and mental development.”

Television is the biggest culprit, says Victor Harnack, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He says a reader processes information in linear fashion, an approach that requires certain rules — syntax — and that offers a clear delineation of cause-and-effect relationships.

But young people aren’t reading; instead, they’re watching TV four to seven hours a day. As they do, they process information globally — that is, they hear dialogue and, at the same time, receive a variety of other cues: the actors’ tones of voice, costumes and facial expressions; the scenery; the background music.

“All kinds of things are built into that that lead us to conclusions that we don’t have to work out ourselves,” Harnack says.

“The current generation of students, and even two or three older generations of students, were pretty much raised on television,” says Joseph Pitt, chairman of the philosophy department at Virginia Tech. “And unless you have an appreciation of metaphor to begin with, you won’t be able to capture any metaphorical meaning in a TV program, because I think TV producers are increasingly leaving out the subtleties of symbolic communication. So you have a generation that is increasingly told and expects that what they hear or see is what they get.”

Some members of those same generations are among the parents who want such works as Mark Twain’s novel “Huckleberry Finn” removed from schools. That book incorporates the infamous ‘N’ word and other language considered objectionable today. But in its own time – and until very recently – it was widely understood as satire and a criticism of slavery.

Another factor possibly fragmenting society – and fracturing communication – may be the increasing proportion of Americans who have had to learn English as a second language. In Greensboro, those numbers nearly doubled during the 1980s.

“Second-language learners tend to take things literally at the start, steering clear of idiomatic expressions and figurative language,” observes Vivian de Klerk, professor of linguistics and English at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.

And, finally, many linguistics experts say that political correctness has made metaphor a mine field.

“Everything that goes under the rubric of political correctness is extremely literal-minded,” says Peter Stitt, a professor of English at Gettysburg College.

“It’s such a politicization of discourse. You have people who are extremely sensitive to a cause, and you can’t argue with the reasons – they’re very powerful. But the sensitivity is so great that anything that deals with those subjects and has a little twist on it is misinterpreted. It’s sort of like boarding an airplane: If you mention a gun, it’s not a joke.”

Such misinterpretation is widespread.

During this fall’s Greensboro mayoral race, a political action committee affiliated with the Greensboro NAACP endorsed incumbent Carolyn Allen over challenger Tom Phillips. That committee organized a get-out-the-vote effort targeting black voters, using the slogan “Underground Railroad To the Polls.”

Before the Civil War, the Underground Railroad was the network of people and safe houses that enabled runaway slaves to reach freedom in the North. Some Greensboro residents helped in the effort.

Phillips criticized the slogan as racist. But the appropriation of the phrase “Underground Railroad” for the voter turnout effort didn’t mean black people saw Phillips as literally a slave owner, or even, by extension, racist.

Rather, the slogan functioned as metaphor on two levels. First, it was an expression by black leaders of their belief that of the two candidates, both of whom are white, Allen would be more responsive to black residents’ concerns. Second, it encouraged black people to vote by likening voting — the exercise of political power — to a journey toward greater self-determination, success and happiness.

If the trend against such nonliteral language continues, what may the consequences be? Many linguistics experts believe that civic discourse, the basis of our political system, will be dumbed down.

“The first impact is already apparent — we’re going to lose a lot of richness and beauty and color and force of language,” says Northrop of Ripon College. “Political language, in particular, will become increasingly gray, colorless and lacking in vitality.”

Art Berman of the Rochester Institute of Technology wonders whether our political system can function without it.

“Our democracy was founded on the belief that language was important and that we should all be able to use it in a complex and sophisticated way, which is why one of the first measures of this nation was to make public schools free,” he says.

“It was assumed that a citizen couldn’t be a good citizen without education and intelligent deliberation on the issues. Metaphor allows us to deliberate.”

But some scholars fear even worse consequences than deteriorating political debate.

Metaphor is an implied comparison, but a comparison implicitly includes both similarities and differences. When we grasp the similarities but not the differences, we can be led to false conclusions on public issues.

“Instead of saying government is like a business, we say it is a business and should be run on the same limited criterion of cost-effectiveness,” says Ed Haley, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. “You don’t see the flaws (in the comparison) unless you push the argument to the extreme: Wouldn’t a private army be more efficient in delivering firepower? Well, yes. But government is charged in the Constitution with doing things regardless of efficiency.”

Haley adds: “Government is not a business, and we put ourselves in a mess if we think or imagine that it is. Among other things, we create false expectations. And the dangerous side is, what if these expectations can’t be realized? It invites demagoguery.”

Outside of politics, some fear a loss of metaphor will erode our problem-solving skills.

“If we are in the process of reading metaphor out of our means of communication, I think it will have disastrous consequences for creativity across the board, from sciences to the arts,” says Joseph Pitt of Virginia Tech. “It’s metaphor that transports us through new avenues of inquiry, new ways of ‘seeing’ things. … That creativity lies at the heart of our ability to deal with the problems we face.”

Can metaphor be saved? Yes, say linguists. How?

First, eliminate political correctness – which, those linguists argue, proposes the wrong solutions to real problems.

“Instead of talking about ‘diversity,’ why not talk about ‘inclusiveness?’ ” Pitt says. “Why not talk about bringing as many voices to the table as possible – not to revel in our differences, but to bring them together in hopes we can benefit from one another?”

Second, if language is inherently metaphoric, these linguists say we must accept that there is no such thing as plain, literal truth in any language.

“The written word is symbolic of the sound we enunciate, but the word that’s uttered – ‘pen’ or ‘light’ or ‘sailboat’ – clearly is metaphorical and will always be imprecise,” says Peter Stitt of Gettysburg College. “There is no perfect communication between any two people, period. Those seeking it are doomed to fail, and I think they ought to give up their evil ways and return to the glory of metaphor.”

Third, we must instruct ourselves in the glory of metaphor. That, linguists say, means turning off the TV and picking up a book.

“When you read great literature, you encounter marvelous metaphors,” says Dan Taylor, the Lawrence University classics professor. “You not only know them, you learn how to recognize new ones.”

Finally, linguists say, we must teach our children.

“If you have young children who have not already mastered the concept of metaphor and you sit them down in front of the TV … we’ve almost lost the battle from the beginning,” Pitt says. “The key lies in educating the young, who are far more intelligent than we give them credit for and far more capable of understanding and developing language. We treat them like morons when they’re not. …

“Either we accept the cost of educating the young or we accept the long-range cost of an impoverished society – culturally and economically.”

* * *

If I were updating this piece for today, I wouldn’t change much. But I understand political correctness, and accusations thereof, very differently now than I did then and would treat them differently in this piece. Primarily, based on my experiences since writing this piece, I’ve found that of every 10 or so complaints about political correctness, only about one is legitimate. The other nine are rude people complaining about being called out and held accountable for being rude.

More importantly, I see now that our shared language, our shared understanding, and our ability as a society to solve problems have far bigger problems today than complaints about political correctness, let alone actual instances of it. The whole notion of objective truth is under assault by people who want to use confusion on this point as cover to loot the country. And while “loot” is indeed a metaphor, it’s an apt one for the new era we are entering.

Saturday, December 24, 2016 10:34 pm

Unto us a child is born; unto us a Savior is given

Filed under: I want my religion back.,Religion — Lex @ 10:34 pm
Tags:

Here on the East Coast it’s late on Christmas Eve, the night before the day we in Christendom celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Christ.

And while it’s comforting and heartwarming to think tonight about that baby, born of a virgin, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a Bethlehem manger, it’s a whole lot more disturbing and discomfiting to think about the man who that baby grew up to be.

He was a radical advocate for the poor, the outcast, the ill, the downtrodden, the disempowered, the misbegotten — and he made it very clear that the way you show your love for God is by showing your love even to the least of these and without hesitation.

He was, in short, the man most qualified to speak to and against what America has become, on the cusp of 2017 and the cusp of the Age of Trump.

He spoke, and speaks today, against narcissism. He spoke, and speaks today, against false piety. He spoke, and speaks today, against false moral superiority. He spoke, and speaks today, against authority without morality. And he didn’t just speak against those who preyed on the poor and downtrodden, he put his sandaled foot up their asses on the very steps of the Temple and dared anyone short of God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, to do anything about it.

So, yes, let us celebrate the birth of the Christ — both the babe and the man he became. Let us speak for those for whom he spoke. Let us speak against those against whom he spoke. And let us act without hesitation against those who prey on their moral and spiritual betters.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2016 1:13 pm

Think North Carolina doesn’t feel like a democracy? There’s a reason for that.

The political dystopia of my home state has made international news, primarily because of the autocratic behavior of the Republican-controlled legislature. Deeply and safely gerrymandered, our senators and representatives are free to disregard the public will almost completely and act not just in their own interests but also in direct opposition to the public interest. And if that weren’t enough fun for your Friday, thanks to the theft of the presidency by Donald Trump and the vote-suppressing GOP, we’re about to enjoy the same experience on the national level.

That is what makes this piece in the Raleigh paper today so eye-opening and important:

In 2005, in the midst of a career of traveling around the world to help set up elections in some of the most challenging places on earth – Afghanistan, Burma, Egypt, Lebanon, South Africa, Sudan and Yemen, among others – my Danish colleague, Jorgen Elklit, and I designed the first comprehensive method for evaluating the quality of elections around the world. Our system measured 50 moving parts of an election process and covered everything from the legal framework to the polling day and counting of ballots.

In 2012 Elklit and I worked with Pippa Norris of Harvard University, who used the system as the cornerstone of the Electoral Integrity Project. Since then the EIP has measured 213 elections in 153 countries and is widely agreed to be the most accurate method for evaluating how free and fair and democratic elections are across time and place.

When we evolved the project I could never imagine that as we enter 2017, my state, North Carolina, would perform so badly on this, and other, measures that we are no longer considered to be a fully functioning democracy.

In the just released EIP report, North Carolina’s overall electoral integrity score of 58/100 for the 2016 election places us alongside authoritarian states and pseudo-democracies like Cuba, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. If it were a nation state, North Carolina would rank right in the middle of the global league table – a deeply flawed, partly free democracy that is only slightly ahead of the failed democracies that constitute much of the developing world.

