Brown Is the New Blue

The New York Police Benevolent Association’s bid to turn urban police departments into America’s Sturmabteilungen.

Now that Patrick Lynch, President of the New York Police Benevolent Association, has dreamt up a left-wing war on cops, and enthusiastically endorsed Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection bid, there’s no longer any reason to pretend that metropolitan police forces in the United States aspire to anything beyond remaining the largest and best-funded gangs in their respective cities.

Translated into plain English, the message from Lynch is clear enough:

If we feel like sodomizing Abner Louima with a broken broomstick, or pumping 19 bullets into an unarmed Amadou Diallo, or choking out Eric Garner, we’re just gonna do it, and if you know what’s good for you, you civilians are gonna keep your mouths shut about it. None of this shit about black lives matter, or defunding the police, you got it? Otherwise you can just call a fucking Democrat instead of 911 the next time you need protection. Finally, do we REALLY need to remind you that there’s 50,000 of us, and we’ve got body armor, tanks, helicopters, and automatic weapons? If you think Bill de Blasio runs this fucking city, think again. The Donald understands us, so we’re down with him. We’re gonna make sure he gets four more years, and after that, you can go fuck yourselves, all of you.

This is interest group politics transformed into something far more toxic to civil society, far more likely to qualify as fascism with American characteristics than anything we’ve seen so far in national politics. The question is, what happens now that Lynch and his boys have so openly crossed the Rubicon? Regardless of the outcome of the elections in November, the political class is unlikely to return unchallenged to the kind of neoliberal centrism touted by the DNC or Atlantic magazine. It seems far more likely that an ever-capricious Donald Trump will offer urban cops, white supremacist biker gangs, rural sheriff’s departments, Oath Keeper and Proud Boy militias, Christian Dominionists, and the rest of his proud deplorables whatever cover they need to attack people living happily in circumstances that their peculiar subcultures find unendurable.

Why would he not? There’s surely nothing more perfectly suited to Trump’s ego-driven triumphalism than starting a civil war, especially one that his very stable genius can’t imagine losing. The only thing stopping him, the only thing keeping his malignant meddling from turning a disorganized rabble of volunteer culture warriors into a full-blown fascist movement, is his own lack of character.

Whatever actually motivates him, Trump is clearly a narcissist, not an ideologue, a Perón rather than a Hitler. His followers are good at resenting anything they can’t understand, and threatening people who can’t defend themselves, but they’re not much good at anything else apart from bootlicking and delusional aphorisms. This might not matter if they had a halfway committed leader, but Trump himself is far too lazy and far too incompetent to take personal charge of forging their resentments into a set of principles robust enough to govern a country of 330 million people.

For those of us sane enough to want out of this whole demeaning Todestanz, the absence of anyone in Trumps’s entourage actually competent enough to seize state power might offer us exactly what we need, namely a little more time to get our affairs in order before the real apocalypse — climate change, famines, mass migrations, collapsing global economic interdependencies and real wars, with real armies — is upon us in earnest. We can only hope.

21st Century Institutions: the U.S. Presidency

Donald Trump is not the first U.S. President to be elected in the 21st Century, and the odds are he’s not going to be the last.* He does seem likely, however, to go down in history as the century’s most characteristic one, at least as things look now, twenty years into the accursed opening maneuvers of its history-making engines.

President Trump himself is undeniably one of those engines, a steam-powered anomaly in an era increasingly lit up at night by the output from solar panels, wind turbines, and lithium ion batteries. It would probably be easier, and it would certainly be more pleasant, to write about the American Presidency without mentioning the Donald, but since he does seem to represent some sort of numinous final stage in the rot that’s been eating away at the office since 1945, there’s no credible way to avoid dealing with him in all his radiantly decadent glory.

Back in 2011, in snarking at the dozen or so GOP presidential candidates of the time, I called Newt Gingrich the Dorian Gray of the Republican Party. By the middle of 2016, as candidate Trump’s arsenal of creepy facial expressions began its final assault on our international media landscape, I realized that Newt had been a mere pretender. Not even Oscar Wilde himself could have imagined the world we were now living in, a world in which the real-life equivalent of his fictional character actually preferred having the evolving portrait of his depravity visible to everyone and his dog.

When January, 20, 2017 finally did arrive, it was even weirder than usual for a Presidential Inauguration Day. Most of the political class and its media pilot fish were still hung over from the excesses of the election in November. To their momentarily everlasting astonishment, it seemed, Trump had actually managed somehow to get himself elected President, and was standing there now, live in front of the assembled cameras, taking the oath of office. Oh. My. God. The nuclear football in the possession of a sociopathic, blowhard hotel developer! Sackcloth and ashes! Baskets of deplorables! Facebook and Russians! Blah, blah, blah.

