Digesting the caucuses

It’s rather easy to get overwhelmed in terms of what exactly happened yesterday. The process itself is arcane and at times mind-boggling. Across the state of Iowa, thousands of party activists met at appointed locations and selected their choice of major party nominee for president in 2016. For Democrats, they basically shouted their way to dominance in those various schools, churches, and other public locations, with contingents remaining at the end of the process being proportionately awarded delegates. For Republicans, they for all intents and purposes held a primary vote, which selected delegates bound to vote proportionately for the candidates the average citizens voted for.

It’s hard to match last year’s wild ride in which the vote counts in eight precincts in the Republican caucuses simply went missing, but the story of a precinct decided one unclaimed delegate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton by a coin toss shows that dysfunction remains the true winner of every Iowa caucus. In the midst of all that chaos, it’s difficult to determine that, well, much of anything of meaning happened, let alone what it would be. Here’s a short list of what the tea leaves suggest to me though.

Clinton has to work for it… for now

What was initially announced on Monday as a statistical tie between Clinton and Sanders has largely been reinterpreted as an extremely narrow victory for Clinton. That suggests a tight race heading into New Hampshire, where Sanders rightly expects to have something like a home court advantage. A combination of racial demographics, an intensifying class consciousness in the electorate, and local familiarity are going to make this a particularly close and contestable competition in these two states.

Before the Sanders campaign gets too excited, however, that’s not how things are likely to continue after those two states. He’s made some particularly cavalier statements that are likely to alienate voters politically aware of racial inequality or immigration policies. In late February, Nevada will hold a closed caucus, and following that the map of Democratic primaries and caucuses moves to the South, which for Democrats means a decidedly less White voting electorate. If Clinton can effectively articulate the discomfort some people of color have with the racial dimensions of Sanders’ policies and rhetoric, the race won’t stay quite as up in the air.

Rubio wins… the consolation prize

Marco Rubio was widely hailed as the “winner” of the Republican caucuses, considering that Donald Trump underperformed the expectations that he might eclipse Ted Cruz and that Ted Cruz was the favorite to win in any case. Rubio nearly reaching the same levels as Trump indicates that at least in some contexts the largely “tuned out” voters Trump has attracted to the caucuses can end up being about equal to the “establishment” minded voters. The real surprise here, assuming this dynamic holds in later states, is that the conflict within the Republican Party between those factions is not about a wealthy minority and the mass of voters, but about equally-sized blocks of people who show up at the polls.

The real win that Rubio has pulled off is that he bested Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and other similar candidates at representing the “establishment”. There are structural advantages in the primary to appealing to that part of the Republican electorate, but it’s not clear that that will be enough to rocket Rubio’s support out of third place.

Not establishment, not grassroots, not insurgent… so what exactly is Cruz?

With Rubio and Trump each pulling in just over a fifth of the vote, that leaves Cruz with a lion’s share that’s contrasted with both an establishment-aligned bloc and a disaffected and mad as hell insurgency. Ted Cruz’s muddled place between those two camps has probably been the least acknowledged strength in the Republican primary campaign.

2016-02-03_1017
(Weighted Iowa Republican Caucus returns: Ted Cruz in yellow has support throughout the state, Donald Trump in purple dominates in the more conservative southwestern corner of the state, and Marco Rubio in green dominated in outlying suburbs of the largest cities. From here.)

He has the bona fides, visibility, and authority of the typical establishment candidate like Rubio – he’s not going to make Trump-style blunders about the nuclear triad or commit to unfeasible revenge fantasies as policy proposals. He also has the ability to talk about policies and politics in the language average people attracted to extremism want to hear – something that Rubio at times struggles with.

If anyone can keep the fragile union of social conservatives and imperialist libertarians together in the Republican Party, it’s him. That’s a daunting task for anyone, however, especially one whose birth location is in conflict with some of the most extremist rhetoric at the heart of the anti-Obama politics that have come to define the Republican Party.

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Building Better Districts

Things are beginning to heat up not just in the Presidential primaries, but in more local elections around the US as well. While the writing has long been on the wall for some of the most effectively gerrymandered districts of Virginia Republicans, it wasn’t clear who would necessarily be the biggest loser in a similar campaign for better district boundaries in Florida.

It looked like Democrat Corrine Brown might actually be the most threatened sitting representative by the redesign of her district. As a “dump” district designed to absorb Democratic-leaning Black voters making most nearby districts more easily won by Republicans, her individual interest in keeping her familiar district aligned with those of the state’s Republican Party. Worse yet for the Democrats, the idea was floated that Brown’s district might be expanded into a neighboring district held by fellow Democrat Gwen Graham. In short, an effort to redraw Florida’s districts so there wouldn’t be such a marked difference between districts seemed like it might just exacerbate that problem.

The new congressional map has been released and Brown actually appears to have avoided that worst possible outcome. Her prior district contributes nearly forty percent of the population in her new one, but so does the former tenth district. Her personal political charm will be put to the test with a largely new electorate she has to appeal to. Whether it’s Brown herself or one of her primary challengers who becomes the Democratic nominee, the new district won’t have lost much of its Democratic-leaning character. By one estimate it will be at least a D+10 to the former district’s D+16.

There’s some similar shuffling of populations that will happen to other Democrat-held districts further south within the state, but the ultimate results are more or less the same. While this might disrupt individual Democratic office-holder’s local support, it’s unlikely to cost the Democratic Party as a whole any of these seats. In an odd way, the increased jockeying within the Party might create an environment in which better candidates rise to the forefront of the Democratic Party in Florida.

That is not an apt description of how the redistricting is going to affect Republican representative Daniel Webster. His tenth district doesn’t appear to move very far on the map, unlike Brown’s radically reinvented district. Some of the more rural western parts of it are shaved off, however, and the district incorporates parts of Orlando which were previously carved out of it. The subtle changes are in high enough density areas to make a huge difference: not even forty percent of its original population is still in it.

2016-01-29_13452016-01-29_1342.png
(Left – the former 10th District, Right – the new 10th District. From here.)

This isn’t the kind of situation that Brown finds herself in either, where her losing the district would almost certainly be to another Democrat. Webster’s district is, by most counts, going to be almost as Democratic-leaning as Brown’s new one, and at the cost of most likely zero current Democratic-leaning districts.

While an extremely moderate Republican might be able to shed their skin in classic Floridan political fashion, Webster is fairly fringe. Recently, he was the Freedom Caucus’ alternative to Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) for Speaker of the House. One of the Webster’s premier political accomplishments dates back to his years within the Florida state government, where in 2008 he pioneered a set of anti-abortion restrictions that would ultimately become the widespread requirement of a transvaginal ultrasound. Walking that back to appeal to a roughly D+10 district seems rather unlikely.

This might be the future of representative reorganization in the US: Democratic complacency getting a bit of a shake-up and Republicans falling by the wayside of an electorate that they don’t reflect.

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Skirmish of the Titans

For a while, energy policy in the US has been characterized by many as a sort of apocalyptic battle between a group of interconnected fossil fuels industries and a kind of scrappy coalition of underdog competitors.

Even I’ve written about energy proposals somewhat from that angle myself, where policies fairly neatly cleave into two adversarial camps. There’s those that recognize the risks of climate change and those that don’t and the outcomes on how you want government to work as a result. There’s those that see resource renewability as a key issue and those that don’t, giving us economic policies based on endless resource extraction and those based on resources being possible to exhaust. There’s those that want to create a new energy system and those that want to double down on maintaining what they already have, creating a competition for federal research funds between those who want to improve the viability of solar panels and those who want to perfect the science of dredging oil from the earth. They’re two different worlds and two different political realities struggling to live together in just one.