Indeed, North Carolina does so poorly on the measures of legal framework and voter registration, that on those indicators we rank alongside Iran and Venezuela. When it comes to the integrity of the voting district boundaries no country has ever received as low a score as the 7/100 North Carolina received. North Carolina is not only the worst state in the USA for unfair districting but the worst entity in the world ever analyzed by the Electoral Integrity Project. (emphasis added)

That North Carolina can no longer call its elections democratic is shocking enough, but our democratic decline goes beyond what happens at election time. The most respected measures of democracy — Freedom House, POLITY and the Varieties of Democracy project — all assess the degree to which the exercise of power depends on the will of the people: That is, governance is not arbitrary, it follows established rules and is based on popular legitimacy.

The extent to which North Carolina now breaches these principles means our state government can no longer be classified as a full democracy.

Yeah, you read that right. Now, it’s one thing for me to say that the U.S. is a fascist country, even if I’m right about that. But here, some of the world’s leading experts on democracy — people who have worked in and studied democratic government, and its lack, in countries around the world, people who have objective standards for determining whether or not a government is democratic — say North Carolina isn’t a democracy.

(And all y’all morons who are about to jump in, screaming, “But we’re NOT a democracy, we’re a REPUBLIC!” need to sit down and shut the fuck up.)

Definition of democracy

plural

democracies

  1. 1 a :  government by the people; especially :  rule of the majority b :  a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections

Put another way, if North Carolina were a foreign country and the U.S. weren’t being taken over by autocrats at the moment, America might well be pondering ways to bring about regime change here.

This isn’t just differences on policy, however substantive those differences might be. This is a clinical diagnosis by some of the most knowledgeable people on the planet that our state government is deeply, systemically broken. Here is just some of the evidence:

First, legislative power does not depend on the votes of the people. One party wins just half the votes but 100 percent of the power. The GOP has a huge legislative majority giving it absolute veto-proof control with that tiny advantage in the popular vote. The other party wins just a handful of votes less and 0 percent of the legislative power. This is above and beyond the way in which state legislators are detached from democratic accountability as a result of the rigged district boundaries. They are beholden to their party bosses, not the voters. Seventy-six of the 170 (45 percent) incumbent state legislators were not even opposed by the other party in the general election.

Second, democracies do not limit their citizens’ rights on the basis of their born identities. However, this is exactly what the North Carolina legislature did through House Bill 2 (there are an estimated 38,000 transgender Tar Heels), targeted attempts to reduce African-American and Latino access to the vote and pernicious laws to constrain the ability of women to act as autonomous citizens.

Third, government in North Carolina has become arbitrary and detached from popular will. When, in response to losing the governorship, one party uses its legislative dominance to take away significant executive power, it is a direct attack upon the separation of powers that defines American democracy. When a wounded legislative leadership,  and a lame-duck executive, force through draconian changes with no time for robust review and debate it leaves Carolina no better than the authoritarian regimes we look down upon.

What do we do about it? The author has some suggestions, but at least some are problematic:

The first step to recovery is self-awareness. We need to put aside the complacent hyperbole and accept that in North Carolina we no longer live in a functioning democracy worth its name. We have become one of those struggling developing world states that needs to claw its way slowly toward democratic integrity.

Practically we need to address the institutional failures which have cost us our democratic ranking – districting, equal access to the vote and the abuse of legislative power. An independent commission is the sine-qua-non of democratic districting (no democracy in the world outside of the U.S. allows the elected politicians to draw the lines). Voter registration and poll access should make voting as easy as possible and never be skewed in favor of any one section of society. Last, elected officials need to respect the core principles of democracy – respect the will of the voters, all the voters and play the game with integrity.

Those are nice thoughts. Unfortunately, they presume good will on the part of our current leaders, who have demonstrated amply that they have none. To the extent that those leaders are aware that we “have become one of those struggling developing world states,” they see that as a feature, not a bug. Despite absolute power, they have not lifted a finger to implement independent redistricting; indeed, they have defended their unconstitutional and deeply dishonest gerrymandering in court at enormous expense to all the state’s taxpayers. They have cut back on access to the franchise and intend to do more despite judicial rebuke. And the behavior and public comments of outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory, Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, have not demonstrated respect for the will of voters or integrity, but only contempt and corruption.

Three-quarters of a century ago, when countries fell under the sway of governments like ours, America spent blood and treasure to liberate them. Now, America will be spending treasure — and, I predict, blood — to become more like them.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016 1:55 pm

“When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

Former President Richard Nixon made the argument above in an interview with David Frost. He tried to elaborate by saying that a president has to balance concerns of national security with the law, but honestly, all he did was repeat himself.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has gone even further, using the specious claim that we’ve never had a president like Donald Trump before to argue that Trump should simply pardon advisers (including his kids) who do wrong and, further, that Congress should change conflict-of-interest laws to benefit him:

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested that Donald Trump could pardon members of his administration who break the law.

Referring to a law that could prevent Trump from hiring his daughter and son-in-law to serve in his administration, Gingrich said on “The Diane Rehm Show” Monday morning: “In the case of the president, he has a broad ability to organize the White House the way he wants to. He also has, frankly, the power of the pardon.”

“It is a totally open power, and he could simply say, ‘Look, I want them to be my advisers. I pardon them if anyone finds them to have behaved against the rules. Period.’ Technically, under the Constitution, he has that level of authority,” he said, according to Politico.

Gingrich also suggested that Congress change ethics laws so Trump can avoid any conflicts of interest that his global business empire may pose.

“We’ve never seen this kind of wealth in the White House, and so traditional rules don’t work,” he said.

What’s the technical term for this? Oh, yeah, horseshit.

“We’ve never seen this kind of wealth in the White House”?? Objection, Your Honor; assumes facts not in evidence.

For starters, we don’t know that Trump is all that wealthy. Indeed, as Josh Marshall has said, there are some very good reasons to think he’s not a billionaire at all.

Moreover, even if he is as wealthy as he says, there is no obviously good reason to change ethics laws on his behalf, and plenty of good reasons — indeed, reasons in the national interest, such as keeping the President of the United States free from any potential pressure from foreign debt holders — not to change them.

Moreover, changing an ethics statute wouldn’t change the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which basically forbids the president from receiving anything of value (or certain things of intangible value, such as appointments to the nobility) from foreign countries. The Framers had very good reason for inserting that provision; they had seen how nobles in Europe sometimes enriched themselves in endeavors and arrangements of questionable, or less, benefit to their own countries. They wanted the president to be both able and obliged to act in the national interest, not his own.

Gingrich, having been a history professor (as he loudly and frequently reminds us), knows all this, and yet he doesn’t even pretend to offer any kind of factual or logical basis for his notion that because Trump is supposedly so rich, he should get a pass on ethics requirements that were imposed post-Watergate for very good reasons.

That’s bad enough. What’s markedly worse is his insistence that Trump should simply allow his advisers, including his children, to do as they like and then pardon them if they run afoul of ethics laws. That, folks, is how we transition from a republic under the rule of law to a dictatorship, because history is (ahem) replete with examples of folks who got get-out-of-jail-free cards and then went on to live selfless lives of duty and sacrifice for the greater good.

Gingrich’s notion is, quite simply, appalling to anyone who believes in the rule of law. Moreover, it clearly sets Gingrich apart as someone who does not, which is pretty fucking funny coming from the guy who impeached Bill Clinton. Gingrich’s new role in the Trump administration appears to be as a cheerleader for kleptocracy. The guy who used to brag about his patriotism has become the cheerleader for its destruction and the destruction of the rule of law in this country.

Thursday, December 15, 2016 8:06 pm

… and the fuckery continues

fuckerydeptI don’t have all the facts and don’t yet know where to tell you to go to get them. But, apparently, both the State House and the State Senate cleared their galleries today, turned off the microphones to negate the audio feed in the building and on the Internet, and did, or attempted to do, the public’s business in private.

In case you’re wondering, yes, that’s a clear violation of North Carolina law. Sadly, it’s only a civil law. It should be a crime with mandatory jail time.

Some protesters were arrested. My friend Joe Killian, a former colleague of mine at the News & Record who now reports for N.C. Policy Watch, was arrested as he attempted to cover those arrests. In other words, he was arrested for doing his job. As I write this, he hasn’t been released yet.

If you’re wondering how fascism comes to a democratic republic with a long history of free self-governance, this is your answer.

The battle is joined

My friend Beau Dure, who, among other things, writes for The Guardian, both sounds and heeds the call to battle against fake news:

Let’s be absolutely clear. This is not “left wing” vs. “right wing.” The two sides here are not equivalent. This is truth vs. lies. In this case, it’s an attempt to label demonstrable facts on border crossings as “fake news,” lumping it in the same category as the websites that have made Weekly World News look rational.

And it’s part of an ongoing deliberate attack on the nature of truth, one that leads to many Americans going against overwhelming scientific consensus on everything from climate change to vaccines (with creationism still lurking in there somewhere). It leads to the propagation of absurd conspiracy theories like the one that prompted a North Carolina man to walk into a D.C. pizza place armed to the teeth in what we would call an act of terror if a Muslim did it.

Do Democrats sometimes bend the truth? Yes. Call them out on it. We all should.

But don’t pretend that it’s the same as what you’re seeing here, where the powers-that-be don’t just want to spin something but want to undermine the very forces that hold them accountable.

And we cannot allow that to happen.

Like Pichard in the “Star Trek: Next Generation” episode in which he is captured and tortured by the Cardassians, we are about to be placed under enormous pressure to believe things that simply are not true and, worse, are lies told with malicious intent. Journalists are the first line of defense. Their bullshit meters will need to be sensitive, high-capacity, durable, and loud, or else the U.S., after 240 years of relative freedom, will emerge as an autocracy within the next four years.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016 8:27 pm

At this hour, world-class fuckery is afoot in Raleigh

fuckerydept

The Republicans must figure they are not long for control of North Carolina, because apparently they’ve decided to set the state on fire.

After concluding the special session in which it approved disaster-relief funding for parts of North Carolina, the GOP-controlled General Assembly called itself a new special session today. And in the past few hours, no fewer than 21 House bills and seven Senate bills have been introduced.

I haven’t even had a chance to look at them all yet. But the few I have seen are both alarming and infuriating, both in terms of substance and in terms of how they’re being ramrodded through: Not one of them couldn’t have waited for the next regular session, in January, when they could have been debated fairly. No, this is one big, fat fuck you to give to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory to sign as he leaves office after having been voted out.

