NO XIN, NO REN - THE CRISIS OF WESTERN HUMANISM
Personal page: http://peacefromharmony.org/?cat=en_c&key=775
The Western World is being shaken by a reactionary movement that is reversing the historic accomplishments of the 20th century in building humane societies of social justice and caring. The assault is registering remarkable victories – especially in North America and Britain but in continental Europe as well. Within the European Union, country after country in the community’s periphery has been reduced to penury (destitution in Greece) in the name of an austerity ‘cure’ based on a misdiagnosis by dogmatists who have learned nothing from history. The “lost decade” refers not only to aggregate growth but the network of social programs and public services which have been slashed while income gaps widen drastically. Everywhere, it is the moneyed interests and their political comrades in arms who are leading the charge. Everywhere, they have seized the commanding heights of public discourse from which they shape the thinking and attitudes of the political class, the populace and those intellectuals who have chosen to serve them. This entire exercise in regression is cast in moralistic terms, moreover. The great beneficiaries of this backwards progression cynically condemn the losers for a self-indulgent materialism that is the alleged cause of their, and their nations’ troubles. That is pure “projection” – in the psychiatrists’ jargon.
Two aspects of this stunning phenomenon are arresting and puzzling. First, it runs against the grain of strong currents that have shaped our civilization over three centuries. Enlightenment ideas of a reasoned and reasonable society that acknowledged the basic humanity of all its members spread – most often gradually, at times by fits and starts – to shape a communal consensus which was fully reified after WW II.
An ethic of caring through collective institutions drew further ethical sustenance from religious ideals even as the influence of formal religious organizations itself faded. This sense of common interest was reconciled with the individualism that is a hallmark of modernity through the mechanism of constitutional democracy and the assiduous protection of civil liberties (politically) and the protection of property rights in free markets (economically). Domestic prosperity and tranquility was matched by the fostering of a transnational community wherein violent conflict (war) became a vestigial memory and collaboration to advance economic well-being the norm.
Today, almost every feature of that Social Compact either is being rejected or called into question: social equity, containing disparities in wealth distribution, ensconcing government as the legitimate and necessary guardian of the public good, giving everyone a piece of the action as well as a slice of the pie, valuing compromise and conciliation at the EU level.
The other peculiar feature is that the mounting challenge to the West’s great construction is not a reaction to failure. By any conceivable measure, our societies are the most successful that the world has ever known. They meet the needs and most desires of their members in every sphere of life to a greater extent and for more people than anywhere else ever before. There is no external threat of any consequence. There are no deep pools of discontent that spawn internal threats to the existing framework of values and institutions., with the partial and recent exception of refugee inflows.
The one big shock that we have experienced was the financial meltdown of 2008. However, those events did not spring from the workings and principles of the humanistic society. Rather, they were caused by deviation from them: subordination of the public interest to private greed, governments’ failure to exercise their regulatory responsibilities, reckless behavior by financial elites who lost the sense of limits and prudence, and the legitimation of the alien notion that money rather than human welfare is the standard measure of a successful society.
Confucian ethics admonishes us that “Humanity is the ultimate measure of all that we do.” That ethos is one expression of the transformation in individuals’ understanding of their social identity and moral obligation that occurred almost simultaneously in the world’s great civilizations during the Axial Age – roughly between the 6th and 4th centuries B.M.E. It was personified by the cohort of extraordinary sages and teachers: Lao Tzu, Confucius, Mahavira, Siddhartha, Socrates and prophets among the exiled Hebrews in Babylonia. The revolution had three overlapping dimensions: the Cosmos as a unifying order; the human community on earth in the here and now as its extension; and each person’s moral conduct in relation to both following an enlarged conception of kinship.
To abbreviate in a few lines the nature of these epochal changes, here are the core propositions integral to all these traditions:
Tribal community is enveloped in a wider community of humankind. The ethical precepts that had been applicable within the narrower society should be universalized. This is the implicit imperative of being one with the Cosmos and the creative force that formed us. The Divine, whatever its exact form, does not extend blessings to one parochial grouping at the expense of others but to everyone everywhere. All are equal before the Divine, we should treat each other accordingly. Realization of these elemental truths should guide how we organize our societies, how we behave toward its fellow members, and how we behave toward those outside it.
The ethical saga of humankind has been the sporadic, imperfect movement toward a condition that approximates this ideal. Our dominant creeds and philosophies give statement to it. Challenges have come from a variety of exclusive sects and cults, including modern nationalism. The fundamental obstacle, though, has been human nature, the unaccommodating traits of our personality – the impulses to dominate, to differentiate, to secure privilege. They were surmounted or circumvented in the West (and a few other places) after 1945 thanks to the fortuitous convergence of several favorable factors. The constructions, the understandings, the communalities that followed are now under siege. They will not collapse or disintegrate entirely. But they are being badly damaged and at a remarkable rate.
How do we explain what is happening? The motor energy and the driving force derive from three sources. Special interests in the financial and business worlds ruthlessly pushing to grab what they can; self-styled innovators and iconoclasts – mainly pseudo-intellectuals, inside academia and out – whose studied rejection of inherited truths is a crude way to demonstrate supposed superiority; and politicos expediently using a crisis to gain and hold onto power. The mix varies from country to country, and there are modalities of style, but these elements pull together everywhere to threaten an overturning of the socio-economic-political world as we have come to know it.
A fuller analysis has to explore the psychological mainsprings that move individuals whose personal lives are ones of comfort and status to pursue this radical turn to a discredited past. Surely, there are insecurities and status anxieties that go deeper than the appetite for greed and power. But this brief depiction must suffice for the purpose of this essay.
A related puzzle is the passive acceptance of this march backwards by other segments of the political elite, by intellectuals and by the many victims of this reactionary project. That, too, must remain a mystery for the time being. What can be said with some confidence is that all parties have lost a sense of historical perspective. The uniqueness of the present and recent past eludes them – as does certainly the enormities of the costs and risks that impend.
Historical amnesia also helps to explain why the leaders of the march in reverse can get away with justifications that are rooted in stale, long abandoned ideas of no proven worth. Those doctrines and ideologies all hark back to the dark and scary days of the 20th century’s first forty-five years and beyond. The underlying economic doctrines and social philosophies animating the current strategy are revivals of ideas whose pedigree dates from the Great Depression. Quotes from the public remarks of successive Directors of the European Central Bank – Claude Trichet & Mario Draghi, from Ms. Merkel and her brothers-in-Hayek elsewhere in Britain, in the France, in the Netherlands, from the non- elected prefects appointed to run Greece and Italy in the name of the new found financial dogma –Lucas Papdemos & Mario Monti - all match almost word for word the utterances of Herbert Hoover and the officials of his era who nearly buried capitalism in the rubble of greed, selfishness and incompetence.
