Wednesday, February 14, 2018

It's Not Even Past #10: The Person at the Top: Mass Movements in the New America

If you'll forgive yet another very pompous thing to do in this very pompous podcast, I'd like to begin by dedicating this episode to the memory of Morgan Tsvangirai, the longtime and seemingly fearless leader of a democratic opposition in Zimbabwe to Robert Mugabe, who spent his life trying to find a democratic and liberal way forward for his country while being thwarted at every turn by a psychopathic and fanatical tyrant as its leader who imprisoned him, beat him, tortured him, tried to kill him, only to die of colon cancer at the moment Zimbabwe's tyrant fell and he should have been the leader to take a nation into its new dawn. For four years toward the end, Mugabe was even forced to appoint Tsvangirai his Prime Minister. Inevitably, Tsvangirai was charged with selling out the opposition he led, but what else can an effective advocate for change do except to advocate for change within the order that already exists. What creates more equitable distribution is not the weakening or toppling of a system, but the strengthening of it. If you don't like the government under which you live, become a part of it, because the most effective means to change how we're governed is to change it from within - and for all the Conservative harping about how much they hate government, American Conservatives clearly understand this 100x better than Progressives. 

After thirty years under Mugabe, inflation in Zimbabwe became 500 billion percent per year - yes, you heard that correctly, while Mugabe, who's preached Marxism and Leninism his entire political career, stole 2 billion dollars in diamond revenues, built and acquired unknown quantities of mansions and luxury goods - Mugabe is said to live in a mansion with 25 bedrooms, a Rolls Royce that is supposedly in an edition of eighteen ever made, and a $75,000 shopping spree in Paris, and that doesn't even cover the wealth of Mugabe's cronies. Tsvangirai convinced Mugabe to put Zimbabwe to adopt the dollar as its currency, and the economy grew 10% per year. When Mugabe threw him out so as to enable Mugabe's wife, Grace Mugabe, to be his designated heir, the economy collapsed yet again, and the relative freedom Tsvangirai brought had finally relaxed Mugabe's grip to the point that the country was able to rebel and place Mugabe under house arrest. Tsvangirai was not a saint, he deliberately sabotaged the opposition within his own party, occasionally violently, but a saint is something an effective politician never can be, and the more brutal the surroundings, the more brutal a politician has to be to survive. How many politicians have ever been canny enough to ever been able to openly challenge a dictator, change the dictatorship from within, effect the dictator's overthrow, and still able to die in his own bed? Tsvangirai will hopefully be remembered as the true father of his nation, and while Mugabe technically outlives him, his legacy will hopefully disappear as soon as possible. 

So before we go any further forward with the Eric Hoffer quote we started last week, I think I have to quote him slightly out of order to talk about his exceptions to mass movements - those moments, not many of them but hugely consequential when done correctly, when mass movements can be harnessed for good, just so we can understand right away that these mass movements of ours may, not will, but may, eventually have a beneficial outcome. I'm sure you understand at this point that I'm pessimistic about it, but I'm willing to concede that it's certainly possible. But in each of these cases, there is a leader who directs them. It's in the nature of bottom up movements that their benefits can be snapped up all the easier by people with power. A mass movement is too chaotic to not eventually cohere behind a single leader because once the scale is tipped to a single flank of the movement, no other flank is yet powerful enough to stop them - or usually him. The more leaderless and democratic a mass movement seems, the more it usually seems to cohere behind a single leader, and once it does, it's at the leader's mercy, whether that leader aims to for the good of the people for whom he or she speaks, or for the good of his or her own glory, is something that cannot be controlled by its followers once the leader takes its reins. 
There are, of course, rare leaders such as Lincoln, Gandhi, even F.D.R., Churchill and Nehru. They did not hesitate to harness man's hungers and fears to weld a following and make it zealous unto death in the service of a holy cause; but unlike a Hitler, a Stalin, or even a Luther and a Calvin, they are not tempted to use the slime of frustrated souls as mortar in the building of a new world. The self-confidence of these rare leaders is derived from and blended with their faith in humanity, for they know that no one can be honorable unless he honors mankind. 
Let's start unpacking this with a sidenote: to include Churchill in 2018 among this band of great leaders in 2018 is an extraordinarily controversial opinion - Churchill's reputation took a huge dive in our era given both his extreme imperialism and his lionization by Bush-era neoconservatives. So nobody should deny that to call Churchill one of the world's greatest leaders is, in some ways, an extremely problematic claim. But ask yourself: if the urge toward Conservatism is always going to be with us no matter how badly we want to curb its most reactionary excesses, and I certainly believe that the evidence shows it will, what kind of conservatism do you want to help foster among people who will always believe in it? Do you want right wingers who excuse the authoritarianism of the Right because at least it's Right Wing, or that looks at the authoritarianism of the Right and says 'absolutely not'? Racism will always be with us, so would you rather have racists who believe it's acceptable to treat supposedly inferior races in any and all manner of inhumane ways, or racists who believes that civilization demands that you treat the people ruled with at least some level of decency. The latter is the kind of conservative that you want as an opponent, a voice that demands respect for tradition and cautions against change that's too fast. It's the kind of conservatism that has fundamentally died in America, as I've said before, the closest national figures we have in our era to those who practice that form of conservatism is the Clintons. 

It's all well and good for a person of the Left to say 'I don't want any kind of conservative.' But that's not an option, and every time you write conservatives off as the enemy, you leave them to their own devices and leave their worst urges to fester. Whatever one thinks of George W. Bush, and ideologically, I think he's clearly an authoritarian reactionary rather than a conservative, there is a reason that the Obamas have made an enormous show of embracing the Bushes. The Bush Administration was far beyond the pale of any kind of conservatism that is good for America, but in showing a united front against Trump, the Obamas (and yes, the Clintons too), have shown how American liberals can embrace conservatives and even try to influence them to come around to less reactionary views. 

The True Believer was written in 1951, and since then, you would have to at very least add Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela to this list, maybe even Barack Obama too, and possibly Hispanic-American labor leader Caesar Chavez, Alice Paul who for fifty years headed the National Women's Party which fundamentally was the organization that secured women the right to vote and the inclusion of women as a protected group under the Civil Rights act of 1964, the Czech leader Vaclav Havel, and even Lech Walesa, another name that would make liberals distinctly uncomfortable if they remembered who he was anymore... look him up.... or even, gasp... David Ben-Gurion!...



There is a second uncomfortable truth to which this leads us. It's one thing for leaders like Lincoln or FDR to use violent means, staring into the abyss of a world that was headed for war anyway, and turning that war machine into something that can restructure humanity for the better, but when you have leaders like Gandhi, MLK, who have no backing of a state, or Mandela, who did not have the backing of a state until the war was over... I'm sure you see where I'm going with this...

If you were to ask, in a vacuum, whether an oppressed group of people is morally justified in taking up violent means to overthrow their oppressors, no matter where or when, the answer would have to be 'of course.' It would be repugnant to deny them that. But moral justification has never been an effective calculus to overthrow any power at all. To say that violent resistance is an effective means to empower the disempowered is to pretend the disempowered are less trapped they are. It would seem that history's consigned the world to live through an infinite series of class wars in which every revolutionary movement thinks it is the one to have cracked the code that stops the most violent and self-aggrandizing revolutionaries from rising to the top during the chaos of warfare. Which brings us to the next part of the Hoffer quote: 
When the moment is ripe, only the fanatic can hatch a genuine mass movement. Without him the disaffection engendered by militant men of words remains undirected and can vent itself only in pointless and easily suppressed disorders. Without him the initiated reforms, even when drastic, leave the old way of life unchanged, and any change in government usually amounts to no more than a transfer of power from one set of men of action to another. Without him there can perhaps be no new beginning. 
When the old order begins to fall apart, many of the vociferous men of words, who prayed so long for the day, are in a funk. The first glimpse the face of anarchy frightens them out of their wits. They forget all they said about the "poor simple folk" and run for help to strong men of action -- princes, generals, administrators, bankers, landowners -- who know how to deal with the rabble and how to stem the tide of chaos. 
Not so the fanatic. Chaos is his element. When the old order begins to crack, he wades in with all his might and recklessness to blow the whole hated present to high heaven. He glories in the sight of a world coming to a sudden end. To hell with reforms! All that already exists is rubbish, and there is no sense in reforming rubbish. He justifies his will to anarchy with the plausible assertion that there can be no new beginning so long as the old clutters the landscape. He shoves aside the frightened men of words, if they are still around, though he continues to extol their doctrines and mouth their slogans. He alone knows the innermost craving of the masses in action: the craving for communion, for the mustering of the host, for the dissolution of cursed individuality in the majesty and grandeur of a mighty whole. Posterity is king; and woe to those, inside and outside the movement, who hug and hang on to the present. 
After every unsuccessful mass movement, and unsuccessful is what the vast majority of them are, you hear the same litany: that it didn't need to go wrong, that the good intentions of the original inspirers were perverted, that the reforms never went far enough, that this or that potential leader would have made a success of where the actual leader failed. Perhaps there's a 1-5% chance that one or more of these claims might have a bit of truth to them, even though we all dismiss such historical counterfactuals whenever it suits our viewpoints. There is still the problem of systemic chaos. It doesn't take a genius to see that the system in which we live vastly favors certain people over others. But because the system already vastly favors people from certain groups over other groups, the people who are already in favored positions are in a much better position to protect themselves in the chaos that follows the overthrow of a system. 