That dynamic seems to be changing somewhat, however. The anemic coal industry has slowly reached the realization that fracking and other innovations extracting other fossil fuels are at least some of its biggest competitors, joining if not quite replacing renewables and regulatory oversight as its bogeymen. The huge leak of natural gas in California has called into question the natural gas industries not so subtle claim to being the safest fossil fuel energy source. Ethanol producers, long seen as a fossil-fuel-like and fossil-fuel-cooperative energy industry a bit like the nuclear industry, has emerged as a competitor for favor and support within the same Republican energy-minded circles. There’s no outright conflict between any of these powerful industries yet, but there’s a new sense of fractures between them.

There’s a sense that these different industries feel crowded together within the US marketplace. The Republican energy policy proposals expected to be put to a vote before Congress in the coming days seem to attempt to address those feelings in a number of ways. Lifting the ban on export for certain energy commodities might allow fuels like coal which aren’t terribly competitive domestically to be exported to where they might be (or at least, whoever buys them thinks they are). On the other end of these industries, reopening certain federal lands to speculation and extraction might similarly allow all of these possible competitors to co-exist again. Failing that, it might at least create a feeling that they can all get along. From production to sales, the focus in “adult” Republican circles has shifted towards carving out a big enough space for all of these different industries, seemingly to keep the peace.

20140111_FBM959
From here.

Curiously, this would politically put the Republicans in the place of actively governing, and at that in a way that would be to reduce competition within one of the biggest markets in the US. That’s in a nutshell precisely what they’ve branded themselves as being opposed to. In spite of the risks, they appear ready to do anything to avoid wasteful conflicts between your biggest donors, particularly as even mainstream discussions about energy sources have started talking about keeping all of it in the ground. That’s a bit of a tell – they think they might need a united front in the coming years, and are willing to spend political points today to have one tomorrow.

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A limited socialism

Trigger Warning: racism, slavery, lynching

Earlier this week, I noted that Bernie Sanders’ socialism quite abruptly runs aground when applied to some groups peripheral to a lot of his politics. The reality of poverty in the Middle East is something his political view of the world apparently can’t accept, and so he had to essentially deny the reality that the United States is the wealthier nation in almost every respect when interacting with even resource-rich countries like Qatar or Saudi Arabia.

Over the course of this week, a strange domestic cousin to this apparently has come out as a part of what is driving down support for Sanders within many Black political circles. I just wanted to briefly point to what struck me as vital explanations of how Sanders’ comes across on this issue. The always fascinating Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote on Sanders’ statements about reparations:

This is the “class first” approach, originating in the myth that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible. But raising the minimum wage doesn’t really address the fact that black men without criminal records have about the same shot at low-wage work as white men with them; nor can making college free address the wage gap between black and white graduates. […] Sanders’s anti-racist moderation points to a candidate who is not merely against reparations, but one who doesn’t actually understand the argument. To briefly restate it, from 1619 until at least the late 1960s, American institutions, businesses, associations, and governments—federal, state, and local—repeatedly plundered black communities. Their methods included everything from land-theft, to red-lining, to disenfranchisement, to convict-lease labor, to lynching, to enslavement, to the vending of children. So large was this plunder that America, as we know it today, is simply unimaginable without it. […] judged by his platform, Sanders should be directly confronted and asked why his political imagination is so active against plutocracy, but so limited against white supremacy. Jim Crow and its legacy were not merely problems of disproportionate poverty. Why should black voters support a candidate who does not recognize this?

I think Imani Gandy quite succinctly wrapped up the issue on twitter a day later:

Much of the presidential campaign so far has been about parsing the ways in which Donald Trump wants to redirect economic redistribution towards certain (implicitly, White) communities. Bernie Sanders’ radical language for himself and his ideas has helped him avoid a similar examination so far, but it’s worth checking to see in what ways he hopes to address the social, economic, and political inequalities felt by people of color.

His treatment so far of those unique experiences as simply more common in communities of color is stopping short of directly addressing them. If that’s the level of consideration his political philosophy has for people of color, it doesn’t really sound like it exists for them.

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Socialism here, socialism there

In the Democratic Presidential Primary Debate held last Sunday, sitting Senator Bernie Sanders stole the show with two intriguing admissions that spoke volumes about his politics and his electoral appeal. In the coverage of the debate that I have looked over, I was surprised to see that no one seems to have highlighted those two rather illuminating moments of the night.

In the (largely unexpected) competition for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders’ momentum has been shocking for many. Hillary Clinton, a national figure who entered the race without any apparent challenger, has lost ground to him as he surged from locally celebrated Senator to contender vying for Iowa, New Hampshire, and possibly the nomination. Much of that support has come from voters, particularly younger ones, interested in challenging the existing political process and pushing policy proposals from as many candidates as possible towards more economic redistribution and equality.

Sanders’ answer to a question about climate change was one of the few he delivered on Sunday that didn’t stay within the confines of economics or immediately pivot to them, but it still detailed why he’s been so attractive to that type of voter. Here’s the exchange that caught my ears:

HOLT: “Senator Sanders, Americans love their SUVs, which spiked in sales last year as gas prices plummeted. How do you convince Americans that the problem of climate change is so urgent that they need to change their behavior?”

SANDERS: “I think we already are. Younger generation understands it instinctively. I was home in Burlington, Vermont, on Christmas Eve, the temperature was 65 degrees. People in Vermont know what’s going on. People who did ice fishing, where their ice is no longer there on the lake understand what’s going on.”

His answer from there moved into his well-worn tracks of denouncing the broken political process and the economic pressures that keep it dysfunctional. Still, before moving into that he articulated a certainty that people already realize these problems exist.

I think this speaks to his broader political philosophy, which he and others sometimes misname as socialism. It falls short of a systemic transformation of the means of production into communal resources (you know… the definition of socialism), but it shares with that a belief in a common denominator of sensibleness. That’s the raw material needed to inspire people to believe that something actually like socialism is possible, so it’s not wildly unrelated to be fair.

Before anyone gets too excited about what Sanders’ politics might make tangible though, there’s the other revealing thing he said when discussing foreign policy in the Middle East:

“And one point I want to make here that is not made very often, you have incredibly wealthy countries in that region, countries like Saudi Arabia, countries like Qatar. Qatar happens to be the largest — wealthiest country per capita in the world. They have got to start putting in some skin in the game [of counter-terrorism] and not just ask the United States to do it.”

The best statistics aren’t with Bernie Sanders on pretty much any part of this economic picture of Qatar and Saudi Arabia or even more generally the Persian Gulf region. In a very literal, numerical sense, these aren’t countries wealthier than the US asking for us to fight their battles for them.

The most reliable cross-country data on per capita wealth date back more than a decade and a half, and they paint a wildly different picture, which is difficult to dismiss as having radically reversed. What they show is that Qatar’s per capita net worth is about ninety percent of the US’s based on exchange rates and a little over seventy percent based when factoring in local purchasing power differences.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, and Bahrain – all with comparable economies to Qatar – fair similarly in comparison to the US. Saudi Arabia comes out markedly worse, coming out to barely over ten percent of the US’s per capita net worth based on exchange rates, which only grows to just over fifteen percent when accounting for greater Saudi purchasing power.