Trump himself was soon to be busy elsewhere in Washington. Once he’d gotten the rug swapped out in the Oval Office, had more Trump-suitable golden drapes hung above its windows, and settled his very stable genius behind the Resolute desk, he got down at last to the real work: redecorating the American political landscape with a stunning array of bagmen, bootlickers, generals and ex-generals, racist Dixie irredentists, religious fanatics, voodoo economists, firearms fetishists, Fox News ressentimentistes, rust belt coal rollers, libertarians looking for a hill to die on, and his own children. In 2020, I continue to wonder: is there really anyone left in the United States who still believes that this was all some sort of diabolical accident?

No, there isn’t. And no, it definitely wasn’t. Most of the electorate understands very well that this train wreck of an election was no accident, whether they voted for Donald Trump or not. And yet, amazing as it is to contemplate, our luck has held once again. Despite the best efforts of Trump and his merry band of magatrumpistas, the United States seems unlikely to become a failed state during his reign, no matter how diligent its political class is at helping him carve one out of the complex patrimony of the U.S. Constitution.

If we can somehow manage to ignore all the present din and idiocy, what is undeniable about the history which has led us to Trump in the White House is that already by the latter half of the 1970s, the international economic order set up by the western allies following the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was becoming alarmingly unstable. Contrary to the arrogant predictions of our so-called foreign policy experts, the economic restoration of our defeated enemies had not, in fact, bound them in perpetuity to political alliances dominated by the United States. China was not, in fact, going to be permanently denied the economic and political deference due it as a society which embraced more than 18% of the world’s population. Even the lesser nations of the world would not, in fact, continue to fear being denied a place at the trough of American largesse, especially as there came to be less and less in it for them.

The election of Donald Trump is far more, I think, than a macabre trick that the rubes in the MAGA hats have played on themselves. It’s also the clearest demonstration we’re ever likely to get that prominent members of the American political class are not as savvy as they make themselves out to be. Simply put, they’ve failed to prepare the American people for the historical metamorphosis which has brought the postwar Pax Americana to an end. Even more simply put, bearing humiliating witness to a Trump in the White House is the price they’re paying for that failure. Whether they realize it or not, the longer they keep propping up the status quo, the higher that price will be. After four years of the Trump administration, let alone eight years, I’m pretty sure the vig alone will wind up bankrupting them.

While it may be true that even in the hands of a Donald Trump the U.S. Presidency remains as remarkable an institution as it ever has been, it’s definitely true that it’s never been a less transparent one, especially with respect to the exact nature of its formal and informal powers. To give just one example, there are 17 agencies in the so-called United States Intelligence Community, which, according to the latest figures available to the public, have granted top secret security clearances to a total of over 900,000 people. Meanwhile, President Trump is reported to have restricted his daily security briefing to two pages, while supposedly watching four hours of Fox News a day. What reason is there for anyone to believe that he’s actually in charge of what is going on in these agencies? Who can predict the impact that such calculated ignorance will have on our national security, or our foreign policy in general? Certainly someone is in charge — many someones more likely — but I doubt that any of them are significantly more accountable to the President, at least on a day-to-day basis, than they are to the public at large.

Admittedly it’s hard enough to run an effective federal administration with a full complement of politically competent policy experts, and a chain of responsibility that extends to the lowest level of the executive branch. You certainly can’t run one effectively with a staff consisting of your daughter, your son-in-law, Sean Hannity, Sheldon Adelson, a rota of retired generals, lobbyists and golf partners, and an assortment of idiot yes-people whose only significant achievement is the byzantine complexity of their self-abasement. The country is too large, its political and economic infrastructure too complex, to be managed entirely from the top down; the responsibilities of the Federal Government are too extensive, and its interlocking bureaucracies too encrusted with decades of turf wars, interagency rivalries, and deviant ideological agendas to respond competently to even the most intelligently conceived policy directives.

The bottom line, I’m afraid, is that the U.S. Constitution is showing its age, and so is the U.S. Presidency. I think it’s significant that both President Trump and three of his Democratic Party challengers for the office in 2020 are over 70 years old. I remember when we used to laugh at the infirmities of the gerontocracy under Brezhnev in the Soviet Union, and Mao in China. These days, it looks as though the laugh is on us.

*YMMV. I have to say, though, that if I were a bookie, I’d be reluctant to offer the current Vegas line on that bet, especially if I had to lay off any significant amount of it. That’s the kind of move that might just wind up getting you your legs broken — or worse — even when most of your ordinary day-to-day tormentors would be running around shrieking and waving their hands, looking for a window to jump out of.

