Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Amos Oz: Gossip is “a distant cousin of stories and novels"
From the New York Times:
Tell us about some of your favorite writers.
You see, I don’t have a bookshelf with my eternal beloved ones on it. They come and go. A few of them come more often than the others: Chekhov, Cervantes, Faulkner, Agnon, Brener, Yizhar, Alterman, Bialik, Amichai, Lampedusa’s “Il Gattopardo,” Kafka and Borges, sometimes Thomas Mann and sometimes Elsa Morante and Natalia Ginzburg.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
The short answer is that when a work of literature suddenly makes the very familiar unfamiliar to me, or just the opposite, when a work of literature makes the unfamiliar almost intimately familiar, I am moved (moved to tears, or smiles, or anger, or gratitude, or many other, different, kinds of excitement).
Is Noam Chomsky's Theory of Language Wrong? Steven Pinker Weighs in on Debate
John Horgan in Scientific American:
Noam Chomsky’s political views attract so much attention that it’s easy to forget he’s a scientist, one of the most influential who ever lived. Beginning in the 1950s, Chomsky contended that all humans possess an innate capacity for language, activated in infancy by minimal environmental stimuli. He has elaborated and revised his theory of language acquisition ever since.
Chomsky’s ideas have profoundly affected linguistics and mind-science in general. Critics attacked his theories from the get-go and are still attacking, paradoxically demonstrating his enduring dominance. Some attacks are silly. For example, in his new book A Kingdom of Speech Tom Wolfe asserts that both Darwin and “Noam Charisma” were wrong. (See journalist Charles Mann’s evisceration of Wolfe.)
Other critiques are serious. In “Language in a New Key,” in the November Scientific American, Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello contend that “much of Noam Chomsky’s revolution in linguistics, including its account of the way we learn languages, is being overturned.” The online headline says “Evidence Rebuts Chomsky's Theory of Language Learning.” Ibbotson and Tomasello propose that children acquire language via “general cognitive abilities and the reading of other people’s intentions.”
Seeking enlightenment, I asked psychologist Steven Pinker what he thinks about the recent criticism of Chomsky.
Trump, the Dragon, and the Minotaur
Yanis Varoufakis in Project Syndicate:
If Donald Trump understands anything, it is the value of bankruptcy and financial recycling. He knows all about success via strategic defaults, followed by massive debt write-offs and the creation of assets from liabilities. But does he grasp the profound difference between a developer’s debt and the debt of a large economy? And does he understand that China’s private debt bubble is a powder keg under the global economy? Much hinges on whether he does.
Trump was elected on a wave of discontent with the establishment’s colossal mishandling of both the pre-2008 boom and the post-2008 recession. His promise of a domestic stimulus and protectionist trade policies to bring back manufacturing jobs carried him to the White House. Whether he can deliver depends on whether he understands the role America used to play in the “good old days,” the role it can play now and, crucially, the significance of China.
Before 1971, US global hegemony was predicated upon America’s current-account surplus with the rest of the capitalist world, which the US helped to stabilize by recycling part of its surplus to Europe and Japan. This underpinned economic stability and sharply declining inequality everywhere. But, as America slipped into a deficit position, that global system could no longer function, giving rise to what I have called the Global Minotaur phase.
According to ancient myth, King Minos of Crete owed his hegemony to the Minotaur, a tragic beast imprisoned under Minos’s palace. The Minotaur’s intense loneliness was comparable only to the fear it inspired far and wide, because its voracious appetite could be satisfied – thereby guaranteeing Minos’s reign – only by human flesh. So a ship loaded with youngsters regularly sailed to Crete from faraway Athens to deliver its human tribute to the beast. The gruesome ritual was essential for preserving Pax Cretana and the King’s hegemony.
After 1971, US hegemony grew by an analogous process.
A Commitment to Curiosity
Video length: 5:43
Reading Albert Murray in the Age of Trump
Murray’s blues idiom worldview, which he described as a secular form of existential improvisation, is summed up by his phrase “elegant resilience,” a synonym for “swinging” in jazz and “flow” in hip hop. “A definitive characteristic of the descendants of American slaves is an orientation to elegance,” he writes in From the Briarpatch File,
…the disposition (in the face of all of the misery and uncertainty in the universe) to refine all of human action in a direction of dance-beat elegance. I submit that there is nothing that anybody in the world has ever done that is more civilized or sophisticated than to dance elegantly, which is to state with your total physical being an affirmative attitude toward the sheer fact of existence.
Philosophers Kwame Anthony Appiah and Danielle Allen have described a worldview they call “rooted cosmopolitanism,” which I think describes Murray and the blues idiom to a tee. Rooted cosmopolitanism counters the insular nationalism exemplified by the conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, who recently said: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” Murray, unequivocal about his local Southern roots and nationality as a black American, believed that Americans are heir to the best of culture from all times and places—a global, cosmopolitan conception. Likewise, the blues is a vernacular music rooted in the black South of the United States that’s connected to Western church music harmonically as well as to music globally. The blues idiom is America at her best because it synthesizes “everything in the world as a matter of course, and feed[s] it back to the world at large as a matter of course.”
Robert Bresson's cinematic philosophy
Robert Bresson's Notes on the Cinematograph holds a special place on the small shelf of books about filmmaking by filmmakers. First published in 1975, this slender and endlessly quotable manifesto by one of the cinema's supreme masters remains, for the receptive reader, potentially seismic. As distilled and exacting as his films, Bresson's compendium of epigrams—its title misleadingly translated in previous English editions as Notes on Cinematography and Notes on the Cinematographer—is film theory at its most aphoristic, the cinephile's equivalent of Letters to a Young Poet, a book to be read in an afternoon and pondered for a lifetime.
In four decades, Bresson made only thirteen features, works of extraordinary lucidity and profound mystery, of absolute rigor and overwhelming emotion. Most of his characters—who include an imprisoned resistance fighter (A Man Escaped), an obscurely motivated petty thief (Pickpocket), and a suicidal young wife (A Gentle Woman)—are searching for a liberation of sorts, whether or not they know it, and most of his films assume the form of a quest for the essential, for a state of grace. Bresson came to movies late, having started as a painter, and he would attempt to exercise as much control over a collaborative, industrial medium as an artist has over his canvas. His allergy to compromise meant that the films were few and far between. Reflection, whether by inclination or necessity, was part of his process. "Precision of aim lays one open to hesitations," he writes in Notes, which he took several decades to complete, adding that Debussy would spend a week "deciding on one chord rather than another."