It’s easy for these discussions to become very abstract discussions of sales and productivity and various percents, removed from the lived realities of international economic inequality. In terms of infant mortality within the region, only Qatar and the UAE have both reduced their rates to equal that of the US, but that’s a development that’s happened only in the past five years. Bahrain and Kuwait still have infant mortality rates that lag several decades behind the gradually decreasing US rate, while Saudi Arabia still has a rate more than double that of the US’s current one.

It’s a similar story for the infants who survived too, with only Qatar’s life expectancy at birth rivaling the US’s in the past couple of decades. Still, the average person born in the US has gained about a year of anticipated life every five years, to the average Qatari’s year gained every decade. In other words, while the gap of how many children live is closing, the gap in terms of how long they live for is widening.

To exhaust the ways of interpreting Sanders’ comments, a country could have significantly lower standards of living than another in general, but have resources concentrated in a minority of the population that’s effectively rather wealthy. That wouldn’t fit what he’s describing, in terms of there being more resources for a typical Qatari than someone in the US, but it at least would explain why someone might draw the wrong conclusions he’s reached.

That said, while there are certainly some very wealthy people from those countries, this isn’t the case, as far as the statistics suggest. Information about the distribution of wealth within many Gulf countries is extremely difficult to find, but what little is internationally known shows them to have a Gini Coefficient equivalent to the US’s or very modestly lower. That means that while there are extremely wealthy elites within these countries that may be wealthier than the average US resident, the same is true and probably more statistically common within the US. The Qatar that Sanders described as overshadowing the US in economic power doesn’t even exist as a part of the country, let alone the whole.

qatar migrant workersMigrant workers in Qatar, from here.

There’s also the unsupported assertion that these (not actually) wealthy countries are asking us to get involved in anti-Daesh organizing, specifically with a ground occupation of parts of Syria and Iraq. Sanders’ approach towards the region misrepresents not just the existing relationship between these countries and our own, but misinterprets what leaders and average people in those countries want to have as a relationship with us.

In a nutshell, the unequal distribution of resources and as a result power which Sanders has centered his politics around criticizing doesn’t just exist within the United States but in some sense between us and many other parts of the world. His faith in people’s knowledge and intentions extends greatly, but it gets much patchier outside of US borders. There’s more nationalism in his politics than an actual socialist’s would have. It may make room for movement towards something like socialism domestically, but his take on international issues suggests that the revolution Sanders mentions is designed not to rewrite the global economic dominance of the United States.

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Economic justice… for whom?

It’s one of the familiar just so stories about US politics that’s become crystal clear in recent decades. The Democrats want to maintain or even expand programs designed to provide economic resources and benefits to people with less. Republicans want to shrink or dismantle those types of programs. One party for workers, one party for the “1%”, so the story goes.

Even the candidates who look like exceptions – like Donald Trump with his promises to maintain social security and medicare – tend to ultimately reveal policy ideas that firmly locate them in the political party that they’ve already embraced (Trump, for example, thinks “wages [are] too high” – an implicit criticism of current minimum wage standards).

More interesting, I think, than those less easily categorized oddballs are the terms on which the debate between these two camps is being held. Economic redistribution and inequality are actually somewhat lofty, vague even, concepts. How to measure, to quantify them is an open question. The language tends to be like that in what I’ve linked above – a discussion focused on easily indexed numerical statistics: wages, entitlements, inflation, productivity, unionization.

That’s not a wrongheaded way of talking about who wins and who loses in the US economy, but it’s just one way of doing that. Unfortunately, it’s a way shaped by, and sometimes specifically for, articulating a particular group’s economic grievances. One of the easiest ways of seeing that is in terms of communities with large numbers of undocumented people – for whom income taxes are a murky territory and benefits exist in a similarly unclear limbo.

For largely Latin@ agrarian worker communities, how do you quantify being an exception to environmental regulations? For the far broader set of populations at risk of being targeted with detention or even deportation, how can that not be among other things an economic threat – both held over you by your boss and your landlord but also just ominously lurking outside your home, endangering everything you have.

2016-01-04_1015.pngLeft, 2012 chlorpyrifos use in the western US, from here. Right, a heatmap of Latin@s in the western US made using the 2010 census, from here.

The Bernie Sanders campaign has recently sought to highlight a difference between their candidate and Trump. Sanders is a meaningful, redistributive choice. Trump is manipulating some of those hoping for greater economic opportunity, without any intention to deliver on it. In order to prove that, the Sanders campaign has latched on to Trump’s comments on wages.

Why was that necessary? Trump has already spoken to a more wild set of economic policies designed to hoard resources for some. That’s one of the things inherent in his promise to deport millions of people. That is economic injustice, and it’s important to ask why it hasn’t been considered that by the largely non-Latin@ mainstream media or presented as that by the redistribution-centered campaign of Bernie Sanders.

Is the economic populism advanced by Sanders and tolerated within major media really for everyone? Whose concerns does it speak to? Whose concerns does it barely register?

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The Afghanistan made by the US

In the wake of a recent attack on US service members in Afghanistan, the long ignored issue has come to the fore in national discussions. For the many in mainstream media who particularly highlight veterans’ and military issues, like Rachel Maddow, this was an opportunity to ask if we’re still an occupying presence in Afghanistan (technically, no; effectively, maybe).

Even in reporting focused beyond the experiences of US military, there’s a looming expectation. The attacks on not only the few US service members remaining in the country but also on religious and ethnic targets, namely the Hazara minority, are presented as the alternative to a larger US military presence. The implication is that they’re on the ends of a fulcrum, with US presence dampening the terrorism and related violence, which proliferates in our absence.

Another, more seldom presented, way of understanding the situation is that perhaps the recent attacks – against Hazara and US military – are themselves the result of the way that US became involved in the country. Far from opposites, they essentially encourage each other.

Long before the US’s presence there under the auspices of the War on Terror, the funding of counter-Soviet jihadists armed radical Sunni groups in Afghanistan to the teeth. Long hostile to Hazara and other ethnic groups who are predominantly Shia, this already threatened to tip the already militarized balance of ethnic power within the country against the Hazara and others. The Soviet invasion was, of course, a colonial nightmare, like most of the Soviet escapades through central Asia. This one, however, has reached even more nightmarish heights because of how another power, the US, perpetuated the internal conflicts.

Even as the Cold War melted away and new global struggles captured the US’s interest, Afghanistan remained a site of proxy war. A number of ethnic groups, including the Hazara to some extent, were the backbone of the Northern Alliance, the primary opponents to Taliban rule – the ultimate state-like incarnation of those same radical Sunni circles. Supported by many neighbors, primarily those further north and with similar ethnic compositions, this and other groups fighting against the Sunni supremacist and largely Pashtun-run Taliban were effectively off the US’s radar until Sunni supremacists hit here. Suddenly, those same largely Pashtun Sunni supremacists transformed from militants upsetting another empire to militants striking within the heart of ours.

With the overwhelmingly US-driven NATO presence then arriving in Afghanistan, you might expect the US’s alignments to change. Not so, as Pashtun politicians rode the wave of US-backed democratization into a new form of power. Even outside of positions explained by the formidable Pashtun voting bloc, they tended to rise to the top. Hamid Karzai, later the president of Afghanistan, rose to power first as an appointed interim leader at least to some extent condoned by the US military occupation.

The most notable exception to that trend was Mohammed Fahim – a prominent leader within the Northern Alliance and a non-Pashtun. His exceptional status is dampened somewhat when it’s pointed out that he was Tajik, not Hazara, and like many Tajiks, he was a Sunni Muslim, and at that one who studied Sunni Islamic law. What’s more, his role within the nominally moderate Karzai administration was to find as much common ground as possible with radical Sunnis and draw them back into non-violent politics. He died of natural causes just before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.

