Mourning and Organizing in America

Many of us are in mourning, but we need to think strategically about using this moment to change the fundamentals of our political regimes.

Following last night’s electoral college victory, Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. At this moment, the following night, with 99% of precincts reporting, HRC has a popular vote lead of over 200,000. So this morning, easily more than half the country woke up in mourning.

How could nearly half the voting population vote for someone who has been so scurrilous about women, immigrants, religious minorities, the disabled, and so many other people? Do those voting for him share these racist, sexist, and xenophobic views? What does it mean for the country when one half of the people see the other half as enemies of all human decency?

On hearing the returns last night, I fell in a dark well thinking how unthinkable this all was. Trump has shown himself to be a demagogue and a clear danger to democracy. Does this mean that those who voted for him voted for the possibility of a fascist takeover of the country?

I think not.

On reflection I firmly believe that most, though certainly not all, the people who voted for Trump did not do so because they were sexist or racist (though many likely are) but rather because they feel like the political system does not give a damn about them, that they are struggling in some way relative to their circumstances, that the political system is rigged by people with money or in power (and isn’t that true?), and in desperation they voted for someone who seemed to get this DESPITE his bigoted views. I think these people made a terrible mistake, but I get it. If we on the left want to insist that half the country is purely bigoted then we will never get anywhere. The good news, if there is any, is that finally in this country most people are fed up with the oligarchy. We need to take this an opportunity to create a different kind of politics, or at least alternative political parties. The DNC and the RNC are both corrupt institutions.

The common denominator between many on the left and many who voted for Trump is this: precarity. Our neoliberal politics in an era of globalization does not give a wit about the plight of working and unemployed people — and it won’t offer them any opportunity to change the game. We have, for the most part, democracy in name only. The reality is this current anti-political national and global regime. It is anti-political in that economic mantras substitute for any real deliberative choice about how polities should proceed. Those who voted for Trump, I believe, were terribly naive that Trump’s reign would change any of this; but I do appreciate their desire to make the system more accountable to their lived reality.

Instead of demonizing all those who voted for Trump as bigots, we on the left need to appreciate that, while some may have been horribly bigoted, likely most are potential allies in calling for and creating more democratic and responsive political institutions. Yes, this is a dark time. Yes, this is a time for mourning. But also this is a time for organizing.

It’s time to make connections between those on the left and the right who feel that the system is impervious to their concerns — just as this Saturday Night Live skit brilliantly did. It is time to work on developing new political parties that are more responsive to people’s lived reality — and less responsive to corporate interests. It is time to develop political practices that are more participatory and inclusive. It is time to rescind laws that allow big dollars to subvert democratic life. It is time to increase opportunities for all who have been sidelined from political practice.

At this Trump moment, there are a lot of opportunities to take the disgruntlement that brought in Trump and use it to build a bigger tent for more democracy. If we just use the moment to demonize the other side, we squander this opportunity.

 

Another day, another 10 score drowned at sea

Another day, another 10 score drowned at sea. If this were a just world, and not just a world, there would have been a bus waiting on the other side of the border, a bus that would ferry to safety those traumatized so much that they must leave their home.  That someone would flee home would be evidence enough that some wrong was so grievous that sanctuary should be provided. No one should have to risk everything for a ride on a rubber raft in choppy waters.

But the problem is that we in the West have muted their voices, just as you might turn down the sound on the television. They are rendered “of no account in a relation of dependence on the oligarchs,” to borrow a phrase of Jacques Ranciere’s out of context (Disagreement, p. 22). Refugees at sea, they are victims of a “symbolic distribution of bodies that divides” people “into two categories: those that one sees and those that one cannot [or does not] see.” And we might add, those we can hear and those we do not, “those who have logos—memorial speech, an account to be kept up”—and those who are deemed as having no logos with which to reckon.

Another day, another crime against humanity.

Stats on Philosophy Grad Placements

Vindication is sweet. Contrary to earlier reports from a certain corner of the philosophy blogosphere, a good number of pluralist philosophy Ph.D. granting programs excel at getting their students into tenure-track jobs. And they are also exceptionally good places for women to study philosophy.

The database amassed by Carolyn Dicey Jennings and her colleagues (Patrice Cobb, Chelsea Gordon, Bryan Kerster, Angelo Kyrilov, Evette Montes, Sam Spevack, David W. Vinson, and Justin Vlasits) for the 2016 Academic Placement Data and Analysis show that of the roughly 117 programs for which there is data,

  • the pluralist (meaning not overwhelmingly analytic) departments  SIU, Oregon, Villanova, DePaul, Yale, Emory, Northwestern, and Duquesne are in the top quarter for students getting permanent academic positions;
  • also in the top half are Vanderbilt, Fordham, and Stony Brook;
  • of these programs, Vanderbilt, DePaul, Oregon, New Mexico, Emory, and Villanova are in the top half for percentage of women Ph.D.s
  • other solid programs for women and continental philosophers (meaning hovering toward the middle for job placement) include Northwestern and Duquesne

So, while no one goes into a philosophy graduate program for the great job prospects, anyone willing to take the risk of spending at least half a decade on the training is wise to follow her heart. If you want to study Dewey or Heidegger or Kristeva or Deleuze or whomever in a pluralist or continental program, such as any of the above, go for it.

