Tag: Martin Luther King

His Haughtiness

David Brooks, the aggressively moderate swell who writes aggressively moderate columns for The New York Times, is seldom so entertaining as when he gets haughty. It affronts him when people of any other political persuasion but his own make mock of his helpful suggestions on how to put the world right–well, center right, anyway–so he gets on his high horse and pens columns like this one:

The people pushing for gun restrictions have basically done the exact opposite of what I thought was wise. Instead of depolarizing the issue they have massively polarized it. The students from Parkland are being assisted by all the usual hyper-polarizing left-wing groups: Planned Parenthood, Move On and the Women’s March. The rhetoric has been extreme. Marco Rubio has been likened to a mass murderer while the N.R.A. has been called a terrorist organization.

My, my, my. No matter how many cucumber sandwiches we offer, our national Lady Bracknell won’t be assuaged this time. WE HAVE IGNORED HIM, AND HE WILL NOT BE IGNORED!

To dig into this a bit, I’m not aware of too many people likening Marco Rubio to a mass murderer. Few would give him credit for so much guts. People are likening him to various invertebrates and saying he’s a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Rifle Association, which commits the political sin, in BrooksWorld, of accuracy. As for the N.R.A., I don’t think of them as a terrorist organization. Terrorist organizations murder people in the name of their ideology. The N.R.A. is perfectly content to see people murdered in the name of their ideology. The moral difference isn’t great, but I’m happy to acknowledge it, for whatever it’s worth to them. As for hyper-polarizing left wing groups, none of the ones Brooks listed includes me. (Though they, much like the N.R.A., are composed of lots of ordinary people.) I’m just one of those unaffiliated folks who’d like to go see Black Panther without wondering if some frustrated, entitled prick with more ammo than brain cells is going to come into the theater and blow my head off as his last gesture against a world he hates. There are a lot of us. A lot more than the N.R.A.’s membership lists can boast, I’ll warrant.

Moving on.

Yet I have to admit that something bigger is going on. It could be that progressives understood something I didn’t. It could be that you can win more important victories through an aggressive cultural crusade than you can through legislation. Progressives could be on the verge of delegitimizing their foes, on guns but also much else, rendering them untouchable for anybody who wants to stay in polite society. That would produce social changes far vaster than limiting assault rifles.

Is Brooks about to admit that another human being knows something about the human condition that he doesn’t? Should I get my hopes up, or is this like when Trump holds one of those televised bipartisan meetings where he tries to sound reasonable, only to turn around and fuck everything up a few hours or days later? My money’s on the latter.

Two things have fundamentally changed the landscape. First, over the past two years conservatives have self-marginalized. In supporting Donald Trump they have tied themselves to a man whose racial prejudices, sexual behavior and personal morality put him beyond the pale of decent society.

Decent society does not include CPAC or the Republican Party, but that was true long before Trump showed up. Trump’s awful, David, but he didn’t make your party awful.

Second, progressives are getting better and more aggressive at silencing dissenting behavior. All sorts of formerly legitimate opinions have now been deemed beyond the pale on elite campuses.

Ah, excellent. Brooks must find a way to say both sides are equally problematic, so he goes to the right’s standby issue. In one case, we have a rancid, racist, backward movement that controls one of the country’s two major political parties, which means that it’s hard to avoid putting them in charge of the vast powers of the government at least some of the time. In the other case, we have students who try, and usually fail, to get Charles Murray and Ben Shapiro banned from campus. Sometimes they show up to their events and say rude things to them. A little tip, here, David. Few of us have ever set foot on elite campuses, and even fewer are affected by what’s happening on them now. A lot more of us have to live and work every day in the United States.

Oh, by the way, what formerly legitimate opinions are now deemed beyond the pale?

There are a number of formerly popular ideas that can now end your career: the belief that men and women have inherent psychological differences, the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, opposition to affirmative action.

I guess in the first instance, Brooks is talking about James Damore, the Google guy who misused and misunderstood the science of gender differences, and then kept doubling down and being a colossal dick about it until he was, quite legitimately, fired for being an ill-informed, misogynist dick. (I guess it shocked Damore to discover that colossal dicks aren’t in a protected class.) The second belief, though certainly bound to make you unpopular in a lot of places, is practically a job requirement to teach at many religiously-affiliated schools. As for the third, that belief probably won’t end your career on campus, and even if it did, you could always join Charles Murray in the right-wing think tank world, where billionaires will pay you to write bitter screeds about how intolerant the academic world is. If that’s how a career ends, it’s a pretty soft death.