Beyond the political world as well, the part Pashtun Khaled Hosseini captured the US’s interest with The Kite Runner. While not fully Pashtun and quite vocally in favor of expanding the opportunities for Hazara and other ethnic minorities, his non-Pashtun ancestry is apparently Tajik, like Fahim. In his most prominent of several well-received stories, he painted a sympathetic picture of the Hazara as a uniquely constrained minority within Afghanistan, even as he at once embodied the greater attention paid by the US to the other groups within and from the country.

Perhaps most iconically however, there’s Sharbat Gula, better known the world over as simply “the Afghan girl”:

Sharbat_GulaSteve McCurry’s “The Afghan Girl” taken in December 1984.

She is also Pashtun, and like a large number of Pashtun people in the part of the world, even though not a Taliban supporter, she was sympathetic to their causes and was essentially open to their return. As she put it, quite accurately for many Sunni Pashtuns in all likelihood, under the Taliban “there was peace and order”.

That Pashtun-designed peace and order disintegrated with the US shifting from Cold War proxy support, to 1990s disinterest, to War on Terror occupation. The many modern militant groups currently threatening Hazara and US military members alike, are all committed to recreating some small slice of that in an era in which US drones can and regularly do coldly strike their villages along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

It’s a rather indirect path from US intervention to a toxified Afghanistan, in which the political choices are often between Pashtun-dominated/Sunni supremacist rule and an anemic centrist government that regularly negotiates with that precise political bloc. That said, there are recurrent patterns here – about whom the US chooses to arm, to fund, to advance, and otherwise to support. Our relationship with the many different Pashtun communities in the world is one riddled with inconsistency, but that stands in sharp contrast to a monolithic disinterest towards all things Hazara, which clearly extends out into higher standards for other non-Pashtuns too.

There are other, more common ways of noting that the US presence isn’t necessarily a check against extremism. If nothing else, our military presence anywhere in the Islamic world serves as a reason to radicalize. Beyond that, however, there’s a very simple question of which people in Afghanistan have been the recipients of our resources.

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The featured image for this article is an ethnographic map of Afghanistan, from here.

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The end

This is the fifth post in this series. You can read about the first chapter here, the second chapter here, the third chapter here, the fourth chapter here, or the full series.

This final chapter starts on the same note that the last one ended on – with Scrooge in a bit of a frantic whimsy. As he opens his eyes and is definitely awake again for the first time in several chapters, Scrooge shows part of what’s changed in him. Even though none of the ghosts are visibly there with him, he still calls out to them, saying,

“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future! […] The Spirits of all three shall strive within me. O Jacob Marley! Heaven and Christmastime be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees!”

From the man who unfeelingly recounted Marley’s death and sought to interact with as few people as possible, Scrooge’s calling out to these spirits and Marley specifically shows the new leaf he has already turned over. It doesn’t stop there, however. He dresses himself a bit madly, and calls down to a stranger in the street, asking what day it is.

scrooge waking up

“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.

“What’s today, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.

“Today!” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”

“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself. “I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. […]”

His hours with the spirits were stacked one over the other, even as Marley warned him that they would be on proceeding nights, at progressively earlier times. That’s the funny thing about time travel, it’s awfully convenient.

Scrooge then races to make amends – in three major ways. Most film productions tend to focus narrowly on the first one, and edit it as well. He buys a prize-winning sized turkey and has it delivered to the Cratchits, to supplement their lean Christmas dinner. Often, he’s shown as coming with his delivery and, without revealing his generosity, spies on how it is received – none of that’s in the original story.

Someone else writing about the Cratchits’ meal and Scrooge’s purchase on their behalf delved into some of the class tensions at hand here. Turkey – in contrast to the Cratchits’ goose – was still at that time an imported and exotic food item in Europe, the way pineapple would remain further into living memory. The different meats are already distinguishing class status in terms of what one can afford, but adding onto that there’s “the ostentatious aspect of purchasing the ‘prize Turkey,’ an ostentation largely erased by Scrooge’s anonymity.”

Scrooge’s gift being unattributed is necessary to maintain in order to avoid self-aggrandizing and furthering his class status over the Cratchits, but that’s not the end of it. Avoiding making it known that he is their donor seems like a way of avoiding a sort of retrofitted noblesse oblige. What Scrooge is skirting around the edges of is the type of wealthy vision of the poor – one I think best examined in an article describing the philosophy of a modern storage tycoon.

At the core of it, there’s an ideology popular among some of today’s wealthy in which the rich can and maybe even should help the poor. That generosity comes with certain provisions – not only can they do so in whatever manners they choose but they can also selectively obscure or emphasize their role in helping someone with less. The conspicuousness of their kindnesses are at their disposal, with information about how they have helped withheld or doled out as they see fit. Worse yet, that can take the form of them seeing their donation at work, with a kind of one-way mirror, as they use it to look into the lives of the poor in a way that the poor cannot look back on them.

Spying on the Cratchits (without spiritual help) would be Scrooge confirming his spiritual well-being to himself, and making them being fed about his salvation. When he reveals himself to the family (as he does in most versions), there’s a moment of almost shaming, usually of Bob Cratchit’s wife, for ever having doubted him. Even without that particular ugliness, he inserts himself into a day of respite for that family, and makes his involvement about his spiritual fulfillment, rather than theirs (spiritual, or otherwise).

scrooge anonymityScrooge and the Cratchits, from here.

Scrooge breaks with that entire vision of how to help others, central as it is in our modern philanthropy, with the other two amends he makes. He moves away from the atomizing charity he’s performing for the Cratchits towards something more broadly reaching. In the middle of the day, he comes across one of the men he turned down for donations to the poor in the first chapter. He quietly tells him to call on him for a donation, which he implies to the reader would be quite large, which would be distributed to countless impoverished people.

The change in Scrooge is at once personal and political – he is altering his relationship with Bob Cratchit (and forging one with the broader Cratchit family) but also committing himself to helping a more anonymous and broader population whom he doesn’t know, and likely suffer more than the Cratchits. Weighing in on the personal side as well, however, he makes his third amends – to his nephew and his wife, whose dinner he goes to and enjoys with them all.

Finally, the day after Christmas he commits to helping Bob Cratchit, with a raise for starters, but without revealing it was him who gave his family the turkey. It’s a mix of professional, personal, and political commitments that he’s making all at once.

stave 5 b(From here.)

Throughout this series I’ve made several sharp remarks about how modern adaptations tend to alter this story. In many ways, A Christmas Carol was a key player in launching the modern preoccupation with charity, because it made the argument that helping others improves your life as well. It’s notable, however, that it never fully splits the two apart the way we so casually do today.

This is woven into the story. On the note that the fourth chapter ended on, Scrooge’s nightmarish vision ends when he simultaneously reaches out for comfort and pledges to help others – a fusion of those two. Scrooge’s salvation is an omnipresent issue, but so is the suffering, largely material, of so many people around him. Scrooge’s betterment of himself doesn’t eclipse their urgent needs.

Amid the beatitude in which this story ends, there’s a somber note. The focus on poverty and want, so keenly depicted in dire moments and in prolonged inadequacies, in many modern versions takes a backseat to Scrooge’s personal evolution. Even the nature of his change is recast in those, from a journey towards interaction and community into one from naughty to nice. It’s shrunk down and made into something else, and this holiday is the perfect day, in a free moment, to ponder why and recall what it originally was.

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Who’s on third?