This is not coincidence nor simple fashion among those steeped in the heady brew of market fundamentalism (although there is an element of intellectual fad at work). Indeed, the situation would be less dangerous were it the case that the shift from Keynes back to Ricardo was like the alternation in the width of men’s ties. Then, at least, we could just hold on until tastes in economic doctrines reversed themselves. Instead, there is a strong synergistic logic among powerful financial interests, ascendant elements of the economic profession who have rediscovered the flat wheel, and politicians who have abandoned the Social/Christian Democracy model for trendy private sector based models of American inspiration.
What of compassionate humanism? In the United States, there are many who can hardly contain their delight in calling for as much pain and shame as the political traffic can bear to be imposed on the poor, the weak, the elderly. That is the prevailing ethos among Republicans. The Congressional Party has just voted en masse, with a discipline not seen outside the old Soviet Central Committee, to loot the economy for the rich and to kill social services. Their proclaimed next targets – Medicare and Social Security, among others – in effect will repeal the 20th Century. There are others, like former President Obama and the Democratic leadership, who show no signs of losing any sleep at the prospect of the vulnerable falling prey to cuts in social programs or having their homes foreclosed by predatory bankers. Related examples: (1) the blasé disregard of the pernicious effects that the sequestration cuts are having on the vulnerable - on Wheels for Meals, on Head Start, on cancer treatment for Medicare patients; (2) the Obama administration’s cavalier negligence in failing to ensure that bank obligations to illegally foreclosed home owners, reduced to a pittance, are actually paid correct amounts and not in rubber checks.
In Europe, Troika leaders and their agents predictably have claimed that they are simply doctors whose prescription of tough medicine is the only thing that will return the patient to good health. Like the application of leaches and purges to treat disease. There is more at work, though, than the normal rigidities of dogmatists deeply invested in the fixed collective mindset. For there is clear evidence of suffering that humane instinct should impel us to prevent or mitigate. Yet, there is no evident compassion or concern for actions that could alleviate that suffering.
Instead, there is a disengaged, distant attitude that is the antithesis of the conviction and sentiments that have shaped the social conscience of the post-war West. That means relegating Greeks, Irish, Portuguese et al to a condition of debt servitude for the foreseeable future. Severest penalties will be imposed on the poor and those of modest means, on all whose well-being depends on the network of social programs which, all across the continent, has made Europe the most enlightened and humane society the world has ever known. Workers in the public sector naturally are targeted as drags on an economy that must be ‘reformed’ to make it more ‘efficient’ and ‘productive’ – read, ‘business friendly’. Hence, labor unions too have to be reined in so that workers can be rendered as pliable, and disposable as their American counterparts.
Moral instruction by the righteous is part of the package. Stern warnings and fatwas are issued repeatedly like liturgical reinforcement of righteous dogma. Angela Merkel vents her fury at Cypriotes who balked at accepting the looting of their savings. How dare they spurn steps to deal with a threat to the Euro (and Ms. Merkel’s reelection) that they caused. She and others visited Greece and Italy to offer moral instruction in the flesh. There is an odd streak of lurking ‘Puritanism’ in the otherwise secular persona of Europe’s new political elite. It is even more pronounced in the United States where it taps residues of the once pervasive Protestant Ethic. There, a long tradition of masking greed with evangelism creates receptive ears for these moralistic denunciations of social “parasites”. In America, politicos use God as a religious Swiss army knife – multi-purpose, always at the ready, and manipulable. It is a personal and partisan possession like Yahweh was for the tribal Israelites before the Axial Age.
On both sides of the Atlantic, there is much noise and agonizing – real or confected - decrying shiftless lay-abouts who reject the prescribed penance of a hair shirt. Of course, much of this is a show put on by self-designated guardians of economic rectitude who know exactly whose particular interests are being served and the sacrifices that are being extracted from the common folk to satisfy them. In Europe and America there is a manifest callousness, and insensitivity to the plight of one’s fellows, that is alien to the modern social ethic. No European leader of the first two post-war generations, apart from Margaret Thatcher, would have acted in this way or said these things. The now beatified Thatcher prefigured today’s politicos in her ignorant disregard for centuries of human experience as pithily stated in the obtuse and puerile remark that “there is no such thing as society.” The anti-humanist prophetess as Ayn Rand. In the U.S., that neurotically misanthropic pseudo-philosopher numbers among her dogmatic acolytes Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and Alan Greenspan.
For the current generation of leaders generally, the full meaning of the Social Compact has lost its saliency – even its meaning. What was second nature for their predecessors now is a mental stretch – their former’s construction something that can be picked apart in the name of New Thinking. Their sole points of reference are their egos on the hunt for self-justification and their unbridled ambitions. The twin results have been the jeopardizing of global monetary stability and the transfer of vast sums from wage earners to financial entrepreneurs. Post- Thatcher Britain has been second only to the United States in this enterprise. Some time ago, the Austrian finance minister Maria Fekter, herself an ‘austerian,” described Britain as "the island of the blessed for tax evasion and money laundering." (interview with Kurier newspaper Thursday 11 April). Maintain that status is the paramount of the floundering May & Co. campaign to have its Brexit cake and eat it, too.
Similarly, no American national politician between 1945 and 2000 would do or say what has become commonplace in justifying the promotion of plutocracy by chastising the vulnerable – although there the seeds were sown by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Something has changed – something that is to be feared. For what is being placed in doubt are the very instincts of empathy, of communal solidarity and of compassion that provided a natural grounding for the ethic of universal humanism.
Everywhere, Social Democrats and progressives are deflated. They increasingly feel like also-rans and act as also-rans. In America there is the odd phenomenon that the locus of public opinion on most salient issues align with the Democrats; indeed, it is left of Obama and the Clintons. Yet, they cannot muster the conviction or political acumen or conviction to press their case. When we can provide an answer to that puzzle, we will have gone a ways to explainable what now strikes us as inexplicable.
Let us go back to the Chinese. The Confucian philosophers saw what was humane as stemming from what was natural. Mencius said that ethical behavior conformed to human instinct - as in the impulse to spring forward in order to save an endangered child. (The principle of xin). Xin inspires a more considered ethical precept to express kindness and to aid others out of common humanity. This cultivated humanism (ren), in turn, forms the ethos that is essential to a responsible society of responsible persons with responsible leaders. Ren* is the thread that unites Heaven or Nature with individual conduct and rulership in a society of mutual respect and mutual regard where leaders act with sincerity and conscientiousness - observing the philosophy of humaneness (jianai).
Can a modern West whose xin is being dulled or limited to one’s immediate family and coterie, whose ren is weakened, behave responsibly with due regard for the common humanity of its members? Ren is the counter to the inclination to behave with unbridled selfishness. It is an omni-present tug on our selfish impulses to remind us that egotism is a contagious social disease. Selfishness will only beget selfishness to everyone’s eventual harm. It will come back to haunt the initiator in the form of another’s hurtful conduct and deny society the capacity to achieve collective purposes. With a diminished ren we are fated to live among the self-absorbed atoms of an anti-social society a la Thatcher.
