Barack Obama asks, “Why is it that the folks that won the last election are so mad all the time?”

It seems like a clever line:

“Why is it that the folks that won the last election are so mad all the time?” [Barack] Obama asked a crowd of 4,000 as the fifth interrupting protester was escorted out of a Miami rally on Friday [November 2]. Any further shouts were drowned out by the crowd’s roar.[1]

And it would seem to have earned the audience’s approval. But what this line actually illustrates is how utterly clueless the former president is—and a lot of other folks are—about authoritarian populism.

Authoritarian populists have been mad for over a millennium. The short answer to Barack Obama’s question is simply that it will take much, much more than even a completely unrestrained and absolutely dictatorial Donald Trump to assuage this anger.

It’s an anger that, according to Colin Woodard, first arrived in what would become the United States in 1717,

from the war-torn borderlands of northern Britain: lowland Scotland, the adjacent Marches of northern England, and the Scots-Irish-controlled north of Ireland. Their ancestors had weathered 800 years of nearly constant warfare. . . .[2]

Woodard quotes an unnamed foreign diplomat as describing the north of England as “very poor and uncultivated and exceedingly wretched . . . from the perpetual wars with which these nations have savagely destroyed each other”[3] These people, whom Woodard calls Borderlanders,

learned to rely only on themselves and their extended families to defend home, hearth, and kin against intruders, be they foreign soldiers, Irish guerrilla fighters, or royal tax collectors.” They saw themselves as “God’s chosen people, members of a biblical nation sanctified in blood and watched over by a wrathful Old Testament deity. Suspicious of outside authority of any kind, the Borderlanders valued individual liberty and personal honor above all else, and were happy to take up arms to defend either.”[4]

Sound familiar? It should. These people, who occupied what Woodard calls Greater Appalachia,[5] live on today as Trump’s authoritarian populist base. Thomas Frank describes them as suspicious of political, economic, and academic elites; as resentful of their primary and secondary school experiences; as suspicious of sexuality education; and as having had their votes taken for granted by those I call functionalist conservatives, who had promised social conservative policies but only occasionally delivered.[6] Frank writes that

the leaders of the backlash—the same canny people, remember, who are responsible for such masterpieces of political strategy as the Florida 2000 election result and the campaign for Social Security privatization—have chosen to wage cultural battles where victory is impossible, where their followers’ feelings of powerlessness will be dramatized and their alienation aggravated. Take, for example, the backlash fury-object du jour as I write this, the Alabama Ten Commandments monument, which was erected deliberately to provoke an ACLU lawsuit and which could come to no other possible end than being pried loose and carted away. Or even the great abortion controversy, which mobilizes millions but which cannot be put to rest without a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

As culture war, the backlash was born to lose. Its goal is not to win cultural battles but to take offense, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly. Indignation is the great aesthetic principle of backlash culture; voicing the fury of the imposed-upon is to the backlash what the guitar solo is to heavy metal. Indignation is the privileged emotion, the magic moment that brings a consciousness of rightness and a determination to persist.[7]

Frank is on to more than a little when he describes a backlash. These folks don’t actually have an idea of what the world they desire looks like. They are simply about revulsion, revulsion against outside authority and revulsion against outsiders. They personify the “us” in “us” versus “them.” Their “we” constantly faces “invaders” and their “we” must constantly do battle against “them” to protect their “us.” They simply want to destroy everything they see as having been imposed upon them over a thousand years of history.

They don’t even have anything like a proper understanding of that history—that would require education. This is rather a resentment that has been passed down and nurtured from generation to generation and that gains adherents with every elite arrogance.

Perhaps you agree with Obama’s policies. Perhaps you disagree. But for authoritarian populists, a Black president from the Democratic Party could not possibly be “our” president. He was “socialist” not because he was actually socialist (he wasn’t). He was “Muslim” not because he was actually a Muslim (he wasn’t). He was “born in Kenya” not because he was actually born in Kenya (he wasn’t). He was all of these things simply because he couldn’t possibly be one of “us.” And therefore he was to be fought against and repelled at all costs.

You might read all this and think to yourself, this isn’t a governing ideology. And you’d be right, absolutely right. It isn’t. And that’s the truly scary thing about Trump: He is in an office that authoritarian populists were never supposed to occupy. He is there because functionalist conservatives—the mainstream elite whose existential concern is to preserve their positions relative to the rest of society—underestimated authoritarian populist anger.

Which Obama still does.

  1. [1]Cleve R. Wootson, Jr., “Obama rips hecklers: Why are the people who won the last election ‘so mad all the time?’” Washington Post, November 3, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2018/11/03/obama-rips-hecklers-why-are-people-who-won-last-election-so-mad-all-time/
  2. [2]Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Penguin, 2011), 101.
  3. [3]Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Penguin, 2011), 102.
  4. [4]Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Penguin, 2011), 102.
  5. [5]Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Penguin, 2011).
  6. [6]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005)
  7. [7]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005), 121-122.

This is not just extremist right-wing violence. It is our violence. And we must own it.

