Meanwhile, back in Paris: the election edition

I’m on sabbatical leave this semester, and for the last few weeks I’ve been back in Paris– back to the same rowdy, down-at-the-heels Château Rouge neighborhood I usually stay in, and back to my usual routine of libraries, seminars, and general hanging out. Mostly I’m getting a new research project up to speed, but it’s also a chance to reconnect with the country and its moods. If you’ve read some of these posts, you’ll know I’m a big believer in the being-there theory of knowledge. My line is, it takes an awful lot of reading to match what you learn about a place just by walking around and talking to people. (It’s one reason the Clinton presidential campaign was such an epic disaster– poring over the data at mission control doesn’t give you the same kind of knowledge, and maybe doesn’t give you real knowledge at all.) That effect is multiplied here, because life is so crazily intense. I got here a month ago, and I’ve already attended more academic papers than I do in a typical year back home, plus a lot of conversations with friends and non-stop people-in-the-street interactions.

And then, there’s the extra excitement of France’s upcoming presidential election, featuring French versions of the type-casting we’ve already seen in the Obama, Brexit, and Trump elections. You’ve got the Dangerous Nationalist with authoritarian tendencies– anti-immigrant, possibly racist, and like Trump she’s accused of being soft on Russia; there’s the Rich-Guy Christian Conservative– he represents the traditional French right wing, and this being France he even lives in a château; there’s the Official Socialist, whose own party establishment is attacking him for being too much of a lefty (basically, it’s what would have happened if Bernie Sanders had won the primaries, which basically did happen here); and rounding out the new millenium cliché field, there’s the youthful, dynamic, media-friendly Technocratic Newcomer, who talks about how we need to get beyond the old talk of left wing and right wing, and whose speeches nobody can quite understand– he’s also a former banking star.

There’s a half-dozen others, but these four are the only ones with a remote chance of winning. The half-dozen no-hope candidates are in it because France has a two-round voting system, where more or less everyone gets to play in round 1, then the two top vote-getters face off two weeks later. As the numbers work out, it’s pretty much guaranteed that Dangerous Nationalist will make it to round 2, so the real action in round 1 is who’s going to come in second– right now the favorite is the glamorous Technocratic Newcomer. One other background detail, it all happens very fast. The big parties only wrapped up their nominations in late January; the first election round happens April 23, and round 2 comes two weeks later.

So it’s a really different electoral system from what we’re used to, and lots of other things about France are even more different. That makes it fairly amazing that the candidates here seem to come from our US central casting line-up. All along in these posts, I’ve argued that historians over-estimate the force of culture and under-value social and political forces, and this seems like a case in point– big social forces seem to explain more about this election than culture and values.

Of course the obvious big social force here is racism. I’ve written before about my impression of Paris as a segregated city, at least comparable to US cities, in some ways maybe worse, and it’s clear that racism moves lots of Dangerous Nationalist’s voters.

But I think it’s wrong to fixate on the racism issue, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s (almost) universal but (usually) latent. The current examples on everyone’s mind are the US counties that voted Obama in 2012, then went Trump in 2016, about one-tenth of all the counties Trump won. It’s a complicated issue, but examples like that show racism isn’t a sufficient explanation, just as it doesn’t explain how so many former Communist Party voters here have now started voting for the Dangerous Nationalist. Something had to change to make racism the deciding factor.

It’s two other big social forces that I think are really at work in France, powerfully enough to overshadow the cultural differences and give French politics a look so similar to our own. First, there’s the impact of global capitalism, and the sense lots of people have here that it’s screwing them over. On that one, the campaign language here could come straight from the Brexit and Trump/Clinton campaigns. The Dangerous Nationalist talks about limiting capitalism, dismantling international free-trade agreements, going back to a national currency, all those ideas we’ve become familiar with in the last couple of years; just as in Ohio and the English Midlands, that’s the talk that’s won over so many former Left Wing voters. Her likely round 2 opponent–Newcomer Technocrat– basically personifies the other side. He’s loudly pro-economic freedom, pro-European integration, and all the rest, plus he’s had the high-flying banking career; he even looks the part.

The other big social force is the strange transformation that’s taken place among the people who run things, what the French call the “political class.” The issue’s had a lot of high-wattage coverage lately, because the Rich-Guy Christian Conservative has been caught in a series of cheesey scandals: getting his wife and kids high-paying, no-show jobs, running a consulting company that’s designed to profit from his political career, accepting some dubious loans. (Google penelopegate for the details– and by the way, how great is that as the name for a scandal?) Since his whole campaign was about bringing decency and morality back to public life, the revelations have been a blow, and he’s dropped to third in the standings. But he’s still in the running, and his supporters are actually more fired up than ever. They’ve been asking variants of the old, old questions: what’s really the big deal here? isn’t this just part of normal political life? isn’t some level of shady financing standard operating procedure? isn’t this a witch-hunt?

