This article was written on 31 Aug 2018, and is filled under Actualities, Education, Media, Politics.

Welcome to the Great Dismissal!

We live in an age when feedback loops—among which number critique—have reached so rapid a rate of acceleration that they coincide with and to some degree even anticipate the events ostensibly precipitating them. This plasticity or temporal warping is merely one manifestation of the polymorphous bizarreness that has held the U.S. and environs in thrall ever since the serious buildup to the presidential election of 2016. It is natural, one and a half years into Donald Trump’s term of office, to reach in quest of an epochal label that will encapsulate a radically different set of assumptions under which scientists, researchers, and intellectuals conduct their work. For Walter Benjamin, synthesizing his most experimental, radically cubist text in the mid-1920’s, the perfect period-label for the turbulent moment was a ready-made, already in store. His “Imperial Panorama: A Guided Tour through the German Inflation,” is surely the segment of Einbahnstraβe (One-Way Street) most securely riveted to then-current actualities.

My strong favorite for the new configuration that we all contend with is “The Great Dismissal.” It might also be, I suppose (after Freud or Nietzsche) “The Great Denial”; or possibly, “The Great Withdrawal”; or, with even less pizzaz, “The Great Repudiation.” Surely what is at stake here is a strident, belligerent Wiederkehr of U.S. (and perhaps even more widespread) anti-intellectualism at the base. It is not merely that scientific research, social-scientific monitoring, and theoretical speculation have been driven aground (or “held askance”). The current actuality for which “The Great Dismissal” is a viable moniker is one in which sustained intellectual labor has even lost the meager ground on the agenda of U.S. public deliberation it held under prior administrations. The activities of speculation, research, and critique have been repudiated, in and for themselves. They have been dismissed by the powers that be, on an unprecedented, totalistic scale. On the broader palette of its nuance, “dismissal” also encompasses labor relations, specifically denoting the cessation or termination of employment. It is in this sense as well that under the current U.S. regime, both “official” arbiters of knowledge, current affairs, and speculation and “civilians,” indulging in pronounced and structured thoughtfulness, have been dismissed. “Dismissed!”—also what is declared at the end of every school day. Learning, growth, “morphogenic” evolution, “homeorhetic” change (Wilden); “autopoietic” bootstrapping in knowledge (Maturana, Varela, Luhmann) terminate—in their traces or tracks.

The painful realization that they are, for the moment, out of school, is incumbent on scientists, humanists, professional intellectuals, and avatars of public taste. They have been dismissed. An omnibus of factors in the public sphere has dismissed them. In Human Resource terms, this is tantamount to a major “status change.” It has been perpetrated upon these intellectual workers, upon us. Spearheaded by Donald Trump and his most opportunistic Republican enablers, the public has, to one degree or another, acceded. The deep-seated precedents to this fundamental incredulity and radical impatience may have been a long time in the making, but the quasi-official demotion has happened without our consultation or our consent.

As readers, we need to follow out the broader anti-intellectual drift of the current regime. This is surely an architectural fundament of its operating system. In this centrality to an ideology of aggravated belligerence toward modulation in the deliberation of public affairs, the current quasi-official anti-intellectualism joins a now-uncontained plutocracy powered by corporate mechanisms; the daily re-manufacture of the reality within which the public gauges its options; the dissolution of historical, political, and cultural memory through (among other factors) our rampant absorption in “real time” devices and media; the graphic apocalyptic vision common, in fact, to Left and Right, strong-arming thinking, at both extremes, toward urgency and absolutism; and, a panoply of “polarizing filters” preempting productive discussion of socio-economic and ecological options among the people most crucial to setting a course into the future, namely ourselves. (Among the most undercover of agents in this multi-polarization stands the creeping professionalism that places entire classes and strategic social functions in contact only with themselves—society as a motor engaging multiple whirling tautologies. Divisive a force as rampant retreat under professional bubbles may be, this does not obviate the glaring need under current conditions for rekindled class-consciousness.)