In the wake of three incidents of xenophobic and extreme right-wing violence,[1] some are pointing a blaming finger at Donald Trump, who feeds and feeds upon what’s properly called hierarchically invidious monism, a prominent feature of—some might call it a “mother’s milk” for—authoritarian populism: Continue reading “This is not just extremist right-wing violence. It is our violence. And we must own it.”

  1. [1]Ray Sanchez and Melissa Gray, “72 hours in America: Three hate-filled crimes. Three hate-filled suspects,” CNN, October 28, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/28/us/72-hours-of-hate-in-america/index.html

Musings of a San Francisco kid

Even after all these years, it feels weird to be in the Los Angeles area.

I was raised in San Francisco. We learned that Southern California steals all our water (actually it mostly goes to wasteful corporate agriculture) and that you can cut the air with a butter knife (this is certainly not true now).

Oh yes and, of course, the traffic. The traffic is Southern California is the stuff of legends. When I first encountered what we in the San Francisco Bay Area call the “South Bay,” I referred to it as a northern outpost of Los Angeles because it boasts something of a maze of freeways, smog, and urban sprawl. Continue reading “Musings of a San Francisco kid”

On understanding the ‘other’

One of the curious issues that cropped up, that unfortunately I did not have a chance to address at the time, at the recent Human Science Institute retreat, following a presentation by Milton Reynolds, was that a couple of white women apologized to Reynolds, a Black man, for imposing upon him to explain his worldview. Both of them are entirely worthy scholars so I mean absolutely no disrespect here.

Rather, I think I know where they were coming from. I was there once, too. Continue reading “On understanding the ‘other’”

Criticism of Elizabeth Warren for revealing her DNA test confuses the potential for the actual

Our story begins, yet again, with Donald Trump, who bundles misogyny with racism in calling Elizabeth Warren, a possible Democratic Party presidential contender in 2020, “Pocohontas.” He did this much like when he was a “birther,” questioning Barack Obama’s U.S. birth. And we might remember that Obama eventually released his long form birth certificate—also in response, partly, to Trump’s protracted goading.[1] Warren now has released a DNA test demonstrating that she probably does indeed have some American Indian heritage.[2] Continue reading “Criticism of Elizabeth Warren for revealing her DNA test confuses the potential for the actual”

  1. [1]Mike Vilensky, “Trump Roasted and Skewered at White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” New York, May 1, 2011, http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2011/05/whcd.html; Jacob Weisberg, “Are Republicans losing their grip on reality?” Slate, May 20, 2011, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_big_idea/2011/05/fantasy_island.html
  2. [2]Masha Gessen, “Elizabeth Warren Falls for Trump’s Trap—and Promotes Insidious Ideas About Race and DNA,” New Yorker, October 16, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/elizabeth-warren-falls-for-trumps-trap-and-promotes-insidious-ideas-about-race-and-dna

Why we won’t respond to climate change

I let a passenger down yesterday.

I’m going through a particularly rocky transition at the moment, with woefully inadequate financial resources, so I’m back doing the Uber and Lyft thing, which pays abysmally, but in a weird way manages to keep me barely afloat. I was in the East Bay yesterday, initially to get my car inspected so I could resume doing this so-called ‘ridesharing’ driving, but then to make what money I could—fast.

One of my passengers in Berkeley was a physicist. Like a lot of people in the Bay Area, she’s unhappy with what all that has been happening in the world, particularly with Donald Trump in power. Somehow we got onto the topic of climate change.

I have downloaded and archived the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report[1] but not yet reviewed it—it looks like a pretty dense read. She hadn’t read it either but was meaning to. So we’re both relying mostly on headlines in mass media about the report which, it appears from those headlines, is pretty much in line with what I’ve been saying, privately at least, for years.[2] This is pretty much that we have a very short time to accomplish massive social change to avert catastrophe.

I said I had all but given up paying attention because it was so clear we would not respond.

She asked if this was because 1) we would not believe climate change science, 2) policies would not be based on the science, or 3) people would cheat on any regulations that were imposed. I admired her list. Honestly, I couldn’t have come up with it myself. I said, all of the above.

None of her listed reasons for our failure are good reasons. They are venal reasons and I think they are true reasons. Taken together, they amount to one—only one—damning indictment of who we are as a species.

I recalled what Joel Federman had said to me in the first year of my Ph.D. program (probably in 2012) when I asked him about whether humans were fundamentally good or evil. He replied that humans fundamentally have a range of potential to be either or both or, most likely, anywhere in between.

I would layer onto Federman’s suggestion that this range is substantially constrained and influenced by our (insane[3]) society. Which is to say that an adequate response to climate change will involve social change, not just in the usual senses of power relationships, including those we have with non-human animals and the environment, but of our culture itself. This reaches where vegetarian ecofeminism leads: Our entire attitude about how we treat everyone and everything around us must change from one of domination and exploitation to one of harmony, cooperation, and compassion.

Which brings us back to the problem I began confronting in my first Ph.D. program (the one I had to withdraw from before getting into the one that I ultimately completed). This is about how we change our species, really, to be what we desperately need to be.