They have a point, at least in the claim there’s nothing new about this sort of thing, and it’s even possible (possible) that this guy’s not a lot worse corruption-wise than some of his competitors. But I think there’s also something distinctive and twenty-first-century going on here, which ought to resonate with anyone who followed the Clinton fiasco: penelopegate is a mild version of the phenomenon we keep seeing all over the west, that anyone who wants to be a mover and shaker now has to be really, really rich, able to speak on terms of some equality with the billionaires at the top. Otherwise you risk being viewed as just a low-rent menial. At least that’s the best I can come up with to explain the relentless money-making we’ve seen from the Clintons, Tony Blair, and others. It’s not that the political class is more corrupt than it used to be, but that the ambition is so much bigger, and so far beyond the scale of ordinary life.

In France that’s still happening at a pretty low level– the dollar totals for penelopegate are a tiny fraction of the totals that the Clintons and Blair have racked up, and the distance from ordinary life is less insane. The polling all says that either Newcomer Technocrat or Rich-Guy Christian Conservative would trounce Dangerous Nationalist in a second round matchup. There’s less anger here about global capitalism and the new global rich it’s helping create. But the anger’s real, and nobody should get too confident about what the outcomes it might generate.


Timothy Snyder’s history lessons,a second installment

Last week I talked about the well-known Yale historian Timothy Snyder and the lessons he’s drawn from recent history. By the modest standards of our profession, Snyder’s famous, with 12.7 thousand Twitter followers and huge book sales– so his opinions matter. Plus the subjects he researches have special significance for the lessons-of-history question as we confront it today. After all, we’re trying to understand the possibilities for dictatorship and genocide in the twenty-first century, and Snyder’s books deal with the 1920s-1930s versions of those phenomena. Who better to ask for history lessons?

Actually quite a few people, it turns out– at least that’s the answer I came to after reading Snyder’s mass circulation account of what the 1920s and 1930s can teach us about today.   Some of the supposed lessons don’t have much to do with history, some seem plain wrong– and all of them express the ultra-individualist social assumptions you’d expect to hear from the world of Ivy League success stories.

There’s really only one of Snyder’s lessons that seems worth holding onto — his starting point, that “it can happen here,” and that the US can slip into fascist dictatorship just as Germany did in 1933. Politics made that happen in Germany, he says, not some divine decree, and it can do the same to us. I strongly agree.

But even here my agreement with Snyder doesn’t go very far, because I don’t buy his understanding of what the “it” is that can happen here. He sees the worry in terms of an individual collecting too much power– Hitler and Stalin were bad men, they did bad things, and we need to worry about a bad leader doing bad things here. The history lessons I propose point to something a lot bigger and more complicated– and also more disturbing.

For guidance, I propose we look back at George Orwell’s novel 1984, published soon after the death of Hitler and while Stalin was still going strong. Maybe Orwell doesn’t count as offering lessons from history– after all, it’s a novel. But for generations 1984 has provided the standard checklist for totalitarianism identification, and Orwell himself had up-close views of both Hitler and Stalin.

And sure enough, Orwell’s vision includes a highly-visible dictator, at first glance fitting the evil dictator theory. Big Brother’s face is plastered on every building and shown in every movie theater, accompanied by slogans telling people to trust, admire, and even love him. It seems straightforward: a dictatorship is run by a dictator, and we’ll know we’re there when the elections stop. From that angle, Donald Trump sure looks like serious trouble. After all, Trump had already plastered his name on dozens of buildings before reaching office; he’s probably not going to learn greater modesty in the years ahead.

But whatever dangers Trump poses, that’s actually not the point 1984 is making, in fact it’s almost the opposite of the point. In fact the novel never shows us the real-life Big Brother, and he may not even exist. What we see instead is a high-ranking but totally unpublicized member of “the Party,” and then the systems and mechanisms he and his Party-insider colleagues have put in place. For Orwell, it’s those systems and mechanisms that constitute the real totalitarianism. And if that’s the case,it becomes a lot harder to determine an exact dictatorship tipping point. You can’t just point to a Big Brother-like figure, because nearly everything in 1984‘s world is part of the story.

Of course some things are more obviously dictator-adjacent than others, starting with The Party itself. Its insider members run everything, and they alone hold the secrets about what’s really going on– the vast majority of the population doesn’t have a clue, let alone any influence, nor do most party members themselves. The Party’s power rests partly on violence, and partly on 24/7, multi-platform surveillance. Every home has an entertainment screen that can’t be turned off, and it transmits what you’re doing back to the authorities; plus everyone’s encouraged to report on those around them, family members included. So the party knows all about you, and it can use its knowledge however it wants– when they torture the hero, the authorities already know his deepest fears, and he cracks at just the threat. Other people just disappear.

Other features of 1984-land don’t have that obviously totalitarian look, though, yet they count for just as much in making the system work. There’s the society’s grungy poverty, for instance. Nothing’s in good repair, nobody’s got quite enough to live well, everyone’s living in cramped, dingy spaces. That’s a feature not a bug, because it ensures no one can survive if they get out of line — the state provides the housing and ration cards everyone needs to keep body and soul together.

