Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Macron Illustrates Why Neoliberalism Can't Save Democracy

France is currently being torn apart by massive protests after President Macron raised the retirement age from 62 to 64 without a parliamentary vote (which he surely would have lost.) It goes against the wishes of the majority of French people, and probably of their representatives, too. There is a kind of irony to this, since Macron ran and re-ran as a defender of democracy against the forces of populist authoritarianism. His current situation ought to be a warning to centrist and center-left politicians who profess to do the same.

Populist authoritarians get mass support partially because they advocate a Herrenvolk nationalism that assures people in the “in group” that they will be taken care and the social state will not be pared back. Just think about the United States, where Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election by promising to make the public feel the hard hand of capitalism, and Donald Trump won after defending Social Security and Medicare against that type of Republican. While Trump’s policies involved massive giveaways to the wealthy, his rhetorical uses of Herrenvolk nationalism assured the less affluent parts of his base.

Like other neoliberals, Macron thinks the public needs to take their medicine no matter what. Neoliberals see this as a moral imperative, hence Macron’s monomaniacal push to raise the retirement age when the pension system is not in crisis. I am also reminded of the austerity policies in the UK that left its standard of living hobbled without bringing on any economic benefit. The Tories stick to those policies because they are on a moral crusade to save their people from “dependency.”

Neoliberals even take pride in bucking the popular will, to them giving the public less is not a bad thing, but rather a sign of courage. While they play these games, however, the populist authoritarians proclaim that they will take care of the in-group. Macron’s decision about retirement has probably done more to boost the National Front than anything Marine Le Pen has ever done. Similarly, Hilary Clinton’s tendency to defend neoliberal policies in the 2016 election did great damage to her.

The world’s democracies are on a knife’s edge. From India to Hungary to Israel to Florida we are seeing populist authoritarians gain power then use their positions to prevent their opponents from winning elections. Unfortunately, many opponents of these regimes still recite the old neoliberal creed. As long as they flout the wishes of the people so that they can punish them, these neoliberal centrists will be the second biggest threat to democracy because they enable the biggest threat to claim they are protecting “the people” against “the elites.”  

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Track of the Week: Fountains of Wayne, "Sick Day"

Last night we watched That Thing You Do! for family movie night, which reminded me how much I love Fountains of Wayne. (They did the title song that makes the "Wonders" a hit band in the film.) Going back to them can be a bit emotional for me, partly because I was listening to their first album a lot during one of the lowest depressions of my life, and also because Adam Schlesinger's death made the awfulness of COVID real for me in the early days of the pandemic. 

I was struck by how much everyday melancholy permeates their songs. It isn't just the usual pop song laments about lost love, but also how much daily life grinds us down. "Sick Day" takes the point of view of a burned out office worker who decides she needs a break from the brutal commute from Jersey (something I know well) and the disheartening routines of being a low-level worker. 

Songs about worker alienation tend to be more openly rebellious, like Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It." Rarely are they more real, like "Sick Day." Very few of us ever tell our employers to go to hell, even if we all may have been in a job that made us wish we could do this. Instead, we soldier on, cry in the bathroom, or take a sick day just to get a break from the crushing ennui. 

"Sick Day" has all the hallmarks of what I love about Fountains of Wayne beyond the aching yearning tone. The guitars are sublimely jangly, and the lyrics clever. "Lead us not into Penn Station" to the cadence of "Lead us not into temptation" is just *chef's kiss* as far as I am concerned. Now that I live in Jersey I can't get over the very specific references to the PATH train and Holland Tunnel. I've been commuting from Jersey to NYC for twelve years now and this song speaks to me in ways that few others do. 

I am on spring break right now, and this song is helpful reminder for me to make the most of these days I am getting. If you're on spring break I recommend giving it a listen. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Lockdown Insights Worth Salvaging

I wrote a Substack last weekend on how amidst the horrors of the pandemic our lives were disrupted in ways that allowed us to appreciate certain things more. Three years on I want to hold onto those insights. 

Monday, March 20, 2023

The 20th Anniversary of the American Empire's Self-Immolation

On the evening of March 19, 2003, I went with a friend to the movies to see The Quiet American, adapted from Graham Greene's novel about American idealism's failure to understand Vietnam. Little did I know how appropriate that choice would be.

