Liberal elites and “right-wing populists”

“I think right-wing populists hate the ‘liberal elite’ more than economic elites because they’ve grabbed all the jobs where you get paid to do something that isn’t just for the money – the pursuit of art, or truth, or charity”, notes David Graeber, an anthropologist whose ideas helped shape the Occupy movement. “All they can do if they want to do something bigger than themselves and still get paid is join the army.”

― Sarah Kendzior, The View From Flyover Country: Essays by Sarah Kendzior

Something about this quote doesn’t sit right with me. I highlighted it when I read The View From Flyover Country a few years ago and I can’t remember why. Maybe I thought it made sense at the time, but from a 2021 perspective, it comes across as insulting. Maybe I just don’t know enough about politics.

I don’t think “right-wing populists” hate liberal elites because they supposedly have a monopoly on certain jobs. There are conservatives that are financially successful who don’t like liberal elites. There are conservatives who are artists, or work in some art adjacent position, and that contribute to charity. I’m not even sure what job is being referred to when Graeber mentions the pursuit of truth. What is that? Journalists? Most journalists aren’t even journalists anymore. They’re entertainers.

What’s being overlooked here is that conservatives aren’t being excluded from these fields due to a lack of ability but rather because of the good old boy system. Getting jobs at higher levels is more about who you know than what you know and once a certain number of people in a position to welcome you into that circle of good old boys are adherents to specific ideology, then of course most of the people that they add to their ranks are going to follow that same ideology.

People want to be comfortable. They don’t want to surround themselves with people who challenge their point of view or outlook on the world. So, it makes sense that certain professions and institutions would be dominated by people with the same outlook.

Graeber’s comment about right-wing populists only being able to join the military makes it seem as if all conservatives are poor and have no options in life, and it implies that the military is full of low achievers, which isn’t the case. Clearly. America may fall behind in a lot of metrics, but we’re really good at blowing up other countries because we have the best military in the world.

It’s more likely that right-wing populists dislike liberal elites because liberal elites say things like this quote by Graeber. Liberal elites infantilize and talk down to conservatives. They constantly insult conservatives and try to sideline or minimize their existence.

I’m ready for another 4 years of more of the same

After 5 years of constant exposure, I think I’ve developed a tolerance for the hyper-sensationalized BS that passes for news now. Even with everything that’s going on this year, it doesn’t seem as bad as 2016 and I started wondering why. This year, we’ve had a global pandemic, an economic crash, and riots, but in a way it just feels like normal. And I wonder if it’s because I’ve just stopped trusting the news and I’ve stopped taking things at face value?

In the run-up to the election in 2016, the media crafted a narrative out of whole cloth and sold the idea that Trump was a walking catastrophe that would fundamentally alter the nation. When he won despite these dire and apocalyptic predictions, it was shocking because it was so contrary to the reality that had been constructed by the media and social elites. It really felt like something meaningful had happened and like something terrible was going to befall us all.

Four years later, the US really hasn’t altered course in any dramatic way. In fact, I imagine that Trump is more establishment than even the establishment could have predicted. He went pro-Israel in a decisive way by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. He’s stayed strong on stopping illegal immigration at the southern US border. He has been pro-military, but has also done troop draw-downs when it made sense. He put real effort into solving the North Korea problem. Everything we would expect from a US administration.

I personally don’t give AF that he’s in tight with Putin. To me, it makes sense to let go of the Cold War McCarthyism and shore up our relationship with Russia, especially considering China’s rise as a global superpower. It would be great if Russia didn’t interfere with our elections, but I see that more as a failing of Obama’s administration in terms of not putting measures in place to hold companies like Facebook and Twitter accountable for the ads they run.

I also don’t see Trump as completely responsible for the number of COVID-19 deaths. The biggest reason we’re seeing this many deaths is because Obama and the Democrats (when they had a majority in both houses of Congress) failed to pass real universal healthcare. Additionally, the Federal government only has so much power over the States and when States do something stupid, like not enforcing social distancing, that’s on the States, not the President. If the President rolled in with Federal troops unasked on US soil, that would be a bigger problem. So, blame where blame is due. That being said, Trump isn’t exactly out there promoting the benefits of a hyuge, beautiful, universal healthcare system, either.

I’m not really a Trump fan. I’d like to see universal healthcare and a UBI (or some law that limits the income inequality between corporate and actual workers). I’m not in favor of open borders or the lawlessness that Democrats are allowing and promoting either though. Or in paying reparations for something that I had no part in. Even more so than in 2016, there are no good choices when it comes to voting in 2020, but somehow I think things will be worse if Biden and Harris win.

