Author: john mcgowan

Fathers and Sons

I have just finished reading Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (published in 1862).  I first read the novel some thirty years ago (I really have no idea when, but it must have been somewhere between 1974 and 1984).  I was not very impressed by it, and filed it away in my mind in the bin labeled “overrated.”  Then, for reasons completely obscure to me, I re-read it sometime in the past ten years.  This time I was very moved.  Bazarov, the main character, is a self-proclaimed “nihilist.”  But, in fact, the novel shows that he is a very intelligent, very energetic, very talented young man from a lower middle class background (in so much as that terminology makes any sense in the Russian context).  Through education, Bazarov has acquired what is a perhaps exalted sense of his talents, but his self-conceit (the novel’s term) is justified by the strong impact he has on others.  He is a force.  But he is a baffled force because Russia offers no outlet for his talents.  Turgenev portrays a paralysed society, one that is in the process of dismantling its feudal past.  The novel is set in 1859, even though it was written in the wake of the 1861 emancipation of the serfs.  It clearly presents Russia as incapable of making the transition to modernity, to a rent/wage system of labor, even as Turgenev holds no truck with serfdom.  What moved me was the portrait of a well-meaning (even if boorish) young man frustrated (in the deepest sense of that term) by his dysfunctional society.

So I decided to teach the novel.  My recent re-reading is for my class–and I will be interested to see how they respond to it because, perhaps in the effort to see it through their eyes, I have found the novel less satisfying this time around.

Paralysis certainly seems to describe the US today.  Yes, it is true we live in turbulent times.  But all the sound and fury really seems to signify nothing since our dysfunctional neoliberal order only becomes more entrenched, more immune to any reform or revision.  Our public discourse barely attends to our society’s ills: homelessness, racism, declining wages, ecological disaster (the list could go on).  And the openings for the talented young are being eroded away.  No jobs for our PhDs, for our lawyers, for our idealistic young.  Politics is no place for someone with a conscience, and neither is business.  Where does one get a purchase on this disaster we are inhabiting?  This semester, in both my classes, my students exhibit a world-weary cynicism that alarms me.  They expect nothing from our politics and our society; they view it as rotten to the core, and take attaining their own separate peace, their own precarious niche within it, as the only path forward available to them.

Reading the novel this time, I found it meandering.  True, I now find E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End too formulaic in its presentation of the alternative paths open to England in 1910.  Turgenev, like Forster, is writing a “condition of the nation” novel that ponders its future in relation to question of who shall inherit it.  (Hence the generational focus of the title.)  Unlike Forster, Turgenev offers a much more muddled portrait of the issues.  His characters are harder to allegorize as representatives of concrete alternatives, and his interest in thwarted love affairs undercuts the analysis of larger social questions.  In short, Turgenev can seem as baffled as his characters, lacking himself a clear vision of the social scene he is trying to portray.  Since, like Chekhov, he mostly presents characters who are unable to act, and unlike Joyce in Dubliners, he suppresses any contempt for his paralysed protagonists, the result is a wide-ranging sympathy that seems ineffectual both as a narrative stance and as a political one.  His novel, I think, is not angry enough, is not shot through with indignation.  Even Bazarov tends to me more angry with himself, with his failures to be as tough in reality as he is in imagination, than he is with his society.

Joyce seems cruel because he blames the victims in Dubliners, never really zooming out to consider the social conditions that feed their paralysis, their despair, their pathetic stratagems for getting through the day.  What Turgenev gives us instead is a kind of melancholic despair; he can see the social mess clearly, but sees no way to amend it, and is not inclined to blame anyone for it.  Most everyone in the novel is well-meaning even if ineffectual.  His satire is reserved for social climbers.  And he quite frankly–in a remarkable passage–admits that the peasants are completely incomprehensible.  They exist in a separate universe, their motives and psychology an utter mystery to their betters–and to the novelist himself.  That gulf is unbridgeable in either direction–and seemingly insures that no progress, no planned change, can ever be achieved.

The parallels to our own time are real enough.  There is certainly a gulf between Trump voters and the social worlds that I inhabit.  The economic powers that be have managed to date to reap the whirlwind of racism, xenophobia, and class resentment, have managed to keep the essential structures that underwrite their power in place.  I dislike apocalyptic scenarios, the ones that rely on a day of reckoning to give the “establishment” (as we used to call it) its comeuppance.  Climate disaster is only the latest in a long list of such apocalypses that radicals look toward.  Yet it is impossible to read Turgenev and Chekhov, to inhabit their tales of social paralysis, without thinking of how that paralysis led to 1917.

