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

Thursday, May 29, 2014

European Right Wing Parties–Not Fringe At All

Ultra-conservative parties won impressive victories in the recent elections for the European Parliament.  The UKIP party in the UK won a resounding 28 percent of the vote; the National Front in France 23 percent, and the Danish People’s Party 23 percent.  Given this significant electoral representation, it is unfair to call them ‘fringe’ – especially when the Republican Party in the United States won only 37 percent of the votes in the 1964 American Presidential election; and the Democrats won only 39 percent in 1972.  Admittedly, the European elections were for the EU Parliament, always far less competitive than national votes; but over 43 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, a number not much less than the US turnout in the Presidential election of 1988 (49 percent).

In other words, it is reasonable to interpret the results as validly representing the current political sentiments of European voters, and that given the percentages recorded for the Far Right parties, they represent a newly emergent political force.

So why are they referred to in the US and Europe as ‘fringe’, suggesting a sketchy, irrational, and conspiratorial movement that is marginal and irrelevant? The creation of European Union was never about currency or free trade, but about political and social solidarity.  It was an emotional decision – a commitment to end forever the European wars which had riven the continent for millennia; an idealistic statement of regional unity; and a vote for the value of a vibrant pluralism existing within a strong political union.

As the EU expanded and countries in Eastern Europe far poorer than their Western neighbors were admitted, the philosophical ideal became tarnished in the face of economic realities.  Resentment grew against Polish carpenters, Bulgarian plumbers, and Romanian electricians who were ‘taking’ jobs from French or Danish workers.  During the Recession of 2007 when huge EU bailout packages were provided to Greece, Spain, and Portugal – all notoriously profligate public spenders – the resentment increased.

Illegal immigration from Africa increased discontent with the EU.  Why were Italy and Spain not doing their European duty and keeping out those who made it to enclaves in Morocco, Gibraltar, or Lampedusa? The inequalities among European nations became pressingly clear.  The economies of Southern Europe were performing badly while Germany became the czar of the Union; Italy’s democracy was in name only as one government after another fell and any kind of political stability and predictability was impossible.  It became patently clear to all Europeans that despite the idealistic nostrums of the European Commission, Europe was still many nations, not one.

The resentment grew even more when the Commission intruded more and more into national economic and social life.  The ‘progressive’ rules and regulations which were meant to blunt the edges of national culture and harmonize the Union were seen as unwanted meddling.

Added to this dissatisfaction were the growing numbers of Muslim immigrants from Africa.  These new arrivals were different.  They refused assimilation.  They benefitted from Europe’s system of generous social benefits but remained closed and uncooperative.  God’s Law would always trump Man’s they said, and they became increasingly insular and militantly opposed to what they saw as government intrusion into their lives.

This social closure was particularly offensive to the French who prided themselves on the concept of a unified nationhood.  We are all French, government said, and there is no such thing as pluralistic identity.  The French sniffed at America’s multi-culturalism, a movement to celebrate ethnic differences, but which diluted nationalism and national integrity.

The French were surprised when the riots broke out in the Parisian suburbs in 2005. African immigrants angrily and violently protested French exclusion, racism, and neglect.  They might be officially considered no different than the white Parisian living in the 7th, but practically they were ignored, discriminated against, and marginalized. As the proportion of Muslims grew in France (the highest proportion in Europe), the native French became equally upset and militant.

Opposition to immigration and to the EU coincided around the issues of culture and national identity.  Not only were immigrants demanding recognition and respect as unique, separate cultural identities; but so were native-born French who looked back to their country’s storied history, one in which Roland defended Europe from the Muslim heathens invading from the south.  La France meant something.  It had always been white, Christian, and homogeneously sharing cultural and social values.  Now it was threatened.

Some have jumped to conclude that the French and the Danes are racist at heart and can’t bear the thought of their white cultures polluted by savages.  While racism exists everywhere and while there is no denying that the patronizing, patriarchal sentiments a century of French colonization of Africa engendered, it is too simplistic to assume that only racism is behind current European politics.  The whole world is fragmenting into ethnic and cultural enclaves.  Old World allegiances are reforming and hardening, and newly-arrived communities are demanding their cultural independence.

