Stay Angry, Get Involved (29 Days)

David Leonhardt of The New York Times reviews how we got here and then offers encouragement:

Decades ago, a businessman built a fortune thanks in large measure to financial fraud. His corrupt gains helped him become famous. He then launched a political career by repeatedly telling a racist lie, about the first black president secretly being an African.

This lie created an audience in right-wing media that made possible a presidential campaign. During that campaign, the candidate eagerly accepted — indeed, publicly sought — the illegal assistance of a foreign enemy. When national security officials raised alarm with Congress, before Election Day, leaders of the candidate’s party refused to act.

The foreign assistance appears to have been crucial to the candidate’s narrow victory. He won with only 46.1 percent of the popular vote, less than 16 losing candidates over the years had, including Mitt Romney, John Kerry, Williams Jennings Bryan and the little-remembered Horatio Seymour.

Having won, the new president filled a Supreme Court seat that his party had stolen with an unprecedented power grab. This weekend, the president finished filling a second seat, through a brutal, partisan process. During it, the president, himself an admitted sexual molester, mocked victims of abuse.

Together, the two new justices have cemented an extremist Republican majority on the Supreme Court. It has already begun acting as a kind of super-legislature, throwing out laws on voting rights, worker rights, consumer rights and political influence buying. Now, the court is poised to do much more to benefit the wealthy and powerful at the expense of most Americans — and the planet.

This is not how democracy is supposed to work…

… The past two weeks, on top of everything that came before, have created a sense of frustration and injustice that I have never seen before from people on the left and in the center. The question now is, What are you going to do with that anger?

Here is my suggestion: Get involved. Do it now. Be smart about how. And help turn the crisis of the Trump presidency into a new day for American democracy.

The only good solution to this mess involves fighting for democratic principles. In concrete terms, this means turning your attention away from the Supreme Court, for now, and toward the midterm elections. The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh is over. The midterms are not, and, one way or the other, they will change Washington. Either President Trump will be emboldened — to fire Robert Mueller, take away health insurance and so on — or he will be constrained. There is no election outcome that preserves the status quo.

Remember, Trump has never enjoyed majority support in this country. But many of the Americans who oppose both him and today’s Republican Party don’t vote. In the last midterms, in 2014, only 16 percent — 16 percent!— of citizens between the ages of 18 and 29 voted…

The easiest way to encourage turnout is with your own family and friends. You should come up with a specific plan about when and where you will vote — which, research has shown, increases voting — and announce that plan to your friends and relatives, presumably over social media. Then ask them to do the same. “Social pressure,” says Carolyn DeWitt, president of Rock the Vote, “is mighty persuasive.”

If you’re still energized, don’t stop there. You can also have an effect outside of your social circles. Look at what happened in Virginia’s state elections last year: Turnout surged 17 percent, compared with four years earlier, and a grass-roots effort was crucial to the surge. In the campaign’s last four days, activists knocked on 1.4 million doors across Virginia. Often, they did so working in groups of friends.

Of course, Virginia was one of the few states holding elections last year. This year, the whole country is doing so, which creates an enormous need for volunteers to knock on doors and make phone calls. Groups like Indivisible and Swing Left have helpfullocalized advice online.

I understand that many people feel awkward about getting involved in politics. But if you’re one of those people feeling righteous anger today, I think you need to get involved.

Imagine how you will feel if the midterms turn into a … victory for Donald Trump. That outcome, I’m sorry to say, remains entirely possible.

But not if we get involved. There are more of us than them. The world is watching and waiting. November 6th is only 29 days away. 

Who Gets to Rule a Nation? The Rise of the One-Party State

A government in which one person has unlimited power is an autocracy. A government in which a small group has a great deal of power is an oligarchy. Unlike an autocracy, there is no requirement that oligarchs have unlimited power. 

Here in the United States, we still have a representative democracy, although lately it’s been veering toward oligarchy. We also have a president who would prefer America as autocracy with himself as the autocrat.

Anne Applebaum has written a long article for The Atlantic that explains the form of government that’s on the rise around the world. Her article is labeled this way:

Polarization. Conspiracy theories. Attacks on the free press. An obsession with loyalty. Recent events in the United States follow a pattern Europeans know all too well.

Whether such governments are autocracies or oligarchies isn’t clear-cut. She suggests “single-party” or “one-party state”. The paragraphs below explain how they work and how their adherents justify them. Reading the article helped me understand the current crisis.

[Who gets to rule a nation?] For a long time, we have imagined that these questions were settled—but why should they ever be?

Monarchy,tyranny, oligarchy, democracy—thesewere all familiar to Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago. But the illiberal one-party state, now found all over the world—think of China, Venezuela, Zimbabwe—was first developed by Lenin, in Russia, starting in 1917. In the political-science textbooks of the future, the Soviet Union’s founder will surely be remembered not for his Marxist beliefs, but as the inventor of this enduring form of political organization. It is the model that many of the world’s budding autocrats use today.