I came home, and a couple of hours later in the basement room, I watched the start of "shock and awe" with absolute horror. Rumors of war had been circulating for months, with a whole kabuki theater of nuclear inspections and Congressional testimony making the public believe this was about "weapons of mass destruction." I was in the minority of Americans who knew this was all bullshit. I had shown up to anti-war protests, had been yelled at by "patriots" from their pickup trucks and told I was ignoring threats to this country. Sitting there watching Baghdad being blown up on television I felt such profound despair. So many other awful things have happened since then (the 2008 crash, multiple police murders, Trump's election, COVID, January 6th, etc.) that we have failed to account for the consequences of the Iraq invasion. Beyond the human consequences, it represented the end of the United States' post-Cold War predominance. 

The invasion of the anniversary has passed unmarked in this country because so many people pretend they never supported it when it had been very popular in the moment. Its boosters cannot deny that it was a disaster, so they must deny their connection to it. Even ultra-nationalists like Trump have done this, allowing his supporters, the same people yelling at me back in 2003, to wash their hands of the whole affair. 

Even if the majority in this country may not feel the Iraq invasion to be an act of grave immorality as I do, they still understand that it meant the destruction of America's post-Cold War dominance in the world. After 1991 the United States stood as the lone superpower. 9/11 gravely shook the feelings of invincibility, but those same feelings spurred Bush's actions in Iraq. It was a completely elective war. Iraq posed no threat to the United States, nor was it threatening any of our key allies. Bush's crew really thought they could use this invasion to remake the Middle East to America's liking. Many of its own allies cautioned against it and the "weapons of mass destruction" had not been located, but no matter. 

The Quiet Amerian, both the Graham Greene novel and the 2003 film, concerns Alden Pyle, a CIA agent in 1950s Vietnam in the twilight of French colonialism. He naively believes that he can create a "third force" in the country that is both democratic and anticolonialitst that will push both the French and the Vietnamese communists aside. Furthermore, Pyle is willing to fund terror attacks and sacrifice lives for his unrealistic vision. The narrator, a British journalist named Fowler, understands the country's realities far better and is not surprised when Pyle meets a bad end. Greene wrote the book years before American "escalation" in Vietnam, but like many of us on that night in March of 2003, he clearly saw what was coming. 

Like Alden Pyle, Bush and the neo-cons soon discovered that not every group of people in the world are just Americans trying to come out. They hadn't even bothered to consider the most basic issues in the war's aftermath, watching mobs loot priceless artifacts from museums and calling it "the price of freedom." Any moral credibility the United States had managed to amass in its post-Cold War humanitarian interventions was erased in that moment. But it wasn't just America's moral hypocrisy that was exposed by the invasion. The American military's inability to win a decisive victory against Iraqi insurgents or to quickly capture Saddam Hussein revealed the clay feet of a supposed Colossus. 

And so thousands died, including someone I went to college with. We wrecked Iraq, with the ultimate strategic winner being our regional rival, Iran. We destroyed homes, killed civilians, and shredded infrastructure for less than nothing from a strategic standpoint. Hussein is no longer in power, but I get the feeling that's cold comfort for those mourning their dead. 

I want to remember the dead, but also that the vast majority of Americans supported the invasion at the time. It is easy to blame this all on politicians, but if there had been more robust opposition, those politicians would have changed their tune. The media helped too, treating protestors like me as unserious or naive. Practically every media outlet became a cheerleader for the invasion. Country music stations banned The Chicks when they criticized George W Bush. All of this has been forgotten because it is inconvenient for so many to recognize that the self-immolation of the American empire happened with the majority's full faith and support. Right-wingers certainly need to be held to account for their cheerleading of this conflict, but I should hope that this would prompt the Left to rethink their naive ideas about "the masses." 

Monday, March 13, 2023

What I've Lost and (Mostly) Gained By Quitting Twitter

For the last couple of years I have given up alcohol for Lent. This year I wanted to do something new, since giving up booze had proven to be pretty easy and I had other bad habits to tackle. This Lent I decided to give up Twitter, except to post my blog writing.

Since about 2015 I had been chained pretty hard to the bird site. I spent more time there than I did watching TV or movies. During idle moments of any kind I would open up the app on my phone and start scrolling. Once Musk bought the site I opened up the obligatory Mastodon account and locked my tweets, but didn't have the guts to leave the site. Lent gave me the perfect opportunity, and I took it.

And here's the deal: I don't miss Twitter one bit.

Quitting has felt liberating. My mental state is far calmer because I am not constantly being agitated by a barrage of stupid and hostile opinions. I am not getting asinine replies to my tweets or letting myself get pulled into the prettiest fights. I am also sparing myself from the loads of bad news I used to read on Twitter throughout the day. Now I just get a short sharp blast when I look at the news in the morning. 

I am also realizing how much Twitter boosts certain brands of stupidity that actually aren't all that pronounced in American society. For example, the kind of "Leftist" who makes apologies for Putin just does not cross my path since quitting Twitter. Good riddance. For those who are still hanging onto the birdsite I can tell you that quitting will really improve your quality of life. 

