The Land of Smiling Children

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“Komm ins Land der lachelnden Kinder,” “Come to the land of smiling children,” intones a voiceover to the tune of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” at the beginning of a popular German YouTube video. The video is a montage of some of the most grotesque elements of American culture: a smiling JonBenét Ramsey in full beauty-queen regalia, children using firearms, police beatings and shootings of unarmed citizens, celebrations of conspicuous consumption and contempt for the environment juxtaposed with videos of street people combing trash cans, an execution chamber, a row of Klansmen, and, finally, a man accidentally shooting himself in the leg.

“Alles Spitze in Amerika!” “Everything’s great in America,” the refrain announces over and over again as one horrific scene after another assaults the viewer. The video, “Ein Lied für die USA,” or “A Song for the USA” begins and ends with someone accidentally shooting himself. One could argue that it’s heavy handed, but it makes a devastating point: We are destroying ourselves.

We have arguably always lacked the veneer of civility that typically characterizes older cultures, and yet it seems that public discourse has recently taken a particularly savage turn. The left is as responsible for that as the right. Trump didn’t become “evil” until he ran for office. Before that, he was merely a buffoon. Now, suddenly, he’s “Hitler” and his supporters are uniformly denounced as “racists” and “fascists.” Don’t get me wrong, Trump was not my candidate. He’s not who I want to see in the White House, but he’s not Hitler. Obama said himself that Trump’s a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Democrats dismissed well-reasoned arguments against Clinton’s candidacy, or her positions on various issues, not with similarly well-reasoned counter arguments, but with charges of “mansplaining.” Nothing shuts down dialogue so quickly as hurling invectives at your opponents. British comedian Tom Walker makes this point brilliantly in the viral video of his alter ego U.K. newsman Jonathan Pie’s commentary on the election.

A recent case in point is the infamous Christmas-Eve tweet of academic George Ciccariello-Maher: “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” The tweet was characterized by Mike King in “George Ciccariello-Maher vs. the White Power Alt-Right” as “inflammatory.” The point, Ciccariello-Maher explained in The Huffington Post, was to “mock” people who believe in the concept of “white genocide.”

King writes that “the anti-racist message and satirical intent [of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet] is clear to anyone familiar with the term [white genocide] and its longstanding usage within the political culture of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in the U.S.” Fair enough, but was it reasonable of Ciccariello-Maher to assume that all of his 10,000 plus Twitter followers would understand the term in this way? Was it reasonable of him to assume that everyone to whom his tweet would be retweeted would have a similarly sophisticated understanding of the term and hence grasp the satire?

King calls Ciccariello-Maher a “vibrant anti-racist voice.” Ciccariello-Maher’s Christmas Eve tweet was apparently not his only inflammatory one, at least not according to the conservative websites that have expressed outrage over it. Unfortunately, I can’t check that because only confirmed followers now have access to Ciccariello-Maher’s Twitter feed.

Inflammatory rhetoric goes over well with many college students. It gets them excited about “scholarship” because it makes it seem “sexy” in this culture where sex and violence are inexorably intertwined. It goes over well with young people who are already sympathetic to the cause it purportedly serves. Unfortunately, it tends not to go over well with anyone else.

Demonizing people who disagree with you isn’t very effective at persuading them that you’re correct. It can, in fact, even push people who are on the fence over to the other side because it is ugly. It evinces the same lack of respect for the basic humanity of one’s opponent no matter which side in an argument does it. It’s a kind of bullying and engaging in it further erodes what semblance of civility we have left in this country.

King refers to the “outrage” of “white victim politics” as “contrived.” No doubt some of it is. But, sadly, there are legions of white people in this country for whom the outrage, even if misguided, is genuine. The situation of working-class white people is not so different from the situation of working-class men described so well in Susan Faludi’s books Backlash and Stiffed. Nearly everyone is losing ground economically. There is no rising tide now to float all boats. Nearly everyone is sinking, but instead of banding together to effect positive economic change, we have begun drowning one another in savage efforts to stay afloat.

