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The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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Friday, November 1, 2013

A QUESTION ASKED YET AGAIN


Today I should like to return to a subject on which I have written before:  Whether it is possible to reintegrate into American society the very large number of Americans, variously described as Tea Party supporters or Evangelicals, who are deeply, inconsolably angry and in despair at the direction of the country, and prone to ever more hysterical and reality-defying conspiracy theories about the actions and motives of establishment political figures in both the Democratic and Republican Parties.  I am prompted to return to this subject by a recent spate of stories on television and elsewhere focusing on Ted Cruz's father, Rafael Cruz, who is now a Pastor.  The elder Cruz has been videoed making over-the-top attacks on President Obama, including the odd, easily refuted claim that Obama never utters the words "under God" when reciting the pledge of allegiance.  What makes Pastor Cruz interesting, from my point of view, is that in him we see a fusion of the secular economic positions supposedly motivating the Tea Party Republicans with the religious Dominionist and End Times theological beliefs that flourish among right-wing evangelical Christians.

Liberal talk show commentators on MSNBC and elsewhere have been having a good deal of fun mocking Pastor Cruz and the other "wacko birds" [John McCain's term] who inhabit an alternative universe in which facts completely give way to wishes and fantasies, most famously in the days just before the 2012 presidential election, when polls clearly forecasting an Obama victory  were rejected as "skewed," leading to Karl Rove's election night meltdown on Fox News.  Now, I like a bit of schadenfreude as much as the next fellow, and there is always pleasure to be found, even in this godforsaken world, in the sheer craziness of one's enemies.  But even if one thinks, as I do, that the Tea Partiers and political Evangelicals are holding a losing hand -- that demographics and the tide of history are against them -- the fact remains that they number in the tens of millions and they are not going to evaporate and disappear, even as they continue to lose elections. 

The central problem, so far as I can make out, is that for these folks, America is fast becoming a place that is unrecognizably different from the country they grew up expecting to inhabit as adults.  This is a very common problem throughout human history, and it has been a continuing theme in the evolution of America since before its official establishment.  The transformation of America from a predominantly rural to an overwhelming urban society, the freeing of the slaves, the arrival of tens of millions of Eastern and Southern European immigrants, the rise in prominence of Catholic Americans, the rapid growth of the Hispanic American population -- all have changed America in ways that were felt to be unacceptable by those already established in positions of prominence or dominance in America.

One small personal story will perhaps serve to humanize this rather abstract characterization.  I grew up in an America in which good people, respectable people, people one was willing to admit knowing, paid their bills.  There were, of course, deadbeats -- the uncle one never mentioned at family parties who had gone into debt and been forced to declare bankruptcy, the flashy cousin who seemed always to be living beyond his income -- but one understood that the punishment for such unacceptable behavior was social ostracism.  Nice folks would not receive them into their homes.  Well, in the late 1960's, I was a senior professor at Columbia and both I and my wife were in full scale psychoanalysis.  Even though we were working fulltime as college teachers, our salaries did not come close to covering our doctor bills.  [My salary as a full professor at an Ivy League University was roughly $19,000 a year.]  I tap danced as fast as I could, moonlighting at CCNY, CUNY, Barnard, and anywhere else that would pay me, and editing books so fast that once I actually handed in the finished manuscript before the publisher could give me the advance due on signing the contract.  But there came a moment when it was not enough, and crestfallen and ashamed, I went to Low Library, the Columbia Administration Building, to ask some nameless Vice President for an advance on my next month's paycheck.  I swore a private oath that I would never allow that to happen again.  Not too long afterward, I was sitting in the bus that took me from Morningside Heights to the Upper East Side where my analyst had his office, and my fell on a government advertisement urging all Americans to go out and shop with their credit cards to help the economy along.  At that point, I did not even have a credit card, and I was appalled at the notion that the United States government was actually trying to get citizens to spend money they did not have and thus to go into debt.  When I did finally acquire an American Express card [at the urging of my analyst!], I made sure to pay the total amount owing each month, a practice I have kept to for the entire intervening forty-five years.

So I can at least achieve a certain empathic understanding of the despair with which so many millions of Americans contemplate an America that, from their perspective, has come loose from its moral, spiritual, and historical moorings.  They can understand a world in which women have abortions, in which gay men and women engage in sex, in which people of color exist.  What they cannot bear to contemplate is a world in which such people are accepted, celebrated, even elevated to the highest office in the land, rather than being shunned, condemned, relegated to permanently inferior social and economic positions.

I am not talking here about rational conflicts of economic interest, like those that set cattle men against farmers, or Westerners against Easterners, or local business against international finance.  The deep uneasiness, bordering on despair, that these folks feel at the disconnect between the world they prepared themselves to live in and the world they now confront unhinges them from considerations of self-interest and drives them to a kind of hysterical politics of apocalypse. 