Per my friend and former colleague Joe Killian, who’s covering the session for the N.C. Justice Center, the bills include (but are not limited to) measures that would:

  • Combine the State Board of Elections with the state ethics commission.
  • Make it a 4-4 Dem/GOP split, rather than the current 3-2 with the majority being of the governor’s party.
  • Make Supreme Court elections partisan again. (The prevailing theory here is that Mike Morgan beat Republican incumbent Bob Edmunds this year in what was otherwise a pretty big year for Republicans in N.C. because not enough Republicans knew that Edmunds was a Republican.)
  • Repeal the sales tax exemption for sales of certain properties used in wastewater dispersal systems — basically a way of making environmentally friendly land use more cost-prohibitive, although Joe suggests that this esoteric subject may be just a placeholder bill to be amended to another subject entirely.
  • Allow McCrory to name the chair of the state Industrial Commission before leaving office. Currently, it would be left to the incoming governor, Democrat Roy Cooper.
  • Eliminating vehicle emissions inspections in some smaller counties.
  • Change the appeal process when a lower court finds that the General Assembly has violated the Constitution or federal law.
  • Allows judicial appointments and the Industrial Commission chair appointment now, rather than after Jan. 1 when Cooper takes office. Joe notes that this measure drew hisses and boos and that House Speaker Tim Moore warned the assembled gallery about that.
  • Moves the state Information Technology out from under the governor’s office and places it under the lieutenant governor, currently batshit insane Republican Dan Forest.
  • Increase maximum class sizes in grades K-3.
  • Increase the state’s financial commitment to provide school buses and road improvements for charter schools as well as public schools.
  • Require the governor’s Cabinet appointments to receive Senate confirmation.
  • Make criminal mug shots no longer a public record.
  • Reduce from about 1,500 to fewer than 300 the number of state employees who serve at the pleasure of the governor — a number lower than when it was first expanded under McCrory.

So, basically, they’re stripping the gov of much of his powers before Cooper takes office, taking this opportunity to steer more state taxpayer money to private interests in the charter-school sector, eroding open government, screwing public education (again), screwing the environment (again), and putting the fox in charge of the ethical henhouse.

The one good development is that Tricia Cotham, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, took the shooting license given by the GOP leaders as an opportunity to file a bill that would kill the I-77 toll-lanes project north of Charlotte. Opposition to that project in affluent northern Mecklenburg, normally a hotbed of Republican votes, was one of the main reasons McCrory lost re-election.

Note that there’s not a GOT-damn thing on this list that couldn’t have been dealt with in the regular legislative session, which begins in January. No, this is the Nazis blowing up Rhine River bridges as they retreat.

This is what gerrymandering and a “fuck you” attitude toward the public have allowed Republicans in this state to do. And this is why they must all be flushed from state government. The 4th Circuit’s ruling that current legislative districts are unconstitutionally gerrymandered won’t help us tonight, but the new elections ordered for 2017 might help restore some order and balance to the Statehouse. We can hope. But for now, some seriously bad shit is going down tomorrow, and Democrats and the public can only march with torches and pitchforks. They sure can’t stop it.

 

Friday, December 9, 2016 9:45 am

“I saw how it was, and I was ready.”

Last in a series

First installment
Second installment
Third installment
Fourth installment
Fifth installment
Sixth installment
Seventh installment
Eighth installment

To sum up: We live in a fascist nation in which a fascist leader just stole a presidential election and is installing some not just unqualified but also malignant people into positions of power. We are in grave danger of tipping into autocracy. Nothing’s going to be done about the stolen election, and the media almost certainly won’t be much help going forward. So who will?

Nobody. Nobody is going to help, as Athenae pointed out in a different context two years ago:

No one is coming to save you. Repeat after me. Nobody is coming to save you. So save your own goddamn motherfucking glorious selves. Think about the freedom of that. Think about the way it unties you, shoves you off the cliff, and trusts you to fly.

It’s up to you. I talk about this all the time in my offline and online lives, in my life: If you give a shit about something you are the one who is morally obligated to act, so spare me your peroration on how you’d show up at the protest if only the other people there were dressed the way you wanted them dressed. Spare me the opinion columns about the wars you think other people’s children should fight, the wars you yourself have such a good reason for not fighting. …

Stop WAITING. For God’s sake, stop being disappointed when no one comes. Stop hating everybody else for being stupid and trivial and obsessed, stop hating the technology at your disposal, stop hating the world you live in for not being the world you want to live in, and stop being so goddamn willing to let yourself off the hook.

Work HARDER. Get better. Get up.

Yes, we will have to do this ourselves. We don’t know how and can’t imagine why, but that’s because America seems to have an enervating fondness for the “Great Man” theory of history. That’s a huge obstacle to what must happen right now, as Megan Carpentier writes:

Liberals should stop asking whether Donald Trump—or his chief strategist and the former head of Breitbart, Steve Bannon—is a Nazi. Not because the employees of Trump’s son-in-law and adviser said so in an embarrassing paean to the “zealous Zionist” who has Trump’s ear, or even because, like one high school history teacher and Holocaust expert in Northern California, you could be forced into retirement. No, the reason to resist the temptation to whether our president elect and his ghastly racist retinue are bona fide Nazis is that it’s the wrong question, and it’s always been the wrong question. …

The Nazis gained power in Germany through democratic elections and maintained it through maintaining the support of a plurality, if not a true majority, of Germans well into the 1940s. Thus, the question isn’t whether Trump and his ilk are Nazis; it’s whether Americans are, or would be willing to accept it if they were.

On one level, Americans’ obsession with whether various leaders are more or less like actual Nazi leaders speaks volumes about the failures of the American educational system: our approach to history, for better and mostly for worse, stems from the nineteenth century Great Man philosophy of history. Under this view of things, all historical change is a project reserved for our leaders; the rest of us are just drawn along in their wake with little agency or responsibility.

The “with little agency or responsibility” disclaimer ought to ring a few bells here. That’s the underlying philosophy that allows white Americans to evade responsibility for the institution of slavery and the long-term harm it has created for African Americans by saying that their ancestors never enslaved anyone. If we conceive of our leaders as the only (or primary) agents of history or change, then the rest of us need to own up to the systemic injustices that our actions uphold—or, indeed, to any of the changes our chosen leaders impose and we accept.

But history is lived and influenced by more than just “Great Men”; going along to get along is as much a choice as taking to the streets to protest (and possibly risking your life to do so).

As Pogo famously observed, we have met the enemy and he is us. We got us into this. And there’s no cavalry coming; we are going to have to get us out. So what should we do? The short answer is: resist. There is, of course, a longer answer.

Let’s start by defining where we want and need to be. That, to me, is a United States of America devoted to the promises it made and the checks it wrote to itself in 1776 and 1787. A country that is prepared for war but works for peace at home and abroad. A country that does the public’s business where the public can see it, values its people over its property, and is at least moving toward living in harmony with nature rather than exploiting it. A country where decisions are based on science and facts. A country where all lives really do matter,  where equal protection under the law is a real thing and not just a joke that the powerful snicker at over cocktails.

A country that, for fuck’s sweet sake, is not a fascist autocracy.

The Americans who will lead that country won’t be born in my lifetime or yours, but we need to start the work right now. We need both short-term tactics and long-term strategies, because the challenges we face are both short-term (global warming, overpopulation) and long-term (eradicating prejudice, attenuating greed).

And the most important short-term tactic is opposing Donald Trump by any means necessary. As I’ve noted, he is the single most unqualified candidate ever to be elevated to the presidency:

On July 7, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, met privately with House Republicans near the Capitol. I was present as chief policy director of the House Republican Conference. Mr. Trump’s purpose was to persuade the representatives to unite around him, a pitch he delivered in a subdued version of his stream-of-consciousness style. A congresswoman asked him about his plans to protect Article I of the Constitution, which assigns all federal lawmaking power to Congress.

Mr. Trump interrupted her to declare his commitment to the Constitution — even to parts of it that do not exist, such as “Article XII.” Shock swept through the room as Mr. Trump confirmed one of our chief concerns about him: He lacked a basic knowledge of the Constitution.

There is still deeper cause for concern. Mr. Trump’s erroneous proclamation also suggested that he lacked even an interest in the Constitution. Worse, his campaign rhetoric had demonstrated authoritarian tendencies.

He had questioned judicial independence, threatened the freedom of the press, called for violating Muslims’ equal protection under the law, promised the use of torture and attacked Americans based on their gender, race and religion. He had also undermined critical democratic norms including peaceful debate and transitions of power, commitment to truth, freedom from foreign interference and abstention from the use of executive power for political retribution.

There is little indication that anything has changed since Election Day.

That is to say, the dangers of fascism and autocracy he poses, from recession to nuclear war, threaten not just our well-being but also our lives and those of our children and those yet unborn.

Trump appears to this layman to be a textbook example of someone with narcissistic personality disorder. Because I am a layman, I could be completely wrong about this (and most non-lay people would refuse to diagnose at a distance, for that matter), but boy howdy, does he match up with the symptoms. And there are a lot of things you need to know about people like Trump with narcissistic personality disorder, as Medium contributor N. Ziehl explains:

1) [Narcissistic personality disorder] is not curable and it’s barely treatable. [Trump] is who he is. There is no getting better, or learning, or adapting. He’s not going to “rise to the occasion” for more than maybe a couple hours. So just put that out of your mind.

2) He will say whatever feels most comfortable or good to him at any given time. He will lie a lot, and say totally different things to different people. Stop being surprised by this. While it’s important to pretend “good faith” and remind him of promises, as Bernie Sanders and others are doing, that’s for his supporters, so *they* can see the inconsistency as it comes. He won’t care. So if you’re trying to reconcile or analyze his words, don’t. It’s 100% not worth your time. Only pay attention to and address his actions.

3) You can influence him by making him feel good. There are already people like [chief counsel-designee Steve] Bannon who appear ready to use him for their own ends. The GOP is excited to try. Watch them, not him. President Obama, in his wisdom, may be treating him well in hopes of influencing him and averting the worst. If he gets enough accolades for better behavior, he might continue to try it. But don’t count on it.

4) Entitlement is a key aspect of the disorder. As we are already seeing, he will likely not observe traditional boundaries of the office. He has already stated that rules don’t apply to him. This particular attribute has huge implications for the presidency and it will be important for everyone who can to hold him to the same standards as previous presidents.

