"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Radical Populism, And The Decline Of Democratic Liberalism–A Post-Election Scenario

As of this writing (10.23.16) it seems likely that Hillary Clinton will be elected President of the United States; but this in no way means that Donald Trump or his radical populism will disappear.  On the contrary, it will grow.  The anger, resentment, and frustration of the electorate with the Washington establishment and the collusion, corruption, manipulation, and arrogation of power it has come to represent are too virulent to fade away after November 8th.  In fact it is more likely that the movement will coalesce, be strengthened by a new Tea Party-like coalition in both House and Senate, and energized by Trump himself who, on a new media platform (his proposed new network), will be as outrageously honest as he has been during the campaign.

This emergence of a disaffected electorate in the United States is not new and parallels the rise of Putin and Neo-Imperial Russia, authoritarian but hyper-productive China, Duterte and the popular acclaim for extra-judicial governance, the rise of Muslim separatism and Islamic orthodoxy, and the ascendency of the Right in Europe.


Traditional liberal democracy is being questioned more than ever not only in the Middle East where God, not the State, is considered the final arbiter of all things spiritual and secular but in Russia and China whose leaders refuse to compromise their autocratic rule for the sake of democratic traditions.

Since Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world economy and geopolitical arena, the country has grown rapidly.  GDP growth has been in the double digits for more than a decade, and tens of millions of Chinese have been raised out of poverty.  This accelerated economic growth and concomitant political power have come at what the West considers an unacceptable price – inflexible restrictions of civil liberties.  Yet China has refused to capitulate to demands for reform and in no way wants the divisive, corrosive, democratic chaos of today’s America.  Socio-economic development is too important, Chinese officials state, for political debate and ethnic separatism to get in the way.


Vladimir Putin has rejected the concept of the nation-state and is redrawing old boundaries according to the demands of Russian ethnic nationalism.  Putin has annexed Crimea and maintains de facto control of Eastern Ukraine.  He has made his intentions perfectly clear – to reconstitute a strong, ethnically united, militarily and economically powerful Russia which rejects integration within Europe or a peaceful and complaisant relationship with the West.

President Duterte in the Philippines has rejected the United States’ call for moderation and respect for the rule of law and continued his extrajudicial war against drug trafficking.  As a result he has an approval rating of over 80 percent.  His forthrightness, political honesty, and commitment to radical reform are applauded.  The ends justify the means.

Right-wing parties are in their ascendancy in Europe after repeated terrorist attacks and a flood of Muslim migrants.  France, always a champion of the rights of man, secularism, and justice has imposed an extended state of emergency, a measure close to martial law.  Individual rights are abrogated in a campaign to expunge all traces of foreign and native-born terrorism.  It has become more defiant than ever concerning secularism, forcing increasingly fundamentalist Muslim communities to abandon certain religious expressions and practices.  Scandinavia, once considered the model of European socialism and equality, has turned its back on this storied past and found multiculturalism corrosive and dangerous.

Only America persists in its commitment to progressivism and the role of the state in mitigating if not resolving social problems and promoting economic growth.  Yet because of the growth of radical liberalism and the multiculturalism which it has spawned, the country is more divided than it ever was.   Identity politics have separated racial, ethnic, and gender groups and delayed or even deterred national integration and social harmony.  America is no longer a country which welcomes immigrants as long as they assimilate but one which celebrates their differences.  This spirit extends to native minorities, especially African Americans who are encouraged to speak as an oppressed group with special privileges rather than one whose separatism is discouraged.

Universities have ceded their responsibility to educate at all costs and have become political side shows where learning has taken a back seat to espousal and promotion of progressive causes.   This political correctness has infected all area of American society and in its deliberate closing of the American mind has fueled anger, resentment, and frustration as well as promoted divisiveness.

The Supreme Court has become increasingly activist and has ruled on issues which should more rightly be left to the electorate.  There is no justification for continued judicial support for universal abortion when a significant number of Americans oppose it.  Likewise, there is no reason why the Court should interfere with majority views on traditional marriage or religious rights.