I’ve touched on this topic before, that what Trump is appealing to is something that fundamentally succeeds under a democratic system better than what most of his competitors in the Republican primary are offering. At least, within the Republican Party itself, it’s more durable. With Trump leading in the polls, that might sound like basic commonsense, but it also says something far more meaningful and darker about the future of the Republican Party.

What they’ve carefully crafted over the past several decades, with Southern Strategies and Moral Majorities, are ultimately brokered deals. Those are between an electoral bloc motivated by causes artfully directed away from economic populism and a smaller set who call the shots on anything with economic relevance. This was the playbook up through the recent Bush administration – which was headed by something of a cultural representative. His accent was pretty unconvincing to many, but just trying to use one aligned him with one cultural element in the country, which remains a large electoral bloc if not plurality of voters.

His upper class background spoke to the demarcations within that Republican arrangement – if not one of he was from and familiar with the few powerful donors and representatives who held key positions and dictated economic policy. That description of his administration might sound odd, and it is incomplete in how it leaves out the inescapable and protracted debates on marriage equality and abortion. The presence of two distinctive, at times radically so, policy conversations has been the Republican modus operandi for decades. Trump has disrupted that clear boundary between the two and the larger system that created that.

spirit justice.jpgRemember when all national discussion stalled to talk about the Spirit of Justice statue and her exposed breasts? Image from here.

Most clearly, his economic policies, like most of his politics, are taken as much as possible from the reactionary cultural groups tapped into by Republicans for years. Even on “social” issues, he’s touched the live wires that few other Republicans would – ones like immigration which while often talked about in terms of language and identity are impossible to have a substantive policy on without huge economic ramifications, many of which are unfavorable to major Republican donors.

In a nutshell, what I’ve said about that before is that, electorally, what he’s doing works. The prior Republican set-up requires constantly shifting public discussion from issue to issue, with each one manufacturing new ways of understanding the issue that must be bleached of any economic impact. It relies unsustainably on an ability to simultaneously engage and distract the same set of voters and supporters. Trump is just adjusting the Party, making it into something that doesn’t depend on both democratic support and undemocratic leadership at the same time.

One of the conclusions of that, however, is that he isn’t an interloper “robbing” Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Chris Christie or anyone else of their rightful nomination within “their” Party. He’s adapting the Party from within, alienating some who don’t understand or admit the weaknesses inherent in its prior structure, but ultimately expressing the same politics in a more internally cogent way. Trump is Republican and a plurality of Republicans for months now have supported him in national polling.

Donald_Trump_by_Gage_Skidmore_3.jpg
(Credit to Gage Skidmore.)

Earlier this week, I saw the first major news headline to recognize what that means:

It’s the Republican “establishment” which would be running as the third party. Trump is the apparent Republican nominee. He is the seeming representation of Republican political philosophy. One of the responding tweets described the bluff being called in other terms

Hopefully this is a realization that a number of people – who had the personal freedom to tune out of the “cuture wars” and write it off as a distraction – will have. Whoever in politics is still operating with that theatrical use of social issues, which always was done in a way dangerous to some, they’re no longer a major party.

The most prominent voices still using those terms aren’t just promising the moon like before, but meaningfully articulating what they want done nationally. The Republican Party’s paper tiger form wasn’t working, and Trump and others have decided to opt in favor of an actual tiger instead.

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The final spirit

This is the fourth post in this series. You can read about the first chapter here, the second chapter here, the third chapter here, or the full series.

Trigger warning: war, racism, islamophobia, ableism

When we last left Scrooge, he had just been introduced to a boy who represented the characteristic (ignorance) he had just displayed about how a huge chunk of the world’s population lives. The dying spirit who had shown him the child told him that across the boy’s forehead was written one word: doom. As if that’s not enough to spook Scrooge somewhat, that spirit then vanished into thin air, making room for one of the most iconic characters in this story to enter.

christmas future final.jpg
(From here.)

In Dickens’ words, the final spirit is-

“shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

[Scrooge] felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.”

In spite of its rather chilling appearance, Scrooge’s turn from isolation towards interaction holds firm. He speaks to the spirit, telling it among other things, “I am prepared to bear your company and do it with a thankful heart.”

Wordlessly, the spirit then conducts him on a similar tour of his surroundings. There’s a series of business-minded men who discuss an unnamed colleague’s recent death in unemotional and even disparaging terms. The man’s death is a passing topic, like the weather. The spirit then transports Scrooge from the genteel detachment exhibited among them to its more naked counterpart among those hocking items they’d taken from the dead man’s house.

In a pawnshop, three of them met unexpectedly – one an employee of an undertaker, another a charwoman (basically a part of the cleaning staff), and the other a laundress. As the pull out of their parcels all sorts of random items taken from the dead’s house:

“They were severally examined and appraised by old Joe, who chalked the sums he was disposed to give for each upon the wall, and added them up into a total when he found that there was nothing more to come.”

The cold calculation that this dead man’s life is reduced to is the horror in this story. Since many know before reading it who the man is or otherwise pick up on the many references in the story to his wealth, it’s easy to read this and think of this dehumanizing reduction of him as a universal human problem. He’s a wealthy man however, who doesn’t experience this until he dies at a ripe old age – not everyone is so lucky.

Throughout this year, similar calculations have been made about those in less stable standing – living and working in war zones, on the edge of empires, or disabled within the heart of them. Most recently, this sort of mathematics applied to human lives led to the bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan, the on-going demands to “vet” Syrian refugees, and the social abandonment of thousands of disabled people in the UK many of whom have since died.

When Scrooge begs the spirit to see someone moved by this death, as he begins to suspect who it may be, he gets a taste of how this older man came to be looked at as a resource and not a person. In a nutshell, he treated others that way, engaging in his own calculations not dissimilar to others’ that have had medical centers torched, survivors of war zones denied refuge, and the disabled left to die.

The only emotion stirred by the death that the spirit can show him is that of thankful reprieve – a couple indebted to the dead man eat better, sleep better, and breathe better knowing they have a few more days to pay off their debt, if it isn’t outright forgiven. Their creditor is something other than human to everyone else in part because he saw them as simply costs, revenues, and resources – just as he in turn shrewdly saw them.

Scrooge begs the spirit to show him something outside of this morose world of seeing others in such a dehumanizing light and in turn being seen that way. It takes him to a now familiar house – his employee’s. Bob Cratchit is deep in grief for Tiny Tim, something which many adaptations manage to show quite well. What’s less common for them to capture is what comes later out of his mouth. He asks his children –

“”[H]owever and whenever we part from one another , I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim – shall we?  – or this first parting that there was among us?’

‘Never, Father!’ cried they all.”

The grief never totally dissipates from the Cratchits’ home, but there is tenderness and remembrance that cuts it down to manageable size. This other way for the world to exist is one predicated on empathy and love, and it’s one in which the cold can be fought off and warmth shared. It seems callous to write off the Cratchits as quite simply “not broken” over the death of one of their children or siblings, but there is a resilience often lost in adaptations of this story, which speaks to the durability of the alternative they embody to an unfeeling world.

Scrooge is pulled away from his look into that world by the spirit. His doubts around him, he has a bit of a relapse of his avoidance-centered way of approaching the world. He runs away from where the spirit points to look at where his current office is, someone else is inside. When the spirit collects him from there and takes him to a graveyard, he won’t look at the headstone at which the spirit points – instead he asks a question of the spirit. For a return to his self-isolating ways, he seems remarkably reliant on interaction as a means to avoid looking at what he doesn’t want to see.