Is it conceivable that our small-minded and mean spirited elites bear such an envy of their predecessors as to tear down what has been built – and thereby leave their mark on the world by the only accomplishment of which they are capable?
In the 1920s and 1930s, Liberal Democracy found itself in a three-way contest for the soul of Western civilization with Communism and Fascism. Democracy was not the obvious betting favorite. Yet, it beat back those challengers and thrived. Today, it seems bent on self-mutilation – if not self-destruction. In parts of Europe, and in some aspects America, its ideals and enlightened politics are yielding to a novel form of neo-Fascism. All of this is occurring with no significant external threat. Such a perverse accomplishment is historic.
So we are back to the old question: are there limits to the human potential for stupidity?
人+二=仁 (xin) humans – two – under Heaven = benevolence
人+言=信 (ren) man on left, word or speech on right, means trustworthy and integrity.
兼 | 愛 (jian ai) inclusive, impartial caring
Friends & Colleagues
Mark Zuckerberg deigned to appear before Congress yesterday. His performance was revealing - at least it was to those whose minds are not clouded by the IT cult that he personifies. The scripted encounter was anticipated with remarkable prescience by Professor Zeynep Tufecki at the University of North Carolina. It appeared as an op ed in The New York Times - evidently unread by the Senators and their staffers. Not only did she foresee with near exactitude the charade that was played out, but the brief essay provides a succinct and compelling interpretation of the structural problem while laying down guidelines for a sensible regulatory strategy. It is another landmark in the slowly growing development of critical thinking about the subject, albeit 10 years too late.
Another piece follows which offers a first-hand, play-by-play account of what transpired on Capitol Hill. It is by Matt Taibbi whose long critique was distributed last week.
Watching Facebook and Senate Hypocrisy in Real-Time
By Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone
11 April 18
Zuck takes a mauling in a bipartisan pigpile – but the members seem more interested in influencing Facebook than decreasing its power
t’s heading into the evening and it’s just been announced that if we continue on the current pace, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will still be testifying before the Senate after midnight.
I’d hoped to post complete notes from the whole session, but I’m going to have to give up and make a few observations about the direction of what we’ve seen so far from this extraordinary hearing. As noted in a recent Rolling Stone feature on the subject, Facebook has been all over the news, ubiquitous in a bad way for the first time in its history.
Blamed variously for helping elect Donald Trump, aiding the Russians and providing communications support for everyone from terrorists to spies, Facebook has become the bogeyman for members of both parties. Thanks in large part to the Cambridge Analytica story and the Russiagate furor (and specifically the Internet Research Agency indictments), the Senate decided that the company was sufficiently on the public’s minds and that its nerd-emperor CEO needed to be dragged in for public questioning.
Here’s how the session went:
2:33: Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, noting that 44 Senators are participating in the hearing – a major indication of how badly members of both parties wanted a sound bite of themselves whacking Zuckerberg – takes a dig at Zuck at the outset. " may not seem like a large group by Facebook’s standards," Grassley says, with unmistakable sarcasm. It’s sort of an "our-44-Senators-can-beat-up-your-two-billion-users" comment.
2:37: While South Dakota Republican John Thune rambles through his opening remarks, Zuck, who looks fully eight and a half years old, seems to be trying to remember how many data points he’s harvested about Thune and what the weirdest one was.
2:42: Diane Feinstein is summarizing the IRA and Cambridge Analytica stuff. Zuck’s pale blue suit and tie ensemble are very reassuring and non-scary, very Menendez-brothers.
2:50: Bill Nelson from Florida leads aggressively: "Let me just cut to the chase – if you and other social media companies don’t get your act together, we won’t have privacy anymore." He goes on to talk about how we’re all glued to screens and tablets from morning to night, and chastises Zuckerberg for repeatedly misusing data.
It’s not that Nelson is wrong, but the randomness of this is so strange. Facebook and other social media platforms have been using the same data-mining techniques for ages, and of course have been partners with the government at times in its use of such techniques – including partnerships with the NSA in its PRISM program. But suddenly Facebook is getting hammered by both parties in the most aggressive manner. Zuckerberg is a uniquely unsympathetic person in a lot of ways, but the rapacious and completely illegal government surveillance programs to this day tolerated by this same U.S. Senate undercut the effect of the outrage they’re all going to demonstrate today.
2:55: Zuck, presidentially, "assumes full responsibility" for a lot of the bad stuff that’s happened – Cambridge Analytica, etc. It’s a smart tactic that, as it does for presidents, deflects from the institutional breadth and power of his organization, and focuses on the human being, who can make a personal play for sympathy. His version of the rhetorical trick: "I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here."
2:57: Good advice for anyone who happens to be high on anything today: Do NOT simultaneously listen to both Mark Zuckerberg testifying in the Senate, and Sesame Street’s Ernie singing the 1970 classic, "Rubber Duckie."
2:58: Zuck repeats the core mantra that his greatest mission is to "bring people together." Facebook loves dopey corporate aphorisms and this one is not going to work when it comes to deflecting public anger, especially since an internal memo recently leaked in which executive Andrew "Boz" Bosworth said that if "someone dies in a terrorist attack" that it’s all good, because "we connect people."
Like its new catchphrase, "Move fast with stable infrastructure" (updated from the original proto-libertarian "Move fast and break things"), "We bring people together" isn’t going to fly all that well with a pissed-off public.
3:08: Nelson challenges Zuck: Does the data belong to the user, or to the company? Zuck answers unequivocally that "the first line of the terms of service" tells users they control the information they enter. But Zuckerberg just finished telling Nelson that there is currently no option for users to disable the use of personal data for ads, arguing that ads are the only way to provide free service.
So that’s fucked.
3:10: Thune blasts Zuck’s "14-year history" of apologies for bad decisions and asks why we should listen to this new one. Zuck looks back blankly, appears to be counting Thune’s eyebrows.
3:12: This is the scary part. Zuck explains that for the first 10-to-12 years of the company’s existence, he viewed the company’s "responsibility" as ending with giving people "tools" to connect with each other, so they could "do good things." But he now understands the company’s "responsibility" is greater, and that they have to be more "proactive."
But what does that mean? Will they use algorithms and "content review" to drive down offensive content and/or what he calls "bad activity?" If so, how will those determinations be made?
The terrifying part of this controversy, to me, is the possibility that Facebook will ultimately engage in a kind of policing/censorship activity that all of these Senators may actually favor – perhaps driving down or eliminating certain kinds of alternative or dissenting speech in return for regulatory relief.
3:23: Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, one of the first soft-ballers, is one of the few people present who seems to think the whole controversy is dumb. His point seems to be, if you want a free service, don’t bitch if that company then mines your data to sell ads.
"Some profess themselves shocked, shocked that companies like Facebook and Google share user data with advertisers," Hatch says. "Did any of these individuals ever stop to ask themselves why Facebook and Google don’t charge for access? Nothing in life is free. Everything involves tradeoffs. If you want something without having to pay money for it, you’re gonna have to pay for it in some other way."