Right Wing Sensibility

From Jonathan Coe’s 2019 novel, Middle England  (NY: Alfred A. Knopf):

The speaker is an Asian Brit (born and bred in England of Sri Lankan parents), responding to two novelists who, in a panel discussion, have praised British “moderation.”

“These people don’t know what they are talking about.  This so-called ‘tolerance’ . . . Every day you come face to face with people who are not tolerant at all, whether it’s someone serving you in a shop, or just someone you pass on the street.  They may not say anything aggressive but you can see it in their eyes and their whole way of behaving towards you.  And they want to say something.  Oh, yes, they want to use one of those forbidden words on you, or just tell you to fuck off back to your own country–wherever they think that is–but they know they can’t.  They know it’s not allowed.  So as well as hating you, they also hate them–those faceless people who are sitting in judgment over them somewhere, legislating on what they can and can’t say out loud” (30-31).

This seems exactly right to me. It certainly (at least I think so) explains 80% of the animus against the University of North Carolina by the politicians in this state–and the minions that have placed on the university’s Board of Governors.  And it also captures what I have heard Trump voters say.  That he everyday drives the “liberals” nuts is the reason they love him–and willingly blink at all his obvious faults.

A bit later, another (but different) person of color discusses the fact that “there is a lot of anger out there”–and offers her explanation.

“It’s not always to do with race anyway.  People like to get angry about something.  A lot of the time they’re just looking for an excuse.  I feel sorry for them.  I think for a lot of people . . . there’s nothing much going on in their lives.  Emotionally, I mean, maybe their marriages have dried up, or everything they do has become a kind of habit.  I don’t know.  But they don’t feel much.  No emotional stimulation.  We all need to feel things, don’t we?  So, when something makes you angry, at least you’re feeling something.  You get the emotional kick” (44-45).

I hate the condescension of this, the Thoreau-like claim of “lives of quiet desperation.”  But this comment gets at the fact that there is something false about all the staged anger out there–right and left.  It all dissipates so quickly and rarely connects up to action of any sort.  Pure catharsis in so many instances. Anger for it’s own sake, a kind of emotional aestheticism.  Partly an internet effect: the ability to grab the public stage to display your anger, plus the need to be more and more outrageous in order to garner any attention.  How many hits, how many likes, can you grab?  All with some awareness that the internet, like the stage, is not real; it’s a virtual space disconnected from actual interactions with others.

The right does traffic in this anger more than the left (which traffics instead in condescension.)  What seems real enough in the anger–and deeply scary–is the desire to hurt other people.  A kind of indignation tied to fantasies (let’s hope they stay fantasies) of violence.  As long as it all remains a video game, that desire is at least somewhat contained.

Keeping Spirits Bright

I have had a number of responses to my post about the UK elections and my own dispirited despondency facing the current American scene.  The responses ranged from sympathetic to chidings (mostly gentle) for letting the side down.  Despair, people reminded me, is not an option.  We must keep fighting or the other side wins.  I don’t have counter-arguments; it’s not as if I am happy to throw in the towel.  I agree it does no one any good to be defeatist, to say that the other side has already won.  So I am not going to try to defend myself.  Except if saying these three things counts as some kind of defense.

1. The fight itself is soul- and life-destroying.  Again, we must fight against that fact, but there it is.  Being consumed by the fight–and the constant effort to keep fighting–is no way to live.  The daily life of this country has been warped by the ugliness and  cruelty of the right wing.  To step aside from it all is open to well-off people like me, and resisting that temptation to just cultivate indifference, to pursue other interests, requires an effort that is part of the warping.  All around, people are tuned into careerism, consumerism, family, with seemingly nary a care for the cruelty of our society.  Why do I have to care?  And why do I have to agonize over the my inability–and the inability of those like me–to get them to care?  That’s one way of expressing the tiredness I am feeling.

2.  Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect.  It is hard to find the right balance between some kind of clear-eyed realism about the mess we are in and the maintenance of belief in a better future.  The internal battles within the left (another, different fight) are about what is realistically possible in the current moment.  I participate in those battles–and am outflanked to my left by many of my friends.  I think they are deluded about what the American electorate will go for.  I do not believe that Sanders would have beaten Trump in 2016.  And I certainly don’t believe (as I will discuss in a future post) that some alternative to the market is on the horizon.

