Politics As Spectator Sport In A Nation That Would Call Its Dictator ‘Coach’

It had to come to this: a ‘presidential debate’ would become as television-friendly as sports, that shadow-boxing encounters replete with campaign trail inanities and evasions would be reckoned the political-show equivalent of a honest-to-goodness fifteen-round heavyweight championship bout (with figurative seconds and blood buckets close at hand.) These allusions and analogies which have retained their air of metaphor became just a little more hardened last night: the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton debate was expected to attain ‘Super-Bowl-sized’ ratings, even as television executives rubbed their hands with glee. Television executives have always craved the ratings that sports events bring them; how could they come up with entertainment that could match that pitting of hero versus hero on a sports field (of dreams)? Putting political events in opposition to sports events had always been a ratings disaster, a sure sign that the programmer in question did not know the first thing about the American people. The best was to hope for, and actively participate in, the transformation of political conflict into horse races that could be bet on, hyped up, complete with opposing fan bases who would put the ‘fanatic’ back in ‘fan.’ We got that this year. What matter the provision of a platform to an unrepentant, authoritarian racist if ginormous ratings ensue in exchange?

It felt like a big final; visions of pennant games and football conference championships and perhaps even World Cup qualifiers danced in our minds. Bars placed signs outside on sidewalks, advertising their telecast facilities and drink specials; the crowds gathered early and packed the viewing venues, expelling latecomers to sidewalks; friends made debate party plans; drinking games were invented. Network effects dictated that the only way to feel like you belonged yesterday was to participate, to pull up a chair in front of the nearest television so that you could make sure of your participation in the water-cooler conversations come Monday, er Tuesday, morning. The bizarre had been normalized; the politics as entertainment trope received yet another confirmation. (Especially because it featured a man who has been seen performing during wrestling events in the past.)

Perhaps nothing signals our apparent powerlessness as political subjects like this spectacle does: it takes place on a television stage, in front of a crowd shushed into silence; campaign trail activities that preceded it now suddenly seem like the opening acts of the megashow that television had been waiting for all along. We sit back, appalled and fascinated, nervously munching on our popcorn, downing our drinks, inhaling on our vapes, waiting for commercials so we can take a bathroom break (before realizing you can take a break any time). Sometimes we check in with our fellow spectators on social media, generating streams of commentary and hopefully witty hot takes. After the ‘game’ talking heads–including retired stars from yesteryear and today’s brightest sports journalists–break down the big plays, some of which will feature in next morning’s edition of PoliticsCenter.

Remember, we’re the nation that would call its dictator of choice ‘coach.’

 

 

 

The Shock Of The New (Entry On A Class Reading List)

Teaching a new entrant on a class reading list is always a fraught business. It is especially so when the entrant is a well-established member of analogous canons and you have come late to the game. You are dimly aware you’ve ‘neglected a classic,’ and thus rendered your education–in several dimensions–incomplete; you are well aware banana skins might lie ahead. The classic might turn out to be unexpectedly abstruse and not-classroom-discussion friendly.

This semester, I have taught Machiavelli for the first time, ever; I have taught Political Philosophy twice before and have managed to compose syllabi that did not feature a reading from that source. In my first incarnation of the class, I concentrated on readings stemming from a trifecta of revolutions–the French, American, and Haitian–and in the second, I concentrated on nineteenth and twentieth century sources. This semester’s emphasis on political realism and Shakespeare means that Machiavelli and Hobbes set the stage for our reading of Shakespeare’s Henriad; time permitting, we’ll read a little Nietzsche–from Beyond Good and Evil–to close out the semester.

The reports are in: assigning and discussing Machiavelli was a success. The psychological foundations of politics, the separation of politics and morality, the concentration on the manipulations and distributions and managements of power, taken to be the fundamental political quality and quantity–these all made for engaging class discussions, especially when it became apparent that Machiavelli’s examples and analysis applied to modern political realities as well. Machiavelli’s writing style–which dispenses with elaborate constructions of arguments and consists instead of a series of free-wheeling psychological and political claims riding on a selective historical narrative–turns out to be a teacher’s delight; students respond to his ambitious generalizations and dry skepticism about human nature with anything but indifference.

