Friday, July 29, 2016

The President's Speech and Third Party Politics

Hillary Clinton Accepts Democratic Party Nomination
The Democratic Party Convention in Philadelphia has concluded with fanfare and success. It started unruly with Bernie Sanders supporters trying to make their presence felt; it built to a crescendo on Wednesday with President Obama's uplifting speech making the case for our democracy. Obama reminded us that democracy and self-governance require constant work, attention, and engagement, and not just at election times. In our system this work takes place largely within the two party system.

Hillary Clinton brought it home tonight in fine fashion. It was one of the best speeches I've seen her give, even if her oratory skills pale to her husband's, or the Obamas. She'll be a fine standard bearer.

If you've not watched Michelle Obama's endorsement of Hillary, you owe it to yourself.  Watch it HERE

A successful presidency, said Barak Obama, is never about one person, or even a whole administration. A successful presidency requires the support of an engaged electorate. It requires teachers, and people starting businesses, engineers inventing stuff, and doctors coming up with new cures. We might add, it requires bankers, and oil companies, airlines and airline manufacturers, stock market executives, central bankers, money managers, loggers, builders, manufacturers, merchants, supply lines, media companies, utility companies .... and on, and on. And all of these have a stake in our politics.

Obama was upbeat and encouraging to the young folks who supported Bernie Sanders. "I see a younger generation full of energy and new ideas, not constrained by what is, ready to seize what ought to be," he said.

But we can't go it alone, or in a small group, said Obama: 
I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together-- black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young, old; gay, straight; men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love. That's what I see. That's the America I know! …. And I promise you, our strength, our greatness, does not depend on …. any one person. And that, in the end, may be the biggest difference in this election -- the meaning of our democracy. ….
In our democracy, said Obama, we don't look to be ruled. We look to our founding principles and our belief that we are all created equal; our belief that We the People can continue to form a more perfect union; our confidence that we can shape our destiny as a free people.

But it takes work.
America has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us. It’s about what can be achieved by us, together --through the hard and slow, and sometimes frustrating, but ultimately enduring work of self-government.
And in this messy process of self-government, most issues are not black and white, Obama reminded us. Even when we are 100 percent right, "getting things done requires compromise."
Democracy doesn’t work if we constantly demonize each other. ...[F]or progress to happen, we have to listen to each other, and see ourselves in each other, and fight for our principles but also fight to find common ground, no matter how elusive that may sometimes seem.....
It can be frustrating, this business of democracy. …. When the other side refuses to compromise, progress can stall. People are hurt by the inaction. Supporters can grow impatient and worry that you’re not trying hard enough; that you’ve maybe sold out. But I promise you, when we keep at it, when we change enough minds, when we deliver enough votes, then progress does happen. …. Democracy works, America, but we got to want it -- not just during an election year, but all the days in between.
So if you agree that there’s too much inequality in our economy and too much money in our politics, we all need to be as vocal and as organized and as persistent as Bernie Sanders supporters have been during this election. …. If you want more justice in the justice system, then we’ve all got to vote -- not just for a President, but for mayors, and sheriffs, and state’s attorneys, and state legislators. That's where the criminal law is made. And we’ve got to work with police and protesters until laws and practices are changed. That's how democracy works. If you want to fight climate change, we’ve got to engage not only young people on college campuses, we've got to reach out to the coal miner who’s worried about taking care of his family, the single mom worried about gas prices. If you want to protect our kids and our cops from gun violence, we’ve got to get the vast majority of Americans, including gun owners, who agree on things like background checks to be just as vocal and just as determined as the gun lobby that blocks change through every funeral that we hold. That is how change happens. …
Not everybody gets it. Way too many Americans look at Donald Trump, and his threats, his bullying, his narcissistic boasting, his unstable personality, his lack of relevant experience, his lack of any program, and are ready to support him as President of this great country.  Too many Bernie-or-bust folks look at Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and fail to appreciate a difference. Jill Stein (the Green Party candidate) acknowledges that Donald Trump is a threat to our democracy but claims that Hillary Clinton is an equal threat. Cornel West has joined her in this judgment. It's an error in judgment on the order of equating Otto Wels and Adolf Hitler because the Weimar Republic didn't have its act together.

The idea that a third party President would be free of the entrenched political forces in society is a fantasy. Jill Stein would not be free of those forces. She is as inexperienced in politics as Donald Trump, considerably more naive, and much less powerful. The entrenched powers would eat her up, or anyone like her.  The idea that a "pure" leader could lead us to the promised land free of influence from the strongest forces in society is fantasy. It is a fantasy of being ruled by a philosopher king or queen who is above the fray of entrenched interests. Obama's speech eloquently reminds us that there is no such thing. Bernie Sanders knows this and that's why he's keeping his movement in the Democratic party and why he'll work to get Hillary Clinton elected as the next President of the United States.

Democracy is hard work and the Democrats did what they had to do with their convention.  On to the campaign.

Here is Obama's speech in full:



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Monday, July 25, 2016

Natalie Portman's "A Tale of Love and Darkness"




Natalie Portman, supermodel, Oscar winning actress, has written, directed, and stars in a recent film adaptation of Amos Oz's autobiographical novel, A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002). Amos Oz, the celebrated writer of 13 novels, and 25 other books, has been published in 42 languages. Tale of Love and Darkness traces his parents' journey to Palestine, and the formative relationship with his mother, Fania Mussman who committed suicide when Amos was just 12 years old. We saw Portman's film last night at the Castro in San Francisco, on the third day of the Jewish Film Festival currently in progress here. The film is slated for a wider theatrical release in the United States next month.