He serves up this question for Zuckerberg: How do you survive financially?
"Senator, we run ads," says Zuckerberg, trying not to seem too pleased.
3:26: Maria Cantwell’s aides clearly are trying to get a sound bite on the news by having her ask Zuck if he’d heard that people were calling Palantir "Stanford Analytica." The line falls like a dead bird on the Senate floor.
3:28: Cantwell asks Zuckerberg if he’s ever heard of the infamous John Ashcroft-era "Total Information Awareness" data-dominance program, and he says no.
It’s probably not because he’s lying, but because Zuckerberg is basically a millennial for whom the early Bush years happened when dinosaurs still roamed the earth.
3:37: Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker asks Zuckerberg if it’s true that Facebook collects data on people even after they log off the site. Zuck pauses, looking like Daffy Duck after having his bill shot off, and tries to tell Wicker that he’ll have his people follow up.
Wicker, irritated: "You don’t know?"
Zuck gives a verbose passive-voice answer about how there are cookies on the Internet and it would be possible to track people "between sessions," but only to improve the user experience, blah blah blah.
Short answer: yup, they monitor us after we leave the site.
3:44: Lindsey Graham down-homing it, saying: "If I buy a Ford and don’t like it, ah can buy a Chevy." He asks if he doesn’t like Facebook, what can he go to instead? Zuckerberg struggles to name a main competitor.
Graham asks flat out: "Are you a monopoly?"
Zuckerberg says, "It doesn’t feel like it." Laughter in the gallery.
When Lindsey Graham is haranguing a company for being insufficiently enthusiastic about regulation, something odd is going on.
It’s an unusual synergy. Conservatives hammer Facebook because of the widespread impression that Silicon Valley tilts Democratic, while Democrats are hammering Facebook because of its central role in the Russiagate narrative.
3:50: Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar asks a question about whether it’s possible that Cambridge Analytica’s data is possibly "stored in Russia" that is so incoherent that Zuckerberg struggles to find an appropriately insincere answer.
Zuckerberg seems more commanding as it becomes clear that the Senators have little-to-no technical understanding of the issues involved. It’s worse than a banking hearing by far.
3:59: Well, here’s the sound bite for tonight’s news! Dick Durbin asks Zuckerberg if he’d be comfortable disclosing what hotel he stayed in last night.
Zuck first squirms, then says, in drawn-out fashion, "N-n-n-oooo." Which makes him look like an unparalleled-in-history asshole for having collected similar data points about two billion people.
4:17: Senator Ted Cruz asks, "Does Facebook consider itself a neutral public forum?" He’s going after the Gizmodo stuff about Facebook employees allegedly suppressing conservative speech. Zuck obliges by giving Cruz a sound bite, to the effect that Silicon Valley "is an extremely left-leaning place," and this is a source of concern for him.
Zuckerberg, who moments ago seemed cocky when he said he didn’t need a break, and was happy to go for 15 minutes more, now seems to have made a PR error, coming off a little like James Damore in this obnoxious-on-both-sides colloquy with Cruz. It’s almost impossible not to come across as sympathetic when Ted Cruz is your antagonist, but Zuckerberg pulls it off a little here.
4:59: Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware hammers Zuckerberg, pointing out that Facebook allowed real estate advertisers to only advertise to white people, in clear violation of the law. After promises to fix the problem, it hadn’t been addressed "fully" a year later, according to ProPublica.
Zuckerberg responds with his now customary origin-story tale about how Facebook started in his dorm room, without money or without A.I. to help him root out bad thingies. But of course an ad program that offers the service to exclude non-white ad targets is something done consciously, not an oversight that you’d need A.I. to catch.
5:09: Republican Ben Sasse asks Zuckerberg if social media platforms hire consultants to help them increase the addictive dopamine hits users get from their online experience. Zuckerberg says no, which is a direct contradiction of what original developer Sean Parker said about Facebook just last year.
The hearing goes on and on, with each Senator trying to get in a viral zinger.
A subtext of the hearing was a vague sense that some of these politicians would rather
shape Facebook’s power than decrease it. Lindsey Graham was the only Senator to really raise the possibility of antitrust action. Because the government itself has been engaged in vast and illegal data-mining operations for so long, the outrage expressed against Facebook today was not terribly convincing.
But Zuckerberg came across as even more phony than his interrogators. He’s an unhealthily un-self-aware business overlord who unfortunately has been convinced by someone to have political aspirations, which made him care how he came across on C-SPAN a lot more than someone like Jamie Dimon, who’ll come to the Hill and make Senators wet themselves with his unabashed presentation of pure greed.
Zuckerberg, on the other hand, kept frantically switching faces in search of what made him seem more human – he alternated throughout between libertarian, liberal and arch-capitalist personas. None of them really worked. Of course, five years from now, when he’s emperor of the universe, none of this will matter…
Friends & Colleagues
We exalt ourselves in believing that the HEAVENLY FATHER created us in His image. The Truth is less reassuring. In all probability, the HF is chagrined at the way it has turned out. His neglect of his apex creatures suggests that. It is not all His fault. How could He foresee the complicated state of affairs that humans have fashioned out of the pristine Garden of Eden. The resulting stresses and strains are aggravated by the misalignment of persons and positions. Too many of us are doing the wrong things for our individual make-up.
Now, highly placed reliable sources are whispering that the HF is contemplating a bit of reorganization. The first step will be some redeployment of human resources. Here are a few proposals that the HF may wish to consider.