It is not surprising that Russia has flexed its Imperial muscles and reasserted hegemony over countries and regions within its sphere of influence.  One has only to read War and Peace to get some appreciation of Russia’s deep and abiding cultural nationalism. The Balkan Wars were fought as much over grievances and posited rights of a thousand years ago.  Tibet, the Uighur provinces of Northwest China, Quebec, and Scotland are among the many ethnic enclaves which reject old-line nationalism and the idea of nation-states.

Shakespeare more than any other writer understood human nature – acquisitive, aggressive, territorial, self-protective, ambitious, and violent – and knew that it would always be the immutable force behind the events of human history.  It was not surprising that English history repeated itself in such predictable ways as he demonstrated in his Histories.   It is equally not surprising that as the world becomes smaller and its population becomes larger that smaller and smaller groups demand recognition.  The civil wars in Iraq are not just between Shiite and Sunnis but between the many factions of each.  Solidarity among cultural, ethnic, or religious groups does not come easily.  When societies fracture, they fracture along many fault lines.

UKIP, the National Front, and the Danish People’s Party are only fringe groups in the eyes of ‘progressives’ which refuses to accept this new localized nationalism. The One World utopia of the Left – a world of racial, ethnic, and religious harmony within a pluralistic society – dies hard.  ‘Progressives’ simply cannot acknowledge the existence of human nature let alone its potency.  Even if there is such a thing, it can be tamed and harnessed by government to serve the common good.

Many in the United States worry about immigration, the loss of English and traditional American culture; but there is little to worry about because there is no such thing as American culture, at least not in the European sense.  If you are ambitious, want to make money and move up the social ladder, you are American.  You don’t have to worry about the pillars of culture erected thousands of years ago, nor about crusading Christianity, high art or High English.  Make yourself understood, wear a white shirt and tie, and get to work.

It is highly unlikely that Mexican-Americans will band together, claim all territory within a hundred miles of the Rio Grande, call it Mexistan, and fight a civil war for independence. The few Muslims that live in America are happy to be here, or so it seems, and have become as assimilated and engaged as any immigrant group in the past.

On the basis of this short history, Americans feel they have a right to sniff and chortle over the EU’s troubles; but this naïveté and historical ignorance influence our foreign policy.  We make casual assumptions that liberal, pluralistic democracy is an inherent, God-given good; that an election is a sacrament; and that elected officials are anointed priests.  We are flummoxed by Putin and China; ignore the separatist movements all over the world at our peril, and rest on our browning laurels.

No, the Right Wing parties of Europe are not ‘fringe’ groups to be ostracized and vilified.  They are natural, predictable, and valid expressions of The New Separatism.  The world is still very much imbalanced by any social, economic, or political indicator devised; and until there is little or no tilt, inward-looking, self-interested political parties and socio-cultural groups will continue to increase. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Tolstoy, History, and Genetic Bits From A Robber Baron

Billy Baxter (Harrison William Baxter IV) didn’t know shit from Shinola as my father would say; so how in the world did he make it to as the CEO of a multinational energy company?

There are only two explanations – the first is that the genetic bits of Great Uncle Harrison Baxter III eventually kicked in and Billy, although he didn’t understand the sudden inspiration and driving ambition that hit him in Senior Year in high school, he couldn’t resist the inner urge to create, produce, and succeed.

Although the chances of as few stray fragments of the elder Baxter finding their way into Billy’s DNA were slim indeed, it was certainly possible.  Harrison Baxter was last in a distinguished line of Wall Street Baxters.  Harrison I advised J.P. Morgan in the laissez-faire days of American capitalism, bought and sold railroads, shipyards, and steel mills; amassed the wealth of Croesus for his patron, and protected his investments from Park Avenue to Jekyll Island.

Harrison II came of age just before the Great Depression but preternaturally astute in matters of finance, saw the Crash coming and quickly moved the family’s fortunes to safe havens abroad. 