As is driven home by Congressional special elections in Alabama, Pennsylvania, and most recently, Ohio, the two-party U.S. political system is hopelessly deadlocked. So polarized have competing world-views become that the electorate proves systematically incapable, at the ballot box at least, of making decisions. The U.S. public, mesmerized as it is by the televised brew of crime-fantasies, professional sports, and reality TV taking up a disproportionate share of our imaginary life that it can only treat electoral deliberation as a baseball game down to the 15th inning; an NFL divisional or league title in triple overtime. The most compelling recent decision that the U.S. public has made regarding such core issues as immigration, healthcare, taxation, the widespread availability of deadly weapons, and the overall course of the nation (muddled social democracy versus aggravated plutocratic libertarianism) has been to defer any definitive settling of accounts.

A vast share of the commentary that has ensued from the presidential election has been driven by multiple incredulities: that Trump could have appealed to so many voters; that a politics of belligerent ressentiment among (even millennial) voters convinced that the status quo was passing them by was already deeply enough entrenched to decide the results; that Hilary played so badly in swing states where she was expected to reap her share of popular support; that a political system tricked by measures long conceived and implemented through conservative think-tanks and institutes, seemingly tilted in Trump’s favor at every turn. Jane Mayer’s magisterial Dark Money serves as the current document of record on the usurpation of the American political system, through a mix of propaganda and political manipulation (whether in terms of voting rights–gerrymandering; or campaign financing–Citizens United). The admirably coherent if horrifying narrative that Dark Money imparts dates a tortuous, devastatingly effective, and uncannily patient series of below-the-radar machinations by the plutocratic Right back to the nascent John Birch Society of the1960’s. It was then that Charles Koch, following in patriarch Fred’s footsteps, joined its ranks of self-interested multimillionaires and espoused its vision. It’s not as though the Democrats curbed their own worst instincts when they controlled the review processes for political demographics and boundaries. But it is the fanatical intensity of the hyper-Conservatives’ resolve, the sublime sums (often accruing from indispensable natural resource, health, and military interests under their control) that they were willing to dispense in implementing their aims: this lends Mayer’s chronological encapsulation its demonic pitch.

It can be no accident, then, that the commentary issued by the pundits left to deliberate on a political status quo both hopelessly muddled and aggravated to the point of mania, is divided, even contradictory. And, it turns out, the vast preponderance of the prognostications regarding the nation’s short-term political future go back to issues of rhetoric and communications between progressives and hyper-Conservatives. Perhaps the pivotal one of these, still unresolved as of this writing, is the extent to which it is incumbent—or not–on spokespeople of the Left to modulate their rhetoric in their outreach to Trump supporters, other Republicans, and “undecideds” who might reverse the current trend of wholesale dismissal, both of long-cherished ideals and intellectuals.

It is furthermore impossible for scientists, researchers, Humanists, and critics not to hear, subliminally or not, in the current journalistic deliberations, the collateral debate on their worthiness and relevance. Fundamental questions regarding the valuation of intellectual striving are embedded in the inquiries leaping out of the opinion newspapers and websites: whether the Democrats will retake the Senate in November’s midterm elections, or maybe even Congress; whether the nation can be jarred back to a fairly consistent commitment to fundamental social welfare; to an interventionist posture in international affairs grounded in confidence in our society’s past diplomatic, educational, judicial, scientific, commercial, and administrative achievement.