Things really aren’t as bad this year as the media and Twitter would have people believe. Events are being overly sensationalized in the run-up to an election to try to unseat the incumbent. The amount of drama being concocted to try to get Biden in the White House is sort of worrying. It makes me want to reconsider conspiracy theories surrounding Hillary. To be clear, I’m not downplaying the wrongness of shooting unarmed people. I’m just thinking about how these events are suddenly being played up now, in 2020, an election year.

Trump is a blabber mouth on Twitter, but in reality he’s doing more of the same in terms of US policy. What the Democrats want to do is extremely radical. I just can’t get on board with open borders or reparations. I don’t believe in holding someone accountable for someone else’s actions. I just can’t see myself voting for Biden. I almost don’t even care.

Maybe I’d feel more strongly if I was still swallowing the media narrative, but I’ve gotten so tired of wading through heavy political bias that I’ve really slowed down the amount of news I watch. I’d rather read a good book or watch a fun show than tune in to get my outrage forecast for the day. When I can find a good show that isn’t making overt US political statements, anyway.

Anyway, November will be here before I know it. Unlike 2016, when I was madly posting on social media about how terrible things were going to be, I’m staying distanced from here on in. It’s not worth the stress. I’m working. I’m exercising. I’m gaming. I’m getting satisfaction from learning Japanese and Spanish and how to set up a web server. Maybe I just don’t care as much because I’m comfortable? Maybe. But I’d like to think that it’s because I learned from 2016, when I worked myself up just to see 4 years of more of the same.

Thoughts on “The View From Flyover Country”

When I picked up The View From Flyover Country by Sarah Kendzior, I thought the book was going present a conservative or at least rural perspective on life and politics in the United States. I’m bombarded with the liberal and progressive viewpoint every day in almost every single news broadcast and social media post. The right-leaning viewpoints that do get airtime seem to be too far to the right of the political spectrum to be worth listening to. I was hoping for something center right, or traditional right, I guess.

Unfortunately, this book is written by a liberal from a Midwest city. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. It’s just not what I wanted. The book is a collection of essays and, after having finished reading the book, they come across as kind of mixed bag. The most impressive point of the book so far is how prescient some of the author’s insights were, considering that she wrote most of the essays prior to the 2016 election cycle for Al Jazeera.

Kendzior’s diatribe against gentrification is well-intended but comes across as shallow and offensive. She had an opportunity to look at how class differences and the concentration of wealth were playing out in urban environments. Instead, she uses the issue to present whites as evil oppressors of minorities, forgetting that not all gentrifiers are white because not all wealthy people are white. “Hipsters” are a visible and catchy way to present gentrification but it ignores economic realities. Gentrification isn’t a race issue; it’s an economic issue and a class issue. Kendzior could have used gentrification as a segue into a discussion of income inequality but she chose to go the easy and provocative but less informative route of blaming white people.

The section on underemployment and low pay are masterful. Kendzior isn’t saying anything that I haven’t heard before, but she said it before it was common discourse and her arguments are clear and well made. The situation she describes is maddening. Kendzior’s essay sounds more like she’s describing the plot of a dystopian fiction than reality.

How does an adjunct lecturer work for a college for decades and die making penniless while still only making $10k a year? It sounds like the money in universities, like in the rest of US society, is being funneled into bureaucratic bloat instead of into paying educators. It should be illegal for companies to pay wages so low that costs are shifted onto taxpayers in the form of social welfare programs.

But how can we implement a system of enforcement that won’t result in companies further reducing their workforces and overworking those who remain? It is something that will have to be forced. And it can be done. Companies paid living wages before. We had living wages and dignity. We can get there again. Will it take massive riots and strikes before our aristocratic Congress finally acts on behalf of the American people? Before they remember that they work for us and not for corporations?

Regarding how Islam is portrayed, she writes under the assumption that US news organizations want to tell the news in an accurate and unbiased way, but they don’t. Of course, she probably had her suspicions about that when she was writing, but the true extent of the news industry’s dishonesty didn’t become apparent until after the 2016 election, when people simply couldn’t reconcile Hillary’s guaranteed win with the actual outcome. It’s almost as if the media industry was trying to create reality and expected the American people to act according to the narrative that they had presented.