Unlike Marxism, the Leninist one-party state is not a philosophy. It is a mechanism for holding power. It works because it clearly defines who gets to be the elite—the political elite, the cultural elite, the financial elite. In monarchies such as pre-revolutionary France and Russia, the right to rule was granted to the aristocracy, which defined itself by rigid codes of breeding and etiquette. In modern Western democracies, the right to rule is granted, at least in theory, by different forms of competition: campaigning and voting, meritocratic tests that determine access to higher education and the civil service, free markets. Old-fashioned social hierarchies are usually part of the mix, but in modern Britain, America, Germany, France, and until recently Poland, we have assumed that competition is the most just and efficient way to distribute power. The best-run businesses should make the most money. The most appealing and competent politicians should rule. The contests between them should take place on an even playing field, to ensure a fair outcome.

Lenin’s one-party state was based on different values. It overthrew the aristocratic order. But it did not put a competitive model in place. The Bolshevik one-party state was not merely undemocratic; it was also anti-competitive and anti-meritocratic. Places in universities, civil-service jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable. Instead, they went to the most loyal. People advanced because they were willing to conform to the rules of party membership.

Though those rules were different at different times, they were consistent in certain ways. They usually excluded the former ruling elite and their children, as well as suspicious ethnic groups. They favored the children of the working class. Above all, they favored people who loudly professed belief in the creed, who attended party meetings, who participated in public displays of enthusiasm. Unlike an ordinary oligarchy, the one-party state allows for upward mobility: True believers can advance. As Hannah Arendt wrote back in the 1940s, the worst kind of one-party state “invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

Lenin’s one-party system also reflected his disdain for the idea of a neutral state, of apolitical civil servants and an objective media… In the Bolshevik imagination, the press could be free, and public institutions could be fair, only once they were controlled by the working class—via the party.

This mockery of the competitive institutions of “bourgeois democracy” and capitalism has long had a right-wing version, too. Hitler’s Germany is the example usually given. But there are many others. Apartheid South Africa was a de facto one-party state that corrupted its press and its judiciary to eliminate blacks from political life and promote the interests of Afrikaners, white South Africans descended mainly from Dutch settlers, who were not succeeding in the capitalist economy created by the British empire.

In Europe, two such illiberal parties are now in power: Law and Justice, in Poland, and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, in Hungary. Others, in Austria and Italy, are part of government coalitions or enjoy wide support. These parties tolerate the existence of political opponents. But they use every means possible, legal and illegal, to reduce their opponents’ ability to function and to curtail competition in politics and economics. They dislike foreign investment and criticize privatization, unless it is designed to benefit their supporters. They undermine meritocracy. Like Donald Trump, they mock the notions of neutrality and professionalism, whether in journalists or civil servants. They discourage businesses from advertising in “opposition”—by which they mean illegitimate—media.

Notably, one of the Law and Justice government’s first acts, in early 2016, was to change the civil-service law, making it easier to fire professionals and hire party hacks. The Polish foreign service also wants to drop its requirement that diplomats know two foreign languages, a bar that was too high for favored candidates to meet. The government fired heads of Polish state companies. Previously, the people in these roles had had at least some government or business experience. Now these jobs are largely filled by Law and Justice Party members, as well as their friends and relatives….

You can call this sort of thing by many names: nepotism, state capture. But if you so choose, you can also describe it in positive terms: It represents the end of the hateful notions of meritocracy and competition, principles that, by definition, never benefited the less successful. A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented. But if that isn’t your primary interest, then what’s wrong with it?

If you believe, as my old friends now believe, that Poland will be better off if it is ruled by people who deserve to rule—because they loudly proclaim a certain kind of patriotism, because they are loyal to the party leader, or because they are … a “better sort of Pole”—then a one-party state is actually more fair than a competitive democracy. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them has the moral right to form the government? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore deserving of wealth?

Forewarned is forearmed. Please vote for Democrats up and down the ballot in November’s mid-term election. And convince your reasonable friends to vote if any of them still need convincing.

Are We Near the Bottom Yet?

A minority President who only wants to represent his supporters has nominated a judge to the Supreme Court who has promised to take his revenge on the liberals and progressives he accuses of conspiring to fight his nomination. I bet no judicial nominee in recent American history has displayed a similar lack of judicial temperament during his confirmation hearings. Judge Kavanaugh’s lies and falsehoods may also have set a record.

This means we now have an unfit President who tells lie after lie selecting an unfit judge who won’t tell the truth about his life or his beliefs. We should all believe Kavanaugh, however, when he says he intends to have his revenge. Meanwhile, the Republican majority insists on treating a glorified job interview as if it’s a criminal trial where the defendant must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Democrats raised relatively few objections when this President nominated a staunch reactionary to the Supreme Court last year. Justice Neil Gorsuch now occupies a seat the Republicans successfully held open for a year, denying Obama’s highly respected nominee, Merrick Garland, a hearing. No women accused Gorsuch of assaulting or otherwise mistreating them. Yet the Republicans blame the Democrats when women do come forward to complain of Kavanaugh’s behavior. Are we near the bottom yet?

For further reading:

Shamus Khan, professor of sociology at Columbia University, explains that Kavanaugh is lying because of his upbringing [The Washington Post]. 

Alexandra Petri asks a rhetorical question in capital letters: “HOW DARE YOU DO THIS TO BRETT KAVANAUGH?” [The Washington Post].