Let's just think of a tale of two neighbors. Southern Rhodesia - now Zimbabwe, and South Africa. The most famous leaders of both countries were longtime prisoners - though Mugabe "only" for eleven years in comparison to Nelson Mandela's twenty-eight. Mugabe was a violent revolutionary before he became the quote-unquote "President" of Zimbabwe, and he never changed his tune. After Mugabe's release from prison in '75, his army forcibly seized farms owned by white families, roughly thirty-thousand died in this semi-war. After he'd seized power, he outright killed another 20,000 citizens. He'd criminalized anyone who had the scientific education to make the land arable, which inevitably caused famine and extreme hyperinflation. With leftist dictators of various stripes, people inevitably like to point out widespread health care and literacy - but what's the point of health care when you don't have enough to eat, and how can you prove either actually exists when you have a political system that falsifies everything else? The point is that when a militant leader says that violence is the way forward, he generally means what he says. Violence is an addiction like any addiction, and once you open its many doors of chaos, you don't choose which doors you walk through, the path chooses you. 

Here's Hoffer again:


Whence come the fanatics? Mostly from the ranks of the noncreative men of words. The most significant division between men of words is between those who can find fulfillment in creative work and those who cannot. The creative man of words, no matter how bitterly he may criticize and deride the existing order, is actually attached to the present. His passion is to reform and not to destroy. When the mass movement remains wholly in his keeping, he turns it into a mild air. The reforms he initiates are of the surface, and life goes on without a sudden break. But such a development is possible only when the anarchic action of the masses does not come into play, either because the old order abdicates without a struggle or because the man of words allies himself with strong men of action the moment chaos threatens to break loose. When the struggle with the old order is bitter and chaotic and victory can be won only by utmost unity and self-sacrifice, the creative man of words is usually shoved aside and management of affairs falls into the hands of the noncreative men of words -- the eternal misfits and the fanatical contemners of the present. 
The man who wants to write a great book, paint a great picture, create an architectural masterpiece, become a great scientist, and knows that never in all eternity will he be able to realize this, his innermost desire, can find no peace in a stable social order -- old or new. He sees his life as irrevocably spoiled and the world perpetually out of joint. He feels at home only in a state of chaos. Even when he submits to or imposes an iron discipline, he is but submitting to or shaping the indispensable instrument for attaining a state of eternal flux, eternal becoming. Only when engaged in change does he have a sense of freedom and the feeling that he is growing and developing. It is because he can never be reconciled with his self that he fears finality and a fixed order of things. Marat, Robespierre, Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler are examples of fanatics arising from the ranks of noncreative men of words. Peter Viereck points out that most of the Nazi bigwigs had artistic and literary ambitions which they could not realize. Hitler tried painting and architecture; Goebbels, drama, the novel and poetry; Rosenberg, architecture and philosophy; von Schirach, poetry; Funk, music; Streicher, painting. "Almost all were failures, not only by the vulgar criterion of success but by their own artistic criteria." Their artistic and literary ambitions "were originally far deeper than political ambitions: and were integral parts of their personalities." 
The creative man of words is ill at ease with the atmosphere of an active movement. He feels that its whirl and passion sap his creative energies. So long as he is conscious of the creative flow within him, he will not find fulfillment in leading millions and in winning victories. The result is that, once the movement starts rolling, he either retires voluntarily or is pushed aside. Moreover, since the genuine man of words can never wholeheartedly and for long suppress his critical faculty, he is inevitably cast in the role of the heretic. THus unless the creative man of words stifles the newborn movement by allying himself with practical men of action or unless he dies at the right moment, he is likely to end up either a shunned recluse or in exile or facing a firing squad.
There is no better example of the non-creative man of words than Mugabe, whom, for all the shallowness of his luxuries and the ineffectiveness of his policy, is described by everyone who meets him as ferociously intelligent, and if anything, rather quiet and bookish. He has seven advanced degrees, four of them obtained from the University of London through correspondence while in prison. In some ways, Mugabe's path is the exact reverse of Mandela's. In his youth he was a teacher with degrees in English literature and history whose only political loyalty was to the non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi. It was only in his mid-30's that Mugabe became a committed militant Leninist. When you hear Mugabe in interviews, he comes across as a leader as thoughtful as any in the history of the world. It's only when you realize what Mugabe has put his tremendous abilities towards that you realize the damage that a seemingly great man can do. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates has noted with annoyance how often white pundits compare Mugabe and Mandela, as though to say that tyranny is something to which Africans are uniquely tempted to embrace. Well, are African leaders and subjects uniquely tempted to embrace tyranny? Of course not. But the tyrannical circumstances in which many European powers left their former colonies certainly does facilitate potential tyrants in the wake of white tyranny more easily. The point of my comparing Mugabe to Mandela is certainly not to say that Africans are uniquely suited for despotism, it is, rather, to say that African history has something to teach America at this point in time rather than the other way around. 

The point of comparing them is also not to compare a saint to a devil; quite the opposite, Mandela was far from the saint he's often made out to be. Part of his great achievement is not because he forswore vengeance, but because he eventually renounced it. His career as a leader was begun by his break with African National Congress leaders who promised non-violence to create a terrorist wing of the Congress. After he was imprisoned, Amnesty International never listed him as a 'political prisoner' because he was so clearly involved in well over a hundred acts of terror - to which he proudly pled guilty when indicted and captured. From behind bars he sanctioned a car bomb in 1983, he suggested cutting noses of Black South Africans who were suspected collaborators with Apartheid, and the African National Congress ran a camp in Angola in which they literally tortured and burned suspected black collaborators to death. Mandela was an ally of Castro, Arafat, and Qaddafi... but what made Mandela extraordinary was not his advocacy of social change of non-violence, but his gradual relinquishing of violence when he realized that non-violence was more practical. His attitude was always that 'non-violence is a good policy when the conditions permit.' As the world began to pay attention to South African Apartheid, Mandela began to move further and further away from his violent positions, and in many ways, what made the world pay more and more attention to South Africa was Mandela's gradual renunciation of violence to begin with. Mandela was much more important than a saint, he was a practical leader who reacted to the changing conditions of every moment. Even at his most violent, Mandela was such a far cry from Mugabe, because the violent acts sanctioned by Mandela were specific, limited, and targeted. Mugabe, on the other hand, deliberately instigated indiscriminate riots to implement a full-scale civil war in the late 70's, which alone is enough to prove Martin Luther King wrong when he said that 'rioting is the language of the unheard.' More on that in a few minutes. 

What made Mandela's great was not his means but his ends. The end result was, as he put it in the 1964 trial that resulted in his imprisonment until 1990, "a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities." And he proved that he meant it. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission meant that there would a public record of who did what, both white and black, but also that no matter what people did, there would be a second chance without retribution. Mandela was a Marxist to the end, but he refused to nationalize South Africa's industries, and corporations pumped money by the billions into the South African economy. 

All the same, South Africa is quite far from great these days - in some ways still worse for South Africans than under Apartheid, who are apparently murdered at the crime rate of fifty a day with a disproportionate number of victims being black. The unemployment rate occasionally goes above 30% and never below 20%. And we won't touch the statistics about sex crime in South Africa, we'll just say that it's a problem, and mention that 5.7 million South Africans have HIV, no less than 12% of the country. Meanwhile, a million white South Africans have left, and the South African government no longer puts much stop to black terrorist organizations which requisition farms away from white families through murder and arson. 

But this is Africa, upon whose backs all manner of modern European greatness was created, forced to struggle, day by day, in their agonizingly slow climb from a status of mass enslavement into taking their rightful honored places among the nations. The fact that the tensions in South Africa could be as fraught as anywhere in Africa, yet avoid the kind of apocalypse that befell Zimbabwe, or Somalia, or Sudan, or Ethiopia, or Rwanda, or Nigeria, or worst of all, the Congo, has to be counted an unambiguous triumph. The country muddles through, lives another day, fights the good fight against a world structured to cause their failure. 

And since we're already on South Africa, we could go down a very long rabbit hole and talk for episodes at a time about Gandhi, whom people often forget spent the first half of his career there. I'm sure Gandhi will come up in future episodes, perhaps many times. 

But the reason to mention Gandhi at all is to emphasize how different a figure he was to Mandela. The historical figure Mandela resembles far more - and I'm sure this comparison will drive a number of listeners crazy for completely opposite reasons - is David Ben-Gurion - the first Prime Minister of Israel and the most powerful Zionist for a full half-century. Both Mandela and Ben-Gurion were pragmatic socialists ready to give up their supposed principles at the first sign that they could create advantages for their constituents, were willing to make peace and reconcile with enemies as often as they were to visit violence. In their wake, both of these deeply compromised men created great, vital, democratic societies that, in spite of extraordinary flaws, survive from one era to the next, comprised of peoplehoods who had every reason to expect that the world would hand them the same suffering handed to their peoplehoods elsewhere. Through a combination of olive branches and violent strikes that were reactive to the still greater violence visited upon them, it was their combination of vision and tactical skill that created nations built to last. Would, however, either their nations have less problems had their tactics of their leaders been still more selective in their violence? Well... the world will never know.