The line at the beginning of “Ein Lied für die USA,” “Come to the land of smiling children” is an allusion to “Das Land der Lächelns,” or “The Land of Smiles,” a romantic operetta by Franz Lehár. The title is an ironical reference to the purported Chinese custom of smiling even when one is unhappy. One doesn’t need to know that, however, in order to recognize the irony in the video.

We are a nation of desperately unhappy people. Though racism still exists, most working white people have little direct experience of it. They look around even as they are sinking and see affirmative action for everyone but themselves. Compounding their sense of injustice is what sometimes appears to be contempt on the part of the liberal elite for their plight.

Enter George Ciccariello-Maher. I don’t mean to suggest that Ciccariello-Maher is really indifferent to the plight of white working class people. It is not so hard to see, however, why many might think he was. Ciccariello-Maher is righteously angry about racism, so he lashes out at those he views as racist. But is that going to reduce racism? He purports to be a socialist, but his is not the rhetoric of Tolstoy or Gandhi. Rather than serving to make clear to all working people that their interests are in fact allied, messages such as the one delivered by Ciccariello-Maher’s Christmas Eve tweet drive deep divisions among them––which ultimately serves the interests of the wealthy few who control this country.

I agree with Ciccariello-Maher and his supporters who argue that that a commitment to free speech is more important now than ever. There is another commitment, however, that is also important: the commitment to decency and civility. Without that, free speech will simply fan flames of anger and outrage that will end up consuming us all.

The problem is, you can’t legislate a commitment to decency and civility. Drexel is right to stand by Ciccariello-Maher’s right to express his views in whatever way he sees fit. There’s no formula for determining what’s offensive and what isn’t. That’s why we need vigorous defenses of free speech. I’m offended, for example, when Richard Dawkins makes public pronouncements that effectively associate religious belief with feeblemindedness. The prospect of censorship based on taste is even more frightening to me, however, than is the specter of inflammatory rhetoric and the damage it can do.

I’m not comfortable giving anyone the right to curtail speech based on his or her subjective conception of what is offensive. Neither am I comfortable, however, with granting the unrestricted right of free speech to people who are not only indifferent to whether their speech gives offense, but whose rhetoric is deliberately designed to inflame. Rights, philosophers tell us, bring obligations. The right to free speech brings with it the obligation not to abuse it. The right to free speech is believed to rest on the foundation of the inherent rationality and dignity of all human beings. It is necessary to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be heard. But when it is abused, it creates a din that drowns out many of the voices it was designed to protect.

Plato thought the freedoms associated with democracy would ultimately destroy it. I explain to my students, however, that that is because there are no other values in Plato’s democracy than freedom. Democracy, I argue, combined with a commitment to humanistic values, with respect for the dignity of individuals, of all individuals, can work.

No progress will be made by spewing venom at one another in the name of free speech. On the contrary. When we use speech as a weapon rather rather than as an appeal to reason it is all too easy to injure ourselves with it.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the 2 January 2017 issue of Counterpunch. The illustration is by Marie Schubert. It comes from a book by S. Weir Newmayer and Edwin C. Broome entitled Health Habits (American Book Company, 1928) from The Health and Happiness Series .  I am indebted to Gui Rochat for the reference to Franz Lehár’s “The Land of Smiles,” and to Catherine Goetze for correcting the errors in the German.)

Something to be Thankful For

I didn’t know that Trump had won the election until I woke up on the following Wednesday morning. I had neither the heart nor the stomach to watch the election returns Tuesday night. This was the worst election in my memory, in my lifetime, possibly in this country’s history. I knew watching the returns would be depressing. I wanted to watch something uplifting, something edifying, so I watched the movie 42 about Jackie Robinson. 42 may not achieve the same level of cinematic greatness as To Kill a Mockingbird, or In the Heat of the Night, but the story of Robinson’s integration of baseball is a great story and it makes the film deeply moving despite its shortcomings. Watching it reaffirmed my faith in the average American, the average human being.

