These blog posts offer humanities-eye takes on the modern world. They try to answer those questions most of us have heard: why bother studying history or literature? does reading a long Victorian novel or stumbling through a Beethoven piano sonata really help you handle what’s going on today? The answer here is mostly yes. Humanities-style knowledge doesn’t give us road-maps or drop-down menus, but lack of that knowledge helps explain some of the fuck-ups and general weirdness we see so often these days.
(Harold Lloyd wins the big game, pasted from Wikipedia)
It’s back to school week here at my university, and right on cue the weather’s turning autumnal; the first classes have already met, our department’s had its first faculty meeting, students are wandering around in their new U Buffalo gear.
When you think about it, it’s a pretty astounding moment in American life– I mean, how many collective rituals have we got that compare to the back-to-college process? Over the next two weeks, all over the country, red states and blue, in the big cities and the small towns, you’ll have basically the same scenes playing out– families arriving in their SUVs with all the stuff their kids need, the kids themselves getting to know their roommates and their campuses, checking out the bars, sitting through orientation sessions and intro lectures.
It’s not just the geographical uniformity that’s impressive, either, there’s also the long historical shadow– because the scripts being acted out today go back a really long way. Harold Lloyd’s movie The Freshman came out in 1925, and it’s already got most of the pieces in place– the anxious kid showing up for his first year at the Big U and worrying about popularity, big-time sports, bullying and teasing. And Wikipedia is there to remind us, the freshman character’s ideas about college come from a movie he‘s seen, about what college life is supposed to be like. That sums up an important side of American ideas about college– there seems to be an infinite-regress nostalgia machine at work, with each generation looking back at an earlier American college experience, and trying their best to live out those traditions.
Of course there’s plenty in today’s back-to-college moment that doesn’t fit the Harold Lloyd script, starting with the students themselves. The Freshman‘s college scene included only white, middle-class men; now campuses really are diverse places, with large numbers of people of color, and an outright majority of women students. There’s also the insane financial machinery today’s students have to deal with. Money wasn’t a big deal for Harold Lloyd’s freshman hero, he was constantly shelling out for high-end luxuries. Today, even middle class families wrestle with astronomical college costs, and there’s a general sense that college debt is forever, a lifetime burden. Then there are all the gadgets, visible everywhere on campus– the students updating their social media pages, the administration pushing online courses, the faculty showing movies and organizing internet discussions.
But to me the interesting thing is how all these big changes haven’t shaken up the basic script– actually, parts of the Harold Lloyd-style script have more of a hold on us than ever. Fraternities and campus partying are bigger than ever, and football’s booming, despite being expensive, catastrophically dangerous, and connected with some serious anti-social behavior– at Baylor U, in Texas, football players have been accused of committing fifty-two rapes from 2011 to 2014. All good reasons to drop the whole thing, you might think– but in fact college football’s booming. Since 1978, an average of five schools have added football every year, making for a grand total of 774 college football teams across the country– did you even know there were that many colleges in the US?
And when they go in for football, colleges these days are going all in. As of 2015, at least seventy-two head football coaches were making over a million dollars a year; twenty made over 4 million, and the top guy on the list made 9 million; he’s at Michigan, where in-state students can expect to pay about $28,000 per year. Given that so many students today are facing lifetime debt peonage to cover those expenses, those are some amazing numbers.
As always, endless complications lurk behind the statistics. When they overpay for football, college presidents aren’t just trying to please students– they’ve got wealthy donors and state politicians to worry about. Plus some colleges make so much money from TV rights that big-time football investment is a no-brainer; what really matters is to get a winning coach, and for that you have to pay top dollar. There are complicated calculations about what even a lousy football team can do for your school’s national profile– it’s not just a student experience, it’s an advertising medium.
So lots of forces converge to create the back-to-college rituals we’re seeing this week, and some can be understood in terms of old-fashioned, mildly-sordid self-interest. But there’s also the influence of less mechanical forces, America’s collective dreams about how life ought to look. College life is a big component of those dreams. We’re willing to spend a lot of money– all those tuition dollars, all those coaching salaries, all the stadium upgrades– keeping Harold Lloyd’s comic book vision of the university alive, maintaining a zone where it’s always 1925. You could say, it’s the university signing up to play its part in the Hollywood Dreamland Industrial Complex, in the same way the US military works with Hollywood to shape our collective imaginations.