21st Century Institutions: the U.S. Supreme Court

Among certain kinds of Americans, rational legal arguments against the cruel and arbitrary use of power have always been seen as inconvenient abstractions. Essentially no one with enough muscle, money, or guns has ever taken them seriously. The law for such people is a tool, not a constraint, and so are the judges who administer it.

Nevertheless, we’ve been repeatedly assured by everyone from legal scholars and historians to high school civics teachers that the United States Supreme Court, with its constitutional imprimatur and lifetime judicial appointments, is uniquely well-defended against practitioners of this sort of cynical Realpolitik. It has a successful 200+ year history, our civic mythology tells us, of defending itself against outside political interference, and has proven to be an effective sanctuary for the disinterested legal processes necessary to ensure the equal justice under law promised above its front door. Assuming all of that is true, which is, frankly, a very big assumption, how is it, then, that the jurisprudence of the current conservative majority has come to resemble something cobbled together out of bits left over from the Nazi Volksgericht, or the Catholic Church’s Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición?

In broad strokes, I think the story goes something like this: judicial independence, like academic freedom, is an aspirational concept. It appears to exist in the real world only when nothing of much real significance — political significance — is being contested. As a result, during much of the Court’s history, events have denied — or more charitably, spared — its justices the historical agency that myth-makers have insisted on attributing to them. Far from the being arbiters of the Republic’s destiny, they have, more often than not, gone about their business as the humble servants of convention that some of the more conservative justices clearly believed themselves to be.

As it turns out, however, servants of convention, no matter how humble they may be as individuals, often have the nasty habit as a collective of preferring injustice to instability, especially when the threat of instability is largely manufactured, and the injustice can be directed exclusively toward those convention holds in low esteem. While in public justices were alway careful to genuflect to the theoretically sacred principle of equal justice for all, in private they looked upon perceived insults to the powerful with extreme disfavor, regardless of their legal justification.

The Warren Court seems to have been genuinely different. Perhaps the difference was a response to the tectonic shifts in the postwar political and economic order that were becoming increasingly apparent in the Sixties, or perhaps it was down to more personal experiences in the lives of individual justices that weren’t accessible to historians and observers of the Court then, and would be even less so now. In any event, it’s clear that the decisions Warren, Douglas, Frankfurter, and Brennan came to embrace placed their jurisprudence far to the left of any that adherence to convention would seem to have dictated at the time. This was a surprise to everyone, I think, not just to conservatives, especially given the fierce suppression of the Left that was already taking place in the Fifties under the aegis of Cold War anticommunism.

One could argue (I would definitely argue) that while the Warren Court was good for justice, it was not at all good for political stability. As liberals might have expected, had they not had their eyes so firmly fixed on the prize, the powerful felt powerfully insulted, and rightly so, given their expectations. The history behind those expectations was simple enough: Whatever cases the Court took up, whatever decisions it handed down, it had always been careful not to challenge the privileged influence over public policy that members of what, for lack of a better term, could be called the American ruling class, took for granted as a tribute to their status. As the liberal majority on the Warren Court began handing down decisions like Brown v. Board of Education, Engel v. Vitale, South Carlina v. Katzenbach, or Watkins v. United States, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that such deference was effectively at an end. To the more conservative members of the ruling class in particular, this looked like nothing so much as the betrayal of ingrates who had somehow managed to forget who put them where they were, and had gone to work for the enemy instead. (Damned Roosevelt. Damned New Deal. Damned Negroes. Damned Women. Damned Commerce Clause. Double-damned Earl Warren. Etc., etc.)

In their historical role as the defenders of privilege, representatives of the political right have since argued, somewhat disingenuously, but not entirely without justification, that liberals were guilty of accepting from the Supreme Court what at the time they couldn’t possibly have gotten from the ballot box. In cases of systematic injustice, liberals have argued in response, the Court has a duty to intervene wherever and whenever the legislative branch is prevented from supplying the necessary remedy.

I admit I was sympathetic to the liberal argument when police dogs, firehoses, and Bull Connor were being marshaled against a busload or two of Freedom Riders, not least because it was already clear to everyone in the country that without intervention by the Court, the electoral process in the southern states would continue to be so severely compromised that justice for African Americans would remain unattainable for decades to come. While I still believe that the Supreme Court was the obvious remedy at the time for an intolerable system of injustice in the southern states, I’ve also come to accept that what the right was denouncing as legislation from the bench was indeed antidemocratic in the technical sense, and dangerous in the more general sense that it revealed at an extremely unpropitious moment in our history just how questionable the political justifications were for the Rule of Law that the public was being asked to accept as a sort of secular sacrament.

