‘Conservatives, Immigrants, and the Romantic Imagination’ Up At Three Quarks Daily

My essay ‘Conservatives, Immigrants, and the Romantic Imagination‘ is up at Three Quarks Daily. The following is an abstract of sorts:

American immigrants, especially the first and second generations, were sometimes reckoned a safe vote for the Republican Party’s brand of conservatism. This was not just the case with immigrants from formerly communist countries who might be reckoned willing and enthusiastic consumers of the Republican Party and American conservatism’s historical anti-communist stance. Rather, American immigrants of all stripes have often shown a marked allegiance to conservative causes and claims. This trend, which did not always translate into major electoral gains, was attenuated by the Republican Party’s continuing adoption of nativism and crude populism, of xenophobia, of the crudest forms of racism and exclusivism. But it was not always thus; there were good reasons to imagine the immigrant was a  was a possible Republican and conservative mark.

In my essay, I argue that the immigrant imagination, tinged as it is with a hint of the romantic, bears some explanatory responsibility for this political predilection. In particular, by examining recent descriptions of conservative intellectuals–ranging from Edmund Burke to William Buckley Jr.– as a species of romantic reactionaries, and comparing them to immigrant self-descriptions of their migratory journeys of arrival and accomplishment, I claim that the immigrant and the conservative are united by a species of self-conception that views them as outsiders subverting and eventually mastering–in their highly individual and particular ways–a dominant system. Like the conservative, the immigrant too, sometimes finds himself suggesting ‘the ladder be pulled up,’ now that he is aboard. The immigrant is in sympathy with a conservative vision then, because romantically, like the conservative, he sees himself as an outsider who has ‘made it.’

I will explore this claim–via an autobiographical perspective–in the American context, thus illuminating the ways in which so-called ‘model minorities’ have conceived of their place in the American nation. The reflexively conservative standpoint I adopted when I was a brand-new migrant to the US should help explain why immigrants have not always been successful in building multi-racial alliances with African-Americans, and thus, why American anti-racism politics remains handicapped by a lack of solidarity between its demographic components. They suggest the Republican Party could further find in its electoral toolbox a rhetorical appeal to divide the current anti-Republican coalition by attacking one of its most vulnerable points.

The Republican Party And The Disavowal Of Donald Trump

In response to my post yesterday on the liberal ‘impeachment of Donald Trump’ fantasy, which rests on a fallacious delinking of Donald Trump from the Republican Party, Seth Brodsky writes (over at Facebook):

I agree—passionately—that the desperate attempt to delink the GOP from Trump is…a fantasy. But I don’t think it’s a fantasy held only by liberals, whose very identity as a party of no part, a neutral party, is dependent on it….the GOP has this delinking fantasy too, and it was all too well displayed during the primary. But it’s a fantasy framed in a very different way: Trump is the *essence* of the GOP, but an essence that needs to remain hidden, cached, the principle and not the surplus, something to keep skimming off. He is…the purely libidinal patriarch, the undemocratic king-in-the-flesh, that Republican democracy, always gnawing viciously at its own foundations, has to conceal in order to prop itself up as a kind of democratic subject. In order for the fantasy to operate, and the subject to sustain itself, the object of the fantasy must be held at a distance. It can’t actually show up….Republicans don’t actually want the primal father to show up. They *want to want him,* they want to crow to the ends of the earth about how needed he is, how shameful it is that the world doesn’t give his memory proper respect, how angry he’ll be when he finally returns, how he appeared in a dream to them and demanded, for the love of God, that we stop this nonsense, whatever it is. Which is all to say: they want to enjoy the enormous resentment that comes from His absence.

Brodsky is right here–and I thank him for this interjection of a psychoanalytic take into the proceedings. (I wonder what the Good Doctor would have made of this past election season and of the Trump Twitter feed.) The Republican Party treated Trump like an interloper and a gatecrasher and an ‘outsider’ during the primaries–thus tremendously aiding his election prospects–precisely because he was a rude reminder that this was the true beating heart of the party–just a little too vulgar, a little too overt, a little too clumsy at disguising his plain ‘ol boring Republicanness. This treatment as an outsider allowed Republican Trump voters to feel like rebels and iconoclasts, like pioneers on a new American frontier, one once again populated by hordes of shrieking Injuns (immigrants and Muslims and Black Lives Matter protesters and transgender folk clamoring to use public bathrooms for instance.) If Trump were to come to power, the game would be up; there would be nothing left to complain about. The endless whining and self-pity and moaning would have to stop; conservatives would have to admit they got what they wanted. Their loss would not be special any more. (I am merely amplifying Brodsky’s points here, but it is crucial to make note of how important self-pity is to the Republican image; unsurprisingly, Trump’s twitter feed contains many desperately self-pitying cries. Some of his most overt allies, like the police, are famously afflicted with their own deadly self-pity, the kind that causes them to kill again and again.)