And that brings us to Martin Luther King, who now seems to be all things to all people. There has, in recent years, been a serious push on the left to reclaim him as an agitating, discomforting force. It's not hard to understand why. In an age when Martin Luther King gets lip service paid by the same old racists who in their youths wished for his death, his embrace by the Right as a comforting force whose agitation had nothing to do with violence should be considered a scandal.

Yes, Martin Luther King was an agitating force in American life who aggressively pushed Americans to realize all manner of inequalities: racial, legal, and financial, that, properly applied, would still be an incredibly uncomfortable message for the vast majority of Americans. He is now taken up, though, by people who refuse to renounce the validity of inflicting violence as a specifically political tactic, and to claim that MLK would ever do the same is a revisionist history of a revisionist history.

It's true, MLK said in response to urban riots that "rioting is the language of the unheard," and even if that's not necessarily true - Mugabe among many, many other examples, proved that riots can always be directed by richer and more powerful people toward the objects of rage they sanction - it's not completely untrue either. But even so, understanding the reasons why people riot should never be confused with the support and encouragement of directed acts of inflicted violence for political means, which MLK never gave any indication of supporting. Furthermore, depending on your point of view, King's method was, if anything, violent towards African-Americans rather than white Americans - moderates decried King's willingness to allow the children to march and therefore subject to police brutality, and so, by the way, did Malcolm X. After the Civil Rights Act, when Dr. King switched much of his focus to poverty and the Vietnam War, he was decried by Republicans as a Communist. And yet, today, he's seen as the epitome of American non-violence. Reality, as ever, more complicated than we ever want to admit, but the concrete reality is that the only people King ever directed violence towards were his own marchers. 

You could never say with any certainty that, to take one of the most common accusations, Black Lives Matter endorses political violence, and that would be so completely outside the mainstream of what it stands for that it would almost be offensive to suggest it. Yet it wouldn't be completely offensive either. Black Lives Matter is, deliberately, a much larger, perhaps unwieldy, political movement than itself. When people speak about BLM, they as often as not don't know to which organization they're speaking. They may not be speaking specifically about BLM but instead about The Movement for Black Lives which is the umbrella organization for the campaign for which all the groups under which BLM protests, they might be speaking of Campaign Zero - a movement for police reform, they might even be speaking about the National Anthem protests. If these people are particularly sloppy in their thinking, they might even might be speaking about Antifa, the even more nebulous conglomeration of extreme protest groups worldwide whose tactics are not limited to breaking windows and throwing molotov cocktails. Or 20 other more minor protest movements. All of these movements are related, but they're far from the same, and therein lies the spirit of our times when the wings of inclusion spread so wide that it's just assumed that anything noxious which inclusion picks up along the way will be so watered down by all the other elements that the noxiousness will simply dissolve. And that's a big and very risky wager not backed up by the trajectory of similarly inclusive movements in the past. All you have to do is take a quick glance at the trajectory of 19th century socialist movements to see where that ends up in the long term. 

Whether it's been Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, or Me Too, there is a deliberate looseness to all of these non-Presidential mass movements in the name of inclusion. But as a result of it, the flanks within them have to distinguish themselves to become noticed. Therefore, the more extreme the rhetoric of any flank within it, the more noticed it becomes, and the more widespread a chance the rhetoric has for adaptation. And when poisonous ideas get the cover of good intentions, it becomes still easier for people to adapt to concepts they would otherwise see as ideological poison. More on that in future episodes.

So here's the final part of this two week long Hoffer quote:
The danger of the fanatic to the development of a movement is that he cannot settle down. Once victory has been won and the new order begins to crystallize, the fanatic becomes an element of strain and disruption. The taste for strong feeling drives him on to search for mysteries yet to be revealed and secret doors yet to be opened. He keeps groping for extremes. Thus on the morrow of victory most mass movements find themselves in the grip of dissension. The ardor which yesterday found an outlet in a life-and-death struggle with external enemies now vents itself in violent disputes and clash of factions. Hatred has become a habit. With no more outside enemies to destroy, the fanatics make enemies of one another. Hitler -- himself a fanatic -- could diagnose with precision the state of mind of the fanatics who plotted against him within the ranks of the National Socialist party. In his order to the newly appointed chief of the SA after the purge of Röhm in 1934 he speaks of those who will not settle down: "... without realizing it, [they] have found in nihilism their ultimate confession of faith ... their unrest and disquietude can find satisfaction only in some conspiratorial activity of the mind, in perpetually plotting the disintegration of whatever the set-up of the moment happens to be." As was often the case with Hitler, his accusations against antagonists (inside and outside the Reich) were a self-revelation. He, too, particularly in his last days, found in nihilism his "ultimate philosophy and valediction." 
If allowed to have their way, the fanatics may split a movement into schism and heresies which threaten its existence. Even when the fanatics do not breed dissension, they can still wreck the movement by driving it to attempt the impossible. Only the entrance of a practical man of action can save the achievements of the movement. 
So has there really been truly noticeable ideological poison in BLM or Me Too that we can even mention them in the same minute of airtime as Nazis? Of course not. A comparison like that is absolutely revolting. And if either movement has any true danger about it, it has yet to even present itself in the slightest, which is not to say that it won't. The point is not that the goals of Black Lives Matter or Me Too have any aim that is in any sense objectionable. But if the history of radical movements is any guide, then the idealistic drive for radical inclusion can easily prove to be their downfall, and the more success such movements achieve, the more likely they may find that their victories are a poisoned chalice. 

The world is what it is, and every solution creates its own new problems. In just three years, the world has changed enormously - much more enormously than it changed in the first few years of the Obama Presidency. I firmly believe that those who wish to see reform of the police, or in how the sexes relate to each other, will eventually see it come true. But in every societal metamorphosis, there are always unintended and completely unpredictable consequences, and we have no idea what they will be until they happen. As always, some places in the world will benefit enormously from the change, and some will suffer all the more because of them. 

I've made so many bad oracular predictions over the years that I would like to keep my Cassandra urges to a minimum, but if history is any guide, then it seems to me that there will probably be many more movements in the next few decades in the spirit of these two mass movements of the Left. Like Black Lives Matter and Me Too, they will take enormous pride in being leaderless, but eventually they will be in danger of coalescing all the more firmly around a singular leadership in just the same way the Religious Right coalesced around Presidents like Reagan and Bush and Trump. Neither Reagan, nor Bush, nor even Trump, could ever be mentioned with misdeeds a hundred breaths away from Stalin or even a butcher a 100th as bloody as Stalin, but liberals of the mid-century placed systemic limits on what they could implement, and the damage compared to what they wanted to do was very small indeed. A left-of-center President who works within the system like a Kamela Harris or a Cory Booker can build on the achievements of Presidents like Obama or Roosevelt, but a Bernie Sanders or Tutsi Gabbard likes the American system no more than Reagan or Trump does, and thanks to fifty years of Republican rule, will find the American way of life that much easier to dismantle. Does this mean that a Bernie Sanders or even a Tutsi Gabbard or Keith Ellison would be anything like an absolute ruler? Of course not, but any mass movement which begins in America can always spread elsewhere, and once they do, what might seem benevolent at its first appearance can return later to the same country  severely malignant form. This is what happened in Russia with socialism, what happened in Germany with nationalism, what's happened in America to a lesser extent with political Christianity, with militarism, and with unrestrained capitalism. If it can happen to one side of American life, it can happen just as easily to the other, and the more idealistic these movements become, the more blind they become to the mendacity of the people who accumulate power within them, and what begins with so much hope can blind them to the reality that monsters can cloak themselves in great idealism all the more easily, and in an era when fake news and fake facts can be manufactured with such ease, it is all the more easy to convince people who think that they unassailably have right on their side that what's true is false and false is true. For the forty years between Dr. King and President Obama, the battle for all manner of civil rights for all manner of groups coalesced around no one leader, and perhaps consequently its gains since 1968 have been few and far between. In both cases, the leader called for pragmatism, and the subsequent gains were both enormous and enormously short of people's dreams. It's all too easy to learn all manner of wrong lessons from that. 

Every one of us may think we have bullshit detectors that are better than rabid Trump supporters have, but so does everyone in every era in history. Once idealistic radical movements coalesce around a singular figure as they do in every place and every era, we had all better hope that they coalesce around a Mandela rather than a Mugabe, and most people who want to lead mass movements are Mugabes. If and when such a thing happens, we will know which type of leader he or she is very quickly, and everyone with high hopes and higher ideals just might curse the day they ever started us down this path. 