I’m considerably less sanguine about teaching the Kierkegaard portion of my ‘Existentialism’ syllabus–which kicks off today. (I have never taught Existentialism before and neither have I had the opportunity to assign Kierkegaard on any other class’ reading list yet.) Kierkegaard has never been an easy read, and it was with some trepidation that I placed sections from Fear and Trembling, The Sickness Unto Death, Against Christendom’ on the list of reading assignments. I have made matters worse by picking long passages (but is it really possible to restrain yourself in this regard when it comes to a writer who was always incapable, in his writing, of being restrained similarly?) There is a lack of directness in Kierkegaard which might be off-putting for my students; I have prepared myself by highlighting passages of text I will direct the class to in order to focus the class discussions. As you can tell, writing this blog post also serves to ‘gee myself up’ for my class, which begins in less than four hours. Perhaps a joke or two about ‘dread’ might be in order.

Note: Sometimes, a ‘classic’ remains unassigned because you anticipate too many difficulties teaching it; such was the case with Heidegger, who got bumped off my Twentieth Century Philosophy reading list last year, and suffered the same fate this semester. On that problem, more anon.

Ross Douthat Finds ‘Ascendant Social Liberalism’ Lurking Beneath His Bed

The New York Times’ Resident Sophist Laureate, Ross Douthat, has a long-running argumentative and rhetorical strategy of suggesting, through dark imprecations, that ‘liberalism’ and ‘godlessness’ are to blame for America’s social evils, for they they have produced them by provoking a reaction to their excesses. If only social and political movements didn’t engage in such vigorous protest, score legal victories in the Supreme Court, and influence the nation’s various discourses, they wouldn’t spark the reaction they do. There is no systemic social and political pathology to be combated; all is mere resentful pushing back, the rightful response of the righteous–and religious–to hectoring from the left. (This should sound familiar; remember David Brooks’ claim that anti-racism protests encourage racism?)

This highly remunerative schtick finds its latest expression in the following:

[T]he Democratic Party’s problem in the age of Trump isn’t really Jimmy Fallon. Its problem is Samantha Bee.

Not Bee alone, of course, but the entire phenomenon that she embodies: the rapid colonization of new cultural territory by an ascendant social liberalism.

In such a domain:

[Late night show hosts] are less comics than propagandists — liberal “explanatory journalists” with laugh lines.

As a result of which:

[O]utside the liberal tent, the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion.

Douthat’s Op-Ed is sparked by the reaction to Jimmy Fallon’s recent I’ll-get-on-my-knees-if-you-say-so bootlicking reception of Donald Trump on his show recently. But his superficial understanding of ‘comics’ renders suspect the entire foundations of the sly ‘you asked for it’ screed that follows.

Comedy isn’t, and never has been, ‘apolitical.’ It either skewers the powerful or it reinforces existent patterns of power. To laugh at the powerful is a political act; so is laughing at the politically dispossessed.Comedians don’t get to stand out of the political fray. (Note that Douthat describes as an ‘apolitical shtick’ a show segment which normalized the behavior of a fascist; joking around with Bernie Sanders on the same show would have been considered further evidence of ‘the left’s cultural dominance.’)

Douthat correctly notes that his conjecture about national voting patterns is just that, in noting that this supposed cultural liberalism “may be one reason the Obama years, so good for liberalism in the culture, have seen sharp G.O.P. gains at every level of the country’s government.” He does so because presumably he does not want to make note of gerrymandering which locks in Republican power at the state level, or voter ID laws, which disenfranchise voters who might vote for the Democrats, or the continuance of neoliberal economic policies so beloved of national administrations, which have systematically immiserated large swathes of the American electorate.

Douthat also displays a remarkable cluelessness in his feverish ascriptions of cultural and political power to late-night comics. The dominance of the kind of humor that Douthant bemoans on television comes about because television executives determine, through marketing techniques, what brand works best with their audiences; comics don’t drive social change, social change drives comics’ lines. Moreover, late-night television is a small component of this nation’s cultural space where political contestation might take place; far more occurs in the twenty-three hours that precede those slots, in many other spaces: the streets, workplaces, classrooms. To be sure, those jokes may animate conversations outside the television studio, but despite the chuckles they engender on social media, there is little evidence that a single voter has had his or her mind changed by a comedian.