They’ve got their primal father now…it’s a huge threat to their identity. But *not* because it’s external to them. Just the opposite: it’s an alien body at the heart of the party, the basis for their repression, formative and disavowed at once….there are quite a few Republicans out there who are confused as fuck, on the level of action and affect both. They’ve got their daddy now, and are not sure what to do.

Part of the problem, as many Republicans are realizing, is that when the dog-whistle is replaced by the klaxon horn, greater disruption ensues: sure, more of the faithful come out of the woodwork, convinced the Messiah is at hand, but the heretics listen too, and they take to the streets to protest like they never did before.

Where I think Brodsky and I gently disagree is that I think Republicans have begun to reconcile themselves to the presence of this realized fantasy; self-pity and dreams of power are intoxicating but so is power itself. All that accumulated misery of the eight years of watching two beautiful black people in the White House, of the wrong folk getting a little too uppity, has to find an outlet somewhere, and perhaps this regime will provide one.  Self-pity and resentment makes the Republican tumescent; power can bring blissful release.

On Bearing Grudges

I bear grudges. Some of them are of impressive vintage, their provenance almost hidden, tucked away in some distant corner of my memories and recollections. Yet others are more callow, stemming from events and incidents that have barely received their marching papers. Some burn with a fierce intensity, the glow of yet others is dull, even as they continue to smolder sullenly. But they all have occupancy rights and long-term leases; they are all legal squatters, welcomed and let in, taking up space, consuming vital resources of thought and emotional energy. Residencies this prolonged must be paid for; and these long-time tenants do square their debts in a fashion.

Most prominently, of course, these grudges allow for self-indulgent wallowing in a fierce, unquenchable anger; this emotion is much maligned, and yet, its pleasures are undeniable. (Or else, we would not allow it such easy, unquestioned access to our being.)  Poke a dormant grudge, and as it stirs to life, there is almost immediate gratification; that pounding, elevated heart-rate, that fierce sense of righteousness, that pleasurable confirmation of our virtue. We were right to be offended and aggrieved; our grudge tells us so.

Grudges remind us we are alive, that we are creatures of emotion too, and not just reasonable reason. They pay compliments to our passional selves, to our capacity to experience and express our feelings; only the banal and the affectless let go of grudges, not us. Our grudges remind us, as we trudge through the endlessly repeated daily routines that blur one day into another, that something within us is irreconcilable and discordant with the placidity that seems to otherwise dominate our lives.

Grudges are an aid to our memories; they are vivid markers of times gone by, of places and peoples that once populated our lives. They point to roads taken, to friendships made and lost, to formative relationships. We know our memories are not distinct and discrete, separable into neat parcels; each informs the other.  To let a grudge go might be to let go its associations, a price we might be unwilling to pay.

Grudges offer words of caution for the life that lies ahead of us; they remind us of what offended us, what cut us to the quick, what was able to reach down into the innermost recesses of our being and find the previously inaccessible and unconscious. They suggest alternative routes and paths for our inevitable encounters with others; we have been forewarned. (They remind us too, that others, much like us, might bear grudges too. We should not glibly assume that our offences have been forgiven and forgotten; we might yet need to make amends. They aid our understanding of others; that inexplicable remark, that mysterious response, is now no longer so.)

Grudges, like anxieties, are messengers; they inform us of who we are. We struggle to understand ourselves; our grudges aid our ongoing projects of self-discovery and understanding. To cauterize a grudge might be to turn off a channel of communication with ourselves.

Thanks Joan Williams, But I ‘Get The US Working Class’ Just Fine

You know the refrain by now: cease and desist from calling Trump ‘fans’ or ‘voters’ ‘stupid racists.’ We must not think of them as ‘ignorant’ They are, instead, ‘economically disempowered’; they constitute a distinct cultural class, one which must now be listened to and studied with all due care and respect; we must understand and try to ‘get’ this ‘culture.’ For all the care that we are being asked to exercise in our interactions with the Trump demographic, Americans might imagine they are budding anthropologists or sociologists being asked to exercise due diligence by some Institutional Review Board for the Politics of Human Subjects. The latest salvo in this unceasing broadside of paternal instruction now appears in the Harvard Business Review, where we are told by Joan Williams that we don’t understand the ‘American working class’ or the ‘white working class.’ (Incidentally, these two terms seem to have become synonymous with ‘Trump voter,’ which is a bit of a mystery when we remember that many ‘working class’ and ‘white working class’ folks voted for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and would not have dreamed of voting for Donald Trump.)