There have been a lot of apocalyptic predictions about what would happen if Donald Trump were elected president. There’s no question that he will be able to do a lot of damage, but he will not, as so many people seem to think, be able to turn back the clock to the bad old days of a virulently racist, sexist, and generally intolerant past. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that we aren’t racist, sexist, or intolerant anymore. We are. We are not so bad as we used to be, though, not by a long shot, and nobody is going to be able to turn the clock back on that, not even Donald Trump.

An election-night guest on Democracy Now said that if Trump were elected, all bets would be off. “These young black people,” she said, “who have been lying down in the streets as part of the many Black Lives Matter protests have been able to count on motorists not running them over. Well, if Trump gets elected, she asserted, they won’t be able to count on that anymore.” I’m paraphrasing her, of course, because my memory is not so good that I am able to repeat verbatim what she said. That’s pretty close, though.

The thing is, I believe she’s wrong. Motorists are not going to start running over protestors. It’s not like they’ve had to be forcibly restrained from doing this by liberal law-enforcement officers. As I explain to the students in my applied ethics classes, fear of arrest is not the reason most people obey the law. You couldn’t have enough law-enforcement officials on the street if fear of arrest were the only thing ensuring order in society. Respect for law, for social order, is the reason most people obey the law. People understand its importance for ensuring social order. They want to live in an orderly society and most people, in my experience, feel their fellow citizens, their fellow human beings, similarly deserve to live in an orderly society.

Motorists are not going to start running over protestors because human beings generally abhor homicide. Most people, the overwhelming majority of people, wouldn’t run over their worst enemy, even if they felt confident that they could do this without any negative repercussions to themselves. People are not the monsters that those who try to shape public opinion would often have us believe.

One of the things I love about teaching is that it keeps me in touch with basic truths about human nature. The overwhelming majority of my students are conspicuously good, decent people. Even the ones who occasionally cheat, clearly do so out of fear. Inter-cultural, and even inter-racial couples are a common sight on campus. No one seems disturbed by their presence. I’ll never forget an experience I had a few years ago when somehow the conversation in one of my classes had turned to the subject of romantic relationships and one of my male students, when discussing his current relationship casually referred to his love interest as “he.” I hadn’t realized that this student was gay. Everyone else seemed to know this, however. At least they exhibited no surprise whatever at what was to me the revelation of this student’s sexual orientation. There was not the slightest pause in the conversation, no raised eyebrow, no suppressed giggles –– nothing!

Racism, sexism, and homophobia among college students consistently make headlines in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education. I don’t mean to suggest that these things don’t exist among college students. They make headlines, however, because it is increasingly clear that they are the exception among college students rather than the rule.

Something analogous explains the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Police have always been killing young black men. Black Lives Matter is not a response to a recent spate of such killings. It is an expression of a growing intolerance of this perennial problem, especially in the face of video proof.

Televisions shows such as The Cosby Show and Will and Grace, not to mention decades of civil-rights activism, have humanized groups that were earlier demonized. Trump’s presidency wasn’t the only significant political change to come out of the recent election, more states legalized marijuana. The growth of the internet and the increasing ease of global communication more generally means many, if not most, Americans now know that a living minimum wage, universal healthcare, and free higher education are not impossible dreams but tangible realities in countries far less wealthy than the U.S. If some Americans think Obamacare went too far, polls suggest many, if not most, Americans think it didn’t go far enough.

We’re not perfect yet and likely never will be. Americans are getting progressively better, though, and we are going to continue to get better even if Trump’s election means the next few years will be ones of fits and starts.

This country has changed. It has changed irrevocably since the days of Bull Connor and death threats to those who would integrate baseball. We are a different country now than we were in our more ignorant and intolerant past. That’s something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

(This piece originally appeared under the title “Waking Up to Change” in the 10 November 2016 issue of Counterpunch.)

