Saturday, October 31, 2015

racism: it is not just rednecks

Racism has a double aspect: there is a racism of sentiments and a racism of structure. It is a mistake to think that these aspects are governed by the same dynamic, and will reflect the same “moves.” And yet, they are “aspects” – ultimately, sentiments and structure form a unity.
In a society that has  bought into the myth of methodological individualism, the unity becomes ever more mysterious. According to that myth, if we operate on the individual sentiments, we are engaged with the determining cause of racism. If, that is, we could through some process make sure that nobody “feels” racist, then we eliminate racism.  
Although intellectually many liberals think that structural racism is semi-autonomous, in some way, in everyday discourse these liberals tend to reflect the hegemonic position that it is sentiments that count. Thus, without considering that, objectively, those who achieve some success in a society that is structurally racist are themselves complicit in racism – or to be less wishy washy, are racist – they will much prefer looking at some other as the bearer of racism – the white redneck or trailer trash being, of course, the popular bugbear.
This is understandable. The relationship between sentiments and structure is a complex one, and not always easy to unentangle.
But even if the source of the racism, the aspect that is the larger factor in a particular instance, must be subject to analysis, one can still spot it pretty easily if we think about it. To give an example off the top of my head: Robert Caro’s analysis of LBJ’s election to the senate in 1948. This is how the NYT chose to summarize it:

“Mr. Caro maintains that although ballot fraud was common in the late 1940's in some parts of Texas, the Johnson campaign of 1948 raised it to a new level. Mr. Caro supports his charge with an interview with Luis Salas, an election judge in Jim Wells County who said he acknowledged his role only after all others involved in the theft had died.
Determined to Win at All Costs
It has been alleged for years that Johnson captured his Senate seat through fraud, but Mr. Caro goes into great detail to tell how the future President overcame a 20,000-vote deficit to achieve his famous 87-vote victory in the 1948 Democratic runoff primary against a former Governor, Coke Stevenson. A South Texas political boss, George Parr, had manufactured thousands of votes, Mr. Caro found. Johnson died in 1973, Stevenson and Parr in 1975. Mr. Caro says the election showed Johnson's determination to win at all costs as well as his coolness under fire and his ability to select gifted lieutenants, whom he then manipulated.”
One notices that the focus on ballot fraud lightly skips over the fact of real voter suppression in Texas in 1948. According to the Census of 1950, the population of Texas was 12.9 percent black, or 977,458, but until 1944, the state law allowed the Democratic party to exclude at its own will voters in the primary. That law was used to create a so called “white primary.” In one of the most important cases that the Supreme Court has ever decided, Smith v. Allwright, the Court ruled that this was an illegal infringement on African American civil riths. Interestingly, the 1948 senate race was one of the first statewide races after the Supreme Court ruling. So instead of speaking of “ballot stuffing” under the assumption that elections before 1948 were more licit, one should be asking whether lifting the long term illegal suppression of black votes made the 1948 election more democratic. More, I say, since grassroots voter suppression of black votes in Texas was still going on. It is only in the context of this much larger scandal that we can talk, with some historical understanding, about white election irregularities.
But the NYT synopsis of Caro’s research doesn’t touch on this, or even seem aware of the irony of talking about election irregularities in a system founded on a gross, systematic election irregularity. After all, that part of the story is in a separate compartment.  It goes under black history, and the NYT would dutifully report on it if called to do so. But running the two compartments together, hyphenating the African hyphen American story? That falls under the excluded middle.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

the politics of analogy always tend right: Putin as Yeltsin's heir, not Stalin's

When Americans decide that so and so is a dictator, so and so always becomes Hitler. Except in the case of Russia. American pundits have a great time making the connection between Putin and Stalin. It is a mythogram that is set and fixed in the narrative.
However, it is absolute nonsense.
Stalin’s economic and social policies look nothing like Putin’s. One doesn’t see a major purge of former Putinista trundling off to the camp. One doesn’t see the enormous resources devoted to an industrialization that will create a proletariat which will retrospectively legitimate the regime. To put very briefly events that deserve, and have generated, opuses. Opusi?
No, the Russian leader that Putin resembles most closely is America’s favorite Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin. From the crony capitalism, which brings into alignment the government and certain favored oligarchs, to the manipulation of the media through companies that are aligned with the ruling party, to the use of war as a means of stirring up nationalism and support, to the reliance on primary products as the base of the economy, it is all Yeltsin. Of course, Putin isn’t a drunk, and he hasn’t shelled parliament or signed any treaties breaking up Russia between glasses of vodka. Plus, he hasn’t allowed Western economists of the privatize and profit school to share in the gravy of the Russian economy. But Putin is a product of Yeltsin, both politically and programatically. The class that favors Putin is the clas that favored Yeltsin – the class that has received, in fact, the most favors.
Thus, the backstory of the convenient forgetting of Yeltsin and the conjunction of Putin and Stalin has to do with a piece of shared history. Somehow, though, neither side – Yeltsin’s abettors in the West, and Putinistas in Russia – want to credit that history.
This is what makes the “defense”  of Russia in, for instance, Ukraine such a muddled thing. There are, indeed, unregenerate leftists who really do think Putin’s Russia is like unto the kind of socialist project that needs to be defended against capitalism. This is rather like defending Kuwait’s socialist project against capitalism. It is moronic. It isn’t even sweetly moronic. It is simply making Russia a rag for political anger generated elsewhere.
No, the defense of Russia should be confined to the criticism of obvious stupidities in the attack on Russia by unregenerate neo-libs and cons. I always think that what happened in Ukraine shows how off the mark both sides are. To my mind, the Maiden revolution choked what would otherwise have been an election that would most likely have overturned the corrupt as fuck Party of the Regions. It would have put in place the corrupt as fuck opposition parties. And it would have moderated the issue of accepting the EU’s terms for economic aid, as opposed to Putin’s.
Instead, what happened is that the heart of the Party of the Regions’ vote – Crimea – voted itself out of Ukraine with the aid, obviously, of Russia. I don’t think the vote would have gone against that course even if it had been overseen by some international body. Crimea was responding to the loud, radical right in Kyev. In doing this, however, Russia created a very unbalanced Ukraine, in which the heirs of the Party of the Regions vote will never gain a majority in the Parliament. This is a very Yeltsinian outcome, of course – the grab for power leading to the quagmire that disturbs that quiet period during which the powers that be can digest their booty.
The EU and the US have, of course, made up a different narrative that simply excludes the history of the recent past – one of the favorite tricks of the interventionists in the opinion world, who disdain referring to recent history – they prefer high sounding labels, Democracy, Stalinism, etc., which they attach with abandon to the baggage they intend to support, regardless of whether the baggage is mislabeled or not.
It isn’t really that hard to remember recent history and to make reasonable inferences, however. That is what the Internet is for!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

