Why LEV is not a Strategy-and Why it Matters

It is a matter of elementary logic that a political system under the control of predatory capital will produce highly unsatisfactory candidates at best and utterly odious ones at worst. It also logically follows that those seeking to prevent the worst from materializing will advocate a lesser evil vote (LEV). To state the obvious, this constitutes a lesser evil VOTE not a lesser evil STRATEGY. While this distinction should be apparent, certain elements of the activist left have routinely suggested that those advocating for the former are simultaneously advocating for the latter.

Among those unable or unwilling to make the distinction was Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein who, in a National Press Club appearance, characterized Noam Chomsky’s “lesser evil strategy” as having “failed”. Another was NYU Professor Nikhil Singh who, in a widely circulated response to a recent piece by Adolph Reed, implies Reed is sympathetic to neoliberalism for having endorsed a “politico-strategic recommendation . . . to unite the vote around Hillary Clinton.”

Stein’s and Singh’s accusations have no merit for a simple reason: neither Reed nor Chomsky regards voting as any kind of “strategy”. In fact, Chomsky and Reed regard presidential elections as “quadrennial electoral extravaganzas”, a largely meaningless exercise designed not to build but to weaken and inhibit challenges to elite dominance. Since a vote does not advance the main objective of building class power, it is not a strategy at all but rather the exact opposite.

That said, there is, according to Reed and Chomsky, one reason to participate in presidential elections: to head off the worst possible result, one which, in addition to inflicting huge damage on vulnerable populations will make subsequent attempts to mobilize a left opposition more difficult.

But by exercising this option where it is necessary (in swing states) one is not in any way advancing a strategy. Rather one is acting according to basic common sense equivalent to, for example, driving on the right side of the road. One does so to avoid getting into a head on collision, whether one is going in the right or wrong direction or nowhere at all.

Exactly the same logic applies to voting. It has nothing to do with attaining a positive objective but is a purely defensive act to achieve the least worst results under corrupted and anti-democratic mechanisms.

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This truth is uncomfortable. Unfortunately, rather than dealing with it, leftists imagine that a vote in November will achieve gains, telling themselves fairy tales which prevent them from confronting reality.

Probably the most common of this election holds that a vote against Clinton for Stein will “punish” the Democratic Party for their continual drift to the neoliberal right forcing them to nominate a presidential candidate from the populist left wing of the party. Believing this requires ignoring all recent electoral cycles in which the Democrats in every instance responded to defeat by nominating neoliberal centrists. There is no indication that 2020 will be any different. A Clinton defeat will do nothing to alter this dynamic other than increase calls for suppression of Sanders supporters who will be viewed as having fatally wounded Clinton through their primary attacks on her.

Another variant claims that voting for Stein will help the Greens achieve legitimacy as a national party. Again, obvious facts expose this as a chimera: every Green run since Nader 2000 has coincided with a decline in Green local organization and Green office holders. These are now down to pitiful numbers with not a single Green having been elected to state level office and with their local office holders accounting for around 100 of the 900,000 positions-less than .02%. These could be available to them if they were a serious party. But they are not, and it has become apparent that the national Greens have little interest in it becoming one, devoting their resources to failed national races rather than in developing a local base which is required for them to begin to build a foundation.

Finally, a third claim actively celebrates “consternation, confusion, dissension, disorder, chaos— and crisis, with possible resolution” regard “a Trump presidency (as) the best chance for this true progress.” At this point, left delusion metastasizes into full blown psychosis providing ammunition for neoliberals to smear the left as bizarre and irresponsible, needing to kept as far away from positions of power and influence as possible. The less said, and the less attention provided to crazed performative politics of this sort, the better.

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While ranging from unrealistic to insane, what the three scenarios have in common is in regarding national elections as a crucial component of a left strategy. This recognition returns us to Chomsky and Reed’s critics. That their predictions have virtually no chance of materializing demonstrates Chomsky and Reed’s essential point: voting in presidential elections has no place in a viable left strategy to achieve power.