It's Not Even Past #10 - First Two Thirds

If you'll forgive yet another very pompous thing to do in this very pompous podcast, I'd like to begin by dedicating this episode to the memory of Morgan Tsvangirai, the longtime and seemingly fearless leader of a democratic opposition in Zimbabwe to Robert Mugabe, who spent his life trying to find a democratic and liberal way forward for his country while being thwarted at every turn by a psychopathic and fanatical tyrant as its leader who imprisoned him, beat him, tortured him, tried to kill him, only to die of colon cancer at the moment Zimbabwe's tyrant fell and he should have been the leader to take a nation into its new dawn. For four years toward the end, Mugabe was even forced to appoint Tsvangirai his Prime Minister. Inevitably, Tsvangirai was charged with selling out the opposition he led, but what else can an effective advocate for change do except to advocate for change within the order that already exists. After thirty years under Mugabe, inflation became 500 billion percent per year - yes, you heard that exactly right, while Mugabe, who's preached Marxism and Leninism the whole life long of his 95 years, stole 2 billion dollars in diamond revenues, built and acquired unknown quantities of mansions and luxury goods - Mugabe is said to live in a mansion with 25 bedrooms, a Rolls Royce edition that is supposedly one of eighteen ever made, and a $75,000 shopping spree in Paris, and that doesn't even cover the wealth of Mugabe's cronies. Tsvangirai convinced Mugabe to put Zimbabwe to adopt the dollar as its currency, and the economy grew 10% per year. When Mugabe threw him out so as to enable Mugabe's wife, Grace Mugabe, to be his designated heir, the economy collapsed yet again, and the relative freedom Tsvangirai brought had finally relaxed Mugabe's grip to the point that the country was able to rebel and place Mugabe under house arrest. Tsvangirai was not a saint, he deliberately sabotaged the opposition within his own party, but a saint is something an effective politician never can be, and the more brutal the surroundings, the more brutal a politician has to be to survive. How many politicians have ever been canny enough to ever been able to openly challenge a dictator, change the dictatorship from within, effect the politician's overthrow,  and still able to die in their own beds? Tsvangirai will hopefully die as the true father of his nation, and while Mugabe technically outlives him, his legacy will hopefully disappear as soon as possible. 

So before we go any further forward with the Eric Hoffer quote we started last week, I think I have to quote him slightly out of order to talk about his exceptions to mass movements - those moments, not many of them but hugely consequential when done correctly, when mass movements can be harnessed for good, just so we can understand right away that these mass movements of ours may, not will, but may, eventually have a beneficial outcome. I'm sure you understand at this point that I'm pessimistic about it, but I'm willing to concede that it's certainly possible. But in each of these cases, there is a leader who directs them. It's in the nature of bottom up movements that their benefits can be snapped up all the easier by people with power. A mass movement is too chaotic to not eventually cohere behind a single leader because once the scale is tipped to a single flank of the movement, no other flank is yet powerful enough to stop them - or usually him. The more leaderless and democratic a mass movement seems, the more it usually seems to cohere behind a single leader, and once it does, it's at the leader's mercy, whether that leader aims to for the good of the people for whom he or she speaks, or for the good of his or her own glory, is something that cannot be controlled by its followers once the leader takes its reins. 
There are, of course, rare leaders such as Lincoln, Gandhi, even F.D.R., Churchill and Nehru. They did not hesitate to harness man's hungers and fears to weld a following and make it zealous unto death in the service of a holy cause; but unlike a Hitler, a Stalin, or even a Luther and a Calvin, they are not tempted to use the slime of frustrated souls as mortar in the building of a new world. The self-confidence of these rare leaders is derived from and blended with their faith in humanity, for they know that no one can be honorable unless he honors mankind. 
Let's start unpacking this with a sidenote: to include Churchill in 2018 among this band of great leaders in 2018 is an extraordinarily controversial opinion - Churchill's reputation took a huge dive in our era given both his extreme imperialism and his lionization by Bush-era neoconservatives. So nobody should deny that to call Churchill one of the world's greatest leaders is, in some ways, an extremely problematic claim. But ask yourself: if the urge toward Conservatism is always going to be with us no matter how badly we want to curb its most reactionary excesses, and I certainly believe that the evidence shows it will, what kind of conservatism do you want to help foster among people who will always believe in it? Do you want right wingers who excuse the authoritarianism of the Right because at least it's Right Wing, or that looks at the authoritarianism of the Right and says 'absolutely not'? Racism will always be with us, so would you rather have racists who believe it's acceptable to treat supposedly inferior races in any and all manner of inhumane ways, or racists who believes that civilization demands that you treat the people ruled with at least some level of decency. The latter is the kind of conservative that you want as an opponent, a voice that demands respect for tradition and cautions against change that's too fast. It's the kind of conservatism that has fundamentally died in America, as I've said before, the closest national figures we have in our era to those who practice that form of conservatism is the Clintons. 

It's all well and good for a person of the Left to say 'I don't want any kind of conservative.' But that's not an option, and every time you write conservatives off as the enemy, you leave them to their own devices and leave their worst urges to fester. Whatever one thinks of George W. Bush, and ideologically, I think he's clearly an authoritarian reactionary rather than a conservative, there is a reason that the Obamas have made an enormous show of embracing the Bushes. The Bush Administration was far beyond the pale of any kind of conservatism that is good for America, but in showing a united front against Trump, the Obamas (and yes, the Clintons too), have shown how American liberals can embrace conservatives and even try to influence them to come around to less reactionary views. 

The True Believer was written in 1951, and since then, you would have to at very least add Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela to this list, and possibly Hispanic-American labor leader Caesar Chavez, Alice Paul who for fifty years headed the National Women's Party which fundamentally was the organization that secured women the right to vote and the inclusion of women as a protected group under the Civil Rights act of 1964, the Czech leader Vaclav Havel, and even Lech Walesa, another name that would make liberals distinctly uncomfortable if they remembered who he was anymore... look him up.... or even, gasp... David Ben-Gurion!...

There is a second uncomfortable truth to which this leads us. It's one thing for leaders like Lincoln or FDR to use violent means, staring into the abyss of a world that was headed for war anyway, and turning that war machine into something that can restructure humanity for the better, but when you have leaders like Gandhi, MLK, who have no backing of a state, or Mandela, who did not have the backing of a state during his most consequential period... I'm sure you see where I'm going with this...

If you were to ask, in a vacuum, whether an oppressed group of people is morally justified in taking up violent means to overthrow their oppressors, no matter where or when, the answer would have to be 'of course.' It would be repugnant to deny them that. But moral justification has never been an effective calculus to overthrow any power at all. To say that violent resistance is an effective means to empower the disempowered is to pretend the disempowered are less trapped they are. It would seem that history's consigned the world to live through an infinite series of class wars in which every revolutionary movement thinks it is the one to have cracked the code that stops the most violent and self-aggrandizing revolutionaries from rising to the top during the chaos of warfare. 

Let's just think of a tale of two neighbors. South Africa, and Rhodesia - now Zimbabwe. The leaders of both countries were longtime prisoners - though Mugabe "only" for eleven years in comparison to Mandela's twenty-eight. Mugabe was a violent revolutionary before he became the quote-unquote "President" of Zimbabwe, and he never changed his tune. After Mugabe's release from prison in '75, his army forcibly seized farms owned by white families, roughly thirty-thousand died in this semi-war. After he'd seized power, he outright killed another 20,000 citizens. He'd criminalized anyone who had the scientific education to make the land arable, which inevitably caused famine and extreme hyperinflation. With leftist dictators of various stripes, people inevitably like to point out widespread health care and literacy - but what's the point of health care when you don't have enough to eat, and how can you prove either actually exists when you have a political system that falsifies everything else? The point is that when a militant leader says that violence is the way forward, he generally means what he says. Violence is an addiction like any addiction, and once you open its many doors of chaos, you don't choose which doors you walk through, the path chooses you. 

The point of comparing him to Mandela is not to compare a saint to a devil; Mandela was never the saint he's often made out to be. Part of his great achievement is not because he forswore violence, but because he eventually renounced it. His whole career as a leader was begun by his break with African National Congress leaders who promised non-violence to create a terrorist wing of the Congress. After he was imprisoned, Amnesty International never listed him as a 'political prisoner' because he was so clearly involved in acts of terror. From behind bars he sanctioned a car bomb in 1983, he suggested cutting noses of Black South Africans who were suspected collaborators with Apartheid, and the African National Congress ran a camp in Angola in which they literally tortured and burned suspected black collaborators to death. Mandela was an ally of Castro, Arafat, and Qaddafi... but what made Mandela extraordinary was not his advocacy of social change of non-violence, but his gradual giving up of violence when he realized that non-violence was more practical. His attitude was always that 'non-violence is a good policy when the conditions permit.' As the world began to pay attention to South African Apartheid, Mandela began to move further and further away from his violent positions, and in many ways, what made the world pay more and more attention to South Africa was Mandela's gradual renunciation of violence. Mandela was much more important than a saint, he was a practical leader who reacted to the changing conditions of every moment. Even at his most violent, Mandela was such a far cry from Mugabe, because the violent acts sanctioned by Mandela were specific, limited, and targeted. Mugabe, on the other hand, deliberately instigated indiscriminate riots to implement a full-scale civil war in the late 70's, which alone is enough to prove Martin Luther King wrong when he said that 'rioting is the language of the unheard.' More on that in a few minutes. 

What made Mandela's great was not his means but his end. The end result was, as he put it in the 1964 trial that imprisoned him until 1990, "a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities." And he proved that he meant it. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission meant that there would a public record of who did what, both white and black, but also that no matter what people did, there would be a second chance without retribution. Mandela was a Marxist to the end, but he refused to nationalize South Africa's industries, and corporations pumped money by the billions into the South African economy. 