Trump has been openly and avowedly antagonistic to all the above.  He sees the Washington cabals as destructive, self-serving, self-perpetuating destroyers of America.  He calls out their arrogance, sanctimony, and self-righteousness.  He blames the liberal Left for imposing social judgments on millions of citizens who have not yet sorted through issues of abortion, gay marriage, and religious rights. 

He excoriates progressives for their dogged advocacy of social programs which after decades of support and billions in taxpayer investment show little or no results.  He is incensed that the mainstream media with few exceptions are unashamedly staffed by liberal staffers, editors, and publishers.  Even the traditional conservative media have ignored the populist sentiments of his followers.

He refuses to accept the conciliatory approach of the Left, fueled by multiculturalism, to immigration.  He understands that many if not most Americans feel threatened by what they see is unfettered access to the country.

The election for all intents and purposes is a fait accompli.  No matter what Wikileaks may reveal over the coming two weeks, there is no time for the legislative or judicial processes  to indict Hillary Clinton.  She will be elected as one of the most unpopular presidential candidates in American history – largely because much of the country is unprepared for or harshly antagonistic to Trump’s radical populism and his outsized personality.

The movement, however, will not disappear.  A hopeful if not likely short-term scenario is the following:
1. The House and the Senate remain Republican, and a significant minority of those elected come from Trump districts.
2. This new coalition can be as effective as the Tea Party in promoting a radical agenda that will satisfy Trump supporters and those who will join the populist movement.
3. Trump will start up a new network which will in theme, content, format, and personality reflect the same sentiments that have been so angrily expressed during the election.
4. As a result of the above, local Trump supporters will be more open about their radical conservatism and an energized, activist base will be formed.  A an organized grass-roots movement will replace individual expression, and as the movement becomes institutionalized, it will gain influence in statehouses and Washington.
5. The new appointments to the Supreme Court may not be as radical as they would be under a Trump presidency, but will far more moderate than the liberals currently serving on the bench. 
In the longer run, the Clinton presidency will not last more than one term and a radical populist president will be elected.  If the above five-point scenario comes even close to reality, the new president will have unequalled support from the country.  Although he may not take the same authoritarian measures as his international counterparts – Putin, Duterte, Xi Jinping, Sissi, Netanyahu, and Le Pen (and, like it or not, Assad, the Ayatollah, and al-Baghdadi) – he will begin the process of reforming government but much more importantly, governance.

Trump has been good for America.  A cleaning of the Augean stables was long overdue.  The Washington Establishment was getting  inbred if not incestuous and the lines been big money, big government, big media, and big industry were being blurred.  The arrogance and sanctimony of all these sectors was becoming insulting and intolerable.  Although Trump himself might not have made an ideal president – the country is not yet ready for a Duterte – the revolution he inspired and supported is underway.


Friday, October 21, 2016

What Ever Happened To Civil Discourse? A Return To Manners, Civility, And Politeness

After months of trying to get her children to sit up straight, eat properly, chew with their mouths closed, and stop picking at the serving dishes, Eleanor Bradley had become frustrated and exasperated.  She had been brought up in a strict home where napkins were spread evenly on laps,  knives and forks were used properly and quietly, and mouths wiped carefully and decorously.  The dinner table at her own house was feral and disgusting.  She blamed it on her husband who had been brought up to eat ‘with gusto’ , as he described his extended family meals; but to her these dinners were free-for-all, undisciplined affairs at which food was eaten quickly and carelessly.

“Manners are bourgeois”, said her teenage son, and served no purpose in the modern world.  They were vestiges of an elitist system.  They were markers of class and lineage designed to distinguished aristocrats from rabble; and whatever the social value in earlier times, they were unnecessary reminders of oppression.

“Yeah”, said his younger sisters. “Who needs them?”

That was when the mother put down her fork and stared across the table at her husband and children.  She patted her lips, carefully folded her napkin and laid it next to her plate, and stood up.
“Manners are not for you”, Eleanor said. “They are for me.  I have to look at you, and I am disgusted.” With that she left the table and did not return.