The response to the Affordable Care Act is instructive in this regard.  By any reasonable estimation, this law leaves most Americans unaffected or marginally advantaged, and a large number of Americans dramatically helped.  The relatively small number of mostly young, healthy Americans who will be financially disadvantaged by the law are, in fact, not by and large among those who are so vociferously protesting it.  I am convinced that for a variety of reasons having mostly to do with Republican propaganda, the ACA, or Obamacare as it is derisively labeled, has come to stand in for all the deep mortal hurts felt by those whom changes in American society are leaving behind.  The ACA is neither a natural nor a very convenient vehicle for this hysteria, which is why I have confidently predicted that in a relatively short period of time it will come to be accepted as a normal part of the social landscape.  But the feelings of loss now being focused on that law will remain, and will find other objects of apocalyptic hysteria. 

All of which brings me back to my initial question.  How, if at all, can these millions of Americans be reintegrated into the American that exists or is coming into existence?  I am convinced that it is politically dangerous for a country to contain a large minority permanently disaffected with the society and therefore permanently prone to be mobilized by demagogues and political opportunists.  I do not think that such a sub-population is likely to be inclined to politically and economically progressive action.  If one thinks of the twentieth and twenty-first century European context, it is the sort of sub-population likely to support fascist movements.

But for all the reasons suggested above, I do not see that the reintegration of this group into American society can be accomplished by income redistribution or substantive policy compromises of the sort that the American political system is designed to accomplish.

I end this post, therefore, with a question, not an answer.  How can we in the majority -- which includes reality-based conservatives as well as liberals and progressives -- bring these folks to come to terms with the world they confront, a world that they hate and fear and for which they have deeply rooted contempt and hostility?  I invite thoughtful responses.

5 comments:

Jerry Fresia said...

Interestingly, Occupy and the Tea Party seem to be reacting to the same phenomenon, namely the situation where "America is fast becoming a place that is unrecognizably different from the country" where just about everyone expected "to inhabit as adults." Occupy seems to have turned on an interpretation of the situation that embodies a sense of democracy, ie, the rise of a neo-liberal plutocracy that intentionally blocks the participation of the vast majority. The Tea Party relies on a quasi-fascist interpretation, ie, the rise of a "taker" class (or nearly so, 47%), mostly a non-white, and "worthless" majority that sucks the life-blood out of a 50s America that was, but is no more, a ("shinning") city on a hill.

So interpretation is key. Unfortunately, with the great DLC Clinton deregulating of everything in sight, we now have Fox News - along with a Supreme Court (enabled by fools such as Biden) and its Citizen United ruling that gives evil billionaires like the Koch brothers and Murdoch free reign - and power over the interpretation. Institutional changes, in other words, have biased the interpretation and understanding of what is going favor private power. This does not bode well.

Therapeutic insight is relevant here: what must take place before one is ready to confront the truth? or confront the person/agency that hurts one? Or to put it another way, might it be that a horrific calamity is in the cards? Economic collapse? Climate catastrophe?



Don Schneier said...

The question presupposes the premise that it can be done, which I'm sorry to say, may be vestigial Enlightenment naivety. I'd prefer to be convinced otherwise, but, in the meantime, the more immediately practicable question may be--How do Progressives and kindred spirits adapt to having to co-exist with an irreducible surd?

Don Schneier said...

The shooting at LAX yesterday may have woken me from a dogmatic catnap, prompting me to reconsider what I propose above. "Irreducible surd" applies better to the Amish, who, unarguably, are separatists insistent on remaining in the 1700s. But, there is no concern about "bringing these folks to come to terms with the rest of reality", primarily because they, unlike the Tea Party et al. do not pose a threat to that reality. So, the first problem is to correctly analyze why those reactionaries are a threat. On my diagnosis, they are a species of yesterday's shooter--a self-destructive group looking to take others with them, AKA 'suicidal terrorists'. If that diagnosis is sound, then, unlike the Amish, they cannot be ignored, and, so, the first step towards dealing effectively with the problem that they pose is to cease validating their rhetoric as as an 'opinion' on a par with other political opinions. One component of that re-framing is to cease classifying them as the 'right', which, even qualified as 'far', still equalizes them with the rest of the Right-Left 'spectrum'. In order to opt out of this commonly accepted rhetoric, resistance to the charge of being 'elitist intellectual' is probably helpful. So, those are some initial steps in a solution, the actualization of which I am not very sanguine about. Also, as a point of Theory--Self-Destructiveness may be more sharply interpreted by Nietzsche's 'Nihilism', then by the 'Internal Contradiction' of Dialectical Logic. For, Nietzsche recognizes that such antagonism easily yields to a violence that is not necessarily resolved by Sublation.

levinebar said...

"I am convinced that it is politically dangerous for a country to contain a large minority permanently disaffected with the society and therefore permanently prone to be mobilized by demagogues and political opportunists."
So it's 1860 again. And it's time to consider that Lincoln might have gotten it wrong. Perhaps Southerners have a right to national self-determination (as the U.N. charter eventually put it). I look at the Bush/Gore map of 2000 and at the Slave/Free map of 1860 and it looks like--rather than one nation in which "losing" individuals abide by the majority decision on the issues one day because they'll "win" on tomorrow's issues--we may have one nation oppressing another.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am rather puzzled by Levinebar's comment. It appears that he [she?] thinks the Civil War was an effort by the North to oppress the South. Somehow the little fact of slavery gets omitted from mention.