So, here is the ‘class culture gap’ that liberals, members of the elite, east coast intellectuals of all stripes apparently do not get:

One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.

Doctors are quacks, lawyers are shysters, professors are phonies, teachers are condescending and unhelpful. Got that. So, I get the components of this world view but I’m afraid this is not remotely helpful in helping me bridge the culture gap and disabusing me of my prior prejudices about this ‘group.’ These points of view are, how you say, infected by ignorance and resentment. Reading them articulated as Williams would have us do does nothing to change my opinion of Trump voters as ignorant and racist. (I draw apart ‘working class’ and ‘white working class’ in this fashion because interestingly enough, I have met many non-ignorant, non-racist members of the working class; they are resentful, all right, but they are not resentful of the people whom the Trump demographic appears to be resentful of.) So, I might understand why Trump won, but my understanding will not consist of coming to the realization “Aha, Trump voters aren’t actually ignorant and racist; they’re just resentful of elites.” For I will be tempted to ask: Which elites? The public service lawyers who help the weak assert their rights against the state? The public school teachers who work for low salaries and teach their kids? The doctors who went to medical schools and heal their bodies when they are hurt on the job? The professors whose classes they do not attend? Do the esteemed members of the working class that Williams is pointing us to not know of the entities I point to, or do they not care? In either case, they remain ignorant; their prejudiced beliefs appear without foundation; the generalizations that we are informed of remain just as infected by ignorance, resentment and anger as we imagined them before–and let us not forget, racism is merely ignorance, resentment, and anger coupled with racial prejudice and dominant race power. Williams also conveniently leaves out a description of how the WWC perceives others who are the subject of their resentments–like, for instance, immigrants. My guess is that the WWC considers them shifty sonsofbitches who steal their jobs. Sounds like a real culture clash; a clash between a culture sustained by ignorance, resentment, and racism, and one that is not. These intuitions are confirmed when Williams makes note of the tremendous masculine insecurity that underwrites this same class (or culture); we are entirely unsurprised to find that sexism and patriarchy rules the roost here.  (Trump That Bitch!)

So if Williams’ intention in writing this piece was melioristic i.e., she intended to bridge the divide between the two ‘classes’ she identifies, then she has not succeeded. What she has succeeded in doing is telling us that our impressions of the ‘working class’–such as Williams has identified them–are correct: they are racist, and ignorant, and resentful, and unsurprisingly, they voted for someone who encapsulated their Know-Nothing resentment. To be sure it tells us that a different kind of electoral campaign might have been needed to convince this demographic; that too much faith might have been placed in appeals to their supposed common sense; that a different candidate, who was male, and who could stroke their insecurities and assuage their anxieties might have had more success with them. But it does not make me understand the ‘American working class’ or white working class’ in a way that changes my opinion of their moral and political predilections.

I am, in making this judgment, not writing off the ‘white working class’ as Williams is worried I might; but I’m not letting them off the hook for their racism either. Many Trump voters are economically disempowered; they were right to not believe the promises of the elites, of the Democratic Party; their racism emerged when they decided: a) they knew who to blame for their troubles, and it sure wasn’t members of their own racial group; b) they could live with the overt racism of the candidate they were going to vote for.

Note: Williams confirms my intuition that her piece is suffused with apologia and appeasement when she issues the following gem:

National debates about policing are fueling class tensions today in precisely the same way they did in the 1970s, when college kids derided policemen as “pigs.” This is a recipe for class conflict. Being in the police is one of the few good jobs open to Americans without a college education. Police get solid wages, great benefits, and a respected place in their communities. For elites to write them off as racists is a telling example of how, although race- and sex-based insults are no longer acceptable in polite society, class-based insults still are.

Once again, this does precisely nothing to bridge the ‘culture gap’ whose existence Williams is pointing us to. For I find myself tempted to ask: Which communities? Do white cops get a respected place in black communities? Do blacks in white communities? I have news for Williams. It’s not just ‘elites’ who write off cops as racists; middle-class and poor black Americans do too.

The ‘Trivial’ Roots Of Resentment

Some three decades ago, I went to buy tickets for a major sports event. I was a teenager, eager to see top-class athletes in action; I woke early, caught a bus to the ticket box-office and joined the long queues that had already formed by the time I arrived. The lines grew and grew; tickets were sold slowly and inefficiently; the pushing and shoving began. There were policemen in charge of this mass of disorderly humanity; they decided to restore order by a series of pushes and shoves of their own.

I complied with orders: I moved, keeping my position in the queue. But clearly, I had not moved quickly enough. Suddenly, I received a hard blow to the back of my head. Stunned, my head spinning, I looked around to see what had happened. A policeman stood there, glaring at me, “What are you looking at! Move!” (This translated version sounds considerably milder than the original.) He was bigger than me; he carried a hefty baton that I knew could easily crack my skull open.