This was made abundantly clear during the Senate confirmation hearings for Robert Bork. At the time, the ideological hegemony, not to mention a majority of Senate votes, rested in the hands of the Democrats, who, exploiting what they should have realized would be a short-lived tactical advantage, ignored precedent and stated openly and unequivocally that regardless of his judicial qualifications, Bork was unacceptable on ideological grounds alone. Although I agreed with their evaluation, I had serious doubts about the wisdom of their decision. Once the dust had settled, it was clear to me that no serious observer of the American justice system was ever again going to feel entirely comfortable mentioning an independent judiciary and the Supreme Court in the same sentence.

The Republicans quite understandably complained about what they saw as a violation of precedent, but they also took careful notes. In the 33 years since the Bork hearings ended, they’ve successfully moved the ground of their battle with liberals over the makeup of the Supreme Court from abstruse arguments about original intent and judicial precedent to the more promising terrain of Senate confirmation hearings, where opposition research and character assassination have been shown to yield more concrete, as well as more immediate results. After Bork, it seems safe to say that any judge ambitious enough, and well connected enough, to have a chance of being nominated to the Supreme Court, would be well advised to make certain that nothing in the public record from the time he or she entered law school, or perhaps even high school, contains the slightest trace of provable bias toward either side in the ongoing cultural and ideological wars. During the hearings themselves, direct questions, if they are answered at all, are to be answered with the kind of anodyne bloviation usually reserved for sports heroes or Hollywood starlets. In extremis, outright lying is the only intelligent choice, especially if it can be supplemented by a display of outraged innocence (see the Kavanaugh hearings).

Unsurprisingly, such bravura performances of our all-American black robe commedia dell’arte have yet to deliver us the jurisprudence that all evolving democratic societies need and should have every right to expect, nor are they ever likely to. Weak reeds that they are, the justices themselves are only partly to blame for this sad state of affairs. A lifetime of displaying their malleability, their willingness to go along to get along, is indisputably what’s snagged them a seat on the Supreme Court bench in the first place. Once they’re safely settled into their new sinecure, integrity, even if any of them can remember what is actually meant by the word, will almost certainly look like more work to them than it could ever be worth. Sadly, that’s as much on us as it is on them.

As I see it, the outlook, especially in the short term, is dire. In the present political climate, we can almost certainly expect future Supreme Court nominees to have on their résumés not only an extended history of Federalist Society ass-kissing, but also appalling examples of sadism toward the less fortunate. There isn’t going to be any way to keep them off the Court, either, at least not any way that’s compatible with civilized behavior. Should those of us who are declared opponents of the authoritarian right give up, then, and let them turn the United States into another Turkey, or Hungary, or Brazil? Or should we prepare ourselves instead for the second civil war they’ve been threatening us with ever since Barry Goldwater first assured the assembled brownshirt wannabes of the Republican Party that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice? (NB: these are not questions that either Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders is qualified to answer. Make of that what you will….)

From 1970: Say Easy Rider

This is from the first issue of a two-issue, tabloid-format newsprint magazine Stephen Williamson (no, not the economist) and I published as undergraduates in 1970, and which I long thought had been lost forever. Steve, as it turns out, is — fortunately — more of a packrat than I am, and preserved some copies, so I get to republish it 50 years after its first appearance. I’ve corrected a couple of typos, but otherwise left it as it was, including the abhorrence of contractions which I’ve long since overcome, assorted capitalization and punctuation crimes, and a grating insensitivity to 21st century gender pronoun and racial nomenclature norms, which I’ll just have to live with. We all have a past, no?

If the twentieth century had any essential lesson to teach us, it is this: we are finally on our own. Kings have been dead since the French Revolution. Nietzsche broke the news about God a century ago, and to any perceptive observer it is obvious that the state suffers from a terminal cancer. We are running out of history. What has brought us the concentration camp and the H-Bomb no longer has much to offer us.

For anyone born after 1940, independence is the natural attitude; the illusion of authority has evaporated. Our generation feels free to snicker when the thought police masquerade as destiny, an achievement George Orwell clearly believed to be impossible.  Nevertheless, the baggage of the past has not been as easy to dump as we thought. What began as the Aquarian Age has recently come to look more like a kind of simultaneous rerun of all but the most irrelevant episodes in history. The remnants of the student radical movement have restricted themselves to recovering the nineteenth century millennium, as though they somehow had forgotten that Stalin was the result of the first run-through. People in communes wait patiently for technology and international culture to disappear. What a damn shame it would be if someday their descendents had to fight the Sioux-Blackfoot wars over again!

There is certainly a kink somewhere when a generation with as good an understanding as ours has had of the gap between reality and human perception starts producing astrologers, communists, and subsistence farmers. Given what we know, it makes as much sense as Free Enterprise or the Cold War. I suspect the explanation lies somewhere in the difference between the extent of the possibilities we can see and the amount of personal energy required to realize even the most limited of them. We want a lot, and we can have only a little. Our tendency is to make up the difference by magic. We blame our impotence on a “Power Structure” that is already discredited, and play at revolution. We’re more ready to believe in Tarot cards or the Great Spirit than to live with our natural limitations. We have yet to learn that ending repression does not give anyone supernatural powers, or maintain his innocence.