In 1947, the very great Preston Sturges made a sequel to The Freshman, showing what happened to the hero in the twenty years after he won the big game for his college team; Sturges even got Harold Lloyd himself to come back and reprise the role. What happened to the hero of course was nothing good–a crummy job for an exploitative boss, a disappointing love life. Sturges understood that the dreamland university experience wasn’t a great preparation for the real American world. So here in 2017, where’s our Preston Sturges?
Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking a lot about Charlottesville these last few days. Of course some of what happened there doesn’t require much thought. Really, what are you supposed to say about twenty-somethings who dress up as Nazis and Ku Kluxers, talk about defending their “white heritage,” and act surprised when some of their pals kill and injure people? Even Steve Bannon is now saying these guys are fucked-up clowns and losers. Meanwhile centrists like Joe Biden have been using variations of the line Barack Obama liked so much, about how “that’s not who we are as a people.” Bannon and Biden have different politics and lingo, but basically they agree: the Charlottesville racists are marginals, a carnival freak show.
You can see the appeal in that kind of talk. It basically says, we’ve got a limited problem, not a mainstream America problem; as long as we control the salivating, tiki-torch waving losers, we’re good to go. The trouble is, these guys actually aren’t all that disconnected from the rest of American society. We’re not going to make sense of them until we ask about how they actually do represent us as a people, how they fit right into the big-tent middle of American society. Not in every way, but in ways that matter a lot.
The guns are the most visible aspect of that connection. In the aftermath, Virginia’s governor claimed “80% of the people here had semiautomatic weapons”– probably a fake statistic, but true in the sense that these racist losers were also a big, heavily armed gang. That’s reason enough to worry about them morphing into terriorist militias, capable of wreaking real havoc; I don’t see it as likely, but it’s not all that far-fetched either. Armed young men can cause a lot of damage.
And of course, once you ask why we have large numbers of racist loons carrying military-grade hardware through an American city, you have to look to the larger context. The hardware isn’t there just because these guys love their guns. It’s there because so many respectable, mainstream politicians have helped enshrine gun-ownership as a universal American reality, with no ceiling on the permissable fire-power; the courts and the legislatures have made sure even liberal enclaves like Charlottesville can’t opt out and set up their own systems of gun controls. That’s a collective decision, the work of Democrats and Republicans; we don’t have any American Nazi Party members sitting in Congress.
Policing is another point where the American mainstream connects with the racist loons. It’s no secret that America’s cops trend rightward in their politics– before the 2016 election, one poll had them voting 84 percent for Donald Trump. That poll wasn’t very scientific, but it’s probably good enough to draw the basic conclusion: that plenty of cops agree with Trump’s belief that many of the Charlottesville neo-Nazis were really good guys who just found themselves in a bad situation. Certainly the cops’ behavior has tended to fit that line– as so often happens when right-wingers turn violent, in Charlottesville they apparently stood back as the screaming, armed, torch-bearing crowd threatened lives and property. When they got to Charlottesville, the armed right-wingers could correctly assume they had a long leash before the cops cracked down.
Of course the police have contributed in another way to the threat level visible in Charlottesville– their own violence normalizes other people’s violence. America’s cops kill about 1,200 people every year, an average of three victims every single day, a disporportionate share of them black; the number’s been basically constant for the last three years, and ditto for the number of prosecutions– about 2 percent of these cases even wind up in court, and way fewer lead to convictions, usually on grounds that the cops felt threatened, so deadly force was justified. It’s a message the Charlottesville racists seem to have picked up– you get to be afraid of anyone on the street, and when you’re afraid you get to shoot.
Things get more complicated when you ask about mindsets, because there definitely is something special about the Charlottesville guys; here in 2017, it really is only marginals and weirdos who still dress up as Nazis and Ku Kluxers. But that doesn’t mean they’re floating free from mainstream middle America, either. As a trivial example, take what’s happened over the past year in response to some football stars protesting against police violence, by kneeling during the pre-game national anthem. It’s about as peaceful a protest as you could imagine, dignified, non-violent, non-disruptive; it was only a few games into last season that fans even noticed.
But when they did, they went ballistic, and not just in the red states, either. Here in Buffalo, some fans printed up tee-shirts calling for the assassination of Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco quarterback who started the protests, and the crowd howled every time he came on the field. A local sports columnist basically joined in, defending blacklisting Kaepernick on grounds that “Sports are about uniting people, about bringing players together while their fans join hands behind them;” hiring a trouble-maker like that would be “bad for business and not worth the hassle.” Meanwhile down in the more sophisticated part of the state, the owner of the New York Giants described getting an avalanche of mail denouncing the player protests. Given that fan feeling, he explained, his hands were tied; his team couldn’t possibly hire Kaepernick, no matter how much it needed his skills.
