Thursday, July 28, 2016

Thomas Frank's "simple liberal mind" (or: What's the matter with Pennsylvania?)

If the so-called "progressive" left that rallied around and then abandoned Bernie Sanders has a mantra, it is this: the Democratic Party is ideologically bankrupt.

In a nutshell (just a little bigger than a mantra), the accusation is that the Democratic party has gone "neoliberal" and left the working man behind by encouraging free trade, globalization, and meritocratic advancement through education. Along comes Donald Trump to snap up the straggling working man with empty, substance-free "promises."

The argument is an application to the Democrats of Thomas Frank's "what's the matter with Kansas" critique. (Here he is applying it himself.) What frustrated Frank about Kansas Republicans was their penchant to vote "right to life" instead of economic self-interest.

To Frank and his progressive confreres "economic self-interest" can be defined as the needs of a 55-year-old laid-off white male factory worker in Pennsylvania (or Kansas, maybe). Those are the voters that Trump's idiosyncratic, non-Republican sales pitch is snapping up. Frank credits Trump with appealing to them by single-handedly "dynamiting" the bipartisan regime of globalization and trade agreements.

So, let me see here: the voters who according to Frank were not voting in their economic self-interest in Kansas are now, in Pennsylvania, voting in their economic self-interest? Is it not possible that Trump is attracting people for other reasons? Racial fear? Islamophobia? THE WALL?

In fact, economic self-interest turns out to be more complex than Frank, with his self-avowed "simple liberal mind," will admit. The laid-off factory worker might talk about PTT, but my bet is that he will more likely talk about immigration. If he is a "Reagan Democrat" (probable), he will also have caught the virulent, anti-government-at-all-levels Tea Party bug: Throw out the bums; the system is rigged. Knee-jerk, amorphously politicized emotional responses to economic stress might be producing that inner, economic self-interest voice that whispers, "Hey, let's blow up the system. It can't be worse than the one we have, right?" Donald Trump is the perfect candidate for these people.

But Frank's simple liberal mind can't tease these things out. With either side, apparently.

If it could, it'd be possible to see how there might be a lot of Democrats out there voting for Hillary because their economic best interests include elements that seem not to penetrate the simple liberal mind.

That white male factory worker? Well, he's male. But what about females? Could it be that there's an economic issue unrelated to globalization or outsourcing that interests them? You don't say: equal pay for equal work! See, it turns out that economic disparity cuts a lot of ways in the USA, and the gender cut may be the unkindest one of all to a certain, um, "class" of voter to whom--I can't imagine why--Hillary appeals.

That white male factory worker? Being white, he probably turns a blind eye to economic issues having to do with race. But what about the African-Americans supporting Clinton? What kind of economic issues might interest them? How about a place at the !@#$%%^&* table? Clinton is certainly far from ideal, but she has a history at least of working with the black community, as do the Democrats. The last time the GOP did anything for black voters was, what, 1872?

I've already said that the white male factory worker probably feels economically threatened by immigrants and is therefore unlikely to favor immigrant-friendly policies. OK, because the disaffected white male in Pennsylvania feels this way, does the simple liberal mind jettison the economic self-interest of Hispanics and Latinos? Apparently, yes, because its very simplicity is unable to handle complex issues like immigration, especially when they combine economics and justice.

Simple liberal mind: welcome to the complex political world of the 21st century. "Economic self-interest" is no longer just a construct of the middle-aged white male factory worker.

Who, by the way, would be much better off with someone who at least nods in the direction of unionization rather than someone who shakes his head furiously and adamantly, "Unions? No! Never!"

And what about health care? Is health care not an economic self-interest issue? What under- or unemployed person under the age of 65 was not positively affected by Obamacare? Unfortunately, however, Tea Party disease produces well-known symptoms that cause some people not to recognize their own economic self-interest.

So, political diagnosis being what it is, at least we know what's the matter with Pennsylvania.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

When a good myth goes bad

"When a good myth goes bad." What does that mean?

It doesn't mean "bad" as in "evil." It means "bad" as in the bread in the back of your cupboard that you forgot about and that's been there for 6 months and that if it weren't for the packaging you wouldn't even know what it was. It means "bad" as in the refrigerated, once-used jar of spaghetti sauce with the lovely whitish-green efflorescence growing on the inside. That kind of "bad."

And by "myth" I mean "story that purveys a commonly understood, accepted guiding principle or ideology." Which is by the way, the true meaning of the word. But like so many ideas in this world, the true meaning has gone almost completely "bad." Maybe with this one we can skim off the mold and retrieve it, just this one time. You ok with that?