The disillusionment and shock people felt after the 2016 election cycle was heightened all the more by the clash between what they thought the US was, what they thought it stood for, and the reality of the country’s situation. Honesty and complex reporting don’t get clicks. It doesn’t generate ad revenue. It doesn’t sell because most people don’t want to read the truth. They don’t have time. With the wealth disparity in this country, most people spend so much time working or thinking about working, that they can’t find the energy or will to engage with social or political discourse in any meaningful way. So, they look for cheap entertainment that doesn’t require thought. They want to hear about Snooki’s butt implants, so news producers have turned reporting news into another form of reality entertainment. The more spin there is, the better for ratings, ad impressions, and revenue.

For me, there were two big takeaways from The View From Flyover Country. One, the impact of income inquality, the wealth gap, on US society has far reaching consequences. Combined with a failure by our news organizations to maintain journalistic principles and keep the public informed can undermine our republic and cause more damage to US society than any foreign attacker.

La Migracion Es Beautiful

My wife and I were walking down 116th Street this past Saturday on our way towards Target and ALDI. Between 3rd and 2nd Avenues we noticed a group of people painting a mural on a wall, so we crossed to take a better look.

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The mural primarily addresses U.S. immigration policy and seems to be an expression of the idea that “we are all immigrants.” One of the installations under the “Galerie De Guerrilla Gallery” section of the mural is a mirror with the word “Immigrant” in English under it. Another section of the mural shows a set of butterfly wings with the caption “La Migracion Es Beautiful” (Immigration is Beautiful). The point seems to be to remind English speakers that they are also immigrants while reminding immigrants that they are beautiful parts of a local immigrant society.

La Immigracion Es Beautiful

Maybe the mural isn’t about how we’re all immigrants, though. The butterfly wings contain pictures of a wide range of people, but almost exclusively depict Hispanics and African Americans, interspersed with what appears to be a few South Asian Muslims and Native Americans. One of the larger panels shows a Native American woman lying down by a river with teepees in the background next to a quote from an Ogala Lakota Native American. A section of the mural shows the face of an African American woman wearing an Indian feather in her hair.

It seems odd to include Native Americans and African Americans in a mural about how we are all immigrants. The Native Americans were the first people on the land. You can’t immigrate into a place that doesn’t have people in it before you arrive. And, unlike Ben Carson, I would hardly consider the enslavement and forced migration of Africans to be an act of immigration.

Maybe my first impression was wrong. Maybe the message isn’t about inclusivity but is rather about a unified confrontation between minority groups and those viewed as Caucasian. If that’s the case, the mural is eye-catching but is a missed opportunity for emphasizing shared belonging in the national community. Or maybe I’m just over-thinking the artists’ use of the word “immigrant.” Maybe the message of the mural is just protesting in general all of the morally reprehensible things that Trump (and the Republican party) has said and done without explicitly naming him. That would explain the quote by the Lakota Native American about the destruction of the environment. That, along with the slogan “El agua es vida” (Water is life) would be a reference to Standing Rock and DAPL. The inclusion of African Americans would be a reference perhaps to Trump calling for the death penalty for the wrongly accused Central Park Five. The inclusion of Hispanics and Muslims would be a reference to Trump’s constant vitriolic rhetoric and jingoism about Mexicans and Executive Orders that target Muslims.

Either way, immigration is a beautiful thing. Beyond the economic necessity of continued immigration, the diversity that immigrants bring to American life is what makes this country an amazing place to live, at least in major cities and on the coasts. I believe that intellectual and spiritual progress (and lofty goals like world peace) are dependent on having our comfort zones challenged. Encountering and understanding people from other parts of the world forces us to reevaluate and adjust our ideas and beliefs, both about others and about ourselves. I think that only happens when you’re forced to personally confront difference, in person. A book can only explain so much and never requires you to actually self-examine and defend your point of view. I also don’t see anything intrinsically worthwhile in resisting change or trying to hold onto an idealized vision of America that never existed in the first place.

Wide Awake: Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” and World War I

The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark book cover image

Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is an eminently readable account of the events that led up to the outbreak of World War I. Written in a narrative style, but rich with detail and innovative arguments about the origins of the war, Clark’s work is meant for a general audience but will also appeal to scholars looking to broaden their understanding of the events leading up to World War I. Clark is well versed in his subject matter. He is currently the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University with a focus on European history. His prior works include a study of Christian-Jewish relations in Prussia (The Politics of Conversion. Missionary Protestantism and the Jews in Prussia, 1728-1941, Oxford University Press, 1995), a general history of Prussia (Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, Penguin, 2006), and a biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (Kaiser Wilhelm II, Longman, 2000).

