All posts by John Halle

Composer, pianist, writer on music and politics, former New Haven Alderman, supporter of the Sanders/Corbyn/Melenchon/ insurgency.

“Who Cares? It’s Only Chomsky” (Left Edition)

What with all the hosannas pouring in for Chomsky upon the announcement of his impending move to from MIT to the University of Arizona, Tucson, it’s worth pointing out, for the umpteenth time, that many of these derive from those who have repeatedly expressed complete contempt for his views.

To take two recent examples, Chomsky’s endorsement of a lesser-evil vote was greeted with an outpouring of hostility, and to this day will provoke the charge that he was a “despicable hack” for the Democratic Party, as one of them put it at the time. Another was his support for the Sanders candidacy and its subsequent post-electoral mobilization. This was also greeted with the usual snickers at the doddering fool who can’t recognize the obvious fact that this was only the latest “sheepdog” deployed to herd the left into the graveyard for left movements which is the Democratic Party. 

Finally, Chomsky’s recent criticism of self-described “antifacists” advocating the initiation of violent confrontations with the right brought forth this charming Facebook rejoinder from a character named Sebastian Budgen.

“Maybe we should simply snigger at ‘postmodernism’ and explain the facts of US foreign policy to the Nazis? That will surely change their minds…”

A commenter on the threat attempted to argue by reasserting Chomsky’s position that advocating “street brawls *is* the answer to their prayers.” He then went on to note that “even arguing that this is dumbassery even from a purely strategic point of view is practically the same as singing ‘sing heil’. Fucking hegelianism and its resilience… Street brawls will not push faster into the new “stage” in history; it is merely going to get people killed and guarantee that right-wing extremism grows.”

Presumably this position was so idiotic that it merited nothing but contempt. “Fuck off” was Budgen’s response.

It’s worth mentioning that Budgen is by no means marginal: he is a senior editor at Verso, perhaps the left’s pre-eminent publishing house. He is also a contributing editor at Jacobin where it can be assumed he exerts significant influence. In this connection it should be noted that Jacobin, while routinely rolling out Chomsky’s endorsement for fund raising purposes, conspicuously failed to publish a piece by Chomsky advocating for the lesser evil position during the run up to the election.

Their view that “the left was under no obligation” to defeat Trump was unopposed and was reflected by and probably influenced much of its readership. The likely consequence  was the tragedy we will be living with every day for the next three years if not longer-assuming we survive that long. (Chomsky, in fact, also believes this to be the case: in fact, he predicted this result in June of last year.)

I suppose the bottom line of this is while the left is sure to issue pro forma hosannas on occasions like this, there is a huge amount of contempt for his stated views.

In my opinion, we would be better off if the situation was reversed.

Alas, it was not to be . . . (Climate and Capitalism)

Today’s Times reports on the development of alternative energy resources in Chile which are said to put it “on track to rely on clean sources for 90 percent of its electricity needs by 2050, up from the current 45 percent. ”

The word “bittersweet” is entirely insufficient to describe the emotions evoked by articles like this, though it strikes me as the best we have. That’s to say that during the next half century we will see a significant move to renewable energy sources, and this will occur, contrary to what Naomi Klein predicted, within the neoliberal capitalist order which has been dominant since the early 80s.

Of course, as Klein would immediately-and correctly-respond, it will be in no way sufficient to prevent massive, almost unthinkable destruction between now and then: hundreds of millions of refugees from Southeast Asia inundated by floods, hundreds of millions more from destruction of formerly productive agricultural regions, hundreds of millions more fleeing from temperatures which simply can’t support human habitation.

So yes, capitalism has responded. But far too little and far too late. Had a decent economic order emerged, one which allowed for some degree of centralized economic planning based on the needs of the population rather than the corporations, the survival of a large fraction of the species could have been secured.

Alas, it was not to be.

Musical Deplorables: Notes on Neoliberalism, Jazz Purism and Kenny G.