Nikki HALEYBroomstick Test Pilot
Donald TRUMPMedical Director, Women’s Olympic Gymnastics Team
Bibi ‘Meyer’ NETANYAHUFloor Boss, CAESAR’S PALACE CASINO
Eldon KUSHNERCurling Stone Sweeper
Steve BANNON‘Balance’ Columnist, The New York Times
Herman CAIN‘Balance & Diversity’ Columnist, The New York Times
GeneralH.R. McMASTEREditor, Otto von BISMARCK: Complete Correspondence
John KERRYDeputy Assistant to Sergei LAVROV – U.S.A. Bureau
Rahm EMANUELSubstitute Teacher, Chicago South Side High School
‘Stormy’ DANIELSWhite House Protocol Officer
Jeff SESSIONSCotton MATHER
Mike PENCELBGTQ Activist
Steven MNUCHINAuto Loan Repossession Agent
Mark ZUCKERBERGSolo Astronaut, NASA PLUTO MISSION
Betsy DEVOSReceptionist – AMERICAN FEDERATION of TEACHERS
General Joseph DUNFORDCleveland Browns Quarterback Coach
Rex TILLERSONDeputy Assistant to Sergei LAVROV –GULF Bureau
General John KELLYSuperintendent,BEDLAMMental Hospital
Samantha POWERStar “Desperate Housewives of Damascus”
General David PETRAEUSCorps Bugler KHYBER RIFLES
Victoria NULANDTour Guide: VOLGA Cruises
General James MATTISMayor of RAQQA
Stanley McCHRYSTAL‘CHINA’ GORDON
Corey LEWANDOWSKIDean, JFK School Harvard University
Shawn SPICERAssociate Dean, JFK School
Boris JOHNSONMaster of Ceremonies, CARNIVAL LINE CARIBBEAN CRUISES
Hope HICKSPussy GALORE (GOLDFINGER)*
Scott PRUITMunicipal Water Taster FLINT, MICH
Ted CRUZDesigner, Monument to THE UNKNOWN IMMIGRANT
John BRENNANPolygraph Technician
Mike POMPEOStar, ARMAGGEDAN: THE SEQUEL
Christopher WRAYInspector LESTRADE
Mario CUOMOJiulio ANDREOTTI
Theresa MAYCoco CHANEL
Narendra MOTIFounder & CEO, AshramBnb Ltd
Mohammed bin-SALMANRock Concert Impresario
Recep Tayipp ERDOGANENVER PASHA
Jan STOLTENBERGArchi-Guardian of the Seraglio
Emmanuel MACRONBarack OBAMA
Barack OBAMAEmmanuel MACRON
Susan RiceStar “Desperate Housewives of Benghazi”
DebbieAuthor, UP FROM SUICIDE: The Democrats In 2020 WASSERMAN-SCHULTZ
Thomas FRIEDMANScribe at Court of Crown Prince Mohammed bin-SALMAN
Nancy PELOSIBatting Practice Pitcher – Washington Nationals
Donald TRUMP, jrBatboy – Washington Nationals
John PODESTABunting Instructor – New York Yankees
Paul RYANResearch Assistant to Larry Kudlow
Chris CHRISTIETraffic Cop – George Washington Bridge
Gina HASTELBest-selling AuthorTINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, TORTURER
Dennis ROSS/Kenneth POLLACK
Authors, BEYOND PERVERSION: AMERICA IN THE MIDDLEEAST
Bernie SANDERSBach Pianist – Honky-tonk New Orleans Cat House
Elizabeth WARRENSacred Music Recitalist - Honky-tonk New Orleans Cat House
Arthur SULZBERGERProprietor, Renovated Russian Tea Room
Dean BAQUETMaitre D’ Renovated Russian Tea Room
Michael McFAULBarman, Renovated Russian Tea Room
David REMNICKPublicist, Renovated Russian Tea Room
Robert KAGAN/BILLKRISTOL Brain Trust to KIM PRINCE
Hillary & Bill CLINTONH & B MARRIAGE COUNSELING, Inc
*Some of you may be offended by what you interpret as a disparaging, sexist put-down of a professional woman. I suggest that you try to recall who Pussy Galore was – the character in the original Bond movie Goldfinger. She was played by the English actress Honor Blackman. P.G. was a tough lady who commanded the all-woman air squadron that was the muscle (along with Odd-Job) for Goldfinger’s machinations. Her manner implied that she was gay. She obviously had the looks and gumption to win the confidence of her egomaniacal, criminal boss. In the memorable scene, she fights Sean Connery in a rough-and-tumble ju-jitsu contest which she ultimately loses. In keeping with the macho ethos of the Bond stories, she yields to his alpha male machismo. one suspects, though, that she already is plotting a way to get back at him. In the event, she saw the writing on the wall and switched sides – probably as part of a plea bargain that likely included her receiving a new identity as a flight instructor in Alice Springs, Australia. (Britain’s Witness Protection Program has undergone a few modifications since 1964. The Skripals apparently now are being so designated in order to keep them incommunicado. one only hopes that their secret residence is not in Diego Garcia as a guest of Ms Haspel. A likely alternative location is Alice Springs - or its American counterpart - where they could be stashed by MI6 and the CIA under mind-numbing sedation after having “Chosen Freedom”).
Hope Hicks is a beautiful, steely young woman who has several of PG’s traits – although not a lesbian. She managed to have an affair first with Lewandowski (married with four children) and then the serial wife-beater Rob Porter who twice had been divorced by his victims. Neither affair harmed her ambition of rising in Trump’s inner circle.When this all blew up, she jumped ship. Doubtless, a confiding inside account is in the works; to be followed by a turn on the celebrity circuit.One can’t imagine Pussy Galore taking the same path, Witness Protection or not. Times change – for better and for worse.
In 2012 Blackman publicly criticised actor Sean Connery, her Bond co-star in the 1960s, for his status as a tax exile. She said,
"I disapprove of him strongly now. Because I don't think you should accept a title from a country and then pay absolutely no tax towards it. He wants it both ways. I don't think his principles are very high."
At the age of 90, she is still working
FINDING KARL ROVE
I encountered Karl Rove last week.Not as dramatic as George Bush’s finding Jesus in Rove’s office at cold dawn back in 1997 when God’s plan for him was revealed. Still, my meeting was instructive.
Rove came to the University of Texas (he is an Austin resident) to give an informal seminar talk. A history buff, KR has just written a book on President William McKinley – his political hero – between bouts of consulting and appearances as commentator/analyst on the networks. His theme was the international implications of the Spanish-American War for America’s world role. First, a few general impressions.
Rove is not the mild-mannered, avuncular figure as usually portrayed among the cast of hard characters occupying the Bush White House. Amiable on the surface, he is as tough and rough as they come. In other words, your typical Texas Republican. The cultivated benign demeanor is very much part of the persona. Think J.R. in “DALLAS.”The mask quickly drops when any challenge to man or methods or partisan program emerges. Then, the steely core, the mean spirit and the aggression shines through. When this surprisingly occurred in the cloistered gathering of academic types (few active faculty, though), one observed a formidable condottiere.
One immediately was struck by the sharp contrast with his Democratic counterparts. The latter are an insipid bunch, averse to combat and bending with the breeze – even the mildest zephyr. A contest between Podesta cum Penn cum Axelrod and Rove is a no-contest. As we know from experience, the outcome is what you’d expect from a match between a no-holds-barred UFC fighter and a high school debate team captain. Rove’s conviction, ferocity and – frankly – talent have no Democratic (much less Progressive) equivalent.
What set Rove off – exposing the man behind the veil? The ruckus was caused by one mischief-making soul sitting around the table who was so impolitic as to suggest that there was a connection between the fabrications re. the explosion on the Maine in Havana harbor and the historical American practice of falsifying evidence to justify military action in foreign lands. Polk’s deceptions and misrepresentations that provided excuse to invade Mexico, the Maine incident, the Tonkin Gulf episode, and the fiction about Saddam’s alleged possession of WMD. At that moment, benign and avuncular uncle Karl disappeared in the clouds of smoke flaring from his ears and nostrils.
Rove insisted, vehemently and angrily, that the administration had taken action based on compelling Intelligence that was fair, accurate and absolutely apolitical. The President was obliged to do his duty in protecting the country and all Americans from a clear and manifest threat.
