The Liberal Imagination.
By Lionel Trilling.
Viking. 303 pp. $3.50.
This is a difficult book to review. The difficulty is that Mr. Trilling has a single theme—a critical examination of the influence of liberal ideas on contemporary literature—but this theme is too often not at the center of his book. Indeed, at moments one almost suspects that he discovered his theme after he had finished it. The Liberal Imagination consists of writings suited to occasions; lectures delivered, papers read, essays, prefaces, and so on. All these are certainly worth collecting into a volume. But the book falls rather between two stools of being a miscellaneous collection and being a series of connected essays to illustrate one thesis.
In an earlier review which I have destroyed, I allowed myself to be too easily distracted by trailing several of Mr. Trilling’s opinions which—important as they are—remain outside his main argument. For example, his view—extravagant to my mind—that The Princess Casamassima can be grouped with the great realist novels of the 19th century: Le Rouge et le Noir, Le Père Goriot, Great Expectations, and L’Educatìon Sentimentale. But—I protested—is it conceivable that if Balzac or Flaubert had been writing in English a novel of London low political life, he would have called his hero “Hyacinth”? All Mr. Trilling’s demonstrations that the kind of fantastic plotting in which James involves his characters is feasible because such things did happen at the time in St. Petersburg, Dublin, and Paris, do not convince me that The Princess Casamassima is a Londonish novel: and that is what has to be proved.
The foregoing remarks will illustrate how easy it is to be led away from the subject of Mr. Trilling’s book into a discussion of his critical views. So now I shall resolutely direct my attention to the main subject, which gives the title to this book: The Liberal Imagination.
Mr. Trilling thinks the liberal imagination defective, and it is scarcely too much to say that his book might well be entitled “The Liberal Lack of Imagination.” What it amounts to is that liberals are inclined to—or do—live within a spiritual orthodoxy of belief in progress and support of humanitarian causes, which is based on their having a generalized view of humanity as a whole and neglecting to examine closely the nature of the individual human heart. Thus the situation arises that the liberal creative writers, with their diffused social vision, have not had the profoundest things to say about people, and are in fact not the best writers: despite the generally accepted liberalism of our educated society, the best writers are men with illiberal views.
It is necessary here to quote rather extensively from Mr. Trilling’s analysis of the situation, in order to discuss it without the risk of distortion. One reason for quoting is that Mr. Trilling makes assertions about liberalism in the United States which could not possibly be made about it in Europe; and as a European it is necessary for me to keep this distinction before me; it is very evident in the following:
In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.
The above paragraph is very puzzling to a European like myself, firstly because, from three thousand miles away, America often appears the most conservative country in the world. However, it is quite possible that America could be conservative and all the writers liberals—though I am left wondering whether Allen Tate, William Faulkner, and a few others can be described as such, and if they are not, whether their conservatism can be dismissed as a gesture. But my second reason for being amazed is that European intellectual life without “conservative or reactionary ideas” seems almost unthinkable. For instance, a great part of the genius of modern French literature is profoundly conservative and even reactionary. And in England, a conservative movement, led by the ex-American T. S. Eliot, and certainly including writers like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, has a wide influence.
In fact, I can only consider a liberal orthodoxy in relation to a conservative one. To me, liberalism is the belief in the improvability, if not the perfectibility, of map: conservatism (from a literary point of view at all events-politicians we need not discuss, because they have long ceased to know what political principles are about) is the belief that individual man cannot be improved, therefore he must be disciplined and must exist in a hierarchy which owes much to a tradition based on an understanding of the unchanging qualities of human nature; though the order of the hierarchy and the conditions it imposes may be adjusted in order to alleviate men’s circumstances.
So, fundamentally, the conservative-liberal controversy is a debate about the nature of man. And curiously enough this kind of political thinking exists far more deeply today in our intellectual life than in politics itself, where divisions of interest have more and more superseded divisions of philosophy.