It was an epiphany.  The children and their father looked at each other.  None of them had ever thought of manners this way. They were always an unwanted, unnecessary obligation.  They made eating tedious and inefficient.  They were relics from an earlier age that inhibited ‘gusto’ and the enjoyment of food.  In short they were restrictions on individual behavior, on personal space.
With their mother’s few words, they finally understood.   For the first time in their lives they put themselves in her shoes, imagined what they must look like to her – pigs at a trough; cud-chewing cows; a pack of dogs tearing at dead meat.

From then on while never perfect, their manners were much improved. They ate well if not properly, and their mother was pleased.

Eleanor Bradley was right, of course.  Manners, politeness, civility are for other people.  Yes, they do reflect well on one’s own upbringing and education, but courtesy is for others.

The American presidential campaign (2016) is an example of bad manners, incivility, and disrespect.  There seems to be no end to the vitriolic, nasty,  and deliberately abusive and demeaning language of the two candidates.  Politeness, demurral, and respectful silence are seen as signs of weakness.  Americans, the candidates have concluded, respect combativeness as a sign of strength; respect as sign of defeat, personal attacks as fair tactics in a high-stakes game.

It wasn’t always like this, of course.  The Kennedy-Humphrey primary debate in West Virginia in 1960 was a model of propriety, respect, politeness, and good manners.  The candidates expressed their views and commented on those of their opponent; yet the discourse never left the high ground.  Points were scored on intelligence, clarity, precision, and insight.


What has happened in 50 years? How did America go from a society where civility and respect were the norms to one where discourse is discordant and individual identity primary?

The movies of the 40s reflect this culture of good manners and social propriety. Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman, and Lionel Barrymore were exemplary of a culture which, while no less enterprising as today’s, respected a notion of social grace.  Men wore suits and hats.  Women dressed elegantly but conservatively.  Clothes were both fashion statements and reflections of common social values.  A suit displayed formality, shirtsleeves an intrusive, personal informality.
Graceful masculine manners – holding a door, standing up when a woman entered the room, helping her with her coat, escorting her to her car – were not the now-parodied  symbols of male superiority and chauvinism but tributes to a woman’s own careful attention to her dress, demeanor, and social behavior.


In other words, civility in dress and behavior was a way of respecting not only others but the entire community. 

Society was simpler,  less diverse, and far less aggressively competitive than that of today.  More people lived in small towns where everyone knew each other and where individual propriety and manners were not only matters of civility and respect but survival.  Conformity to social norms was the rule. 

Sinclair Lewis, most often thought of as a savage critics of the fat and happy American bourgeoisie of the early 20th century was far from it.  Main Street, perhaps his finest novel, tells the story of a young woman who moves from a city to a small Midwestern town to follow her physician husband who intends to set up a practice there.  She is intelligent, sensitive, and ambitious and quickly finds the town insufferably conservative and insular.  Her attempts to start a theatre group, revitalize the library, and introduce art and literature to the community are considered intrusive and seditious. 

Yet despite sympathizing with his heroine in her struggle for personal authenticity in a society which has no use for it, Lewis never condemns the town itself.   There is something important, he concludes, about social  integrity and community – something very American.  Life on the prairie in 1920 was harsh and unforgiving; and only with social solidarity could survival and prosperity be assured.  Individualism had to give way to normative behavior.

In the end Lewis’ heroine, Carol Milford, comes to realize that her husband despite his intellectual timidity and bourgeois sentiments, is a good man; that his profession is difficult and essential if not noble.  She is less critical of her neighbors who might lack creative spirit but who are hardworking, essentially moral, and patient.  ‘Boosterism’, Lewis’ satirical characterization of America’s self-assured but sanctimonious belief in and promotion of small town values is less prominent in Main Street.  In the novel he has as much respect  for the town of Gopher Prairie as he does  for Carol who struggles for independence and individual expression.

Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding (1946) is both a celebration of family as it is about the integrity of community.  It not only is the story of a multi-generational, closely-knit family but its simplicity extends beyond the plantation.  Welty chooses not to write about the Civil War or Reconstruction, both of which were only decades before her story of the wedding.  The plantation is a physical and historical enclave. 

The only past that has any importance for the Fairchilds is the one of their ancestors.  Welty makes occasional but only incidental references to the Civil War, who went off to it and who came back.  There is nothing about the War itself, the battles that were fought in the Delta, Radical Reconstruction, refugees, the dislocation of the planter class, the difficult restructuring of the slave economy, or the political and social upheavals that resulted.

Welty, then, by writing about a family isolated from the devastation of the War and its consequences and leading an idyllic and romantic existence, had another agenda

Some critics have suggested that the sense of place was really what gave her later works distinction; and that novels like Delta Wedding were examples of how the ‘place’ of the Delta and the Fairchild plantation was a metaphor for place and family: Place is vitally important to Welty. She believed that place is what makes fiction seem real, because with place come customs, feelings, and associations.
Place answers the questions, "What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?" Place is a prompt to memory; thus the human mind is what makes place significant. This is the job of the storyteller.

Today’s world feels and is very unlike those of Welty, Lewis, or Wilder who in Our Town writes of the same conservative values of Grover’s Corners and about the necessarily small interstices between its residents and how this social integrity is essential to individual life and community.  Our world not only celebrates classic American individualism but has turned it into a culture of identity.  Society has become so diverse sexually, ethnically, and racially that each group and sub-group must fight for air, space, and territory among many competing claims.   How can civility, manners, and mutual respect prevail in such a competitive  environment?

The dream of social integration first expressed in the 60s has been replaced by separatism in the name of civil rights.  The only way for gays, racial and ethnic minorities, and women to attain social and economic parity is to first fight for turf and perimeter.  Then, once parity has been attained, assimilation of identity groups can occur.

Aggressive individualism is taught in the home as well.  Self-worth, self-image, and personal identity are valued more than civility, respectful demurral, compromise, and accommodation. 
There is no way to impose a 1940s conception of  civility on 2016 America.  It is too late, and except for ironic revivals of old fashion, the past is dead and gone. 

Yet is it? Americans always refer to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, the genius of the Bill of Rights, the principles of Jefferson, Hamilton, and Franklin; and the invocation of the past is never considered retrograde or antiquated thinking.  Why not the 40s for its graceful civility, manners, and polite respect?

Of course there was a dark side to the era – Appalachia, the Deep South, urban ghettoes were as much a part of the post-war period as the enthusiasm of the middle class – but such undersides exist in every period.  It is historically revisionist to focus on underclass when the middle- and upper-class were defining American values.

So, a re-visitation of Welty, Lewis, and Wilder might be good for a start; or a non-ironic read of Emily Post; or Dark Victory and The Talk of the Town.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Bob Dylan And The Nobel Prize–What Is Art Anyway?

Ever since Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, traditional naysayers have been in lockstep.  How could the committee honor Dylan when prize-winners have included Faulkner, T.S.Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neill, Yeats, and Tagore, artists of transcendent genius?

There are of course those who say that Dylan’s lyrics are poetry, and as lyrical, profound and lasting as those of any poet in the pantheon. 

Here is the opening stanza of Dylan’s most popular song:
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind…
Compare them with  these verses from T.S.Eliot:
Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.
Let me be no nearer
In death's dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom (The Hollow Men)

From the point of view of classical literary criticism, there is no comparison.  Eliot’s poetry is complex, interior, intellectually challenging, and chilling in its commentary on death, despair, reality and life itself.
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
Dylan’s poetry in contrast  is simple, folk, and derivative.
Yes, how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky ?
Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry ?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died ?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.
By further contrast, here is an excerpt from Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium’, a poem like The Hollow Men, which expresses man’s universal concern with mortality.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

And finally from Dylan:
Come gather 'round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
Accept it soon, you'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin', you could sink like a stone
For the times, they are a-changin' (The Times They Are A-Changin’)
There can be no comparison.  Dylan is a popular songwriter, the 60s version of Moss Hart, Hoagie Carmichael, and Cole Porter.  Porter, whose lyrics have been criticized for their silly lightheartedness, their celebration of fantasy, high times, and inconsequential love affairs, was a genius at capturing the sentiment of the nation at a particular moment of history – a moment between the wars where silly sentimentality and escapism was embraced.