A few weeks ago, an off duty flight attendant discovered that her neighbor on a Tampa to Los Angeles flight was a musical celebrity. Having recently lost her daughter to brain cancer, she suggested an impromptu performance to raise money to for cancer research. The request was immediately agreed to, resulting in the artist strolling down the aisles with his instrument, passing the hat for donations which quickly exceeded the $1,000 goal.

All that would seem innocuous enough. But as might be expected within some corners of the internet, what was an anodyne act of charity became the grounds for opening the floodgates of abuse.

Why this was the case will make sense when name of the musician is revealed, a figure so universally reviled that to utter a word in his defense is to invite social ostracism, namely “the weasel-toned saxophonist,” as he was referred to by the New York Times, Kenny Gorelick, or Kenny G, as he is known to his fans. So toxic are the sounds he emits that an encounter with them constitutes “torture”-the aural equivalent of the United Airlines assault of one of its passengers, which had occurred only a few days before.

At least, such was the perception of the cross section of the left/liberal consensus which appears on my twitterfeed.

As was often the case within this sector, the apparent fact of the matter was something other than what was imagined. According to reports, many passengers on the flight found it the exact opposite having reveled in “the show of a lifetime.”

But these expressions of enthusiasm were easily written off. They were, after all, deriving from a “large crowd” whose “basest impulses” manifest “callous disregard for the larger issues . . .marking a new low point in modern culture – something that we all should be totally embarrassed about – and afraid of.” All this “we ignore. . . at our own peril.”

***

Before revealing the source of these descriptions, it is worth pointing out what should be obvious, namely that, with a few substitutions, the passage could have occurred in any number of alarmed New York Times, or Washington Post op-eds in the months and weeks before the election, one of which mirrored the concluding phrase above in bearing the headline “We Ignore Trump at our Peril.” In fact, they could have emanated from the Democratic nominee herself who described her opponent as “the most dangerous candidate in history”, his supporters, notoriously, an “irredeemable basket of deplorables” impelled by a “negative, dark, divisive, dangerous vision.”

To answer the question left hanging, we owe the enumeration of the “dangers” of Kenny G. to guitarist Pat Metheny in a blog posting from some years back, one which is routinely resurrected and brandished as a club when a new round of Kenny’s G. bashing is initiated as it was last month.

What makes those forwarding this document conspicuous is not just the high dudgeon, but their self-righteousness. The latter is evidently grounded in their certainty that Metheny’s critique transcends subjective opinion in being based on objective music/theoretical fact. Thus, Kenny G’s “harmonic and melodic vocabulary . . . . limited, mostly to pentatonic based and blues-lick derived patterns,” his “out-of-tune, noodlings” suffused with “wrong notes” and “harmonic clams” are all assumed to be data points providing the empirical basis for a unique conclusion: abject musical incompetence. This, presumably, in distinction to canonic jazz icons whose mastery is empirically demonstrable by means of technical musical analysis.

****

It is at this point that those with professional expertise in music theory need to intervene to note that what is being played as a trump card here is in fact a bluff. Music theory can, of course, identify many significant aspects of musical structure-why composers chose the notes they did. What it can’t do, and what any minimally honest practitioner of the discipline will immediate concede that it can’t, is predict why a particular piece of music is regarded as good, bad, indifferent or deplorable.

For those in musical scholarship, this is all familiar ground explored, most notably, in Joseph Kerman’s classic (1980) essay “How We Got into Analysis and How to Get Out.” This appeared at the peak of influence of certain triumphalist variants of music theory which, in their most extreme form, tended to equate what Kerman called musical criticism (the evaluation of a work’s aesthetic merits) with analysis (the formal description of its structure). The latter, as would be noted by subsequent generations of musical scholars, was inferred to provide an objective basis for the claims for transcendent greatness of what was being analyzed, namely, canonic masterworks deriving from white, European, males. Relatively soon, all this would be exposed and criticized as cultural chauvinism at best white supremacy masquerading as objective scholarship at worst.