Let the New York Times’ “stable” of opinion writers furnish the sample. From Charles M. Blow’s broadside of November 23, 2016, “No, Trump, We Can’t Just Get Along” to Thomas L. Friedman’s recent “Keep Up the Blanket Coverage of Trump. It Hurts Him” (August 8, 2018), a significant component of the Times’ opinion staff has not cut the Trump administration a centimeter’s slack. Its coverage and analysis of the President’s legerdemain with truth and reality, his unapologetic promotion of the oligarchic class and its interests, and the overarching under-handedness of his tactics have been unrelenting since even before Day # 1. The sheer continuity of the transcript of the administration’s excesses and misdeeds will itself become a factor as official immunities fade away and juridical accountability sets in (even in the face of larding the bench at all levels with judicial sympathizers to the regime). The fifth estate will have played the dominant role in the establishment and maintenance of this inventory—no mean feat given the administration’s appropriating Fox News as a de facto publicity agent, its privileging even more tenuous news outlets, and its explicit antipathy to news organizations maintaining professional standards of journalism and journalistic ethics. Under the New York Times’ umbrella, Michelle Goldberg, Gail Collins, and Maureen Dowd, have joined Blow in spirited, courageous, and unrelenting calling out of an administration, and its supporters, who have now afforded unprecedented credence in U.S. public life to racism, xenophobia, sexism, and other biases, misinformation, and betrayals–to sovereignty itself and the most noble of our national traditions. On the day after the election (“America Elects a Bigot,” November 9, 2016), Charles M. Blow signals, in no uncertain terms:

Mr. Trump will become this country’s 45th president. For me it is a truly shocking fact, a bitter pill to swallow. I remain convinced that this is one of the worst possible people who could be elected president. I remain convinced that Trump has a fundamentally flawed character and is literally dangerous for world stability and injurious to America’s standing in that world.

There is so much that I can’t fully comprehend. . . .

My thoughts are now with the immigrant families he has threatened to deport ands the Muslims he has threatened to bar and the women he has demeaned and those he is accused of assaulting and the disabled whom he apparently has no problem mocking.

My thoughts are with the poor people afflicted with poor health who were finally able to receive medical insurance coverage, sometimes lifesaving coverage, and the fear they must feel now that there is a president committed to repealing and replacing it . . . and who has a pliable Congress at his disposal.

When I think of all these people and then think of all the people who voted to make this man president—and those who didn’t vote, thereby easing the way for his ascension—I cannot but feel some measure of anger. I must deal with that anger. I don’t want to wrestle it to the ground; I want to harness it.

Earlier this summer, Michelle Goldberg responded, not with contrition, to a spate of episodes in which prominent Trump administration officials were subjected to displays of shunning when they ventured into public space. In her “A Crisis of Democracy, Not Manners” (June 25, 2018), Goldberg is not constrained by civility and decorum when she ponders the less than hospitable welcome elicited in restaurants by Kirstjen Nielsen, overseer of family separations along the Mexican border, and Sarah Huckabee Saunders.

Last year, the white nationalist Richard Spencer was kicked out of his Virginia gym after another member confronted him and called him a Nazi. This incident did not generate a national round of hand-wringing about the death of tolerance, perhaps because most people tacitly agree that it’s O.K. to shun professional racists.

It’s a little more complicated when the professional racist is the president of the United States. The norms of our political life require a degree of bipartisan forbearance. But treating members of Donald Trump’s administration as ordinary public officials rather than pariahs does more to normalize bigotry than exercising alongside a white separatist. . . .

Naturally, all this [incidents of Nielsen and Saunders’s public shunning] has led to lots of pained disapproval from self-appointed guardians of civility. A Washington Post editorial urged the protesters to think about the precedent they are setting. “How hard is it to imagine, for example, people who strongly believe that abortion is murder deciding that judges or other officials who protect abortion rights should not be able to live peaceably with their families?” it asked.

Of course, this is not hard to imagine at all, since abortion opponents have assassinated abortion providers in their homes and churches. The Roman Catholic Church has shamed politicians who support abortion rights. . . .

I’m somewhat agnostic on the question of whether publicly rebuking Trump collaborators is tactically smart.

Progressives by the tens of thousands will have derived crucial affirmation and emotional sustenance at a moment of disquiet and disillusionment with our democracy from such frank appraisal, not tempered by circumspect. I know I have; just as Frank Rich’s columns and articles for NYT and NYR did so much to sustain me through the differently splenetic years of Bush fils. NYT’s opinion writers approach the very crux of the complexity embedded in the current national predicament precisely when they take on the daunting objective confronting mid-term political rhetoric. These are, to say the least, troubled waters, beset by new double messages with each new week of political turmoil.

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