Actual letter to a liberal friend

I apologize for lack of content. The technical miracle is almost complete—already, my senses are enormously expanded, and I can feel the Old Ones beginning to stir. More work remains necessary, however, to confirm the results.

So I thought I would fill the gap by posting a letter I wrote recently to a respected liberal friend. My friend wrote:

I would rarely send a NYT link, let alone a New School Prof diatribe, to you (though for full disclosure, I almost went there). But I have long been fascinated by the vein of rage tapped into by rage-radio/TV, and mined accordingly by demagoguery of all assortments. This is an interesting attempt at getting at the core… (thoughts appreciated—perhaps grist for UR):

The Very Angry Tea Party

I responded:

If I had to describe it in a sentence, I would say that the rage is easily explained, but not easily explained in the terms of those who feel it. They are clearly angry about something, but the actual words that come out of their mouths are often nonsensical and contradictory. This is why it is so hard for so many to get a handle on. It is simply inarticulate demotic discontent.

Basically, you will see this in any hieratic system of government which the peasants do not really understand. They feel, somehow, that they are getting jobbed. They are (in my opinion) getting jobbed. But how they are getting jobbed is infinitely more complicated than their simple peasant mind can understand. (Also, the idea that they are in some way jobbing the peasants is the farthest possible concept from the collective mind of the gentlemen.)

Therefore, the peasants open their mouths and out comes rage and nonsense. As a gentleman, you are fascinated and repelled by this extraordinary wave of rage and nonsense. Do I have this reaction right? You may of course feel free to disregard the crude metaphor of medieval class conflict, which is no more than a metaphor. Still, I feel it is a good way to ground the conversation in history.

One easy reaction is to blame Fox News. It is true: for the first time in a long time, the peasants have an exclusively peasant-themed mass propaganda channel. However, the objective observer notes quickly that Fox News is not so much telling its audience what to think, as telling them they are allowed to think what they already think. Since they are peasants, lacking any semblance of an aristocratic culture that can accumulate and transmit collective wisdom across generations, what they think is generally nonsense.

Fox News aggregates and retransmits this nonsense, but does not really direct it much in Goebbels style. In some ways it even moderates it—for instance, Fox, and neocons in general, are not much less aggressive in purging racism than establishment journalists. (It is certainly interesting to imagine an alternate 21st-century America that was as aggressive in purging communism as it is in purging racism. I have seen people get quite hot under the collar at the mere mention of this horrible gedankenexperiment, but it fills a need.)

Have you read the Center for American Progress’s history of progressivism in America?

This is approved by all manner of official historians and is as authorized as it gets. From my perspective, it seems quite euphemistic to say the least. It would be an interesting exercise to reconstruct this same story without any sugary self-laudations. Nonetheless, many truths can be discerned in it—including some it might not have chosen to convey.

For intelligent but mainstream neocon/libertarian criticism of this document you may see David Bernstein at Volokh: “Whitewashing Progressivism.”

I feel that Bernstein completely misses the point, however, hence burying the lede even deeper. Where is the real lede?

Look at the document’s discussion of one of the main groups whose votes brought FDR to power in the ’30s—lower-class, urban, generally Catholic white non-old-stock Americans. These are the people TR called “hyphenated Americans”—and he didn’t mean it in a nice way.

The CAP historians mention these people a couple of times. Most notably, they mention the fact that this group, historically Democratic Party voters going back to the 19th century (“rum, Romanism and rebellion”), also historically urban, was living in the suburbs and voting for Reagan in 1980. They profess, however, to be entirely mystified by this transition. Surely, if we understand it, we can answer the question of what motivates the “tea partiers.”

The post-Catholic hyphenated group is not all of red-state America, but when we add other post-Democratic groups (Southerners, farmers, etc., etc., etc.) we see the basic historical origin of the modern American peasantry. My wife is from Ohio, and I went to high school in semi-rural Maryland. So I do know something of these people, and not just from books. Also, my father was in the State Department and I went to Brown, so I know the oligarchy.

So the question is: why, given what actually happened in the 20th century, would these peasants feel generally jobbed? I.e., betrayed? Do they have any legitimate reason to feel jobbed? Clearly, if they have a legitimate reason to feel betrayed, this must be the objective observer’s interpretation of the ultimate cause of the rage they express - disregarding any number of spurious or illegitimate reasons, as entirely irrelevant. If there is no such legitimate reason, we must consider an entirely different set of explanations for the phenomenon.

What we can say quite clearly is that this tribal subpopulation has, in no temporary way, lost confidence in progressivism as a philosophy of government. Fortunately or unfortunately, they do not know how to unelect a philosophy. Believe me, as a student of history, it can be done! But the means are two or three orders of magnitude more dire than anything even Glenn Beck has imagined. Fortunately or unfortunately, blue-state America is safer than it thinks. Much safer. Also, the demographic balance is shifting in its favor—as is widely known.

But why? Perhaps one clue is this movie from 1965:

Detroit: City on the Move

50 years ago, Detroit was a thriving metropolis, the fourth largest city in America. It had no presentiments whatsoever of any imminent disaster. Today it is a burned-out ruin, more or less. This is the sort of objective phenomenon that, if you’re a student of history, you can’t help but try to explain.

Of course, the causes of urban decay in Detroit and other American cities are quite complex. One cannot help but observe, however, that the decayed areas are where the hyphenated Americans used to live. Not exactly—but generally, more or less. For instance, Detroit was a big hyphenated-American town.