These aren’t white supremacists, and mostly they don’t even qualify as racists; I’m sure the columnist, the billionaire owner, and most of the fans are really swell people. But they’re all participants to the machinery of racism– because they’re all saying, it’s inappropriate for African Americans to get worked up about police killings, it’s a downer that interferes with our NFL fun, and there’s nothing much anyone can do about it, not even a billionaire team owner living in America’s most cosmopolitan city.
It’s a way more powerful message about race relations than any of the white supremacist ravings.
Is our world getting better and better, aka “progressing?” That definitely counts as one of the Big Questions, and it has all kinds of spill-over implications for the other Big Questions. Take social justice, for instance. For most of us, how strongly we believe in progress does a lot to shape how we think about the social arrangements around us. You may notice present-day injustices, maybe they anger you — but if you believe in long-term progress, you may also figure that’s the price we pay for future benefits, perhaps not for ourselves but for our children and their children.
You can call this the investment vision of progress– the idea is, we’re putting aside some things we’d like today in order to have better times in the future, just like when we put money every month into an IRA. It’s a vision that’s shared across the conventional political spectrum, by people who disagree about most everything else. Left wingers acknowledge that political revolutions, the nationalization of industries, and the like produce dislocation and suffering– but they see these as necessary steps toward a better future. Right-wingers celebrate the long-term benefits of capitalism, but they also understand it’s screwing over workers in places like Youngstown Ohio or Shenzhen China. Nobody thinks it’s all progress all the time and everywhere; like everything else, you have to think in big-picture terms to see things properly. (For a smart exploration of related issues, check out my friend’s post at The Kramer is Now.)
That big-picture requirement may help explain one peculiarity about contemporary discussions of progress: actual historians, the people who’ve spent years training themselves to think about change over time, haven’t had much to say about the issue. But we’re getting a ton of commentary from experts in other fields, pretty much all of it pushing strong versions of the progress line.
To get a sense of just how much they’re saying and how loudly, check out this Guardian piece about “The New Optimists,” a designation meant to convey that these aren’t just a few intellectuals whose ideas happen to converge, but a full-scale movement. The optimists are mostly social scientists and pundits, according to the Guardian, and their optimism rests heavily on statistics. People are living longer than ever before; we have more to eat, and vaccines are saving millions of lives yearly; we’re less likely to kill and torture one another. Every day, thousands of people around the world escape from extreme poverty. The NY Times‘s Nicholas Kristof tells us “2016 was the best year in the history of humanity,” and he thinks 2017 will be even better.
The Guardian writer has some thoughtful criticisms of all this sunny-sidedness, but what struck me was that even he took the basic optimist idea as self-evident. “Nobody in their right mind should wish to have lived in a previous century,” is how he puts it; his criticisms mostly concern the possible disasters looming in the future, not how good we have it today. It’s a line that puts him squarely in the Zeitgeist mainstream, as summed up by the great sports/politics journalist Albert Burneko: “the past was awful. It was a time of choleric ignoramuses flopping around in their own shit and killing each other for entertainment. I feel bad for everyone who lived before today.” At least Burneko sees the humor in this kind of talk. The optimist intellectuals are deadly serious in their self-congratulation.
There used to be quite a few historians who thought this way– for instance E. H Carr, about whom I posted some thoughts a couple of years ago. But my impression is, not many still do so, and they’re certainly not conspicuous on the optimism bandwagon. What’s our problem with optimism, or at least my problem with it?
For a start, of course, optimism about progress requires some complicated spinning of the recent past. You have to see Verdun, Stalingrad, the Belgian Congo, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and all the other recent horrors as outliers, brief deviations from the long-term trend toward non-violence. You also have to relativize the statistics, as the psychologist Steven Pinker (one of the new optimist heavy hitters) does in arguing that violence has steadily declined over the millennia. Sure, he acknowledges, World War II killed about 80 million people, but it didn’t kill as high a percentage of the world’s population as some pre-historic wars, so not to worry.
Other statistical hijinks get used as well to make the optimism case, as in the relentless citation of life expectancy statistics. It’s impressive to learn (as the optimists so often tell us) that nineteenth-century life expectancies were around 31, but it’s also misleading. Infant and childhood mortality was high back in the old days, but even in 1600, once you made it to adulthood, you could expect to live into your fifties or sixties, and there were plenty of seventy-somethings around.