Culture plays its role too. The Party’s got whole buildings full of culture workers, busy rewriting history, diluting literature from the past, and reworking the lanuage into mushy new forms. These projects matter because the watered-down, fact-free new culture prevents people from thinking clearly; they lack both the knowledge and the conceptual categories. (For smart reflections on that culture program, see here.) And then, in 1984 England/America is permanently at war, with one or another of the world’s other great powers. It’s a real war, with bombs ocasionally hitting London, but the fighting is remote and the issues are opaque, in fact beyond opaque, because the war isn’t actually about anything, not even the interests of an identifiable group of war profiteers. It’s really another mechanism by which The Party preserves its power over its subjects. It uses up resources, thus helping create the society’s ambient poverty, and it generates fear of enemies and longing for protectors.

You can see why this adds up to a more disturbing picture than the Hitler/Stalin/Leader X model. For one thing, the 1984 model includes many thousands of people as active participants, not just a leader and a few hench-persons, and way more practices than just disbanding parliament and putting troops in the streets. It’s actually a form of social organization, so if there’s totalitarianism, large swathes of society as a whole are implicated– and the tipping-point moment isn’t all that clear.

The other disturbing point, of course, is that we’ve been living for the last fifteen years amidst elements of that social organization. As we learned from Edward Snowden and others, someone actually is watching us 24/7, and we’ve been continuously at war since 2003, and really earlier. We’ve got designated enemies like Osama bin Laden and Vladimir Putin, and we’ve got torture; we’ve had massive efforts to make livelihoods as precarious as possible–as Orwell thought, it’s a great formula for discouraging people from mouthing off. Do we have “the Party” as well?  Probably not, but maybe.  We certainly have secret-keepers, the million or so national defense and intelligence types who know the real stories and keep then from the other 299 million of us, and some of whom have the green light for extra-judicial assassinations. (For the basics, see here.)

Sometimes the lessons of history start with some soul-searching.

Timothy Snyder and the lessons of history

Long ago, there was the idea that you studied history for its Lessons about Life. “History is philosophy teaching by example,” is what people said, meaning it shows you the big principles playing out in real circumstances. The Greeks said it first, though apparently nobody knows which particular Greek thought it up.

That remained the accepted wisdom into the nineteenth century, when history began morphing into the enterprise we know today. Before then, it was a branch of literature, something you learned in school and occasionally read for fun; there was no such thing as a professional historian, just writers trying to sell books like everyone else. But after about 1830 history became a research subject, with university departments, advanced degrees and seminars, scholarly journals, career paths up the professorial ranks, and all the rest. That didn’t happen overnight, but by 1900 all the elements were in place, all over the Euro-American world.

You can see why that change put pressure on the “teaching by example” idea. When you write history for high school kids or Oprah’s Book Club, you’re free to accentuate the positive and package the material in appealing ways. You can claim there’s a moral to the story, and that it’s not just meaningless chaos. But once you put on the historian’s metaphorical lab coat, you’re supposed to follow the story wherever it goes, just like a cancer researcher or a character on “Bones,” and that can lead into some pretty dark corners. You’re likely to stumble on evidence that a beloved national hero was a creep, or that your own country has committed war crimes, or that greed and violence tend to win out over decency and reasonableness. Maybe you’re still teaching philosophy by example, but the philosophy you’re instilling is cynical nihilism. What then?

I don’t know any historian who has fully-satisfactory answers to that problem. I’ve tried to lay out my own in these posts, but I’m still mulling them over after forty-five years in the business.

But lately there’s been a turn back to more muscular, less doubt-ridden ideas about what history can teach, no doubt in response to our contemporary crises and troubles– like many others, historians feel a need to improve our own world, not just study by-gone ones. Consider the Yale historian Timothy Snyder, a prominent specialist on Eastern Europe during the Holocaust era. He’s got a new book coming out called On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, and he’s been offering samples in various journalistic and online formats; his last book carried the subtitle “The Holocaust as History and Warning.” The lessons of history are clearly much on his mind.

It’s worth looking closely at his views on the matter because he’s such a prominent figure, who’s worked hard to make his voice heard outside the unversity as well as within. He writes for middle-brow publications, speaks often to non-specialist audiences, and keeps his online presence up-to-date; he’s even dabbled in real-life contemporary Ukrainian politics. And then there’s the Yale factor, which matters because America now expects its leaders to come with Ivy League degrees. Even the famously under-educated Donald Trump has one, as do both Clintons, Obama, and both Bushes– our last non-Ivy president was Ronald Reagan, and he left the White House in 1988. That’s something new in American history. Over the forty-five years before Bush I, there were only six when we had an Ivy-Leaguer in the White House. Snyder’s one of those helping shape our future deciders.

(Here I’m working off Snyder’s journalistic statements [especially here, here, and here], not the new book itself, which I haven’t read yet; I’m assuming these give an accurate depiction of his thinking, and anyway, they’re the versions that will reach the broadest public.)