In terms of what I've lost, I miss interacting with lots of folks, but many of them had already cut down their presence post Musk. It's harder for me to get incisive commentary on the news and to follow local politics stories back in my home state of Nebraska. My reaction has been to dip back into the blogosphere, which is showing signs of recovery after having been obliterated by Twitter. With various blogs and Substacks I can read smart words on current events without wading through a thousand "hot takes" designed to get clout via outrageousness. 

After Lent I am sure I will go back to Twitter, but with limitations. For example, I am keeping the app off of my phone. We have been conditioned via FOMO to think that we MUST immerse ourselves in the Twitter discourse if we are to be "with it." My experience has confirmed my suspicions that Twitter failed as a way to exchange ideas. The blogosphere was dead, long live the blogosphere. 

Sunday, March 12, 2023

COVID's Forgotten Histories

My newest Substack is remembering the third anniversary of the pandemic and the uncomfortable histories we have consciously forgotten. That forgetfulness is very political in nature, motivated by those who refuse to believe that they owe even the smallest shred of social solidarity. 

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Like Trump, DeSantis Understands the Right's Love of Humiliation

Recent news and anecdotal evidence points to a rise in Ron DeSantis' stature on the Right, and a drop in Trump's. It would be superficial and wrong to credit this to a change in the Right's fundamental politics or a return to "normal." 

Rather, DeSantis has adopted the most fundamental aspects of Trump's politics while allowing some on the Right to distance themselves from the latter's toxic brand. DeSantis, like Trump, understands that the conservative base does not care a fig for actual policy outcomes. They aren't really interested in legislating, and the behavior of Republicans in the House has been proof of this. They are far more invested in something far more tangible: punishing and humiliating the people they don't like. 

Just as Trump separated children from their parents at the border, DeSantis has been deporting migrants to other states with not even the minimum of arrangements made for their comfort upon arrival. This policy has nothing to do with border security and everything to do with generating a spectacle of humiliation, both for the migrants and for liberal politicians. 

DeSantis' education policies and anti-LGBT legislation performs a similar function. His base hates gay and trans people and they hate teachers and he is giving them the public attacks against their objects of hate that they so crave. This same base boils over with resentment, angry that the culture is changing and that their worldview is no longer unquestioned. When Disney, a company they assumed was on "their side" starts making movies with Black mermaids or that deal with menstruation, they get mad. When that same company publically opposes their political values when it comes to anti-LGBT hate, they lose their minds. DeSantis understands this, which is why he very publicly humiliated Disney by taking away their special status, something that will also force liberal voters in Orlando to pay higher taxes as well. That was a double win for his politics of humiliation.

Like Trump, DeSantis is what I call an instinctual bully. I've been bullied a lot in my life, both as a child and as an adult, so I know the type. Some people are casual bullies or situational bullies. I call Trump and DeSantis instinctual bullies because it is their central defining characteristic. They look at every situation and think about how they can turn it into a way to bully or humiliate someone they don't like. It is the thing that occupies their minds through most of their waking hours. They don't merely want or like to bully others, they MUST do so.

At this point, I have to point the finger a bit more broadly. They would not have such power if it was not for the masses of people who enjoy living vicariously through the bully's actions. So many ordinary "nice people" get a thrill out of seeing university administrators sacked and replaced with conservative ideologues, or smile about trans youth being denied health care. They are the people who stopped to laugh at me during my own childhood humiliations, cowards content to toady to the big boss bully in order to protect themselves. 

I would also point the finger at this country's useless prestige media, eager to hop on the DeSantis Rising train for clout and getting credit for being on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing. They watch public universities being turned into factories for Right wing ideology and then treat it like just another policy decision, shrugging their shoulders and saying "well, who can say who's right or wrong here?" This is another parallel with Trump: boosting ratings and circulation gets prioritized above actual journalism.

Time will tell if DeSantis or Trump or someone else gets the Republican nomination, but that's beside the point. Either way, this is a party animated by the humiliation ethos of Libs of TikTok more than anything else. That's not going away anytime soon.  

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Republicans Used to Target Democratic Presidents, Now They Target Their Own Schools and Neighbors

New Substack is out about the changing Republican dynamics in the Biden administration. Under Clinton and Obama they turned the Democratic president into an avatar of all their resentments. This has been harder with Joe Biden, and so Republicans are directly attacking vulnerable groups like trans people and educators to unite their base. It' represents a chilling and alarming shift in our politics and one that needs greater attention.