Sanders in Philadelphia, Castro ad mortem
The growing alliance between Sanders and the Democratic Party—his being in a position as it were to save the Party from itself—has been a source of disquiet for those who feel that his movement could go in other directions. On stage at the main branch of the Free Library, Sanders was interviewed by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, who admirably pushed him on the two-party “duopoly,” and the innovations of the Obama presidency—the extrajudicial “kill list,” for example—that the grotesque Trump will inherit. You knew these weren’t questions that he was ready to confront, because he would sink back into a deeper slouch, his voice dropping to a quiet guttural croak, as he offered, “That’s a fair point. That’s a fair point.” When Sanders is slipping into the well-worn groove of his talking points—income and wealth inequality—the volume is more likely to turn up higher than the room can plausibly bear. But when Goodman asked him about the possibility of a future independent run for President, he demurred quietly, indicating that his efforts were focused on “transforming the Democratic Party,” in a tone that exuded concession rather than triumph. Sanders’s other effort in this vein—also called Our Revolution—is off to a bad start, with many of its staff having resigned over the appointment of the much-loathed Jeff Weaver as its director. It remains to be seen whether it develops into a real alternative force, or something more akin to MoveOn—a way of generating dollars and door-knocking for already existing “progressive” candidates.
The conversation exited the distorting gravitational pull of the US when it drifted to Fidel Castro. Here, too, Sanders was circumspect, cautiously lauding the island’s health care and education systems, while admitting the lack of real avenues for dissent, and that “the economy is in bad shape,” and not just because of the US embargo.
Dear Jack: A father writes his son a note on election night
Dennis Mahoney in The Morning News:
On election night, when Florida’s results mysteriously stalled and Clinton supporters such as myself grew nervous, I drank some gin. My 12-year-old son went to bed. My wife went to bed two hours later. By midnight, Trump’s victory looked all but certain, and I wrote my son a note. If I’d known that a million-plus people would read it within the coming week, I probably would have worded things more clearly and attempted better penmanship.
Trump won. Don’t panic.
The world won’t end. The country won’t fall apart. We’re just underdogs now, caring about women, minorities, decency, and truth.
You’re going to have a job now: Be Extra Moral. Rebel against meanness. Be kind. Heal things. Inspire people with optimism.
Most of all, LOVE.
Cornball, yes, but totally sincere. My wife and I, along with many of our friends and relatives, had spent the year discussing a Trump presidency as the worst-case scenario for our country, and perhaps even the world. We were revolted by Mr. Trump’s hateful and untruthful rhetoric and behavior. We feared his environmental policies. We were alarmed by the thought of Mr. Trump gaining control of the nuclear codes. I worried my son would wake to the news of Trump’s win and be scared shitless. I was scared shitless. What exactly would a Trump presidency look like, what were we supposed to do about it, and how could I explain it to my son? I wrote the note with a Sharpie on a piece of printer paper. It was the least thought-out message I’d written in weeks (I’m someone who often proofreads texts) and was primarily meant to soften the initial blow of Clinton’s defeat. I left it on the dining room table and went to bed. I’m a later sleeper, so my wife was the parent who watched Jack discover the note the next morning. He read “Trump won,” said, “Fuck,” and walked away. My wife sympathetically pardoned the F-bomb and encouraged him to finish reading. And the note actually worked: he calmed down, felt reassured, and discussed the election with my wife over a plate of Eggos.
Right there, the note was a homerun.
Weaponized antibodies use new tricks to fight cancer
Heidi Ledford in Nature:
After decades of frustration, efforts to develop antibodies that can ferry drugs into cancer cells — and minimize damage to healthy tissue — are gathering steam. The next generation of these ‘weaponized antibody’ therapies, called antibody–drug conjugates (ADCs), is working its way through clinical trials. Researchers will gather to discuss this renaissance on 30 November at the Symposium on Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics in Munich, Germany. The improvements come after the first wave of experimental ADCs failed to deliver on its promise. “Initially there was a lot of excitement, and then slowly many of them did not work,” says Raffit Hassan, a cancer researcher at the US National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. Now, he says, there are two new ADCs in phase III clinical trials, and many more in earlier-stage testing.
The concept that underlies these drugs is simple: repurposing an antibody as a vehicle to deliver a toxic drug into a cancer cell. When the antibody in an ADC seeks out and docks onto a tumour cell, the cell takes it up and cleaves the molecular links that bind the drug to the antibody. This frees the drug to kill the cell from within. But this approach has proved tricky to realize. Sometimes the molecular linkers are too tight, and do not release the drug inside the cell. Sometimes they are too unstable, and release the drug near healthy cells — limiting the dose that can be administered. Even the drugs themselves can be problematic: because most are toxic mainly to rapidly dividing cells, they can leave behind the slowly dividing cells that seed some tumours. And some have had trouble penetrating more than a few cell layers into their target tumours.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Slang — language at our most human
Mark Peters in the Boston Globe:
Slang is probably as old as human language, though the first slang dictionaries only started popping up in the 16th century. But nothing has been a boon for slang lexicography like the digital age, as the searchability of newspaper databases has allowed the past to be explored like never before.
For fans of English at its rawest, the recent arrival of the online version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang is a major event. It’s also a reminder that slang — for all its sleaze and attitude — is just as susceptible to careful research as anything else.
British lexicographer and author Jonathan Green’s GDoS is the largest slang dictionary in the world, collecting terms from the United States, England, Australia, and everywhere else English is the dominant language. GDoS, like the Oxford English Dictionary, is a historical dictionary. This type of dictionary provides a lot more than definitions, etymology, and pronunciation notes: Historical dictionaries trace the evolution of terms over time. Since the best fossil evidence of word change is quotations, historical dictionaries are full of them, allowing readers to see how words function in the wild. A regular dictionary is a little like snapshots taken of zoo animals. A historical dictionary is more like footage from a hidden camera in the jungle or ocean.
This example-based approach is also the opposite of user-generated dictionaries such as Urban Dictionary. All major dictionaries crowdsource. But when there’s no editing or fact-checking, you get an entertaining product that’s far from a reliable source on what words are actually being used.
Microbes Might Explain Why Many Diets Backfire
Ed Yong in The Atlantic:
In 2009, Danny Cahill won the eighth season of The Biggest Loser, a reality TV show in which contestants compete to lose the most weight. Over the program’s seven months, Cahill’s weight dropped from 430 pounds to just 191. But since then, he has regained 100. The same is true for most of the show’s contestants, several of whom are now heavier than they were before they took part.
Their story is all too common. Even when people successfully manage to lose weight, in the majority of cases, the vanished pounds return within a year—and often with reinforcements. For many people, weight loss isn’t just hard, it’s Sisyphean.
No one really understands the reasons behind this “weight cycling”, this so-called “yo-yo effect”. It seems to happen no matter your starting weight, or how much exercise you do. As my colleague Julie Beck noted earlier this year, the speed at which people lose weight might be important—but even that’s controversial. “There’s a lot of speculation but very little knowledge,” says Eran Elinav from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.
Now, by studying mice, Elinav and his colleague Eran Segal have shown that the yo-yo effect might be at least partly driven by the microbiome—the huge community of bacteria and other microbes that share our bodies.
How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red’
Amanda Taub in the New York Times:
Yascha Mounk is used to being the most pessimistic person in the room. Mr. Mounk, a lecturer in government at Harvard, has spent the past few years challenging one of the bedrock assumptions of Western politics: that once a country becomes a liberal democracy, it will stay that way.