All the same, South Africa is quite far from great these days - in some ways still worse for South Africans than under Apartheid, who are apparently murdered at the crime rate of fifty a day with a disproportionate number of victims being black. The unemployment rate occasionally goes above 30% and never below 20%. And we won't touch the statistics about sex crime in South Africa, we'll just say that it's a problem, and mention that 5.7 million South Africans have HIV, no less than 12% of the country. Meanwhile, a million white South Africans have left, and the South African government no longer puts much stop to black terrorist organizations which requisition farms away from white families through murder and arson. 

But this is Africa, upon whose backs all manner of modern European greatness was created, forced to struggle, day by day, in their agonizingly slow climb from a status of mass enslavement into taking their rightful honored places among the nations. The fact that the tensions in South Africa could be as fraught as anywhere in Africa, yet avoid the kind of apocalypse that befell Zimbabwe, or Somalia, or Sudan, or Ethiopia, or Rwanda, or Nigeria, or worst of all, the Congo, has to be counted an unambiguous triumph. The country muddles through, lives another day, fights the good fight against a world structured to cause their failure. 

And since we're already on South Africa, we could go down a very long rabbit hole and talk for episodes at a time about Gandhi, whom people often forget spent the first half of his career there. I'm sure Gandhi will come up in future episodes, perhaps many times. 

But the reason to even mention Gandhi is to emphasize how different a figure he was to Mandela. The historical figure Mandela resembles far more - and I'm sure this comparison will drive a number of listeners crazy for completely opposed reasons - is David Ben-Gurion - the first Prime Minister of Israel and the most important Zionist for a full half-century. Both Mandela and Ben-Gurion were practical socialists ready to give up their supposed principles at the first sign that they could create advantages for their constituents, were willing to make peace as often as use violence. In their wake, they both created great, vital, democratic societies that, in spite of extraordinary flaws, survive from one era to the next, comprised of peoplehoods who had every reason to expect that the world would hand them the same suffering handed to their peoplehood elsewhere. Through a combination of olive branches and violent strikes that were reactive to the violence which surrounded them, their vision created nations. Would, however, either their nations have less problems if had their tactics been still more selective in their violence? Well... the world will never know.

And that brings us to Martin Luther King, who now seems to be all things to all people. There has, in recent years, been a serious push on the left to reclaim him as an agitating, discomforting force. It's not hard to understand why. In an age when Martin Luther King gets lip service paid by the same old racists who in their youths wished for his death, his embrace by the Right should be considered a scandal.

Yes, Martin Luther King was an agitating force in American life who aggressively pushed Americans to realize all manner of inequalities: racial, legal, and financial, that, properly applied, would still be an incredibly uncomfortable message for the vast majority of Americans. He is now taken up, though, by people who refuse to renounce the validity of violence as a specifically political tactic. And to claim that MLK would ever do the same is a revisionist history of a revisionist history. It's true, MLK said that rioting is the language of the unheard, and even if that's not necessarily true - Mugabe among many, many other examples, proved that riots can always be directed by richer and more powerful people toward the objects of rage they sanction, it's not completely untrue either. But even so, understanding the reasons why people riot should never be confused with the support and encouragement of directed acts violence for political means, which MLK never gave any indication of supporting. There is an ocean's gulf between spontaneous rioting of the poor and specific acts of violence, one is the language of desperation, one is the language of terror. And just as the Right wing has an innate temptation to excuse authoritarianism, the Left wing has an innate temptation to excuse terrorism. 

You could never say with any certainty that, to take one of the most common accusations, Black Lives Matter endorses specifically targeted political violence, and that would be so completely outside the mainstream of what it stands for that it would almost be offensive to suggest it. Yet it wouldn't be completely offensive either. Black Lives Matter a much larger, perhaps unwieldy, political movement than itself. When people speak about BLM, they as often as not don't know to which organization they're speaking. They may not be speaking specifically about BLM but instead about The Movement for Black Lives which is the umbrella organization for the campaign for which all the groups under which BLM protests, they might be speaking of Campaign Zero - a movement for police reform, they might even be speaking about the National Anthem protests. If these people are particularly sloppy, they might even might be speaking about Antifa, the even more nebulous conglomeration of extreme protest groups worldwide whose tactics are not limited to dressing in black from head to toe, breaking windows, and throwing molotov cocktails. Or 20 other more minor protest movements. All of these movements are related, but they're far from the same, and therein lies the spirit of our times when the wings of inclusion spread so wide that it's just assumed that anything noxious which inclusion picks up along the way will be so watered down by all the other elements that the noxiousness will simply dissolve. And that's a big and very risky wager not backed up by the trajectory of similarly inclusive movements in the past. All you have to do is take a quick glance at the trajectory of 19th century socialist movements to see where that ended up in the long term. 

Whether it's been Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, or Me Too, there is a deliberate looseness to all of these non-Presidential mass movements in the name of inclusion. But as a result of it, the flanks within them have to distinguish themselves to become noticed. Therefore, the more extreme the rhetoric of any flank within it, the more noticed it becomes, and the more widespread a chance the rhetoric has for adaptation. And when poisonous ideas get the cover of good intentions, it becomes still easier for people to adapt to concepts they would otherwise see as ideological poison. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

It's Not Even Past #10 - A Little More

So before we go any further forward with the Eric Hoffer quote we started last week, I think I have to quote him slightly out of order to talk about his exceptions to mass movements - those moments, not many of them but hugely consequential when done correctly, when mass movements can be harnessed for good, just so we can understand right away that these mass movements of ours may, not will, but may, eventually have a beneficial outcome. I'm sure you understand at this point that I'm pessimistic about it, but I'm willing to concede that it's certainly possible. But in each of these cases, there is a leader who directs them. It's in the nature of bottom up movements that their benefits can be snapped up all the easier by people with power. A mass movement is too chaotic to not eventually cohere behind a single leader because once the scale is tipped to a single flank of the movement, no other flank is yet powerful enough to stop them - or usually him. The more leaderless and democratic a mass movement seems, the more it usually seems to cohere behind a single leader, and once it does, it's at the leader's mercy, whether that leader aims to for the good of the people for whom he or she speaks, or for the good of his or her own glory, is something that cannot be controlled by its followers once the leader takes its reins. 
There are, of course, rare leaders such as Lincoln, Gandhi, even F.D.R., Churchill and Nehru. They did not hesitate to harness man's hungers and fears to weld a following and make it zealous unto death in the service of a holy cause; but unlike a Hitler, a Stalin, or even a Luther and a Calvin, they are not tempted to use the slime of frustrated souls as mortar in the building of a new world. The self-confidence of these rare leaders is derived from and blended with their faith in humanity, for they know that no one can be honorable unless he honors mankind. 
Let's start unpacking this with a sidenote: to include Churchill in 2018 among this band of great leaders in 2018 is an extraordinarily controversial opinion - Churchill's reputation took a huge dive in our era given both his extreme imperialism and his lionization by Bush-era neoconservatives. Nobody should deny that to call Churchill one of the world's great leaders is, at best, an extremely problematic claim. But ask yourself: if the urge toward Conservatism is always going to be with us no matter how badly we want to curb its most reactionary excesses, and I certainly believe that the evidence shows it will, what kind of conservatism do you want to help foster among people who will always believe in it? Do you want right wingers who excuse the authoritarianism of the Right because at least it's Right Wing, or that looks at the authoritarianism of the Right and says 'absolutely not'? Racism will always be with us, so would you rather have racists who believe it's acceptable to treat supposedly inferior races in any and all manner of inhumane ways, or racists who believes that civilization demands that you treat the people ruled with at least some level of decency. The latter is the kind of conservative that you want as an opponent, a voice that demands respect for tradition and cautions against change that's too fast. It's the kind of conservatism that has fundamentally died in America, 

It's all well and good to say 'I don't want either kind of conservative.' But that's not an option, and every time you write conservatives off as the enemy, you leave them to their own devices and let their worst urges fester into something even more noxious. Whatever one thinks of George W. Bush, and I think he's an authoritarian reactionary rather than a conservative, there is a reason that the Obamas have made an enormous show of embracing the Bushes. The Bush Administration was far beyond the pale of any kind of conservatism that is good for America, but in showing a united front against Trump, the Obamas (and yes, the Clintons too), have shown how American liberals can embrace conservatives and even try to influence them to come around to less reactionary views. 

The True Believer was written in 1951, and since then, you would have to at very least add Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela to this list, and possibly Caesar Chavez, Alice Paul who headed the National Women's Party which fundamentally the organization that secured women the right to vote and the inclusion of women as a protected group under the Civil Rights act of 1964, the Czech leader Vaclav Havel, and even Lech Walesa, another name that would make liberals distinctly uncomfortable if they remembered who he was anymore... look him up.... 


There is a second uncomfortable truth to which this leads us. It's one thing for leaders like Lincoln or FDR, staring into the abyss of a world that was headed for war anyway, and turning that war machine into something that can better humanity, but when you have leaders like Gandhi, MLK, who have no backing of a state, or Mandela, who did not have the backing of a state during his most consequential period... I'm sure you see where I'm going with this. 