Income calculations are another opportunity for trickery. If doctor fees costs sky-rocket, average incomes go up– but does anyone think we’re better off? Back in the bad old days around 1900, impoverished workers lived in tenement apartments in the Lower East Side or the rue Saint-Antoine. Nowadays the same apartments cost a bundle, only trust-fund hipsters can afford them, and ordinary people spend hours commuting in from distant, dingy suburbs. The statistics say that transformation has made us better off, since average wealth and the incomes deriving from it (think of all those real estate commissions!) have risen so dramatically; the reality is a serious decline in the quality of ordinary lives.
But the main problem with the new optimism isn’t the methods, it’s the outlook it encourages, both about our own lives and about other peoples’– namely, pitying scorn for those who don’t live as we do, over-the-top smugness about ourselves. You don’t have to romanticize the past to think it had things we might envy, just as we have our own strong points. Yes, pre-modern Florence and London smelled bad and harbored diseases; they also gave ordinary people the chance to live in some of the all-time most beautiful built environments, not to mention nurturing ungodly numbers of creative genius types, in the Michelangelo/Shakespeare/Galileo league, all this in tiny societies (Renaissance Florence had about 70,000 people, Shakespeare’s London may have reached 300,000). Is life in strip-mall suburbia really a big step up, even if does come with ten or fifteen more years of lifespan thrown in?
In the same spirit, we can agree with the new optimists that lots of those Florentines and Londoners had impulse control problems that led to violence– while also feeling queasy about our own specific forms of violence, with its sanitized, remote-control, industrial ways of killing.
I’ve mentioned before in these posts, I have mixed feelings about the lessons to be learned from studying history. Past and present are both so complicated, you can’t usually draw lines from one to the other. But history can at least teach some respect for other societies and other ways of living– and a little embarrassment when you hear claims that right now is the greatest time ever.
We all know about the administrative over-kill problem in today’s universities, right? The number of administrators keeps growing, and they’re getting some eye-popping salaries– my own university is a typically impoverished rust-belt institution, with no signs we’re sky-rocketing in the rankings, but our president made $696,970 in 2015-2016, plus free housing and various other perks– and he only ranked thirty-fifth among presidents of state universities. (In the private sector, the salaries go way higher– Columbia U’s president made about 4 million that year.) Meanwhile, all over the country tuition’s up, faculty numbers are steady or shrinking, and a huge amount of teaching gets done by underpaid temporary faculty.
So the administrator problem is partly about resource allocation — the costs of administering the university are taking up resources that could be supporting students, research, and teaching.
But there’s another side to the administrator problem, which comes from the way administrative careers work these days. Once upon a time, colleges just moved the chair of Chemistry or Classics or whatever into deanships, then when their term was up, another local stepped in, and the former dean went back to the classroom. But now there’s a general hunger for newcomers, people from other colleges who can bring in new perspectives and aren’t bound by local habits and attachments. The idea is, an administrator isn’t there just to make things run smoothly and check that everyone’s doing their job. Administration is now about shaking things up and innovating, disrupting, just like we imagine happening in the business world. So more and more, there’s a national administrator career track, with lots of movement as people climb the ladder from one job to a more important one, and go from one college to another– usually from a lower-level school to a better one, though that gets complicated, since sometimes you have to move to a lesser school to find a higher-level position.
There are obvious problems with that system, and also some that are less obvious but more pernicious. The obvious ones come from the costs and friction you get with any job turn-over. Nowadays replacing a dean means a national search, and that means five- or six-figure expenses for hotels, airfares, dinners, and moving expenses when the new person actually shows up; my own university (did I mention we’re impoverished?) even uses head-hunter firms to locate candidates, which adds to the cost. Then there’s the time the new dean spends getting to know the campus and its systems, rearranging office staff and furniture, etc etc etc. It adds up to real money.
But the real bad news isn’t about the finances, it’s about what success on the career ladder now requires– namely, some dramatic accomplishment in your previous job, something that demonstrates you’re the one to bring the new thinking and innovation to your new job. That’s one of the standard dean-interview questions– “what achievement are you proudest of?”; and the correct answer is not “I just kept things working pretty well and made sure the faculty stayed productive.” No, the correct answer is about instituting new programs, closing down or rearranging old ones, funding inter-disciplinary projects, and all that kind of thing. “The status quo is the enemy” is a line I actually heard in a deanship interview a few years ago, though to be fair, that guy didn’t get the job.