You can see this all for yourself here at this sortable database. Just click at the top of the column your interested in to see how the programs line up.

(Caveat: if I have failed to include a pluralist department in the above categories, please let me know.)

 

Austerity’s Stupidity

When I was a graduate student in public policy, way back in the 80s, the professor who taught development economics told an anecdote about this brilliant plan to put get a North African country in the black by taxing bread. As he correctly explained, that didn’t go well.

So at 24 I already understood how plans to squeeze water from the already dehydrated was simply terrible economics. FDR knew that, and the New Deal that pumped money into the America of the Great Depression was genius, making America great. Full stop.

But since the 1980s the wealthy countries of the global north and west have made it a point to completely ignore this fundamental economic lesson. This hasn’t gone well. Austerity does not work. Worse, it destroys economies. Apparently, even the IMF is slowly coming to acknowledge this.

But mostly the IMF, the World Bank, and other spawns of neoliberalism ignore the science and plunge ahead with further austerity politics.

They blame those who accepted loans offered by predatory banks. They demand that those who are suffering suck it up and pay more. They know that the debt payments go to private bankers, not public coffers. They ignore the obvious need for debt restructuring. Are they stupid? Or just plain heartless, selfish, and evil?

I’m thinking the latter, though if it works better politically, let’s just call them stupid. For more on this, see this conversation between Yanis Varoufakis and Noam Chomsky.

Full transcript of the Yanis Varoufakis | Noam Chomsky NYPL discussion

The full transcript of my discussion with Noam Chomsky at the New York Public Library (26th April 2016) was just sent to me by Kelly Patrick Gerling. I thank him profusely. Here it is, just below the video window

April 26, 2016, LIVE from the New York Public Library, http://www.nypl.org/live, Celeste Bartos Forum

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Good evening, we don’t have anyone to introduce us, so I’ve been asked to kick off by saying firstly that isn’t this wonderful that we are all here just to subvert the notion that nothing good can come out of the public sector? (laughter) Noam.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, the fact that I’m here, barely, actually has a relationship to that comment. I came from Boston, my wife and I came from Boston, it took seven hours, and any society that hasn’t been smashed by neoliberal policies of the kind you describe, it would have taken maybe an hour and a half, two hours. (laughter) There is a train, the pride of the public sector, which I took for the first time in 1950, and it’s about fifteen minutes faster now than it was then, (laughter) when it makes the schedule, which is a chancy situation, so we decided to come by airplane and spent most of the afternoon on the runway.

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Well, Noam, what shall we talk about?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, we can talk about the neoliberal assault on the world’s population in the last generation, which you’ve written so brilliantly about.

Full transcript here.

Public Philosophy, on tap not on top

Over at Daily Nous a conversation is ongoing about public philosophy — who is doing it and what the public might want from it. This seems a good time to link to a document that Sharon Meagher wrote for the Kettering Foundation a few years ago, especially to make the point that the public-philosopher relationship should be something much better than a masses-expert relationship. Community organizers have a nice model, summed up in the slogan that experts should be on tap, not on top. So what drives the relationship would be whatever it is that is of concern to the public in its effort to ameliorate problems. (Okay, that’s my inner Dewey channelling.)

Here’s an excerpt from Meagher’s executive summary:

Philosophy has followed most other academic disciplines in seeking to make both its public voice and public value clearer and more explicit. Arguably philosophy has greater resources to draw on, given the deep civic roots of the discipline. In recent years, the American Philosophical Association formed a committee on public philosophy, following most other U.S. professional disciplinary associations in forming a committee intended to support and develop the public dimensions of the respective discipline. More recently, a group of philosophers founded the Public Philosophy Network (PPN), an association dedicated to the promotion of publicly engaged philosophical research, social action projects, and teaching….

As part of our role in fostering discussion and reflection on public philosophy, we focus on the following three questions:

  • How has the discipline of philosophy experienced a disconnection from public life and narrowing of its public role? How does public philosophy fit into the larger emergence of public forms of scholarship across disciplines?
  • What are the core characteristics of public philosophy? How does public philosophy differ from applied philosophy, scholar-activism, and other more familiar approaches?
  • What does publicly engaged philosophy have to contribute to addressing the public dimensions of complex public issues?

[Meagher proposes] five theses intended to provoke further reflection and discussion….

