Barbara Tuchman Contra Hot Takes

Barbara Tuchman kicks off the preface to her Practicing History: Selected Essays (Ballantine Books, New York, 1981) by writing:

It is surprising to find, on reviewing one’s past work, which are the pieces that seem to stand up and which are those that have wilted. The only rule I can discover as a determinant–and it is a rule riddled with exceptions–is that, on the whole, articles or reports which have a “hard,” that is to say factual, subject matter or a personally observed story to tell are more readable today than “think” pieces intended as satire or advocacy, or written from the political passions of the moment. These tend to sound embarrassing after the passage of time, and have not, with or two exceptions been revived.

I sometimes try my hand at satire on this blog; those efforts survive here, sure to embarrass me in the future. And I’m often mortified by the pieces I write during election seasons; they strike me as a too quick, superficial at the best of times. But I don’t intend to stop writing either kind of blog post. For I write here to ‘practice,’ to keep writing–even as, and especially because, many forms of ‘writers’ block’ imperil my writing elsewhere. (Put it this way; if I didn’t write something here, I would have all too many days when I would not have written anything at all.) I publish the posts I write because the act of publishing acts as closure, compelling me to move on and not be tempted to return to the post to fiddle with it–even as I hope someday to return to the ‘scratch on the surface,’ to dig deeper, perhaps turning the little ditty here into a more elaborate essay. Despite this being a digital platform, I have no hopes that any of the writing will endure–even as I continue to entertain the fantasy that someday my daughter will read some of it.

Tuchman’s larger point is directed at ‘hot takes,’ at the effort directed to being topical, at the desperate attempts to stick one’s oar in the flow of opinion, to ‘contribute’ something, anything, to an ongoing discussion, failure to participate in which might be viewed as an abdication of responsibility by some who have appointed themselves pundits.  This pressure is especially acute now given the phenomena of a viral news item, one whose ubiquity in your social media feeds suggest the whole world is doing nothing but paying attention to every aspect of the incident reported. Tuchman suggests we’d do better to let our powder dry out, to bide our time, so that we may write in more considered fashion (perhaps with more ‘factual, subject matter’ too.) This is not a new point, but it is interestingly made by a historian here, one used to writing about matters that are sometimes long-forgotten. The historian knows the present is not the most important time of all; that much water remains to flow under the bridge, to join the voluminous oceans that have already done so.

Teflon Trump’s Terrifying Troops

I did not watch the Donald Trump acceptance speech last night; I did not want to run the risk of a disturbed night’s sleep. I did however, read a transcript that was available on the net before he went live. It was a terrifying read just because it was so ‘good’: pitch-perfect in its tone and content, aiming for the easily visible targets of law and order, national security, loss of jobs, economic inequality, corporate trade deals, the rigged political system. His scapegoats were perfectly picked too: immigrants, aliens, foreigners, indeed, the world ‘outside.’ Trump was not speaking off the cuff, he was reading a prepared speech, one crafted for him by his speechwriters, who distilled the most populist parts of his campaign trail message and artfully packaged it with a corrosive covering of nativism, xenophobia, and paranoia. The speech will be picked apart for its hostility and its lies but it will not matter. If the history of this campaign is any indication of things to come.

Ronald Reagan used to be called the ‘Teflon President.’ Well, let me tell you, Ronnie had nothing on the The Donald. Nothing sticks to the Trump; call him a liar, a crook, a failed businessman, a misogynist, a racist, an ignorant warmonger, it does not matter. His ‘base’ does not care–a fact that made the hoopla over the Melania Trump plagiarism non-scandal especially risible. I suspect that Trump’s followers loved the plagiarizing of Michelle Obama’s speech–‘screw them and their fancy-ass, stuck-up, elitist notions of who wrote what.’ (Besides, why not steal from someone you despise?) Indeed, every attempt to critique Trump on the basis of some conventional understanding of decency and  honesty runs afoul of this inclination on the part of his followers to merely incorporate that critique into their understanding of Trump as an iconoclast willfully denying those staid conventions that work for everyone else. His followers are the most frightening thing about him.