Metheny and those who cite him have evidently failed to learn the underlying lesson from the collapse of these defenses of the traditional canon. For it will be apparent that their criticisms amounts to little more than retrofitting the discredited assumptions of the old musicology to defend a post modern “high/low” distinction. The only difference is that pure jazz now occupies the summit (1) with the debased form represented by Kenny G and others viewed as fundamentally unserious and beneath discussion. The grounds on which this is claimed to be so is just as was the case in the benighted past: some analytic characteristic is shown to be present or absent in the objective structure of the music and taken to be a proxy for aesthetic merit, artistic seriousness of purpose or the lack of it based on the assumption the there is a necessary connection. But that matters are not so simple, while taken for granted within what was formerly known as “classical” music, has evidently yet to register with those who concerned with policing the boundaries of jazz.

For example, for them, G making use of a “limited vocabulary” constitutes a de facto criticism. It is, however, obvious that this is not the case and that Metheny himself doesn’t believe that it is: for if any composer can be described a making use of a “limited harmonic and melodic vocabulary” it is Steve Reich, whose Electric Counterpoint Metheny himself commissioned and presumably admires. What is the difference between the “minimalism” of Kenny G and that of Reich? Showing that there is one is not so trivial. But even if we could determine what it is, it would not answer the question why “we” (those claiming to have acculturated and informed musical tastes) tend to value the music of Reich above Gorelick.

Or, moving closer to Kenny G’s soul/pop/jazz idiom, if a “limited” harmonic and melodic vocabulary is a fatal flaw, what to make of the blues? Yes, one finds objectively less chromaticism in B.B. King, Muddy Waters or Albert Collins than in Wagner or William Byrd. But only a pedant or a chauvinist would suggest that this, or any “limitation” unearthed via a music theoretical analysis should take precedence over the visceral experience evoked by the blues.

A slightly more subtle issue is at stake in what Metheny characterizes as G’s “harmonic clams” or “wrong notes.” What is being referenced is what music theorists would refer to as unresolved, or inappropriately resolved dissonance. Here the problem is that the supposedly objective data is contested with even the most unambiguously tonal works many of which present numerous puzzles to the most sophisticated analysts. Perhaps Kenny G’s choice of pitches are, in some absolute aesthetic sense, “wrong”, but given there is no agreement on the distinction between consonance and dissonance within a Bach Two Part Invention or Chopin Prelude there’s no justification for deploying it as a weapon to attack any music or musician, unless doing so is nothing more than a rationalization for pre-existing aesthetic bias.

Finally, the problematic subject of “wrong notes” is perhaps best exemplified by the work of Eric Dolphy which consists almost entirely of “wrong notes”, insofar as the term has any meaning. But what makes Dolphy’s wrong notes “right,” as any minimally literate jazz fan knows, and Kenny G’s “wrong”? At this point, the question can only be answered by some variant of “because I said so”, an appeal to bien pensant consensus with respect to who belongs within the walls of an increasingly sanctified canon.

****

At this point some readers are probably wondering why I devoted 1300 words to meta-theoretical questions provoked by the music of Kenny G-probably 1300 words more than any previous discussion of the subject.

I should make clear that, appearances aside, it is not my intention to defend Kenny G or his music for which I have as little intellectual and temperamental affinity as those attacking it. But while the music doesn’t require a defense, those being belittled for their musical preferences and, by implication, their lack of intelligence and sophistication do. And it is one which they deserve to have since, as was demonstrated above, the attacks on them are fundamentally fraudulent in that the supposed authority on which they are based collapses when subjected to scrutiny.

With that in mind, we can return to the comparison alluded to above: what accounts for near identical rhetoric deployed in jazz purist attacks on Kenny G and those emanating from the political establishment against Trump.

The key to answering the question involves recognizing that both, as I have pointed out, are reflections of deep-seated conventional wisdom as this is expressed by the agenda setting media, the academy and by the priorities of corporate philanthropy. Challenges to its authority, whether this takes the form of enthusiasm for the debased artistic expression of Kenny G or the debased politics of Donald Trump are viewed as heresy. More broadly, those challenging orthodoxies on free trade, permanent war or banking deregulation, were relegated to the margins just as those raising doubts about the sanctified status of jazz, as I myself discovered when I did just that in the piece linked to above. All that’s needed to dispense with them is to cut and paste from a well worn-lexicon of denunciations-“irresponsible”, “dangerous”, “uninformed” etc.-while appealing to the authority of acknowledged experts in their representation of what are claimed to be “the facts”.