Harrison III invested millions with Meyer Lansky and his early investments in Las Vegas paid off for decades. Lansky and the Mob provided the muscle, and Harrison Baxter provided the uncanny advice necessary to keep one step ahead of the IRS.

So, whatever bits got passed along the Baxter line could very well have been responsible for Billy’s sudden and welcome coming of age.

On the other hand, all the Harrison Baxters were wanton philanderers, and the family tree had more illegitimate offshoots than the courtiers of Elizabeth I.  Unlike these noble wanderers, however, who bedded the daughters of high-borne families, the Baxters were known to frequent the brothels of New Orleans, New York, and – surprisingly – Detroit.  The Motor City is now only known for its crime, dereliction, and corruption; but in the heyday of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, it had a lively night life – cabaret, dance halls, and women of the night imported from Pigalle and the grand boulevards of Paris.

No one was quite sure where Harrison Baxter IV (Billy) came from since the family with all its wealth, power, and political influence managed the genealogical history of the family with care and discretion.  No one cared who was legitimate or not – boys will be boys after all, and the Baxters were legendary Lotharios – and the Baxter treasury was well-husbanded and kept intact. It is safe to assume that even with all the sullying of the bloodline with hussies from the Moulin Rouge, some of the strands of genius could have made their way through the years.

The second possibility is even more likely.  Tolstoy in War and Peace expounds at length on his theory of ‘accretive history’.  All actions, whether by Napoleon or the soldier in the ranks of the Tsar, are conditioned by a bewildering and indecipherable cascade of past events and influences.  French historians opine that if Napoleon had not been indisposed with a bad cold on the day of the Battle of Borodino, things might have turned out more favorable.  He was so fogged with rheum and so rattled by cough and congestion that he could not think straight and uncharacteristically misjudged the moves of his opposite number, Prince Kuznetzov. 

Tolstoy and a legion of more rational historians debunked the Great Man theory, and dismissed the idea that the course of history was determined by individuals alone.   Not only was Napoleon’s valet responsible for the defeat at Borodino because he had forgotten the Emperor’s waterproof boots (he was distracted from his duties by his unfaithful wife), thus obliging him to ride in wet leather and get chilled, but every general, colonel, and subaltern under Napoleon’s command was equally driven by past history, circumstances, and luck.

A generation or more had passed between Harrison Baxter III and Billy, and the family had squandered its fortune, lost its place in society, and were as negligent and irresponsible as the Puerto Ricans in the North Ward. The upper classes of New Brighton tolerated Billy’s family because of who they were, not what they had become.  Unpaid dues at the Shreve Meadows Country Club were overlooked, bar tabs were paid for by 19th hole social climbers who thought there was still some currency in the Baxter name, and Henrietta and Bart Baxter, Billy’s parents, went on their drunken and profligate ways, drawing down the final sous in the Grenadian Bank of Scotland where the family’s money had rested since the halcyon days of the turn of the century.

Billy, as most children, did what his parents told him; and followed their example in all else.  As a result he was an indifferent student, an adolescent wastrel, and according to all his teachers, bound for nowhere.  But, as Tolstoy predicted, his ultimate and most important actions were conditioned by the chance interactions of peers, cohorts, friends, and random actors from Broad Street to Broadway.

Belinda Granski was one of the few girls who ever frequented Jimmy’s Smoke Shop, a seedy downtown bus station-cum-girlie magazine depot.  She went there to pick up New York papers for her father, but lingered among the candy racks to watch the men sidle back to the magazine rack, flip through the latest editions of ‘Pussy’ and ‘Come’, and leave with a pack of Luckies. She was the inspiration for Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste, a story of a sexually frustrated piano teacher who cruises porn shops by night.  Haneke had been an exchange student in New Brighton as a very young man, and the image of Belinda in the seedy, foul-smelling, station-depot stuck with him until he made his film.