Many are tempted to lie and flirt with the forces of darkness to gain presidential power, to command the trillion dollar military that goes with it which lets grown men feel like pre-adolescent boys again, to strut on the world stage like the new Messiah. What those aspirants for power need to realize their dreams is the unquestioned acceptance and obedience of their followers. That Trump has. He is well aware he can lie, prevaricate, dissemble; it will not dent his chances with this crew. When the smoke clears, and if a Trump defeat is the outcome, he will slink away to book deals, speaking engagements, possibly a new television series and a talk-show. More fortunes await him. (I’m shying away from the possibility of his victory for that prospect demands another sort of response altogether.) But his followers will not rest content even then.

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. Right, well, that’s been taken care of by The Donald. The spirits have been summoned; and now they strut on the stage. Banishing them is going to take some doing.

A Trump Win And The First-Past-The-Post System

Every election cycle, we learn all over again, the bad news about ‘swing states’ and ‘undecided voters’ and ‘independents.’ There are ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’ and then there are ‘states in play’: those electoral precincts in the nation whose demographics make their electoral outcomes uncertain. Every election cycle, the political candidates of the two parties concentrate their campaigns funds and energies on these states and their citizens. But it gets better: within those swing states, there are ‘swing districts’ (the others are reliably ‘red’ or ‘blue’.) And so we get an even finer-grained concentration of campaigning efforts on those districts; they receive the most attention in terms of speeches, door-knocking efforts etc. It turns out, bizarrely enough, that as a result of this nation’s first-past-the-post electoral system, an entire presidential election can be swung by the polling results of these districts–whose number runs to about thirty or forty.

From this rather bizarre fact some conclusions can be drawn:

  1. It does not matter if crucial demographic blocs like Hispanics despise Donald Trump; if they are not present adequate numbers in these swing states, they can huff and puff all they want, but they will not dent his chances. Every single Latino in California–a blue state–could vote for Clinton; it will not increase the number of electoral college votes California will give to her. (The anti-Trump Hispanic vote will, of course, affect the vote in red states like Texas and New Mexico and Arizona, but it is not clear that it will turn the state ‘blue.’)
  2. If red states and blue states retain their electoral color codes, the Trump-Clinton contest will come down to those swing states whose names we hear during most election seasons: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida etc. Here, Bernie Sanders supporters would do well not to vote for a third-party candidate. In resolutely blue states they may, if they choose, vote for a third-party candidate of their choice. (I did precisely this in 2012, in New York, where a win for Barack Obama was all but guaranteed.) An argument has made the rounds that even in ‘blue’ states Sanders supporters should vote for Clinton to grant her a mandate with adequate and appropriate authority, presumably to ride out the post-election fracas that will ensue with disgruntled Trump supporters, who will remain convinced the election was ‘stolen.’ (As I’ve noted previously, even a Clinton win means a very divided and fractious polity, one riven by the same bitter partisanship that led to many legislative logjams and parliamentary brinksmanship during the Obama years.) I do not know if this claim will have any traction with those Sanders supporters who imagine that such a mandate can only embolden Clinton to pursue precisely those misguided policies they most disagree with.

The dependence of the results of this most momentous election on just a handful of states and consequently, a handful of electoral districts, should make most reasonable folks quite nervous. It should also serve as a reminder that the American electoral system is deeply, deeply flawed. This is not news; but this might just be the year the nation pays its heaviest price yet for the poor design of a vital political institution.

An Unforgettable Image, Appropriately Contextualized

In the summer of 1992, I traveled to India to visit my family: my mother, my brother, his wife (my sister-in-law), and my little, then barely six months old nephew. The monsoon lay around the corner, promising mixed relief from the brutal heat of the North Indian plains; the humidity would still oppress, but evenings and nights promised to be cooler. My days at my brother’s air force base passed quickly: morning teas with my mother, playing with my nephew, indulgent afternoon beers, a lazy nap, then a long walk with my mother through the leafy, broad-avenued cantonment, and finally, at night, an old Indian favorite, several whiskies with club soda to accompany a hearty meal. It remains, to date, the most treasured of my many trips back ‘home’ since migrating to the US in 1987. Much was to change after that trip; those few weeks marked the end of an era of sorts.