Thesis 1: Public philosophy should be transformative

Thesis 2: Public Philosophers should not be understood as “experts”

Thesis 3: Public Philosophy demands collaborative and interdisciplinary work

Thesis 4: Public Philosophers must be committed to assessing their work and being accountable to their public partners

Thesis 5: Public philosophy demands that we work to make philosophy more inclusive and representative of various publics

The full report is here.

I think the hardest part of this for many philosophers, along with other academics, to get are theses one and two, namely that engaging the public may call on us to change how we do our work and that the relationship should be mutual, not hierarchical.

However slowly, this is beginning to change, especially as more philosophers enter unfamiliar territory, from teaching in prisons to working with NGOs on issues of climate, poverty, race, and gender.

Robert J. Kingston

My dear friend and colleague at the Kettering Foundation, with whom I edited the Kettering Review since 1991, passed away on August 20 at the age of 87. Snatched too young.

IMG_0526

I took this picture in the summer of 2015, at the home he shared with his wife Carol Vollet Kingston. The Kettering Foundation has posted tributes to him here.

Here’s mine:

In the fall of 1988, when I was doing freelance work in Washington, DC, a friend called me at my row house in Adams Morgan to say that I was about to get a call from a Bob Kingston who was looking for a writer to work with something called the Kettering Foundation on something about democracy.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, sitting on the wooden staircase, I got a call from this very distinguished gentleman, speaking with a British lilt, with a tad of wry irony, about democracy and the foundation’s work—which all seemed rather vague but well-meaning—and would I meet him the next Tuesday, he asked, at the foundation’s Washington office?

I don’t really remember what he said at that Tuesday meeting but I distinctly remember him piling a stack of Kettering Reviews in my arms on the way out. A few days later I was flown to Dayton to meet with the president of the foundation, David Mathews, who took me on a tour of the foundation and then at the end of the day gave me an assignment to revise a speech of his for publication.

I seemed to be interviewing for something, but I had no idea what, nor did I know that this odd new-not-really-a-job job would be the most significant one of my entire life, that it would involve working out ideas with these people over many long meetings that I would almost always find fascinating, spirited debates over drinks and dinner about politics and public life, frequent ‘memo wars’ about things like virtue and purpose, and a far flung network of intellectuals and democratic practitioners all over the world.

A couple of years later, the lovely poet who had been Bob Kingston’s associate editor for the Review, Judd Jerome, passed away. And then Bob asked me if I’d like the job. Little did I know that this would be a role that I’d keep for the next 23 years, working with Bob issue by issue to say something that would help the foundation both with its own work and with its intellectual outreach. All the while I hoped that I’d never get promoted—for a promotion could only arise if something bad happened to Bob.

So I was not at all happy when two years ago, as Bob’s health began to fail, that I was promoted to coeditor. And now with his loss I find it surreal to be the sole editor. Yet, now when I take my pen to paper to mercilessly edit something for the Review, I mimic the curving lines he’d use to excise whole paragraphs; I try to link together the remaining words into the more concise little essay that the piece was waiting to become under Bob’s hand; I hope to carry on a bit of his brilliance.

Analyzing Trump

Just after his second birthday, his mother gave birth to a baby brother and then she almost died. After childbirth she got an infection, had to have a hysterectomy then several other surgeries. From a psychoanalytic point of view, for the boy this was surely terribly traumatic. First there was this brute fact that mommy was going to give birth to a rival, then there’s possibly some murderous rage for her doing this, then after that murderous rage she does in fact almost die, and then she’s gone—for how long?—in the hospital, almost dead, almost gone. The boy’s one true love has first defied him by giving birth to a rival, then in fantasy has been killed by him, then almost dies and is gone, and he feels terrible guilt and is unable to repair it. The good mother that most of us are lucky to have had and internalized is not there for him.

If this admittedly armchair analysis of Donald Trump is right, then that early crisis could explain a lot about his subsequent character. From an object-relations point of view, the early loss of his mother, even if temporary, coinciding with his infantile murderous rage would set up what Melanie Klein called a “paranoid schizoid” position (where everything is black and white, persecutory of idyllic, alternating with fears of being devoured from the outside and phantasies of killing the other from the inside). This is a normal part of development, usually followed by a “depressive position” in which the child is overcome by grief about its sadism and seeks to make reparations so as to internalize the good object of the mother, an internalization that provides some ballast through life, the ability to tolerate ambiguity and forego paranoid phantasies. But the child who does not negotiate this passage well may grow up to have an obsessional character. Or as Freud put it in 1926:

In obsessional neurosis and paranoia the forms which the symptoms assume become very valuable to the ego because they obtain for it, not certain advantages, but a narcissistic satisfaction which it would otherwise be without. The systems which the obsessional neurotic constructs flatter his self-love by making him feel that he is better than other people because he is specially cleanly or specially conscientious. The delusional constructions of the paranoic offer to his acute perceptive and imaginative powers a field of activity which he could not easily find elsewhere.[i]