Billy Baxter met Belinda at Jimmy’s and they started a torrid small-town affair.  Belinda was not much on looks or class, but she was born with emotional antennae as sensitive as the silkworm moth which can smell the scent of one molecule of female hormone from a mile away.  She sensed that Billy was special, and whether or not she picked up on free-range molecules from Grand Uncle Harrison’s DNA (unlikely) or understood that his restlessness was because of a dormant talent, she said, “Billy, you are a very special man; and you will do great things in your life”.

Billy woke up from his intellectual and emotional sleep and began to pay attention to money, success, status, and social position.  At the same time, other random, totally unpredictable happenings helped to propel him along his now anointed path.  His country day school mistakenly ratcheted up his grades from low C’s to A’s, and because his mother was sleeping with the academic dean, his recommendations to Andover, Exeter, and Groton were superlative. 

He took a minor role in a school production of Troilus and Cressida – that of Cressida, thanks to the avant-garde director of the play, himself a refugee from the Castro – and received rave notices from the Boston Globe whose drama critic was the lover of the play’s director.

Billy paid no attention to his dramatic acclaim; but his name and that of his family got bruited around Beacon Hill, and his acceptance at Harvard was a done deal.

From then on, Billy’s native abilities took over.  He finished Harvard in three years, went on to Harvard Business School, picked up a law degree at Yale, and got a job with Goldman Sachs.  By this time he had a renewed interest in the doings of his ancestors, and decided that he was more cut out for the rough-and-tumble world of business than Wall Street.  In a short time he had made it to the top of the corporate ladder.

Those of us who went to country day school with him were amazed at his various successes.  He was voted the least likely to succeed, a category that was later removed from graduation hijinks at the beginning of the PC era.  He had no social graces, no athletic ability, and he was clueless about girls. We were all looking forward to seeing him again at the 40th reunion of our class. For all intents and purposes he had not changed a bit.  He still had that ne’er-do-well, doofus, shambling walk and adolescent shyness; and we liked him.  We never grilled him about his scrambles and Wall Street wars, and were content just to share stories about raiding the Kotex from the girls bathroom, hot Nancy Beene, and Mr. Strumple’s cyclonic sneezes.

As I reread War and Peace and come across Tolstoy’s passages about historical conditioning, the interconnectedness of random events, and the demythologizing of genius, I think of Billy Baxter.  Billy in fact did know shit from Shinola, but my father died before he could see him as the star witness at a Congressional hearing on wealth management and the law.

Billy died relatively early – in his late 60s – and I hope that he had one of Tolstoy’s famous deathbed epiphanies.  There are no more chilling but insightful passages in all of literature about death and dying than those of Prince Andrei and Ivan Ilyich. We will never know whether at the moment of his extinction he had insight and illumination or reverted back to his clueless days in New Brighton.

The Santa Barbara Killings–Not Misogyny But Insanity

Much has been made of the Santa Barbara shooter’s misogyny, but he did what he did because he was nuts; and despite feminist screeds to the contrary, it wasn’t hatred of women that drove him to mass murder.  Either his wires got badly crossed in childhood or he inherited an errant schizophrenia gene from Great Grandfather Herman.  All the mass killers within the past few years have had a screw loose.  They all had twisted views of themselves as avenging angels or misunderstood misfits. They all suffered the normal frustrations of adolescence, but because their brains were addled with bad chemistry and weirdly-firing synapses, they couldn’t file and sort like normal teenagers, hating and loving their parents, sussing out come-ons, cool guys, and losers; and ultimately making enough sense out of the world to at least fly right.

To try to assess logical cause in an illogical mind is fancy.  The Santa Barbara killer may have hated women, but so do lots of men.  Misogyny has been around for a long, long time.  In fact it was one of Shakespeare’s favorite subjects.  Take the following passage spoken by Posthumus in Cymbeline:

Could I find out
The woman's part in me! For there's no motion
That tends to vice in man but I affirm
It is the woman's part. Be it lying, note it,
The woman's; flattering, hers; deceiving, hers;
Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers; revenges, hers;
Ambitions, covetings, change of prides, disdain,
Nice longings, slanders, mutability,
All faults that man may name, nay, that hell knows,
Why, hers, in part or all, but rather all.
For even to vice
They are not constant, but are changing still
One vice but of a minute old for one
Not half so old as that. I'll write against them,
Detest them, curse them. Yet 'tis greater skill
In a true hate to pray they have their will;
The very devils cannot plague them better.