He then cast his argument in partisan terms: reciting at length all the Democrats who had read the Intelligence the same way and supported the war. Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi etc. etc.The intrepid skeptic’s suggestion that the Intelligence was cooked (re. sworn statement of former head of MI6 in London) and that, moreover, none of the persons mentioned actually had read the Intelligence reports, was met with scorn and a further outburst of offended innocence. That elicited one last foray by the skeptic who mildly stated that the question was raised not as a Democrat but as a PATRIOT. That last word evoked the spastic retort that Rove himself was the true patriot who had served his country for seven years in the White House.The tone and body language said: "how dare you yellow-bellied pacifist appropriate a term to which we American heroes, who honorthe flag by killing ‘terrorists,’ have an exclusive claim!" FINIS
The reaction among the 50 odd attendees? None; silence. No follow-up. Shortly thereafter, Rove was given a warm round of applause by the assembled retired faculty, students, senior staff and assorted academic types. They quietly filed out while avoiding making eye contact with the pariah. Two persons did cautiously sidle up to him to whisper that they agreed with what he had said – while glancing anxiously over their shoulder lest some STASI agent was eavesdropping.
Welcome to 21st Century America
Friends & Colleagues
Alexis de Tocqueville is a name nearly all recognize. So, too, his classic work Democracy In America. Its contents are less familiar. Yes, it is widely recognized that he said nice things about the United States’ historic experiment with popular democracy. The reconciliation of democracy with security of individual liberties from both the “mob” and tyranny lit the path that would guide so many peoples over the next 175 years. Yet, the intricate, subtle analysis that led Tocqueville to his brilliant insights is hazy in our minds. For it is an intellectual challenge of the sort that is out of fashion – and the work itself seems somehow musty and antique. Generations ‘X’ through ‘Z’ find it distinctly retro – if they glanced at a dusty page or two.
This is a shame. Numerous passages read not only as luminous in their insight of the perpetual American mind and spirit. They also dazzle as penetrating commentary on today’s affairs. Tocqueville was more than a brilliant political theorist and analyst.. He was a cultural anthropologist as well. Probing the very soul of the American democrat, and thereby the soul of modern man, he fully appreciated the ’software’ of United States’ egalitarian society and how it sustained the nascent democracy’s institutional ’hardware,’ These unique insights are worth noting – along with some brief annotation to highlight the connections between then and now.
References are a bit confusing since de Tocqueville wrote two books with the same title. Normally, they are presented as parts of a single volume. In fact, Book II is a distinct work of its own expressing the author’s reconsideration of the theses that run through Book I which, upon reflection, he judged inadequate.
DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA – THEN & NOW
“In egalitarian America, each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object, namely, himself.”
Alexis de Tocqueville
Travelling in upper Michigan among frontier settlements on the edge of the wilderness, Tocqueville and his companion the Duc de Beaumont chanced upon a log cabin in whose doorway stood a young woman of uncertain nationality. “Etes-vous Francaise?’ they queried. “Non, messieurs.” “Are you English?” “Not that either…. I am a savage.” This native American married to a trapper from French Canada was an American – of triple cultural identity – displaying little deference to the itinerants or interest in what they might make of her. Not quite a new species under the sun, though. Elsewhere in the Americas, mixtures of blood and culture were the norm: in Mexico, in much of Spanish America generally and the Caribbean and in Portuguese Brazil. The avoidance of such a mingling would prove America’s curse. But to Tocqueville, the multi-lingual ‘savage’ housewife was emblematic of how different, in so many respects, the United States was from the Europe which had spawned it. Misleading similarities with the Old War confuse us to this day. That distinctive Americanism still explains who we are, how we think, and how we behave – at home and abroad.
(Oddly, the English had little aversion to intermingling with the natives in India in the latter half of the Eighteenth Century; that is, until the arrival of European ladies disturbed the convivial practice. There, the ladies found husbands, privilege and the likelihood of early death from exotic diseases).
“is cold, tenacious, and relentless in argument. He attaches himself to the land and seizes from life in the wild all that it can yield to him… He holds that man comes into the world only to become well-off and to enjoy the conveniences of life.” (369)
Is there a more apt explanation of the deep psychology that underlies American’s materialism – especially in its various expressions? These words are figuratively engraved beneath the logo of every MBA program in the land; emblazoned on corporate banners from Silicon Valley to Wall Street; they suffuse our popular culture; taken as eternal truth by market fundamentalist economists; and guide the writing of our most influential behavioral psychologists.
”His features which are lined by the cares of life, display practical intelligence and a cold persevering energy…his words measured and his appearance austere.’(79)
“Dull but capable, severe but just,….genuine.”
‘I often met, in the farthest wilderness, women who had been raised among the all the refinements of the big cities….Neither fever, loneliness, nor boredom had broken the springs of their courage. This woman is in the prime of life….but her delicate limbs are weakened, her features are weary, and her gaze is gentle and grave. Her whole face reflects religious resignation….” (75)
Yet this is the same American who birthed a country that is the world’s pornography hub, that is wracked with addictions of unmatched number and variety, that revels in popular entertainments of exceptional vulgarity and juvenility, and that elected Donald Trump as its President along with Governors and Congressmen distinguished by the singularly large number of outright wackos and blatant hypocrites. Many of his contemporary ancestors, at the same time, are devout Evangelicals and members of other sects who claim to live by the strictures of the Bible while awaiting the End Days of Armageddon.
“Religious insanity is very common in the United States.” (404)
This transmutation represents one of the great mysteries of the American experience.
“Americans consider the forest the symbol of wilderness and therefore of barbarism, so it’s against the woods that they mount their attacks… Among ourselves one cuts down only for us; in America they do it to destroy. The country dweller passes half his life in combat against his natural enemy – the forest; and he wages it relentlessly.” (72)
The despoliation of the North American continent is unique – in speed if not in extent. Fauna as well as flora were targeted. It took but a few generations to kill 50 million buffalo, to decimate untold millions of migratory birds. The great forests are reduced to sparse reserves ever threatened by commercial interests and ex-urban expansion. The period of conservation ushered in by Theodore Roosevelt salvaged only a small fraction of the natural world we first encountered. Now, it is being fritted away. “Tree huggers” are ridiculed and Presidents declare that “when you have seen one redwood, you have seen them all.” This is Americanism every bit as much as the sacred Constitution and the devotion to freedom.
“Once an idea has taken a hold of the American people’s minds, whether it’s a just one or an unreasonable one, nothing is more difficult than to uproot it…..the greatest liberty of thought and the most invincible prejudices….Where social conditions are equal, as in America, public opinion presses with an enormous weight upon the mind of each individual; it surrounds, directs, and oppresses him. As men grow more alike….he mistrusts himself as soon as they assail him…. When an opinion has taken root among a democratic people, and established itself in the minds of the bulk of the community, it afterwards subsists by itself and is maintained without effort, because no one attacks it. Those who at first rejected it as false, ultimately receive it as the general impression; and those who still dispute it in their hearts, conceal their dissent.” (524)
Think of the entrenched ideas and obsessional thinking that today defy all honest questioning or earnest contestation or inconvenient facts.
