Fortune favors the bully

“I’ve seen various people say, ‘Well this is awful for Trump. He’s missing his opportunity to make his closing argument to Iowa caucusgoers!’ But that’s not getting what’s happening. Maybe this will be a disaster for Trump. But it won’t be because he missed out on 15 minutes of airtime.

The misunderstanding is similar to all the other times over the last six months when observers thought Trump had tripped himself up by violating some political taboo, showing he didn’t understand some basic policy issue or just flat out lying about something in a easily demonstrable way. Focusing on these indicators is like watching an opera and fixating on the libretto rather than the score. Yes, it’s part of what’s happening. But it’s not what’s generating the energy and motion. It’s just a ripple on the surface of a deep sea. How much do you need to know German to get Wagner?

When I first wrote about this a dozen years ago I called it the “bitch slap theory of politics.” I’m no longer comfortable using that phrase. But I do think the heavily gendered, violent nature of that phrase is one of the only ways to really capture the nature of what’s happening in these dramas.

Take Trump’s evisceration of Jeb Bush.

Trump’s comment about Jeb’s being “weak”, “low energy”, “pitiful” … these are demeaning and denigrating phrases. They seem frankly gross, with an emotional tenor we’d expect from street toughs or frat boys trash talking each other. It’s raw and primal and all about dominating by denigrating. But what has really hurt Bush is not so much that Trump is calling him names. It’s that Trump has used these attacks to demonstrate that Jeb is unable or unwilling to defend himself. Trump hits him and Jeb takes it. His responses are hapless and weak and generally meaningless. You probably barely remember them. The impact of this is not tied to Trump calling Bush “weak.” Trump is engineering encounters that show that Bush is weak.”

-Josh Marshall, “The Triumph of the Will”

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Knowledge at first sight

“Rather than blame things for being obscure, we should blame ourselves for being biased and prisoners of self-induced repetitiveness. One must forget many clichés in order to behold a single image. Insight is the beginning of perceptions to come rather than the extension of perceptions gone by. Conventional seeing, operating as it does with patterns and coherences, is a way of seeing the present in the past tense. Insight is an attempt to think in the present.

Insight is a breakthrough, requiring much intellectual dismantling and dislocation. It begins with a mental interim, with the cultivation of a feeling for the unfamiliar, unparalleled, incredible. It is being involved with a phenomenon, being intimately engaged to it, courting it, as it were, that after much perplexity and embarrassment we come upon insight—upon a way of seeing the phenomenon from within. Insight is accompanied by a sense of surprise. What has been closed is suddenly disclosed. It entails genuine perception, seeing anew. He who thinks that we can see the same object twice has never seen. Paradoxically, insight is knowledge at first sight.”

—Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (1962), p. xvi

Summoning publics from fleeting masses

“Though the public intellectual is a political actor, a performer on stage, what differentiates her from the celebrity or publicity hound is that she is writing for an audience that does not yet exist. Unlike the ordinary journalist or enterprising scholar, she is writing for a reader she hopes to bring into being. She never speaks to the reader as he is; she speaks to the reader as he might be. Her common reader is an uncommon reader.

The reason for this has less do with the elitism of the intellectual — mine is no brief for an avant garde or philosopher king — than with the existence, really, the nonexistence, of the public. Publics, as John Dewey argued, never simply exist; they are always created. Created out of groups of people who are made and mangled by the actions of other people. Capital acts upon labor, subjugating men and women at work, making them miserable at home. Those workers are not yet a public. But when someone says — someone writes — “Workers of the world, unite!,” they become a public that is willing and able to act upon its shared situation. It is in the writing of such words, the naming of such names — “Workers of the world” or “We, the People,” even “The Problem That Has No Name” — that a public is summoned into being. In the act of writing for a public, intellectuals create the public for which they write.

The problem with our public intellectuals today has little to do with their style. It has little to do with their professional location, whether they write from the academy or for the little magazines. It has little to do with the suburbs, bohemia, or tenure. The problem with our public intellectuals today is that they are writing for readers who already exist, as they exist.

From the vantage of [Russell] Jacoby’s book, [The Last Intellectuals,] the prospects today for public intellectuals seem even better. After all, one of the material factors Jacoby claimed was driving intellectuals away from the public was the ease and comfort of university life. That life is gone: The precarity that Jacoby saw outside academia is now the norm inside academia. And while precarity often propels men and women to play it safe, a new generation of graduate students and young academics seems to have thrown caution, and academic protocol, to the wind. We see them in the Los Angeles Review of Books, n+1, and Jacobin, hurling their smarts at mass incarceration or the crisis in Greece, using their well-wrought words as weapons against student debt, crappy jobs, even capitalism itself.

We have the means, we have the material. What we don’t have is mass. We have episodic masses, which effervesce and overflow. But it’s hard to imagine masses that will endure, publics that won’t disappear in the face of state repression or social intransigence but instead will dig in and charge forward. And it is that constraint on the imagination and hence the will that is the biggest obstacle to the public intellectual today. Not tenure, not the death of bohemia, not jargon, but the fear that the publics that don’t yet exist — which are, after all, the only publics we’ve ever had — never will exist.”