His research suggests something quite different: that liberal democracies around the world may be at serious risk of decline.
Mr. Mounk’s interest in the topic began rather unusually. In 2014, he published a book, “Stranger in My Own Country.” It started as a memoir of his experiences growing up as a Jew in Germany, but became a broader investigation of how contemporary European nations were struggling to construct new, multicultural national identities.
He concluded that the effort was not going very well. A populist backlash was rising. But was that just a new kind of politics, or a symptom of something deeper?
To answer that question, Mr. Mounk teamed up with Roberto Stefan Foa, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia. They have since gathered and crunched data on the strength of liberal democracies.
Their conclusion, to be published in the January issue of the Journal of Democracy, is that democracies are not as secure as people may think. Right now, Mr. Mounk said in an interview, “the warning signs are flashing red.”
Noam Chomsky on the new Trump era
Video length: 25:02
How Cubans Live as Long as Americans at a Tenth of the Cost
Cuba has long had a nearly identical life expectancy to the United States, despite widespread poverty. The humanitarian-physician Paul Farmer notes in his bookPathologies of Power that there’s a saying in Cuba: “We live like poor people, but we die like rich people.” Farmer also notes that the rate of infant mortality in Cuba has been lower than in the Boston neighborhood of his own prestigious hospital, Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s.
All of this despite Cuba spending just $813 per person annually on health care compared with America’s $9,403.
The difference comes back to the basic fact that in Cuba, health care is protected under the constitution as a fundamental human right. The U.S. protects unlimited firearms and freedom from quartering soldiers but does not guarantee health care. Instead we compromise, taking inefficient and expensive half-measures to rescue people in serious peril.
As a poor country, Cuba can’t afford to equivocate and waste money on health care. Much advanced technology is unavailable. So the system is forced instead to keep people healthy. This pressure seems to have created efficiency.
no small events
In May 1940, Hitler’s armies swept lightning-fast into France and the Low Countries. Fearing the worst as the Nazis advanced, more than eight million panicked civilians left their homes and fled south. It was soon one of the largest mass migrations in recorded history. Today, the French simply call it l’exode: the exodus. Two million Belgians were on the road by June, roughly one-third of the entire country. Six million of the refugees were French. Somewhere between one quarter and one third of them were children. Entire cities emptied overnight. Reims, a bustling regional center in Champagne, lost 98 percent of its quarter-million inhabitants. The town of Evreux shriveled from twenty thousand souls to fewer than two hundred. By June 13, even Paris had been deserted; only the old, the sick and the poor remained behind. Southbound roads coagulated and clogged with overheating cars, teenage boys on bicycles, pushcarts piled high with suitcases and mattresses and tired children. The last trains to leave the capital were choked with people.
One of the refugees, a 62-year-old French novelist named Léon Werth, produced an astonishing eyewitness account of his passage into exile. “We’re not living in ordinary times,” Werth wrote that summer. “We are shipwrecked.” That the memoir was ever published is something of a miracle. Thirty-three days after they left Paris, Werth and his wife Suzanne arrived in Saint-Amour, a village in the foothills of the Jura mountains. The text was completed by autumn, but publishing it in the so-called “free zone” of Vichy France was out of the question: Werth was Jewish. In October, however, Werth was visited by his best friend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a gifted writer and pilot who smuggled the manuscript out of France via Algiers and Lisbon. Werth never saw the book in print. Lost mysteriously for fifty years, the memoir first appeared in France in 1992. The first English edition of 33 Days appeared last year, a slim volume translated with great dexterity and feeling by Austin Denis Johnston.
Getting by in Castro’s Cuba
The first time I was arrested by the Cuban police was almost thirty years ago. I was at Los Cocos prison, a half-hour drive outside Havana, talking across a wall to AIDS patients locked up there by the authorities. At the time, Cubans were being tested for HIV at work, and those found to be suffering from symptoms were taken and put away in this prison hospital facility, denied visits from family or friends.
At the time, soldiers returning from campaigns in Angola and Ethiopia were blamed for the outbreak of HIV-AIDS in Cuba. A few days after my attempt to interview the patients at Los Cocos, I found myself at a parade ground on the outskirts of Havana, where commander-in-chief Fidel Castro was to welcome the male and female troops back and bestow medals on them. This was the closest I ever came to El Comandante. He and his entourage brushed past me on their way towards the ranks of troops, and I could swear that the glare from the big man (and he was very big and burly, the son of an immigrant from Galicia in Spain) was meant just for me. Again, my attempts to interview any of the soldiers were cut short as I was bustled away from them.
What Not to Say to a Cancer Patient
Jane Brody in The New York Times:
What do you think is the most commonly asked question of a person who has, or has had, cancer? If you guessed, “How are you?” you got it right. But as caring as those words may seem, they are often not helpful and may even be harmful. At a celebratory family gathering a year after my own cancer treatment, a distant relative asked me just that. I answered, “I’m fine.” She then pressed, “How are you really?” “Really” I was fine, I told her. But what if I hadn’t been? Would I have wanted to launch into a description of bad medical news at what was supposed to be a fun event? Would I have wanted even to be reminded of a bout with cancer? Although my relative undoubtedly meant well, the way her concern was expressed struck me as intrusive. A diagnosis of cancer can tie the tongues of friends and family members or prompt them to utter inappropriate, albeit well-meaning, comments. Some who don’t know what to say simply avoid the cancer patient altogether, an act that can be more painful than if they said or did the wrong thing.
...Another author of very helpful books on living with cancer is Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham, who has had a recurring cancer for more than two decades. She suggests that people offer specific ways they can help. For example, they may say they can shop for groceries, care for children, take the dog for a run, or accompany the patient to the doctor, and then be sure to follow through with the offer. Many people now use online sites like caringbridge.org to keep people up to date on their health and needs or organizing platforms such as mealtrain.com or lotsahelpinghands.com to ask for specific help. Dr. Harpham said she came to dread the query “How are you?” because “no matter how it was intended, being asked ‘How are you?’ rattled my heightened sense of vulnerability. I found myself consoling those who asked and then fighting the contagion of grief and fear. Even when the news was good, I didn’t have the energy to include all the people who wanted updates.”
UK Government Corruption
James Bond flies into Phuket, which he pronounces
Fukit and this announces the demise
of the colonial era.
My mother sits on the Left Bank, harvesting rice.
The Baron announces his arrival
with a slice of lemon between his teeth and
Panama with razors embedded in its rim, to wear
to restaurants with a view of crossfire.
The iron butterfly folds back her wings, and rests awhile
on the pillows of this city.
But they are soaked
with the formalin of diplomacy
and the perfumes of an irresistible corruption.
Finally the old merchants
dig up their gold and re-invest in a
coat of arms they wire to a security gate.
Guard dogs with degrees, and lap-dog breeds
that do not bark.