The point isn’t that these are all bad ideas; just like in every other corner of life, some are good, some bad, and most a mix of good and bad. Rather, it’s that the recruitment system creates constant pressure for upheaval, pressure that doesn’t have much to do with the realities of teaching and learning– it reflects instead the specific interests of career-smart administrators. That includes the time-frame for innovation, as well as the content. If an administrator hopes to climb the ladder before they’re too old to enjoy life at the top, they can’t spend a lot of time dicking around on long-term planning or gradual implementation. Whatever the new signature program is, it has to be up and running in time for the next round of interviews. That also means not waiting around the office until faculty or student groups– the people who actually know about the relevant fields– show up to propose a new program. A successful candidate has to be Pro-Active as well as Innovative and Disruptive.
And just as the ideas aren’t necessarily bad, the individual people involved aren’t especially bad either– it’s the system that generates the dysfunctions, not the individuals caught up in it. We Buffalonians just lost our own dean of undergraduate studies to a better (and much richer) university, after less than four years on the job. By all accounts he’s a nice and serious guy, apparently on a first-name basis with everyone, genuinely engaged with campus life. But his three-plus years of deanship have been a wild ride of innovation, centering on an ultra-dramatic redesign of the undergraduate curriculum. The university’s own news bulletin describes it as “involving the creation or revision of approximately 1,000 courses and engaging hundreds of faculty and staff members.” What with the various campus debates and approval processes, all that “creation or revision” actually took place over about twenty months, after which the new program was declared good to go and the leftovers of the previous program were scrapped. That probably made for an easy answer to the “what’s your biggest accomplishment” question at his interviews for the next job. Redoing a thousand courses in less than two years is definitely a big deal– but does anyone think it’s a good way to do business?
We’re an accomplishment-oriented society, the kind that views climbing Mt Everest or curing cancer as proper markers of a life well spent. So it’s no surprise we bring that value-set to thinking about universities, or that we favor job candidates who can list dramatic accomplishments. What’s not so smart is to ignore the systems that define what counts as accomplishment and that shape how accomplishments get carried out. Right now, our systems need some serious rethinking.
For those of us who write history, there’s a lot to think about in the classic misunderstood-artist story, of the Cézanne/van Gogh/Modigliani variety. You’ve got someone seeing the world in a new way, and their contemporaries are totally baffled; the artists can’t sell their art, and they wind up trading it away to cover their bar tabs. Then decades later, the same pictures are worth millions, because the vision they embody has become basic to a whole era– probably there are ten prints of “Starry Night” in every college dorm in America (not to mention Don McClean on the oldies stations, warbling about how misunderstood van Gogh was in his own times). It’s a classic example of a basic historian idea, that different eras see the world in different ways. The artists just get there first.
Of course it’s not just the vision thing that gives the artist story such oomph, there’s also the lifestyle aspects– all those wild bohemian hi-jinks, showing these people just didn’t fit into the same boxes as their contemporaries, plus the disconnect between their brilliant artistic achievements and their impoverished outsider-dom. The underlying idea is, if you see the world differently from the people around you, there’s going to be some serious friction in your real life too. You’re going to do unconventional things and perhaps suffer for it; you’ll have trouble earning a living, and feel constantly out of touch with the people around you. As so many eighth-graders know, it’s tough not fitting in.
My favorite example of that story-line is the novel The Truth about Lorin Jones, by the wonderful American writer Alison Lurie. It’s from back in the late 1980s, so some elements may seem dated (the Manhattan it depicts is still the grunge Manhattan of that era, not the millionaires’ playground of today), but a lot of it holds up amazingly well, partly because Lurie has such smart things to say about the multiple milieux her heroine wanders into. Adding to the appeal for a historian, the story centers on a form of historical research: the heroine is writing a biography of a bohemian painter who died twenty years earlier, unknown at the time of her death but famous in the novel’s present.
I first read the novel years ago, but it was only this spring that I realized the painter in question strongly resembles the American abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler (1926-2011). Like the real Helen Frankenthaler, the fictional Lorin Jones grew up rich in NYC, went to Bennington College, hooked up with an older, big shot art critic who taught at Bennington and helped her career, and after him had a long relationship with another artist (in the novel, he’s a poet). Even the Lorin Jones pictures that Lurie describes sound a lot like Frankenthaler’s.
But there’s one dramatic difference between the real-life and the novelistic versions of the story: the fictional Jones dies poor and obscure, a bohemian right to the end, whereas Frankenthaler stayed rich– according to Wikipedia, her last husband was “an investment banker who served (sic– not “served in”…) the Ford administration,” which is about as far from Bohemia as you could possibly get. Her studio was in Darien, Connecticut, one of America’s most respectable suburbs.