The issue isn’t whether or not other cultures and ideologies reveal wisdoms ours lack, but whether we’ve picked up on them for the sake of wisdom or for an easy way out of our own troubles. There is quite a difference between learning from the Indians to respect the ecological balance and believing yourself to be the reincarnation of Crazy Horse. Like practicing astrology seriously or advocating guerrilla warfare, living in tepees in the twentieth century United States amounts to schizophrenia, and it’s dangerous. The bombs and concentration camps will remain, and we won’t be able to see enough of the world that produces them to discover where they are coming from. Chances are we won’t be able to understand even the simplest of things that happen to us from one day to the next.

There is good evidence that this is going down already. The illusions of youth culture or hip culture or whatever are almost as strongly defended as the illusions we call the American Dream. Everybody is hip to what the cops did in Chicago, and says so. With considerably less provocation the Hell’s Angels did a lot of the same at Altamont, and no no seems to notice the similarity, let alone the analogy it implies between us and Mayor Daley.

When we don’t notice, people get hurt, just like they did when the Haight went under and acid visionaries were replaced by needle freaks; just like they did when the Weathermen decided they had a right to crack heads, or Charles Manson decided he was Attila the Hun.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper have noticed and they’ve made a fine film about it. I can’t think of a more convincing image of the unpleasantness that can come from parts of the world a man has chosen to ignore than the end of Easy Rider. A lot of people have put it down for being paranoid, but they are missing the point. Of course it’s paranoid — a paranoid dream from beginning to end. That is its strength.

This film, unlike any other I have seen in a long time, openly prefers the psychological reality of experiences to the realistic description of an objective world in which such experiences presumably take place. Nearly everything which happens in Easy Rider is seen as Billy and Wyatt, the two main characters, would see it, and every character except them and possibly their lawyer is as two-dimensional as their understanding of him. I wouldn’t argue that Fonda and Hopper intended to make the film that way, but I would argue that they showed good sense in leaving it that way once it was edited. It sets up the audience beautifully.

Billy and Wyatt are not aware of what is going on around them outside the limits of their perception. Neither is the audience — the film represents Billy and Wyatt’s perception as reality. For those in the audience who belong to our generation the identification is particularly strong. Like Billy and Wyatt, we know that the world is fucked, and that there isn’t much we can do about it. We are on the same trip. Making a big dope deal, buying a beautiful motorcycle, and heading down the road to Mardi Gras appeals to us. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it.

No one discovers what is wrong with it until Billy and Wyatt do themselves. From the second shotgun blast to the silent end of the film, it breaks in a long wave over both the characters and the audience; the horrible surprise of an intrusion from the world outside the myth both are sharing.

What surprises Billy and Wyatt is that the rednecks really are out to get them. What surprises us is the sudden end to the illusion we are into too deeply to back out of in time. The shock of the last scene isn’t the shock of death, but of its opposite; of waking up. When Billy and Wyatt are murdered our fantasies die with them, and for that moment we are uncomfortably exposed to the reality of the theater around us. Psychologically it is akin to being discovered masturbating. The sadness comes in having to stop too soon, not in having to experience someone else’s death. Our sympathy is for ourselves.

Had that been all there was to Easy Rider, identification with the characters, titillating violence for a minute or two, and then a return to our unexciting lives, it would have compared favorably with Goldfinger or Bullitt, but it wouldn’t have had anything to say. The film is important because Fonda and Hopper enclose within it a comment on both the psychological processes involved in identifying too strongly with a myth, and the dangerous consequences which are in store for one who lives his life inside this myth. The danger is not to be taken literally; it isn’t that the rednecks will shoot us down, although that is one possibility. The danger lies in the destruction of our humanity. Being on our own trip isolates us from one another. When finally no one can recognize the real existence of anyone else, just being alive will be danger enough for all of us.

Fonda and Hopper have left to many clues in Easy Rider for us to miss the point, although none are so obvious that they prevent us from making the emotional identification with Billy and Wyatt that gives the film its power. They are there for us to discover in retrospect. After the film is over it remains to us to separate the myth from the reality; to understand what it is that we’ve felt so deeply.

The first hint of what is really going on in the film is, of course, the title. As Fonda has explained it in interviews, easy rider is Southern slang for a pimp — the only one who doen’t have to pay. Responsibility is the price of freedom, deadness is the price of living in a myth — those are the obvious implications.