We could go down a rabbit hole and talk for an entire episode about Gandhi, and I'm sure he'll come up in future episodes, perhaps many times. The case of Mandela is rather unique, and we'll talk about why that is in a moment. But in the case of Martin Luther King, who now seems to be all things to all people, there has, in recent years, been a serious push on the left to reclaim him as an agitating, discomforting force. In an age when Martin Luther King gets lip service paid by the same old racists who in their youths wished for his death should be enough to drive anybody crazy. 

Yes, Martin Luther King was an agitating force in American life who aggressively pushed Americans to realize all manner of inequalities: racial, legal, and financial, that, properly applied, would still be an incredibly uncomfortable message for the vast majority of Americans. He is now taken up, though, by people who refuse to renounce the validity of violence as a specifically political tactic. And to claim that MLK would ever do the same is a revisionist history of a revisionist history. It's true, MLK said that rioting is the language of the unheard, and even if that's not necessarily true - riots can always be directed by richer and more powerful people toward the objects of rage they sanction, it's not completely untrue either. Even so, understanding the reasons why people riot should never be confused with the support and encouragement of specific and targeted acts of violence for political means, which MLK never gave any indication of doing. There is an ocean's gulf between spontaneous rioting of the poor and specific acts of violence, one is the language of despair, one is the language of terror. And just as the Right wing has an innate temptation to excuse authoritarianism, the Left wing has an innate temptation to excuse terrorism. 

You could never say with any certainty that, to take one of the most common accusations, Black Lives Matter endorses specifically targeted political violence, and that would be so completely outside the mainstream of what it stands for that it would almost be offensive to suggest it. Yet it wouldn't be completely offensive either. Black Lives Matter a much larger, perhaps unwieldy, political movement than itself. When people speak about BLM, they as often as not don't know to which organization they're speaking. They may not be speaking specifically about BLM but instead about The Movement for Black Lives which is the umbrella organization for the campaign for which all the groups under which BLM protests, they might be speaking of Campaign Zero - a movement for police reform, they might even be speaking about the National Anthem protests. Or 20 other more minor protest movements. All of these movements are related, but they're far from the same, and therein lies the spirit of our times when the wings of inclusion spread so wide that it's just assumed that anything noxious which inclusion picks up along the way will be so watered down by all the other elements that the noxiousness will simply dissolve. And that's a big and very risky wager not backed up by the trajectory of similarly inclusive movements in the past. All you have to do is take a quick glance at the trajectory of 19th century socialist movements to see where that ended up in the long term. 

Whether it's been Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, or Me Too, there is a deliberate looseness to all of these non-Presidential mass movements in the name of inclusion. But as a result of it, the flanks within them have to distinguish themselves to become noticed. Therefore, the more extreme the rhetoric of any flank within it, the more noticed it becomes, and the more widespread a chance the rhetoric has for adaptation. And when poisonous ideas get the cover of good intentions, it becomes still easier for people to adapt to concepts they would otherwise see as ideological poison. 







It's Not Even Past #10 - Beginning

So before we go any further forward with the Eric Hoffer quote we started last week, I think I have to quote him slightly out of order to talk about his exceptions to mass movements - those moments, not many of them but hugely consequential when done correctly, when mass movements can be harnessed for good, just so we can understand right away that these mass movements of ours may, not will, but may, eventually have a beneficial outcome. I'm sure you understand at this point that I'm pessimistic about it, but I'm willing to concede that it's certainly possible. But in each of these cases, there is a leader who directs them. It's in the nature of bottom up movements that their benefits can be snapped up all the easier by people with power. A mass movement is too chaotic to not eventually cohere behind a single leader because once the scale is tipped to a single flank of the movement, no other flank is yet powerful enough to stop them - or usually him. The more leaderless and democratic a mass movement seems, the more it usually seems to cohere behind a single leader, and once it does, it's at the leader's mercy, whether that leader aims to for the good of the people for whom he or she speaks, or for the good of his or her own glory, is something that cannot be controlled by its followers once the leader takes its reins. 
There are, of course, rare leaders such as Lincoln, Gandhi, even F.D.R., Churchill and Nehru. They did not hesitate to harness man's hungers and fears to weld a following and make it zealous unto death in the service of a holy cause; but unlike a Hitler, a Stalin, or even a Luther and a Calvin, they are not tempted to use the slime of frustrated souls as mortar in the building of a new world. The self-confidence of these rare leaders is derived from and blended with their faith in humanity, for they know that no one can be honorable unless he honors mankind. 
Let's start unpacking this with a sidenote: to include Churchill in 2018 among this band of great leaders in 2018 is an extraordinarily controversial opinion - Churchill's reputation took a huge dive in our era given both his extreme imperialism and his lionization by Bush-era neoconservatives. Nobody should deny that to call Churchill one of the world's great leaders is, at best, an extremely problematic claim. But ask yourself: if the urge toward Conservatism is always going to be with us no matter how badly we want to curb its most reactionary excesses, and I certainly believe that the evidence shows it will, what kind of conservatism do you want to help foster among people who will always believe in it? Do you want right wingers who excuse the authoritarianism of the Right because at least it's Right Wing, or that looks at the authoritarianism of the Right and says 'absolutely not'? Racism will always be with us, so would you rather have racists who believe it's acceptable to treat supposedly inferior races in any and all manner of inhumane ways, or racists who believes that civilization demands that you treat the people ruled with at least some level of decency. The latter is the kind of conservative that you want as an opponent, a voice that demands respect for tradition and cautions against change that's too fast. It's the kind of conservatism that has fundamentally died in America, 

It's all well and good to say 'I don't want either kind of conservative.' But that's not an option, and every time you write conservatives off as the enemy, you leave them to their own devices and let their worst urges fester into something even more noxious. Whatever one thinks of George W. Bush, and I think he's an authoritarian reactionary rather than a conservative, there is a reason that the Obamas have made an enormous show of embracing the Bushes. The Bush Administration was far beyond the pale of any kind of conservatism that is good for America, but in showing a united front against Trump, the Obamas (and yes, the Clintons too), have shown how American liberals can embrace conservatives and even try to influence them to come around to less reactionary views. 

The True Believer was written in 1951, and since then, you would have to at very least add Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela to this list, and possibly Caesar Chavez, Alice Paul who headed the National Women's Party which fundamentally the organization that secured women the right to vote and the inclusion of women as a protected group under the Civil Rights act of 1964, the Czech leader Vaclav Havel, and even Lech Walesa, another name that would make liberals distinctly uncomfortable if they remembered who he was anymore... look him up.... 

But what makes each of them possible was, as always, the historical moment. In any mass movement, the threat of violence is always implied. What 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

It's Not Even Past #9 - Complete - Lack All Conviction/Passionate Intensity - Mass Movements in the New America

It's always difficult in these radical times to not append any label upon yourself. It's always when societies begin to unwind that people become radicalized. Things are not any worse than they were fifty years ago, in many ways they are better. From a certain point of view, it's always true that nothing in this world is ever good. But some societies, broken by war and newly rebuilt, develop a new appreciation for the dysfunctional, hobbling societies that still manage to live on to the next day. 

But when we get used to the lives we live, we focus ever more on those things about it that don't work and instead of realizing that life can be a terribly tragic thing that little by little we can make better, we become obsessed by pulling the tree out from the roots, and in doing so, eventually make that sturdy thing that is a functional society as fragile as we can, until someone with grand promises can burn the whole thing down in a great bonfire of the vanities. 

And in such moments, it's very easy to commit to a project of a transcendent possibility that changes the fundamental rules of human progress without realizing that with every progression comes a regression. Two steps forward, one point nine-nine steps back, and the true progress is left to be reaped by future generations. The same 'isms' always present themselves, old ideas with new cosmetics, and it becomes increasingly difficult to not surrender a large part of your individuality to a supposedly greater cause. The intelligent among you become less interesting, less unique, less possible, than you could be. The most functional among you become cogs in a great machine, instead of becoming great artists and teachers and scientists, you become financial planners and lawyers and ad-men. The slightly more rebellious among you who were a little less 'with the program' become 'committed', you may become artists and teachers and scientists, but rather than learn and discover, you become socially committed in manners that subordinate your individuality to larger movements - you embrace religion whole-heartedly, whether you buy wholeheartedly into the monotheistic religions or even pagan religions, or into the allegedly 'new' religions of libertarianism, anarchism, communism, intersectionalism, postmodernism, and all their various incarnations, it is religion, and it is a tumor. We all have these tumors within us, but some, like liberalism and feminism can be much more benign, but even these, when infected by these other isms, can grossly metastasize into something that attacks the whole societal body. 

When I was ever so slightly younger, I was truly furious about all this. It felt like we were going off a cliff, and I was doing my small part to yell at, and unfortunately in retrospect, to bully others to try to keep the country from going off it. Much good it obviously did. Now, we've gone off, and the anger that once was mine has transferred to the souls of others. In the wake of this revolutionary era when the societal changes are truly dizzying, I have to leave the anger to others. Nothing is served by being angry. All that remains for me now is a certain sadness that people are chasing societal possibilities that cannot ever be. 