Among the many pleasantly nostalgic vignettes of that trip that I can summon up quite effortlessly in my mind’s eye, one particular afternoon stands out clearly. That day, my mother and I returned to my brother’s residence on base from a brief train trip to meet some family in Central India. On arriving, my brother asked if we had had lunch, and on hearing we had not, suggested we get some take-out from the local market. My ears perked up, and I suggested we sample the wares of a local shop, which specialized in making the North Indian snack called kachori; this establishment’s products were known far and wide for their lip-smacking taste, and every daily batch produced by the cooks sold out in a few minutes. My brother looked at the time, saw it was just about that hour when the kachoris were to go on sale, and suggested we bust a move if we wanted to get lucky. I complied. We scored, picking up two dozen of the savory, spicy snacks. A dozen were to be consumed that afternoon itself; the remaining would have to bide their time till the evening. On the way back, I suggested to my brother that it would be a shame to not wash down our meal with a cold beer. He agreed, and we stopped off at a local shop to pick up a few three-quarter-litre bottles.

As we rode home on my brother’s motorbike, we noticed an unusually powerful afternoon monsoon shower brewing: grey rainclouds coalesced rapidly into gigantic black thunderheads building and lifting ominously as the winds picked up and little dust devils began dancing by the roadside. We arrived home, placed the food on the dining table to be sorted out into plates, opened our chilled bottles of beer, and stepped out into the lawn to watch the show being put on for our pleasure. As I drank the beer, its cold wetness in my gullet bringing relief from the heat, I felt exhilarated; the buzz was kicking in. All was well; I was at home with those I loved, beauty was all around me, good food awaited.

As we watched the storm brewing, my sister-in-law, a painter and artist, standing next to me, spoke softly: ‘Look at that; my most favorite vision of all, white birds flying with the black rainclouds as backdrop.’ I looked up; there they were, ivory-white wings silhouetted against the now-almost-ebony-black clouds, a stark and stunning contrast. It was, without doubt, one of the most startling and striking visions I had ever had of nature; it remains so to this day. And I knew, even at that instant, that my assessment of the beauty of the image presented to me, was directly and immediately affected by my placement (an air force base my father had flown out of many years ago), my company–those I missed so acutely once I had crossed the black water, my sense of belonging in a space that felt familiar, the love I could feel around me (and perhaps the beer too.) Without those accompaniments, I would not have seen what I did.

Note: In The Analyst and the Mystic: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Religion and Mysticism, his psychoanalytic study of the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Sudhir Kakar writes:

The artistic streak in Ramakrishna was strongly developed, and it seems appropriate that his first ecstasy was evoked by the welling up of aesthetic emotion; an episode of ‘nature’ mysticism, it was the consequence of an aesthetically transcendent feeling: “I was following a narrow path between the rice fields. I raised my eyes to the sky as I munched my rice. I saw a great black cloud spreading rapidly till it covered the heavens. Suddenly at the edge of the cloud a flight of snow white cranes passed over my head. The contrast was so beautiful that my spirit wandered far away. I lost consciousness and fell to the ground. The puffed rice was scattered. Somebody picked me up and carried me home in his arms. An access [sic] of joy and emotion overcame me….This was the first time I was seized with ecstasy.”

 

 

Bertrand Russell On Deterrence By Making ‘Freedom More Pleasant’

In ‘What I Believe,’ an essay whose content–selectively quoted–was instrumental in him having his appointment at the City College of New York revoked¹, Bertrand Russell wrote:

One other respect in which our society suffers from the theological conception of ‘sin’ is the treatment of criminals. The view that criminals are ‘wicked’ and ‘deserve’ punishment is not one which a rational morality can support….The vindictive feeling called ‘moral indignation’ is merely a form of cruelty. Suffering to the criminal can never be justified by the notion of vindictive punishment. If education combined with kindness is equally effective, it is to be preferred; still more is it to be preferred if it is more effective….the prevention of crime and the punishment of crime are two different questions; the object of causing pain to the criminal is presumably deterrent. If prisons were so humanized that a prisoner got a good education for nothing, people might commit crimes in order to qualify for entrance. No doubt prison must be less pleasant than freedom; but the best way to secure this result is to make freedom more pleasant than it sometimes is at present.