I moved.

I hadn’t done anything wrong as far as I could tell; I had complied with instructions; I had been in the wrong time and in the wrong place, in the firing line for an officer of the law, one easily inclined to descend to violence when things didn’t go right, when his easily exhausted patience ran out.  In the space of a few seconds, I had been physically chastised and humiliated; I had been put in my place; I had been reminded I had very little power when it came to confronting these guardians of the peace.

So I smarted and glowered and fumed. For days and weeks and afterwards, every policeman I saw reminded me of that day when I had been abruptly slapped upside the head and told to get my ass in gear. Later, in my university days, I heard a story of how a policeman had made the mistake of harassing two young men–out for a late night smoke and a stroll–who had decided to fight back. He didn’t have backup, and he had thought he could simply bully them the way he usually bullied his usual victims: the homeless, the initerant poor, the cabdrivers on a night-shift. They had grabbed his baton, thrown it away, and then delivered a series of quick blows to his head before running away into the night. When I heard this tale, I grinned and snickered. “Fuck that motherfucker. Serves him right. That’ll teach him a fucking lesson. He’ll think twice before he messes with some kids again.”

I was not a juvenile delinquent. I was not someone was repeatedly accosted by the police (though I had several more edgy encounters with them in my university days, all of them reminders of their ability to swiftly, crudely, bring blunt power to bear.) So I often wonder: if I could, thanks to one violent and disempowering encounter with the police, a humiliating and reductive one, develop such a chip on my shoulder, just how angry and resentful would someone get if such interactions were a daily or weekly occurrence?

I know, I know. I should have moved on. I should have brushed off that chip. I should have matured. But I wasn’t old enough to know better.  And again, I know, that the cop who got beaten by those youngsters probably cracked down a little harder the next time he saw a couple of ‘punks’, and made sure he took some buddies with him to crack heads.

But pushing folks around, rendering them weak and vulnerable, reminding their of their helplessness in the face of those who enjoy a monopoly on coercion and the exercise of state power remains a deadly recipe for the generation of resentment and anger.

Matthew Arnold On Inequality

In his 1879 essay ‘Equality,’ Matthew Arnold wrote about inequality too:

What the middle class sees is that splendid piece of materialism, the aristocratic class, with a wealth and luxury utterly out of their reach, with a standard of social life and manners, the offspring of that wealth and luxury , seeming out utterly out of their reach also. And thus they are thrown back upon themselves–upon a defective type of religion, a narrow range of intellect and knowledge, a stunted sense of beauty, a low standard of manners. And the lower class see before them the aristocratic class, and its civilization, such as it is, even infinitely more of out of their reach than out of that of the middle class; while the life of the middle class, with its unlovely types of religion, thought, beauty, and manners, has naturally in general, no great attractions for them either. And so they too are thrown back upon themselves; upon their beer, their gin, and their fun. Now then, you will understand what I meant by saying that our inequality materialises our upper class, vulgarises our middle class, brutalises our lower.

And the greater the inequality the more marked is its bad action upon the middle and lower classes….

[O]ur aristocracy…is for the imagination a singularly modern and uninteresting one. Its splendor of station, its wealth, show, and luxury, is then what the other classes really admire in it; and this is not an elevating admiration. Such an admiration will never lift us out of our vulgarity and brutality, if we chance to be vulgar and brutal to start with; it will rather feed them and be fed by them….our love of inequality is really the vulgarity in us, and the brutality, admiring and worshipping the splendid materiality.

[Matthew Arnold: Selected Essays, edited with an introduction by Noel Annan, Oxford University Press, 1964]

Arnold does not speak here of rage, outward or inward directed, but he might as well have. For there is a black envy here, in his mention of an ‘admiration’ that is not ‘elevating’ but that instead ‘feeds’ and is ‘fed’ by ‘vulgarity’ and ‘brutality.’ This corrosion of sensibilities that inequality produces–all the more acute as the inequality grows more pronounced–cannot be anything but a destabilizing force, one that may not restrained too long.

In some cultures it is said staring at someone eating brings bad luck to the person eating. The watcher is urged to show some manners; the eater turns away to consume in peace. A pair of hungry eyes looking at sustenance denied them cannot but ruin the appetite of those conscious of their gaze. Matters, no doubt, are infinitely worse when the food on the plate has been stolen from those watching, when they have been forced to serve it up with their own hands.

The converse, of course, of such a superstition, is that the ostentatious consumer of food denied others reminds others of their misfortune, rubs their faces in it. He runs the risk too, of having his plate snatched out of his hands.