Again, it is hard to escape the fact that the road Billy and Wyatt are traveling doesn’t lead where they think it does. Instead of ending in Mardi Gras, it ends in death. A night in jail and the murder of their friend the lawyer were warning enough. There were alternate routes, such as that of the rancher who loaned them his tools and fed them. They were even given outright invitations to try another one. As wrapped up in themselves as they were, they were welcome at the commune, and obviously, to at least the whores in New Orleans, they were attractive. What kept them on the move was not really a quest for freedom — possibly just the opposite.

There are reviewers who have pointed out what appears to be another inconsistency. Although it is Billy and Wyatt who introduce him to pot and give him lectures on the evils of society, the lawyer seems a much more well-rounded character than either of them. Whether or not this was the result of better acting on the part of the man who portrayed him, as reviewers have suggested, is not what is important. His presence in the film serves two purposes. First of all, it shows that Billy and Wyatt’s analysis of society is essentially correct. Society is stultifying, and any man who prizes his self-respect would like to break out of it. Hippies don’t bother the lawyer; he recognizes that they have some good ideas. But he does serve also as a kind of contrast to Billy and Wyatt. He is much more firmly rooted in the world than either of them. He feels no need to style himself “Captain America,” but, as the flying saucer tales shows, he is more creative and alive than the two characters for whom freedom is supposedly a specialty.

There are other indications that Billy and Wyatt have a harder time relating to themselves and others than should be true of free men. Wyatt is rebuffed twice by the leader of the commune — once when they are smoking in the abandoned adobe, and later in the commune when he is trying to ball one of the women. It could happen to anyone, but Wyatt doesn’t understand that. He freaks, just as both of them freak later on acid in the graveyard. Despite the jumbled cutting in the graveyard scene, there is solid evidence that both characters have their share of personal demons.

The key to all these indications that Billy and Wyatt are not what they imagine themselves to be lies in the character of the more introspective of the two, Billy. Wyatt is a kind of Sancho Panza — a man interested only in what he can get. Billy is a little more cautious, a little more aware, and consequently a little more stylized, especially as Fonda plays him. His “we blew it” and the image of the burning bike that intrudes on his thoughts provide the context for not only his withdrawn personality but for all the rest of what happens in Easy Rider as well. He begins bit by bit to become aware of what is wrong, but the film ends before he really gets to the heart of it. The rest of the task in dumped in the lap of the audience, where, in fact, it has lain all along.

For those of us who went to this film just to get stoked up on our own innocence and the evil of rednecks and other oppressors, there are a couple of other scenes that remain to be considered. Neither are acted in the usual sense of the word. The first is hardly more than a couple of seconds long, and appears to have been shot in the streets of New Orleans without any prior planning.

Billy is careening down the street during Mardi Gras with an open bottle in his hand, which, in the spirit of things, he offers to a passing black. The look on that man’s face and his gesture of refusal are enough by themselves to sum up the whole peculiar history of the South. His is the classic double-bind. A drunken white has offered him a drink, a drink which other whites might beat him or worse for accepting. Yet, when he turns it down, he must also keep smiling. Otherwise his refusal might be interpreted as an insult to white generosity, also a dangerous offense. Billy doesn’t understand the black’s behavior and blunders on down the street. He is too busy with his own problems.

The other scene takes place in a southern cafe. All those rednecks trading jokes about how people in their county customarily handle “Yankee queers” were real live rednecks, not actors. They were showing off, of course. The movie people indulged them in a little play-acting, and they enjoyed themselves at it, that’s all. Still, there was no script. Just where in hell did they get that long list of epithets and tortures they were tossing back and forth, I wonder.

At that point in the film everyone should wonder. The boundaries between acting and reality are not clearly drawn in Easy Rider, but neither are they in the world of experience. From the black man’s point of view, there must not seem to have been much difference between the man whose dream prevented him from noticing another’s pain, and one whose dream is to inflict pain. One of the corollaries to the central point made in Easy Rider is that the two dreams lie very close together, and the transition between them is as hard to spot as it is frequent.

If that seems hard to believe, get a copy of the January 21st Rolling Stone and look at the picture of Mick Jagger at Altamont. There he stands, with his high-heeled boots, and his knuckles in his mouth, watching four or five Angels butcher a man on the stage ten feet away. It must have been one hell of a rude awakening for the author of Street FIghting Man, and for the other 300,000 people who were watching, too, for that matter.

It is the same kind of awakening that is previewed for us in Easy Rider, one which awaits every one of us, who, considering ourselves beyond the errors of past times, refuse to pay attention to anything but our own dreams. In the twentieth century, we are all being forced to live outside the law. If there is one thing for us to remember, it is this: to live outside the law, you must be honest. (Anybody can say that.)