Portman is smart, complex, famous, and not entirely comfortable with her celebrity. In interviews her hands interact nervously: she knows how to hold herself, and knows just what to say in order to play the game that's made her a wealthy woman, but she looks uncomfortable with that game. She's nervous on screen when not in character as model or actress. It's a discomfort that serves her well playing the role of Amos Oz's brilliant, disturbed mother.

It's clear why Portman was interested in making this film. The family histories of Portman and Oz are vaguely parallel, and together they encompass the essence of the 20th century Jewish narrative: emigration to Palestine, emigration to the United States, the Holocaust, formation of the state of Israel, and the complex relationship between Israel and Jews in the diaspora, and Israel and the Palestinians. It's this overarching narrative that gives depth to this film and makes it special, even if it's not perfect.

Both Oz and Portman changed their names: Oz [the word means "strength" or "might" in Hebrew] adopted his new name as he left home at age 14 to become a writer on Kibbutz Hulda; Portman adopted the maiden name of her paternal grandmother (presumably) to facilitate her film career. The film intimately links Oz and Portman in a loving inverted parent-child relationship.

Portman's paternal grandparents emigrated to Palestine from Poland in the 1930's while her maternal grandparents emigrated to the United States from Poland and Austria. Her parents met at Ohio State University and her mother followed her father back to Israel where Portman was born in 1981. The family moved back to the United States when she was three years old.

Oz was born Amos Klausner in Jerusalem in 1939 where his parents met at the Hebrew University. His mother, Fania Mussman, was born to a wealthy mill owner in Rivne (82 miles west of Kiev). Fania and her two sisters attended a Hebrew Zionist grade school in Rivne. Later she studied history and philosophy at Charles University in Prague, and after her father's business collapsed in the Great Depression, the family emigrated to Palestine and she continued her studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Oz's father, Yehuda Arieh Klausner, studied history and literature at the university in Vilnius. His right wing revisionist Zionist family moved from there to Palestine in the 1930's.

The Mussmans and Klausners were served well by their Zionism. They may not have cared for the dusty and unrefined streets of Jerusalem when they arrived, but it was better than the alternative. Of approximately 210,000 Jews living in Lithuania at the start of World War II, almost all (approximately 195,000) perished in the Holocaust. In Rivne, the Germans shot 23,000 men, women, and children in the forest on November 6-8, 1941. The region was ground zero for approximately half of the Holocaust.

The film omits the biographical story of how the families came to be in Jerusalem. It opens with mother and son in bed, in the dark, telling stories. It's 1945 and Amos is six years old. There is tension in the house, vaguely connected with a difference in the parents's Zionism. Yehuda understands implicitly the coming assertion of Jewish power and what it will mean for the Arabs. "Our nation is standing at the gate," he says. Fania sees no gate, "there's an abyss," she says. In her mind she sees the streets of Rivne emptied of life, and she is terrified. In her dreams she fantasizes a virile labor Zionist working the land in peace--no guns. To be sensitive is more important than to be honest, Fania counseled her son.

On the way to school Jewish children casually vandalize the hanging laundry of Palestinians.

What does it mean "to be sensitive" in the context of Zionism? Does it imply sharing the land? It would seem so. The Palestinian author and critic, Samir El-youssef, observes that even prior to 1948, Jews sought to share the land by living apart. Amos Oz has been advocating to complete this separation and to make it permanent through a "two-state-solution." But such a separation can never be "sensitive," or just, says El-youssef: with the passage of time, future generations will naturally overlap and want to integrate in the land. He concluded an article in the Jewish Quarterly in 2004 as follows:
The problem, at least for Oz and those who believe in peace on the basis of the two-state solution, is that separation as a policy - like every policy which needs to be imposed from above - entails the use of violent means: waging wars, raising walls, removing settlers, slamming the doors in the face of Palestinian workers trying to earn their living in Israel, etc. But couldn’t such a policy, one might ask, be achieved peacefully? No, because the two states proposed by Oz and others are unequal states on every possible form of comparison. And unequal states are unlikely to make good neighbours even if the fences are good.
A scene early in the film appears to illustrate this point. The family is invited to a party at the home of a rich Arab in Jerusalem. On the way Yehuda lectures his son not to accept food that is offered, and to be polite. Yehuda appears to be counseling separation, so as not to upset relations between the Jews and Arabs. When they arrive, Amos is sent to the garden to play with the host's children. In the garden he finds an attractive, intelligent, and ambitious girl his own age and her younger brother. But Amos does not know how to play. He knows how to talk: "There's room here for both peoples," he volunteers out of the blue. He is not oblivious to the implied threat in what he says. The girl coaxes him to climb a tree. Reaching the branch that supports the swing, he seizes it and shakes it violently with mindless animal aggression. It's vaguely frightening--and it causes an accident that harms the younger child. The parents understand this for the metaphor that it is. Dread is in the air.

Seventy years ago, on July 22, 1946, the Zionist underground blew up the southern wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 and injuring 46 more. In the film the blast breaks up an intimate family outing with Fania gently stroking the heads of both father and son lying on the grass in the park. We don't see the hotel. It's like a rumor. More upheaval follows. There is a picture of a British lout of a soldier slouching on his jeep. It's a picture of occupation. Any occupation. Annoying. Entitled. It makes manifest the Zionist desire to seize power and rid themselves of the British, because they can; but the irony of the Israeli occupation over Palestinians is not lost.

An abyss, said Fania. And as time goes on she withdraws more and more into depression. Her stories grow darker: a drowning girl, a young Polish officer shooting himself.

