This article was written on 11 Sep 2018, and is filled under Actualities, Education, Labor, Media, Politics.

Welcome to the Great Dismissal! Part 2

The question, in a nutshell, faced by New York Times opinion writers of remarkable diversity at the midterm reboot runs as follows: how do the Democrats retrofit their arguments such that they 1) regain, especially in swing states and entrenched red strongholds, their momentum in militating for the interests of working people increasingly marginalized, socially as well as economically; also, reclaim the moral high ground of empathic vision and purpose within the U.S. political system? But 2): How do they also manage to eschew and purge their message of any note of cultural superiority or condescension only fanning the flames of belligerence among Trump supporters, including those who had once voted for Obama and/or supported Bernie? As has already become apparent in the first part of this piece, profound philosophical attitudes are embedded in practical encomia regarding strategy and rhetoric. It may well turn out that the prognostications best attuned to human psychology, particularly crowd-psychology, are the ones most receptive, at the back door, to what I’ve broached as the Great Dismissal—the repudiation of rigorous investigation and critique as conducted in whichever longstanding disciplinary atelier. Ironically, the most perspicacious commentary, reports issued by the writers most receptive to complexity, end up the most tinged by suspicion toward the unapologetic application of intellectual standards and rigor toward the increasingly tenuous logic and claims issuing from Trump and his minions. Welcome as well, then, to Logocentrism, 2018!

Nicolas Kristof, already within the first six months of the new government, put a fine point on this situation as he challenged his readers:

So by all means stand up to Trump, point out that he’s a charlatan and resist his initiatives. But remember that social progress means winning over voters in flyover country, and that it’s difficult to recruit voters whom you’re simultaneously castigating as despicable, bigoted imbeciles.

Commentators of various stripes wasted little time in taking up this conundrum: how woo the very voters who give rise to righteous anger on the part of so many alongside Charles M. Blow? But when the pundits did, they found themselves willy-nilly enmeshed in the national double message vis a vis intellectual striving: ultimately directed at the scientists, Humanists, and researchers who both augment and rigorously test the manifestations of the truth as they emerge in context. By April 6, 2017, Kristof is floating his “Most Unpopular Idea: Be Nice to Trump Voters.” With a humane exhortation to empathy as his rallying cry, Kristof specifies:

One problem with the Democratic anger is that it stereotypes a vast and contradictory group of 63 million people. Sure, there were racists and misogynists in their ranks, but that doesn’t mean that every Trump voter was a white supremacist. . . . Of course, millions of Trump voters were members of minorities or had previously voted for Barack Obama. . . .

The blunt truth is that if we care about a progressive agenda, we can’t simply write off 46 percent of the electorate. If there is to be movement on electoral reform, on woman’s health, on child care, on inequality . . . then progressives need to win more congressional and legislative seats around the country. To win over Trump voters isn’t normalizing extremism, but a strategy to combat it.

Hand in hand with the appeal for empathy among progressives, at least according to the psychoanalytical theory of object-relations, goes stringent misgivings toward superiority and condescension, the idioms of entrenched grandiosity. And the presumptions toward superior intelligence, lucidity, and perspicacity among Democrats and progressives serve not only Kristof, but also, at different points, Frank Bruni, David Leonhard, and Bret Stephens, all seasoned op-ed page writers, as touchstones for dire prescriptions regarding viable political rhetoric at the midterm. Yet the politics of intelligence is already palpably at play in Kristof’s early salvo in this sub-literature:

Maybe we need more junior year “abroad” programs that send liberals to Kansas and conservatives to Massachusetts.

Hatred for Trump voters also leaves the Democratic Party more removed from working-class pain. For people in their 50s, mortality rates for poorly educated whites have soared since 2000 and are now higher than for blacks at all education levels. . . .

Democrats didn’t to enough to address this suffering . . .

How acute of Kristof to point out that the U.S. has become so estranged from itself, to the point of needing foreign study programs to “resolve” the skewed images of reality—urban/industrial versus “Big Sky”—in its collective viewfinder! Yet embroidered in his account, dismissive progressives have almost perforce undergone formal higher education and been credentialed; they witness current politics through the lens of frills lavished upon them such as junior year programs abroad. In negotiating the treacherous tides of political deliberation in an age of “dark money” and unverifiable social media, the training attained by the educated class is as much liability as beacon. It is precisely this train of thought that could prompt Gerard Alexander, a political scientist at UVA to taunt, albeit didactically, in his guest column, “Liberals, You’re Not as Smart as You Think” (May 12, 2018). This title is a strong candidate for an overall moniker to the particular sub-literature of opinion journalism over which the current post pauses.

The pivotal Baudelairean irony of dandies on the verge (rather: in the wake) of a pratfall, of an elite stupefied and held prey within its privilege, tempers the admonition tendered by David Leonhardt on the first anniversary of Trump’s ascension to the presidency. On January 30, 2018, he advises us on “How Trump’s Critics Should Respond”:

Not all of Trump’s outrages can or should be ignored. . . . But people who are disturbed by his presidency should keep reminding themselves of the big goal here: persuading Trump supporters and Trump agnostics that his presidency is damaging the country.