5) We should expect that he only cares about himself and those he views as extensions of himself, like his children. (People with NPD often can’t understand others as fully human or distinct.) He desires accumulation of wealth and power because it fills a hole. (Melania is probably an acquired item, not an extension.) He will have no qualms *at all* about stealing everything he can from the country, and he’ll be happy to help others do so, if they make him feel good. He won’t view it as stealing but rather as something he’s entitled to do. This is likely the only thing he will intentionally accomplish.

6) It’s very, very confusing for non-disordered people to experience a disordered person with NPD. While often intelligent, charismatic and charming, they do not reliably observe social conventions or demonstrate basic human empathy. It’s very common for non-disordered people to lower their own expectations and try to normalize the behavior. DO NOT DO THIS AND DO NOT ALLOW OTHERS, ESPECIALLY THE MEDIA, TO DO THIS. If you start to feel foggy or unclear about this, step away until you recalibrate.

7) People with NPD often recruit helpers, referred to in the literature as “enablers” when they allow or cover for bad behavior and “flying monkeys” when they perpetrate bad behavior on behalf of the narcissist. Although it’s easiest to prey on malicious people, good and vulnerable people can be unwittingly recruited. It will be important to support good people around him if and when they attempt to stay clear or break away.

8) People with NPD often foster competition for sport in people they control. Expect lots of chaos, firings and recriminations. He will probably behave worst toward those closest to him, but that doesn’t mean (obviously) that his actions won’t have consequences for the rest of us. He will punish enemies. He may start out, as he has with the NYT, with a confusing combination of punishing/rewarding, which is a classic abuse tactic for control. If you see your media cooperating or facilitating this behavior for rewards, call them on it.

9) Gaslighting — where someone tries to convince you that the reality you’ve experienced isn’t true — is real and torturous. He will gaslight, his followers will gaslight. Many of our politicians and media figures already gaslight, so it will be hard to distinguish his amplified version from what has already been normalized. Learn the signs and find ways to stay focused on what you know to be true. Note: it is typically not helpful to argue with people who are attempting to gaslight. You will only confuse yourself. Just walk away.

10) Whenever possible, do not focus on the narcissist or give him attention. Unfortunately we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the president, but don’t circulate his tweets or laugh at him — you are enabling him and getting his word out. (I’ve done this, of course, we all have… just try to be aware.) Pay attention to your own emotions: do you sort of enjoy his clowning? do you enjoy the outrage? is this kind of fun and dramatic, in a sick way? You are adding to his energy. Focus on what you can change and how you can resist, where you are. We are all called to be leaders now, in the absence of leadership.

I’ll talk more in a bit on what that leadership might look like.

It’s hard to say what’s worst about Trump or most dangerous about him (although that whole unassisted-nuclear-war thing is a strong contender), but I think what is most fundamentally un-American about him is his bigotry and that of those with whom he surrounds himself. Yeah, yeah, I know, racism is as American as apple pie, but it also is most fundamentally at odds with the vision and the ideals expressed in our founding documents — all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness; that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction “the equal protection of the laws,” etc.

And if we are to reach our long-term goals for this country, we must therefore address bigotry as a huge obstacle to those goals and as a huge part of the makeup of the person who has stolen the Oval Office and the people who surround him — and who voted for him. And to address it, we cannot allow ourselves to live in denial about it.

Accordingly, I wanted to share something Tess Rafferty said not long after the election. Her perspective, I think, is essential to our national progress in general and dealing with Trump in particular:

You voted for Trump – I am tired of trying to see things your way while you sit in your holier-than-thou churches/white power meetups, refusing to see things mine. Did I just lump you in with white supremacists? No, you did that to yourselves. You voted for the same candidate as the KKK. You voted for a candidate endorsed by the KKK. For the rest of your life, you have to know that you voted the same way as the KKK. Does that feel good to you? Here’s a hint – it really shouldn’t, especially if you call yourself a Christian.

I’m tired of pussy footing around what offends your morals while couching what offends mine, because racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia offend mine.

Let me say it right here – if you voted for Trump, I do think you are a racist. I do think you’re homophobic. I do think you’re a misogynist. Racism, and homophobia, and misogyny are all a spectrum, and you’re on it. You might not be a ‘cheering while a black man gets lynched’ racist, but boy, did you just sell them the rope and look the other way. …

I tried to be polite, but now I just don’t give a damn, because let’s be honest, we don’t live in polite America anymore. We live in ‘grab ‘em by the pussy America now. So thank you for that, being polite was exhausting. …

So now’s the time you might want to see things from my side. Because, if we’re all going to have to be friends after this, imagine me having to be polite and having to respect your vote to take away my rights and freedoms and those of my friends, while we fight desperately to try to hang onto them, because that is what you did. …

Being racist isn’t the same as liking Dire Straits. This isn’t the same as just disagreeing about musical tastes. Being racist is always racist, and if you voted for Trump, you’re racist.

Rafferty speaks my mind: If you voted for Trump, then you are a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe. (And, yes, in case anyone reading this wonders, you can quote me on this. And if you voted for a third-party candidate? I have a position on that, too.) Yeah, as Rafferty says, it’s a spectrum, and despite the denials of bigots we’re all on it somewhere. But if you voted for Trump, you’re on it at a spot that is fundamentally incompatible with this country’s highest ideals, and I want nothing to do with you.

But, besides acknowledging that bigotry and refusing to tolerate it, what else can we do?

If it makes you feel any better, that question has been tossed around for a bit. Of all people, Robert Kagan, who’s something of a neocon and therefore not presumably all that opposed to fascism, saw it coming when he wrote in May:

But what [Trump] has tapped into is what the founders most feared when they established the democratic republic: the popular passions unleashed, the “mobocracy.” Conservatives have been warning for decades about government suffocating liberty. But here is the other threat to liberty that Alexis de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms. As Alexander Hamilton watched the French Revolution unfold, he feared in America what he saw play out in France — that the unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people.

O hai, as cats say on the Internet.

And while Kagan didn’t specifically set out to say what we should do, he did break down into categories what he thought our politicians, at least, were likely to do, and so far he ain’t been wrong:

In such an environment, every political figure confronts a stark choice: Get right with the leader and his mass following or get run over. The human race in such circumstances breaks down into predictable categories — and democratic politicians are the most predictable. There are those whose ambition leads them to jump on the bandwagon. They praise the leader’s incoherent speeches as the beginning of wisdom, hoping he will reward them with a plum post in the new order. There are those who merely hope to survive. Their consciences won’t let them curry favor so shamelessly, so they mumble their pledges of support, like the victims in Stalin’s show trials, perhaps not realizing that the leader and his followers will get them in the end anyway.

A great number will simply kid themselves, refusing to admit that something very different from the usual politics is afoot. Let the storm pass, they insist, and then we can pick up the pieces, rebuild and get back to normal. Meanwhile, don’t alienate the leader’s mass following. After all, they are voters and will need to be brought back into the fold. As for Trump himself, let’s shape him, advise him, steer him in the right direction and, not incidentally, save our political skins.

What these people do not or will not see is that, once in power, Trump will owe them and their party nothing. He will have ridden to power despite the party, catapulted into the White House by a mass following devoted only to him.

And yet Democrats can — indeed, must — resist. As David Faris writes at TheWeek.com, it’s time for Democrats to fight (at least figuratively) dirty:

So after the GOP’s unapologetic, eight-year incineration of America’s surviving governing norms, the Democrats have a stark choice. One option is to continue to be the party of decent government and compromise, and ride into power every eight or 12 years to clean up the GOP’s mess. And indeed, all available signals from Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren — the de facto leaders of what little remains of the institutional Democratic Party — suggest that they intend to cooperate dutifully with their new GOP overlords when the opportunity to accomplish something meaningful presents itself.

That this is the first instinct of the Democratic Party even after a crushing, incomprehensible defeat is actually kind of admirable. The urge to minimize the damage in defense of the public interest is broadly shared, and understandable. It must make many Democrats proud to support a party that truly believes in the public good, even at the expense of winning.

On the other hand, no. It’s time for Democrats to say no. To everything.

Democrats must comprehend, at long last, what is being done to them by the Republican Party. The Democratic negotiating position on all issues put before them while they are in the House and Senate minority for at least the next two years should be very simple: You will give us Merrick Garland or you may go die in a fire.

Not only that, but they should do what they should have done the day Antonin Scalia died: Make it clear that the next time the Democrats control the Senate while the Republican Party controls the presidency, whether that is in 2019 or 2049, there will be an extraordinarily high price to pay for what just transpired. The next Republican president facing divided government will get nothing. This president will run the entire federal government by himself. Zero confirmations. No judges, not even to the lowliest district court in the country. No Cabinet heads. No laws. Budgets will be approved only after prolonged and painful crises. Whoever this GOP president is, he or she will be forced to watch while their presidency and everything they hoped to achieve in government is burned down while the Democrats block the fire hydrant and laugh.

And Democrats should be confident knowing that American voters will never, ever hold them accountable for it. On the contrary, they will almost certainly be rewarded with sweeping power.

It helps that the Republicans — led by a man who rage-tweets fake news in the middle of the night — are about to embark on a long voyage of turning every single thing they touch into garbage. There should be no Democratic fingerprints whatsoever on the coming catastrophe. Democrats must not give the imprimatur of legitimacy to the handsy Infowars accolyte who is about to take the oath of office. Not to get some highways built. Not to renegotiate NAFTA. Not to do anything.

At long last, Democrats must learn from their tormenters: Obstruct. Delay. Delegitimize. Harass. Destroy. Above all: Do. Not. Help. This. Man. Govern.

How might such a massive resistance effort be organized? For one thing, it will take a huge amount of grass-roots pressure on Democratic lawmakers from voters. (Of course, pretty much any progressive initiative requires that, but this will require EVEN MORE of it.) But it will need something else, too: Real leadership in Washington. Jeet Heer, a senior editor at The New Republic, has an excellent idea for how Democrats can best resist the worst of what Trump and the GOP will try to do: create the U.S. equivalent of the head of the opposition party in a parliamentary system, and put U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in that role.

That position, Heer says, could organize and coordinate Democratic opposition to Trump and the GOP in a way that no current, formally empowered Democrat can (Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, say). Moreover, Heer says, that person should be Warren because no one else in the party combines focus, policy credentials, and a demonstrated willingness to fight. Schumer won’t fight, and Bernie Sanders is returning to Congress not as a Democrat who could be the voice of the party but as an independent who is a critic of it.