I’ve never found an answer to that question. There are multiple problems, beginning with that of persuading a diverse multicultural population of over 7 billion people and including how we avoid replacing one set of thugs (the ones currently in power) with another.[4] And what I have concluded is that societies don’t change, certainly not within the time frame we face with climate change, except organically, that is, by their own growth and development,[5] or through extreme violence.

My passenger had been hoping for reason for optimism. I couldn’t offer it to her.

  1. [1]Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming of 1.5 °C (draft), June 4, 2018, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/
  2. [2]This is based in part on a combination of my understanding of General Systems Theory with Fred Pearce, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate change (Boston: Beacon, 2007). Also see David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2013/03/06/we-have-found-enemy-and-he-us-and-our-system-social-organization
  3. [3]Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (1956; repr., Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2010).
  4. [4]From an anarchist perspective, the problem of replacing one set of thugs with another is most vividly how Marxist-Leninism failed: See Emma Goldman, “There Is No Communism in Russia,” in Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, ed. Alix Kates Shulman, 3rd ed. (Amherst, NY: Humanity, 1998), 405-420. As with the Soviet Union, violent revolution has consistently failed, even when it ever attempted, to eliminate authoritarianism. Rather, it may produce structural changes and it may change who is in power, but not the authoritarian relationship itself.
  5. [5]I read somewhere that culture is not something kept under glass in a museum case, but rather something alive, developing and growing. It changes as the people of each new generation reinterpret its traditions. I have been kicking myself ever since for having failed to highlight that passage. My searches for it have failed.

Emily Yoffe asks if “anyone still take[s] both sexual assault and due process seriously.” She certainly doesn’t.

I am not going to delve very deeply into debates over the statistics about how many women are raped, sexually assaulted, or sexually harassed. Let’s just stipulate that there are many such cases, that incidents of this nature can be considered ubiquitous, and that many more offenses occur than are reported to police or otherwise come to light. Continue reading “Emily Yoffe asks if “anyone still take[s] both sexual assault and due process seriously.” She certainly doesn’t.”

Damn it, Rondi! I’m a doctor, not a medical doctor!

Note: I am, of course, borrowing my title from the original Star Trek’s Doctor “Bones” McCoy, who in various adventures reprimanded his captain with the line, “Damn it, Jim! I’m a doctor, not a [fill in the blank]!” I particularly recall a case, in the episode “The Devil in the Dark” involving a silicon-based life form called a horta, injured before the Enterprise crew figured out that she was an intelligent life form and how to communicate with her, that had been trying to protect her eggs from Federation miners. In it, that blank was filled with “bricklayer.”[1]

So this morning, I saw that the Wall Street Journal carried an op-ed lampooning the use of the honorific “Doctor” with the author claiming, “I am fortunate to spend a lot of time in Italy, where very nearly everyone is a doctor—a lowly bachelor’s degree will do.” Context here is important: As Ms. Rondi Adamson notes, “during the [Brett] Kavanaugh confirmation madness[,] Christine Blasey Ford was scrupulously referred to by media and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee as ‘Dr. Ford.’ Failure to comply was frowned upon.”[2] And we should note that the opinion pages of the Journal were as friendly toward Kavanaugh as those of the National Review and the Daily Standard. Which is to say, very friendly indeed, and utterly dismissive of any questions of Kavanaugh’s alleged sex offenses. Continue reading “Damn it, Rondi! I’m a doctor, not a medical doctor!”

  1. [1]Star Trek, episode 26, “The Devil in the Dark,” directed by Joseph Pevney, written by Gene L. Coon, featuring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley, aired March 9, 1967, on NBC.
  2. [2]Rondi Adamson, “Is There a Doctorate in the House?” Wall Street Journal, October 11, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/is-there-a-doctorate-in-the-house-1539298906

A single set of values

One of the things that stood out to me when I was reading Benedict Anderson’s  Imagined Communities was a point he made about how minority languages and customs must be suppressed in the name of national unity.[1] An interesting point, I thought, explaining some of the tensions we see around the world: China with Tibet, India with non-Hindus, the Rwanda genocide, and well, the list goes on.

I didn’t see the point as applying so well within the United States. But it does. Continue reading “A single set of values”

  1. [1]Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 2006).

Getting out the vote

In the wake of probable sex offender Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court,

Both Republicans and Democrats insisted that the tumult would motivate their voters to turn out for the Nov. 6 election — with both sides citing the anti-Kavanaugh protests that have roiled Capitol Hill and far beyond as a sign of change to come.”[1]

And indeed, the corresponding campaign, at least on the Democratic Party—the same party whose coronation of Hillary Clinton in 2014 and insistence on her nomination in 2016 led directly to Donald Trump’s election—side fills my Twitter feed. Continue reading “Getting out the vote”

  1. [1]Jennifer Haberkorn, “Senate narrowly approves Brett Kavanaugh to Supreme Court, cementing conservative majority,” Los Angeles Times, October 6, 2018, http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-kavanaugh-confirmed-20181006-story.html