To be scolded for compromising with the market is a favorite rhetorical move of the “radical left”–and I find it depressing because so untethered to reality.  Whether to have a market society or not is not where the true political battle of this moment in America is being waged.  And the radical left is hors combat (i.e. useless) so long as it refuses to engage in any fights that don’t put the market as its stakes.  To add insult to this injury, the radical left spends way too much of its time and energy scorning “liberals,” those potential allies it loves to hate.  I understand that I am the pot calling the kettle black, that I am upbraiding the radical left for what seem to me to be its sins even as I tell them to stop calling out my sins.  Mostly, I try to avoid that.

Thus, in my book on liberalism, I devote a scant five pages to outlining my differences from the left.  The real enemy–the frighteningly potent enemy–are the conservatives.  But let me confess that it drives me nuts to read various self-appointed leftists talk of Antonin Scalia as a liberal, or to claim that current-day American liberals and conservatives as all members of the same “neo-liberal” club.  It’s a time-honored leftist tradition, and one that is as silly today as it was in 1932, to assert that there is no significant difference between the two political parties in the US.  Since the radical left is such a negligible force in American politics, they can be mostly left to their dreams of utter transformation.  But can I register that they are, as my daughter would say, “annoying”?

3. The problem, I guess, is that politics is difficult, and that progress is so very slow, and that even the battles one thinks are won (getting blacks the right to vote) are never fully won, but have to be fought for over and over again, constantly.  The other side is so relentless, so resistant to ever giving an inch.

The self-righteousness with which privilege defends itself has always amazed me.  In fact, self-righteousness is too weak a descriptor.  Fury seems more apt.  The right (the defenders of privilege, of inequality) are always outraged by assaults (perceived or real) on the prevailing hierarchies and rarely hesitant to use violence to maintain those hierarchies.  The use of violence is almost completely taboo on the left these days, but remains part of the common sense of the right.  They resort to violence without an iota of uneasiness or guilt.  And, as readers of this blog know, I can never decide if the left’s refusal of violence is its shining glory or its fatal weakness.  I do know that I cannot imagine being violent myself, that I must put my faith in the ballot box, in the normal political processes of democracy, to effect political and societal change.  But that faith can seem a mug’s game when the other side cares a rat’s ass for democracy–and do everything in their power to short-circuit democratic processes.  So, as usual, I have written myself into another corner, making it awfully difficult to keep my spirit bright.

The Marvelous Hazlitt

I have, off and on, been dipping into Hazlitt over the past year.  And my “meaning project” (of which there will be much more anon on this blog) includes (at least in my mind’s eye) a chapter on the “meaning of life,” where the focus is on the many writers–Foucault, Arendt, Agamben, Charles Taylor–who express a hostility to those who try to establish “life” as the supreme value.  Ruskin’s “the only wealth is life” (from Unto this Last, a key text for me) epitomizes those who want to elevate life to that status.

Hazlitt, in the first passage below, offers an early rebuttal to the view that life is a dangerous standard to follow.  He is responding, with more than a little incredulity and irony, to Malthus.  The second passage announces Hazlitt’s allegiance to pluralism.  And the third passage enunciates what we might call the political consequences of a commitment to pluralism. First, that all concentrations of power are to be feared–and avoided.  Power needs to be distributed as widely as possible, since power in one hand is always abused, and because only power can check power.  To deprive some of power is to render them helpless in the face of tyranny.  Second, the abuse of power is worst when it is held by those who are also convinced they possess the sole conception of the good. Pluralism entails modesty–the recognition that many conceptions of the good exist and that I have no right to impose my conception on others.  Fear those who combine absolute conviction in their rectitude with significant power.

I take these various convictions of Hazlitt’s as central tenets of liberalism.  Hazlitt’s writings are exhilarating precisely because he offers a full-throated, eloquent, and passionate articulation of liberal decency, of its hatred of cruelty and tyranny in all its many forms, and its commitment to empowering all to live the life they choose to live.  I have argued previously on this blog that liberalism is not a coherent or systematic ideology.  Rather, I believe liberalism stems from a small set of convictions and intuitions–that then guide its adhoc judgments about the best course of action in various situations and its sense of the most acceptable institutional arrangements in particular historical moments, always open to revision of those judgments and that sense.  More about liberalism to come as well.

From the essay on Malthus (p. 67 in the Penguin Selected Writings):

“The common notions that prevailed on this subject, till our author’s first population-scheme tended to weaken them, were that life is a blessing, and the more people could be maintained in any state in a tolerable degree of health, comfort and decency, the better: that want and misery are not desirable in themselves, that famine is not to be courted for its own sake, that wars, disease and pestilence are not what every friend of his country or his species should pray for in the first place; that vice in its different shapes is a thing that the world could very well do without, and that if it could be rid of altogether, it would be a great gain.  In short, that the object both of the moralist and politician was to diminish as much as possible the quantity of vice and misery existing in the world: without apprehending that by thus effectually introducing more virtue and happiness, more reason and good sense, that be improving the manners of the people, removing pernicious habits and principles of acting, or securing greater plenty, and a greater number of mouths to partake of it, they were doing a disservice to humanity.”