And Heer didn’t say this, but I will: Pelosi already is suspect to many in the grassroots for not having impeached George W. Bush over torture and warrantless domestic wiretapping. A lot of Democrats simply don’t believe she has the moral fiber for the role, not to mention the stomach for the kind of total war that will be required, let alone the organizing, messaging, and inspirational skills such a war will require. (And a word about that war: Democrats need to wake up and realize that Republicans have been fighting it since 1994. They’re in it whether they want to be or not, and as Faris noted above, they need to get right out of the habit of bringing a knife to a gunfight.)

Heer sees it working like this:

With her sharp, relentless, and often funny criticism of Trump, Warren has already stepped up to the plate as the party’s most stalwart voice. If the Democrats could invent a way to formalize her role, it would make her all the more effective.

One path might be for Schumer and Pelosi to get the congressional Democrats and party leaders together for a private meeting where they agree that Trump needs to be opposed as relentlessly and ruthlessly as Mitch McConnell’s congressional Republicans opposed Obama. In this new scenario, Schumer and Pelosi would play the role of party whips, strategizing the opposition to policy proposals and obnoxious nominations while keeping the votes in line to make sure Democrats don’t defect or turn into Trump collaborators—Vichy Democrats. But these are essentially behind-the-scenes tasks. Warren, by contrast, could be given a title (Chief Presidential Critic? Democratic Opposition Leader? Shadow President?) and be tasked with going out to the media and laying out the party’s talking points.

As Chief Presidential Critic (or whatever title the Democrats conjure), Warren could take on the crucial task of message-discipline. As Rich Yeselson, a writer for Dissent and other left-of-center journals, notes, “The biggest problem for the Democrats versus the Republicans in getting out a message is that there is not nearly the level of coordination. This may become different in the age of Trump, but the GOP has been agit-prop excellent in having all of its top players ‘on message’ and saying the same thingobviously, eliminating Obamacare is a classic example and there are many others.”

Warren would be the go-to person when the media wants the Democratic Party’s response to Trump’s latest words and actions; other politicians and surrogates would take their cues from her. She would take the lead on setting and articulating the party’s talking points, while Pelosi and Schumer work to whip Democrats in Congress. Warren would give the party the tough-but-appealing face, and voice, it so badly needs. And grassroots Democrats could, and would, amplify her voice—they’d have someone to rally around, to point to as their key anti-Trump champion.

I would add that this role also is particularly suited to Warren inasmuch as she has by and large said she has no intention of seeking the White House. (Yeah, I know, things can change — and has there ever been a senator who didn’t look in the mirror at least once and see a president looking back? — but that’s what she says now.) Further, she could assume it while still being the party’s Most Valuable Player in the Senate. It’s a lot to ask of her, but if she embraces the role, I think she’s up to it.

What else can Senate Democrats do? Apparently a number of them are thinking hard about delaying and dragging out the confirmation process on Trump’s Cabinet and sub-Cabinet appointees, either because of legitimate questions about his appointees (of which there are oh, so many) or just as payback for the Republicans’ having refused to hold hearings and a vote on President Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.

Senate Democrats can’t block Trump’s appointments, which in all but one case need only 51 votes for confirmation. But they can turn the confirmation process into a slog.

Any individual senator can force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to hold procedural votes on nominees. Senior Democrats said a series of such votes are likely for many of Trump’s picks.

Democrats could conceivably force up to 30 hours of debate for each Cabinet nominee, which would be highly disruptive for a GOP Senate that usually works limited hours but has big ambitions for next year. The minority could also stymie lower-level nominees and potentially keep the Senate focused on executive confirmations for weeks as Trump assumes the presidency and congressional Republicans try to capitalize on their political momentum.
Reasonable people in the center and on the left can disagree on exactly how many Trump nominees should be filibustered outright, but I think everyone can agree on Jeff Sessions for attorney general. As for the rest, unless they are mainstream people with clear expertise in the field — and at this writing, none is — they need to be grilled like a fresh-caught salmon. And I think requiring 30 hours of debate on every single confirmable position is merely the karma that refusing hearings on Merrick Garland deserves. I try not to be a petty person, but frankly, not being petty hasn’t gotten the good guys very far.
But there’s another good reason to drag things out, too: A growing number of Trump voters are experiencing buyer’s remorse. Trump’s favorability rating is the worst of any president-elect at this point in the transition since Gallup started asking the question. Even among Republicans, support for repealing Obamacare has fallen almost 30 percent just since the election. Delay would buy us crucial time: The longer the administration and the Senate are tied up with getting nominees confirmed, the more time we have to build opposition to Trump’s policies and those of the Republican Congress.
And even minority leaders in Congress can request the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s nonpartisan investigative arm, to look into various Executive Branch activities once the policy makers get seated. Whether anything gets done with the results is another matter, but at least the information would be out there for voters to see.
So those are some of the things Congressional Democrats can do to resist. But what can we do?
Let’s start with what we shouldn’t do: violence. Self-defense is one thing, and some of Trump’s backers in the past year have acted in ways that certainly justified self-defense. But unprovoked violence in protest of any political leader is morally wrong. If you’re prepared to go that route, you had better be prepared to fight to dissolve the political bands which have connected you with the American people and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle you. Also, you had better be prepared to hang if you lose. Besides, as Slate writer Jamelle Bouie observed:

The simple truth is that reaction feeds on disorder. And when there are legitimate means to stop Trump, you’re just as likely to cause a backlash in favor of his effort by forsaking them to attack his supporters. (At the risk of tripping Godwin’s law, German Communist violence against ultra-right targets in the 1932 elections didn’t stop Hitler and his enablers as much as it emboldened and enabled them.) If anything, Trump wants violent attacks on his supporters. Don’t give them to him.

Which is to say that, yes, we can open the box labeled violence, but consider this: There’s little guarantee we’ll be able to close it and almost none that we’ll prevail in the end.

But, yes, we must resist. Consider this concession speech:

Thank you, my friends. Thank you. Thank you. We have lost. We have lost, and this is the last day of my political career, so I will say what must be said. We are standing at the edge of the abyss. Our political system, our society, our country itself are in greater danger than at any time in the last century and a half. The president-elect has made his intentions clear, and it would be immoral to pretend otherwise. We must band together right now to defend the laws, the institutions, and the ideals on which our country is based.

Obviously, Hillary Clinton did not deliver that speech. But she should have, argues Masha Gessen in The New York Review of Books. Gessen maintains that some important falsehoods, including some Hillary Clinton included in the concession speech she actually did give, are preventing us from responding appropriately to Trump.

For one thing, Gessen writes, Clinton elided the distinction between civil resistance and insurgency, which Gessen calls “an autocrat’s favorite con, the explanation for the violent suppression of peaceful protests the world over.” For another, Gessen writes, Clinton, President Obama, and all the other political leaders who said conciliatory things after Trump’s Electoral College victory are refusing to grasp the reality of what is before us, instead embracing:

… the pretense that America is starting from scratch and its president-elect is a tabula rasa. Or we are: “we owe him an open mind.” It was as though Donald Trump had not, in the course of his campaign, promised to deport US citizens, promised to create a system of surveillance targeted specifically at Muslim Americans, promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, advocated war crimes, endorsed torture, and repeatedly threatened to jail Hillary Clinton herself. It was as though those statements and many more could be written off as so much campaign hyperbole and now that the campaign was over, Trump would be eager to become a regular, rule-abiding politician of the pre-Trump era.

But Trump is anything but a regular politician and this has been anything but a regular election. Trump will be only the fourth candidate in history and the second in more than a century to win the presidency after losing the popular vote. He is also probably the first candidate in history to win the presidency despite having been shown repeatedly by the national media to be a chronic liar, sexual predator, serial tax-avoider, and race-baiter who has attracted the likes of the Ku Klux Klan. Most important, Trump is the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat—and won.

Gessen points out that she has lived in autocracies much of her life and has spent her career writing about Putin and Russia. So she probably is better situated than many to offer advice on how to survive autocracy. They are, in brief:

  1. Believe the autocrat; he means what he says.
  2. Do not be taken in by small signs of normalcy.
  3. Do not count on institutions to save you.
  4. Be outraged.
  5. Don’t make compromises.
  6. Remember the future.

Regarding No. 1, Donald Trump has been remarkably clear about his bigoted, autocratic aims. He also is the world’s best example of narcissistic personality disorder and all the misery that that entails for people around him and the people he is scheduled to govern. He is a liar of world-historical proportions, but he has made one campaign promise that I believe we all can take to the bank: “I will never change.”

Regarding No. 2, and relatedly, Trump will occasionally moderate his extreme statements or even contradict them. One cannot be fooled. For example, he has called the legality of same-sex marriage “settled law.” Does that mean LGBTQ people who wish to marry can relax? Hardly. The right to an abortion is even more settled, and yet he has pledged to appoint Supreme Court justices who will vote to overturn the case that legalized it. Are we to believe those same justices would not overturn the ruling that legalized same-sex marriage? Indeed, after watching the Supreme Court practically beg for cases that would enable it to gut the Civil Rights Act, are we to believe that Trump-appointed justices, aided and abetted by the likes of John Roberts, Sam Alito and Clarence Thomas, would not beg for the chance to ban same-sex marriage once again? Yeah, no.

Regarding institutions, I’ve already dismissed the likelihood that the news media will be any help. Congress already has been gutted — Trump once said that he could shoot someone down in the middle of Fifth Avenue and people would applaud him for it; now, he could do it and the GOP-controlled House would not impeach him for it, either. And if they’re not going to impeach him for that, they won’t impeach him for his many conflicts of interest, or for torture, or anything else. Might our courts help us? Maybe, but we’ve already gotten a look at the list of jurists from which Trump has said he would appoint, and they appear to be enablers of autocracy, not opponents of it. And keep in mind, there were lawyers up to their eyeballs in the decision at the Wannsee Conference to liquidate European Jewry as well as the Bush 43 administration’s justification of torture.

As for No. 4, outrage is no trouble now. But how will it be in a month, or a year? “Outrage fatigue” is real. And yet, with Trump and his allies in charge of the White House, Congress and, soon, the Supreme Court, he will be able to move quickly and far. The outrages will be many, yet they must all be called out and not ignored, because each one will be damaging, perhaps lethally, to some of our fellow Americans.