The UN declaration of partition of Palestine on November 29, 1947 brought the moment to its crisis. The film shows a sniper killing of Fania's friend as she hangs laundry; a sniper killing of a young boy kicking a soccer ball; Fania establishing a bomb shelter in the Klausner basement. There is a small amount of archive war footage. We don't see any of the Palestinian suffering. We see Oz collecting bottles to be used as Molotov cocktails. And Portman shows us Oz remembering the bright young Palestinian girl from the garden in Jerusalem. He instinctively knows that this war has robbed her of her future. The war has separated these societies into separate camps: occupier and occupied.

What did Fania think? Would she have agreed with El-Youssef? "Nobody knows anything about anyone," she said to her son. And we don't know if her melancholia and eventual suicide was the result of World War II and the resulting emptiness in Rivne, the tragedy of Zioninsm as she saw it unfold, or something about her constitution. We do know that she provided inspiration for her son, and now to Natalie Portman, and that as long as we can hear her counsel to choose to "be sensitive" as an overarching value, there's hope.

The film co-stars Gilad Kahana as Arieh Klausner, Amir Tessler (Amos Oz as a child), Yonatan Shirai (Amos Oz as a teenager), Makram Khoury, Shira Haas, Neta Riskin, and Asia Naifeld. The film will be shown again as part of the festival on August 4 at the Rhoda Repertory theater in Berkeley.

You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles



Friday, July 22, 2016

The GOP has Weaponized Insincerity and is Led by Internet Trolls: It's time for the Adults' Convention

GOP Convention July 21, 2016/Sam Hodgson,NYT photo
So the Republican Party Convention in Cleveland has concluded. "I don't recognize the America that Trump described last night," says Jane Eisner in the Forward. On Wednesday evening, Laura Ingraham promised that Trump will restore not only law and order, but respect for the flag and citizens. "It's our country," she said. "It's where our dead are buried." Laurie Penny at Medium.com says the Republican party has been taken over by internet trolls. It's time for the adults convention next week. As Peter Beinart has tweeted: "Please @Hillary Clinton, don't screw this up."

Here's Eisner:
According to [Trump] our nation is overrun by illegal immigrants who steal jobs, menace peaceful communities, ruin our schools and murder innocent children. Law and order has gone the way of the rotary phone, while police officers are being killed at a new and alarming rate. Plain talk has been obliterated by extreme political correctness and a little-known regulation from the 1960s. American foreign policy has created a global situation “worse than it’s ever been before.” We are overtaxed and under protected. All is death, destruction, terrorism and weakness. I almost thought he was reading from the Book of Lamentations.
But reality is different, of course. The number of undocumented workers has been dropping in recent years, the undocumented population commits fewer crimes than legal citizens, and fewer police officers are being killed today, not more, and even the GOP convention has embraced LGBT rights. And they threw in "Q" for good measure.  The economy is in far better shape than when Reagan took office, and in far better shape than when George W. Bush left office. But Trump promises to fix all these non-problems through the imposition of LAW AND ORDER. And he'll do it all by himself:  I am your voice,” he said, addressing the mostly all white crowd inside the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. “No one knows the system better than me… and I alone can fix it," he said.  “I will restore law and order to our country; .... I’m going to make our country rich again.... I am going to bring back jobs....; I am going to do it,” he promised. And never you mind how.

Trump is a wanna be strongman in the mold of Hugo Chavez, says the Guardian newspaper.  Bernie Sanders watched the speech and tweeted: "Is the guy running for president or dictator?"  And all this autocratic talk makes Jane Eisner nervous: "Haltingly and often too slowly, political power has increasingly been shared in this country, not consolidated," she said. "We are all supposed to be owners; we don’t just serve the boss," she observes. Trump wants to reverse this sharing of power, she suggests; he wants to be the boss. "Believe me," he says.

Even in the absence of any disclosed program, Laura Ingraham is ready to sign on with Donald Trump. In her full throated endorsement on Wednesday, Ingraham did a long riff on "Respect." [For commentary and link to the full Ingraham speech see Wonkette] Respect for the flag, respect for police, and respect for the people.  The country belongs to us citizens, she said, "it's where our dead are buried." In other words, the country belongs to people who have been here for generations, you know, white people; it does not  belong to those recent immigrants, or immigrants to come.

Trump will put citizens first, she promised:  "Us" who have our dead buried here. "We're the people," she said.

Laurie Penny was at the convention in Cleveland.  She says trolls are driving a clown car of modern politics. Trump is trolling us, she suggests.  She shares her adventures at a party attended by Gert Wilders (the radical right politician from the Netherlands), Pamela Geller, and Milo Yinnopoulos, an alt-right professional right wing provocateur who writes for Breitbart. Yinnapoulos has just been suspended from Twitter permanently for heaping racist abuse on actor Leslie Jones.