Playing the Piety Card Yet Again

So…a secular attack on religion is what’s wrong with us. This from Donald Trump’s latest bagman/consigliere, William Barr. I’d love to be able to say with a straight face that God is not mocked, but I’m well aware that every time one of these pious hypocrites’ bosses gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar, we’re in for another torrent of God-mockery. It might be a Billy Graham wannabe calling the Almighty’s wrath down on us liberal perverts at a congressional prayer breakfast, or a cameo appearance on Fox News by a semi-professional Jesuit sophist like William Bennett, or maybe a diatribe on Twitter from some finger-wagging moral majoritarian of unknown provenance, one of the legion who once flogged their handicraft spiritual wares on Sunday morning local TV, but now all seem to work for Koch Industries or the National Rifle Association. The sad truth is, we’ve seen it all before, and we’ll doubtless see it all again. (I wonder, did Barr take off his American flag lapel pin for this speech in order to avoid being accused of secular idolatry, or did the White House dry cleaning service just forget to reattach it?)

Punishments To Fit the Crime

Donald Trump: Strip him of his iPhone, his Secret Service protection and all his assets. Dress him in overalls and a court-mandated ankle bracelet. Give him a bible, a bullhorn, and a family-size bottle of Oxycontin. Order him to remain within the city limits of Bluefield, West Virginia for the rest of his life.

John Bolton: Equip him with an M4, a Ka-Bar, a pair of camouflage cargo pants, and a Rambo wig. Parachute him at midnight into the outskirts of Teheran or Aleppo or Pyongyang.

Betsy DeVos: Require that henceforth everyone who performs a service for her, from plumbing to asset management to sex, be educated exclusively at the University of Phoenix.

Stephen Miller: Confiscate his passport and deny him access to currency or credit of any kind. Require him to choose between being chased barefoot across rural Mississippi for the next 20 years by mounted prison guards and bloodhounds or speaking only Spanish for the rest of his life. Depending on which he chooses, make sure he wakes up outside the Parchman Farm perimeter fence, or in the center of Tegucigalpa.

Mitch McConnell: Confiscate his principal residence in Kentucky under federal asset forfeiture laws. Provide him with a new principal residence in the Fillmore District of San Francisco. Require him henceforth to run for the Senate from California.

Dick Cheney: Waterboarding, I think. No less than 183 times. Then, if he survives, Guantanamo for, oh, I don’t know how long. Until the last of the other detainees is released, maybe. Let me think about it.

Sean Hannity: Arrange (through the customary diplomatic channels) a papal order of excommunication. Deliver him, bound and gagged, to the leadership of Opus Dei. Invite them, as true servants of the Living God, and of Holy Mother Church, to perform the first auto da fé in almost 200 years.

If We Can Somehow Bring Ourselves To Take the Long View, We Probably Should….

Revised from a recent comment of mine on this Crooked Timber thread:

A sort of Marxist point about our present distempers: the conditions of existence have changed, probably irrevocably, for the Scots-Irish coal miners of West Virginia, the libertarian ranchers of the West, and the industrial workers of Ohio and Pennsylvania, and they’re not happy about it. Should Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk feel any more sympathy for them than their own ancestors felt for Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, or Geronimo? A similar observation could be made about our lack of sympathy for the Taliban and the Salafists.

One difference is striking, though, about our current last-ditch defenders of traditions outmaneuvered by modernity. They’re more widely distributed, and they’re also much better armed. The consolations of Whatever happens — we have got — the Maxim gun — and they have not have succumbed in their own fashion to a modernity not even the Moderns themselves seem to understand. Not yet, anyway.

Marx thought that once the conditions of existence had changed sufficiently, the past would be, or could be, swept away by revolutionaries with their eyes on the future. Seen up close, from the vantage point of an individual life, the process is far uglier, no matter what subsequent theoretical revisions from the foundries of Marxist ideology, or cheerleading from neoliberal think tanks promise us. Somewhere between Faulkner’s The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past, and Gibson’s The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed, there’s a place to stand that won’t offend either our conscience or our common sense. Maybe. One hopes. YMMV.

From 2008: A House Divided

This was written at the invitation of the founder of a Web site which unfortunately never saw the light of day. Waste not, want not, right?

 

A House Divided: Can Independent Thinking Flourish in the No-man’s Land of the American Culture Wars?

When I was asked recently if I thought that our increasingly vicious culture wars were stifling independent thinking in the United States, my answer was an immediate and unqualified no. Now that I’ve had time to consider the question a little more thoroughly, my answer is still no, but I no longer believe in dismissing out of hand the concerns which originally prompted it.

The truth is that human beings, those at any rate with the spirit and the leisure to work at puzzles or dream dreams, are always going to think what they think, regardless of whose agents are looking over their shoulders, or what orthodoxy of the moment is threatening to vilify or imprison them. The real question is whether or not all this thinking can have any lasting effect, beneficial or otherwise, on the civilization which spawns it.