Having all but guessed who the dead man is, Scrooge begs the spirit to at least once speak and explain if these visions of the future are changeable. His only hope is to alter them, and he reasons out that there is no purpose in showing him his doom if he has no means to avoid it. The spirit offers no confirmation of that or other reassurance though – it simply points with its one feature, still to one particular grave. It bears Scrooge’s name.

Scrooge sinks to his knees and pleads to be told that he can change these outcomes, then insists he will heed the warnings he has been given by these spirits, and ultimately, catches the spirit’s hand and won’t let it go. It’s not clear what causes Scrooge to wake up in his own bed, the phantom transformed into his bedpost – his promise to be different or his demonstration of that by reaching out and grasping someone else. It’s a bit of the magic in the story that it can be both and between the two.

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Writing on the wall

Trigger warning: climate change, racism

On a number of issues, the writing showed up on the wall this week, portending a variety of impending conflicts.

With the news breaking that a longer term spending agreement couldn’t be reached, the US congress entered a second round of week-long spending negotiations on Wednesday. Chief among those popularly blamed for the failure to reach some consensus was Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin). While he was able to pass a bill today, his initial inability to break with the familiar patterns in prior Speaker John Boehner’s years at the helm suggests that the dysfunction in Washington isn’t entirely gone, and unlikely to easily resolve itself.

In the broader national scope, an interesting examination of where Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy draws strength from cast some ominous shadows. Trump’s supporters have long been identified as those acrimoniously done with US politics in general. Quoting a practically prophetic October analysis of Trump, it was noted that he has thrived on being distinctive, even at the cost of being offensive to some outside of his target audience.

What this speaks to is what others have discussed outside of the Trump phenomenon: the increasing polarization of political parties in the US and gradual emergence of the Republicans as more than just a political bloc but a cultural (and increasingly racially distinctive) faction. Taken together, the warning is clear – Trump has uniquely sought to capitalize on that process, encouraging politics that deliver on a certain portion of the country’s demands, rather than a consensus. Those are the politics that lead to undemocratic reigns or contentious civil conflicts.

climate_change_paris_ap_img(From here.)

Lastly, the world appears to be repeating familiar mistakes in responding to climate change. The agreements forged in Paris recently are impressive, arguably more so than many expected to come out of the process. But, identically to the Kyoto Protocols, they’re nonbinding promises. We’ve been down that road before, and hopefully can remember what exactly went wrong.

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Life, liberty, and the pursuit of chemical weapons

Trigger warning: Syrian civil war, war crimes

The Republican Presidential Primary has now seen five debates. Since the second one, at which former CEO Carly Fiorina made her national debut, there’s been few changes in the rhetoric and claims made by candidates in appearance after appearance.

One of the most interesting consistencies is Senator Rand Paul’s fierce insistence on a mildly pro-Assad stance. Part of the strangeness of this is that this puts him outside of the Assad-critical consensus which includes everyone from his competitors in the primary to President Obama. These aren’t just rare politics, however, but ones that speak to an intriguing contradiction at the heart of American libertarianism.

The still technically reigning president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, essentially inherited his position from his father after his brother, initially favored, died unexpectedly in a car accident. He has held a prominent national position since the mid-1990s, with only dubious democratic checks on his rule. Ignited by the international Arab Spring in 2012 and fueled by local droughts and famines, much of Syria has been engaged in open revolt against his regime for several years now. The remnants of al-Assad’s government have resorted to widespread use of chemical weapons, prompting the current US administration to categorically reject any involvement in Syria designed to shore up his rule.

The son of a charismatic leader thrust into protracted and toxic battles to retain territory, perhaps al-Assad reminds Senator Paul of himself. Whatever personal readings he has of the man, his libertarian ethos seems to take a backseat to a curiously pro-Assad policy plank without question. Paul stands with, intriguingly enough, a large chunk of the US and broader world in insisting that we can’t back Daesh and other islamist groups in the prolonged Syrian conflict. As he put it last night:

We had people coming to our Foreign Relations Committee and saying, ‘Oh, we need to arm the allies of Al Qaida.’ They are still saying this. It is a crazy notion. This is the biggest debate we should be having tonight is is regime change a good idea; has it been a good idea.

This uncontroversial carefulness when picking people to support in Syria (and the broader Islamic world), based on more than simply opposition to dictatorships, is woven into his larger, stranger political view of the Middle East, however. As he also explained in that debate:

“I think that by arming the allies of ISIS, the Islamic rebels against Assad, that we created a safe space or made that space bigger for ISIS to grow.”

This reduction down of the Syrian conflict into a binary choice between locally quite bloodthirsty secular dictatorship and theocracy with aspirations of terrorizing the globe seems politically useful, if you want people outside of Syria to ultimately accept al-Assad and his regime as a “lesser of two evils”. Unfortunately, it presumes a lot of not necessarily true facts: that someone has to be supported in the Syrian conflict, and that no alternatives to al-Assad’s government and Daesh exist (the Kurdish separatists, among others, are apparently not worth mentioning).

syria conflict map
Syrian military blocs’ holdings, as of his summer, from here.

What’s truly shocking, however, is to hear this acceptance of systemic violence and despotism as inherently how Syria and perhaps the broader Islamic world simply have to be coming out of the mouth of libertarian widely criticized for his idealism. The idealist rhetoric which permeates Senator Paul’s worldview, or at least political perspective within the US’s borders, melts away, leaving behind an undemocratic and even imperialistic skeleton.

An interesting implication of this is that all of the language favored by libertarians, or at least the ones who agree with Senator Paul, obscures something. It’s not possible that all human beings have inalienable rights to life and liberty, if Syrian’s lives and liberties can so coolly be considered and bartered away on the other side of the world.

It suggests that only some people are truly included in the loftiest defenses of all “human beings” or that “life and liberty” are so incoherently defined in practice that dictatorships like al-Assad’s can quite easily still fit into the definition of a government which provides them. Maybe it’s both – that liberty in (at least some forms of) libertarianism is a privilege reserved for a select few and one defined in a broken way designed to excuse and permit quite literal autocracy.

Something no one seems to be asking is for Senator Paul to explain himself on his, how someone who claims to center a universal human right to liberty in his politics can also be one of the leading figures calling for us to tacitly or even directly support one of the most violent regimes on the planet. I hope he we can hear his answer to gain some clarity on what’s happening here.

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The second of the three spirits

This is the third post in this series. You can read the first chapter’s post here, the second chapter’s post here, or the full series.

Just as last week’s chapter began with Scrooge alone in bed, this one does too. Once again, Scrooge has shrunk back from a message critical of his actions. First he retreated somberly and almost automatically to bed after meeting Marley’s ghost, but now, he has also more aggressively shut out the warning from the Ghost of Christmas Past.

That spirit had shown him something that pained Scrooge – his own steady transformation into the person he is at present. Although the seeds for self isolation and miserliness had always been in him, a lengthy series of choices led him to embrace those parts of his life, and be pickled in his own vitriol and contempt.

Isolated in his room again, awaiting yet another spirit, he’s beginning to have something of a change of heart, however. After awakening in bed, he doesn’t passively await the spirit while insisting they won’t come. Instead, “finding that he turned uncomfortably cold when he began to wonder which of his curtains this new specter would draw back, he put them every one aside with his own hands, and lying down again, established a sharp lookout all round the bed.” Previously impervious to cold and socially withdrawn, him being spurred to interaction by a chill shows the beginnings of a changed nature.

