The former world chess champion, political conservative, and pro-democracy Russian dissident Garry Kasparov said in 2016 of modern right wing propaganda, “The point isn’t to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”
Similarly, Bernice King, Black American activist and daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., voiced this on Twitter two weeks ago:
“Don’t be ashamed if you’re tired. We shouldn’t have to fight voter suppression, contend for our postal service, address racist birtherism, assert that Black Lives Matter, appeal for healthcare, work to eradicate poverty, mourn deaths from gun violence, protest police brutality…”
Our political conventions no longer offer much in the way of persuasion; instead they are exercises in affirmation, and accordingly this year’s events had little to no effect on the remarkably steady contours of this election. What was true before remains true now: Joe Biden will win the popular vote by millions, but the precarious circumstances under which votes will be cast, the outdated mechanism that is the Electoral College, and the brazen ratfuckery from Trump loyalists mean we will all be holding our collective breaths for the next two months, and likely beyond that.
So while I mostly avoided the Republican Convention, it was still hard to escape the dueling evils of exhaustion and despair. The convention offered yet more affirmation of the party’s descent into illiberalism. To be reminded of that is tiring. And as Kasparov notes, that’s the point.
There is a seminal
article from 1941 getting passed around again of late. It’s called “Who Goes Nazi?” and it’s by Dorothy Thompson. It begins with this premise: “It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi.” From there it does not disappoint—Thompson makes an unblinking, darkly funny yay-or-nay assessment of familiar American types, ones we would still recognize today. The general point of the piece is that Americans are not exempt from the seductions of totalitarianism, fascism, authoritarianism, despotism, whatever you want to term it—illiberalism, or antiliberalism, a political orientation defined by resentment and feeding on grievance, seems to be the overarching idea.
Similarly, travel writer and PBS personality Rick Steves makes a valuable contribution to this growing body of it can happen here texts with his 1-hour special “The Story of Fascism in Europe”, originally aired in 2018. It is very much worth watching if you’ve yet to view it, and you will not miss the subtext aimed directly the average American viewer/sucker. Nor was Steves being subtle last week in promoting it heavily during the RNC.
As Steves discusses in the show, fascist leaders promise easy solutions to complex problems. Doing so can prove an easy path to popular appeal. An example would be reducing the complex issue of immigration to a border wall. Or assigning blame for the challenges of American cities to the Democrats.
The latter has quickly become a central theme of Donald Trump’s election campaign, offering a more precise focus to his efforts to divide and stoke animosity along racial, geographic, and class lines to secure his reelection.
I’ve been doing a deep dive on Detroit recently. I recently mentioned Tom Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis, first published in 1996, about the decline of Detroit. I was introduced to excerpts of this book in college, but am now reading it in its entirety. Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, I can recall whenever we drove into the city, wondering why it was in such a decrepit condition. I had an instinctive impression of the city having been abandoned, of the mile roads marking a retreat of its former inhabitants, further and further away from the center. Sugrue’s book is the authoritative telling of what happened.
Prior to Sugrue’s work, the conventional (white) narrative around Detroit held that the city’s collapse was a result of the 1967 riots (a white label; most urban scholars now use the term uprising), and the subsequent mismanagement of the city by its Black leaders. But Sugrue convincingly shows its roots can be found in the decisions and policies of civic and business leaders in the late 1940s and early 1950s, deeply informed by the influence of white reactionary backlash, and that the events of the summer of ‘67 were put in motion decades prior.
To name but one turning point event, Sugrue examines the mayoral contest of 1949. In that election, the Republican segregationist Albert Cobo ran an explicitly racist campaign on the promise of keep Detroit’s white neighborhoods white. His opponent was George Edwards, a supporter of civil rights in housing and employment, a candidate who promoted a forward-looking integrationist vision of the city. Indeed, there seemed a brief moment of opportunity for civil rights in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the war, when antiracist, pluralist ideals were being championed in response to the increasing realization of the racist atrocities of the Nazis. Instead, however, white reactionaries resisted and prevailed, and Cobo won, easily, and won twice more before he died in 1957. His housing policies and overall white supremacist orientation severely restricted opportunities for Black Detroiters, securing their second-class status in the city. Sugrue describes this as a self-fulfilling prophecy: the high unemployment and shiftlessness among Black Detroiters affirmed whites’ prejudices and fears. It’s always been easier to blame individuals than to interrogate social structures and systems.