Despite the several centuries which have passed since the first impact of the Enlightenment on our epistemology, this is still an open question. For all the recent furor which they’ve created in the United States, the culture wars declared by the right have in fact been an epiphenomenon, an engineered distraction acting not so much to prevent independent thinking per se, as to prevent that thinking from entering our political discourse, or finding expression in the policy decisions of our government. In that, of course, the right has until very recently been remarkably successful. Its success, however, has come at a price.

That price is blindness. The enemy of conventional wisdom and the status quo, and of its die-hard defenders, has never been the free-thinker, but reality itself. You can imprison the advocates of inconvenient discoveries, but you can’t imprison events. When the Spanish Inquisition institutionalized the search for heretics, and industrialized the lighting of autos da fé all over the country, smart people found a home in Holland, or England, or in the New World, and Spain entered a long decline which persisted, in one form or another, until the death of Franco. More recently, the fan dancers of unfettered capitalism have held not just the usual rubes in thrall, but our policy makers and soi-disant intellectual elites as well. Then, quite unexpectedly for them, reality turned up the house lights and set fire to the fans. Suddenly, we’re once again talking publicly about the responsibility of governments to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

Even if you accept, as I do, that politics broadly defined is the only effective instrument for mediating which ideas will become the currency of the realm, and which will be relegated to bric-a-brac in the museums of memory, it’s clear enough that no matter the necessities of human nature which force us to rely on politics for this mediation, there can be no blunter instrument for the purpose, nor any which affords us less comfort in the wielding.

Tyrannies are real enough, after all, and so are the ideologies which give rise to them. Even if you have confidence that they can in the end be overcome, the millions slaughtered and enslaved by them in the 20th century, beginning more than a hundred years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man, must give an honest person at least some pause to question that confidence. George Orwell understood this, and in 1984 presented us not only with a haunting butcher’s bill for the previous half-century’s devotion to armed isms, but also a warning that by adhering to them, we were flirting with an end to history, and not a happy end at that.

I found 1984 profoundly disturbing, but I remain an optimist nevertheless. Orwell was prescient in many ways, but in the end, his inner Jeremiah outmaneuvered his sense of history. No boot, however determined, however well-funded, can stamp on the human face forever. Other boots may in time come along, but they will always have to take their turn, and then, inevitably, pass into oblivion. There is such a thing as the dialectic, after all, even if, after all these years, its nature is still to a great extent a matter of debate.

That debate has interested me ever since I first discovered it as a young man. Even when I was still a child, the dynamics of my family were such that I quickly developed grave doubts about the sufficiency, if not the necessity, of a rational approach to problems, as well as a perpetually nagging curiosity about why what I was told, both by my elders and my peers, was so frequently at variance with my own experience.

Perhaps that is actually why, more than forty years ago, I went to hear a public lecture by Herbert Marcuse on the campus of UC Berkeley. At the time, it was the hottest ticket in town. Ronald Reagan had already accused Marcuse of trying to make communism safe for undergraduates — in the catechism of the right wing, the moral equivalent of dispensing poisoned candy to children — so of course the lecture amphitheater was packed, and not just with those who’d read his books, but also with the rebellious, the curious; all those passionate advocates of generational solidarity who were already fashioning the Sixties into either a revolutionary epoch or a silly season, depending on how you judged the culture wars which were already underway.

I don’t know what any of us expected, but what we got was an elf — a slight, decidedly unheroic looking man talking to several early arrivals in the pit below the stage. Already nearly seventy, he didn’t look it, except for the almost white hair cropped close over his ears. Very professorial, very European, I thought, yet as informal in dress and manner as his audience. Once the last of the late arrivals had arranged themselves around the edges of the room, and the sponsors had managed, with a flurry of hand waving and restrained begging, to quiet the crowd and make their introductions, the old man skipped up the steps to the stage, walked over to the rickety podium, and started to speak.

Most of what he said that evening I no longer remember. I was, in any case, already familiar with much of it from reading Eros and Civilization, and One-Dimensional Man. What I do remember, though, what has in fact stuck in my mind from then until now, was his opening line:

As I often seem to be doing these days, I shall begin with Hegel…and I shall end with…love.

Like Professor Marcuse, I also began with Hegel, and like the good professor, I very much doubt I’ll end up in the promised land. No one should assume, however, that I don’t believe it exists, or that, somehow or other, love will prove the key to getting there. I know very well that independent thinking, and thinkers, aren’t immortal, but they are eternal. All you have to do, if you want confirmation of that seemingly bold assertion, is to stop for a moment and walk away from the megaphones.