From the essay “Character of Mr. Burke”:

“It is said, I know, that truth is one; but to this I cannot subscribe, for it appears to me that truth is many.  There are as many truths as there are things and causes of actions and contradictory principles at work in society.  In making up an account of good and evil, indeed, the final result must be one way or the other; but the particulars on which that result depends are infinite and various” (57).

From the essay “The French Revolution”:

“[D]o we not see the hold which the love of power and all strong excitement takes of the mind; how it engrosses the faculties, stifles compunction, and deadens the sense of shame, even when it is purely selfish or mischievous, when it does not even pretend to have any good in view, and when we have all the world against us?  What then must be the force and confidence in itself which any such passion, ambition, cruelty, revenge must acquire when it is founded on some lofty and high-sounding principle, patriotism, liberty, resistance to tyrants; when it aims at the public good as its consequence, and is strengthened by the applause of the multitude?  Evil is strong enough in itself; when it has good for its end, it is conscience-proof.  If the common cut-throat who stabs another merely to fill his purse or revenge a private grudge, can hardly be persuaded that he does wrong, and postpones his remorse till long after—he who sheds blood like water, but can contrive to do it with some fine-sounding name on his lips, will be in his own eyes little less than a saint or a martyr.” (93).

Evil

Like many liberals, I find it hard to believe in evil simpliciter.   There has to be an explanation, some set of enabling conditions.  It is not only insufficient, but also wrong, to point to something rotten in human nature–and to leave it at that.  Appeals to human nature are like appeals to the “dormative power” lurking within a sleeping pill.  Such appeals simply rename the cause and locate it at a different level than the behavior that cause is meant to explain.

In London, I taught a class on the Blitz.  I don’t think I ever quite managed to convey to the students–or even to take in myself–its full horror.  The romance of the Blitz, along with its mythic resignification as proof of British pluckiness and resolve, has obscured the simple fact of terror rained from the skies.  Please don’t give me the pieties of “indiscriminate” terror and “civilian” populations.  The evil of the mass slaughter of citizen armies is no less; its victims are as fully “innocent,” as fully entitled to exemption from such violence, as the denizens of a city.  But it is the sheer fact of violence that I and my students never fully (it seems to me) grasped.  The mind always slides away from the bald fact of killing to adjoining images, stories, facts, and consoling myths.

In my various readings to teach this course, I read J. B. Pristley’s BBC broadcasts, which ran from 5 June 1940 to 20 October 1940.  Priestley was forced off the air because his forthright–and repeated–calls for a post-war socialist Britain to proved some recompense for the war-time suffering of its population offended the powers-that-be.

The broadcasts also show Priestley struggling to understand Nazi evil–which rhymes with my current perplexity in trying to understand conservatives (who often claim to be Christians) who put children in cages, deny food stamps to the hungry, are outraged by the extension of medical insurance to the less well-off, suppress voter participation, and wink at sexual and financial malfeasance.  Why would anyone ever sign on to that agenda?  Except for the tax cuts, there is not direct benefit to them of treating others so terribly.  Only some kind of pleasure derived from cruelty fits the bill.

Priestley has no better explanations for such evil (and how can we call it be any other, more euphemistic, name?) than most leftists.  But his characterization of the Nazi mindset and the dangers it poses to simple decency resonate with me.

From the broadcast of 23 June 1940:

“Every nation has two faces–a bright face and a dark face.  I had always been ready to love the bright face of Germany which speaks to us of beautiful music, profound philosophy, Gothic romance, young men and maidens wandering through the enchanted forests.  I had been to Germany before the last war, walking from one little inn to another in the Rhineland.  After the war I went back and wrote in praise of the noble Rhine, the wet lilac and the rust-coloured Castle of Heidelberg, the carpets of flowers and the ice-green torrents of the Bavarian Alps.  But after the Nazis came, I went no more.  The bright face had gone, and in its place was the vast dark face with its broken promises and endless deceit, its swaggering Storm Troopers and dreaded Gestapo, its bloodstained basements where youths were hardened by the torture of decent elderly folk–the terror and the shame, not just their shame, but our shame, the shame of the whole watching world, of the concentration camps.