·The deepest impulse of other peoples is to emulate the United States and to achieve what we have achieved
·The causes of the drug problem in the United States lie in Mexico, Columbia, etc.
The huge demand for drugs is due to readily available supply rather than in the flaws of American society
·The American health care system is the best in the world – regardless of what the World Health Organization, the OECD, or anybody else says
·Americans are the most generous people in the world
·Americans are the most tolerant people in the world
·Other countries don’t appreciate how much the United States does for them
·The Iranian regime is an aggressive state, and unrelenting foe, whose very presence is an existential threat to our close partners in Israel, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf
·Vladimir Putin is an incarnation of Evil whose lust for aggression and implacable hostility to the United States make him a clear and present danger to the United States.
Indeed, Russia endangers the East Coast itself, requiring the Pentagon to reconstitute the Second Fleet to secure the outlying waters of the Atlantic.
·Russia is a greater threat than the Islamic State and al-Qaeda combined
·Russia interfered massively in the 2016 presidential elections
·By contrast, the 2014 instigation of an armed coup against the democratically elected government in Ukraine by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, represented a justifiable and selfless support for the cause of democracy, freedom and self-determination
·The American invasion and occupation of Iraq with no legal mandate bears no comparison with Putin’s occupation of Crimea. Nor does the U.S. led military intervention in Kosovo in the cause of the province’s secession from Serbia
·Putin tried to kill the Skripals
·Russia is an accomplice in Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria
·The “White Helmets” are a great humanitarian organization deserving of consideration for the Nobel Peace Prize – even if they obediently trail ISIS & al-Qaeda from place to place like camp-followers, fabricate incidents and run a public relations operation with unacknowledged money from MI – 6 (their Godfather)and the U.S. State Department
·It’s okay not to talk about the abandonment of Puerto Rico since Puerto Ricans are not really Americans
Close-mindedness, of course, is not a peculiarly American phenomenon. Nor is it an unvarying constant. It is considerably more pronounced nowadays than it was 40, 50 or 60 years ago. Propositions such as those noted above could be questioned and debated to a degree that is impossible today. Check the media. Check the politicos. Check Congress. Check the churches. Check the think tanks. Check the universities. Check the AMA and the American Bar Association.
“In America the majority erects a formidable barrier around thought. Within its limits, a writer is free but woe to him who dares to go beyond…
When you go among your fellows, they will shun you as an impure being, and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you for fear the others will shun them as well” (404)
Michelle Wolf got it exactly right at the Correspondents Dinner when she correctly observed how panels of news commentators these days remind her of why we are reluctant to go home for Thanksgiving. Conformity of thinking is accompanied by the disturbing habit of seeing communication as a form of self-affirmation rather than an exchange of thoughts and feelings. Tocqueville: “An American doesn’t know how to converse; he debates. He doesn’t discourse; he holds forth.” (405)
Uniformity in American culture and thought is powerfully reinforced by American conformism. The affinity between a democratic culture and a uniformity of attitude is a prominent Tocquevillian theme.
Anyone who has been so imprudent as to cast aspersions at the rooted untruths that buttress American foreign policy these days can testify to the strength of conformist pressures. My anecdote about the encounter with Karl Rove a few weeks back is an exhibit of present realities and the accuracy of Tocqueville’s depiction. A related incident occurred a couple of years earlier on the occasion of a visit by then CIA Director John Brennan. He addressed an assembly of 400. It was studded with numerous lies (factual and other), distortions and deceit. Remarkable even by Brennan’s mendacious standards. The University of Texas audience gave him a standing ovation – 399 of the 400 in attendance, anyway.
Admittedly, this is Texas. Of all the places I have lived in the United States, Texans are far and away the most conformist, the most uniform in opinion and the most deferential to authority of all kinds. They are the exemplars of what Tocqueville was describing – self esteemed “rugged individualists” who are anything but autonomous and independent.
It explains why The New York Times never publishes an op ed by Andrew Bacevich, by Chas Freeman, the late Robert Parry, Gareth Porter, Yanis Varoufakis Sy Hersh (who now is forced to find a publisher in Germany) or others of superior mind who have stepped over that boundary – while congratulating themselves on their openness in giving copious space to the likes of Kim Prince and a herd of dreary scribblers who literally don’t know what they’re talking about.
The outlier is rarely condemned; (s)he is simply ignored – shunned.
This phenomenon crosses all lines of class, ethnicity, and education. The “intelligentsia” is at least as prone to it as is Joe Six-pack. In truth, settled thinking may be all the more impenetrable among the former. Anyone who has attempted to persuade multi-degreed professionals of progressive disposition that Barack Obama was something less than an enlightened leader dedicated wholly to the cause of virtue can attest to that proposition. Here’s an anecdote on this point. It concerns a greatly distinguished Harvard social scientist at the very pinnacle of her field who is an acquaintance of mine. A recipient of my weekly writings, she was offended by one containing criticism of Mr. Obama. She sent me a curt note conveying the ultimatum that were she to see another commentary with similar criticisms, she would withdraw her name from my list. Outcome: my pieces no longer cast a dark shadow over her Inbox. In fact, my Obama-skepticism has made me unwelcome at gatherings that feature white wine and watercress canapes across the Ivy League.
So, too, in regard to the galaxy of think tanks and institutes. I previously had participated one way or another in activities associated with most of them – in the U.S. and many in Europe. Since I ventured to write unvarnished critical commentaries (albeit avoiding the names of individuals and organizations wherever possible), I have received not a single invitation to do anything – paper, article, discussion group, panel member, reviewer. Communications go unanswered. Perhaps this is a coincidence of geography and other innocent factors. Perhaps not. Tocqueville would not have been surprised. I would be surprised by a gilded invitation from Bellagio or Ditchley.
The shunning of non-conformists occurs in academia as well. That includes high prestige institutions of higher education like Harvard. Consider the case of the renowned scholar who came to Cambridge to fill a named Chair with the understanding that promotion to tenure would follow the next year. She made the mistake of speaking up when the administration under the President Drew Gilpin Faust was sweeping under the rug serious allegations of rape on campus. Her long yet temperate letter pointing out the inadequacy of the actions taken resulted in her being summarily sacked within weeks. The near unanimous silence was deafening. Her mortal sin was to suggest that the tepid response by university authorities sprang from some basic institutional flaws rather than “misunderstandings’ and “honest disagreements” that could be resolved by a university wide “conversation.”
Incidents like this have taken place right across the span of the American university scene from Columbia to George Mason to Stanford to NYU.*
Is this deviation from the modern American norm? Will the pendulum swing back in the other direction? Tocqueville alerts us to the likelihood that the situation will worsen – as is evinced in each week’s news events.