—Corey Robin, “How Intellectuals Create a Public”

Me, you, every law-abiding American

Federal land: The Oregonian’s A1 headline on Sunday, Jan. 17, “Effort to free federal lands,” is inaccurate and irresponsible. The article that follows it is a mere mouthpiece for the scofflaws illegally occupying public buildings and land, repeating their lies and distortions of history and law.

Ammon Bundy and his bullyboys aren’t trying to free federal lands, but to hold them hostage. I can’t go to the Malheur refuge now, though as a citizen of the United States, I own it and have the freedom of it. That’s what public land is: land that belongs to the public — me, you, every law-abiding American. The people it doesn’t belong to and who don’t belong there are those who grabbed it by force of arms, flaunting their contempt for the local citizens.

Those citizens of Harney County have carefully hammered out agreements to manage the refuge in the best interest of landowners, scientists, visitors, tourists, livestock and wildlife. They’re suffering more every day, economically and otherwise, from this invasion by outsiders.

Instead of parroting the meaningless rants of a flock of Right-Winged Loonybirds infesting the refuge, why doesn’t The Oregonian talk to the people who live there?

Ursula K. Le Guin

Northwest Portland

Via ThinkProgress

Poisoning democracy

“Voters are nervously looking for a new political home as traditional parties have proved oblivious to their needs. The same angry migration from the old parties, to fringes of both left and right, is wrecking Europe, as people flock to Marine Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in the U.K., former comedian Beppe Grillo in Italy, Podemos in Spain, the Finn Party in Finland, Syriza in Greece, and all sorts of populist parties in Eastern Europe. Men and women left in the cold by globalization and rising inequality, scared of immigrants often lumped together with foreign terrorists in the media and the popular imagination: This is not the base for the new Western World Fascist Party, but it is a powder keg powerful enough to inflame societies on both sides of the Atlantic. It will not destroy Western democracies, but it may poison them. Witch-hunts, racism, repression, and state surveillance may plague a democracy without morphing it into a fascist dictatorship.”

—Gianni Riotta, “I Know Fascists; Donald Trump is No Fascist”

Bowie

Good on Vox for posting Chris Hadfield’s cover of “Space Oddity.” That was the first thing I thought of when I heard that David Bowie died today. Here’s the video:

Bowie seems to have been the kind of artist who was good at almost every genre he tried. He was an exceptional actor, too, as fans of Labyrinth may attest. (He’s certainly the best thing about the film.) I think his stunt casting as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ, though, is one of the most memorable bit parts ever put on screen. Credit Scorsese for recognizing how to put Bowie’s presence to use, but give Bowie the credit for his pitch-perfect calibration.

I’m not sure for how many people this is true, but the first time I really took notice of Bowie was in the prominence of his music in 2001’s Moulin Rouge!. It’s been a decade since I’ve seen it, so I’ve no idea if the film holds up, but those who were around at the time may recall how crazy popular the soundtrack was. It was exactly the kind of film I needed to see at the time I saw it, whatever its merits, and it reinvigorated my love for musicals and it piqued an interest in classic rock. “Heroes” is, of course, a now-legendary song from Bowie’s collaboration with Brian Eno, and the original version is pretty awesome. I really like this live version, too, though; like the original, it builds, but instead of barrelling straight in, with all the production bells/whistles, it relies on the rhythm and Bowie’s vocal performance to gain momentum:

If you want to know what students think, why not ask them?

“We don’t all agree that the lecture is doomed. A number of us have found professors who have really inspired us with their lectures. They convey their subject with energy, and engage us as people. One gathers students on stage to act out what he is teaching. Another, a climatologist, asks us to send him photos of the day’s weather. Professors who ask us questions, make jokes, bring in their dogs — do anything to humanize themselves — make us feel less like just a body in the room.

We can tell you those professors are too few and far between. Websites like RateMyProfessor have become an indispensable resource for finding them. Professors might not like being reduced to a mere number, but, hey, neither do we.

We will admit that the problem is not that the lecture is inherently a horrendous format. We’ve had bad small discussion-based classes where no one has done the required reading. We’ve sat through awkward silences when no one wants to add to the discussion.

But for us, the lecture seems too much the default option for educating a lot of us at the cheapest price.

Instead of debating the lecture, instead of imagining what students are thinking, get to know us. Find out what college is like for us now, rather than what it was like for you years ago. Learn that we respond to your lecture very individually, and that we pick our lectures often for the individuality of the professor rather than the subject.”

—the undersigned students of Catherine Prendergast’s writing course, “A Lecture from the Lectured

And the answer, said the judge.

If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons.

— Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (1985)

Hope against dumb, inert factiticy

“There is a dumb inert facticity to history. It can provide the building blocks with which we build an ethical or existential outlook, but the task of constructing those values is ours and ours alone.  This is not to say that hopelessness is an illegitimate response to the horrors of history—it clearly is one response. But to hope or not to hope is our existential and ethical choice, not one compelled by the facts of history.”

—Peter Wirzbicki, “Hope and Historians