What strikes you first about Snyder’s lessons is the urgency with which he delivers them. Donald Trump is seriously dangerous, he tells us, and the historical model we need to learn from is Nazi Germany. “We have at most a year to defend the republic, perhaps less,” is how he put it to one interviewer; in fact even “the next few weeks” are critical. Hitler moved fast to change the political rules, and he left his opponents no room for backtalk– a seizure of power is a seizure of power, and for Snyder that’s what we’re facing.

But after those three-alarm warnings, it’s a shock to reach the tepid history-based advice itself, because a lot of it sounds like the basic advice you’d give anyone, at any time: don’t surf the internet before bed, read thoughtful books instead (Lesson #6); connect with other people at real-life levels, both on the street (Lesson #11) and in your private life (#15); have a passport and stay in touch with your friends in other countries (#16). You imagine other items coming up in a high school class on To Kill a Mockingbird: don’t be swept away by the language politicians use (#4, but also #6, which says pretty much the same thing); don’t join the scape-goating lynch mobs if there’s a frightening terrorism-style event (#5); cling to the ethics of your profession (#3). That’s about it, except for a certain amount of add-on blather– be courageous (#19), be patriotic (#20), give to good causes (#14).

I suspect Snyder intends this to add up to more than just “be a good person, the way you were taught in school.” Probably he has in mind George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, who both thought totalitarian regimes were especially determined to snuff out private life, which they view as competing for individuals’ loyalty.   But really– do we need a crack research historian to tell us stuff like this?

It’s not just just the low-temp quality of the advice that’s interesting, it’s also the underlying assumptions, and especially their relentless individualism. Snyder doesn’t mention labor unions, churches, civil rights groups, feminist collectives, hippie communes, political parties, or any of the other communities that have structured resistance movements in other times and places. Nor does he mention actual refusal/ resistance movements, even of the non-violent form preached by Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Black Lives Matter. You could say, he’s offering advice for an already fully-atomized society, made up (as per classical liberal theory) of unconnected social free-agents. Sure, we’ve all got a few friends and our own families, we encounter fellow shoppers in the street, we go to our jobs,  but none of us has any deeper attachments to larger communities.

Exaggerating somewhat, you could say Snyder takes for granted the social atomization that worried Orwell and Arendt. What they saw as a product of totalitarianism, he sees as a baseline modern condition– except that it’s a pretty comfy condition. It’s assumed you’ll have a profession with a code of ethics, not just a McJob you desperately need to keep in order to feed your family. Even the idea that you’ll have foreign friends to stay in touch with is odd, applicable to high-profile professors, less so to the vast majority of Americans. (To say nothing of recent immigrants, who may want to be extra-careful about foreign contacts in the new regime.)

And then there’s one last assumption, which I’ll only sketch here and try to explain in more detail next week– namely, that the relevant time scale is very, very short. In fact in Snyder’s account, the clock only started ticking January 20, 2017, with no fundamental connections to what happened over the previous decade or two. I’m guessing that’s his thought-out view; the idea would be, the roll of the electoral dice gave us a mega-dangerous president (just as it more or less did in 1932-33 Germany), and now anything can happen. But aren’t there other lessons of history, about how accumulating conditions produce the mega-dangers, over decades rather than weeks? Shouldn’t some attention go to the expanded governmental powers Trump has inherited from recent presidents (24/7 surveillance, torture, drone assassinations, and on and on), or to the multiple angers percolating out in the heartlands?

I’ve suggested that Snyder’s history lessons take us back to a pre-professional version of the discipline; they also seem to take us to a Bad Guys Do Bad Things version, and I’m not sure that’s where help lies.

Remembering the sixties, cont’d

When I think about our 2017 world, I’m mostly impressed by its “nobody could have seen that coming” aspects, both good and bad. I didn’t envision the Internet, LGBQT rights, or today’s go-go China, on the one hand, or charter schools, climate disaster, and creepo 1 percenters, on the other. So like most historians these days, I’m not keen on theories of history that downplay the complexity of change over time– as in, the idea that nothing fundamental ever really changes, or that situations repeat themselves in cycles, or that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I’ve always thought historical processes were way too complicated for simplified schemas like these.

But as I mentioned last week, I’ve been thinking lately about my years as a twenty-something in 1960s Berkeley, and that’s forcing me to rethink my views of historical change. Because the background political scene from those years supplies some great evidence for the other side.