 

Election 2016

This election, Clinton supporters argued, was about stopping Trump. In fact, it is now clear that it was about stopping the growing movement in this country in the direction of genuine populism. Speaker after speaker who took the stage on the first night of the Democratic National Convention had to fight to be heard over chants of “Bernie, Bernie.” There was little applause for most of the speakers, but Sanders’ reception, when he finally got to speak, made it clear that he was the real popular choice for the Democratic nomination.

What the party apparently didn’t realize, however, was that Sanders’ popularity was not a product of his extraordinary charisma (almost anyone would seem charismatic compared to Clinton). It was a product of his populism. No one in the mainstream media got that that was what this election was really about. That’s what Trump and Sanders had in common. Independently of whether Trump’s populist rhetoric is sincere, it was the source of his appeal.

Liberals are considered to have won the culture war. Gay marriage is finally legal, state after state is legalizing marijuana, and for the last eight years, we have had what not so long ago was actually unthinkable –– a black president!

Some of Trump’s rhetoric may be racist, but his racism is not why he’s popular. There’s always some racist or other vying for the Republican nomination. Yes, racism still exists in this country, but it’s on the wane. Yes, police are murdering innocent black people, but they have always been doing that. The existence of the Black Lives Matter Movement shows that increasing numbers of Americans will no longer tolerate it.

What’s important, Sanders asserted when he conceded the Democratic nomination to Clinton, is keeping the revolution he started alive. Hillary Clinton, he announced, must be the next president of the United States! Did Sanders receive death threats from the DNC, or was he just not very smart? Sanders didn’t start the “revolution.” He simply rode a wave of populism that had been building long before he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president, and nothing was more antithetical to that movement than the Clinton campaign.

An anthropologist from Mars, to use a phrase of the late Oliver Sacks, would have a hard time making sense of the DNC’s support of Clinton in the face of Sanders’ clear majority of popular support. Both Sanders and Trump tapped a vein in this country. The party that won the election was the party whose candidate did that most effectively. Clinton clearly did not do that. Polls suggested that if she were nominated, she would lose.

So why did the party push her candidacy so relentlessly? Because her nomination would halt the progress in the direction of genuine populism. Halting that progress was more important to the party than was winning the election. Big business controls politics in this country and it is not about to surrender that control to a population that has had enough of it. Trump’s populist rhetoric is likely empty, so the possibility of his election is not so threatening to the forces that control this country as is the specter of Sanders’ election.

“Trump must be stopped!” Democrats chanted over and over. But this anti-Trump rhetoric was simply smoke and mirrors designed to conceal the real agenda of the party, which was to stave off the revolution in the direction of genuine populism. Democrats, the party bigwigs, that is, would rather lose with Clinton than win with Sanders. They are the people who benefit from the status quo. They are not about to see that change.

It is changing, though, whether they like it or not, and no amount of smoke and mirrors will stop it.

(This piece originally appeared under the title “Smoke and Mirrors in Philadelphia,” in the 27 July 2016 issue of Counterpunch. Yes, that’s right, I called this election before it happened, so not everyone in the media got it wrong.)

On Political Bullying and the Hell of Knee-Jerk Feminism

Portrait caricatureI understand Bernie Sanders has a huge flock of male chauvinist supporters. That seems implausible, doesn’t it? I’m not disputing that someone is posting offensive sexist responses to comments by Clinton supporters on various websites. What I’m skeptical of is the claim that such comments are coming from Sanders’ supporters. I’m not saying there is no such thing as a genuine leftist who is also sexist. They exist. The British are particularly prone to this personality disorder. I doubt, however, that there are many British who are all that involved in online debates among the supporters of various candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in the U.S.

The purported “Bernie Bros” movement is about as plausible as a group called “Vegans for Trump.” In fact, “Bernie bros” sounds very much like an invention of some public relations firm hired by the Clinton campaign. You remember the public relations industry, the people who invented equally implausible fake “grassroots” groups such as the “National Smokers Alliance,” “a supposedly independent organization of individual smokers which claimed that bans on smoking in public places infringed on basic American freedoms” (Trust Us, We’re Experts, p. 239), and the “Wise Use” movement, a fake grassroots group opposed to environmentalism (Trust Us, We’re Experts, p. 20).