So which is the more typical pattern among the real-life cultural revolutionary artists, and what does that tell us about the cultural revolutions they pull off? My guess is, there are more Helen Frankenthalers than Lorin Joneses– at least, an awful lot of the big-ticket artists have stayed very close to the money and power sources around them.
Of course that was standard back in the Renaissance and through most of the seventeenth century, when artists depended on patrons to give them work, but it’s surprisingly common among the moderns too. Consider the American painter Cy Twombly (1928-2011), who’s been on my mind since I saw the blockbuster exhibition of his work in Paris, back in February. Twombly was a genuine aesthetic revolutionary, whose pictues still have a troubling, off-putting impact. There are occasional words and lots of word-like squiggles, so you know messages are being transmitted but usually you don’t quite know what’s being said; and unlike much 1950s abstract art, you wouldn’t think of these as attractive decor for your living room. Plus Twombly made at least some impressively bohemian lifestyle choices, like a serious affair with the artist Robert Rauschenberg, at a time when homosexuality entailed real dangers. (France being what it is– namely, fanatically squeamish about outside-the-lines personal details– you only learn about the relationship from Wikipedia; it wasn’t mentioned in the exhibit itself or the 300-page catalogue that accompanied with it.) But Twombly also married an Italian baroness, and together they purchased a Roman villa; the Paris exhibit included a 1966 Vogue photo spread of the couple, looking just as elegant as their home, with Twombly himself in a fabulous white suit. Again, we’re awfully far away from bohemian anguish.
How are supposed to think about this disconnect between cultural revolution on the one side, comfy living on the other? Does it raise questions about the radicalism of culture products like art? For us historians, what does it say about the nature of historical change? Then there are the ethical overtones– for instance, are you really a radical if you’re not suffering and/or impoverished?
These are old questions, and there are some long-established, smart answers to them. You could say, the world changes at multiple levels, and there’s no reason ideas in one domain have to flow over into others, or that novel thinking requires unconventional ways of living. Or maybe it’s just that social systems like capitalism have such massive absorptive powers. Artists may think they’re moving against the system, but it pulls them in just like it does everything else, and their pictures become just one more set of commodities. Or more simply, maybe art is just its own world, not a commentary about the contemporary condition. Frankenthaler, Twombly, and the others were contesting artistic traditions, not trying to remake society; why shouldn’t they hook up with bankers or buy fancy real estate?
A lot of the best historical research over the last generation has tended in these directions, showing the complexities and autonomies that run through historical processes.
So there’s a big element of myth-making in the bohemian artist stories– apparently real life doesn’t usually follow that script. Yet the Bohemia myth survives, I think because (like other myths) it also captures an important reality: disruption can’t always be contained to one domain of life, and radicalism in one zone spreads out into others. Frankenthaler and Twombly– and the fictional Lorin Jones– actually created more upset than most of us ever will. That they managed to live well while doing so is cause for praise, not criticism.
You may have noticed, it’s been a month of radio silence here at “My Correct Views,” and I’ve got no real excuses. Sure, there’s been a certain amount of practical business to fuss about, plus a couple of conferences and some teaching issues. But having been away from North America for two months (I got back April 4), I was expecting the return to poke me back into blogging action. Isn’t that what travel’s supposed to do, get you to see your old haunts with new eyes, ask new questions, de-familiarize your surroundings? You’d expect an extra dose of that now that we’re in the Age of Trump, with everyone telling us what uncharted waters we’ve sailed into.
But the poking effect didn’t happen, just as it didn’t happen when I got to France back in February.
Instead of which, both my travel moments have mainly conveyed a baffling feeling of things being over-familiar, in the Ground Hog Day/Déjà-Vu-All-Over-Again mode. That’s not the whole story, of course, there are plenty of completely unexpected things going on as well, many of them very cool. But lately it’s the weird repetitions that have been most on my mind, just because they seem so extreme. It doesn’t put you in the mood for blogging when you start imagining the world as a giant hamster’s exercise wheel– there’s lots of action, but it’s all happening inside an iron cage.
Right now my fave examples come from politics– or at least, that’s where the cage thing seems most visible. I’m starting to see it as a more general phenomenon, visible in many parts of modern life, and maybe next week I’ll try to explore how that works. But for now, just two political examples.