Russell was a logician, so he cannot resist making a simple logical point here: if you want prison to represent an uncomfortable alternative to ‘the world outside’ that constitutes an effective deterrent to crime, you have two choices: make prison conditions much worse, or make the state of ‘the world outside’ much better. Our reactions to the world we encounter rely on contrasts and conditioning; it took a princess used to the utter luxury of royal palaces to find the pea under the pile of mattresses unbearable; the parched wanderer in the desert finds the brackish water of a dusty oasis the sweetest nectar of all. It is not inconceivable that many who are used to endemic and grinding poverty, hunger, and violence might find prison not such a bad alternative, and find that its supposed terrors, when viewed from afar, are entirely lacking in deterrent effect. (That sad old saw about criminals committing crimes in order to get three square meals and a roof over their heads perhaps bears repeating here.)

Unsurprisingly, the vindictive and retributive mentality of societies informed at heart by the “theological conception of ‘sin’,” entirely unconcerned with the actual and effective amelioration of social ills, chooses the former of the options listed above. Moreover, the emphasis on retribution acts as a powerful distraction from clear thinking on what might have made criminals act the way they did–perhaps if ‘the world outside’ were improved, some of the causal chains leading to the commission of crime could be disrupted.

Note 1: The details of this shameful scandal and its gross violation of academic freedom  are still worth reading after all these years (especially because, as the Steven Salaita affair reminds us, academic freedom remains under assault.) Paul Edwards‘ ‘Appendix’ in Why I Am Not A Christian (Allen and Unwin, New York, 1957) contains the sordid and infuriating details. Edwards’ essay is in turn based on The Bertrand Russell Case (eds. Horace Kallen and John Dewey, Viking Press, 1941).

Veterans And The Dallas And Baton Rouge Shootings: Wars Return Home

Today, on Facebook, Chad Kautzer offered some brief reflections–“not interested in condemning or justifying”–on the shootings in Baton Rouge. They begin as follows:

First, the police have to stop killing black and brown people. I say that up front, because it’s the social relation and institutional practice that frames everything. Period.

Second, although it’s too soon to call it a pattern, it is significant that Micah Johnson, the shooter in Dallas, and Gavin Long, the shooter in Baton Rouge, were military veterans. These guys have been trained to confront force with force and violently take down an enemy. When you put people like that into a situation of social conflict and division, the impulse to exercise one’s lethal skill set is strong. Countervailing factors, such as strong community and familial relations, often mitigate the impulse to violence, but when they’re lacking or weak the risk increases. It is thus not surprising that both shooters explicitly stated that they were not affiliated with any group. They were not trained in ways to effect social transformation. They were not taught the history of social movements and thus how social change happens. They were taught that the most effective way to defeat an adversary is to take out as many of their soldiers as possible, so in times of conflict that’s what they do. [links added]

In a previous post on Hillary Clinton’s bellicose response to the Orlando massacre, I had written:

[T]hose bombs will find their way back here soon enough; in the persistence of states of war and the bolstering of the military-industrial complex, in depleted budgets for social programs and infrastructure and public education–wars cost money after all, in the militarization of police–as military weapons end up in police departments to be used against protesters in inner cities, in the criminalization of dissent,  in the crackdown on whistle blowers and the increasing pervasiveness of surveillance–because wars require national unity and secrecy.