Here's Laurie Penny:
Milo shows no remorse for the avalanche of misconduct he helped direct towards Leslie Jones, who is just the latest victim of the recreational ritual abuse he likes to launch at women and minorities for the fame and fun of it. According to the law of the wild web, the spoils go to those [who care the least].  I have come to believe, in the course of our bizarro unfriendship, that Milo believes in almost nothing concrete—not even in free speech. The same is reportedly true of Trump, of people like Ann Coulter, of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage: They are pure antagonists unencumbered by any conviction apart from their personal entitlement to raw power and stacks of cash.
I think we can lump Laura Ingraham in with this crowd.
Milo puts on a bulletproof jacket before his big entrance. He does this “because it’s funny,” although he worries that it may be insufficiently flattering. “I’m going to send it to my guy at Louis Vuitton.” It’s all an act. A choreographed performance by a career sociopath who will claim any cause to further his legend. Milo Yiannopoulos is the ideological analogue of Kim Kardashian’s rear end. Trickster breaks the internet....
The most widely accepted definition of a troll is a provocateur—someone who says outrageous, extreme or abusive things to elicit a reaction in an imagined audience. For them, the reaction itself is the win. That doesn’t cover the various sub-species of troll in this well-catered goblin market. 
The key distinction, at this convention and among the petty demagogues here assembled, is between the attention hustlers—the pure troll howlers who play this grotesque game for its own sake and their own—and the true believers.... [T]rue believer(s) (are) .... at a disadvantage. 
Roosh [a true believer] means what he’s saying, but he’s still aware that he’s playing a game — the same game almost everyone in this crucible of A-list internet con-men is playing. It’s the game of turning raw rage into political currency, the unscrupulous whorebaggery of the troll gone pro. These are people who cashed in their limited principles to cheat at poker. Milo is the best player here. Like Trump, and like a lot of successful politicians in this postmodern circus, they channel their own narcissism to give voice to the wordless, formless rage of the people neoliberalism left behind. They offer new win conditions for the humiliated masses. Welcome to the scream room. There’s a cheese plate. 
I run into a British writer from the Spectator, a moderate right-wing magazine, who takes the opportunity to apologise for being mean to me on the internet. He thought that was just how you’re supposed to do Twitter. We become, briefly, allies on foreign soil. A certain school of spiteful camaraderie, of bloodless political jousting before dinner, has long been the form of political discourse in Britain, where the mainstream media is dominated by private school graduates who were trained to debate as if it were a bloodsport in which empathy is a handicap. London media wonks routinely treat one another as sparring partners and drinking buddies despite their political differences: after all, aren’t we all on the same team really? Aren’t we playing the same game? 
I have never understood this game. That’s why I’ve always refused to debate Milo in public. Not because I’m frightened I’ll lose, but because I know I’ll lose, because I care and he doesn’t—and that means he’s already won. Help and forgive me, but I actually believe human beings can be better than this. 
My new Spectator friend is as bewildered as I am by the way Americans take Milo and his ilk seriously, by their willingness to take pride in performative bigotry and call it strength. It works. It sells. It’s the unholy marriage of that soulless debate culture that works so well in Britain, transplanted to a nation with no social safety net and half a billion guns. It works, in part, because of the essentially cult-like nature of U.S. culture and the structured ignorance that accompanies it. America is a nation eaten by its own myth. The entire idea of America is about believing impossible things. Nobody said those things had to be benign.....

Geert Wilders is also a true believer. I am introduced to the euro-fascist and his dead-badger hair by a genial young Dutchman I met earlier on Tinder. ....Wilders is the most obviously disturbed member of the neo-right suicide squad in attendance. He cannot finish a sentence. His voice drifts, and he trails away, already out of the room. There is a dustbin fire behind the blank eyes of his human suit. 
Wilders is a less polished, wholly charmless rendition of the neo-right demagogue character creation sheet that gave us Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. These people do not have personalities, they have haircuts. Ugly ones. And we have fallen through the looking glass in which they see themselves reflected as small gods. ....
Then it’s Milo’s turn
His speech is cabaret from start to finish. He sashays up to the podium and strips off his bulletproof vest, giddy with the attention, and announces that he’s been banned from Twitter.... Milo peddles a pageant of insincerity that is immediately legible to fellow Brits. Americans understand irony differently, and sometimes not at all. The crowd of excitable young and young-ish people gathered to hear him pontificate believe what he’s saying, even if he doesn’t. Which he doesn’t. And it doesn’t matter. 
It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t mean it. It doesn’t matter that he’s secretly quite a sweet, vulnerable person who is gracious to those he considers friends. It doesn’t matter that somewhere in the rhinestone-rimmed hamster wheel of his mind is a conscience. It doesn’t matter because the harm he does is real. 
He is leading a yammering army of trolls to victory on terms they barely understand. This is how we got to a place where headline speakers at the Republican convention—one of the most significant political events in the national narrative of world’s greatest superpower—are now actively calling for the slaughter and deportation of foreigners, declaring that Hillary Clinton is an agent of Satan, and hearing only cheers from the floor. They ventriloquise the fear of millions into a scream of fire in the crowded theatre of modernity where all the doors are locked, and then they watch the stampede, and they smile for the cameras.

I’ve seen enough. This is an evil place, airless and soulless as the inside of Pamela Geller’s head. We have to get out. .... In the humid dark of the plaza outside the event, a dozen young activists covered in sweat and glitter have got together an impromptu protest. Shell-shocked members of the press stumble out into the street. One journalist from a major mainstream outlet breaks down in tears. “It’s just — there’s so much hate,” she says, as a couple of glitterpunks move in to comfort her. “What is happening to this country?”
What’s happening to this country has happened before, in other nations, in other anxious, violent times when all the old certainties peeled away and maniacs took the wheel. It’s what happens when weaponised insincerity is applied to structured ignorance. Donald Trump is the Gordon Gekko of the attention economy, but even he is no longer in control. This culture war is being run in bad faith by bad actors who are running way off-script, and it’s barely begun, and there are going to be a lot of refugees.
Read the whole Laurie Penny article HERE.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Learning from the Radical Right of an Earlier Era: What Lessons Does it Hold for Us?

Eran Kaplan
(University of Wisconsin Press 2005)

Today, as we look around, radical right wing politics is a force to be reckoned with in Russia, Israel, Romania, Hungary, France, Britain, and elsewhere, including, it now appears, the United States. In Britain they just voted for Brexit. In the United States one of our two main parties, the Republicans, are about to nominate Donald Trump as their candidate for president.