To see what I mean, here’s a quick list of political basics from those years– cherry-picked to make my point, of course, but still impressive:

  • As governor of California, we had Ronald Reagan, still the top dog in our ongoing series of show-biz-fabulist-buffoon politicians; and like his successors, Reagan managed (apparently with minimal effort) to steamroll every opponent, many of them highly qualified. California also had an ex-show-biz senator (just for one term, thankfully), and Shirley Temple herself as a congresswoman. Neither of them had Reagan’s seductive effectiveness, but just their existence tells you something about where politics stood in those days.
  • In Richard Nixon, we also had a president who deliberately cultivated an image of psychological instability, probably building on a foundation of real nuttiness. That’s easy to forget nowadays, because the presidents who’ve followed make Nixon look like such a towering figure. But look up “Madman theory” on Wikipedia, and you’ll learn that it was “a feature of Richard Nixon‘s foreign policy. He and his administration tried to make the leaders of hostile Communist Bloc nations think Nixon was irrational and volatile. According to the theory, those leaders would then avoid provoking the United States, fearing an unpredictable American response.” Remember, this was in the context of hair-trigger nuclear weaponry.
  • Plus Nixon had made his career as a McCarthyite commie-hunter, and he pioneered our contemporary forms of coded racism. His “southern strategy” and judicial nominations explicitly appealed to all those angered by the Civil Rights movement; slightly less explicitly, his appeals to the “Silent Majority” pushed the idea that liberal elites and intellectuals were responsible for minorities’ new presence in American life, as for so many other ills. (He was also antisemitic, but at least he kept that private.)
  • Of course there were also the wars, mostly in Indochina but occasionally erupting elsewhere as well, and just like today’s wars they seemed endless. Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American already depicted America’s Vietnam escapades, then semi-clandestine, and (as we all know) things got much much worse over the next two decades, through five presidential administrations; even after we left Vietnam, we continued supporting the auto-genocidal Pol Pot in nearby Cambodia. Again, nuclear weapons lurked in the background. Russia and China were supposed to be on Vietnam’s side, and there was always the possibility that events would spiral out of control.
  • And then there was the violence at home, at levels that today would trigger code-red terrorism alerts. We remember the Kennedy and King assassinations, but there was a long string of other political violence, involving all kinds of groups, some of them talking terrorizing lingo: the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, the KKK, and various other groups. In response, we also had regular calls to give police more leeway in dealing with all the chaos. Clint Eastwood’s 1971 movie “Dirty Harry” (in which a cop disposes of various evil-doers, despite weakling authorities trying to slow him down) was as characteristic of the era as anti-war demonstrations.

Sound familiar? Here we are fifty years later, and the items on my list are all back, as if they’d never been away.

Which suggests the disturbing possibility: maybe they actually never have been away, maybe they’ve been lurking in the background all along, as part of the American political systems we’ve inherited and seem unable to get rid of. After all, no one’s ever doubted that hucksterism, anger, paranoia, and violence have been a long-time presence in American life– we need to incorporate them into our memories of “The Sixties,” and remember that they brought us Reagan/Nixon/Eastwood along with all those liberation movements. Doing so has at least one consolation: maybe our 2017 troubles aren’t quite the unprecedented calamity they may seem.

History, politics, memory: Berkeley, 1968-1974

Late in the summer of 1968, just out of college, I packed a few belongings into a newly-purchased Volkswagen and drove from St Louis (where my family lived) to Berkeley, (where I was about to start graduate school). The classic story, right? Berkeley in the sixties, midwestern kid on a pre-Interstate cross-country drive, in a Volkswagen, no less. (Though not the beetle version, instead a Fastback– a short-lived, slightly larger model with multiple design flaws, hence its rapid disappearance from the showrooms.) The classic story continued after my arrival in Berkeley, too. Just that first year, there was a Chicano students strike in the fall, major anti-Vietnam War protests all through the winter, and People’s Park in the spring– that’s the episode where students occupied a university-owned vacant lot and started growing vegetables, sending the authorities into a near-psychotic reaction: they had a helicopter tear-gas the campus, and the local sheriffs went on a rampage that killed one student and wounded several others. Nothing so dramatic happened during my later years in Berkeley (I finished in 1974), but the political ferment continued pretty much non-stop.

Of course Berkeley’s on my mind lately, as a new era of political engagement and public demonstrations seems to be opening. I find myself thinking about those years for what they say about political moments like our own, and also for what they say about about historical knowledge. Here I’ll say more about the historical knowledge side of the story; there’ll be more about the politics next week

From the historian’s viewpoint, the Berkeley years are my personal version of a predicament we all know about and sometimes teach, but basically don’t know how to handle: it’s the disconnect between big-picture history, with its strong narratives, central themes, and clear directions, and the muddled, incomplete, fractured way every one of us real people actually experiences historical processes. I mean, maybe someone actually had the full big-picture Berkeley-In-The-Sixties experience, but if so I never met them. For me and everyone I knew, it came in bits and pieces, and it never added up to a coherent whole of any kind, let alone the Berkeley-In-The-Sixties archetype.

Our politics actually came fairly close to fitting the archetype. Everyone I knew was on the left, we were all angry about the war and about American race relations, most of us occasionally marched and undertook other political efforts. We read and discussed Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X, and we took it for granted that China and Cuba had something to teach us Americans, even if there was lots to criticize. I first met a banker about my age in 1971 (he’d accompanied his wife to a student conference), and even he was profusely apologetic about his line of work.