And as I do this podcast more, what I realize is that the point of it is as best one can precisely not to editorialize on politics, but simply to try and record cultural movements as they are, and as best one can, to try to understand why people come to the conclusions they do, and while not to view it through the now-ideologized term, empathy, at least view them with sympathy. One famous musician put it like this: be aristocrats in art, but democrats in life, and as best one can, don't judge people too harshly for coming to a different point of view than yours. It's not just that it's uncharitable, it's also boring. Inveighing against the excesses of ideological movements is not just incredibly tiresome for the listener, it's also tiresome for the talker. What I've come to realize as I've just barely matured is that it's much, much more intellectually satisfying to trace people's thoughts to their roots and do one's best to understand why people believe what they believe. Whether or not I agree or disagree is, in some sense at least, immaterial to any subject at hand, and the more I do this podast, I realize that the by keeping the editorial voice to a minimum about politics, the more extremely I can editorialize when it comes to works of art, which I think is i a hundred times more interesting than politics on its most exciting day. We live in an age when everything is interpreted through the distorting lens of ideology, so rather, as so many people today do, than making political movements the lens through which we judge art, let's make art the lens through which we judge politics and the world.

But at the same time, 'as best one can' doesn't mean that you leave your opinions behind. What we think is what we think, and I suppose that part of the reason I do this podcast is because it goes without saying that I just so happen to believe that I see the world at least a little bit more clearly than most people do. That doesn't necessarily mean I'm more perceptive, and certainly there are all manner of ways in which the vast majority of people are much more intelligent than I am. But when it comes to seeing the things of the world in the context of the other things of the world, I do think I do a reasonably good job of it. I've gotten plenty wrong over the years, but unlike most people, I keep a very long tab of where I've been wrong and do what I can to scrupulously admit it. When I think of how bad I predicted things would get in the next year, I feel a little humiliated, like I'm histrionic boy who cries wolf at the sight of a puppy chihuahua. But history never stops, and even if the world shakes to nowhere near the extent I worried it would so far, who can deny that it's shaking very hard?

 Politically, I suppose it goes without saying that I'm not of the Right, I'm certainly not of the Left - and I'm reminded more of that every day, but I'm not really a person of the center either. I'm a centrist in the sense that I find ideologies in general to be loathesome things that destroy people's independence of mind, but ideologies are poison because they warp people's individuality, not the people themselves. By pointing trollish and angry fingers at individual people rather than the intellectual forces that warp them, and I still won't sugarcoat that word, I've become the intolerance of which I'm so intolerant. As best we can, we have to understand each other, especially when we disagree. The only alternative to greater sympathy is greater hostility, which can only end in violence. 

But yet again, greater sympathy for some; or if you insist on that unfortunate word of this era: greater empathy for some, requires greater hatred of others. If the heart guides the head through this world, then there is no check on the passions they inspire, and they can inspire anything at all. The only 'ism' to which I will ever subscribe is liberalism, because liberalism is the politics of freedom, the freedom to be a free individual who can both pursue what he values and help others to do the same; ergo, the freedom from being dictated to by any other ism. If that means making alliances with other isms, I have no problem with that, and I will do my very best to never judge too harshly those who subscribe elsewhere, even if I will never do the same. As a liberal, I will do my best to realize that your beliefs are your own affair. I will judge a little more harshly, however, if people use those 'isms' in the name of curtailing freedom. What I try to be, and what I wish more people did, is not to be a mushy centrist that takes the middle tack between any two extremes, no matter how weird or dumb, but a relentlessly critical and analytical liberal that both mercilessly critiques ideas for what is lacking in them, and also happily acknowledges those places where these new and old ideas get things very right. 

So here we are in 2018. Change has moved so quickly that none of us have stopped feeling whiplash since two years ago; but change has been a fact of our lives since the moment we were born. My mini-generation, the supposed X-ennials, were born into the Cold War. The Soviet Union ended just as we reached sentience, and a few years later, the world decamped to the internet. My father's parents had something at least resembling an arranged marriage and grew up reading by candlelight, when I was a kid in the 80's, they barely ever drove over thirty miles an hour and couldn't figure out a microwave or a VCR. Imagine what they would make of an i-Phone or Facebook or Occulus Rift. 

Can anybody argue, though, that in the last three-and-a-half years or so, the pace of change has redoubled yet again? Already in February of 2015, a good friend of mine and I both saw this change as it was happening and said that the world was about to undergo something earthshakingly different, and certainly nothing has happened since then to convince me otherwise. We both agreed that a new air began in September 2014 with the assassination of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. This isn't the episode to get into the specifics of police violence or its racial disparities, the point of mentioning the Michael Brown affair in this podcast is the social media involved in its spread: youtube, twitter, facebook. Not Fox News, not Talk Radio, not even the Drudge Report, could keep up with the Hands Up Don't Shoot message spreading through the 'resistance internet' like wildfire. Critical mass had been reached, and for good or bad, a counterweight to the top-down right wing media which dominated America for a generation had been created - a grassroots, bottom up, system of political resistance messaging that didn't seem to need anyone to control the message, if anything, its narrative was self controlling, because each commentator to gain notoriety did so by spreading a message more extreme than any which someone had suggested before. It is resistance fever. Everything since that moment, in retrospect, feels a bit foreordained. 

Eric Hoffer, one of the great American thinkers and aphorists, of course, has a long and choice quote for this moment in history from his most famous book: The True Believer. It's so apropos that we're only going to get to the first half of it this week. 
The militant man of words prepares the ground for the rise of a mass movement: 1) by discrediting the prevailing creeds and institutions and detatching from them the allegiance of the people; 2) by indirectly creating a hunger for faith in the hearts of those who cannot live without it, so that when the new faith is preached it [inspires] an eager response among the disillusioned masses; 3) by furnishing the doctrine and the slogans of the new faith; 4) by undermining the convictions of the "better people" - those who can get along without faith--so that when the new fanaticism makes its appearance they are without the capacity to resist it. They see no sense in in dying for convictions and principles, and yield to the new order without a fight.
Thus, when the irreverent intellectual has done his work: "The best lack all conviction/while the worst are full of passionate intensity./Surely some revelation is at hand,/Surely the second coming is at hand.
The stage is now set for fanatics. 
I'm sure almost all of you recognize the stanza from Yeats's poem 'The Second Coming.' But is there anything, anything at all, that is more prevalent in today's America than lack of faith in our institutions? This is the country that was at the forefront of guaranteeing civil rights to women, immigrants, and workers, and lest you think that so much of the rest of the world does all of that better, it would do you well to remember how recent a phenomenon that is, and if many countries have now excelled us in civil rights, they would have never known how without the United States' example. We are the country of the GI Bill and land-grant colleges, the Homestead Act of 1862 which sold hundreds millions of acres to millions of people in poverty. We are the country that innovated Food and Drug regulation and environmental protection, Social Security and Medicare, built and maintained roads and broadcasting networks that cross an entire continent. Put the first man on the Moon and as a result developed all the computer technology we now take for granted. We bled hundreds of thousands to end slavery and defeat all manner of totalitarianism. However many student loans our generation has, our government still provides us with the means to go to college. However hard it is to live with a disability, the government still gives us money to live and has any number of equal opportunity laws that are enforced. However much we may need more of it, we have universal public education, we have food stamps, we have regulations for toxic chemicals, we have minimum wage, we have family leave, national parks, copyright and patent law, labor protections if you go on strike, school lunch programs, protections from pollution for clean air, federal dams, deposit insurance for bank accounts, weather warnings, laws against discrimination, disaster relief, meat and dairy inspection, thousands and thousands of miles of park trail, an engineer corps to run our ports, the world's largest library, safe drinking water, small business loans, the world's safest air traffic control, 39 billion tons of cargo per year, an all-too cautious food and drug administration to keep us safe from poison, 60% of all university research funding, a National Institute of Health that mapped the Human Genome, a National Cancer Institute that's made so many discoveries, government and veteran hospitals that treat millions of people every year. 

We have come so far in this part of the world, how can anyone, looking at the history of this country, ever imagine that we cannot come so much further? And all this was not just done by America but by the public subsidy of the United States Government; but you'd never remember that talking to most people today. We only hear when things go wrong, because we have had it so relatively well to the rest of human history that perhaps as of seventy years ago, we became the first society in the history of the world who ever expected that we would live good lives rather than bad ones, and treated it - hopefully rightly - as something we were owed. It's only news if things go wrong, and we are flooded with news as never before. But in the span of time, it is still a blink of an eye since the world was not like this,  

But the American Right now lambasts America for allowing the United States government to do all that, and the American Left now lambasts America for not doing still doing still much much more. As Bill Clinton said, there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America. And yet the one thing the two sides of American life seem to agree on is that they want nothing more than a revolution -- to tear it all down and start all over. And the more they agitate for it, the more successful they grow. The desire to see a society fail is self-fulfilling. All you have to do is refuse to get enough people to refuse to make it work. If you get a fifteen million people on either side of American discourse to say that 'our government is inherently evil', you significantly deplete us of our civil service: our teachers, our inspectors, our public servants, and our government becomes something much closer to inherently evil, which then convinces another fifteen million on either side. 