In fact, the boy Donald grows up to be a bully, likely trying to undo that early trauma. In a traumatic situation one is rendered helpless and bereft. All subsequent anxiety, Freud noted, is a “repetition of the situation of danger.”[ii] But why repeat this and not simply forget it? In order, perhaps, to undo it. Maybe this time it will turn out differently. Undoing, Freud also notes in this essay, is the obsessional neurotic’s attempt to “blow away” the original event. Akin to a magical act, repeating offers the possibility of trying again in order to undo what was done, to undo the terror of the loss of the primary object, mother.[iii]

At his private school where his wealthy father is a big benefactor, the young Trump becomes a troublemaker and little tyrant, and eventually his teachers persuade the father to send him elsewhere. At military school, the boy learns the lessons that he is special and great and, in the course of this, he almost kills his roommate for not folding the linens correctly. He becomes fastidiously neat and develops a fear of germs, of anything that might invade his body. He goes on in life to purge any imagined invaders, including in his fantasies Muslims, Mexicans, and those who’ve deigned to ruin his imagined perfect kingdom.

And he imagines that he is the king! He perfects the great defense of undoing, trying to do something all over again in a way that turns out better. How to undo mother’s death from his life when he was just beginning to become a little self? Maybe he could be a big self, maybe he could be so perfect and important and big and great that she would finally notice and love him. Maybe he could be so important and smart and wealthy that she would love him more than anyone else in the world.

Maybe also he could avenge his father’s loss, his father who had to grow up and take over the family business as a young adolescent when his own father died, the grandfather who made his wealth as a poor immigrant by setting up brothels where fools went looking for gold. And in the process maybe he could avenge his mother’s shame, a poor immigrant “domestic” from Scotland, leaving home at 17, arriving at 18, with only $50 in her pocket. So now he rails against all those low-skill immigrants trying to take away the jobs of real Americans—just as his Scottish mother took from America?

So the child who suffers these losses and shames sets out to avenge and to undo the harm. He cannot help himself; he isn’t even conscious of what he is doing. His loss turns into narcissism and grandiosity. At his rallies, he throws out protesters and crying babies; he proclaims that he’ll build a wall, which his enemy will pay for; he derides his imagined enemies as rapists and thugs; he excoriates women, grieving parents, disabled people, and anyone else in order to show off his omnipotence. He doesn’t see his effects on other people, though most everyone around him is painfully aware of this great malformation. There’s an immense disjunct between how he acts and how he thinks of himself. Something is terribly wrong with him. In public he makes great proclamations about his greatness, intelligence, bigness, and more bigness, and has no sense of how bizarre all this sounds. He insults other people for their “smallness,” and seems totally oblivious that he is exhibiting his own obliviousness. In this respect, he is thoroughly delusional.

He is like a person play-acting being a person, a person who is big and great and wonderful, whose enemies ought to be imprisoned, purged, or done off by a firing squad. He is the quintessential false self, playacting being Donald Trump, a person who within is nothing but desert buffeted by hot air.

He has no tolerance for criticism, no ability to appreciate other points of view, no capacity for self-reflection. Or as 50 Republican national security former officials put it in a letter denouncing his candidacy,

He is unable or unwilling to separate truth from falsehood. He does not encourage conflicting views. He lacks self-control and acts impetuously. He cannot tolerate personal criticism. He has alarmed our closest allies with his erratic behavior. All of these are dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be President and Commander-in-Chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

In all his attempts to purge his imagined perfect world of invaders, he purges his own internal shames and demons: the mother who entered the country as a poor domestic servant, the grandfather who made millions by prostituting land and women, all those immigrant foreigners who are trying to infect us. He befriends those like him, other authoritarian figures. He belittles anyone who doesn’t try to be as strong as him.

And because of his appeal to all those in his country who harbor similar wounds, who feel cheated, infiltrated, abandoned, and wronged, the people project their own anxieties into his anxieties and identify with his ways of acting out. He does for them what they cannot do for themselves. Where they are trapped in powerlessness, he can be their power player, their avenger, their hero. And so they nominate him to be their candidate for the presidency of their country.

And here’s the real rub: from a democratic point of view he has all the credentials he needs to run for this great office; but from a psychological point of view he is tremendously out of touch with how his own internal fantasies are at great remove from reality. In other words, he is thoroughly delusional, and that should, one would think, disqualify him from office.

If the people of a democracy get this, then the dilemma can be solved. They could say no to electing someone delusional, someone whose internal world is at a great distance from the real one.

[i] Freud 1926, 99.

[ii] Freud 1926, 137.

[iii] Freud 1926, 137-138.