Rather, what appears to be operative is that LEV critics are engaged in what psychologists call projection: Chomsky and Reed are, they insist, supporting a lesser evil strategy because voting, must be, critics assume, a significant expression of one’s political beliefs and commitments.

But it is nothing of the kind, and to view voting as anything more than an empty spectacle is to play a role in what has proven to be a highly effective technique for maintaining elite dominance of the political system.

As Chomsky and Reed’s century of combined political experience and engagement has shown, rejecting fairy tales of the right or the left is a necessary precondition for serious politics.

It is time that we begin to understand and take seriously what they have to say.

Open Letter to AFT President Randi Weingarten

Dear Randi,

Thanks for letting us know about the likely horrors of a Trump presidency.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t need to be reminded.

That is why we worked tirelessly for the Sanders campaign. We did so not only because it offered the best hope in generations to take back the political system from its capture by big business, big money and those who serve it. We supported Senator Sanders because he was a much stronger candidate than Secretary Clinton with numerous head to head polls showed him beating Trump by wide margins in the general election.

Had Sanders been the nominee, we wouldn’t be needing to raise the spectre of a Trump win to get working people to the polls. They would flocking there based on a genuine enthusiasm for a candidate who was passionately and effectively championing their interests.

Alas, by strong-arming the AFT’s endorsement for a multimillionaire corporate Democrat, you and other labor leaders destroyed this hope thereby exposing us to the grave danger of a Trump presidency which we are confronting now.

Because of you and other union executives, rather than moving forward on worker rights, wages, and the environmental crisis we will, at best, have four years of neoliberal drift and even this least worst option is by no means assured.

You owe the members of your own union and all working people an apology. And so do all union leaders who made the tragic decision to reject Senator Sanders groundbreaking candidacy.

Yours Truly,

“Deplorables of the world unite!”

12-mortality-comparison-nocrop-w536-h2147483647-2x deplorable-lives

“Deplorables of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your insignificance.”

Whether it is communicated in those words or not, that will be the rallying cry of the newly emerging variant of fascism of which the Trump campaign and, God forbid, the increasingly likely possibility of a Trump presidency, is the most conspicuous, though by no means the only, expression.

The two images provide different perspectives on the underlying phenomenon. The first of these, a graph from a New England Journal of Medicine article by Anne Case and Nobel economist Angus Deaton has begun to function as something like a crucifix or garlic to ward away Clinton partisans who, when confronted with it, can only avert their eyes or be reduced to nothingness. That includes even the best of them, like economist Dean Baker who, when confronted with it yesterday on twitter, responded that Case and Deaton were “mak(ing) things up” citing in response a blog entry by the statistician and political scientist Andrew Gelman. 

What Baker doesn’t mention, apparent in the subsequent discussion, is that Gelman largely backs down from his initial criticism and concedes that “Case and Deaton’s main results seem to stand up just fine.” Baker does not note this- passing on Gelman’s challenge as the last word. When even the most decent and honest liberals find it necessary to go to this extent to deny the facts and lash out at those attempting to make them aware of them, the picture on the bottom becomes understandable. The “deplorables” are a constituency whose suffering (made unmistakably and painfully visible in the Case-Deaton graphic above) is greeted only with sneers and derision by neoliberal elites like Clinton. What was formerly a vague disapproval on their part has now, thanks to Clinton’s notorious remark, been transformed into passionate hatred, possibly enough to get a few more million of them to the polls rather than stay home. That spells trouble for Clinton and, of course, for everyone else.

The problem is not so much Clinton and her circle who are a predictable consequence of the arrangement of institutional forces. Rather, those most deserving of contempt are union bosses like the AFT’s Randy Weingarten, former SDSer and AFSCME functionary Paul Booth and alt-media mavens like  Katrina van den Heuvel who chose to sell Clinton to the left.  They could have made enough of a difference to put Sanders over the top and chose not to.