Dylan wrote in a more conflicted age and was concerned with more weighty matters; but he was as rooted in zeitgeist as Porter.  Both  Porter nor Dylan chose to write about the times, the moment, the cultural event of an era.  They did not try to address the human condition, its brevity, meaning, and import as did Eliot and Yeats.

One of Picasso’s most popular works is Guernica, a depiction of the brutality of the Spanish civil war.  He departed from his more essential themes of human nature and being to be political.  Although in the painting he did not take sides he, like Dylan, expressed a political sentiment and diverged from his focus on more fundamental issues.

Should Dylan be given extra credit for political awareness?  Is being tuned in to popular political sentiment and zeitgeist an additional criteria for the Nobel Prize?  Should one put aside a more critical assessment of the art itself and judge the work on its social and political influence?

The answer is no.  Churchill never received a Nobel Prize for his war speeches, although without them and their call to patriotism, national h0nor, and moral principle the Battle of Britain might never have been won.
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills.
We shall never surrender…
His words are inspirational, heroic, and powerful; but they – by any standards – do not achieve the existential power and sublimity of those of Eliot or Yeats.

The issue of Dylan’s prize raises an important question.  What is art, after all?  Are there as conservative critic aver, universal standards of literary or artistic greatness.  Should one revere Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Joyce, Blake, and Faulkner above all?  Are their works on a higher plane than Dickens, Dreiser, Hardy, and DuMaurier because they distilled the human experience rather than narrate it?

Are the works of Picasso, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Michelangelo more enduring, more insightful, and more expressive than Dale Chilhuly or Normal Rockwell?

Deconstructionists have for no other reason served an important purpose in forcing us to define excellence, artistry, and genius.  The most radical of them have contended that there is no such thing – that car manuals are no different than the King James Version of the Bible or Hamlet.
Although their critics would insist that there are such things as universal criteria – that a great work of art must be transcendent, expressing central human concerns in unique and powerful ways – is there no room in the canon for the immediate and the temporal?

The answer is ‘No’. The best contemporary writers such as Richard Ford and Hilary Mantel are cut from the cloth of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee.  They display the modern human condition as the human condition. Marriage, divorce, family dysfunction, jealousy, inheritance, rivalry are all part of a human desperation for meaning and purpose.

The painter Anselm Kiefer shares nothing whatsoever with Dale Chihuly, a craftsman glassblower.  Kiefer’s over-sized tableaux are inescapably frightening, almost impossible to look at.  They are dark and brooding, reminiscent of Armageddon, Holocaust, and the end of days. 

Chihuly’s works are fanciful, colorful, delightful, and meaningless.  He and Kiefer should never be included in the same discussion.

Wagner’s The Ring Cycle has been praised as a monumental operatic work and dismissed as proto-Nazi glorification of the Aryan race.  Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and his Ode to Joy have been acclaimed as among the highest achievement of symphonic works and as a powerful religious and political statement:
Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, über'm Sternenzelt
Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such' ihn über'm Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muß er wohnen.
So, Dylan gets high marks for incisive zeitgeist. Perhaps not so  demanding and enduring as Guernica or War and Peace but at least representative or a type of current, temporal art.

He gets low marks for language, complexity, and philosophical sophistication.  His verses, taken out of their social and cultural context, are trifles – lyrics of popular songs which will be hummed and sung but never enshrined.

Should he have gotten the Nobel Prize for Literature? No.  Should he be internationally recognized for having been a lyrical voice in popular revolution? Yes.