Lastly, Douthat conveniently ignores the presence of right-wing talk radio, which is remarkably humorless–except when it is cracking sexist and racist jokes, commands considerable time on the nation’s airwaves and which is committed to polemicizing and persuasion. They know something Douthat doesn’t want to acknowledge: if you want to effect political change, make sure folks know you are deadly serious.

On Surviving A Police Stop (Unlike Terence Crutcher)

One morning in the winter of 1989, after finishing up a short trip to Binghamton, NY with a pair of friends, I was driving back to my home in New Jersey. Rather, I was dozing in the front passenger seat after having performed my share of driving duties. I was jolted out of my slumbers by the awareness that we had come to an abrupt halt; some excitement seemed afoot. On groggily inquiring into the reasons for our stopping, I learned we had been pulled over by a state trooper for speeding. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘now we’re going to have to go through that old driver’s-licence-registration-insurance bullshit; but at least it won’t be me getting a ticket and two points on my driving record.’ I settled back drowsily in my car as the trooper walked over, asked for the windows to be rolled down, demanded our papers, and walked back to his car to run the appropriate checks.

A few seconds later, I was jolted out of my complacency. The trooper was now standing next to his car, pointing a gun at ours, while loudly yelling for us to get out of the car with our hands up. We stared at each other dumbfounded, a collective what-the-fuck informing our facial expressions. Even as we asked each other what the problem could be, we scrambled out of the car. It was December in upstate New York; we were wearing thin sweatshirts, and in the haste, forgot to put on our jackets. Our hands held high, shivering instantly as our formerly protected bodies encountered the freezing air, we stood next to the car, a large-caliber handgun pointed at our heads. The trooper ordered the three of us to turn around and put our hands on the car. We complied again even as the freezing metal made our fingers and hands almost instantly numb. I was scared and confused; we all were. Why was a state trooper pointing a gun at us? What had we done wrong? Our panic steadily mounted. We were frightened and freezing, an armed man was threatening to shoot us if we did not follow his orders precisely.

Suddenly, the trooper yelled, “Keep your hands in sight!”As he did so, my roommate, standing next to me, frantically pushed his hands inside the car window. As he did so, the trooper screamed again, “Keep your hands in sight!” Turning slightly, with my hands still raised, I whispered, “Take your hands out!” He complied. A few minutes later, two more trooper cars arrived; we were handcuffed, pushed into the back of the squad car, and hauled off to the local precinct station. The car rental agency had reported our rental stolen, having made the clerical error of not having taken the car off the ‘overdue’ list even though it had been returned by the previous truant client. A few hours later, we were released. An embarrassing fiasco, you will agree. We considered ourselves unlucky and aggrieved; we could have sued for the distress and discomfort caused us.

But in point of fact, we had been lucky, very lucky. We were brown men; we spoke English in accents. We hadn’t been black. Had we been, I wonder if my roommate, who had misheard the troopers directives, and I, who spoke to him–out of turn–during his misunderstanding, would have made it out alive.

Terence Crutcher was a black man. His car broke down on the road. The police showed up. He expected help; they shot him dead. He didn’t get lucky. Just like too many other black men when they encounter the police.

Honey And Me And Quining Qualia

I grew up loathing honey. I preferred jams: plum, orange. apple, ‘mixed fruit,’ gauva, mango, marmalade. Toasted bread with thick white cream and jam; never honey. Honey was just a little ‘sickly-sweet;’ its taste was a ‘little off.’ It crossed some permissible boundary of ‘sweetness’ and became cloying; it sent shudders through me. I couldn’t wait to get a drink of water, washing out the offending affect. My taste was inexplicable; I could not make sense of it when I made my reluctance to consume honey known. I stood by, a mere onlooker, as others around me sang paeans to its glory.

But then, just as mysteriously, shortly after I moved to the US, I began adoring honey. The ‘taste of honey’ was now a glorious treat, the right attribute of a nectar of sorts. I liked honey with crackers and cheese, on toasted bagels, in iced tea, lemonade–all of it. Sugar seemed a crude sweetener, its ‘taste’ not ‘complex’ enough; honey gave off the right airs of sophistication. Had I, in ‘growing up,’ finally found, in this new maturity, the right apparatus to process honey’s ‘taste’? Or was the honey just ‘better’?