*****

By now it is uncontroversial to identify the election of 2016 as a delegitimation crisis for this same expert class-the moment when “the twilight of the elites” turned to midnight. The public would vote based on the evidence provided by their own eyes making clear their contempt for the fairy tales of those who they regarded as frauds and mountebanks.

The unemployed steel worker working for near minimum wage at a 7/11 in a town ravaged by drug addiction, his home, and those of his neighbors, foreclosed on by banks stuffed with trillions of taxpayer dollars, now demanded that elite talking heads stop talking and begin to listen, as they have not for three decades. The Trump election was the two by four administered to the head of the neoliberal mule to get its attention. Reasoning with it, as the joke goes, which is to say development of actual progressive legislation responding to the immense suffering apparent everywhere will need to come later: after the catastrophe of the Trump/Pence administration is brought to an end.

It is at this point that the analogy between the admirers of Kenny G and Trump breaks down: I know of no instance where Kenny G’s fans have lashed out against at those who routinely make punching bags of them for the crime of enjoying simple bluesy tunes in high gloss professional arrangements. Rather they vote with their feet filling stadiums or opening their wallets when they are requested by him to throw a few bucks in a hat for a charity.

But that doesn’t mean that they don’t harbor plenty of simmering resentment towards those ridiculing them for their coarse and degraded musical tastes while patting themselves on the back for their sensitivity and refinement. The value of these and other purely cultural antipathies have, for years, been recognized by right organizers such as Grover Norquist whose electoral strategy, as he recently revealed, relies crucially on “changing the tone . . . towards bitter nastiness.”

That our own attitudes help pave the way for this tone to be established and thereby the success of the right raises a fundamental question for those of us whose lives have revolved around a passionate investment in forms of musical high culture, however we define it. How do we respond to artistic tastes which seem to represent an affront to our cherished aesthetic values, just as much as support for Trump seems to represent an attack on our core political and moral sensibilities.

How we resolve this is an individual matter, but one guideline should be clear: While we should make clear that while we regard their views as misguided, maybe even profoundly so, we harbor no ill will towards Trump supporters as individuals.

When it comes to those with an affection for Kenny G or any other artist for whom visceral contempt seems de rigueur it would seem that more is required of us. Namely, we need to take a step beyond tolerance by applying the kindergarten adage to either say something nice or nothing at all about the music people like, the cars they drive or the foods they eat. Doing so won’t by itself prevent a repetition of the electoral disaster of 2016 or install socialists at the helm of state power. But if we can our curb our reflexive pleasure in lampooning the bad taste of others, it will make it the longstanding project of the right to construct walls which divide us that much harder. And in so doing, we make our job to build bridges connecting us that much easier.

**

(1) See my widely derided Jazz After Politics for arguments along these lines.

(2) Oddly, Metheny claims Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” as embodying the supposed virtues of jazz under attack from the debased idiom of Kenny G.

Corbyn and Sanders Coalitions: Hanging Together/Hanged Separately

A while back, I made a list of some of the key differences in the coalition which supported Corbyn compared that which backed Sanders. I left to the side the more or less separate question of their policies and how these are reflected in their rhetoric. It now occurs to me dealing with these is an easier job in that there is one which make all the difference in the world. Namely, that Corbyn makes direct appeal to working class unity largely undiluted by identity politics. To take a key example, Corbyn consistently referred to the victims of the Grenfell catastrophe as poor and working class-not “persons of color.”  

While Corbyn certainly pointed to the race, ethnicity and nationality of the Grenfell victims, his main rhetorical focus was always on the fact that they were victims of generations of public sector austerity. In doing so he united behind him a broad constituency who have suffered under it, one which has the potential to install him as prime minister over the next few years.