An examination of Donald Trump's claims in 2015 revealed that he lacks any regard for truth.  Of 181 claims fact-checked by Politifact, 76% were mostly false, false, or outrageously false. Trump is not alone in his cavalier attitude towards the truth. A willingness to play fast and loose with theory and facts is one of the most infuriating traits of the political right. And it's not just politicians. It extends to media personas (see, e.g. Fox News generally, see e.g. Rush Limbaugh). 

Obama remarked on this phenomenon in his commencement speech at Rutgers this past May:  “Facts, evidence, reason, logic, and understanding of science… these are good things," said Obama. "These are qualities you want in people making policy. That might seem obvious. We traditionally have valued those things, but if you were listening to today’s political debate you might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from. In politics and in life," he added, "ignorance is not a virtue."

In his book, The Jewish Radical Right, Eran Kaplan shows us where this strain of anti-intellectualism comes from. It comes from the fever swamps of the European radical right in the the 1920's and 30's. Kaplan's book focuses on revisionist (far right) Zionism in Israel. He immersed himself in revisionist newspapers and publications of the inter-war period, and studied the writings of prominent figures--intellectuals, visionaries, and political activists. But the book serves as a primer of radical right wing politics more broadly. As we read, it becomes clear that with the radical right, rejection of rationality is not a bug, it's a feature. Irrationality is a virtue for the radical right.

The Monism of Ernst Haeckel

Radical right wing politics in the 20's and 30's, says Kaplan, was a reaction to modernity. Donald Trump and his supporters are still reacting against modernity today.  What lessons can we learn? 

Radical right politics at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries was a revolt against rationalism, individualism, materialism, and the heritage and values of the Enlightenment and French revolution in general, says Kaplan. Disillusioned that rationality and humanist values could lead us to a utopia, the radical right sought to fall back on human instinct, to unfetter basic human desires, and to free us of all artificial moral or rational categories. 

In context, the radical right was looking at the excesses of the French revolution, which were not so pretty, and they were fighting for hearts and minds with communism, and they acted in an era of political upheaval, hyperinflation, and crumbling economies in the wake of World War I.  Today, our economies are stronger, but we have problems of inequality, and large portions of the population are fearful that their economic prospects are dimming in light of globalization, not getting brighter. 

The intellectuals of the radical right sought to unleash and give voice to the authentic power that would allow nations to live virtuous and glorious lives. They would have related to "Make America Great Again." Take Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), a German zoologist, philosopher, writer and artist. Among many accomplishments, he was responsible for naming hundreds of new species and he helped to propagate Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. But he also had peculiar ideas about the relative ordering of human races (primitive to noble) according to language groups, and he assumed an attitude of natural selection among the races. It is a dog-eat-dog sort of world and some races are naturally destined for extinction (at the hands of the more noble and advanced races). He talked about the social sciences and history as problems in "applied biology." 

In 1909 Haeckel formed the Monist League. The Monist League set out to replace a Christian world view with one based in natural science. He attempted to unite science and religion by making human instincts and sentiments, usually expressed in art and myth, paramount in political action. Haeckel's evolutionary monism rejected any limitations on the power of individuals through constructs like morality, rationality, and equality. Such concepts are alien to nature, he claimed.

The purpose of life can't be found in utopian social systems built on rationality, or sissy concepts like equality or morality; rather, the purpose of life is to submit to the irrational forces and will of nature itself. The measure of a nation is not in its respect for universal moral principles, but in its heroic action, in the seizing of life. Think of Rome at the height of its power. In order for a nation to properly seize life--to come out on top of the evolutionary heap--Haeckel called for racial purity, national purpose, and for the nation to embrace the irrational brute forces of nature. Nations, in order to be successful, must denounce any teachings that try to limit and control their powers. Hard laws of evolution rule societies and nature alike, said Haeckel, and nature confers upon the favored races the right to dominate others.

Are there echoes of this in "Make America Great Again?" 

Spengler and the Life of Nations

Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) was a German historian and philosopher who wrote the influential book The Decline of the West.  Spengler posited civilization as a super-organism with limited and predictable life spans. He associated the decline of nations with moral decline (think liberalizing of sexual mores, gay rights, women's rights, modern "degenerate" art), with money and materialism dominating society, with the (liberal) cities having a pre-dominant influence over the (conservative and traditional) countryside, with the emphasis of society on quantity in the manufacture of goods over quality, and with the questioning of social hierarchies. 

Much of our culture wars these past decades has resonated with Spengler's ideas.  Pat Buchanan would say, "yes, unless we reverse these liberalizing trends we are doomed." It has been the message of the Republican party for a half century. 

A nation's vitality, said Spengler, comes from its independence, its unity of purpose, and its unrestrained will to exercise power. This includes waging war. [It was a theme at the GOP convention in Cleveland tonight] War is part of nature. Peace is the result of preaching by intellectuals (think Obama, Republican speakers said at the podium tonight). Such weakness holds the nation back. It is a sign of decline. Strong and vital nations are not pacifists, said Spengler, but they embrace war and the violence that marks an emerging or dominant culture. 

Think about this in context of Trump declaring world war three in response to the truck mayhem in Nice. 

National (White) Unity

The radical right of the '20's and '30's also preached that true liberty could not be realized in individuals's attaining personal goals; individuals had to give up their subjectivity in order to become part of a greater subject, the nation state. Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Zionist radical right, reports Kaplan, believed that "the greatest achievement of a free mass of people is the ability to operate together, all as one, with the absolute precision of a machine...." 