Example 1 is our own Donald Trump’s screeching-180 on foreign policy. The guy got elected partly because he said sensible, non-warlike, outside-the-box things about Russia, Iraq, Syria, and humanitarian war– basically, that we should spend our money rebuilding the US rather than intervening in other countries. He mocked George Bush for invading Iraq, horrifying all the other Republicans; he said it was stupid to pick fights with Russia and to overthrow anti-ISIS governments like Syria’s. Yet here we are three months into the Trump presidency, and we’re back at the same old idiocy we’ve had the last fifteen years, denouncing Russia, bombing Syria, sending troops to Iraq; there’s even some of the old Axis of Evil talk, with denunciations of Iran and North Korea.
That’s what I mean about the iron cage thing. We’ve got an ultra-powerful loud-mouth, who prides himself on non-conformity and made it to the top by sneering at American conventional foreign policy wisdom– and basically his first act is to knuckle under to the same conventional wisdom he spent a year mocking. Of course it’s also relevant that the conventional wisdom has been a real-life disaster, but the point here is Trump knew it was a disaster, and yet he’s still replaying it.
You’ve probably heard explanations for Trump’s knuckling-under– like, that he’s ignorant, insecure, and easily influenced by whoever wanders into his office; or, the Deep State really runs things, so it’s almost impossible for elected politicians to change policy directions; or, like other incoming presidents, Trump has now learned various top secret info about world affairs, and it’s made him suddenly more “realistic” about policy changes.
Even if all that’s true, though, it doesn’t change the basic caged-hamster impression. If a possibly-unhinged, seventy-something billionaire can’t shake lose from Deep State inertia, who can?
Example 2 comes from the opposite side of the political spectrum– it’s the moderate French politician Emmanuel Macron, who’s one of the two candidates facing off in next weekend’s French presidential election. In lots of ways, the run-off itself sounds like a replay of our own Trump-Clinton showdown, just with the gender roles reversed. In the Trump role, there’s Marine Le Pen, pushing a nationalist, police-friendly, populist line; like Trump, she’s accused of being soft on Russia and borderline antisemitic, but also like Trump, she’s shown some real campaign-trail genius. Meanwhile Macron plays Hillary Clinton. He’s liberal-minded on ethnic and lifestyle issues, and he’s very big on education, entrepreneurship, and globalization, all the new economy buzzwords. Just like Clinton, he’s accused of being too cozy with Big Finance (he’s a former high-level banker); also like Clinton he’s entering the campaign’s final lap with a big lead, partly because so many French voters find Le Pen truly frightening.
Given how different France is from the US, it’s already a little weird that the French scenario sounds so familiar. But it’s really the little things about the Macron campaign that bring on the déjà vu feeling. Just like Clinton, Macron needs to attract left-leaning voters whose candidates lost in the first round– and also like Clinton, he keeps doing small things designed to irritate them. His first act after winning the first round was to hold a celebration dinner at a fancy restaurant in central Paris– not only making a statement about his money and fancy tastes, but also doing it where the paparazzi could peer through the windows, photograph the scene, and make sure everyone knew about it. Then three days later, he managed to blow a slam-dunk photo op, on a visit to a factory threatened by globalization– in his home town, no less. He hadn’t even planned on talking to the angry workers there, just to some of the power players. But then Le Pen made a surprise visit, the workers applauded and took selfies with her, so he came by as well– offering nothing beyond globalization talking points and promises about unemployment benefits.
I’m assuming this guy hasn’t been off-planet the last six months, and that he knows what happened to Clinton. With less confidence, I also assume he’s intelligent; certainly he’s been through some top schools. If you buy those assumptions, the iron cage hypothesis starts to look pretty good. Faced with what everyone says is a crucial election, in which the far right could actually sweep to power, Macron seems unable to stop doing the self-destructive things, in fact doing the same self-destructive things that busted Clinton. He may squeak through regardless, but all the polls have his lead shrinking.
We’ve had a lot of talk lately about working class victims of the big economic forces, but the real news seems to be how high up the food chain the helplessness extends.
Today’s the last day of a two-month research trip to Paris. It’s been a great success in most ways, but a blogging disaster– it’s almost four weeks since my last post. That’s not at all what I was expecting. The plan was, with teaching on hold for a few months, I could refocus on blogging-type writing, especially since it’s a great moment for thinking about the contemporary scene. I don’t know if France is ready to compete with our own home-grown US craziness, but it’s really been stepping up, with one of its all-time wildest presidential elections. I described the candidate line-up a few weeks ago– it includes one crook (until the crookedness came out, he was the traditional values guy), one hard-line back-to-the-fifties (or maybe the forties…) type, two socialists (one a nice guy, the other a fire-breather), and a dynamic, appealing, youthful, content-free ex-banker. Since it’s 2017, the odds-makers have their money on Mr No-Content. (In my last post, I had the hard-line leftist as a no-hope candidate, but he’s been moving up fast, and has a good chance to finish at least third. That’s pretty typical of the crazy surprises the election has provided.)