And so, rather than celebrating a landslide victory for a resurgent left, we are desperately trying to ward off a victory for the far right, having only a weak, least worst candidate as our only defense against it.

Goddamn these people.

On Why Classical Music is from Georgia (the country): An Assignment

Core Sequence Class I (Tonal Harmony and Counterpoint)

Bard Conservatory Of Music

John Halle

Assignment 1

Due: 8/29/16

A Harmony/Counterpoint teacher/student dialogue (Note: Instructions for completing the assignment at the end of the document.)

Q: Questions asked by a first year Bard Conservatory Student
A: Answers given by slightly disheveled middle aged teacher of Harmony and Counterpoint.

Q: Why do I need to take this class?
A: It’s required.

Q: Why is it required?
A: Graduate schools require that you be able to 1) harmonize soprano or bass lines in four parts 2) provide figured bass analyses of pieces from within the standard repertoire 3) understand something about the dominant musical forms of the so-called common practice period.

Q: But why do they require it?
A: Because they always have.

Q: That’s a terrible answer.
A: That’s not a question. You’re supposed to ask questions.

Q: Oh right. I’m sorry. Isn’t that a terrible answer?
A: Yes.

Q: Do you have a better one?
A: I don’t know. Should I?

Q: That’s not an answer
A: You’re right. But that’s not a question.

Q: You’re right. Sorry. Isn’t that not an answer?
A: Yes.

Q: Can you do better?
A: I’m not sure. Let me try.

Q: OK.
A: That’s not a question.

Q: Sorry. Can I help?
A: Yes you can.

Q: How can I help?
A: By asking questions about what you think you should learn.

Q: But how do I know what I should learn?
A: You don’t. That’s part of our job. To teach you what you need to know.

Q; But are you confident that you know?
A: No.

Q: Why not?
A: For lots of reasons.

Q: Can you share some of them?
A: Sure. Here’s one. We all know lots of musicians with nothing more than the most rudimentary understanding of music theory (and sometimes not even that) who play their instruments beautifully, perform compellingly both as soloists and in ensembles and have had hugely successful careers.

Q: Why is that a problem?
A: It’s not a problem for them.

Q: But why is it a problem for you?
A: Well, presumably at conservatories, what we teach should have a more or less direct practical application to students’ ability to prepare themselves for professional careers in music.

Q: And you’re saying that what you teach does not?
A: Let’s say it’s not so obvious that it does, especially now.

Q: Why is that?
A: For lots of reasons.

Q: Can you give some of them?
A: Well I already gave you one.

Q: You did, but are musicians like that typical?
A: No.

Q: Well then, how about those who are.
A: Some of them get something out of learning counterpoint and harmony.

Q: What exactly?
A: Harmony tells you the difference between wrong and right notes-at least in the music of the so-called “common practice” period which remains, for better or worse, and maybe for necessary reasons, the conservatory repertoire.

Q: You mean the difference between consonance and dissonance?
A: Not exactly. Lots of “right” notes are dissonances, and vice versa.

Q: How do you tell the difference?
A: Take the class!

Q: But can’t I learn that without taking the class?
A: Sure you can learn the definition, but not what it really means.

Q: Well, what else will I learn?
A: What do you want to learn?

Q: That’s a question.
A: That’s not a question.

Both: Ooops. You’re right.

Q: What else will I learn?
A: You’ll learn about chords, how they progress from one to another and how diatonic chords function as elements within harmonic progressions, how different melodies and basses can admit of many different sorts of harmonizations depending on the extent of one’s harmonic vocabulary and, ultimately, how to write melodies and harmonizations which make sense to the ear and are sometime very attractive.

Q: But can’t I learn the same thing from other kinds of harmony classes? Say the harmony they teach in the jazz program?
A: You can and you absolutely should. But there is a difference.