And No. 5, don’t make compromises? This is an issue on which Gessen has special insight:

I grew up knowing that my great-grandfather smuggled guns into the Bialystok ghetto for the resistance, which staged an armed uprising there in August 1943. As an adult, researching a book about collaboration and resistance, using my own family history, I found out why my great-grandfather had been in a position to arm the resistance: he was one of the leaders of the Bialystok Judenrat, the Nazi-appointed Jewish council that ran the ghetto.

My great-grandfather’s story was at once an extreme and a typical example. Criminal regimes function in part by forcing the maximum number of subjects to participate in the atrocities. For nearly a century, individuals in various parts of the Western world have struggled with the question of how, and how much, we should engage politically and personally with governments that we find morally abhorrent.

With the election of Donald Trump—a candidate who has lied his way into power, openly embraced racist discourse and violence, toyed with the idea of jailing his opponents, boasted of his assaults on women and his avoidance of taxes, and denigrated the traditional checks and balances of government—this question has confronted us as urgently as ever.

As Kagan noted above, compromise is useless: Trump and his followers will get you in the end anyway. And Tom Levenson, posting at Balloon Juice, adds:

I’m convinced Gessen is correct.  More, I believe her demand that we make the moral choice first, and then pursue whatever particular tactic seems most likely to embody that choice, will be the most effective, as well as the right thing to do.  A Democratic response to Trump that says we can make this work a little better enshrines Trumpism, and all the vicious GOP assumptions as the ground on which such matters get decided.  One that says “No. This is wrong.  Democrats will oppose, not mitigate…” is the one that creates a real choice going forward on the ground on which we want to fight.

Finally, Gessen wrote, remember the future. True, nothing lasts forever, but as I said above, none of now living will see the end of U.S. fascism. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth fighting. And Trump and his followers are worth fighting if we value the kind of country the United States has always said it strives to be — even if it takes a long time, even if we’re not around to see his ilk vanquished. We do some things not because they’re practical or easily achievable, but because they are the right thing to do.

So where are we now? Like the protagonist in my friend Andy’s story in the first installment, we’ve gone somewhere we’ve never been, someplace miserable, where suffering is a feature rather than a bug and from which there may be no return. And as in the story, and as noted in earlier posts, some very, very unpleasant people are now in charge.  And if you’ve read this far, I hope that, like that narrator, you see how it is, and that you are ready.

And where are we going from here? That, my friends, we will each of us have to decide on our own. I can’t speak for “we,” only for myself. I’ve read a lot about life in autocracies, and one recurring theme is that you have to remember what “normal” is like because the pressure to forget normal will be intense. So I see part of my job as reminding whatever audience I might have of what “normal” is like, to stand up against the pressure to forget — to forget the Constitution, to forget the Golden Rule, to forget simple human decency. I also see part of my job as to witness, to tell you what I see going on and what I think it means.

Unfortunately, we know from other autocracies that there will be enormous explicit and implicit pressure to go along to get along, sometimes from the people closest to us in the world. Under this regime, going along will certainly mean legal discrimination on the basis of religion, race, sexual orientation/identity and other bases. It might well mean ethnic cleansing and even genocide. And I imagine that all the best people will just go along. That is, Pastor Martin Niemöller reminds us, how it worked in Nazi Germany:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Yeah, all the best people went along to get along. But I’ve never been one of the best people. If they come first this time for, say, the Muslims, we must respond: Not this time, motherfuckers.

Gessen says, “It is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock” — not surprise, because nothing this gang would do would surprise me or her — but shock, which implies a sense of moral offense. And that is essential, because what Trump and his supporters are up to is nothing if not immoral. Going along to get along will mean violating two of the West’s most important principles: the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment and Christ’s Second Great Commandment. I won’t, can’t do that. I will not betray my country, my faith nor, through either, my fellow Americans. The martyred anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that if we go along to get along, “God will not hold us guiltless,” and he was right. Gessen urged us to make the moral choice first, and so I have: I see how it is, and I am ready.

Accordingly, I say to Donald Trump: You and your supporters can say whatever you like and try whatever you think you can get away with. But I’m out: As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

Saturday, December 3, 2016 9:54 pm

Knowing fascism when you see it; or, If the jackboot fits — Part 2

Eighth in a series

First installment
Second installment
Third installment
Fourth installment
Fifth installment
Sixth installment
Seventh installment

When we left off last, we had just reviewed the question of whether, by Mussolini’s definition, the U.S. is a fascist system. I concluded that it isn’t, but I also thought Mussolini’s perspective on what fascism was wasn’t necessarily the only one with which we should concern ourselves. Another important perspective to consider is an essay written more than 20 years ago by the Italian postmodern novelist and critic Umberto Eco, perhaps best known for the novel “The Name of the Rose.” Eco had been active in the Resistance as a child during World War II and was there for the liberation of Italy by the Americans. In 1995, Eco wrote an essay for The New York Review of Books in which he posited the characteristics of what he called Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. Of them he writes, “These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.” (emphasis added) In other words, as few as one of these features could lead to fascism.

I’ll list his 14 features, and we’ll talk about each in terms of whether and how it applies to the U.S.

1.The Cult of Tradition: Eco elaborates:

In the Mediterranean basin, people of different religions (most of them indulgently accepted by the Roman Pantheon) started dreaming of a revelation received at the dawn of human history. This revelation, according to the traditionalist mystique, had remained for a long time concealed under the veil of forgotten languages—in Egyptian hieroglyphs, in the Celtic runes, in the scrolls of the little known religions of Asia.

This new culture had to be syncretistic. Syncretism is not only, as the dictionary says, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice”; such a combination must tolerate contradictions. Each of the original messages contains a silver of wisdom, and whenever they seem to say different or incompatible things it is only because all are alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth.

As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.

One can argue that this applies to the U.S. The country’s founding documents — primarily the Federalist papers, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — often are treated by Americans as a revelation. And, yes, they’re sometimes contradictory, most obviously in the original sin of this country, combining aspirations toward freedom with institutionalization of slavery (and native genocide, and denial of rights to most women). And, yes, to some Americans — perhaps most notably the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia — truth already has been spelled out once and for all. Other interpretations, even — indeed, perhaps, particularly — in the light of new historical and scientific discoveries, are irrelevant.

Do all Americans think this way? Of course not. But many do, and some of them hold or are about to hold real power.

2) The rejection of modernism. Eco notes that while Nazi Germany was proud of its scientific, technological and industrial advances, its culture was a much more ancient strain of Blut und Boden (blood and earth) and sees the Enlightenment as “the beginning of modern depravity.” Similarly, much of the U.S., including many now in power, have rejected efforts by the country to cash checks the country wrote to itself in 1776 and 1787, and while some of the conservative movement’s opposition to, say, the notion of global warming is driven purely by economic gain and political convenience, a nontrivial part is based on the absolute rejection of science, or, as Eco describes it, irrationalism.

3) Embrace of action for action’s sake and denigrating thought and reflection. Action is seen as beautiful in itself, particularly when undertaken without prior reflection and even when reflection might give us an edge on our adversaries. This trend is exemplified, in Trump’s embrace of torture even though professional interrogators find it generally unproductive and perhaps even leading to false information. Eco writes:

Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.”

The U.S. conservative movement has been anti-intellectual for at least the past 50 years. Today, as I write, the current target on Twitter is #liberalelites. (Some people who value thought and reflection are embracing that hashtag while posting such things in response as, “If expecting that my POTUS [president of the United States] is better-educated and better-informed than me makes me #liberalelite, so fucking be it.”

4) Rejection of analytical criticism. Remember in Item 1 when Eco said that a fascist culture must not just incorporate things from different sources but also tolerate contradictions? The problem this creates, of course, is that analytical criticism exposes and highlights contradictions. As Eco puts it:

The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.

This characteristic might help explain a phenomenon discovered in recent years by researchers: When people believe something false and are exposed to correct information that exposes that falsity, they often cling to the false belief even more tightly:

Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. …

Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.

Sound like the U.S. to you? Sounds like it to me.

5) Fear of difference: 

Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.

Slavery is often described as America’s original sin, but racism underlay slavery and made it possible, as Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have pointed out. Every fascist movement — indeed, every American populist movement — sooner or later (and usually sooner) advances and grows by exploiting fear of The Other. The presidental campaign just past differed from other recent campaigns only the explicitness of Trump and followers of his such as Steve Bannon.

6) Appeal to a frustrated middle class:

Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.

As I’ve noted before, polling data strongly suggests that racial animus was the primary driver of political support for Trump (see characteristic 5 above) and also shows that enough affluent people supported him to suggest that economic frustration also was not a main driver. Yes, there is some frustration, and it does have real causes — real wages haven’t grown, for example, and although nominal unemployment is now under 5 percent, demand for labor still hasn’t risen enough to boost labor-force participation to pre-recession levels. But the American conservative movement opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has opposed periodic reauthorizations of the act since, and as noted in the second installment of this series, it has fought to keep the very young, the very old, recently naturalized citizens and especially minorities from voting. So, yes, America, this is you.

7) Obsession with a plot:

To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside. In the US, a prominent instance of the plot obsession is to be found in Pat Robertson’s The New World Order, but, as we have recently seen, there are many others.

Again, Eco wrote in 1995; more recently, Trump and other prominent Republicans including white nationalists have made targets out of not only Jews, but also African Americans, Mexicans, immigrants generally, and particularly Muslims.

8) The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies:

When I was a boy I was taught to think of Englishmen as the five-meal people. They ate more frequently than the poor but sober Italians. Jews are rich and help each other through a secret web of mutual assistance. However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. [Remember, as noted in characteristic 1, contradictions are embraced.] Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.

Yep, that’s us, and I worry that Trump and his “brain trust” to date are incapable of objectively evaluating any enemy, be it ISIS or climate change.

9) Life is permanent warfare:

For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare. This, however, brings about an Armageddon complex. Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world. But such a “final solution” implies a further era of peace, a Golden Age, which contradicts the principle of permanent war. No fascist leader has ever succeeded in solving this predicament.

By one calculation, the U.S. has been “at war” for 233 of the 240 years of its history. Most Americans might disagree with that assessment, either through ignorance or because they do not accept certain types or scales of military operations as “war.” (We’re flying air combat missions in Syria, now, for example, but are we at war in Syria now? Certainly the people on the other end of our bombs would say so.) What is true, however, is that the Framers’ fears of a standing army have been ignored since at least the Civil War, and inarguably since World War II, and that the military-industrial complex against which President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us in his 1961 farewell address is more powerful than ever. Trump’s cavalier attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons will make all Americans — indeed, all the world — less safe, a fact voters chose to ignore.