Here a childhood made sensitive to bombs,
a kindergarten closed down with prayer,
American linguists in a helicopter, dropping
ration packs of Chiclets and brand new grammar.
by Adam Aitken
from Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles
Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney, 2000
ISBN: 1 876040 20 3
Monday, November 28, 2016
Will next year feature a Summer of Love or a Summer of Hate?
by Yohan J. John
Ever since Donald Trump's shocking victory in the recent US Presidential Elections, I have gotten a kick out of reminding people of the following: next year we will mark 50 years since the Summer of Love. One response, which I imagine reflects a common sentiment among left-liberals, was a sardonic laugh followed by the line "So next year will be the Summer of Hate, eh?"
We may experience more than a summer of hate next year if our worst fears about Trump and the Republicans come to pass. The absolute control they will soon wield over all three branches of government give them the power to roll back half a century and more of progressive policy, if they so choose. So can we convince the Right, or at least some sections of their supporters, that a better solution to their grievances is possible? Is there anything we can do to breathe new life into the dreams of the 1960s hippies and radicals? Peace, Love, Equality and Good Music For All? Perhaps, but this will require a major reorganization on the part of the Left.
And this reorganization needs to start right away. Liberal and left-leaning people all over the world are still reeling from the election shock, but we need to snap out of it and get to work. Our delusional confidence in the liberal media establishment lulled us into complacency. Now we are having to confront our biases and filter bubbles: one of the few silver linings in this ominous time.
The soul-searching on the Left is necessary right now. But there is a danger that social liberals will double down, continuing their losing strategy of framing all political debates in terms of identity politics: they will cry racism, bigotry and misogyny until they are blue in the face. This election should have proved that this is politically naïve in the extreme. The media was virtually unified in its revulsion of Trump. If months of decrying racism and misogyny during the election campaign did nothing to sway the electorate, what will protests (to say nothing of KKK-bashing internet memes) now achieve?
We can of course interpret the rage and fear as a necessary emotional impetus for forcing the fissiparous left-liberal spectrum to unify against a common enemy. But this unity is unlikely to be sufficient to win over the more moderate of Trump's supporters.
This brings us to a very dangerous game being played by the "extreme" wing of social liberals. By declaring that all Trump supporters are inherently racist and misogynist, they are refusing to engage with them. Has anyone ever been convinced to abandon bigotry by being yelled at? Now is the time to understand the frustrations and aspirations of Trump supporters, particularly among the white working class (who used to be such a reliable source of votes for the Democratic Party). We can disagree with many of the things they believe about the causes of their problems, but it is both cruel and politically suicidal to simply dismiss their problems out of hand.
The Democratic Party has for decades pandered to Wall Street interests. They weakened social safety nets while continuing to spout pieties about equal rights for all races, genders and sexual persuasions. For a time it may even have seemed like the Democrats could forge a permanent coalition of minorities and special interest groups who could keep out the (allegedly) bigoted rubes from the 'flyover states'. This election has completely shattered this illusion. Donald Trump even managed to increase the Republican vote share among people of color. One line he used when campaigning to minorities was particularly telling: "What have you got to lose?" Perhaps not a lot? The Democrats oversaw the cancerous growth of the prison-industrial complex. Even the first black President seemed to be powerless to do anything to stop it. What exactly are the Democrats for again? They can't help the working classes recover their lost jobs and dignity, and they can't help black people escape institutional racism. Gay marriage is great if you're gay, but it's hardly enough to enliven the core Democrat supporters, let alone the newly converted Trump supporters.
Bernie Sanders seems to have understood the limitations of liberal politics as a United Colors of Benetton ad. He has shown that policies aimed at universal goods resonate far more widely than bland appeals to multiculturalism and tolerance. Better wages for all. Healthcare for all. Education for all. This kind of universalism doesn't require throwing minorities under the bus. In fact it will help minorities most of all, since they face the brunt of economic deprivation and discrimination. The more money African-American people earn, the more power a movement like Black Lives Matter can amass. As a recent article put it, "class is more intersectional than intersectionality."
But what about the racists and misogynists who seem to be crawling out of the woodwork now? Surely they are impervious to universalist arguments? Don't they want to deny universal rights to minorities? For died-in-the-wool bigots, this may be true. But there is practical value in optimism regarding their numbers and zeal, and for that we need to modify how we think about people. To label someone as "a racist" or "a misogynist" is reductive and essentialist in the extreme. It denies the possibility that people are complex, inconsistent, and most importantly, subject to changes of heart. Rather than saying that particular groups of people are fundamentally "racist", it makes political sense to speak of racist actions, racist words, and racist policies. Rather than screaming at people, we have to appeal to their sense of compassion, kindness, and even nationalism. As a post-election email from Corporate Accountability International wrote:
"Trump is horrifying, enraging, and traumatic for so many of us. His scapegoating of immigrants, his racism, his blatant Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, his misogyny, and more is unforgivable. But we must believe that only a small percentage of the people who voted for him hold these views. In the days that follow, there will be volumes of analysis of this election. What is sure to come through is that Trump’s victory is rooted in the fact that this system is failing too many people across the country. "
I like the phrase "we must believe". Beliefs don't have to be fixed, permanent things. There is a practical use to them. When we look at the election results, the campaign anecdotes and the sociological analyses, we should see a few reasons for hope. Many of the counties that voted for Trump this year voted for Obama twice. How racist can those voters be? Many of the voters find Trump's crude behavior distasteful, but see it as a necessary evil on the road to shaking up the system.
If the Left wants to remain committed to democratic processes, it must assume that there are people currently in the Trump camp who can be reached. More importantly, the Left must rediscover the art of actually helping and empowering people. The Left must stop seeing itself in solely cultural terms: as the elite repository of all that is good and true and beautiful. We must stop talking down to people and telling them what they ought to want. Good intentions and eloquent speeches are ringing hollow in many parts of the country. Trust in so-called experts has been decimated. The experts failed to serve the people.
The left-liberal world must also learn what it can from the success of Donald Trump. Trump not only addressed economic concerns, he also created a narrative. "Make America Great Again" clearly has some ominous undertones, but it has the virtue of vagueness and universality. Every person wants to feel they are part of something larger than themselves. The left needs a new narrative: one that includes everyone, including the notorious 'privileged cis white male'. If you create a narrative in which a particular group of people are inherent symbols of racism, colonialism, rape culture and every other modern evil, regardless of their actual actions, then you are very likely to push some of them towards a very different narrative — perhaps one in which they are the central protagonists of history, as is the case with white nationalist groups. Constantly vilifying a particular group of people cannot heal wounds or create new societies. It is a purely negative message: "check your privilege" and other identitarian slogans do not tell people what they ought to do to contribute positively to the cause. Nor do they conjure up a vision of society in which the privileged and underprivileged can live together without constantly having to negotiate historical resentments. No individual should be made to feel morally culpable for the actions of a group to which they belong, unless they provide active, intentional support. If this seems like a natural sentiment when debating Islamophobia, we should be able to apply it to race relations.