Q: What’s that?
A: Most jazz and so-called “popular” music harmony consists in treating chords as self-contained structures, e.g. C7, F# maj 7, E7 #9, etc. within a lead sheet as opposed to harmonies (or simultaneities) within a fully composed score.

Q: But baroque figured bass is something like a “lead sheet isn’t it”?
A: Absolutely, but remember that pieces including figured bass notation specify not just the bass, but also the melody and composers work hard to establish a relationship between the two parts which seems musically coherent and satisfying.

Q: Why does that matter?
A: Because it means that the piece is defined by two layers of counterpoint both of which are defining elements of the piece itself. In pop music, the bass tends to play a more functional role, supporting a melody line which is the primary, if not exclusive focus of attention.

Q: But that’s condescending. Lots of great bass lines in pop music are very melodic aren’t they?
A: You’re right. It was condescending. My mistake. In fact, the broad consensus among academics like myself (i.e. those teaching this class at most institutions) is that classical music is no “better” than any other, or to quote one of our better known musicologists, classical music is “only one (style) among many, and by not the most prestigious.”

Q: But do you really believe that pop is just as “good” as classical?
A: I’m not going to comment. I was just stating the fact that those who believe that are very much in the minority not only among students (who have always preferred pop music) but now among the faculty here at Bard very few of whom have much interest in or knowledge of the kind of music performed on our concerts and recitals (with more than a few notable exceptions, of course).

Q: That’s sad.
A: That’s not a question.

Q: Oh yeah. Isn’t that sad?
A: Well maybe, but it’s possible to get over it.

Q: How?
A: First by recognizing that different styles or genres of music have their own unique qualities and virtues and then to recognize what those are for the kind of music which forms the core of the conservatory curriculum (here and elsewhere).

Q: What do think those are?
A: Take the class.

Q: I am. I have to. But can’t you say more?
A: Well, I alluded to them before when I talked about counterpoint within classical music-the independence of the bass line which means that it can be heard as a self-contained melody but which also conforms to the “rules” of common practice harmony (e.g. not doubling leading tones, avoiding cross relations, and parallel fifths etc.) in combining with the other parts. That can also go for other parts as well.

Q: But if it’s so that that’s unique to classical music, why is that so?
A: The reason has to do with classical music, as opposed to all other styles being more or less entirely notated. And that means composers can create elaborate and complex plans for their pieces working out intricate relationships between the parts. While some parts are primary, others secondary, and still others seem insignificant often what these roles are is not at all apparent on the first, or maybe even after many, listenings. And so re-experiencing pieces is a constant discovery of many treasures which were composed into, and sometimes concealed within, the score.

Q: That’s a long answer. Can you keep your answers shorter?
A: I’ll try.

Q: But is the kind of complexity you’re talking about a good thing?
A: Yes and no. But I think we can first agree that complicatedness is a bad thing.

Q: What’s the difference between complicatedness and complexity?
A: I’ll let you think about that. If you really want an answer you should take some of my other classes.

Q: Which ones?
A: My class on language and music, for example.

Q: How does that answer the question?
A: Well for one thing, you will learn about other languages some of which at least seem to be very complex.

Q: You mean languages like Russian, Latin and Greek which have many different forms of nouns and verbs?
A: Yes, exactly. These are called “inflections” and as you may know, English is quite impoverished in terms of its inflectional morphology. For example, we only inflect our verbs in the 3rd person singular. (e.g. I, you, we, they walk. He/she walks.)

Q: What? Aren’t we getting off track here?
A: Maybe a little but bear with me: if you take the class, you’ll discover that, for example, the central asian Georgian language inflects for both the subject and the object resulting in a paradigm having (at least theoretically) thirty six forms for each tense.

Q: Wow. Isn’t it amazing that kids are able to learn that language?
A: Yes. But the music which you perform is similar.

Q: How so?
A: For one thing, in classical music all of the notes of the twelve note scale play a functional role.