But except for that one post, I couldn’t get myself focused on writing about the France scene. It’s partly because I got really into my research project, so I didn’t have a lot of energy for other writing, and partly the high-intensity Paris doings, the seminars, concerts, seeing old friends, and such like. Even walking down the street is a high intensity activity here.
But it’s also partly because I’ve just had trouble figuring out what’s going on here, or at least I don’t feel the confidence I’ve sometimes felt that I understand what I’m seeing.
The look is pretty much what it’s always been, for better and for worse. On the bad news side, there’s Paris’s heavy-duty ethnic segregation. The Château Rouge neighborhood where I usually stay seems even more heavily-immigrant (mainly from Africa) than last year, and it has the same rowdy, mystery-filled street scenes it’s had since I first came here, in 2011. Then you cross the city, and you find yourself in an almost completely white neighborhood; even in those, by North American standards the streets are packed, but neither the numbers nor the noise compares to Château Rouge. There are also mainly South Asian and mainly East Asian neighborhoods, and they don’t get the model minority benefits they get in North America. Last week the cops killed a fifty-something Chinese immigrant in his own apartment, after busting down his door; he was holding a pair of scissors, which they mistook for a knife….
On the other hand, the delightful sides of Paris life are also going strong as ever. No matter what the ethnicity or even the immigration status, everyone takes delight in speaking well, and all the minor-league daily interactions take on a fun quality. The café waiters still bring high level theatricality to serving you (see here for the J.-P. Sartre take on this), the intellectuals still have the Paris intellectual look; the cafés and restaurants all seem full– clearly a lot of good times are being had. In the shops, interaction rituals still surround every act of buying. Nobody’s hyper-friendly, in fact the shopping scene can look pretty severe, but then nobody’s pushing you out the door with a purchase, either– endless, dithering consumer questions don’t frazzle anyone. It’s hard to describe, because there’s a also lot of insane rushing around here. But the basic mood is still that everyone has more time to spare than we Americans are used to. Despite all the strains Paris life imposes, the basic feeling is of people who want to be where they are, and even take pleasure in having all those other people packed in around them. Like the theatrical waiter, all sorts of people here enjoy the “I’m a Parisian” role.
So in all those ways, the basic story is that not much seems to be changing– it’s the same old Paris.
But I also got a sense from this visit that the anger levels are higher than I’ve seen before, and it made me wonder how well the “we’re all-Parisians” thing can hold up. For one thing the presidential voting is looking wilder than in previous years. I already mentioned how the hard-left guy is moving up, and so also is the hard-right candidate, Marine LePen– it’s even conceivable they’ll face each other in the final election round. It’s extremely unlikely that there’ll be a finalist candidate from either of the two standard-issue political parties, the Socialists (who ran the government the last five years and are wildly detested) and the center-right Les Républcains, a new brand name for the political group that was in power the five years before that (and actually for most years since 1958).
Just like with Brexit and Trump, this year basically nobody wants the standard political flavors– they’re pissed off enough to try just about anything else.
Also like in the US, the lesser evil argument seems to be losing some of its grip on people. In the circles I frequent, of course, it’s the hard right that’s the big evil, and having them come to power really will be big trouble– the French constitution gives the president tons of power. But I had several people tell me, there are some of the other candidates they still wouldn’t vote for, no matter what disasters abstention might bring. The statistics go the same way. Whatever else this election brings, it’s apparently going to set records for the number of people who just say no to all the above and stay home.
If I were in the prediction biz, I’d encourage worry that the polls don’t take the abstention mood sufficiently seriously, and that the hard right candidate has a more serious shot than the statistics say.
In the background to all this is another reality that I never really picked up on until this visit: despite all the visible comforts and pleasures of Paris life, incomes here are really low. Of course the estimates vary depending on who’s talking, but one respectable outfit puts the average salary after taxes at about $2,000 a month– and these aren’t minimum wage jobs, it’s what teachers and civil servants are making. Remember, that’s for a city where you can easily pay $300,000 for a one-bedroom apartment in a sketchy neighborhood, and where nice, non-flashy places are heading toward the million-dollar level.
It means there’s another level to the Paris theater feeling, which connects it to some of the other nice places I occasionally visit: people aren’t just enacting being Parisians, they’re also enacting leading ordinary lives, at a time when ordinary itself is actually a privilege. Paris does better than most places at making that work, but I don’t see how that keeps working over the long haul.