democracy

Escape

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The Pentagon, 12 January 2008. (Credit: David B. Gleason)

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and now Donald Trump—all of whom grew up on Hollywood’s spectacle of America winning wars ad infinitum and none of whom fought in an actual war—“managed to remain quite deeply embedded in centuries of triumphalist frontier mythology.”

We’re still stuck in the fantasy of “an American world of forever war.”

Tom Engelhardt, “Rebecca Gordon, War Without End,” March 7, 2017

 

I was struck, while reading one of Peter Zhang’s exploratory essays and thinking about US war culture, by the metaphor of escape.[i] Escape is just one figure in Zhang’s extended comparison of Deleuze to Zen. The spirit of the essay’s multiple analogies is heuristic, especially for escaping debilitating conventions of political culture. (more…)

The Distraction of Trump

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“The Conjurer,” oil on canvas, by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1496-1520. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

There is a lot not to like about the new president. His boorish persona and proclivity to wreak havoc are a major source of stress, unless you are one of his joyful supporters. Trump the President is a polarizing figure, but his political clownery is also a distraction from the deeper challenges facing the nation and the world at large.

Trump’s circus act gets all the attention. Rome built the colosseum to distract plebeians from the empire’s economic and political problems by entertaining them with bloody displays of gladiator combat. The famous Tivoli amusement park was built in mid-19th century Copenhagen to divert the people’s attention from politics. Billion dollar football stadiums in the US are venues for mixing blood sport with patriotic display. Entertainment, often fused with military ritual (Roger Stahl calls it “militainment”), sidetracks the deliberation of public policy. (more…)

The Good War

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Historian Howard Zinn speaking in 2009. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Howard Zinn was a bombardier in World War II. He flew B-17 missions over Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. He didn’t like war, but he joined in the fight against Fascism because he believed this war was “a people’s war, a war against the unspeakable brutality of Fascism.” Unlike other wars, this war “was not for profit or empire”:

What could be more justifiable than a war against Fascism, which was ruthlessly crushing dissent at home, and taking over other countries, while proclaiming theories of racial supremacy and promoting a spirit of nationalist arrogance. When Japan, which was committing atrocities in China, allied itself to Italy and Germany, and then attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, it seemed to be clear—it was the democratic countries against the Fascist countries.[i]

Indeed, World War II is the national archetype of the good war, the just war, the war for democracy and liberty. US wars have been infused ever since with the heroic spirit of its just cause.

Based on his experience and then on his research as a professional historian, Zinn changed his mind about World War II and war in general. His reassessment is worth reflecting upon since, as he put the matter, World War II is the supreme test of whether there is such a thing as a just war.[ii] (more…)

Failed Empire

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(Credit: Veterans for Peace)

Is the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency the sign of a failed empire?

“Make America Great Again” is a campaign slogan that seems to acknowledge the country’s fall from grace. Tom Engelhardt certainly thinks that’s the case, as we noted in a previous Hunt the Devil post. In Engelhardt’s words, Trump is “our first declinist candidate for president.”

Trump’s victory is a convoluted concession that world dominion has been a ruinous pursuit. Of course, he promises to recover the country’s greatness by reinvesting in its military might, as if the US military is not already rich and mighty. But, for now, the premise stands: The US is no longer great.

What happened to bring down the empire, or at least the country’s collective faith in it? (more…)

A Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Ibsen’s Peer Gynt

for Manuel Giner

 

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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Revelation 6:1-8, by Matthias Gerung, circa 1530-32. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The humiliation of the US democracy is now complete. The candidate who won the most votes in the recent presidential election lost to the candidate who will win the most votes in the Electoral College. The woman who dedicated her life to public service lost to the man who dedicated himself to becoming rich. The Secretary of State who mishandled her e-mails lost to the TV celebrity who stiffed his contractors and defrauded the students of his fake University. The candidate endorsed by Planned Parenthood lost to the candidate supported by the Ku Klux Klan.

The primary system produced two candidates for the two major parties (Democratic and Republican), neither of which was desirable to a majority of the American people. Two candidates from minor parties (Libertarian and Green) were never allowed a platform for their views in the national debates. 45% of eligible American voters did not vote.