Kautzer’s second point reminds us of another dimension of wars returning home: military veterans, who come back home bringing their memories, experiences, and scars with them. They have left behind–permanently–many who went with them on a tour of duty. Modern battlefield medicine and improved emergency care ensure death rates are not as high as they were in the wars of yesteryear; this means more veterans who would have died previously are now alive, even if grievously injured and crippled for life, perhaps requiring extensive and expensive rehabilitation and follow-up care. The lucky ones are only injured in the body; yet others carry scars in the mind too. Post-traumatic stress disorder and disrupted personal environments contribute to a shocking suicide rate: twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day.

Most relevantly to Kautzer’s observation, veterans–especially black and brown ones–find that they have returned to a society increasingly riven by economic inequality and racial discrimination (and awash in guns.) They find out, just like veterans of the Second World War and the Vietnam War, that they might fight America’s enemies abroad, and yet return to find themselves enemies at home. Second World War veterans returned to Jim Crow in their home states; Vietnam veterans got spat on by anti-war protesters; the modern veteran of color might find himself shot by a policeman at a traffic stop or outside his home itself. They see their communities at home patrolled by policemen just like American soldiers patrolled ‘hostile territory’ overseas. There is the same brusque stop-and-frisk, the same harsh impromptu interrogation, and sometimes, all too frequently captured on video, a fatal resolution of conflict. Those kinds of resolutions, as Kautzer points out, are what veterans are used to; and so they act to bring them about in the struggles of most personal and emotional interest to them, in the ways they know best. Except that the enemy now is an American policeman.

Francine Prose On The Consolations Of Post-Apocalyptic Literature

In reviewing Margaret Atwood‘s Stone Mattress: Nine Tales Francine Prose makes a pair of perceptive remarks in her conclusion.

First,

[T]book offers none of the peculiar comforts and reassurances of such post-apocalyptic novels as Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It denies us the glorious fantasy of flaming out en masse instead of, so much less dramatically, in a bed surrounded by a few grieving relatives; it withholds the consolation of leaving a ruined world–and being spared the certainty that life will go on without us, as if we had never existed. [link added]

And then,

These stories lack the hopeful possibilities lurking within the dystopian novel’s cautionary subtext: since the horrors of the fictive future are usually the result of some existing practice or system, there’s always the chance that, perhaps inspired by the novelist’s warnings, we may yet mend our ways and avert the grisly future the writer has imagined for us.

Prose’s second remark is more commonly made by those writing about post-apocalyptic literature: in essence, these works are not just morality plays, castigating us, informing us of our earth-destroying venality; rather, they offer a blueprint of sorts on how the future may yet be averted. (Marge Piercy‘s Woman On The Edge of Time offers a converse treatment: a traveler from an all-too easily imagined dystopian present travels forward in time to “a utopian world in which a number of goals of the political and social agenda of the late sixties and early seventies radical movements have been fulfilled. Environmental pollution, homophobia, racism, phallogocentrism, class-subordination, consumerism, imperialism, and totalitarianism no longer exist.”)

Her first remark cuts a little deeper. We find post-apocalyptic literature provides the most ‘peculiar comfort’ of all: if we are to die, let us at least die in a world which is dying with us, taking with it everything we held near and dear. We fear death not just because of the uncertainty of the void that awaits, but also because we know that we leave a life and a world behind–our traces soon to be overwritten by the lives of others. How comforting to think that all will be effaced at the same instant. (I wonder if, when lovers or family or friends face death together, the fact of their togetherness provides some comfort in their last dying moments.)

There is yet another dimension to the comforts of post-apocalyptic works: they are escapist, offering fantasy worlds in which an ordinary life suddenly becomes extraordinary, granted an opportunity to redeem itself with unconventional acts of courage, imagination, and fortitude. Fathers step up to the plate; mothers become fiercer; children mature quickly; cowards become heroes. Some of the eagerness with which we lap up news about impending disasters is underwritten by the ‘hope’ that we will now be delivered from our mundane lives into a proving ground of sorts, where hitherto unknown and unimagined personal qualities will become manifest. This is not a new observation: the impatience which greets delays in the declaration of war–and the resultant exultation when it does finally ensue–has been similarly analyzed.