This brings us back to the visions of the 1960s. Two relatively new forces were sweeping the world back then: a desire for individual freedom of thought and expression, and a desire to reform social institutions. The first force was newer and by far the more powerful one, and seems to have weakened the second force. The sexual revolution was the most successful of the many upheavals of that decade, and grows out of a belief in the 'sovereign self'. This kind of libertarianism is easily absorbed by the forces of the market, which can then reflect it back to the individualist consumer in the form of advertising and entertainment. But the other social revolutions — civil rights, feminism and environmentalism — remain incomplete because they depend far more on economic equality. As long as the goal of capitalism is the maximization of profit, racism, misogyny and ecological degradation will always recur, justified using the seemingly neutral language of markets. The individualism of the 1960s may ultimately have been counterproductive. Working towards economic equality requires solidarity — something that individualism alienates us from. An atomized society cannot form the strong chemical bonds of collective resistance.
So ultimately we have to reinvent a discourse in which social liberalism goes hand-in-hand with socialist economics. The public's frustration with the economic status quo therefore creates a great opportunity for the Left, but only if it rediscovers its universalist instincts. And while doing this, it also makes sense to borrow some of the language of the cultural right wing. The Left should appropriate the mantle of family values: after all, only people with decent living standards have the time and resources to devote to their children and their communities.
It has become a cliché to say that the dreams of the 1960s failed, and that this was the fault of the impractical starry-eyed hippies. I think this is a bit too hard on the idealist young baby boomers. They were, after all, being confronted by capital, the most powerful force the world has ever seen. It is extraordinary that they achieved what they did in the face of such opposition. The key is to "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." And this is never going to happen if our discourse is stuck in a distrustful, divisive, and fearful mode. Politics has become differential. What is needed is an integral politics, and perhaps the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love will give us a reason to revisit previous attempts, and learn from their successes and failures. We have little choice: the crises we face on this planet increasingly require coordinated action. As one 1960s visionary sang: "We got to live together".
My own beliefs are in my song
The butcher, the banker, the drummer and then
Makes no difference what group I'm in
For living with a fat one trying to be a skinny one
And different strokes for different folks
And so on and so on and scooby dooby doo
We are the same whatever we do
You love me you hate me you know me and then
You can't figure out the bag I'm in
For bein' such a rich one that will not help the poor one
And different strokes for different folks
And so on and so on and scooby dooby doo
That won't accept the red one that won't accept the white one
And different strokes for different folks
And so on and so on and scooby dooby doo
.... —ode to cells
Before metaphorical allusions
we are warm and wet.
Seas surge within us.
In little cytoplasmic bays,
tiny ships of golgi moor
near lysosome cays enclosed by
permeable breakwater membranes
that all rise and fall with nucleo tides
in ebbs and flows through generations
rendering noses pug or aquiline
and eyes skybright or in colors of loam;
tides that sculpt with Darwin’s surf
graceful geographies of bodies
that draw the tissue curtain
between what is and what’s not
over muscle and bone
inflaming passion, heat, desire
to close the current’s ring,
to come together again
immersed in what is warm and wet,
to touch, embrace, to recombine,
to love, to sing, to lose,
to remember to forget
Denton A. Cooley, pioneering heart surgeon, dies at 96
by Syed Tasnim Raza
Denton Arthur Cooley, founder and president and at the time of his death president-emeritus of the Texas Heart Institute (THI), died on Friday November 18, 2016. He had celebrated his 96th birthday only three months earlier. Texas Heart Institute, founded in 1962, became a premier heart surgery center in the world, where Cooley is credited with performing 100,000 heart operations over 45 years. There were many highly skilled surgeons working at THI, who opened and closed the patients' chests and Cooley would just come in to do the main part of the operation. At his peak, he could complete 30 to 40 operations in a day!
Perhaps Cooley was the Henry Ford of heart surgery. While heart surgery was developed by many surgeons until it matured into the modern specialty as we know it in 1950's and 1960's, under the pioneering work of C. Walton Lillehei and John Kirklin both of Minnesota, it was Cooley who turned it into an assembly line operation at the Texas Heart Institute in the 1970s.
Heart surgery developed in fits and spurts, beginning with a simple suture of a stab wound of the heart by Ludwig Rehn of Frankfurt, Germany in 1896. One of the big steps, particularly in surgery for congenital heart disease, came in 1944 at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where Helen Taussig, pioneer pediatric cardiologist, proposed and Alfred Blalock, the famed chairman of surgery there, performed the first Blalock-Taussig shunt (also known as the Blue-baby operation) as treatment for cyanotic infants born with Tetralogy of Fallot, until they could grow up and a more definitive corrective operation could be performed. Denton Cooley was present for the first history-making Blue-baby operation on November 29, 1944.
He was an intern on Dr. Blalock's service and was assigned to do the blood gas analysis and other errands in the operating room. Cooley was so gifted and talented that he was offered a position as the cardiac surgery resident under Dr. Blalock only after two years of training in surgery (normally it would take five years). An operation for removal of blood clots from the pulmonary artery to prevent death from massive pulmonary embolism was first attempted by Dr. Frederick Trendelenburg in Leipzig, Germany in 1908. Many more attempts were largely unsuccessful (except a few sporadic successful cases) and had to wait for the development of the heart-lung machine by John Gibbon in 1953 before it could be attempted successfully. In 1961, Edward Sharp at Hopkins and Denton Cooley at Baylor became the first surgeons to perform successful operations for pulmonary embolism, utilizing the heart-lung machine.
After completing his training at Johns Hopkins, Cooley spent a year at the Brompton Hospital in London under Mister Russell Brock, one of the pre-eminent surgeons of England. In 1951, he returned to his native Texas, where he had already secured a faculty position in the Department of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine, where Michael DeBakey was the Chairman of Surgery. Thus began the long story of the collaboration of two giants and pioneers in heart surgery, and their feud that was very public and very nasty and lasted well over 40 years. For details of this feud please see the obituary of Michael DeBakey, I wrote in 2008.
Cooley had done two emergency operations to repair aortic aneurysms (ballooning of the aorta, which can rupture and cause death of the patient), during his training at Hopkins, and in both instances Dr. Blalock had been away. On the very first day at Baylor as Cooley and DeBakey were making ward-rounds they saw a patient with an aneurysm of the aortic arch extending into the Innominate artery. After DeBakey heard of Cooley's experience with two patients he had operated upon for repairing aortic aneurysms at Hopkins, he assigned him to do the operation for the patient at Baylor the next day, which he successfully completed early the next morning, even before Dr. DeBakey had scrubbed in the case, fully expecting to bail out the young surgeon, who would surely be in trouble by then. Thus Cooley started the era of surgery for aortic aneurysms.
Soon the two surgeons became too busy and two big to be in the same institution at Methodist Hospital of Baylor University, so Cooley conceived the idea of his own institute in collaboration with the Texas Children's and St. Luke's Hospitals. The Texas Heart Institute received it's charter from the State of Texas in August 1962 and was built with private donations and fundraising and supported in part from the professional fees collected by Cooley and the other staff physicians. The new building opened its doors in 1972 with eight operating rooms, where multiple operations were performed in each room every day. It quickly became the busiest heart surgery center in the United States and perhaps in the world.