The candidate who received most of the attention of the electronic media won; the candidate endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the print media lost. Truth was indistinguishable from lies during the presidential campaign, confirming the Orwellian dictum: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” (“Politics and the English Language,” 1946).  (more…)

Beyond the Howling Mob

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Saturday March 22, 2009 anti-war protest march on the Pentagon. Photo credit: Bill Hackwell, ANSWERcoalition.org

Historian John Lukacs is no friend of popular democracy. In his view, “Populism and nationalism are the very worst (and, alas, powerful) components of democracy.”[i]

Lukacs laments the decline of liberal democracy and warns that as “democracy devolves toward populism, the danger of tyranny by the majority arises.” Populism means the rise of aggressive nationalism, of demagogues and dictators. Hitler was a practitioner of populist nationalism who knew how to manipulate the masses. In the present “age of democracy,” superficiality is valued over knowledge and authority.[ii]

The rhetoric of nationalist populism, according to Lukacs, “appeals to tribal and racial bonds.” It is “folkish.” It is infused with “the myth of a ‘people.’” It unites people by “hate.” Populists are suspicious of anyone who does not belong to their “tribe.”[iii] (more…)

Populism and the Prospect of Democracy

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Supporter of Donald Trump at a rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)

Time magazine’s feature story, “Trump Goes to War,” observes that “Trump has exposed something real: a populist fury at the decades of bipartisan consensus for a more globalized world.” Trump is the star of “a new brand of populist nationalism.”[i]

Populist fury and populist nationalism are themes common to reporting and editorializing on the notorious presidential campaign of 2016. Most often they signal to readers, on behalf of ruling elites, that democracy (symbolized by the specter of populism) is out of control. In some cases, though, the warning is not so self-serving.

Robert Borosage, a progressive political activist writing for the Nation magazine, asked in early October why the contest was so close: “How can a candidate so clearly unfit for office, a foul, boorish cad who has insulted a majority of the voters and embarrassed the remainder, be so competitive with Hillary Clinton, one of the most experienced and prepared presidential candidates in history?” His answer: “It’s the populism, stupid.” (more…)

The Party of Abraham Lincoln

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United States Republican presidential ticket, 1864. Print shows a campaign banner for 1864 Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln and running mate Andrew Johnson. (Credit: Currier and Ives)

I don’t understand the modern Republican Party. Why conjure the ghost of Ronald Reagan rather than the living presence of Abraham Lincoln? Unless you have moved so far away from the spirit of Lincoln that his biblical language is no longer an inspiration, but rather an embarrassment.

In the mid-1850s, the appearance of the Know-Nothings in the US political scene threatened the integrity of the two-party electoral system. The Know-Nothings, according to James McPherson, “generally favored temperance and always opposed tax support for parochial schools. Their main goal was to reduce the power of foreign-born voters in politics.” In a letter to his friend Joshua Speed, Lincoln countered the threat of the Know-Nothings:

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.[i]

(more…)

Populist Hatred?

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Caricature of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. (Credit: DonkeyHotey)

Trumpism is not uncommonly associated with populism as a politics of hate.

Question: How despicable is Donald Trump the presidential candidate?

Answer: He’s a racist, a misogynist, a bigot, an authoritarian . . . and a populist. (more…)

Representing the People

Presentación del Documental CATASTROIKA y Presentación de la Revista Debates y Combates

Professor Ernesto Laclau during a presentation in Ecuador, 16 May 2012. (Credit: Cancillería Ecuador)

Ernesto Laclau’s conception of populist reason, as I mentioned in a recent post, is an account of the people being constituted in discourse. It complicates the distinction between speaking by and speaking for the people. A “people” exists in and through the practice of representation. The representative reflects in some degree the identity of those represented but also adds something to the mix (such as an informed judgment on a matter in dispute), which contributes to their identity. Representation “is a two-way process,” moving back and forth between represented and representative, with the identity of a “people” subject to reconstruction rather than frozen in time.[i]

Laclau insisted “the construction of a ‘people’ would be impossible without the operation of mechanisms of representation.” Those mechanisms include the articulation of an empty signifier with which people can identify because it represents (names, incarnates, invests) a chain of equivalences among a heterogeneity of unmet demands.[ii] This process is integral to the operation of democracy. (more…)