I knew that wherever these over-ambitious, ruthless, neurotic men took their power, security and peace and happiness would vanish.  Unhappy themselves–for what they are can be read in their faces, and plainly heard in their barking or screaming voices–they wish to spread their unhappiness everywhere.  And I believed then–and am convinced now–that if the world had not been half-rotten, over-cynical, despairing, it would have risen at once in its wrath before the great terror machine was completed, and sent these evil men and their young bullies back to their obscure corners, the back rooms of beer houses, and cellars, out of which they crept to try and bring the whole world down to their own dreary back-room gangster level.

Many people are mystified by the existence of so many ‘fifth columnists’ who are ready to work for Nazi-ism outside Germany; but, you see, Nazi-ism is not really a political philosophy, but an attitude of mind–the expression in political life of a certain very unpleasant temperament–of the man who hates Democracy, reasonable argument, tolerance, patience and humorous equality–the man who loves bluster and swagger, uniforms and bodyguards and fast cars, plotting in back rooms, shouting and bullying, taking it out of all the people who have made him feel inferior.  It’s not really a balanced, grown-up attitude of mind at all: it belongs to people who can’t find their way out of adolescence, who remain overgrown, tormenting, cruel schoolboys–middle-aged ‘dead-end kids.’  That’s why the gang spirit is so marked among these Nazis; and it explains, too, why there has always seemed something unhealthy, abnormal, perverted, crawlingly corrupt, about them and all their activities.

And any country that allows itself to be dominated by the Nazis will not only have the German Gestapo crawling everywhere, but will also find itself in the power of all its most unpleasant types–the very people who, for years, have been rotten with unsatisfied vanity, gnawing envy, and haunted by dreams of cruel power.”

To the academic sophisticate (i.e. me), there is much that grates in this passage. (Those cavorting maidens; the simplistic Manichean notion of a bright and a dark face–although that does suggest that “good” is just as mysterious, just as difficult to explain, as “evil.”)

But I do want to hold onto two things (even as I also admire Priestley’s ability to speak passionately and vividly to his wide audience): first, that there is much to love–and that I love–in the United States; it would be foolish indeed to let despair over the current triumph of what is worst in American culture to wipe out a recognition of the resources for a better way.  The hopefulness of MLK (balanced as it was with his deep discouragement at times) is exemplary here.

Second, Priestley reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that the Trumps, McConnells, and Kavanaughs of the world are bullying frauds driven by envy of their moral betters; they cannot acknowledge their own depravity, but reveal their self-hatred again and again.  Not that we should pity them, but that we should fully understand their lust for power is the mask of deficiency.  That lust should never be accorded a minute of respect.

Is There a Center?

Perry Bacon, over at Five Thirty Eight, defines the current American political scene as follows:

“America is to some extent in a partisan civil war, and we essentially have three competing views on how to end it: A Biden/Bush/Kristol style approach that downplays divisions among America’s various identity groups and reaches for more compromises; a Sanders/Warren approach of resetting America along more equal lines; and a Trump/Barr vision that is decidedly Judeo-Christian and favors maintaining traditional norms over upsetting them to expand equality.”

The lesson some of my left-wing friends have taken from the UK election–in particular from the absolute rout of the Liberal Democrats–is that the center doesn’t exist in this civil war except in the mind of some benighted pundits and a few hopeless liberal believers in compromise, decency, and civility (utterly discredited notions given the realities of the political landscape ever since McConnell swore to never give Obama a single accomplishment).  I certainly align myself with the Sanders/Warren project of advancing political/economic/status equality.  And I don’t believe Biden is more electable because he appeals to a non-existent center.  What I do believe is that hostility to extending equality–coupled with the belief that the cost of such an extension must come at their expense–will win out in the 2020 election.  Warren and Sanders are more vulnerable to that kind of fear-mongering, that they will cost you in the short and long run, than Biden is–which explains, I believe, why Biden is polling better than them.  Biden, some people believe, will not upset the apple-cart unduly even as he saves us from the more unpleasant features of a Trump presidency.  It is Trump’s “tone” that upsets some people–and they’d like to be able to repudiate that tone without seeing much change in the larger landscape of American society.  We only talking 3 to 5 % of the electorate here, but with partisan allegiance so entrenched, American elections are now about two things: turning out one’s own partisans (while depressing the other side’s turnout) and getting a decent return on that three to five percent of truly swing voters.  I don’t believe–as many left-wing folks do–that going further left is the path to victory for the Democrats, that there is an untapped pool of voters just waiting for a more radical Democratic party.  I wish that were the case, but don’t believe it is.