Q: But don’t they in all forms of music?
A: No. Many (probably the majority) are limited to the five note (pentatonic) scale. Others are limited to the seven notes of the diatonic scale.

Q: But most of our music uses a seven note scale. How is our music different from theirs?
A: Take the class.

Q: How will that answer the question?
A: For one thing, you’ll see that while you’re right that the diatonic scale defines a basic foreground set of pitches, the availability of the other five notes is fundamental to the “common practice” both to create additional harmonies within a key (so called secondary or applied dominants) but also to allow for the possibility of modulation to other keys. Modulation is rare among the world’s musics-arguably it is unique to so-called classical music.

Q: So is that why you brought up Georgian?
A: Yes, exactly. Common practice “classical” music is like Georgian in this respect-making maximal demands on our (or on the child’s) capacity to make sense of what we hear when we are exposed to it. And conversely English might be compared to “simple” or “primitive” genres of music which generally (though not always) are limited to a small set of pitches.

Q: And also to a lesser degree the so called classical languages like Greek or Latin are more like Georgian in this respect, right?
A: Yes.

Q: And just as those formed the basis of education for many centuries, by analogy it might seem reasonable to take the common practice period as forming a similar function within musical education now. Right?
A: Exactly. The reasons why students learned the “dead” languages Latin and Greek wasn’t just to develop awareness of “classical literature” which was foundational to the culture of the west, though that was surely one factor.

Q: And the other factor was that one didn’t learn the language, so to speak, one learned those languages to learn something about language-i.e. the structures (visible and invisible) which are inherent in what it means to be fluent in any language.
A: Exactly.

Q: So then you’re saying that even if Bach, Beethoven and Brahms etc. are no longer perceived to be the central pillars of musical culture that they once were, there’s a reason to become fluent within the musical language they were communicating in. Right?
A: Yes, that’s essentially my (our?) position. By studying the grammar of classical languages whose underlying structure is, in many respects more apparent in its surface forms, we are able to learn something about what it is that makes utterances in all languages cohere and make sense. And the same thing can be said about common practice music, though there’s a lot more to be said on this.

Q: But all that seems overly intellectual. And it still makes me sad since you seem to be claiming that while our music might be unique, it’s not uniquely valuable. Isn’t that what you’re saying?
A: I think you have trapped me in a contradiction. But I think there is a way out of it.

Q: What’s that?
A: That’s your job.

Q: What, you want me to help you find a way out of your contradiction? That’s outrageous.
A: That’s not a question.

Q: Oh sorry. I meant isn’t it outrageous that you want me to help you find a way out of your contradiction?
A: Maybe. But you’re a Bard conservatory student and you’re supposed to be thinking about the bigger questions raised by music, why we play it and why we value the music we do. Isn’t that the reason why you came here?

Q: That’s not a question is it?
A: You’re right. Even so. I’d like you to think about what you have just read and continue the dialog.

Q: What? You mean, this is an assignment?
A: Yes, it’s an assignment.

Q: What do I need to do?
A: For next class, I would like you to continue this dialog picking up on any of the topics raised in the above.

Q: How do I do that?
A: You do not need to pick the dialog up at the very end continuing it on from there. You could choose to insert your new questions and answers at any point where an issue is raised that you have something to say on.

Q: Where might that be?
A: Your choice. If you need help you can talk to me outside of class or email me.

Q: OK, I’ll give it try.
A: That’s not a question.

Q: Right. Anything else you’d like to say?
A: Yes. It should be around 500 to 800 words. Longer if you’d like though I will expect that it meet the basic requirements for quality of expression which will be expected in your other classes. Namely, that it be clearly articulated, reasonably well informed, not containing any gross errors in spelling and punctuation and, hopefully, that it will be enjoyable for me and your fellow students to read. As we will next class. OK?

Q: That’s not a question.
A: Right!

Q: Oh yeah. When’s it due?
A: The beginning of next class. Enjoy!

Q: OK . . . ?