Megan Garber discusses the “pernicious double standards” that protect the privileged from the consequences of their drinking and bad behavior [The Atlantic].

Nathan Robinson analyzes some of Kavanaugh’s testimony in detail and concludes that “this man shouldn’t serve another day as any kind of judge” [Current Affairs]. 

Jennifer Rubin, a conservative columnist, argues that “if we want to protect the Supreme Court’s integrity, Kavanaugh should not be on it [The Washington Post].

Eliot Cohen, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, complains that his Republican Party has abandoned conservatism and that’s unfortunate for all of us [The Atlantic].

Even the editors of America, the Jesuit review, explain why the Kavanaugh nomination should be withdrawn [America]:

We continue to support the nomination of judges [who support a “textualist” interpretation of the Constitution]—but Judge Kavanaugh is not the only such nominee available. For the good of the country and the future credibility of the Supreme Court in a world that is finally learning to take reports of harassment, assault and abuse seriously, it is time to find a nominee whose confirmation will not repudiate that lesson.

November 6th, the date of the mid-term election, is only 37 days away. There may still be time to register to vote. You might be able to vote by mail. If we are going to have any checks and balances on the current administration, we need to elect Democrats up and down the ballot.

Okay, one more:

James Fallows explains what the President and Kavanaugh have in common. It isn’t pretty [The Atlantic].

The Stream of Consciousness in “Ulysses” and Elsewhere

I’m making another attempt to read James Joyce’s much admired novel Ulysses. So far it’s working. Since the meat of the book is a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, I skipped the first three chapters or episodes. They’re about Stephen Dedalus. I’m also reading Wikipedia’s brief summary of each episode before I begin the next one, on the assumption that brief previews will make the story easier to follow. Never having finished more than a few pages before, I’m now on episode 6, Hades, in which Bloom attends a funeral.

So far, I’m having trouble with Joyce’s stream of consciousness technique. It’s hard to take seriously. Here’s an example. Bloom is standing next to Molly, who is still in bed, and she asks him about a word in a book she’s been reading:  

—-Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.

—-O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.

He smiled, glancing askance at her mocking eye. The same young eyes. The first night after the charades. Dolphin’s Barn. He turned over the smudged pages. Ruby: The Pride of the Ring. Illustration. Fierce Italian with carriagewhip. Must be Ruby pride of the on the floor naked. Sheet kindly lent. The monster Maffei desisted and flung his victim from him with an oath. Cruelty behind it all. Doped animals. Trapeze at Hengler’s. Had to look the other way. Mob gaping. Break your neck and we’ll break our sides. Families of them. Bone them young so they metempsychosis. That we live after death. Our souls. That’s a man’s soul after he dies. Dignam’s soul . . .

—-Did you finish it? he asked.

Either Bloom’s mind moves more quickly than light or Bloom and Molly are having a very leisurely conversation. Reading Ulysses, it feels like Joyce’s description of Bloom’s stream of consciousness involves cataloging every thought Bloom might conceivably have at any given moment. Reading such passages leaves the impression that his conscious mind is a torrent of thoughts, memories and literary references. He seems to suffer from a terrible sort of attention deficit disorder. He can’t focus.

Another literary character who can’t focus is Tristram Shandy, the subject of Laurence Sterne’s wonderful novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. One hundred sixty years before Ulysses, Sterne wrote a novel in which the principal character begins by describing how his parents conceived him and then takes 300 pages to get to his birth. I had no trouble accepting the stream of consciousness in Tristram Shandy, because it’s not to be taken seriously. My sense is that we’re supposed to take the stream of consciousness in Ulysses seriously, but that’s hard to do.

I bring up Tristram Shandy because I came across a brief article this week: “From Stem to Sterne: How a Yorkshire Parson Reinvented the Novel”. The author doesn’t mention Joyce or Ulysses, but she does reflect on what it means to depict a person’s stream of consciousness:

One of the most notable aspects of Tristram Shandy is its fixation with the book as a physical object. Where words fail—and often they do—the gap is filled with a diagram, symbol or a bibliographic joke. The black page is one such trick; a missing chapter is another (asterisks mark the “fragment”); so too is the use of blackprint font. Marbled pages are inserted in the middle of the novel where they would usually appear at the end….

[As one critic] points out, “you can’t say a footnote.” You can’t say a scribble either, nor a straight line, nor a font change. By breaking free from the restrictive confines of language, Sterne illustrates how Tristram’s mind works: what he really sees. A consciousness does not function merely as an internal monologue but also involves blank spots: blots and symbols where thoughts are unclear or imprecise, where language won’t do. There is a directness in the way the book attempts to communicate these symbols. The mad sound of Tristram’s brain echoes inside ours via the eccentricities of the printed page.

The big problem with capturing a character’s stream of consciousness in words is that it can’t be done. Sterne used his book’s format to help out, but getting it right would require an author to present all the elements of consciousness, the sights, sounds, tastes, etc., plus the conscious thoughts, in a realistic way. A virtual reality contraption might do it. Language isn’t up to the task, even the language of great writers like Joyce and Sterne.