The Bernie Bros have been charged with “mansplaining” political issues to Clinton supporters. It wasn’t clear to me, at first, what “mansplaining” was, so I looked it up. It’s apparently a type of explanation that is condescending or patronizing, typically made by a man to a woman whom he assumes may have difficulty understanding what he is trying to say because she is, well, a woman. Now that, of course, is bad. From what I have been able to gather, however, the “mansplaining” of Sanders’ supporters is characterized not by condescension or contempt, but by factual references and valid inferences. That is, Bernie Bro “mansplainers” use sound arguments as rhetorical clubs to beat down the specious arguments of people who claim that the facts, and the valid inferences that can be drawn from them, are not relevant to the issue of Clinton’s fitness to hold the highest office in the land.

I have to tell you that, as a woman, I take offense at the implication that sound arguments are somehow inherently masculine and that using them to defend one’s political position constitutes a type of bullying. It can indeed be humiliating to have one’s errors in reasoning publicly exposed, and I have a certain sympathy for the plight of Clinton supporters for whom this ordeal must seem unrelenting. No one is forcing them to go to the barricades, however, for someone whose record makes her effectively indefensible.

Polls suggest that Clinton’s main supporters are older women. That makes me wonder whether the teaching of critical reasoning is a relatively recent pedagogical development. Learning to recognize fallacious arguments and non-argumentative rhetoric, takes some training (see philosopher Stephen Stich’s “Could Man Be An Irrational Animal”, Synthese 64 [1985] 115-135”). Perhaps many older women failed to receive that training.

Madeleine Albright appears, in any case, never to have taken a first-year critical reasoning course. Albright rebuked female Sanders supporters at a rally for Clinton in New Hampshire. She reminded everyone that the battle for gender equality had not yet been won, that there was still much work to be done before it would be, and that part of that work involved supporting Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. “Just remember,” she concluded, “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

Really, Madeleine? Do you really think women should support other women simply because they are women? Where would you draw the line? Should women always support other women who seek political office, not matter what their views? Should all the women in the U.K. have supported Margaret Thatcher, simply because she was a woman, even if they disagreed with her conservative views? So women don’t get the same freedom of choice as men do? They don’t get to vote their consciences? And if they dare to do that, they’re bad people?

That sort of effort at persuasion is, in fact, a very specific form of informal fallacy known as “peer pressure,” which is itself one of a family of informal fallacies referred to as “appeals to emotion.” When you can’t get people to agree with your position on its merits, just try making them feel really bad about disagreeing with you. So instead of Clinton supporters attempting to use sound reasoning to persuade women that Clinton is the better Democratic candidate, they hurl invectives at them such as “You’re betraying women!” or better yet: “You’re going to hell!”

Really, Madeleine? Do you really think this generation of educated young women is going to be taken in by such transparently underhanded rhetorical tactics as that? Really, Hillary? You’re not going to denounce that kind of tactic?

If you want an example of bullying, there it is.

There was a time, way back in the early days of feminism, when some cognitively challenged feminist scholars argued that logic was inherently masculine, that while men made decisions based on reasoning and logic, women made them based on intuitions and emotions and that this was an equally valid way of making decisions (see, for example Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice). Fortunately, this view has few followers nowadays. Years of increased access for women to high-quality education has made it glaringly obvious that men do not have a monopoly on rationality and that the whole logic versus emotions view of reasoning was itself a false dichotomy based on an inadequate understanding of the complexity of rational thought.

Albright is right, of course, in her observation that women’s fight to “climb the ladder” of equality with men is not done. Bullying them to vote for a candidate against their own better judgement is hardly going to advance that cause, however. The Clinton campaign’s knee-jerk “feminism” is creating a hell of its own, and not just for women who refuse to jump on the Clinton bandwagon, but for all women, because it will only confirm in the minds of horrified onlookers that women are not actually so rational as they claim and hence will set the whole feminist movement back decades.

(This piece originally appeared in the 26 February 2016 issue of Counterpunch.)