Denton Cooley was a gifted surgeon. He made surgery look simple and elegant. He never rushed through operations yet he was known to be a very fast surgeon. This was mainly because he did every step of the operation right the first time and did not have to revise any stitches or waste time in between various steps of the operation. While I have visited over two dozen heart surgery centers in the United States and other countries, I never visited THI, which was a Mecca for many heart surgeons to visit to watch Cooley operate. My own mentor and chief, George Schimert always discouraged me from visiting Cooley by saying "Cooley makes surgery look so easy that many surgeons who watch him think they can do the same, and go back to their institution and do more harm than good by trying to copy him." He further added, "You are a good surgeon and keep doing it your way. You won't become a Cooley by visiting Texas Heart." I never did.
Denton Cooley was also a gentle soul. Unlike many surgeons who are known for their temper, particularly Michael DeBakey, who was known to be very harsh in his treatments of residents under training with him, Cooley is said to have a plaque in his operating room saying "I never criticize those who are trying to help me." I heard Cooley speak at many professional meetings of cardiac surgeons and always noted how polite he was, even when he disagreed with other presenters. I met him a few times, the last time at Yale University Medical Center in 2010, where he was giving a talk at an aortic surgery symposium, and always found him to be gentle and polite.
Cooley was an athlete, a star basketball player, who played for his college team at the University of Texas in Austin, which he joined in 1937. Cooley always credited Blalock and Johns Hopkins for his fine training and after achieving great success in the profession he established the Denton Cooley Athletic and Fitness Center at Johns Hopkins. He was a giant in the field and will be missed.
* * *
Syed Tasnim Raza is Associate Professor of Surgery at Columbia University Medical Center.
Carrie Mae Weems. From the Series "Not Manet's Type", 1997.
by Katrin Trüstedt
Much has been written by now in attempt to explain the outcome of the recent US presidential election. Some recent interventions pitted the Democrats' "identity politics" against economic issues and have charged the Left with neglecting hard economic realities by focusing on supposedly marginal or imaginary problems. Such an opposition misses the point, however, that the relevant economic questions are inherently connected to problems of identity. Didier Eribon, collaborator of the late Michel Foucault (one of the presumed champions of identity politics), gives a compelling account of this connection between identity politics and economics in his 2009 book Retour à Reims. Revisiting the social and political situation of his upbringing in Reims, Eribon describes how processes of economic downgrade are intertwined with complex processes of re-identification. When he returns to the working class upbringing that he had escaped to become the Parisian gay intellectual he is now, he finds that his relatives and their peers – who had always been voting for the Communist Party and who had built their social and political identities around it – have shifted towards voting for the Front National.
The decision to vote a certain way and the entire social and political subjectivation underlying this decision cannot be traced back to a given political stance or factual economic interests, but is instead indebted to a complex dynamic of identification and demarcation. In order to explain the striking shift in the milieu of his upbringing, Eribon foregrounds not "just" the considerable economic hardship the working class has endured in France, but more importantly, the fact that this economic hardship has been ignored in the past decades by the left party under François Mitterrand (with many parallels to the Democrats in the US, the Labour Party under Tony Blair in the UK and the Social Democrats under Gerhard Schröder in Germany). The way that his relatives, like so many others, have turned away from a strong allegiance with the Left is connected to a feeling of being "hurt" in a particular way. Not only has their economic status deteriorated, but the degradation also has remained unacknowledged.
This leads to what might best be described with a German term that is especially hard to translate: "Kränkung," a state of being offended, hurt, or indignant that is marked by a certain subtlety. It is the reaction to a perceived neglect, insult, or degradation that goes, however, more or less unnoticed. "Kränkung" is not an insult that is "retaliated," even if only in words, but is rather a silenced and "silently endured suffering" as Freud has defined it. The blow to one's self-esteem is unaccounted for, there is no open conflict or even recognition of this silent wound, so that it grows in the dark. That's what gives this momentous affect its long-lasting impact and dangerous dynamic.
As a result, Eribon describes how his mother, like her peers, then attempts to set herself apart from people who can be depicted as having an "even lower" status, mostly immigrants from North Africa, following the front lines offered by the Front National. The attempt at using demarcations to assure one's own status is, of course, not specific to any "group." As Eribon describes, part of becoming an intellectual, displaying interest in art, and even – ironically – reading Marx can also implicitly be an act of distinguishing oneself from those of the "ignorant working class." Such signals of setting oneself apart, of course, do not go unnoticed, but rather in turn fuel the dynamic of offense.
Now it seems like many on the Left are in some way filled with indignation by the results of the recent election. The ideas and programs offered by the Democrats did not prevail, but instead have evoked a hostile reaction. The new political "expertise" of polling, claiming to find out how a certain group votes, is, as it turned out, not neutral. Not only were many of the predictions plainly wrong, but they also seem to have missed the complex dynamic of political subjectivation and thereby many voters who don't see pollsters as neutral. As an effect, the political consultants may have failed to notice large groups of people who were potentially voting for a certain candidate without saying so to the pollsters, which thus directed attention away from those groups and thereby in turn increased the gap between segments of society. The ever-growing political technique surrounding the polling process is not one that externally observes a fixed system, but actually influences the facts that it is supposed to convey. Now people ask questions like "How could a candidate who was so poll-driven ever hope to look like a leader?" Not only did all this professional polling machinery not succeed, but it ironically seems to have been one of the main factors in achieving a result opposite to the anticipated one by deepening the sense of disconnected worlds.
The "age of post-truth politics" seems in some way to be a reaction to technologies of truth production and the complexity of a world that are perceived as offensive. Freud described – however contested in the details – that the general narcissism of man underwent three major blows at the hands of science: "The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable […] The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created […] But man's craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from psychoanalytic research, which is endeavoring to prove to the ego of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house."
In a complex globalized world, the potential blow comes less from scientific research telling us about the world and more from the world views that are already reactions to the offenses of a complex and contingent world – reactions that aim to reduce complexity and offer "simple solutions." An uncanny feeling persists that not only the technology you think you command may very well be commanding you and your "very own thoughts;" but that what you think you know may be completely irrelevant or even rejected with hostility outside of your particular circle; and that the other side of the conflict you are struggling with may not be what you understand it to be or subscribe to remotely the same conflict lines or even use the same language as you do. The "post-truth" phenomena thus seems to be an effect of a retraction from a reality that – in its neglect of the offense it poses – seems especially offensive. As such, this situation offers endless new potentials to offend and to being offended. The complex dynamics that Eribon describes – the subtle but long-lasting lines of dealing and taking offense, involving economic and class distinction just as well as issues of cultural and sexual identity – show that we cannot afford to play one off against the other if we want to exit the spirals of offense.
A crack in everything
by Katalin Balog
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
(Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”)
*This essay, on the personal in politics, is written in lieu of the final instalment of The Brain’s I, a series I have been publishing here on the subjective/objective divide in our lives and thought. The Brain’s I, Part 4, will appear here after the holidays.