Sugrue does not exempt Democrats. Many of the Kennedy and Johnson social programs were founded on false assumptions about Black workers simply needing access to better job training, missing the deeper underlying issues, like that the jobs themselves were moving with Detroit’s white population to the suburbs, even to other states. Sugrue also notes that liberal and pro-civil rights groups in the city were effectively cowed from pursuing more aggressive tactics by the pervasive McCarthyism that made left-wing ideas about fair housing, employment, and civil rights taboo. Gradualism became the modus operandi among the establishment left.
This is all to say that the problems of a city like Detroit are complex, and require sophisticated thinking, and our political arena has never been really good at accommodating this kind of complexity.
It’s the Democrats fault is an easy, seductive assertion. After all, Democratic officials do hold the mayorships of most major American cities today, and many of the mid-sized ones. If you are not interested in thinking about the matter any further, it is a convenient stance to adopt, and move on, untroubled, with your life.
Disproving it requires effort. This is the inherent advantage of the troll. The troll makes assertions, and offers denials, leaving it to the trolled to craft painstaking counterarguments. You see this in climate change denialism—to deny science demands little of the denier, but much of the scientist. The exasperation is the point.
When it comes to our cities, we should examine how they came to be. In many ways, cities are in much better shape than they were in the Sixties. Still, if we look at the urban policy failures from the 20th Century until today, we see how white reactionary politics resulted in the creation of the ghetto, and the denial of a meaningful social safety net to Black Americans. We can begin to understand how gangs and violence are obvious and natural outcomes for communities that are deprived of strong institutions but have access to an unending and unregulated supply of guns. We see how anti-labor zealotry and free market fundamentalism of the corporate management class led to the deindustrialization of northern cities, and the moving of jobs of out those cities beginning as early as the 1950s. And we can look at cities in their relation to state and federal governments, many of which were controlled by Republicans hostile to urban initiatives. If we engage in that process—you could just listen to What’s Going On— we would find that it’s Democrats’ fault is a pretty gross mischaracterization of the problems that ail our cities. But these are complex arguments to make, and they require time and data and careful analysis and a nuanced perspective on our own history. It would in fact be interesting to have these conversations, but that is not our current reality.
There was a viral post on Twitter recently asking which lines of poetry you find yourself thinking about often. I was not the only person whose mind leapt to Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” It’s truly a sentiment for our times.
Speaking of Irish poetry, Joe Biden’s convention speech was an old school throwback to the East Coast, Irish Catholic Democrats of an earlier era, the ones whose speeches were written by the likes of Pete Hamill, orators who quoted poets as much as politicians. It was the best parts of Mario Cuomo and the Brothers Kennedy, a reminder that before he was Barack Obama’s loyal sidekick, Biden was a boisterous, brawling, moralizing Catholic liberal in the same mold (watch this). It succeeded because it was authentic to Biden, and it was a refreshing change from Obama’s somewhat-detached, Spock-like affect (which works too because it is also authentic to the speaker). Biden’s speech delivered deep truths in stark, simple prose:
“I know how it feels to lose someone you love. I know that deep black hole that opens up in your chest. That you feel your whole being is sucked into it. I know how mean and cruel and unfair life can be sometimes.
But I've learned two things.
First, your loved ones may have left this Earth but they never leave your heart. They will always be with you.
And second, I found the best way through pain and loss and grief is to find purpose.
As God's children each of us have a purpose in our lives.
And we have a great purpose as a nation: To open the doors of opportunity to all Americans. To save our democracy. To be a light to the world once again.
To finally live up to and make real the words written in the sacred documents that founded this nation that all men and women are created equal. Endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
That’s not half bad, as speechifying goes, and shows Biden’s writers have a good sense of their man’s voice.
If you read one thing this week: The great Chicago sociologist, educator, and poet Eve Ewing has an absolutely essential piece about police unions in the Ta-Nehisi Coates-edited issue of Vanity Fair: “Blue Bloods: America’s Brotherhood of Police Unions.”
This is a brotherhood. It abides no law but its own. It scorns the personhood of all but its own brethren. It derides all creatures outside its own clan. And for that reason, the brotherhood is not only a hurdle impeding reform. It is the architecture of an alternate reality, one that seethes and bubbles just beneath the surface of our own. And it’s a reality in which none of us are human.
Two other pieces I recommend: It’s been noted that one of the paradoxes of 2020 is in a time of mass death there’s been something of an absence of public grieving. So two recent tributes to the late and lamented strike deep right now: the novelist Jesmyn Ward writes of her husband’s death, and the creative partner of Chadwick Boseman writes about his friend. Rest in power.
The Second Coming
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?