This spirit, perhaps reacting to Scrooge’s inching towards a return to social life, awaits him this time around, in the next room. The light emitted from him eventually draws Scrooge from bed – again, having him relinquish his isolating tendencies – and Scrooge walks in on the spirit. The spirit makes a luxurious first appearance, which is often lovingly rendered in stage and video adaptations:

“It was [Scrooge’s] own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceilings were so hung with living green that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which bright, gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there, and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney as the dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time or Marley’s, or for many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-checked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy stat upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see, who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.”

Where the Ghost of Christmas Past appeared before Scrooge almost faded – a mixture of forgotten good moments and ignored negative ones – this spirit comes as a loud proclamation of what Scrooge is missing out on. His bounty appears before Scrooge as physical and even edible. As they go on another Christmas tour, through the present holiday not Scrooge’s past, he seems to imply it isn’t ultimately one that you have, let alone eat. Instead, it’s one that you share.

As they travel, Scrooge witnesses the spirit blessing a number of meals, of all different sorts of people, and this conversation happens between them:

“‘Would [the blessings] apply to any kind of dinner on this day?’ asked Scrooge. ‘To any kindly given. To a poor one most.’ ‘Why to a poor one most?’ asked Scrooge. ‘Because it needs it most.'”

With that, they begin a rather harrowing look at how the other half lives, which Scrooge so casually dismissed from concern in the first chapter. The tour begins with Scrooge’s own underpaid clerk, who is cheerfully reunited with his eldest daughter, who has moved out of home to be a milliner’s apprentice. Even amid the joy in seeing her, however, the tone of the day has somber moments. Scrooge’s clerk had previously been at Church with his youngest and disabled child – Tiny Tim.

When discussing him with his wife and eldest children, his “voice was tremulous when he told them [about their morning at Church] and trembled more when he said that Tiny Tim was growing strong and hearty. His active little crutch was heard upon the floor, and back came Tiny Tim before another word was spoken, escorted by his brother and sister to his stool beside the fire, and while [Scrooge’s clerk], turning up his cuffs – as if, poor fellow, they were capable of being made more shabby – compounded some hot mixture in a jug with gin and lemons, and stirred it round and round”.

This is the life that someone in comparatively good economic standing could have in Scrooge’s time. He is not ensnared in poverty and hardship – which will be seen later – but he and his family live with constant interruption, reminding them of how fragile their lives are and how economically vulnerable they remain. Nothing, I think, shows this better than the description of their Christmas dessert as they bring it out:

“A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating house and a pastry cook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’ next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered = flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannonball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half a quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top. Oh, a wonderful pudding!”

Unlike others, soon to be seen, the Cratchits do live with a certain amount of material comfort. But even in their celebrations there are the looming prospects of how much they must do (and soon) to maintain what little good things they have, making even a pudding not just a triumph but one that reminds them of a series of different economic activities. In our era in which the presence of basic comforts is so routinely used to cast doubt on the seriousness of economic vulnerability or limitation, this stands out as a profound portrayal of how living without enough, even a small amount less, is debilitating.

The labor they need to perform permeates even their rest days and the ominous threat of costs that can never be fully covered – most obviously proper nutrition and otherwise treatment for Tiny Tim. Scrooge, watching these private moments is moved, and asks if Tiny Tim will live, presumably meaning to a reasonable, adult age.

“‘I see a vacant seat,’ replied the Ghost, ‘in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.'”

He then gives Scrooge something of a ticking clock, by implying it is most likely to happen before the following Christmas. Scrooge is horrified to hear this, only to have the spirit hurl his words back at him: “‘If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the population.'”

From this, the spirit guides Scrooge through miners’ and sailors’ Christmas celebrations, showing those in even more precarious standing and with even less to celebrate with than Scrooge’s clerk and his family. In this, Scrooge sees the faces of those he had so coldly called expendable surplus lives the day before.

They travel everywhere, however, and ultimately see Scrooge’s nephew’s celebrations. The games at their party ultimately culminate in a kind of older version of twenty questions, in which it is ultimately revealed that the moody animal that walks the streets of London is revealed to be none other than Scrooge, who declined to join them.

Scrooge laughs off the joke, showing a previously unseen sense of humor, but an often overlooked exchange comes about after that reveal among the guests. “[S]ome objected that the reply to ‘Is it a bear?’ ought to have been ‘Yes,’ as an answer in the negative was sufficient to have diverted their thoughts from Mr. Scrooge, supposing they had ever had any tendency that way.”

What’s suggested here are two things – that Scrooge has become a distant and often overlooked subject to many of these people and that when he is considered, it’s not entirely in human terms. It’s at that point that Scrooge sees something also curiously between human and animal protruding from his accompanying spirits cloak. “‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply” before he lifts the hem of its robe, showing “two children, wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, [and] miserable.”

ignorance and want final
From here.

The spirit disavows parenthood of them, saying that they belong to men. He introduces them: “‘This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow, I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’

Often, this is read as a warning that those with fewer resources – for education or more immediate wants and needs – are a scowling, almost subhuman threat if left unfed. Reading this immediately after Scrooge himself is noted to be similar at the edge of humanness and has come to grips with his ignorance of what life in poverty is like, however, it seems more as though Scrooge is the clawing child. He maybe be threatened by the “Doom” written upon him, but he is also the unsavory and dangerous threat himself.

This is the second spirit’s last moment with Scrooge, for it then disappears at the stroke of midnight, leaving him alone except for “a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, to him.”

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Fascism, democracy, and demagoguery

Trigger warning: racism, antisemitism

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I only rarely post on the weekends. Well, debating whether one of the most likely nominees for president next year from a major party is fascist is a pretty exceptional circumstance, so here’s a quick bonus column on that.

I laid out on Thursday a look at Trump as fitting Roger Griffin’s standards for fascism – in a nutshell, palingenetic rightwing ultra-nationalism. Intriguingly, Vox has put out a similar checklist examination of Trump with Griffin as an included source, in which Trump squeaks by as just demagogic right-wing populism. There’s a lot of talk about individualism, which in their description is primarily about the aesthetics of Trump’s followers, but they do make a main point about Trump, fascism, and democratic values:

There are enough differences between the relevant fascist regimes — Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, perhaps Francoist Spain — that identifying commonalities that do not in turn implicate plenty of clearly non-fascist regimes is tricky. But there is general agreement about some requirements.

[…]

fascism must involve calling for the ‘rebirth’ of the nation. That might at first glance sound like Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again,’ but Griffin insists on a distinction. Rebirth, in his theory, actually requires the dramatic abandonment of the existing political order. ‘There has to be a longing for a new order, a new nation, not just a reformed old nation,’ he told me. ‘As long as Trump does not advocate the abolition of America’s democratic institutions, and their replacement by some sort of post-liberal new order, he’s not technically a fascist.’

Matthew Feldman, a fascism expert at Teesside University in the UK, agrees. ‘He’s still in the democratic family,’ he says. ‘Trump is calling for ethnocratic small-l liberalism. It’s liberalism that’s racially tinged. If you were white in apartheid South Africa, you had all the rights and benefits of a liberal state. For you it was a democracy. But it didn’t feel that way for blacks in South Africa.’

[…]

When the original fascist regimes emerged, ‘the existing governments seemed to be incapable of providing leadership, providing what was needed for this wounded country,’ [Columbia University Professor Robert] Paxton tells me, ‘and so fascists were in favor of totally overthrowing the existing constitution, which was usually democratic and perceived as weak. This was wildly popular. We are not in that position today.’