The trouble of constantly disparaging him—as a person and as the Worst President Ever—is that it doesn’t win over many Americans. Hillary Clinton’s campaign took a version of this approach in many television ads, and it wasn’t a crazy strategy at the time, given how unpresidential Trump was and is. But given the campaign’s outcome, the strategy doesn’t seem worth rerunning.

Leonhardt’s measured circumspect, in the above formulations, is itself the response to the strident certainty prompting him too to issue danger signals.

Yet it is in the columns of Frank Bruni, notable over the years for the outspokenness with which he excoriates sexism, racism, and the abuse of power in its multivarious forms, where the dynamic (but also excruciating) tension between the competing exigencies of mass psychology and intellectual striving come to a head. By June, 2018, Bruni is not nearly so indulgent as Goldberg when it comes to flamboyantly shaming Trump officials:

It’s possible that public shunning will have no effect on voters’ feelings and decisions. . . . But it’s also possible that public shaming intensifies an ambient ugliness that sours more Trump skeptics than Trump adherents, who clearly made peace with ugliness a while back. (“Public Shaming Feels Good. That’s No reason to Do It,” June 26, 2018)

And in his response to such anti-Trump grandstanders as Robert De Niro and Samantha Bee, Bruni stresses, above all other values, progressives’ securing the high moral ground in the pursuit of their political aspirations:

I get that you’re angry. I’m angry too. But anger isn’t a strategy. Sometimes it’s a trap. When you find yourself spewing four-letter words, you’ve fallen into it. . . .

You’re right that Donald Trump is a dangerous and deeply offensive man, and that restraining and containing him are urgent business. You’re wrong about how to go about doing that. . . .

When you answer name-calling with name-calling and tantrums with tantrums, you’re not resisting him. You’re mirroring him. You’re not diminishing him. You’re demeaning yourselves. Many voters don’t hear your arguments or the facts, which are on your side. They just wince at the din. (“How to Lose the Midterms and Re-elect Trump,” June 13, 2018)

The response of such writers as Kristof, Bruni, and Leonhardt, is hardly categorical. Coexisting with their articulate dismay at how far our political system, civic ethos, and standing in the international community have degenerated is a pragmatic calculation of what it would take for Democrats to retake Congress and maybe even the Senate. The question of the rhetoric it would require to address Trump voters’ concerns in pivotal districts and states, convincing them to cast their votes otherwise this November and in 2020 is absolutely relevant and of central concern. The encomia of self-restraint on the part of strident progressives hail from this rhetorical climate-zone.

We who have been pondering the intricacies of theoretical deliberation these past several decades, distributed as these inquiries are over a spectrum of half a dozen or so truly telling paradigms—we can surely imagine a political system more sensitive and responsive to contemporary socio-political, technological, and cultural developments than the one in which the Democratic Party is, by default, the available venue for political empathy and progress. As we lurch into a predicament in which our most progressive political commentators, in their calls for moderation and restraint, begin to echo, faintly, perhaps, or on a more moderate note, the rabid anti-intellectualism shared by plutocratic autocracy, libertarian anomie, and fundamentalist theocratic repression, we need to remember that, however we have been impacted by the academy, we also belong to a much broader collectivity, the sphere of literacy workers. Under the bizarre, Philip K. Dick illumination issuing from a still very strange–altered as well as alternate–“Trumpworld,” it is more urgent than ever for us to explore and articulate the commonalities of the professoriate and other university workers with journalists, librarians, school teachers and administrators, art curators, editors, theatrical directors, dramaturgs, and managers, editors, therapists, and clinicians of various stripes, and even attorneys (in their capacity as “councilors”). What this rather amorphous conglomerate of vocations holds in common is the dissemination of literacy—the act of inculcating others into the articulate, differentiating, and modulating capabilities within the panoply of language-systems and social codes. The combined effect of these variegated roles and functions is nothing other than the distribution of empowerment—outfitting neighbors to full cultural enfranchisement.

Though barely articulate let alone mobilized or organized, the manifold of literacy workers is very much something like a class. This may not quite be the “classical” social classes that to Marx were organizational vestiges (and models) stemming from time-eternal aristocracy, feudal hierarchies, medieval guilds, and modern manufacture and professions. Yet literacy workers, extending from distinguished professors to beleaguered school teachers and theater managers, form a class. No political party—or governmental organization founded on parties—can fully reflect or implement their collective vocation and interests. It is from the perspective of the aggregation of these workers that no conceivable political prognosticator can get the exigencies of open-ended, rigorous, disinterested, and completely explicit scientific, humanistic, and critical investigation quite right.

It is the class of literacy workers that has most tangibly taken the hit of what I have been calling the Great Dismissal.

There is no question that the social impact of such an aggregate, encompassing millions of colleagues, could be notable—could it only link in its diverse segments, loop its communications laterally, and begin to militate as a collectivity. In the interim, we—the variegated literacy workers making it up–need to follow responsible journalists’ suit in saying it as best we can; in fulfilling the most socially edifying potentials embedded in the languages and operating systems that we master; in articulating to our neighbors the ills that have beset our society; and in exemplifying in our outreach something that we know on a deep level could be vastly better.

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