10) Popular elitism:

Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak. Ur-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. But there cannot be patricians without plebeians. In fact, the Leader, knowing that his power was not delegated to him democratically but was conquered by force, also knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler. Since the group is hierarchically organized (according to a military model), every subordinate leader despises his own underlings, and each of them despises his inferiors. This reinforces the sense of mass elitism.

Welp, the U.S. scores here not only in popular elitism but also in aristocratic elitism, inasmuch as modern Republicans have indeed evinced contempt for the weak, not only in attitude but also in policy. To want to repeal Obamacare — even some Republicans are now admitting that “replace” is a joke — means being OK with the fact that millions of Americans will once again be uninsured and that, as a result, thousands of them will die prematurely.

11) A cult of the hero, inextricably bound with a cult of death:

In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. It is not by chance that a motto of the Falangists was Viva la Muerte (in English it should be translated as “Long Live Death!”). In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.

Some on the left would argue that Memorial Day alone is a U.S. practice that ties in with this characteristic of fascism. I think that’s a reach and that this characteristic has not been a characteristic of America, by and large. And I can’t point to anything Trump has said or promised to do that qualifies. But, again, Trump’s remarks about nuclear weapons should chill us.

12) A culture of machismo:

Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.

*U.S. raises hand* I mean, just Google “war on women.” Moreover, Trump has pledged to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade, the case that established a constitutional right to an abortion for women. He has been less aggressive in challenging LGBTQ rights, calling the constitutionlity of same-sex marriage “settled law,” but there’s no reason he couldn’t appoint justices who would overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the same-sex marriage case, and little reason to suspect that he wouldn’t.

13) Selective populism:

Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.

Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments. One of the first sentences uttered by Mussolini in the Italian parliament was “I could have transformed this deaf and gloomy place into a bivouac for my maniples”—“maniples” being a subdivision of the traditional Roman legion. As a matter of fact, he immediately found better housing for his maniples, but a little later he liquidated the parliament. Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.

Oh, hi! We like to talk a good game about the American public and its power in elections, but making that argument means confronting at least two significant problems: 1) About half of Americans don’t take part, and 2) One major party has made disenfranchisement the central part of its plan for survival; 3) Gerrymandering, particularly by the GOP, has been perfected to the point at which voters do not now select their representatives, but representatives select their constituents. Thus it has come to pass, as Eco said, that “citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People.”

Moreover, we’ve had throw-the-bums-out congressional elections in recent years in 2002, 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2014, benefitting both major parties. But Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” was the simplest, clearest call of 2016, and already he is populating his cabinet (as noted in the fifth installment of this series) with some of the very alligators he campaigned against.

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak:

Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in 1984, as the official language of Ingsoc, English Socialism. But elements of Ur-Fascism are common to different forms of dictatorship. All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.

“You’re fired!”, anyone?

So, by my count, we’re 14-for-14 on fascism characteristics as identified by Eco, which makes some of his closing words even more important:

We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again. Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world. Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.” Freedom and liberation are an unending task.

* * *

I also wanted to see how the U.S. stacks up against Lawrence Britt’s “14 Characteristics of Fascism,” published in the Spring 2003 edition of Free Inquiry magazine — after 9/11 and as the U.S. was invading Iraq. Britt, a political scientist, compared Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia), and Pinochet (Chile), and found 14 traits those regimes had in common. They are:

  1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism
    Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays. 
  2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights
    Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of “need.” The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc. 
  3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause
    The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc. 
  4. Supremacy of the Military
    Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized. 
  5. Rampant Sexism
    The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Opposition to abortion is high, as is homophobia and anti-gay legislation and national policy. 
  6. Controlled Mass Media
    Sometimes to media is directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media is indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship, especially in war time, is very common. 
  7. Obsession with National Security
    Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses. 
  8. Religion and Government are Intertwined
    Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government’s policies or actions. 
  9. Corporate Power is Protected
    The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite. 
  10. Labor Power is Suppressed
    Because the organizing power of labor is the only real threat to a fascist government, labor unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed . 
  11. Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts
    Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts is openly attacked, and governments often refuse to fund the arts. 
  12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment
    Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations. 
  13. Rampant Cronyism and Corruption
    Fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes for national resources and even treasures to be appropriated or even outright stolen by government leaders. 
  14. Fraudulent Elections
    Sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear campaigns against or even assassination of opposition candidates, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections

As you can see, there’s some overlap with Eco’s list, but that’s not really important. What’s important is how many of these conditions obtained in the U.S. even before Donald Trump’s election.

Nos. 1, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 were pervasive even before 9/11. Since then, Nos. 2, 3, 6, 7, 13, and 14 have come into play or grown more powerful. Once again, we’re 14-for-14, and slated to become even more of a fascist state once Trump and his cronies assume power in January.

Which, finally, leaves us the question of what to do about it. I’ll address that next, in (whew) the final installment of this series.

 

Knowing fascism when you see it; or, If the jackboot fits — Part 1

Seventh in a series (first installment, second installment, third installment, fourth installment, fifth installment, sixth installment)

A lot of people, myself included, have called Donald Trump a fascist and/or have said the U.S. will become a fascist society under Trump. But what does that mean?

The word is most closely associated with Benito Mussolini’s dictatorial reign in Italy from 1922 until he was ousted, briefly reinstalled by the Nazis, and then captured and killed in 1943 1945 (thanks, Fred). Mussolini frequently is said to have defined fascism simply as “the marriage of corporation and state,” but the truth is a little more complicated. In 1932, Mussolini wrote this definition of fascism:

Fascism, the more it considers and observes the future and the development of humanity quite apart from political considerations of the moment, believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace. It thus repudiates the doctrine of Pacifism — born of a renunciation of the struggle and an act of cowardice in the face of sacrifice. War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage to meet it. All other trials are substitutes, which never really put men into the position where they have to make the great decision — the alternative of life or death….

…The Fascist accepts life and loves it, knowing nothing of and despising suicide: he rather conceives of life as duty and struggle and conquest, but above all for others — those who are at hand and those who are far distant, contemporaries, and those who will come after…

…Fascism [is] the complete opposite of…Marxian Socialism, the materialist conception of history of human civilization can be explained simply through the conflict of interests among the various social groups and by the change and development in the means and instruments of production…. Fascism, now and always, believes in holiness and in heroism; that is to say, in actions influenced by no economic motive, direct or indirect. And if the economic conception of history be denied, according to which theory men are no more than puppets, carried to and fro by the waves of chance, while the real directing forces are quite out of their control, it follows that the existence of an unchangeable and unchanging class-war is also denied – the natural progeny of the economic conception of history. And above all Fascism denies that class-war can be the preponderant force in the transformation of society….

After Socialism, Fascism combats the whole complex system of democratic ideology, and repudiates it, whether in its theoretical premises or in its practical application. Fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation, and it affirms the immutable, beneficial, and fruitful inequality of mankind, which can never be permanently leveled through the mere operation of a mechanical process such as universal suffrage….

…Fascism denies, in democracy, the absur[d] conventional untruth of political equality dressed out in the garb of collective irresponsibility, and the myth of “happiness” and indefinite progress….

…iven that the nineteenth century was the century of Socialism, of Liberalism, and of Democracy, it does not necessarily follow that the twentieth century must also be a century of Socialism, Liberalism and Democracy: political doctrines pass, but humanity remains, and it may rather be expected that this will be a century of authority…a century of Fascism. For if the nineteenth century was a century of individualism it may be expected that this will be the century of collectivism and hence the century of the State….

The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State. The conception of the Liberal State is not that of a directing force, guiding the play and development, both material and spiritual, of a collective body, but merely a force limited to the function of recording results: on the other hand, the Fascist State is itself conscious and has itself a will and a personality — thus it may be called the “ethic” State….

…The Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone….

…For Fascism, the growth of empire, that is to say the expansion of the nation, is an essential manifestation of vitality, and its opposite a sign of decadence. Peoples which are rising, or rising again after a period of decadence, are always imperialist; and renunciation is a sign of decay and of death. Fascism is the doctrine best adapted to represent the tendencies and the aspirations of a people, like the people of Italy, who are rising again after many centuries of abasement and foreign servitude. But empire demands discipline, the coordination of all forces and a deeply felt sense of duty and sacrifice: this fact explains many aspects of the practical working of the regime, the character of many forces in the State, and the necessarily severe measures which must be taken against those who would oppose this spontaneous and inevitable movement of Italy in the twentieth century, and would oppose it by recalling the outworn ideology of the nineteenth century – repudiated wheresoever there has been the courage to undertake great experiments of social and political transformation; for never before has the nation stood more in need of authority, of direction and order. If every age has its own characteristic doctrine, there are a thousand signs which point to Fascism as the characteristic doctrine of our time. For if a doctrine must be a living thing, this is proved by the fact that Fascism has created a living faith; and that this faith is very powerful in the minds of men is demonstrated by those who have suffered and died for it.

That’s a fairly lengthy passage, so let’s hit some of its high points; to wit, Mussolini says that he believes:

  • Fascism considers perpetual peace not just impossible but also pointless; moreover, war “ennobles” its participants.
  • Fascism doesn’t believe in economic motives (such as, but not limited to, those of Marxism).
  • Fascism repudiates democracy and universal sufferage and believes that humans are inherently unequal.
  • The 19th century was the century of democracy; the 20th will be that of the State.
  • People are to be conceived of and understood only in terms of their relationship to the State.
  • That (fascist) State decides how much liberty individuals are to have and which freedoms are “useful,” granting those few and withholding the rest.
  • States must grow, imperially, or they are dying, particularly if, like Italy at the time, they are recovering from “abasement and foreign servitude.” This movement in Italy, which he calls both spontaneous and inevitable, can, nonetheless, only be brought about in his view by punishing opponents severely.

So let’s just take these at face value. Does the U.S. think perpetual peace pointless? Not pointless, I think — just damn hard to get to but still worth trying for.

Does the U.S. think war “ennobles” its participants? Less so now than in other points in our past; we have mixed feelings about that now that we didn’t have after, say, World War II. That’s to be expected. During that war, our moral aims and purposes seemed pretty clear. But in every conflict in which we’ve engaged since, moral clarity has been various shades of hard to come by; indeed, many respected scholars believe our invasion of Iraq in 2003 was both illegal and immoral.