But in most other ways, our lives didn’t even approach the archetype. In my crowd of early twenty-somethings, nearly everyone was married (I myself got married that first year), and we were all trying hard to be grown-ups. We had dinner parties, we drank scotch, we tended to dress up, not super-fancy, but not indifferent, either– all in all, not exactly the sex/drugs/rocknroll lifestyle. Whatever drug-taking went on around us was pretty much invisible in our group, and our music came from the top-40 radio stations. The sex part of the triad was more complicated, because despite all the marriages, the mood of sexual revolution had definitely arrived. There was a fair amount of talk about alternative lifestyles, some flirtatious dress and behavior, and lots of interest in exploring sex, but it was mostly just talk. Other elements of the sexual revolution were completely missing. We knew one or two out-of-the-closet older gay men, but no one in our age group even talked about coming out. As for bisexuality, it was basically just a book-land concept, not something you expected to encounter in the real world.

Now, you could summarize all this by saying my friends and I just missed out on The Sixties– we were graduate student keeners eager to get on with our work and careers, just the sort who’d marry right out of college, so of course we didn’t latch on to the real changes happening around us. But there are problems with that line, some of them empirical, some theoretical. On the real-life side, there was the politics, which we took awfully seriously, and after all, we’d all chosen to be in Berkeley– it already had the aura, and we knew from day one that it wouldn’t be a Princeton-style all-professional-all-the-time program. On the theory side, the missing-out narrative requires you to see some central spirit of the age, some Real Sixties, that the actual historical actors either did or didn’t live up to. That’s the Hegel version of history, and it hasn’t been popular among historians for the last fifty years. It leaves too many real people out of the story.

An alternative that has been popular with historians goes heavier on the real-life side– but it has its own problems. Looking at an example like mine, a historian might argue that actually the sixties weren’t as wild and radical as the conventional wisdom would have it, and that it really was just a slow-motion evolution from the previous decade. Following this reasoning, the big historical breaks don’t matter as much as they seem to, and a lot of what people take to be big changes are just noise and wasted energy. Something happens, these historians might say, but it happens at the level of deep social changes.

But that doesn’t seem sufficient either. For one thing, it misses the fragmented ways most of us humans operate– we can be radical in one zone, and give candle-lit dinner parties in another. For another thing, the “it wasn’t so radical” view downgrades the value of “the political” itself, meaning all that reading, discussing, marching, and whatever else we did back then, effective or not, misguided or not. It’s a specific world when lots of career-minded twenty-somethings are reading Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X, and not reading them as museum pieces either, but for understanding how their own world works.

Here again, as so often in these posts, questions of historical knowledge shade into questions of real-life politics. I’ll try to pursue those in the coming week.


On Christian literature

For a long time, one of my guilty pleasures was reading the English novelist/Christian apologist/lit professor C. S. Lewis; my particular favorite was his novel That Hideous Strength, the finale in what’s usually called his sci fi trilogy. As guilty pleasures go, that’s probably not very shocking, and of course I’ve had lots of others that are worse. But it definitely qualifies for the guilty pleasure label. Through the 1970s, occasionally rereading Strength and the others provided me that mix of calm and distraction you want in any escapism product, along with the characteristic guilty pleasure unease– that feeling that I wasn’t living up to my better self, that I should have been using the time to improve my German or read Henry James or vacuum the house.

Plus there’s a fair amount in Lewis that an atheist pinko like me should feel guilty about enjoying. His novels tend to feature straightforward struggles between good and evil (no surprise, given his Christian aims), and they end with the good guys winning– late in the game, against long odds. Along the way, there’s plenty of old-fashioned, Oxford-style cultural snobbery (the good guys read Plato and study philology, the bad guys are social scientists and urban planners), plus some social conservatism that was extreme even in 1945, when Strength first appeared. There are swipes at feminism, even a completely gratuitous swipe at birth control, and at other claims about social equality; the possibility of racial equality doesn’t even arise.

All that’s before you get to the Christianity part, which is pervasive and absolute, even when Lewis doesn’t talk about it directly. He’s not only trying to convert you, but that’s certainly part of his program.

Yet despite all that, the novels have stayed with me, in amazing detail, and I’ve found myself thinking a lot about them these last few months. So what was the appeal back then, and why the sense of ongoing relevance? Especially now, when I’m even more set in my atheist pinko ways?

As with other second-string-but-real-artists, part of it was Lewis’s brilliance as a writer. He may have been writing fairy tales for adults, but he was the real deal as a novelist, completely able to draw you into his imagined world.   He wasn’t as good at creating characters, and he had a serious weakness for standardized types– the Traditional-Style Elderly Professor, the Ambitious-but-Confused Young Man, the Over-Earnest Young Woman, and so on. But he made even those stereotypes seem life-like, enough so that I remember them along with the plot twists.