Time rolled by; I found myself growing distant from honey again. Its ‘taste’ lost its standing on the pedestal I had erected for it, and now mingled with the masses. I grew suspicious of sugar and sweeteners and things that gave you insulin spikes; like many men north of the forties, I possessed a new-found rectitude at the dinner table, the salad bar, the diner counter. Honey’s ‘taste’ acquired connotations and allusions; honey entered the precinct marked ‘treats,’ its contents to be pilfered with care. The contrast with all else I ate grew, marking every encounter with honey with a distinctive shock of sorts. The ‘taste of honey’ ain’t what it used to be, no sir.

A curious business then, this ‘taste’ of honey.  Talking about ‘the taste of honey’:

presumes that we can isolate [it] from everything else that is going on….What counts as the way [honey tasted to me] can be distinguished , one supposes, from what is a mere accompaniment, contributory cause, or byproduct of this ‘central’ way. One dimly imagines taking [my tasting experiences] and stripping them down gradually to the essentials, leaving their common residuum, the way [honey tasted to me] at various times….The mistake is not in supposing that we can in practice ever or always perform this act of purification with certainty, but the more fundamental mistake of supposing that there is such a residual property to take seriously [Daniel Dennett, ‘Quining Qualia‘, in Consciousness in Contemporary Science, edited by A. J. Marcel and E. Bisiach, Oxford University Press, (1988)].

If such thoughts are correct, then there was no ‘taste of honey’–always indexed by ‘to me’–there were only various experiences: ‘tasting-honey-during-my-childhood-years;’ ‘tasting-honey-after-I-migrated;’ ‘tasting-honey-as-a-forty-something’–the ‘taste of honey’–the way honey seems to me–is not something that can be drawn apart from these. There’s no articulable qualitative experience, independent of the surrounding ‘context.’

We’ve known this for other supposed qualia too, of course. That shortness of breath, that pounding in your chest, that fire in your legs, those reminders of your determination and outward bound spirit that herald the glory to come as you ascend a steep switchback with a cool wind raking your brow and the aroma of pine trees wafts by, if transplanted to a hospital ward with the sick visible, the smell of disinfectant in your nostrils, becomes ‘unbearable agony.’ There is no separable ‘pain’ here; just a different assemblage of my ‘world-sensation’, experienced differently thanks to its arrangement and presentation and internal relationships. We don’t experience the world as a bunch of separate parcels of sensation and phenomenal experience; the world comes to us a package with each component receiving its ‘meaning’ by its placement within the ‘field,’ by its relationships within it. What we notice, taste, see, smell, hear is a function of the arrangement of this field, and of course, our histories and anticipations (our ‘interests‘) which have performed this arrangement.

Paramilitary Organization Endorses Fascist; Nation Worries

Friday brought us the most frightening news of this terrible election season:

The National Fraternal Order of Police, a 330,000-member union of law enforcement officers, has endorsed Donald Trump for president.

“Our members believe he will make America safe again,” FOP President Chuck Canterbury said in a statement. Trump “seriously looked at the issues facing law enforcement today” and “understands and supports our priorities.”

It is important to not understate the import of this announcement. The police is an armed–to the teeth, with surplus military equipment–paramilitary organization, dedicated to the maintenance of law and order; they possess a monopoly on the use of deadly force and the exertion of violence in the business of law enforcement. The rule of law is exerted against the citizenry by their efforts. They stand–like a ‘thin blue line’–between the citizenry and the depredations of criminals, and also between the citizenry and those who rule. On this latter front, protests are policed by the police; they may disperse them, arrest those who protest, and may, with varying degrees of violence, render those protesting unable to do so any more. When such an organization endorses a politician who expresses utter contempt for both the letter and the spirit of the rule of law, speaks casually about trashing constitutional protections, and hints darkly at mass deportations and reprisals against minorities, it is but natural to wonder what role such a paramilitary organization envisages for itself in the glory days of authoritarian lawless rule that beckon?