Trump definitely attacks the current government as ‘weak,’ which Paxton says might be termed a ‘borrowing’ from fascism. But it’s a far cry from the outright support for ending democracy that characterizes true fascists.

Here’s the problem with all of that – only one of the three fascist regimes mentioned in this article came to power by means other than the democratic process, and it’s the one qualified with a “perhaps” as to whether it was fascist.

The Nazi Party in Germany – holding an electoral plurality – famously manufactured a series of crises culminating in the Reichstag Fire to justify curtailing the democratic system. Ultimately, their emergency powers combined with pre-existing challenges to the democratic system in Germany created the highly authoritarian system that we now look back on Nazi Germany critically for having. In short, the profoundly anti-democratic nature of fascism in Germany emerged as an aspect of it, rather than appeared immediately.

What’s less well known, and ultimately even more discrediting to this view, is that Mussolini’s fascist Italy operated with democratic elements for years until those aspects of it finally eroded into his dictatorial control. That’s the example that gives us the specific word “fascist” – shouldn’t that count for something?

45070271_90e687a85a_o.jpg
A fascist-era addition to the Piazza Augusto Imperatore in Rome, showing an angel carrying a fasces, or bundle of sticks. The Roman-derived symbol of national unity is the origin of the term “fascist”. From here.

Whether we limit our fascist models to just those two cases or include Franco’s regime in Spain (which is also more nuanced in terms of anti-democratism), the general model for fascism appears to be one in which democratic norms and processes aren’t immediately challenged but slowly eroded and dismantled. It’s shocking to see not only a news organization like Vox but also a whole slew of political scientists and social theorists engage in the sleight of hand of presenting the conditions only truly manifest in Nazi Germany circa 1937 as the essentials of fascist organization and philosophy.

Admittedly, I’m leaning more heavily on the opinions of other academics and journalists than those consulted by Vox, namely David Neiwert. That being said, a sizable chunk of Neiwert’s work has drawn from and largely agreed with exactly the same thinkers – Paxton and Griffin particularly – whom Vox has cited. Neiwert quotes Paxton (“Fascists despise thought and reason, abandon intellectual positions casually, and cast aside many intellectual fellow-travelers.”) in the midst of describing how fascism is often uniquely difficult to define because it adopts and rejects different policy positions for a whole host of opportunistic and goal oriented reasons, including support for democratic norms.

That slipperiness of what policies can even be defined as fascist brings us to perhaps the only thing equally stunning as the curious claims about how overtly anti-democratic fascism always necessarily is. That would be the bald insistence that there is no such thing as fascist economics.

In some sense, Vox is correcting a common misunderstanding about fascism – that it’s use of state economic intervention makes it similar to socialism or communism, or even socialism and communism versions of it. That view often focuses the Nazi Party’s early platform, which called for rather active government intervention in the economy, namely the nationalization of several industries. What’s often overlooked is that that process of nationalization happened before the Nazis came to power (under the staunchly anti-communist and center-right Weimar Republic), and once in power, the Nazis themselves privatized almost all of those briefly publicly controlled companies. Just like with democracy, the fascists were all over the place in terms of what policies would work best for the country.

The language the Nazis used to describe the need for nationalization provides a clue as to why that discrepancy between what their Party said and did came about. Their early platform described a lot of those industries as being in the hands of “usurers” – a not so subtle clue that what they objected to wasn’t private ownership but Jewish ownership. By severely limiting Jewish liberties, including economic ones – which the Nazis did once in power – they no longer had the same aversion to private control over major industries and public amenities. The borderline socialist calls for public ownership and democratic control melted away into rather capitalist-friendly demands for perceived efficiency and private ownership.

That switch is arguably one of the most quintessential elements to facsism, as not only a political but also an economic phenomenon. Most overtly, here’s Ernesto Laclau in Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory on the economic rhetoric from fascism (page 120):

“[T]he radicalized German petty-bourgeoisie which was experiencing in a confused way the post-war crisis, the iniquity of the Versailles Treaty, inflation, foreign occupation, etc., was interpellated by nazism as a race. All the anti-plutocratic, nationalist, democratic aspects, that is to say all those elements which constituted the identity of the dominated classes as ‘[the] people’, and which thus expressed their contradiction with the power bloc, were present in Nazi discourse but the interpellated subject was a racial one. Through this identification of popular traditions with racism, a dual aim was achieved: all the jacobin radicalism proper to a radical confrontation with the system was retained whilst its channeling in a socialist direction is obstructed.

That’s a rather academic way of describing what I wrote about earlier, that fascism is fundamentally about harnessing populist economic demands and repurposing and distorting them. Typically that’s done towards not just dictatorial or nationalist goals, but ultimately colonialist and racist ends designed to reorganize and “properly” stratify different social groups – think of the return of major industries and public amenities in fascist Germany into the hands of people then legally able to own them, almost entirely non-Jewish.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s insistent on his fitness for office and visceral stereotyping of Mexican and Muslim people, that seems to alarmingly coincide with his politics. His statements on immigration, namely that mass deportation would “help wages grow” in fact earlier coincides with the ethnically -charged way that the Nazi Party called for mass deportations in the name of “opportunity for a livelihood and way of life for” ethnic Germans. The unsettling part of that examination is that it implicates in the end most of the Republican Party, who if not fascist have for years encouraged fascist concepts within their Party and this country.

I suppose, ultimately, that’s my question for anyone who reflexively labels Donald Trump as a non-fascist: to what extent is that an avoidance of recognizing what it says about not only him, but his Party, and even our broader political system?  How much of that is about the chilling conclusion it implies?

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Study, mourn, and respond

TW: abortion, sexism, racism, islamophobia, police violence, gun violence

It seems like there’s violence and intimidation cropping up in almost every corner of public life in the United States. This past week, most media coverage and most of my writing on here has focused on the parsing Donald Trump’s language and politics. Today, let me link you to a few examinations and responses to that that were all too easy to overlook this past week.

Anti-abortion violence has crept across the US

UltraViolet came out with a new graphic showing the steady background noise that violence against abortion providers has become in this country. It ticks through the attacks on clinics that have happened in the past ten years, which reveal them to be periodic occurrences, a part of normal life for those working at them.

uv_abortion_clinic_attacks_since_1995

The image was created within a broader push for greater security at those and related locations, given a sense of urgency after the recent attack in Colorado Springs.

Japan: not quite your islamophobic ally

Originally posted by an NRA administrator but quickly picked up by a variety of conservative media figures, a graphic praising Japanese restrictions on Muslims’ freedom of movement and economic activities has gone viral overnight.

GlobalVoices has a great rundown of how critics from vloggers to Japanese public officials have debunked basically every bullet point it lists, but I suspect that’s not really the point. It’s something of a perfect collision of an overwhelming paranoia of Muslims and an exotifying and isolating view of parts of Asia (chiefly Japan) – the legal, social, and economic realities built by and for members of either of those groups aren’t really relevant to the racist revulsion and fascination now on full display.

The public memorial

In the wake of the many recent violent incidents and prominent calls for more violence, something like a memorial, a place for people to gather in mourning and to commit themselves to peace instead, has a lot of appeal.

A group of organizations, most of them multi-issue but growing out labor organization, have created something like an online version of that. It opens asking “Is this America?” before criticizing the violence against abortion providers, police violence towards Black people, and islamophobic and racist rhetoric. It ends with an affirmation that “We are better than this.”

If that fails to move you, you can continue scrolling, past the organizations and leaders who wrote this statement and into the thicket of average citizen signatories. You are not alone in wanting something better.

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