Had Sanders encountered something similar, e.g. a fire at one of the remaining public housing units in New York or Chicago, the issue of race would have immediately had to have been referenced. And the remedy for it which much of the left would have been on the streets for would be to address “institutional racism” rather than a decades long war of the rich against the poor-as even Warren Buffet recognizes.

This is what accounts for the fact that, while it remains a possibility (if we fight for it-which we damn well should be doing), the Sanders insurgency won’t become a governing coalition any time soon.

While I don’t have any solution to it, this seems to me to be the clear fact of the matter.

Letting the Holocaust Speak for Itself: A Rural Montana Teacher Speaks

Guest Post: by Beth Keyser

Superior, Montana is a small town nestled near the Lolo National Forest located between the Idaho border and Missoula, Montana. With under a thousand people living here, the community is close knit.  The people are friendly, kind, and generally conservative in their values. Superior was also the home of Slim Deardorff, an affiliate to Matt Hale and the American White Supremacist Party and World Church of Our Creator in the 1990’s, who maintained a small active group just outside of Superior.  When I began teaching here in August 2001, Deardorff still lived here.  Despite his group dissolving, there was still some lingering anti-Semitism. This I discovered when I began teaching my students the facts about the holocaust.  I was then and continue to be struck every year by the level of ignorance.  When I ask students what they know about it, very few have any information at all.

In spite or perhaps because of their lack of information, every year, usually at the beginning of the unit, an anti-Semitic incident, along the lines of name calling or graffiti, raises its head. Sometimes it is directed at me: twice in the last fifteen years, students challenged my credibility in not being Jewish enough to speak for the victims of the holocaust in any way. By dismissing my perspective, I believe they hoped to deny that it happened at all.  Also, every year, I find swastikas written on desks or in notebooks.  I used to worry that these incidents were a reflection of a broader problem of bigotry; however, I now believe they are a manifestation of students testing their own prejudices.  By doing so publicly and sometimes anonymously, these students inevitably hear responses, and can gauge their peers’ expressions of either rejection or agreement. It is as if students are asking questions without the pressure and perhaps embarrassment of being identified as anti-Semites while learning the effects expressing their prejudices have on their friends and community.

This year was no different. Community members put up a playground in our only park last fall with volunteers from all over town working together to build it.  This spring, while I was teaching my annual holocaust unit, someone wrote in crayon on the jungle gym equipment, “Death to all Jews.” A conscientious community member noticed it, called the police, and registered their outrage on Facebook.  Parents all over town condemned the incident. Some blamed my students. “Why would people blame us?” my students asked a colleague. She pointed out that indeed it made no sense that the class be blamed since it was learning about the holocaust. If indeed they understood what happened, they wouldn’t write such things. Whether it was a student of mine or someone else, I’m confident, based on my experiences over the years, that is was no accident that it coincided with the beginning of my Holocaust unit.

When I began teaching the unit this year, one of my students complained that he couldn’t understand the point of learning about the holocaust.  In any case, since it was history, it had no place in an English class. Others chimed in.  I’ve heard this before and proceeded to provide my students with a rationale that was dispassionate, lengthy, and detailed. Much of it, I suspect, they didn’t remember but it was enough to satisfy this young man’s complaint for now.  I proceeded through background information about the rise of Nazi Germany, its use of propaganda, and basic vocabulary items like anti-Semitism and genocide.  Again, this student complained; no one else chimed in at this point.  I finally convinced him to hang in there because the “gore” was coming.  I knew full well that when he did learn the truth about “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question”, he would be less jubilant in his desire for information.  After all, this wasn’t a You Tube video.

The day of presenting “The final Solution to the Jewish Question” came.  I put up posters around the room showing the stages of deportation to concentration camps and killing centers including cattle cars, gas showers, and crematoriums.  I had a few posters of open mass graves where hundreds of victims were thrown, which I did not put up on the wall because for some students these posters could be overwhelming.  I offered students an opportunity to look at them but did not require it. The atmosphere was subdued, which is rare for this class.  There were no more protests from my young dissenter.  In fact, the students who complained the most at the beginning of this unit, whispered to each other daring each other to look at the optional posters.  I stood near these posters so that I could initiate discussion with anyone who wanted to talk.  There was plenty of discussion.  They had a lot of questions.  Their disdain for this unit turned into outrage and disbelief that this could actually happen.