Does this resonate today? "In Mississippi, Florida and elsewhere," reported Der Spiegel last month, "Donald Trump asked his supporters to raise their right hands and pledge their allegiance to his cause: 'I do solemnly swear that I, no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, ... will vote ... for Donald J. Trump for President.'" In a show of unity, the report goes on: "Tens of thousands raised their right arms and repeated the oath after him."

In a USA 2013 radical right video (published in November 25, 2013) Pat Buchanan says that the culture wars have split the country. "We are two countries now," he said. "Two countries--morally, and socially, and culturally, and theologically--and cultural wars do not lend themselves to peaceful coexistence. This side prevails, or the other side prevails," intoned Buchanan.  [At first two minutes in linked video] This feature length movie has been watched 600,000 times on You Tube. Presumably these watchers are disaffected white, Christian Trump voters. If we are to take Buchanan at his word, then Trump is running not for president of the United States, but for president of a disaffected white, Christian minority. It is that minority that is seeking its unity in the candidacy of Donald Trump. This is the audience Trump is addressing as he channels the radical right European demons of the 20's and 30's. 

Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Zionist radical right was greatly influenced by the Italian criminologist Enrico Ferri (1856-1929) says Kaplan. Ferri also attempted to explain human history through natural laws and evolutionary science. In accord with Ferri, Jabotinsky argued that a nation must have particular racial characteristics. Only the common ties of blood, history, and language can bring people together. Human rights, civil equality, and political reality can't bring people together, they said. Nationalism, said Jabotinsky at the 17th Zionist Congress in Basel, is not by any means related to citizenship. Humans are not defined by political/legal states, he argued, but rather by their national and racial affiliations. Make America White Again. 

The radical Zionists focused on achieving a Jewish majority in the land of Palestine to build their state. They expelled half the Palestinian population in the Nakba (the catastrophe as Palestinians call it) in order to accomplish this. Their fundamental objective was to built a Jewish state, as opposed to a state of its citizens. They sought to imprint the Jewish character of the nation on the land, and to build an iron wall between the Arabs and Jews. Arabs would be allowed to prosper, but they could never be part of the Israeli nation. Pat Buchanan and his white Christian country are looking to follow this model in the United States. The same liberal Enlightenment values are at stake. 

Trump is seeking to be president of a white European, Christian colonial settler nation. The rest of us want to continue to live in a multi-cultural liberal democracy. 

The radical right of the 20's and 30's says Kaplan, opposed the liberal view of society as a gathering of individuals who start from a point of sharing nothing but their dignity and rational capabilities as human beings. The radical right opposed Marxism for being international and for being universal in nature. They opposed it for dividing society along class lines, and for reducing society to material factors. They viewed individuals as spiritual beings who are members of a particular nation and race, with a particular history. It's not about individual will, desires, rational reasoning, or material status alone; nationhood, said these thinkers is much more about cultural, national, and racial heritage. 

Make America white again; make America great again.

Embracing the Irrational, Subconscious, and Irrational

The German Jewish culture critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) noted that the radical right sought to rally around authority, discipline, solidarity, and self-sacrifice.... 

And they glorified violence, says Kaplan. Violence, for the radical right, possessed a positive and therapeutic value. Just ask yourself how it could have come about that a small handful of civilized and prosperous societies embarked on an orgy of killing that left ~ 80 million people dead over two world wars. 

The radical right of the 20's and 30's says Kaplan, embraced the irrational, the subconscious, and the primordial. And as I watch Donald Trump and his GOP supporters I think to myself, is this the new radical right? 

"Money is overthrown and abolished only by blood," said Spengler. Was this an anti-Semitic trope? Life, race, and the triumph of the will to power are what matter.  Think of Leni Riefenstahl's film, and think how modern, how "normal" this film looks. It is not "the victory of truth, discoveries, or money that signifies," said Spengler. It's the will to power. 

The celebration of life the radical right is seeking is expressed aesthetically, not rationally. Terry Eagelton, the British theater critic, said about post-modernists: (for them) "the truth value of a proposition is entirely a matter of its social function, a reflex of the power interests it promotes."  Jean Francois Lyotard (1924-1998), a French post-modernist philosopher, spoke about culture not being bound by any objective criteria, but being in an arena of power struggles among groups and individuals. [The two nations of the culture wars that Buchanan mentions?] He also spoke of the process of liberating signs and language from the tyranny of rationality by creating systems of representation (myths & ideology) that are not judged by their ability to provide a true depiction of the world but by their ability to maximize the human spirit and to carry it to greater heights. 

Along these lines, says Kaplan, the radical right eschewed the objective sciences (think climate change denial today) and eschewed adherence to ethical rules that suppress humans' true nature. Instead, the radical right sought to organize and use signs (political talk?) in a way that would transcend accepted morality and reveal the true masculine force of humanity. Maurice Barres (1862-1923), the French novelist, journalist, right wing nationalist and anti-Drefusard, per Kaplan, said that "words do not signify objects but are powerful entities that can evoke great powers. Words are not separate from nature, but part of it." 

Instead of concepts of natural rights and morality (empty words), the radical right sought to provide myths, symbols, and signs that would allow society to express its desires and wants without regard to rational or moral limitations. Today, we say politicians are using "dog-whistles." Trump is dog-whistling to his disenchanted white followers when he says he will "Make America Great Again" that he will "build a beautiful wall, and make the Mexicans pay for it," that he will "put America first again and only make Great Deals!"  Rationality has nothing to do with it. That's not the point. Its about race, aesthetics, and the myths of ancient traditions. Art is free of moral restrictions, and in the hands of the radical right, so is politics. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

No, The New Yorker and its Audience are not Serious About Trump's Threat, Why do you Ask?