The old me would look at all those millions of you who believe all that and say 'what a crew of monsters.' Because we all find it very difficult to let our old selves go. 

Anyway, let's continue:
The tragic figures in the history of a mass movement are often the intellectual precursors who live long enough to see the downfall of the old order by the action of the masses. 
The impression that mass movements, and revolutions in particular, are born of the resolve of the masses to overthrow a corrupt and oppressive tyranny and win for themselves freedom of action, speech and conscience has its origin in the din of words let loose by the intellectual originators of the movement in their skirmishes with the prevailing order. The fact that mass movements as they arise often manifest less individual freedom than the order they supplant, is usually ascribed to the trickery of a power-hungry clique that kidnaps the movement at a critical stage and cheats the masses of the freedom about to dawn. Actually, the only people cheated in the process are the intellectual precursors. They rise against the established order, deride its irrationality and incompetence, denounce its illegitimacy and oppressiveness, and call for freedom of self-expression and self-realization. They take it for granted that the masses who respond to their call and range themselves behind them crave the same things. However, the freedom the masses crave is not freedom of self-expression and self-realization, but freedom from the intolerable burden of an autonomous existence. They want freedom from "the fearful burden of free choice," freedom from the arduous responsibility of realizing their intellectual selves and shouldering the blame for the blemished product. They do not want freedom of conscience but faith -- blind, authoritarian faith. They sweep away the old order not to create a society of free and independent men, but to establish uniformity, individual anonymity and a new structure of perfect unity. It is not the wickedness of the old regime they rise against but its weakness; not its oppression but its failure to hammer them together into one solid, mighty whole. The persuasiveness of the intellectual demagogue consists not so much in convicting people of the vileness of the established order as in demonstrating its helpless incompetence. The immediate result of a mass movement usually corresponds to what the people want. They are not cheated in the process. 
The reason for the tragic fate which almost always overtakes the intellectual midwives of the mass movement is that, no matter how much they preach and glorify the united effort, they remain essentially individualists. They believe in the possibility of individual happiness and the validity of individual opinion and initiative. But once a movement gets rolling, power falls into the hands of those who have neither faith in, nor respect for, the individual. And the reason they prevail is not so much that their disregard of the individual gives them a capacity for ruthlessness, but that their attitude is in full accord with the ruling passion of the masses.
So never mind Mass Movements of the Right. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we have seen right-wing Mass Movement after Movement every few years for the last fifty - fundamentalist Christian, pro-business libertarian, military-industrial neoconservative, they're such a fact of our lives that we take them for granted. To do justice to it that has to be the subject of many podcasts. But in the last decade, we have seen something unprecedented in the lifetimes of anyone who was not alive in the 1930's. Five mass movements of the Left in a single decade: the Obama campaign, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Me Too. I don't even think the Sixties can compare with this proliferation. Such a proliferation is only possible in a generation too young to remember the Soviet Union and therefore much more anxious than past generations to make their fondest dreams of progress a reality.

So what, ultimately, have these mass movements accomplished? In the case of the Obama campaign, a whole damn lot, but not at all what Obama's fondest cheerleaders hoped for. Obama is easily the most consequential president since Reagan or even Johnson, or maybe even any President since Roosevelt. In the opinion of the more liberal half of this country he was a much better President than Reagan and without LBJ's glaring flaws. And perhaps still more important than Obama's effect on the present is his effect on the American and world future, not, as many suppose, by his unique identity, but by articulating a political philosophy of liberalism, or as he often put it, communitarianism, as no President, even FDR or Kennedy, ever did. Just listen to a brief quote from Richard Hofstadter, another great mid-century American liberal thinker, about Roosevelt and precisely where Franklin Roosevelt was lacking.
Franklin D. Roosevelt stands out among the statesmen of modern American liberalism--and indeed among all statesmen since Hamilton--for his sense of the failure of tradition, his recognition for the need of novelty and daring. His capacity for innovation in practical measures was striking, and the New Deal marked many deviations in the American course, but his capacity for innovation in ideas was far from comparable; he was neither systematic nor consistent, and he provided no clearly articulated break from the inherited faith. Although it has been said repeatedly that we need a new conception of the world to replace the ideology of self-help, free enterprise, competition, and benevolent cupidity upon which Americans have been nourished since the foundation of the Republic, no new conceptions of comparable strength have taken root and no statesman with a great mass following has arisen to propound them.
 It took another sixty years and nearly a second Great Depression to find it, but we finally got Obama in the absolute nick of time. 

So what was this philosophy which Obama articulated? It is the Communitarian philosophy - not social justice per se and certainly not intersectionality, but nor is it unrelated to them. The idea that the individual cannot exist without being defined by the community in which he, she, and they live. Just think of Obama's address to the UN Assembly in 2014:
We choose hope over fear. We see the future not as something out of our control, but as something we can shape for the better through concerted and collective effort. 
Or the 2016 Democratic Convention which marries social justice with patriotism:
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!
Or his farewell address:
The long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some. 
This insistence, not necessarily for social justice, but for social action, is very new. I think that if you search the speeches of FDR or JFK or LBJ, you will find plenty calls to community responsibility, but you will not find calls to - and notice how Obama upends a conservative idea - to make freedom for all the End of History. It is an insistence on social justice, but it's social justice as a uniquely American goal that embraces the idea that America is a good place, a force for progress, a place that has easily done more to drive the worldwide push for freedom for all than any other place in the world history. Even at its best, America always had a messianic call to exceptionalism, and Obama, contrary to what so many conservatives and moderates allege, was very much in line with it. The difference is that he pushed that exceptionalism to a degree that embraced all humans of all kinds. 

Now individual freedom has been so part and parcel of the American experience that it cannot be overemphasized how radical a break with American history it is, and while conservatives are wrong that this communitarian outlook is commensurate with authoritarianism, they sensed in their bones that this would render their conception of American life obsolete. Was opposition to Obama based in part on racism? Of course! But racism is also an ideology, and only a part of a much larger worldview that sees nothing wrong with the individual rights of one man trampling on the rights of other millions. And this is how, in this Second Gilded Age, the top 1% of America possesses 40% of the nation's wealth, while the bottom 80% has 7% of the nation's wealth. The top 1% of the nation wealth holders have more disposable income than the bottom 90%.

Republicans will allege that ultimately, America still has a very high standard of living, and it's not exactly wrong. Just to take one common Republican statistic, if the income of Black America were its own country, it would still be somewhere around the 20th richest country in the world - now, mind you, in raw purchasing power, Black America is quite a bit lower down the list. But if there is a relatively high standard of living for roughly 2/3rds to 4/5ths of this country, that can only be true by acquiring staggering debt - not just the $20ish trillion of national debt which everybody always talks about, but, more immediately, the nearly $40ish trillion of personal debt. We've let everyone in this country borrow on credit and loan rather than fix the financial inequalities, and if we keep that going indefinitely, there will be a seizmic shock that will propel us straight into an irredeemable third world living standard that could take centuries to rebuild. Bernie Sanders is not all wrong, if this country is to survive as a place worth defending for the 22nd century, then there has to be a titanic financial reckoning in which there is a breathtaking wealth redistribution. If that's not possible, then neither is American experiment as something worth continuing.  

Obama as a phenomenon bought America a new lease on life that makes America worth defending even in the Era of Trump and quite possibly well past it. But no matter what the Left now thinks of Obama, it's worth remembering how often the Left fell out of and back in love with Obama as time went on, and I believe that that's because, as a mass movement, Obama was a colossal disappointment to them. The cliche that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose could not have been more true than in Obama's case. Obama was never going to be able to deliver on his promise to unite the country, because his  philosophy of communal responsibility - which appealed so much to liberals and progressives and even socialists, was so unbelievably out of step with any thought a conservative person would ever think. In the wake of eight years of George W. Bush, Obama rode a wave of Leftist rage utterly justified rage mind you, and turned that rage into hope. He promised them a more hopeful future, and must have known to an enormous extent that that promise was empty. 

I voted for Obama in the '08 primary because I found some of Hillary Clinton's tactics against Obama to be unconscionable - particularly her not very subtle insistence that Obama was in danger of being assassinated, which sounded not quite unlike an incitement to assassination, one not completely unlike Donald Trump's many incitements in 2016 for fanatics to assassinate her. But I was not particularly crazy about Obama in 2008, I saw Obama's campaign as an irrational mass movement, which was what so many people loved about it. But Obama was a completely different President than he was a candidate, and the realism that most left-of-liberals hated in Obama's governing philosophy was precisely what I loved - a determination to wring every social change that was possible out of the existing framework, while realizing that transforming American society beyond recognition was impossible without destroying something that is still very much worth preserving. 

When, by 2011, that transformative promise people saw in Obama was clearly not fulfilled against that wall of political, intellectual, and yes, utterly racist, resistance from a monolithic Republican coalition, new mass movements of the Left were formed, each of them a long suppressed howl of rage; barely tempered by any hope that American life will ever get better, and therefore determined to take what so many Americans are determined not to give. So far, there have been four of these movements, there will probably be many more. 

We'll talk about those four next week, and I have a sinking feeling we're going to be covering this subject for quite a while.