After that lesson, the general attitude changed as well.  Students walked into class, sat down, and silently waited for me to begin.  They asked productive questions and worked hard on their projects. One day a girl, who had been in trouble for bullying other students and who was extremely afraid to speak up in class, spoke out in empathy about the plight of the Jews and other victims of The Holocaust.  During a discussion about stereotypes, students talked about how they were ridiculed for being hicks and backward thinkers. We found common ground when I shared how, in high school, I was stereotyped for being Jewish.  Students also talked about their own heritage.  Many in Superior are descendants of Germans. During the gold rush, Superior attracted immigrants from Ireland, England, Canada, Germany, and Scandinavia. They didn’t want to identify themselves with Nazis, but at the same time, they were loyal to their German roots. One thing I have learned about young adolescents is that they love arguing but usually lack the patience and ability to articulate complex issues.  As a leader of discussions, I had to remain dispassionate and nonjudgmental or much of this rich discussion could have devolved into superficial bickering.

I am reluctant to draw too many conclusions from my experiences with my students over the years, but I will make one. Adolescents react to topics that challenge their values and prejudices without much introspection. As their teacher, I respect them no matter what their values and biases are because I am confident that by providing them with the facts and allowing them to process these facts in their own way is better than chiding them. Students won’t learn if they are put on the defensive either intentionally or unintentionally.  Whether this unit helps to dispel anti-Semitic prejudice is difficult to determine.

But at least they have the facts.

 

 

 

 

Nancy MacLean on Impeachment Mania

Historian Nancy MacLean, author of the soon to be classic Democracy in Chains, appearing on Jon Wiener’s Trump Watch

“I would urge the left to slow down on impeachment because you get (Koch supported) Mike Pence then. And he would be a lot more competent at pushing through (the Koch) agenda.

“Pence is one (Koch supported) person who’s already there, Mick Mulvaney his budget director is another coming out of  network, Mark Short comes from five years as the head of Freedom Partners which is a Koch donor operation. Scott Pruitt the head of the EPA, Noami Rao, you go through the list and at every key place there are people associated with this radical right donor network who are calling the shots and doing radical policy changes.

“So while we’re all focussed on Trump’s latest tweets, these people are pushing (them) through.

“So I’m urging people to experiment and try a week where they don’t focus on Trump himself, and they starting finding out what radical changes are being pushed through in his administration. Because I really believe that (he) is the classic con man: he stretches an arm out and catches your attention with something while meanwhile out of your view all these other things are happening. In the EPA, in the courts, in the labor department where the Koch agenda is going through.”

The next segment on Wiener’s show?  Yet another on Trump’s Russian connections could leading to his impeachment.

Oh well.

Why the “Left” is No Longer Right.

I would imagine I share the experience of many boomer leftists in that pretty much my entire conscious life has been dominated by the awareness that the radical left 1) was marginal, exerting no appreciable influence on policy and 2) that it was a bad thing that it had no influence. My first experience of this was during the Vietnam period when the left took the position that we had no business invading other countries and that we should immediately withdraw all troops from Southeast Asia. As is by now well known, this was rejected by the bipartisan Washington consensus which took for granted our right to intervene in the affairs of other nations-albeit with a liberal wing sometimes raising questions about the wisdom of doing so. The position that the war was in violation of international law and a moral atrocity, while widely accepted in the general population, was almost entirely absent in policy making circles- consigned to the radical left margins.

In subsequent decades, pretty much every major political issue presented a recapitulation of this arrangement of forces: A bipartisan consensus promoting objectively criminal and immoral policies on welfare reform, crime, environmental protection, nuclear weapons, military budgets etc. with the radical left functioning as the voice of sanity and rationality in the wilderness.