But it’s not just the artistry and the fairy tale plots that grabbed me back then, and that have stayed with me now– it’s also Lewis’s ideas. That’s weird, given that I so completely disagree with most of his Christian and conservative premises, but I’ve come to see Lewis as a lesson in why Christian culture matters to us secularists, and why we pinkos should take even his conservatism somewhat seriously.

That starts with Lewis’s ideas about human nature, which he saw in ultra-dark terms, pretty much matching the visions proposed by Nietzsche, Freud, and all the other pre-1960 Euro-pessimists. Just like them, he saw us humans– all of us, at all times– as moved by angers and lusts, and capable of extreme violence. Also like them, he saw in us a fundamental, irreducible drive to destroy beings and things, even when doing so offers no personal advantages, even when it runs against our self-interests.

Thinking about Lewis makes you realize how rarely we hear talk like that here in the new millenium. In fact it’s pretty much off-limits, among both the believers and the secularists. Our Christians soft pedal the original sin stuff, and talk instead about God’s endorsement/cleansing of those He’s chosen; our post-Freudian psychologists mainly tell us about human improvement– in fact a Harvard professor has recently told us that “the better angels of our nature” have been steadily winning out since the Stone Age, and that the trajectory is all upward for the future as well. As I’ve suggested in some earlier posts, that ambient optimism has a seriously bad effect on how we handle the world. Here in 2017, there seems to be a bi-partisan consensus that only evil people do bad things, and that once we deal with those, the good times can roll again– hence the enthusiasm for locking up super-predators, assassinating terrorist leaders, deposing dictators, denouncing racist voters, and all the rest. We’ve been doing that for decades, and somehow the evil people grow more numerous, rather than less….

Lewis also had a surprising sympathy for what we’d now call the ecological perspective– he made a big deal about the claims that the earth and its non-human inhabitants have on us humans. The sympathy is surprising in that Christianity has tended to draw a bright line between the human and the animal realms (it’s still a Catholic heresy to think your beloved pet can join you in heaven), also because our contemporary Christians are so rabidly anti-ecology. Yet you can see the logic in Lewis’s view– God made all this nature, he’s saying, it’s beautiful, and it deserves our affection and respect, especially given what we know about our own scummy tendencies. Nature isn’t just here for us to use up and move on, whether to another planet (as suggested by our tech gurus) or to a post-Apocalypse New Jerusalem (as envisioned by many of our Christians). For Lewis, it has independent, sacred standing.

Last, Lewis offers an ideal of community as a fundamental good in human life, and not just as something that’s going to help you realize your potential as an individual. Here the guilty pleasure side of the story really protrudes, because Lewis’s portrayal of community includes so much visible wish fulfillment. In Strength, the good guys live together in one of those classic English country houses (not the grand sort you get in Downton Abbey, but not an early fifties suburban tract home, either), guided by a wise and attractive father figure, unriled by squabbles or boredom, everyone contentedly occupying the slot they’ve been assigned, everyone’s needs being met. So it’s definitely a fairy tale version of commune life, but it’s at least a version, and how many of those do we encounter nowadays? Today we’re occasionally told that communal ties matter for our personal well-being, lower our blood pressure and all that– but how often are we told that it’s a good in itself?

The late French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss told us that “myth is the imaginary resolution of real contradictions.” To me it’s one of the great social science one-liners, up there with the best of Marx and Weber, and it helps locate what’s important about Lewis’s brand of Christian literature. Yes, these are fairy tales. In real life, the good guys don’t always win, to say the least, and we don’t get to have wise father-figures like Lewis’s hero; for most of us, the neo-feudal, sexist utopia he offers isn’t even a possible answer to our modern ills. But Lewis at least posed the questions and identified some of the sore points, the “contradictions,” in Lévi-Strauss’s semi-Marxist language. We may not know how to achieve community or respect for the planet, or how to cope with our banal vicious impulses, but Lewis at least identified those as tasks we ought to be addressing.

Our towns

Right from the start, liberalism has had trouble with places– by which I mean, the real, physical environments we live in, both natural and human-made. It’s a problem that’s reaching crisis proportions here in the new millenium, and it’s hitting both the neo-liberal, all-the-world’s-a-market crowd (now often called conservatives) and the vaguely-progressive, decent-government crowd (now often called liberals).

In some ways the problem goes back to John Locke himself, in the late seventeenth century. Most strands of today’s liberalism start from his book The Second Treatise of Government, which laid out the idea of the social contract, the mutual commitment each of us makes with the society we live in. Nature gave us full-frontal liberty to raise any kind of hell we want, Locke said there, but we all give up some of that liberty to get the benefits society gives us– law and order, schooling, roads, and all the rest. He believed it was an overwhelmingly sensible bargain, since otherwise we’d live in constant fear someone else would raise hell at our expense.

But being a smart guy, Locke also saw the obvious objection to his contract idea. Most of us were just born into our societies. We didn’t choose the place, and there’s no document where we’ve signed away our liberty in exchange for whatever benefits we’re supposed to be getting. What kind of contract is this, where there’s no free choice, no documentation, no list of obligations, not even a chance to renegotiate if the other side doesn’t keep its end of the bargain?