So (as every explanation in this age must begin) back in 1787 when the USA was codified, there was a good myth. The good myth was that a free people must defend its own freedom; standing armies of professional soldiers--such as the one maintained by the British--were dangerous to liberty. A free people could not outsource the responsibility of the common defense to professionals. To do so would vitiate the virtue of the people. A free people must vote, a free people must serve on juries, and a free people must provide for the common defense. It was not a matter of choice. It was a matter of duty.

So strong was this belief at the time that every state had a statute requiring--requiring--compulsory militia service of all adult citizens. Not only was this a hedge against a standing army, but it was prima facie the ideal for a free people: "A well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free State."

These words were composed for the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 by George Mason, who also went on to lead the fight for an amended U.S. Constitution. He was of the opinion that the draft being considered for approval by the people was soft on standing armies. At his insistence, by way of James Madison's leadership in the first Congress, the new Constitution included as its 2nd Amendment verbiage designed to keep the nation ever-reliant on a citizen militia serving as a matter of compulsory duty.

It didn't work out that way. The loaf got stuck way back in the cupboard. Militia service as a matter of duty was just too hard and too unpopular. You had to fine people that didn't turn out for the annual muster. Legislatures allowed an end-around by which people with money could furnish a paid substitute. Plus, there always seemed to be a few gung-ho individuals who were willing to volunteer to do the job. So naturally--eh, naturally--voluntarism replaced duty.

Thus it was by the 1830's, when Tocqueville was taking a deep look at democracy in America, militia service as a matter of duty was already moribund. No, worse than that: it had already rotted away to the point that Tocqueville got the facts wrong, saying that voluntary service was the only kind there had ever been, and that compulsory service was antithetical to the democratic ideal. Whew! Something stinks in here! And don't blame Tocqueville's French cheese!

Simply put, the spirit of '76 militia ideal says that all citizens, as a matter of duty, serve as trained, drilled citizen-soldiers in order to prevent the formation of a standing army. That is what the 2nd Amendment was meant to guarantee. By the 1830's the ideal had already gone bad. The 2nd Amendment was defunct. The institution it was designed to support had been allowed to disappear.

Today? Poor George Mason is doing the tilt-a-whirl in the grave. The USA worships its huge standing army. People have this idea that the 2nd Amendment has to do with personal, individual self-protection rather than about obligatory civic duty. And forget about "well-regulated." Professional policemen charged with civic defense are killing citizens with alarming regularity, while "concealed carry" licenses can be obtained without ever firing a weapon.

What to do when a good myth goes bad?

At least, in the first place, we can understand that it has, so that we can stop following the guidance of people who would stuff moldy loaf into our faces.

We can also stop to think that, if we want to live free in an ordered democracy, we're not supposed to have a choice with some things, like voting and jury service and, yes, militia duty. Those things are supposed to be a citizen's obligations.

Beyond that, I don't know, except to say that Jesus is coming soon. Or was.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Regeneration in three songs

A time of babies: grand-daughters, the first children of my children.

First there is Mirabel. I can hold her while she sleeps. The music from my head is by Thomas Tallis--If ye love me--one of those motets that puts your mind's ear in a cathedral empty but for you, the supplicant hiding behind a massive column, and, way up in front, a choir hiding behind a rood screen. It is late spring in the Shenandoah Valley where the flowers breathe history.


Then there is Edith. I am an ambulatory cradle in the hospital room, wocking (walk/rocking) her to the whispered tune-beat of Wabash Cannonball. It would be embarrassing for anyone to hear besides her. But she is fine with it and sleeps with the understanding that the lonesome one calling is not a hobo but an oboe. It is early summer in Knoxville 101 years after the one that Agee passed through Barber, but the magnolias are the same even if assaulted on all sides by construction as if it were Longstreet.


In between Mirabel and Edith is the final departure of my wife's mother. She has been on the decline for a while, and her death is not unexpected. But a mother's death puts a hole in your heart that never heals.

I hear from my son recently that he is singing Gaelic songs to Mirabel. I learn this with Brahms in my head. He is there often; my mother introduced him. I still have her book of 70 songs by him, for low voice and piano, with page dog-eared by her (who schooled me in this heresy) to the lied that most often piques my consciousness.

I could swear it has fragrance--not the page, but the very thought of the melody. Of course this is just my imagination. But isn't that all we have anyway? The sun-fueled yearning--the Brahmsian Sehnsucht--to follow the senses into and beyond whatever eternal quality the womb imparts?

Hearing Mama Singing