It therefore came as a bit of a shock to find that now after a half century of conscious political awareness, this longstanding equation no longer held. This came to a head was during the election of 2016 when the radical left had associated itself with two objectively insane positions. One was that it was “under no obligation” to prevent the election of Donald Trump.  The left (or “left”) thereby became one factor among those responsible for the tragedy which we are now experiencing, the denialism of the left along these lines notwithstanding.  While this colossal error shouldn’t be forgotten, it is in the past. On the other hand, another position taken by elements of the radical left continues to matter. Namely, its having smeared  Sanders as a “sheepdog” candidate functioning to channel progressive energies into an unreformably corrupt Democratic Party where the left will have no influence.

Absurd as it was when it was first proposed, the bankruptcy of the Sheepdog thesis should by now be obvious to anyone with a minimal degree of political awareness. Most notably, the Sanders wing has already exerted considerable influence on the Democratic Party with Sanders formerly pie-in-sky policies, single payer, $15 minimum wage, marijuana legalization, now finding their place on the agendas of neoliberal front running candidates, Harris, Booker and Patrick. Does that mean they should be supported? Of course not. The left should be opposing them vehemently based on the assumption that they are only paying lip service to the Sanders agenda and will quickly drop it once in office. But doing so requires, “participat(ing) in the internal life of the Democratic Party”, something which the radical left has declared a fatwa on, thereby consigning itself to irrelevance at best, and at worst, making itself an obstacle actively hostile to taking the direction which is necessary to succeed.

The bottom line: Insofar as the radical left, or the “left” has been consistently antagonistic to the Sanders mobilization, it has, for the first time in my life, put me in the position where I am grateful for their being as dysfunctional and marginal as they have always been.

“Love is Wise; Hatred is Foolish”

Should those in the “resistance” to Trump reconsider their “reflexive denigration of his supporters as bigoted, hateful ‘deplorables?’”

While not altogether surprising it was a bit disconcerting to find my question answered with a resounding “no” when I posed it in a recent facebook posting.

Why should they change their view when the simple fact of the matter, according to one, is that

“You’re dealing with hopelessly-toxic people whose attitudes and viewpoints are completely antithetical to civilization, love, etc…” Moreover, “those people are more consumers than they are humans at this point. It makes sense that all they’re after is loud advertising and the most violent/spectacular/pornographic entertainment available.”

Another referred to “those people’s bottomless rage-a-holism and anarcho-fascist lunacy.”

Whe it was brought to their attention that these utterances effectively constituted hate speech, this was hotly denied. They don’t hate Trump voters. Rather, they “hate their hate, their ignorance.”

But this variant of hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner logic quickly collapsed as the same commenter immediately returned to essentializing Trump voters as

“having nothing left but pride and ignorance . . . liv(ing) inside a value system that actively maximizes all seven of the deadly sins and shits on all of the contrary virtues as ‘weak’.”

***

In a 1959 interview with the BBC, Bertrand Russell provides what is perhaps the most effective rejoinder to this widespread set of attitudes, namely the three words “Hatred is foolish”.

The then 87 year old philosopher and World War I conscientious objector doesn’t spell out why this is so, though anyone who has operated in politics will have a pretty good idea why. Specifically, politics should not be regarded as a vehicle for expression of any emotional state or moral world view but rather as a mechanism to achieve the best possible outcome within a highly imperfect, indeed corrupt, electoral system.

Given that fact, it is a simple matter of arithmetic that anyone who is serious about removing from power what is objectively a profound threat to survival of the species needs to be exclusively concerned with one thing: reducing votes going to the Republicans while increasing those going to the opposition. That means, by definition, not picking and choosing where the votes come from.

This logic seems straightforward enough. But it is explicitly rejected by many for whom certain votes and voters are irredeemably tainted. According to them, “we shouldn’t hope for votes” coming from those for whom “racism is a core tenet of a person’s beliefs.” Doing so, according to them, makes us “complicit” in racism.