“No problem, it’s only Chomsky”

Nathan Robinson writing in Current Affairs, a bright light in the increasingly dim left media landscape, reliably cuts through the bullshit dispensed in Caitlin Flanagan’s New York Times review of Tom Wolfe’s clueless and slimy hit on Chomsky.

Will Flanagan even acknowledge Robinson having demonstrated the utter absurdity of her charge? Alas, to ask the question is to answer it.*

For any other public figure, the tiniest misattribution of a birthplace or birthdate, faulty capitalization or failure to properly hyphenate a last name is cause for much tsuris at the Grey Lady.

When it comes to Chomsky, different standards apply: no claim is too patently false, no smear too vile to merit a correction or retraction.

A corollary proposition is the bleacher full of tract quoting Leninists (hipster and old school), lunatic accelerationists, and unreconstructed propagandists of the deed who have, for generations now, attempted to refute the left common sense for which Chomsky serves as the most effective exponent.

Recent months have brought a spate of these, many of them referencing Chomsky’s supposedly waning mental prowess, others referring to him as a corporate whore, a sellout or engaging in “despicable hackery”. Will apologies be forthcoming?

On a related matter, Jacobin today runs a silly and illogical attempt at discrediting a longstanding Chomskyan position.

Will Jacobin solicit a response to the positions it is attempting to legitimate as left conventional wisdom-despite Chomsky’s decades of having patiently demonstrated why they are anything but?

Or will it have any second thoughts when it deploys Chomsky’s name for its next fundraising appeal.

No. It’s Chomsky we’re dealing with.

No problem.

*Flanagan resorted to twitter to dispense an embarrassing non-acknowledgment here.

Our Revolution to Left: No More Beautiful Losers

According to a posting on the Single Payer Action (SPA) blog, widely shared by the anti-Sanders “left”, the Sanders successor organization Our Revolution (OR) declined to invite Green Party New York congressional candidate Matt Funicello to a candidate’s forum, citing his “aggressive and divisive” behavior during the campaign.

Funicello claims to be “confused.” But anyone on the receiving end of Funicello’s steady stream of abuse towards Sanders and his supporters will understand if not sympathize with the decision.

More importantly, anyone familiar with the facts would also know that that is not the only reason to deny Funicello’s participation or even the main one.

That has to do with another misleading claim in the piece, namely that Our Revolution’s actions violate its “pledge to support the most progressive candidate in the race – Democrat or not.”

But SPA leaves out a crucial word from OR’s mission-namely that it only supports “viable” progressive candidates.

Funicello, who won 11% of the vote in his previous run, is among the strongest Green Congressional candidates. Even so, the race is between a Republican and a Democrat and Funicello is a sure loser.

Funicello seems to think this doesn’t matter assuming that based on his progressive program he is entitled to OR’s endorsement.

But this is a parade example of what Adolph Reed described in a recent interview as the “‘if they build it then they will come’ understanding of the way politics works.”

As Reed notes, “that’s just not how it happens. . . A lot of people could put together a good program. But what it takes to win elections is having resources and political capacity. The Greens haven’t shown the organizational capacity. They haven’t shown that they have the resources.”

OR recognizes that failed candidacies not only reflect badly on the candidate and the organizations supporting them but also marginalize the issues on which they are based.

And so it demands its candidates bring the table a level of organization and discipline necessary to run competitive races.

They are right and we as a movement should be supporting OR in setting the bar just where it should be.

If 3rd party candidates can’t clear it they need to re-examine their strategy.

In the case of Funicello, it could begin by reconsidering and apologizing for his “aggressive and divisive” attacks on Sanders supporters who might have strongly supported his campaign and may still do so subsequently.

If he does so, and if he sets his sites, first, on a winnable office, Funicello could eventually run a competitive campaign for congress. And he could gain the support of OR which, despite what has been frequently claimed, is in no way on principle opposed to third party candidates.

When they can win.