Locke’s answer was, we actually re-sign the contract every day, just by staying put and continuing to use the roads, schools, Medicare, and all the rest. If we think it’s a bad deal, we’ve got an out-clause: we can just move somewhere else. To his credit, Locke actually walked the walk when the time came. When he got into trouble with the British government, he skipped the country and spent five years in exile. Eventually there was a revolution and he got to come home, but he left with no guarantee that would happen.

In some ways, of course, it’s easy to dismiss Locke, or think of him as speaking to us from an alien, by-gone world. He was rich and famous, and he had ultra-rich friends watching over him, so packing up and leaving wasn’t the struggle it is for us ordinary people. Plus he wasn’t much of a family man, so there wasn’t a lot at home holding him back; and the world was more immigration-friendly back then, with more empty spaces and fewer controls on movement.

But in milder form, versions of Locke’s just-move-out advice reach us every day, from all points on the ideological spectrum. The free-marketeers are constantly telling us to move where the jobs are; if your factory shuts down or you can’t make a living farming, learn new skills and head for North Carolina or Silicon Valley, or wherever the Next New Thing is happening. On the more progressive end of the spectrum, the line is awfully similar. Democrats are as keen as Republicans on telling workers to reeducate themselves for the new jobs the future holds. Those most horrified by the Brexit vote would probably describe themselves as liberal minded and progressive– and yet just like the Republicans, they love the idea of people as Lockean birds-on-a-wire, able to move friction-free from one end of the continent to the other.

The problem is, for most people that doesn’t fit with our emotional make-up– it doesn’t even fit with our beliefs about right and wrong. Most of us actually don’t want to leave the places we live, even if we’ve got the necessary money and credentials, even if the good jobs are waiting elsewhere. We’re attached to families and communities, and most of us are attached to physical environments as well. We like our houses and streets, the background scenery, and we’ve got memories attached to them. Leaving all these behind damages us, and most of us feel some sense of responsibility to them. That tendency to get attached is actually one of the best qualities we humans have.

(Of course attachment takes different forms for different people, and one size doesn’t fit all: lots of us dislike the particular place we grew up in, yet still feel ourselves connected to the region or country.  The point remains, the attachment is there, and it deserves respect.)

Just like Brexit before it, the 2016 US presidential election has been frequently described in terms of class conflict, between the up-and-comers surfing the recent economic changes and those left behind, in the old industrial heartlands.

But another way to see it is as the revenge of the localities– because if you just go by number of places, 2016 was a Donald Trump landslide of epic proportions, way more emphatic than his Electoral College results. He won 2,600 counties across America, leaving fewer than 500 for Hillary Clinton. Of course, lots of those Trump counties have more cows, deer and antelope, and scenic beauty spots than people. Clinton’s fewer-than-500 counties had enough residents to give her about 3 million more votes than Trump, and they generated way more economic activity than Trump’s 2,600, almost two-thirds of America’s GDP. (“A massive 64 percent of America’s economic activity,” as the Democrat-leaning Brookings Institution misleadingly puts it; they also describe it as “high-output America vs low-output America”– some contemporary Democrats seem ready to adopt the nineteenth-century conservative mantra that government ought to represent wealth, not people.)

So in 2016 places basically won out over people, which from one angle is a completely bizarre result– as lots of disappointed Clinton voters have pointed out. After all, “democracy” means “rule by the people,” not “rule by square miles.”

But it’s not a bizarre outcome if you take seriously the kinds of attachment to places that I’m trying to describe here. From that angle, it’s appropriate to give places some kind of weight in the democratic process, not 100 percent, but not 0 percent either. In various moods and circumstances, all of us recognize some version of that idea. All the patriotic songs we learned in grade school say much more about land than people: “purple mountains,” “fruited plains,” “land where our fathers died,” all that kinds of thing.

That singalong patriotism usually appeals to right-wingers, but we lefties have our own versions. We support the Sioux protesters at Standing Rock, who object to having a petroleum pipeline run through their ancestral land; we take that position because we think the land’s meaning to the Sioux outweighs the desires of the millions of outsiders who want cheaper oil and gas. In the same spirit, we don’t want oil drilling in national parks, or skyscrapers in the sixth arrondissement of Paris, or freeways through Greenwich Village. We understand that places like Jerusalem have special meanings for many people, whether or not we share the relevant belief systems, and we don’t think those people just need acreage and houses; they need the spiritual attachment they feel to that specific place, and moving them to upstate New York (say) would not be an adequate replacement. Liberalism needs to incorporate some of that understanding as it pertains to less glamorous places, like all those dilapidated mill towns that voted for Brexit and Trump, and that in a few months may well vote for Le Pen as well.

Those votes ought to be crisis enough for the liberal understanding of place, but in case not, there’s also the Big One looming– the crapification of planet Earth itself. If we can’t think more seriously about ordinary places, give them more respect, what answers do we give those telling us not to get so wound up about this specific planet?