While superficially understandable, this view is based on a confusion which Chomsky and I addressed in our piece on the 2016 election: namely, that “voting should not be seen a form of individual self-expression” but rather “an act to be judged on its likely consequences.” It follows, therefore, that if the consequences of a political act or expressed set of beliefs will result in the victory for a violent racist that action in itself should be seen for what it is, namely, advancing racism.

It may be the case that the act or statement was based on a moral view which vehemently opposes racism, but that is irrelevant. What matters, in particular, what matters to those now suffering from its predations, is that Republican dominance of all branches and levels of government be brought to an end by the only means available: the ballot box.

***

Some will construe this statement of electoral pragmatism as actively courting the votes of the most regressive elements of society, but the charge is a non-sequitur.

Those wanting to achieve anti-racist ends will necessarily reject entirely any policy which advances a racist agenda no matter where it derives from. Rather than capitulating to the right on policy, those concerned with achieving political outcomes will follow Russell’s suggestion “to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like.” That means rejecting a binary classification of huge masses of people into those whose expressed views we approve of and racist deplorables. More precisely, it means recognizing the complexity and fluidity of attitudes which individuals will express differently in response to a variety of circumstances and social forces.

Here the example of Russell himself is instructive. For, as it turns out, Russell’s views on race relations were by no means enlightened even by the low standards of the day as is apparent from the following passage from his 1929 book Marriage and Morals

“In extreme cases there can be little doubt of the superiority of one race to another. North America, Australia and New Zealand certainly contribute more to the civilization of the world than they would do if they were still peopled by aborigines. It seems on the whole fair to regard negroes as on the average inferior to white men, although for work in the tropics they are indispensable, so that their extermination (apart from questions of humanity) would be highly undesirable.” (1)

While I can find no direct repudiation of these views, it would be hard to imagine that Russell would not come to deplore them. His subsequent activism on behalf of anti-colonialist struggles and his work with W.E.B. du Bois on nuclear proliferation would seem to indicate that would be the case. So too would his praise of SNCC chair Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) for “his militant and uncompromising leadership of America’s persecuted Negro people” whose imprisonment by the U.S. Justice Department Russell characterized as “a terrorist act by a vicious Government.”

Of course, not every Trump voter is reachable, but as Sanders routinely demonstrates in his red state town hall meetings, surprising numbers of them will see the light when an alternative is presented to them respectfully and non-confrontationally. Conversely, if they are approached with the kind of bitter condescension and contempt which has become reflexive among elements of the left and liberal center, it is a virtual certainty that they will remain loyal. As a Trump supporter observes in this week’s New Yorker “The more (Democrats) hate him, the more I want him to succeed.”

There is a reason why Grover Norquist is on record as “trying to change the tones (of political discourse) toward bitter nastiness and partisanship.”

Rather helping to bring to an end what has been a national nightmare, our aiding Norquist in his efforts will insure that it will have only begun.

(1) I am grateful to Facebook friend Jelle Amsterdam for the reference.

Seven things Noam Chomsky believes (on electoral politics)

Seven things Noam Chomsky believes (on electoral politics) that much of the “left” do not.

1) Chomsky believes that it is likely that the Bernie or Bust contingent played a role in throwing the election to Trump.

2) Chomsky does not believe that the Democratic Party is “self destructing”. Rather he believes a) that the neoliberal wing of the party is self-destructing and b) that this is a good thing.

3) Chomsky believes that a takeover of the DP by the Sanders wing is possible, desirable (obviously) and very much worth the investment of activist energies.

Continue reading Seven things Noam Chomsky believes (on electoral politics)

On “Left” (anti)-Fascism

In a recent correspondence with a well known left intellectual, I mentioned the tendency of certain elements of the left to celebrate suppressions of free speech and initiations of violent confrontation with the far right.

My view, one with which he has been associated for many years, was that both were wrong on principle and strategically suicidal. His response was to agree but then to go a step further.  According to him, at its base, the confrontation involved “two fascist factions, one calling themselves ‘left.’” The connection should have been obvious to me and to that matter, everyone one else, though once it was established, many recent incidents began to fall into place.

For example, what term other than fascism describes the scene below?

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