In The Sleepwalkers, Clark attempts to fundamentally change the way the origins of the war are discussed. Rather than trying to make a claim about who bears the most responsibility for the outbreak of World War I, the author is instead more concerned with the agency of individuals within the state power structures, the decisions they made, and why. Using a wealth of primary documents in state archives as well as secondary sources, Clark brings these “characters” to life in a story that begins with the assassination of King Alexander and Queen Draga in Serbia in June of 1903 and ends with European mobilization in August of 1914.

The scope of Clark’s narrative is impressive, despite being limited. The focus is placed primarily on Serbia, the Habsburg Empire, Russia, Germany, and France. Clark goes into detail regarding meetings, conversations, letters, and press publications in these countries. Other nations that played important roles in World War I are only touched upon briefly, including Italy, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire. Does it make sense to limit the narrative to these countries? For the most part, yes. Clark demonstrates that the rivalries between Russia and the Habsburgs and between the French and the Germans were the driving forces behind the outbreak of war; the assassination of the Archduke and Archduchess of Austria-Hungary by Serbian assassins was simply a pretext used by these nations to pursue other goals. On the other hand, Clark positions the ongoing decline of the Ottoman Empire and the loss of Ottoman lands to other states as a primary cause of continuing unrest not only in the Balkans, but in Europe as well. If the loss of Libya to Italy and Russia’s longstanding conflict with the Ottomans over the Dardanelles and Bosphorus was so crucial in laying the groundwork for the events that led up to World War I, why was the Ottoman Empire (the so-called “sick man of Europe”) not given a greater place at the table in Clark’s narrative?

The role Clark attributes to the Ottoman Empire in The Sleepwalkers ties into one of his larger themes, in which he presents the alliance bloc system as a driving force behind the outbreak of hostilities. The new bi-polar system (Entente vs Central Powers) developed out of an earlier multi-polar system which hinged on the maintenance of the status quo, including the propping up of the Ottoman Empire as a vital part of the European political establishment. The formation of powerful alliance blocs coupled with the linkage of diplomacy to military power, as well as the lack of available colonial territories to barter and trade away in international diplomacy, created a situation that was inherently volatile. Clark writes that war was not inevitable, that it was the result of actions taken by individuals. The evidence Clark presents strongly supports his thesis. Clark clearly shows that the French elite were agitating for war to regain territories previously lost to Germany. Russian elites were looking for an excuse to finally capture the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. They understood that they would likely trigger a continental war, but decided to push forward with their plans anyway. These players were not sleepwalking towards war; they were wide awake, even if they were unaware of the scale of the consequences their actions would bring.

One of the larger problems with Clark’s work is that he places so much emphasis on Serbia and Serbian history when his narrative clearly shows that events in Serbia and Sarajevo were merely a pretext that France and Russia used to start a war that they hoped would allow them to achieve their own national goals. The amount of space in the book devoted to Serbian history seems disproportionate to the country’s influence on events. Without Russian backing, would a larger continental war have started at all? In his introduction, Clark writes that he is not interested in placing blame, but based on the evidence he presents, Russia is responsible for the start of World War I. Serbia was not a part of the Entente Alliance of 1907. Had Russia not intervened on its behalf, the treaty stipulations would not have been triggered. Germany, by contrast, comes across as an underdog in The Sleepwalkers.

Two minor issues stood out to me in this book. One is the mention of but lack of development of the idea that a new trend in masculinity affected diplomatic relations between the countries involved. The second is the repeated use of “public opinion” to explain events without developing the reader’s understanding of the actual relationship between the media or government and the public. Who was “the public”? The elite, or all classes? What was the literacy rate? Did people consume news by reading or through word-of-mouth in public spaces? Did people understand that some news was camouflaged diplomacy? Clark indicates that the outbreak of war surprised rural populations in Russia and France and they did not understand what was going on, so how could “public opinion” have played such a crucial role in government policy formation?

Overall, Clark’s presentation of the backdrop to World War I in The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is brilliant. It is written in a way that is informative and yet entertaining. He opens an old topic to fresh discussion by revealing the complicated web of interactions between individuals in the state governmental systems, calling into question anew who is responsible for the start of World War I, even if that is not the author’s intention. More importantly, Clark’s work is a solid reminder that wars do not start themselves; people start wars and bad decisions by people in key positions can have devastating consequences.