But semi-seriously, David, ideas come and go, waxing and waning in popularity. The thing about the university world is ideas have to keep passing tests to stay popular. Some ideas–life forms evolve through natural selection, gravity bends spacetime–keep beating their competition and stay. Others rise in popularity only to be supplanted or debunked. And some ideas go away because the people they hurt finally gain just enough power in the world to say, “Stop that. It hurts” and have someone listen. To expect ideas to retain stable, enduring popularity forever, just because, is foolish. The world, David, is allowed to move on and leave your pet notions behind. It’s called life.

What’s happening today is that certain ideas about gun rights, and maybe gun ownership itself, are being cast in the realm of the morally illegitimate and socially unacceptable.

It must be disappointing for gun nuts, after forty years of stacking the courts with right wingers who believe that the only unlimited constitutional right lies in the second clause of the Second Amendment’s single sentence, to discover that the fruits of their labor got a lot of people killed and pissed everybody else off, but again, that’s life. Maybe if they’d been less absolutist about asserting their right to carry military hardware around so they can dream dreams of one day fightin’ big gummint, we could’ve come to an understanding. Ah, well.

Continued school shootings could be just the thing that persuades the mainstream that conservatism is vulgar and socially illegitimate, somewhere between smoking and segregationism. If that kind of total victory is on offer for progressives, why should they take my advice and tone things down for the sake of a few small gun laws? The big prize here is not gun laws. It’s winning the culture war, with the gunfight as the final battle.

You’re quite right. Why should we? When we fought smoking, it wasn’t just because we didn’t like smoke. It was because people were dying horrible, preventable deaths while the cigarette manufacturers juiced their product to make sure there’d be more addicts to replace them and keep them hooked. When we fought segregation, we did so because it was one of our nation’s great crimes, and the people backing it were criminals, thieves, rapists, and murderers.

Though a direct comparison is hazardous, the Klan and the N.R.A. do have some things in common. Once upon time, the Klan, like the N.R.A. now, was a mainstream organization in American life. 6 million people belonged to the Klan at the height of its power in the mid 1920s. Politicians were members, many because they wanted to be, others because they felt they had to be. They had governors, legislators, members of Congress, and a Supreme Court justice among their number. Why did those numbers shrink? In part it was the Klan’s own behavior. The D.C. Stephenson case exposed the Klan’s corruption and its hypocritical claims of defending white womanhood. But it part it was because the drift of the 20th century was away from the Klan. Its formerly popular ideas of white supremacy backed up with violence became more abhorrent with each passing generation. People saw the simple, moral legitimacy of the Civil Rights struggle set against the bigoted moral bankruptcy of segregation and turned away from the Klan. Klansmen are no longer socially acceptable, except among Trumpists. They should never be socially acceptable again.

If the N.R.A. chooses to go down the path of the Klan, threatening those who question them while spreading paranoia and hatred, they’ll lose. Over time, they’ll bleed members who either age out and die off or just tire of the extreme rhetoric and lies, like millions of ex-Klansmen did. Movements against them will grow and gain confidence. Politicians will walk away, or lose their seats, and in the end, the N.R.A. will be as the Klan is, a small collection of bigoted, angry malcontents, watching old vids of Charleton Heston saying “From my cold dead hand” the way Klansmen watch their DVDs of Birth of a Nation (not the new one) and yearn for a return to the glorious past.

If that’s their fate, it doesn’t bother me a bit.

The only thing I’d say to my progressive friends is, be careful how you win your victories. It is one thing to win by persuasion and another thing to win by elite cultural intimidation. Illiberalism breeds illiberalism. Using elite power, whether economic or cultural, to silence less educated foes usually produces a backlash.

Uh-huh. You know, something, David, last month was Black History Month. I’m not sure you keep track of that, but during that month, one of the things that people like to do is read Martin Luther King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail. In it, Martin Luther King addressed the David Brookses of his era who thought his protests were upsetting the delicate sensibilities of white southerners. I’ve never read their remarks to him, but I’m guessing they said something like what you’re saying here, or what you said in your column two weeks ago about how “It’s necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points.”

David, the world’s a better, more just place, Martin Luther King ignored them. And so, even though I know it twists your shorts, I think it’s best if Parkland’s students, and the movement they’ve started, ignore the living fuck out of you.

Damon Linker is Concerned About the Height of Young People’s Happiness (Sigh)

Why do it do this to myself? Why do I read The Week. I know Damon Linker’s there. I already think of him as a gasbag and a twit. Nobody’s paying me to research his work. Reading him and giving him more than a passing thought must be akin to my impulse to tug at a hangnail.