This spring I had an interesting experience at a dinner party. The people at the party were actually my wife’s friends, but both she and my daughter were sick, so she sent me. Now, normally my wife will strain life and limb to keep me from getting into any but a superficial political discussion with her friends from the San Francisco theater scene. Frankly, her fears are exaggerated. I can pretend to be a progressive all day long without any discomfort whatsoever. I can also pretend to be a redneck—it is frightening to see me in this mode. But in any case, she wasn’t there. So I got to use my Sith mind tricks in an uninhibited manner.

One of the other guests was a black playwright and director—very upper-crust black, no accent—and his pretty but somewhat dim Midwestern wife. I had met these people a few times but did not know them very well. The wife, in particular, revealed herself as a very orthodox Chomskyite progressive.

In any case, not really knowing these people, I wound up steering them around to the question asked above. The Detroit Question, one could call it. It was then that I learned that the director’s wife was from such a traditional Polish Catholic community in, I think, Cleveland, that before she went to college she had assumed she would end up as a nun.

So toward the end of the conversation I took a conversational chance. I said: “Why did your parents leave their homes in the city, and move to the suburbs? Was it by any chance because they were afraid for their physical safety?”

“Yes,” she said. Rather quietly.

Now, this is not really news to anyone. But most people think of it as an effect without a cause. Well, as a student of history: when a country’s fourth-largest city becomes a ruin, it is not an effect without a cause. People argue all the time about the fall of the Roman Empire. But nobody argues that it was an effect without a cause—a random event, a black swan, not correlated to any other event.

The fall of Detroit is an objective observation. Most people (even on Fox News) do not really connect it with the history of the 20th century, the FDR administration, the tradition of progressive government, the Great Society, John Lindsay, etc., etc. In fact, they try not think about it at all. Why would they? Their history is made of cardboard. Red, white and blue cardboard. So the American TV audience has the choice of (a) the CAP version, which (IMHO) is entirely opaque and meaningless, or (b) brightly colored cardboard. This by itself is more than enough reason for rage.

But, although they do not reason openly and explicitly in this existential manner, the tea partiers feel emotionally that their entire system of government has lost, over the course of decades, their confidence, and needs to be replaced by something entirely different. The basic problem with their rhetoric is that in place of “something entirely different,” they insert two-dimensional cliches of historical American nationalism, dimly remembered at a folk level from the 1920s. It was no less nonsense then, but at least it had an aristocratic leadership caste, which was actually capable of governing a country. In short, it had Calvin Coolidge. Sarah Palin is no Calvin Coolidge.

There are three basic attitudes toward government in America today. There are people who believe government is there to serve them; there are people who believe government is there to serve others; there are people who believe government is there to subsidize them. In our medieval metaphor, these correspond to peasants, gentlemen, and varlets respectively. The last is the caste Marx called the “lumpenproletariat”—and he was no fan of this group, or of political movements that exploited it. Respectable people say “underclass.”

When gentlemen look at progressivism, they see a movement whose purpose is to help the underclass, those whose plight is no fault of their own. When peasants look at progressivism, they see a movement whose purpose is to employ gentlemen in the business of public policy, by using the peasants’ money to buy votes from varlets. Who, in the peasants’ perception, abuse the patience and generosity of both peasants and gentlemen in almost every imaginable way, and are constantly caressed by every imaginable authority for doing so.

Among gentlemen, the idea that government could be there to serve us is almost socially taboo. For instance, San Francisco’s public school system, which literally assigns children randomly around the city to aid in the great cause of social homogenization—a cause which makes the war in Afghanistan look like an unqualified success—causes immense headaches, costs or both to the very same social class which sets the public policies of San Francisco. Yet they accept it with hardly a murmur.

Last week I was at a party, at a warehouse space in one of the crackhead districts of SF, at which the subject of crackheads came up. The woman across the table, a member of my social class, expressed great sympathy for this class. I asked her if she had ever been victimized by such. She said: “two days ago, someone smashed a window in my car and stole my iPhone.”

And she perceived this crime through a pure Jean Valjean lens, with no sense at all that she had been personally victimized—much less, victimized by the government. Or a judge. Or an ideology. Or whatever. Rather, she considered it entirely normal and even laudable for a sophisticated, modern person to live in a city in which an iPhone cannot be left visible on a car seat, and she considered herself an idiot who had, for her $500 or whatever, purchased a valuable lesson about modern urban living. (She literally expressed the idea that an impoverished person had sold her iPhone to buy food. To be fair, she was in her early ’20s.)

Who would think this way? Well, perhaps if you were a Frenchman in 1944, and your property was looted and vandalized, by American soldiers on their way to kick hell out of the Nazis, you might think this way. The State Department thought this way about the killing of Cleo Noel. This is the way you think about your own clients and the excesses and abuses they commit. Certainly, if this woman’s car had been vandalized by cops, Tea Partiers, etc., she would have been enraged for life. We hate our enemies and not our allies—it is only natural.

Peasants see a patron–client relationship between the gentlemen and the varlets—a relationship not at all unlike the late Roman relationship of clientela, where a patrician measured his social status by the vast army of plebeians that battened on his trenches. Again, what to the gentleman appears as a noble act of charity, compassion, etc., to the coarse and cynical peasant reveals itself as a purchase of political power, with his tax dollars if not his physical safety. Therefore a vision of the gallows arises in his hindbrain.

Can both be correct? Of course they can. Every case, in every detail, is different, and every case can be viewed from both perspectives. As Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

And again—are the tea partiers thinking this story? No such elaborate historio-political fantasy has ever come anywhere close to their heads. But it is, I would argue, the reality of history in our time. Truth, even if not realized in toto, glints off every surface. Therefore, it is an emotional subtext that spawns a continuous stream of inchoate, inarticulate and inexplicable rage. Precisely as your New School prof observes!