the era of splaining 'splained

The Upshot was supposed to be the NYT’s ‘splainer. Splaining is very popular among the center-liberal crowd who went from their twenties to their thirties in the Bush and Obama years. The center of the ‘splainer universe is Vox, which has decided the gimmick is to present opinion pieces as though they were explanations. It is as if you received a box containing, say, the parts for a tricycle, and were given an instruction sheet that told you why the person who wrote it prefers a red to a blue tricycle. This is why it is ‘splaining. Usually, there will be some grafs thrown in, as though we were big boys now, but grafs are only convincing in a convincing context. For decades, the climate change denialists would use a graf to show that the climate worldwide was actually getting cooler. Easy to do: just take the outlier peak of 1998 and graf everything from that.
And so it is with the Upshot. Every once in a while, the Upshot magisterially surveys the presidential race so far to tell us all what its about. And it always includes grafs like this one:
“The polls get most of the attention, but they’re not the most important part of the early stages of a presidential campaign. The better guide to who’s really winning is known as the “invisible primary,” in which candidates compete for support from their fellow politicians, from party leaders and from donors.”
This is a very press-centric view of how presidential campaigns function. And as it has crashed into the fact that the polls are actually driving, for instance, the invisible primary – why else is Jeb Bush now number 2 on their little chart – it has remained in place, just as a sort of sign that says: peons stay out. Serious ‘splaining going on.
In fact, to say what is and what is not important about a dynamic system is – as explained by even a brief acquaintance with any of the literature – requires not only being able to break it down into its “natural” parts, but the ability to build it up again into the way those parts function with each other. The Upshot people have, in their wisdom, divided one set of facts – the polling of the population of voters – from another set of facts – the inputs from funders and established political figures. And in their account, the latter drives the former.
However, this kind of dynamic has not been the story of the campaign so far. Now, to the ‘splainers, since this is the kind of dynamic that gives them the advantage, knowing the insiders and all, this is very disturbing. So, the way to paper over that disturbance is to pretend it isn’t happening.
An excellent example of ‘splaining in action occurred when Trump basically blasted the war record of John McCain. McCain is a hero to the press corps. Famously, a Times reporter in 2008 compared being around McCain like being able to hang around a football hero in high school. So the attack on McCain, they naturally assumed, would create a great wave of horror that would topple the Trump clown.
Not only did this not happen, but the Trump clown has grown in the popular polls. This has led to the ‘splaining meme of the leak. The leak will sink the Trump “balloon”. This metaphor has been independently discovered by Politico, Vox, the Upshot, and other fine outlets of ‘splaining, and they are all watching for their prediction to come true. Meanwhile, the invisible primary’s number one, Jeb Bush, has been having a campaign much like Humpty Dumpty’s after the unfortunate wall incident. And his response has had that entitled touch which crosses Mitt Romney at his country club worst and Neil Bush explaining Silverado:

“If this election is about how we’re going to fight to get nothing done, then I don’t want anything, I don’t want any part of it. I don’t want to be elected president to sit around and see gridlock just become so dominant that people literally are in decline in their lives. That is not my motivation. I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, be miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.”
This is the kind of talk that endears Jeb to the ‘splainer heart, since gridlock is a terrible thing. It has prevented, for instance, that Social Security reform that could have tracked us onto privatizing that thing, and lowered social security benefits as well! There’s a graf somewhere that ‘splains how great that would be. Plus, of course, the idea of cool is something you don’t have to analyze among the thirties group: they all love cool unthinkingly, with all their invisible polling heart!
I am wondering, though, whether the cool kids aren’t about to turn on ‘splaining. After a while, it seems a bit, oh, patronizing…

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...