So, come tug with me, gentle reader. (Yes, I suspect there’s only one of you, at this point.)

Today in Stuff Damon Linker Is Fretting About is Tinder, which I’m told is some kind of dating app that people use to meet people.

The sexual revolution is finally complete.

At least it is among those interviewed for a chilling feature in the September issue of Vanity Fair, “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse.'” For these millennial graduates of elite colleges who are living and working in New York, the anything goes, non-judgmental attitude about sex that’s spread throughout the culture since the mid-1960s has combined with technological advances (smartphones and dating/hook-up apps like Tinder, Happn, and Hinge) to produce a way of living unthinkable until about five minutes ago in civilizational terms.

Welcome to a world in which sex has been completely disconnected from norms of fidelity and courtship. At work and at play, men and women spend their waking hours gazing at their phones, continually swiping left or right, dividing potential sex partners into two categories (Yes or No) on the basis of a snapshot. A handful of messages later — for some the exchanges consist entirely of pre-verbal flirtation conducted with emojis, for others it includes photographs of genitalia that serve as a kind of second interview — and a “date” has been set. It’s often a date without dinner or a movie or a show or a walk or a concert or even a single conversation. Just copulation with an optional kiss.

Then it’s over, maybe in less than an hour, maybe to be repeated again in a few days, weeks, or months, but in many cases not.

Okay. Let’s break this down. The Vanity Fair article that’s gotten Linker in a lather is one of those trend pieces designed to get people to think that the behavior of a certain subculture is much more common than it really is. In this case, we’re talking about the Tinder habits of Manhattan yuppies. Linker falls for it, extrapolating far beyond the incredibly narrow social world of the article’s subjects to conclude that all these kids today just can’t stop having furtive sexual encounters with strangers.

And yes, Linker thinks the kids are all disgusting.

I suspect many of these liberals — Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers (like myself) — will find this vision of dating as a series of technologically facilitated one-off hook-ups with near-strangers to be pretty appalling. I know I do. There’s just one problem: In order for this reaction to amount to more than an old fogey’s sub-rational expression of disgust at the behavior of the young, it has to make reference to precisely the kind of elaborate account of morality — including binding standards of human flourishing and degradation — that liberals have worked to jettison, in the name of sexual liberation, for the past half-century.

I’m not quite sure why making reference to an elaborate account of morality would rescue Linker, or anyone unlucky enough to be like him, from the charge of making old fogey rationalizations. Most of those elaborate accounts of morality–including binding standards of human flourishing and degradation– were developed by old fogies, so that the sexual habits of the young (particularly young women, whose sexual agency is a favorite target for fogies of all ages) would be less likely to offend their delicate sensibilities.

But for me, the key bit here comes when he suggests not just that he personally finds this form of dating appalling, but that many liberals do too. Speaking as a liberal Gen-Xer, I confess I don’t find the dating practices described in the article appealing. I’ve tried hooking up a few times in my life. (Yes, a few. I’ve never gotten out much.) And it wasn’t for me. As Jerry Seinfeld once put it when weighing the prospect of a threesome, “I’m not an orgy guy!”

But appalling? That’s an awfully strong word to throw around. I prefer to reserve it for genocides and war crimes and torture, not for discussing who Phil from Accounts Receivable did on Saturday night. Actually, I have a hard time even summoning up an interest in the habits of Phil From Accounts Receivable’s naughty bits . They may not match my own, but unlike Linker, I lack sympathy for the idea that the human race ought to be a multiplied me. I prefer monogamy. It suits my temperament, and I think I’ve chosen my companion advisedly. But I don’t assume that everyone would flourish in it or think of people as degraded because their erotic interests don’t align with mine.

But Linker is appalled, and he begs us to please think of his children:

The world recounted by Sales — or, more likely, a world even less judgmental and even more saturated by even more advanced forms of technology — will be their world. And yet I want so much more for them than that. Though “more” isn’t really what I mean. Not quantity. Quality. Something higher, nobler, less tawdry, more deeply fulfilling and longer lasting than a life devoted to satisfying fleeting desires for physical pleasure and status.

I’m glad Linker has managed to arrange his monogamous, child breeding life as he likes it. Truly, I am. If his children decide they want that too–and, like many “kids today” they just might–bully for them. But doesn’t he recognize how obnoxiously self-flattering it is to define his preferences as “higher, nobler” than those of others?