As I read Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker it occurs to me there are three types of responses to Trump: 1) There are those who are confident Hillary will win, and believe the whole Trump phenomenon is a big joke; 2) there are those who are scared stiff; and 3) there are those whose judgment is that Trump will be no worse than Hillary. I think 50 million voters for Trump is no joke, we should be scared stiff, and those who believe it's all the same are making a huge error in judgment.

Adam Gopnik sounds the alarm about fascism coming to America:
What all forms of fascism have in common is the glorification of the nation, and the exaggeration of its humiliations, with violence promised to its enemies, at home and abroad; the worship of power wherever it appears and whoever holds it; contempt for the rule of law and for reason; unashamed employment of repeated lies as a rhetorical strategy; and a promise of vengeance for those who feel themselves disempowered by history. It promises to turn back time and take no prisoners.
People are not taking the threat sufficiently seriously, he warns.  Trump is beyond the pale of our normal politics and yet we treat him as a normal candidate.  We do so at our peril, he says. "In every historical situation where a leader of Trump’s kind comes to power, " he warns, "normal safeguards collapse."

I think he is right.

But we're not treating Trump as beyond the pale. Witness Ruth Bader Ginsburg who briefly tried. She departed from judicial decorum and called out Trump for the extremist that he is. She was quickly forced to apologize in light of an outpouring of condemnation from both left and right. [For my favorite take on this see Mary Dudziak who is lovingly tolerant of the Notorious RBG's misbehaving HERE.]

Gopnik, I fear, will not make a difference; no more than the New Yorker's stance against George W. Bush made a difference in 2004 [see, e.g.,  HERE]. The New Yorker has lost it's gravitas. They are preaching to a liberal choir and their choir does not take them seriously. Certainly Trump voters on the fence in red swing states, i.e. those who really matter, aren't listening to this.

To get a sense of how inconsequential the New Yorker is in this discussion, take a look at the panel discussion hosted by David Remnick, appended to the Gopnik article (embedded below). "Today we're going to discuss our ongoing national catastrophe known as the national election process...,"  Remnick starts to great laughter.  Oh, it's all just so entertaining, isn't it? Not. And he proceeds to lead a lightweight panel discussion that thoroughly treats Trump like a normal candidate. "I do wonder if this isn't a little bit the new normal...." says staff writer Kaleefa Sanneh. Nate Silver, the sports statistician come election numbers crunching pop idol talks about the GOP's "five ring circus" to Amy Davidson's evident amusement. Yes, it's very amusing, isn't it? Not. Hillary will run to the center and win by 8 or 9 points, says Silver. Normal election talk.

No these people are not serious about the fascist threat. And the New Yorker's target audience thinks it's all a big hoot.

Friday, July 15, 2016

It's not Terrorism, but our Reaction to it that Presents the Real Danger

John Mejia drawing
What possesses a man, a disenchanted delivery truck driver, a troubled 31-year old, a burglar, a thief, prone to road rage, to drive a white panel truck into a festive crowd assembled to watch fireworks and to honor France which put the Enlightenment into its national motto: liberté, égalité, fraternité? 

What posseses a man to accelerate his truck through the crowd intent on mass murder, intent on his own death? 

What possesses persons on al-Queada affiliated social media to laugh at sorrow expressed by Prime Minister Manuel Valls and to cheer the carnage? What kind of nihilistic nonsense is this? 

The Enlightenment, we must never forget, was in part a reaction to the horror of the wars of religion that preceded it. The Enlightenment championed values of tolerance, education, and trade with all irrespective of creed. The Enlightenment wisely recognized that civil wars, religious wars, and persecutions are destructive of stable trade, destructive of human society, destructive of humanitarian values, and that we can and must do better. 

Whatever Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was about, it's not values of tolerance, humanism, and education. He and his pro-ISIS, pro-al Quaeda cheerleaders are enemies of the Enlightenment; enemies of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

These acts--the horror of Nice is not the first and will not be the last--pose a grave challenge to our Enlightenment values. They pose a challenge to what we hold dear. But it's not so much the acts themselves, as our reaction to the acts.  Hurricane Katrina which killed 1,836 and caused $81 billion in property damage was not a threat to our Enlightenment values. Natural disasters just happen and we take them in stride. We can learn lessons of how to prepare better, and how to respond better, but natural disasters don't threaten the fabric of our society. It's not the death toll, it's not the damage of terrorist acts that cause the danger to society, therefore, it's our reaction to these acts that pose the danger. 

What threatens our liberal societies in the case of random terrorist attacks like Nice is the demagoguery that follows. It is those who counsel that we must lash out, lash out against Muslims, lash out against immigrants, lash out against the Other. We must declare a new world war say Bill O'Reilly and Donald Trump. We must exclude all Muslims. We must deport anyone who believes in Sharia law, says Newt Gingrich. But it's those demagogues who are the real threats to our democracies.

Take the attacks on September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was spectacular, it was horrific, it killed 2,996 people and caused $10 billion in property damage. But it's not the deaths, it's not the loss of buildings, it was the Bush administration's reaction that caused the more lasting damage to society.

My heart goes out to France, to the city of Nice, to all the killed and injured, and their families. May you heal well; may France stand up to its demagogues. May we stand up to ours. Long live liberté, égalité, et fraternité?



You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles


Monday, July 11, 2016

The New Masters of American Folk Music



"Manifest Destiny," the idea that the United States was destined to control the land "from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters," was well ingrained in the American psyche by 1845 when John O'Sullivan first coined the phrase. By the time of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), the relentless westward pressure of American settlement consolidated control over California. The deal was sealed with the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada Mountains west of San Francisco in 1849, and the subsequent rush of hundreds of thousands of white adventurers of European extraction to the West Coast. California was admitted as the 31st state of the Union on September 9, 1850.