Matters look worse when we look a little closer at the particulars of the endorsement by the New England Police Benevolent Association, which has 5,000 members across Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Its executive officer, Jerry Flynn, said that their groups decision came down to “What…the next president of the United States [is] going to do to unite this country in an effort to save police officers? Because it’s open season on police officers”; Flynn went to say that electing Trump was in “best interest of our members.” This mention of an ‘open season on police officers’ echoes the lowest canard consistently promulgated by apologists for the police: that Black Lives Matter and related protests against police racism, brutality, and murder, have led to, if not directly caused the recent killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. This indicates that as before, the police remain afflicted by a ‘deadly‘ defensiveness; they remain committed not viewing their own chosen methods and tactics of policing as a problem worth protesting against.

When a nation’s police turns its self-pitying eyes to a fascist and finds succor there, we have considerable cause to alarmed. It has offered up its loyalties and made them clear: it stands against the people. With little exaggeration, this gesture looks like the self-annointment of a fascist storm-trooper outfit. As I noted in my Facebook status when I posted the above link: “They also put in a request to change the color of their shirts from blue to brown.” Goose-steppers of the world unite and all that.

The Supposed Sacral Status Of ‘National’ Symbols

Yesterday, a Facebook friend–in the course of a discussion stemming from my post criticizing David Brooks‘ claim that protests by high school football players a la Colin Kaepernick were ‘counterproductive’–pointed me to the following quote by Saul Alinsky:

Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience. (from Rules for Radicals)

Brooks’ original thesis can now piggyback on the ‘authority’ that a respected ‘radical’ organizer like Alinsky provides: respect the ‘sacral status of ‘national’ symbols; protest the establishment, do not make the symbol the focus of your protest, or you risk, ‘counterproductively,’ losing the support of the rest of the social group. (As my friend suggested, the sacralization of the ‘national’ symbol serves a kind of ‘social utility’–protesting in a manner that suggests ‘disrespecting’ this sacral status results in a loss of this ‘social utility’; it is this loss we should be worried about when we choose such a tactic of protest, and not whether the symbol is intrinsically sacred. Indeed, Alinsky does not, above, ascribe any such sacral status to the flag, calling it instead, a ‘glorious symbol.’ That glory is presumably at risk of being tarnished.) So, the current protests and their tactics, their rhetorical stance, stand indicted of poor tactical and strategic sense.

Here is my response, drawn and culled from the various replies and comments I wrote in yesterday’s brief debate:

First, what is truly ‘counterproductive’ about the current situation–the one being protested by Black Lives Matter, Kaepernick, and others–is the following:  Systemic racism; a nationalism which views itself as a religion and therefore, as the issuer of categorical demands; failures of empathy on the part of the dominant class; a lack of moral imagination in those who regulate and police. In the hierarchy of counterproductive actions, these occupy the top-most rung. Protests–in whatever shape or form–by members of a systematically oppressed class are quite distant. Indeed, they are genuinely productive of a new national sensibility precisely because they ask new questions and may cause redefinitions of the supposed national project. Indeed, the more ‘sacred’ the symbol, the greater its vulnerability and susceptibility to the radical protest, to its utilization in activism which seeks to impress upon spectators its seriousness and urgency.

Second, speaking of tactical sense, in the current state of affairs, critiques of the football players’ actions have made a fight over the national anthem’s standing the main event, and in the process not only highlighted the national anthem’s foundational glorification of slavery but also led to a vigorous debate about what the American ideal really is. The diversity of responses to the football players’ protests suggests enough Americans a) support the right of the players to protest this way and b) have welcomed a closer look at the national anthem’s provenance and its possible malignancies.  To suggest that most Americans will despise political gestures like this and that it will have the predicted unhealthily disruptive outcomes is to indulge in a little too much prophecy for my taste. I’m perfectly willing to bide my time and let public discourse about this gesture take us into unexplored domains of political debate.

Third, (here, perhaps I explicitly part with Alinsky): sacrilege is a good thing; smashing idols is a good thing. Erecting temples and false religions is a fool’s game. The original political sin is turning rhetorical symbols into icons beyond human reproach. To place these symbols beyond protest is to concede a political weapon–the language of quasi-theistic categoricity–to the opposition, an act of political surrender. Nice try.