Let’s let him elaborate:

I want them to enjoy the fulfillment that can only come from devoting themselves to something that transcends the self — a spouse, a child, a family. I want them to experience falling in love and feel their hearts opened to hopes of a higher, more enduring form of happiness. I want them to experience the rarer and more precious goods that follow from the disciplining of their baser instincts (like the animal desire to copulate with a different sexual partner every night of the week) in order to reach an end that’s pursued for its own sake rather than for the instantaneous rewards it brings.

“Transcending the self” and reaching ends pursued for their own sake rather than for instantaneous rewards sound like exciting pastimes, particularly when contrasted with “baser instincts” and “animal desire”. But Linker presents these pursuits and desires as mutually exclusive, as if a hedonist would be so distracted by the constant boinkfest that is his or her life that they can never achieve anything that lasts or devote themselves to something beyond their own sexual gratification. (Linker restricts these somethings to children, spouses, and families, but this strikes me as arbitrary.) Does Linker’s take have merit?

Nope.

Albert Einstein devoted himself to figuring out the laws that govern space and time and in doing so changed everything about how we see both. He also wrote books on politics, religion, and international peace and, for good or ill, got the U.S. atom bomb program started.

He was also…well…a hound.

We can also discuss brilliant naughty people like Rousseau, Schroedinger, Martin Luther King, Tallulah Bankhead, Angelina Jolie (In the past, at least. So I’ve heard), Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, James Joyce, Mozart, FDR, Dorothy Parker, Marlene Dietrich and many many more who devoted themselves to the sciences, politics, humanities, and arts, pursuits that require plenty of discipline in putting off instant gratification for the sake of long term goals. Some of them also had happy family lives, while others didn’t. Such is the way of people who throw themselves into their work.

I guess Damon Linker wasn’t around to inform them that they have to restrict themselves to being pervs because…um…old fogey reasons.

I think we can stop here. Linker’s made way too big a deal of the Vanity Fair article, and I’ve surely made too big a deal of him. Since he begged me to think of his children, though, I do have some good wishes for them. I hope that can they take what’s helpful from having grown up with a man as silly as Linker and drop the rest. I also hope they’ll find useful and interesting work and social lives that deliver whatever form of happiness suits them.

Are You Pondering What I’m Pondering?

–I’m neutral to the (deleted) scene of Castle Dracula’s collapse at the end of Dracula. The book ends acceptably enough as it stands. (The reason Stoker gave for cutting it was he didn’t want to invite comparison to Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, but honestly, unless the Poe estate was getting a buck and a quarter every time someone wrote about a house falling down, that reason it pretty lame. Certainly such considerations never bothered Poe, who was glad to rip off E.T.A. Hoffman and Horace Walpole in order to write, among other things “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Besides, it’s not as if both stories don’t already start with naive protagonists responding to letters calling for help that lead them to lodge in spooky residences haunted by ancient evils. If you’re going to steal, steal shamelessly, I always say.)  But I’ve always preferred the ending where Estella and Pip parted bitterly in Great Expectations’s last chapter (unpublished during Dickens’s lifetime). These and the deleted chapters to eight other famous books here.

–By the way, here’s George Orwell writing about that Dickens ending, and a lot of other stuff about Dickens’s works.

–And here’s Margaret Atwood writing about George Orwell. (I guess I’m now obliged to write about Margaret Atwood, to keep the thread going.)

–I’m not sure if this is the worst possible way to open a column about a sexual assault, but it is pretty damn bad: (from Jezebel)

She lost a womb but gained a penis.

The former was being removed surgically – full hysterectomy – while the latter was forcibly shoved into her slack mouth.

The passage is not only describing a revolting situation per se, but its phrasing is creepy. The first line sounds jokey: a kind of play on the old wedding sentiment “you’ve not lost a daughter but gained a son.” It attempts cleverness without really thinking about what it’s saying. The second line, with its parallel former/latter clauses, is weirdly formal, as if the writer wants us to feel an ironic distance from the woman’s ordeal. The writer’s is more appropriate for a story written from Patrick Bateman‘s point of view than for a nonfiction piece on a woman’s testimony in a rape case.

–My beloved Raiders have hired an offensive coordinator who seems committed to doing things that the players on the roster do well. It’s so crazy it just might work.

–You’ll see Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech a lot this weekend (or clips from it, anyway). But as important and iconic as that speech was, this speech, given four years later, in which King describes the Vietnam War as an “enemy of the poor”, is the one that needs more of a listen, because it speaks to the breadth of King’s concerns.


Later.