I am so glad this mess was not Leonard Cohen’s last impression of the planet. But the rest of us are left to grapple with the same thing that occupied much of his work: how to affirm living in a broken world. The world was not quite whole on November 7th but we could still pretend, could still hope; November 8th has made it official. A giant crack has appeared – though not at all the one we have expected, and the country and the world has jumped with two feet into the abyss.
It is impossible to write or think anything about the causes of Trump’s victory and the nature of his support that is not hopelessly one-sided and has “particular point of view” written all over it. Right now, what we see divides us. But beyond all the sound and fury, the one inescapable fact is that the election is the expression of the will and soul of a significant portion of America. No amount of rational analysis or soul searching can blunt the message this sends. It hurts.
Early in the day of the election I thought of the pain and confusion Trump supporters would feel upon his loss. I could anticipate their reaction because I knew I would feel the same if my candidate lost. I was nervous and a bit uncertain but still expected Hillary to win. Later, when anticipation turned into dread, disbelief, and a growing sense of defeat, I did not think of the joy of the victors with sympathy. A chasm has opened; they were now the enemy. I was consumed now with a flood of sadness, fear and anger and revulsion I could not imagine just hours before. I was gripped by the same emotions many of Trump supporters, apparently, have felt for years, maybe decades… Was this the bitter medicine we needed to wake up? Was it poetic justice for festering inequality as some on the left suggest? Should we simply tone down the blame, and outrage, recognizing in our newly kindled primal hostility the mirror of the negative emotions we condemn in our adversary, as Martha Nussbaum suggests? There is something to all of this. But it’s all so much more complicated.
There is no sugarcoating this. This is not an ordinary disappointment about the wrong policy, the wrong candidate, things not going my way. It cannot be overcome by more tolerance and commitment to social justice. Whatever the motives and struggles of many of Trump’s voters, his election is an epic cultural, moral and intellectual collapse on the collective level. Crudeness, racism and ignorance has won.
It is his soulless conniving – clearly on display for all to see – that makes the idea of the Trump presidency, and a country that elected him so depressing. An unscrupulous racist, misogynist conman whose only commitment is to himself, whose main strategy has been to cheapen democratic institutions and spread lies about his opponents, Trump will do immense damage as president. As a commentator on MSNBC has put it, Trump’s election amounts to a hostile take-over of the American government by the Trump Organization. But none of this could have happened without the sizeable minority of the electorate that has, by and large, passionately endorsed his candidacy.
Trump has been, as far as I can see, rightly described by Mark Singer in a 1997 New Yorker profile as having “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul”, a person so superficial and vapid that one might question if he has what is ordinarily thought of as an inner life. He has not only objectified and used others; he has managed to objectify himself through an identification with the gaze of others, and by extension, the camera – the symbol of the public eye. Trump thinks of himself primarily as a character to be promoted no matter the cost. He personifies the worst and most superficial in the dominant culture: its obsession with fame, success and celebrity, its translation of all value into monetary terms. He embodies its dominant emotions: greed, insecurity and envy, at the expense of other sentiments and values more suited to a decent human life. And now these values will get a platform in the White House.
Trump is not only superficial and narcissistic, he is also grossly immoral, a conman, a man without any respect for major segments of our citizenry and the institutions of our democracy. How could so many people go along with him? Part of the answer lies in a crisis of fact based discourse and critical thought. This is not a new feature of American culture, but a number of factors have come together in a perfect storm. The spread of fake news on social media came at a moment when trust in mainstream media organizations had been already significantly eroded both on the right and the left and when critical thought on politics and public policy has been largely driven out by entertainment and sensationalism. Academia, and the intelligentsia has remained passive and complacent as the country reached new lows and ever laxer standards for public discourse. Some serious media organizations have upheld standards in reporting and commentary, and called out the dangerous spread of fake news. But much more urgency is needed if the full profundity of the problem is to break through to mainstream media and public consciousness.
Fact based, critical discourse should not remain a partisan, “elite” concern. Lacking a commonly agreed on base of facts, and the inclination and opportunity to think about these facts, a large part of the electorate seems to have simply accepted manufactured narratives – often tailor-made to fine-grained segments of it in so-called “dark posts” – that stoked their fears and pandered to their prejudices. Even more consequential than lies about politicians is science denial. Climate change, which a sizeable portion of the electorate still thinks is not happening, will bite our collective behinds with a vengeance unless Trump and his ilk reverse course on calling it a “hoax”. Lie-filled propaganda is of course nothing new in politics. Media in totalitarian countries always delivered a steady stream of whoppers. As East-Europeans liked to say after the war, you couldn’t even rely on the opposite being true of what the newspapers say. As for science, Stalin and Zhdanov determined back in the day that computer science and genetics are a “bourgeois pseudo-science”, and Hitler’s Germany dubbed relativity theory “Jewish physics”. The truth has a way of winning out in the end but not before the deniers have their day. And the ones holding the bag are usually not those responsible.
After this election, outrage and indignation are natural. But rage is a double edged sword. While it is necessary in order to keep up the fight in the coming cultural-social-political crisis, it can also do damage to the one who wields it, and the cause itself. Outrage is harmful not only because of the isolation it creates, the hopelessness it leads to, the stereotyping and demonizing it fosters but also because of the phony self-righteousness it drives one into. Like Ivan Karamazov in his rebellion against creation, one can easily imagine oneself above it all. But the fact is, I am part of the world, and I am tainted, compromised and imperfect. It is very easy for me to see that sexism is really pervasive and stubborn and survives even in people who do not hold sexist views. I am probably not the best judge, however, of how deep my opposition to racism is. If I want to be perfectly honest I will realize that it is a work in progress.
The task is then two-fold and difficult to pull off. Liberals who think we should soften the tone of condemnation because it is just one more example of the elite contempt rural Americans so rightly resent – are wrong, if what they suggest is more tolerance and openness for offensive views and attitudes Trump supporters espouse. In the near future we need to stand more, rather than less firmly on principle. But they are right that one should be careful to avoid hating the “enemy” (though I realize in some cases this might pose an unrealistically high standard). The principles we will be forced to defend in the coming years require that we willfully, with the aid of reason if necessary, extend concern and care to all of humanity. Hate is incompatible with concern. It breeds tribalism, the very enemy we are supposed to fight – the feeling that there are people who are simply not worth considering as human beings, who then become mere obstacles, undesirable objects to manage or eliminate.
I grew up in communist Hungary. During that time, and before, for generations, politics had been a constant presence in everyday life. I am not saying that it dominated everything; there was life beyond, beneath, and above politics, but still the political was unavoidable. It provided the rank, oppressive, at times humiliating, at times ridiculous mise en scène of our lives. Living under communism, with still fresh memories of fascism around me – many in my extended family perished during one or the other - I learned to be wary of ideological extremes. I grew up knowing that there is an alternative: the democracies of the West which struck me, on my visits as an impoverished tourist from Eastern Europe, as obviously, vastly, and exhilaratingly superior to the places on my side of the iron curtain.