Leontes in The Winter’s Tale is no different, and misogyny is behind his unreasoning suspicion of this wife:

There have been,
Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now;
And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in's absence
And his pond fish'd by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour.

Troilus in Troilus and Cressida watches in secret as his betrothed, Cressida, makes love with another man and says:

Let it not be believed for womanhood!
Think, we had mothers; do not give advantage
To stubborn critics, apt, without a theme,
For depravation, to square the general sex
By Cressid's rule: rather think this not Cressid.

Troilus does not want to believe that all women are deceitful, wanton, and unfaithful, but he really does, and has to come up with an illogical justification for her actions to save face.

There have been thousands of misogynists in literature, and they merely reflect the feelings of many if not most men. However, men do not really hate women.  They are afraid of them because of the ultimate power they hold – that of paternity.  Male jealousy can quickly become a virulent, but narrowcast misogyny.  No man can be absolutely sure of the paternity of his children, and in the days of Shakespeare and well before and after, certainty about the legitimacy of offspring was a matter not only of male pride but economics, politics, and social status.  Kings needed legitimate male heirs to secure proper succession; peasants bridled at the thought of laboring for children who weren’t theirs and passing on their land to cuckolded bastards.

In other words, men turn against women when they think they have deceived them; but do not have a generalized hatred of them.  Most of us are like Troilus who would rather not believe that we live in a world of duplicitous, untrustworthy women; and find no contradiction or irony in our outrageous personal jealousies.

Jealousy is as close to a hard-wired male trait as any; and some social anthropologists have suggested that there is an evolutionary benefit to it. David Buss writes:

Perhaps in some utopian future, we might, but that is not how the human mind is designed. Husbands in our evolutionary past who failed to care whether a wife succumbed to sex with other men and wives who remained stoic when confronted with their husband's emotional infidelity may be admirable in a certain light. Non-jealous men and women, however, are not our ancestors, having been left in the evolutionary dust by rivals with different passionate sensibilities. We all come from a long lineage of ancestors who possessed the dangerous passion.

Today’s male feminists will not make the cut.

This is all to say that the term ‘misogyny’ is thrown around far too loosely.  The fact that most men are jealous and can have paroxysms of hatred for their wives if they suspect infidelity does not make them women-haters.  The fact that the Santa Barbara shooter went on a video rant about how women did him in does not make him a misogynist but a nutter ready for the loony bin.

However, the war between the sexes has not abated; and if anything has heated up with the liberation of women.  Many men are still befuddled by women’s rapid rise in the marketplace and feel that they have been deprived of their birthrights; and easily conflate jealous suspicion, treachery, and usurpation into a seething hatred and resentment.  These men, however, are the same ones who believe that President Obama is a foreign socialist anarchist without a valid birth certificate or that fluoridation is part of a Communist plot to addle America’s brains.

The rest of us see the liberation of women as a natural part of the evolution of the market.  America’s economy needs women to drive busses, work lathes, maneuver the forklift, tend to pediatric medicine, and litigate.  We only bridle at unfair advantage – affirmative action that promotes the unqualified – but there are so many qualified women that this is rarely an issue.

Feminists are jumping all over the events in Santa Barbara to promote their political agenda – men are the problem in American society.  They are aggressive, hormone-fueled, women-hating ignoramuses who must be called out, muzzled, and neutered.

They are misguided.  The shooter was no more misogynist than any man who loses sleep thinking about his wife’s imaginary lovers, let alone Leontes or Posthumus. He was nuts, loony, wacko, around the bend crazy.  Leave it at that.  America does not have a misogyny problem.  We have a mental health problem; and the sooner we face the fact that the real issue of mass killings is insanity – not guns or misogyny – the sooner we can anticipate and deter them.