The Missing Liberal Canon

A Slate article by Beverly Gage with the unfortunate headline “Why Is There No Liberal Ayn Rand?” crossed my sight earlier today, inspiring the question “Why should anyone wish for one?” But the article’s actual question is a better one. Conservatives tend to cite a fairly narrow range of texts that sum up their philosophy of government: The Road to SerfdomAnarchy, State, and Utopia; The Book of Virtues, Witness, A Vindication of Natural Society, The Bible, and so on. By contrast liberals, a less unified lot in general, tend to pull their intellectual influences from so wide a range of thinkers that it’s hard to get them together to produce what could be described as a unified canon of liberal thought.

The article points out that this is reflective of liberal political movements generally, which tend to fragment into issue oriented advocacy on behalf of groups within the coalition, without taking the time to build a language common to all factions. While there have been texts from leftist writers that have made claims to universality–The Communist Manifesto, On Liberty, A Theory of Justice–none have held the undisputed title for long in liberal circles. (Marx has taken a particular hit for having been associated, fairly or not, with the 20th century political tyrannies that claimed to be based on his ideas.)

Gage argues that this lack of a canon is a problem for liberal intellectuals.

Some of this imbalance is due to the relative weakness of the current American left. Liberals are not the logical counterweight to conservatives; leftists are, but they are few in number. Still, we have the political spectrum that we have, and liberals fail to take up the intellectual challenge at their peril. Conventional wisdom suggests that Romney may have doomed his electoral bid by choosing an ideologue—one who likes to go on about Ayn Rand!—as his vice presidential nominee. Yet it seems equally possible that Ryan’s nomination will do just what Romney wants: mobilize a base of committed activists who share most of Ryan’s basic ideas.

The default mode for liberals and progressives in such situations has often been to celebrate “diversity”—intellectual, racial, sexual, and of most other sorts. In many ways this is for the best. Nobody wants to return to an era in which politics and political ideas were dominated by a handful of white men, however thoughtful. Yet we rarely pause to consider what liberals have lost by neglecting a common intellectual heritage and by attempting to win political success without a political canon. At its best, a canon helps people put the pieces together, offering long-term goals and visions that sustain movements through periods of trial and defeat. Without those visions, liberals have no coherent way of explaining where we’re headed, or of measuring how far we’ve come.

I agree with Gage that the left is moribund in U.S. political life, and that we’re probably past due for someone to develop a new Grand Unified Theory of the the left that takes on issues of racism, sexism, environmentalism, class struggle, economic growth, and globalization. Where trouble comes is in figuring out how all of these different, sometimes incompatible parts, can be fused in a way that advocates for each the various causes liberals care about can respect.  The liberal coalition’s diversity is the barrier to the project. The more diverse a coalition is, the easier it is to stir up arguments within it. Whoever frames the big idea for the left would have to find a way to defend it from attacks not just from conservatives, but from liberals annoyed at perceived slights to this or that faction.

It’s this tendency among denizens of the left that make this scene funny:


By contrast, the conservative coalition, in the U.S. anyway, is uncomplicated, with few moving parts. Conservative libertarians and conservative Christians may love laissez-faire capitalism for different (and sometimes contradictory) reasons, but their adoration of it is sufficient for them to tolerate disagreements in other areas. (This is why conservative libertarians cede ground on social issues to conservative Christians: so long as the libertarians get their tax cuts and their slashed regulations on business, abridged rights of women or the long jail sentences served by drug users mean little to them.) Conservatives also tend to be culturally and ethnically homogenous in the U.S., which gives them fewer areas for disagreement and eases their acceptance of common authority. It’s little wonder that conservatives agree on a canon, with so few reasons to disagree on one.

So, at the risk of bringing Lenin into it, I’ll ask, what is to be done? Obviously, if a project to intellectually unify the left in the 21st century were easy, someone would have done it by now. It’s likely that each of the texts from which we’d draw would annoy someone enough to disqualify it. Das Kapital‘s analysis of the economy is out of date and unsuited to late capitalism; John Kenneth Galbraith’s Affluent Society is a handy general description of the modern economy but lacks rigor. Can all current questions of race really be submitted to the works of Martin Luther King, or of sexism to Betty Friedan? Maybe, but probably not. The works that unified the left in the past came from contemporary voices arising from contemporary conditions. They may have drawn inspiration from their past, but they were addressed to their now. So must it be with any new unifying text for the left. Don’t look for it on the bookshelves or in libraries. It hasn’t been written yet.

Oh, and if you think you’re in the process of writing it, stop reading my blog and get back to work. The people need you.