When I immigrated to the United States, after spending my youth in the slightly decadent democratic opposition scene of the 1980s in Budapest, it felt like an escape from politics and history altogether. Like a good enough mother, guarding inconspicuously the safety of her children, American democracy seemed to me – from the admittedly privileged vantage point of academia – the constantly humming background of a normal life unmarred by the intrusions of a power hungry political regime. The newspapers by and large reported the facts, instead of the tendentious, strangely formulated distortions and outright lies I grew up on; and there seemed to be a certain, minimal level of common decency in our public affairs, so I didn’t feel I need to be constantly on alert. Sure, it didn’t function this way for everyone throughout its history; it has been a work in progress. But now things are about to change for the worse. Politics is again in the foreground in America. Common decency is under siege.
The parallel with recent events in Hungary is striking. After 1989, Hungary transitioned from communism to capitalism, and was a functional Western style liberal democracy for about 20 years. In 2010, it elected the right-wing, nationalist party FIDESZ with a more than two-thirds supermajority. Its leader, Viktor Orbán, a xenophobic and deeply patriarchal nationalist demagogue came to power in a climate of growing corruption, mass unemployment, rising inequality, and general disillusionment about democratic elites. What prepared the ground for the autocratic turn in Hungary was not the propagation of a coherent and persuasive right wing ideology; but rather the gradual breaking down of the norms and forms of civilized discourse. It was the loud and swaggering disrespect for human rights, democratic institutions, and reasoned debate, a continuous vulgar abuse of political opponents, coupled with the carefully staged theatrics of the strong leader babbling about “saving the nation” from the enervating “liberal-Bolshevik influence”, making Hungary great again.
It took Viktor Orbán less than two years to dismantle the institutional system of liberal democracy. After passing a new constitution without much public debate or input, he overhauled the judiciary, limited the power of the Constitutional Court, curtailed press freedom and starved opposition media, all amid an unparalleled concentration of administrative and economic power in government hands, creating a “mafia state”. By 2014, Viktor Orbán proudly declared Hungary an “illiberal democracy”. This is how democracy was lost in Hungary; it started with a profound transformation of political discourse.
Could something like this happen in America? There certainly could be an erosion of the freedoms and the institutional framework of democracy most Americans take so much for granted that they have forgotten how special and precious they are. Trump could be the first president without compunctions using the immense powers of the presidency at his command to erode the freedom of the press, weaken the independence of the judiciary, intrude on civil rights, and a freely functioning civil society. Trump’s deviant rhetoric may portend a ground attack on democracy.
Nevertheless, the prospects for democracy are better in the United States than they are in Hungary in many crucial regards. America has strong and long established democratic institutions, and more than half of the country stands in opposition to Trump and his party. Moreover, and this is the strangest thing of all about the unlikely rise of the unhinged billionaire: he doesn’t seem to have an interest in politics. Of all the dictators and autocrats of history, he seems to be the only one to have sought office primarily as a business venture. In fact, all the talk about separating his business empire from the business of the country is mere fantasy. He can’t and he won’t do that no matter what. His in-your-face mafia style governance consequently might lead to problems beyond his control.
Americans have an instinct to accommodate, to normalize, to not get hysterical. Obama, Clinton, and of course virtually the entire Republican establishment, seem to want to outdo themselves to show and “open mind” to the racist bully. But accommodation and flexibility are virtues for some later time; cultural sensitivity will make no impact whatsoever on the Trumpista/alt-right echo-chamber, and reasonable compromise will remain unpopular with Republicans. What is needed now is unwavering opposition. Racism, intolerance, autocracy tends to grow unless it encounters pushback.
But power is a remarkable aphrodisiac. I have apprehensions about how much of the public that opposed Trump in the election will gradually, bit by bit come to accept his new politics. I am also not confident if the political and media establishment is up to the task; heroism and resistence has not been part of their repertoire, but it might need to become now. Masha Gessen, a veteran Russian-American journalist and activist in Putin’s Russia provides a useful survival guide for autocracy here.
There is a crack in American democracy. But that’s how the light gets in.
What has been the inconspicuously humming background – democracy working, however imperfectly – has been called into question. From background it has become foreground. Could this be a good thing? I think there is some reason to think it could.
The Belle Époche of liberal democracy in the West, stretching from the end of the Second World War, through the heady days of the liberation of Eastern Europe in the end of the 1980s, has ended in reckless wars, mass migration, economic decline and anti-elite resentment during the first decades the 21st century. Once a revolutionary ideal many considered worth dying for, liberal democracy became hard to get excited about because of its utter ordinariness, its inherent imperfection, and the frequent folly of its ruling elites. Its defenders have long been less passionate than its detractors on the left and the right. Eastern Europe, after a brief flirtation, is turning its back on it again; and for the first time in more than 70 years, it is under attack in the West. But it is possible that the thought of losing it will concentrate the mind; that its virtues start shining more brightly as a result.
Trump’s victory has made it necessary to articulate the values of liberal democracy in a way that people can rally around. Coming up with better economic plans to address inequality and joblessness is not enough. For one thing, no serious person could promise a “fix”, at least in the short term – though certainly things could be improved, through universal healthcare, better family leave programs, a higher minimum wage, and free public colleges. The structural changes behind the dislocation - globalization and technological change – demand long term responses, mostly massive education and training programs. In any case, Republican voters, in every election in recent memory, have gone for right wing rhetoric against their economic interest.
So it might be worth a shot to make the Democratic Party the party of universal values as well as economic justice; to make democracy exciting again. Ross Douthat argues in an election post-mortem in The New York Times that the universal values liberals stand for “are simply not sufficient to the needs of human life. People have a desire for solidarity that cosmopolitanism does not satisfy, immaterial interests that redistribution cannot meet…” He seems to think that the ultimate values that give meaning to human life lie in local solidarities as opposed to the universal ones that lie at the foundation of liberal democracy: in family, church and nation as against the “abstract” allegiance to human rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. He sees the rise of identity politics on the left as a proof of this.
But a commitment to human rights, as well as the civil rights and institutions that have been created to safeguard them, is as old as the United States, and as American as apple pie. It is not necessarily in conflict with identity politics as long as that means various groups fighting for and articulating the requirements of their equal place in society. It is the proper foundation of a multi-cultural, multi-racial democracy such as we are.
Universalism is a matter heart as well as reason. It is not a cold and procedural conception of human affairs. Accordingly, racism and prejudice, the constant companions of nationalism, are a failure of heart as well as reason. They go against the central teaching of Christ – a universalist if ever there was one:
But to you who are willing to listen I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. (Luke 6: 27).
Loving your enemies in this way might be too much to ask. There will be much conflict and discord in the near future. But refusing hate in the more realistic, minimalistic sense of refusing to think about others as objects, and recognizing instead their shared humanity and worth, is possible, and it is what democrats need to aspire to. It is the way to live in the broken world.