Does the U.S. believe in economic motives? It would be difficult to argue otherwise. Economists study both people and institutions as rational actors in pursuit of rational economic interests, although in recent years some are acknowledging that the field might have overstated the rationality of the decision-making processes of both people and institutions. Public policy certainly has been debated and implemented with economic motives in mind.

Does the U.S. repudiate democracy and universal sufferage and believe human beings unequal? On paper, it has embraced those things from the beginning; in real life, of course, progress toward that position has been a process. The official policy of the state now is that it supports democracy and near-universal sufferage, and human equality under the law is enshrined in the Constitution. However, nontrivial numbers of Americans have always repudiated democracy, universal sufferage and the equality of human beings, with women, racial and ethnic minorities, some religions, and LGBTQ people, among others, being singled out for lesser status and less advantageous treatment. Such disparate treatment has been reduced greatly in the past half-century or so, although it still remains. What is alarming about the ascension to power of Trump and his cronies is that they appear intent on making that lesser status and less advantageous treatment state policy and rolling back some of the gains of the past half-century.

The U.S. does not conceive of and understand people only in terms of their relationship to the state; indeed, for least some of its citizens, the U.S. has done a pretty fair job through its history of having let people alone. That’s in significant part because of a law-review article, “The Right to Privacy,” published in 1890 by the Harvard Law classmates and law partners Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis. (Brandeis would go on to serve on the Supreme Court.) That article literally defined privacy primarily as “the right to be let alone.” The meaning of privacy has evolved over the years along with, among other things, technology. Indeed, government today has such enormous surveillance powers at its fingertips that claiming a right of privacy in practical terms is much harder than ever. Still, though the government probably has the capability of surveilling everyone at once, it is not clear that it has the will to do so in any meaningful way: Machines can gather all the data in the world, but at some point, at least for now, human beings still have to decide what it means and what, if anything, to do about it. The danger is that a group in power can choose to use these vast capabilities to oppress and harm its political opponents, and that is a legitimate fear with Trump and at least some of his backers.

Does the State pick and choose which freedoms we Americans will have? Again, on paper, no; although the Constitution spells out certain rights we Americans have, it also says that we have other, “unenumerated” rights. The State has circumscribed some of those rights, even the most fundamental. We have freedom of speech but cannot shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre; we may keep and bear arms, but not everywhere or all the time. Still, the State’s control over our rights is not, at least for now, anywhere near broad enough as to suggest that we live in a fascist regime.

Must a state grow to be vital? The U.S. has not accepted a new state into the union in more than half a century, and the likeliest possible candidates for admission, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, seem nowhere near it. And yet the U.S. does not see itself as in a declining state for lack of growth. (Some Americans see it that way for other reasons.) That might be because it has in no meaningful way been “abased” or “under foreign control” since the British burned Washington in 1813. And yet Trump, with his campaign rhetoric has argued exactly the opposite: that the U.S. is getting screwed by other countries on trade deals and that he alone can fix it. His backers frequently buy into this argument, although he and they seem to insist that his relationship with Russian dictator Vladimire Putin will somehow help this problem, not make it worse.

So, as Mussolini defines fascism, is the U.S. a fascist country? Hardly. It has some fascist tendencies, some of which appear likely to become more pronounced as Trump and his backers take power, but it is not, or not yet, a fascist country.

But one must ask: Is Mussolini a reliable narrator of his own philosophy and practice? The question answers itself. And so it is useful to consider other perspectives, which I’ll do in the next post.

 

 

The media and Trump

Sixth in a series (first installment, second installment, third installment, fourth installment, fifth installment)

So what is to be done about the president-elect and the executive branch he is forming? I’ll get to that in the next installment, but I first want to make a point that I believe is crucial: Whatever we try to do, we will get no help from most news media. They are hobbled by the interests of ownership and, worse, their own blinkers as they confront what faces us.

The concentrated corporate control of most of the largest news media outlets has been covered in great detail elsewhere, and I won’t rehash that fact except to say that it is the rare outlet where the financial interests of the owner or chief executive does not, from time to time, interfere with news judgement in a way that disadvantages the less powerful. Does that happen every day, at every outlet? With the possible exception of a few outlets like Fox News, and with the obvious exception of propaganda mills like Breitbart, I’d say no, but it happens often enough even at outlets, like The New York Times, that are perceived as left-leaning. (In point of fact, true leftists in other countries — we have few here in the U.S. — would consider the Times center-right, but that’s a subject for another day.)

Moreover, I’ve argued off and on for 20 years or more that news media need to be more forthright about defining their interests in more detail than vague platitudes such as “all the news that’s fit to print” or “provide a free people the information they need to govern themselves.” For example, I think that, if pressed, most mainstream news outlets would concede that they have an interest in requiring government at all levels to do its business in the open, and the more advanced among them would frame this discussion not just as an interest of the news outlet but also as an interest of the public.

But I have thought for some time — and the ascension of Trump, I think, demands — that news outlets also must explicitly state additional values, in particular equal justice under the law and the Constitution, and should make clear that upholding those values means opposing all who would oppose them. If someone wants to make an argument for changing the Constitution for this reason or that, that’s a perfectly legitimate political argument to make, and news outlets should cover it like any other. But if someone wants to ignore the Constitution, U.S. statutes, and Supreme Court precedents, news outlets should, at the least, take the position in editorials and news reports alike that the individual supports positions that would be at odds with the oath of office and therefore is unfit for office.

That’s a radical position for most U.S. journalists for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, for most of the past century, U.S. journalism has embraced what journalism scholar Jay Rosen and others have called “the view from nowhere” — in perhaps too short, objectivity carried to the point that it omits even the most relevant context.

For another, journalists have a mostly-well-justified fear of becoming “part of the story.” Avoiding that is a good way to try to achieve fairness and accuracy, but sometimes it is not sufficient to deliver to the reader/viewer a fully accurate story. For example, extraordinary efforts by bureaucrats to hinder journalists’ access to records essential to documenting a story should indeed become part of the story, even if that means including steps journalists had to take to obtain those records, such as suing.

And for another, news journalism has almost by definition sought to avoid advocacy. But in America, I would argue, in some cases, advocacy journalism is essential to preventing the destruction of what makes America America and/or what makes journalism journalism. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson (formerly the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials after World War II) famously observed that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. Well, neither is journalism, in that it should not just report on but also should actively oppose that which would make journalism difficult or impossible, not only for the sake of the outlet but also for the sake of the citizens that outlet purports to serve.

But American journalism has not just the right but also an affirmative moral duty to oppose that which would destroy our constitutional form of government and/or the journalism that provides the information that citizens of our democratic republic need to govern themselves. And not only must American journalism take this position, it must hold it without compromise.

Unfortunately, doing so directly endangers the financial interests of most owners of journalism outlets. So we’re back to Square 1, even if individual journalists try here and there to do the right thing.

And most journalists won’t.

There have been signs of this from the very beginning of Trump’s campaign. Cable news, in particularly, gave Trump large chunks of free air time to spew his views to American viewers, without editing, curation or context, even though their executives knew that doing so gave Trump a huge advantage over the rest of the large and ungainly Republican field.  And they did it for one reason: ratings. As Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, stated, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Media outlets also have proven themselves unable to resist outside forces, from Trump himself to the Russians. Worse, they’re making unforced errors. The broadcast networks, for example, devoted far less time in 2016 to coverage of issues than they did in the seven previous presidential campaigns dating back to 1988 — and devoted more than three times that amount of coverage to Hillary Clinton’s emails, a “scandal” that, despite numerous Justice Department and congressional investigations, never amounted to so much as a credible allegation of wrongdoing, let alone an indictment or conviction.

Print and online media did no better, UNC sociologist Zeynep Tufekci found: Her survey of pre-election coverage by The New York Times, The Washington Post and Politico found that they devoted five times as many stories to Clinton’s emails, 1,372, as to Trump’s conflicts of interest, 279 — again, despite numerous Justice Department and congressional investigations, never amounted to so much as a credible allegation of wrongdoing, let alone an indictment or conviction.

Since the election, there has been no sign that things are getting any better. New York University professor Jay Rosen highlights one example of news media’s inability to grapple with Trump’s numerous, outrageous lies: The media provide what he calls “accusation-driven” journalism rather than what is needed: evidence-based journalism.

And the news media, with little education, perspective or background and no fucking sense of history, is utterly ignorant of Hannah Arendt’s trenchant observation about the Nazis’ lies and the German newspapers’ failed 1930s efforts to fact-check: The Nazis don’t lie to tell you what they think is true. They lie to explain what would have to be true to justify what they’re doing. For example, Trump didn’t claim on Twitter that millions of people had fraudulently voted for Hillary Clinton because it was true. He claimed it to lay the groundwork for even worse restrictions on minority voting once he takes office. It was his Reichstag fire.

Some journalists are ready to admit defeat. Others are at least suggesting ways in which journalists might combat Trump effectively; Ned Resnikoff at Thing Progress has done better at this than most. (I personally think that every time journalists at a Trump rally are derided by the president-elect, they ought to respond with birds and wanking gestures, just as a start.)  But none of them, with the honorable exception of Jamelle Bouie at Slate, seem willing or even able to grasp the reality that Arendt laid out a half-century ago.

Which leads us to a poignant question raised just this morning by the editorial-page editor of my local paper, a paper where I once worked for 22 years. Allen Johnson asked on his blog: Are we out to get Donald Trump?

My response was pretty simple:

First, he didn’t win the election “fair and square.” A large, multi-state effort coordinated by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach illegally purged large numbers of voters — primarily voters from demographics statistically likely to vote Democratic — from rolls in several swing states, as documented by journalist Greg Palast on his website and in his new book. Forget allegations of Russian interference and voting-machine tampering; we know for a fact that this happened and that its effect was more than large enough to have swung the Electoral College vote. See Palast’s website and book “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” for more information.

Second, Trump is doing and and has announced plans to do things that are not just mean-spirited, destructive and dangerous, but also unconstitutional. Opposing such an individual is the highest form of patriotism.

But for reasons outlined above, the media almost certainly aren’t going to be any help.

So where does that leave us, as a nation and as individuals? I’ll discuss that in my next post an upcoming post — sorry, but the next post got so big it needed splitting into pieces.

 

 

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