As they came west, the settlers brought with them the music of the British Isles, Brittany, France, Spain, and all the European lands. And once on these shores, of course, the music mixed with African influences and Native American influences. Woody Guthrie was an inheritor of these musical traditions. Jazz, the blues, rock 'n roll, punk, funk, Country Western, and hip-hop have all fed off these traditions. The underlying traditions live on, vibrant and healthy, today, thanks in large part to an extraordinary generation of musicians who delved into these traditions in the 1960's, sought out old masters, studied at their feet, became new masters, shared and carried it forward.

One place you can find this bedrock of American music is Fort Worden by Port Townsend, Washington, where the 40th edition of the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes has just concluded.

Nation building requires borders and ways to defend borders, but it also requires music. In 1846 President James Polk charged the U.S. armed forces to identify sites suitable for fortification from San Diego to Puget Sound. Washington became a state on November 11, 1889. In 1891 a naval station was built in Bremerton, WA, and soon thereafter construction started on three forts to protect the entrance to Puget Sound against possible seaborne intruders. Fort Worden was the jewel of these fortifications. But no intruders ever came and after the Korean war (June 25, 1950-July 27, 1953) Fort Worden was decommissioned and turned over to the state; since 1971 Fort Worden has been opened to the arts: writers workshops, dance workshops, blues, jazz, voice programs, youth programs, and every July the American Festival of Fiddle Tunes. The role of Fort Worden has changed from nation building to nation sustaining.
Fort Worden, WA/Nikles July 8, 2016
For 40 years Fiddle Tunes has nurtured, celebrated, and passed on to the next generations the music first disseminated by gold rush prospectors, wagon trains, and ships rounding Cape Horn. The program directors at Fiddle Tunes (Suzy Thompson has done a wonderful job for the past six years) have sought to bring authentic masters in the traditional styles from all over the Americas to perform and teach. This year the faculty was to include Terese Rioux, deemed "la reine des violoneaux" by her community in Eastern Quebec. Terese Rioux  took to the fiddle early, soaking up the sounds that French settlers brought to Quebec in the wake of Jacques Cartier, who planted a cross on the Gaspe Peninsula on June 24, 1534 and claimed the region for King Francois I of France. It was not to be this year. Health concerns kept the 80 year old Rioux from traveling. But in her place came Lisa Ornstein, a paragon of the new masters of traditional music.

Lisa Ornstein came from a musical family. Her mother was a harpsichord player at the highest level  and her sister is a professional classical violinist. Lisa took up the violin at age nine, and by age 16 she became interested in Old Time music. The next year she was lucky enough to snag an internship at the Library of Congress's archive of American folksongs, headed for a long time by Alan Jabbour. There she transcribed field recordings of Henry Reed (1884-1968) and got the bug for seeking out authentic source materials and authentic players. In 1975 the National Endowment for the Humanities sponsored her with a grant to spend 12 weeks to study and record fiddlers in Vermont and North Carolina. It was money well spent. Lisa has been giving and giving ever since.

On her quest for fiddlers in North Carolina Lisa Ornstein befriended the renowned Old Time fiddler Tommy Jarrell (1901-1985).  By 1978 she helped record what became one of the seminal records for the new generation of Old Time musicians ("Ship in the Clouds").  If you look at the liner notes, you'll see mention of other young (at the time) musicians who have become new masters of American Folk Music, like Pete Sutherland and Bruce Molsky. Sutherland was also at this year's Fiddle Tunes.

After college, Lisa Ornstein obtained a one year fellowship to study and document traditional French Canadian fiddling. This turned into a life long love affair with French Canadian fiddling. She stayed for 12 years in Quebec and studied the local masters, like Terese Rioux, and many others. Lisa Ornstein has become a new master and in the process she has helped to carry this traditional art form to new heights.

The new masters of American folk music have had an advantage. They have been able to make a living with this music. They haves been able to travel. They have learned how to organize, archive, and pay attention to details in college. Some of them have PhD's in ethnomusicology. Despite what some would say... these are helpful and good tools. And then there are recording devices. From early field recordings to the smart phone, recording and distribution of these oral traditions has become ever easier, even if playing the instruments has not. Tommy Jarrell worked in road construction until his retirement at age 65. He had no recording devices. He did not have the luxury and opportunity of travel.  He played dances, events; he played for gatherings of friends, but fiddling was secondary to physical, tiring work. The New Masters have been able to dedicate a career to the study, playing, and teaching of traditional music. And they've had tools and advantages, including state support, community support, technological support, and the support of festivals like Fiddle Tunes. The music has benefited; we have all benefited.

Fiddle Tunes started a trend. Forty years ago it was one of only a handful of festivals dedicated to traditional American music. Today there are hundreds of camps all over the country. And Fiddle Tunes has expanded to embrace all of the traditional music of the Americas. This 40th anniversary year boasted masters from South America, Central America, the United States, and Canada. More than 500 participants of all ages, me among them, have brought their fiddles, guitars, banjos, basses, dulcimers, accordions, mandolins, and piano chops to Fort Worden to share this music, study, learn, listen to the (mostly) new masters now. We came to be inspired, but above all we came to celebrate this traditional American folk music. The music would be less vibrant without the new masters who generously dedicate themselves to this music and share and encourage and inspire the rest of us.

And here are two of my favorite new masters, Liz Carroll and Pete Sutherland. You can find their recordings HERE and HERE.