“Egotism is a vice as old as the world, which does not belong to form of society or another; individualism is of democratic origin. The conditions of life on an untrammeled continent have crystallized this sentiment…. Consequently, Americans believe that they owe nothing to any man(368)
“American individualism throws for ever each man back upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart” (Read smartphone) There, each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object, namely, himself.” (213)
Where does this lead? The self-absorbed persons; the narcissism; the egotism; the greed; the imperative of looking after “number one.” “I’ and “me” are the only operative words in “communication;” instant gratification is demanded; pervasive childishness and the resistance to growing up. These are the stark features of twenty-first century American culture and society.
WHY THE AMERICANS SEEM SO RESTLESS IN THE MIDST OF THEIR WELL-BEING
The individual’s sense of being unfulfilled and insecure is a hallmark of today’s American. It is more pronounced now than ever before. We are a neurotic people. In part, that is due to the blunt truth that the much vaunted American individualism arises from a “preoccupation with a single, puny object – namely, themselves.”
A related cause is the absence of rites of passage, of marks of distinction, of settled status – now exacerbated by economic dislocation (the gig economy) – which deepen diffuse feelings of disappointment and discouragement. All the more so when we are subjected to graphic images of those who have “made it,” i.e. the celebrity culture along with the money mania. In the United States, a scientist can be referred to as a Nobel Prize winner – but someone “who hasn’t done much recently.” Write four books, take a long breath, and you are “dead wood.” Coach your team into the championship, lose out in the 7th game – and the General Manager tells reporters that your contract renewal in under review while the management looks at other options. Be in standout on a squad that reaches the final round 3 straight years, have great teammates, love the city – but decide to test free agency to see how much more dough you might rake in. Above all, you dream of getting the limelight exclusively on yourself. To write your name on the wind – forever. (The average person dreams of getting on TV – even if it’s a local daytime show).
Part of every American yearns for that elusive ultimate prize even as they sense the presence of oblivion always there looming over their shoulder, gnawing at them. The relentless competition that animates American society in all domains is cause and reinforced effect of this existential distress.*
Escapes take multiple forms: binge drinking, drugs, mindless TV, Facebook, comfort food, reinventing oneself. When all else fails, melancholia sets in.
“Given the total absence of formal status distinctions and external distinctions, wealth presents itself as the natural scale by which to measure men’s merit…. That explains the mercantile spirit that shows up in everything the Americans do and say.” (215)
My portfolio is richer than yours.
My Presidential library is bigger than yours.
My smart phone has more useless features than yours.
My yacht has 2 helipads, yours only 1
My barbecue has more burners than yours.
I paid more for a forged piece of art than you did.
THEREFORE, I am a superior person.
“A native of the United States clings to this world’s goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping all within his reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them. He clutches everything, but holds nothing fast, and soon loosens his grip to pursue fresh gratifications.” (396)
The lure of Apple’s next smartphone, the next tantalizing sitcom, the status accoutrements one rung up the ladder; the three-peat while the repeat is still warm.
Tocqueville saw us as hyper-active doers in search for some elusive gratification until, exhausted, we lapse into inert melancholia. Marooned in the middle lane on the road of life with the exit ramp approaching.
“They encounter good fortune nearly everywhere, but not happiness. With them the desire for well-being has become an uneasy burning passion that keeps on growing even while it is being satisfied.” (215) BINGO!
The DARKENING HORIZON (579)
At the very end of Tocqueville’s second book, his guarded optimism about American democracy, and what it portends for the inexorable spread of democracy everywhere, yields to a different, troubling vision of the future. He vividly describes a benign dystopia:
“In America I saw the freest men, placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords ; it seemed to me as if a cloud hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad in their pleasure....Endlessly they are going to seize it (happiness), and endlessly it escapes their grasp. They see it from close enough to know its charms, but they never get close enough to enjoy them, and they diebbefore fully tasting its delights. These are the reason for the singular melancholy .... they sometimes experience in the bosom of abundance, and for the disgust with life that often seizes them in the midst of their easy and tranquil existence."
“They encounter good fortune nearly everywhere, but not happiness. With them the desire for well-being has become an uneasy burning passion that keeps on growing even while it is being satisfied.” (216) BINGO!
The Pursuit of Happiness – to coin a phrase
Compare that picture with this offered last month, 180 years later:
“The rest are told that, to avoid falling into this soul-destroying “precariat,” they must invest in their own brand every waking hour of every day. Before posting any tweet, watching any movie, sharing any photograph or chat message, they must remain mindful of the networks they please or alienate.
When lucky enough to be granted a job interview, and land the job, the interviewer alludes immediately to their expendability. “We want you to be true to yourself, to follow your passions, even if this means we must let you go!” they are told. So they redouble their efforts to discover “passions” that future employers may appreciate, and to locate that mythical “true” self that people in positions of power tell them is somewhere inside them.
Their quest knows no bounds and respects no limits. They try to work out what average opinion among opinion-makers believes is the most attractive of their own potential “true” selves, and simultaneously struggle to manufacture this “true” self online and offline, at work and at home – indeed, everywhere and always. Entire industries of counselors and coaches, and varied ecosystems of substances and self-help, have emerged to guide them on this quest.”
(Yanis VAROUFAKIS “Liberal Totalitarianism” PROJECT SYNDICATE April 30, 2018)
Either could have been composed by George Orwell.
“In a democracy readers are very numerous and very easy to please, due to the absolute need for novelty that they feel. Thus, one can make a fortune by endlessly turning out a mass of new but imperfect books. In this way it’s easy to acquire a modest fame and a big fortune.” (109)
Only the former boon refers to commentaries as well.
P.S. Most the Tocqueville quotations are from Democracy In America Translated by Henry Reeve Ed. Henry Steele Commager (Oxford University Press 1955). Page numbers are in parentheses – in RED. The rest, in BLACK, are cited in the excellent work of Leo Damrosch: Tocqueville’s Discovery Of America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2010).
The most comprehensive and authoritative study of Tocqueville is Sheldon Wolin’s monumental; Tocqueville Between Two Worlds (Princeton University Press 2001
·The Faustian Pact made by members of an egalitarian democracy implicitly offers limitless opportunity in exchange for inescapable discontent. For individuals all crave social status – the public requisite for self-esteem. Yet, status is a finite commodity. The amount available is not commensurate with the need – even for all those who merit it. Professional attainment is too widespread, and marks of distinction too evanescent. Anyone familiar with the academic world sees this silent drama played out routinely. No matter how many terrific books are written, no matter how many brilliant lectures are given, there are only a limited number of endowed chairs, deanships, discipline awards, or prestigious editorial board positions to be had. The alternative, for all of us, is to seek confirmation and adulation where it is freely available with no restriction as to numbers. Electronic Esalen groups serve this purpose for many. There, everybody is “awesome,” or ‘totally tubular’ or “lit.” No one ‘disses’ you, no one ‘casts shade’ at you, no one ‘side-eyes’ you. Nothing but positive reinforcement.
The same emotional massage can be experienced by participating in a Trump rally.