The difficulty of Mr. Trilling’s position—which appears to be that, being an American intellectual, he simply cannot believe that a conservative intellectual life exists—is that he still has to explain why the best writers in our time are not ideologically liberals, and why the liberal critics are so sentimental as to regard Theodore Dreiser as a realist and the world of Henry James as quite unreal. The great and enormous virtue of Mr. Trilling is that he is extremely honest and he sees all the liberal failings very clearly. Faced, though, by the illiberalism of the best modern writers, he simply shrugs off their conservatism as though it were accidental, and uses their creative achievement as a critical weapon against the liberals:
If . . . we name those ‘writers who . . . are to be thought of as the monumental figures of our time, we see that to these writers the liberal ideology has at best been a matter of indifference. Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot, Yeats, Mann (in his creative work), Kafka, Rilke, Gide [why Gide?—S.S.]—all have their own love of justice and the good life, but in not one of them does it take the form of a love of the ideas which liberal democracy, as known by our educated class, has declared respectable. So that we can say that no connection exists between our liberal educated class and the best of the literary minds of our time. [But it is fallacious to argue that because the best writers are not liberals therefore the liberals have no connection with their work.—S.S.] The same fatal separation is to be seen in the tendency of our educated liberal class to reject the tough, complex psychology of Freud for the easy, rationalistic optimism of Horney and Fromm. [But surely if ever there was a liberal it was Freud himself, and by the argument which Mr. Trilling himself has just used, this would seem to show that there is a connection between the liberals and the liberal Freud.—S.S.]
My inserted remarks demonstrate how difficult it is to review Mr. Trilling without being led astray by the red herrings of his generalizations. Generalization, of course, is not necessarily wrong, or “fatal” as Mr. Trilling would probably call it. It is a method of argument, but a peculiarly disconcerting one if misused: and I think that Mr. Trilling’s generalizations (like the one about there being no American conservative intellectual life—which I really am beginning to doubt at this stage of my review) make his main argument into a kind of obstacle race in which one is continually being tripped up by some extremely dubious statement.
However, I agree with the general drift of the paragraph I have quoted, even though the drift is far too general. Mr. Trilling defends the writers he has cited for their seriousness, and accepts their position as critics of a too easygoing liberalism. But he does not inquire what that orthodoxy is which all these writers share, and which is absent from the liberal intellectuals. I suggest that it is belief in original sin. Leaving Gide out of it (I don’t know why Mr. Trilling ever put him in), what Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Rilke, Eliot, Yeats, and perhaps even Lawrence have in common, is an underlying conviction that man has fallen, and that each individual human being has inherited a burden of guilt which extends far beyond himself and for which nevertheless he must in some way atone in order that he may be redeemed.
I do not have to inquire into the theological implications of such a view in order to pose what I think is the central question of a debate between the liberal and the “traditionalist conservative” views. It is: does the view that man is fallen and innately sinful give us a deeper insight into the individual human heart than the one that he is a creature whose bad qualities are entirely the result of his environment, so that individual man improves in a ratio proportionate to the improvement of social conditions?
Now the opposition of these points of view confronts us with the discomforting paradox which explains, among other things, the defection of many writers, during the past century, from a youthful liberalism to a middle-aged conservatism. The paradox is that the views which politically are most useful to humanity may give us a too optimistic picture of individual man: whereas those which tell us the most important truth about the human heart—that it is indeed black—encourage reactionary and even tyrannical politics. Writers shift from liberalism to conservatism because it is more important to them in their work to have an exact picture of the nature of individuals than to have vaguely beneficial views about the whole of society.
Both conservative and liberal views if they are developed in isolation from one another are false, and, if pushed to extremes, reveal their falsity. Contemporary politics does push things to extremes, and we get the extreme of one aspect of the liberal view in Communism; and the extreme of cynicism about human nature in fascism. The Communist argument (economic liberty under political dictatorship) is that given good conditions, human nature will improve, therefore the men who are committed to introducing good conditions (i.e. the members of the Party) can use whatever methods an abstract necessity dictates. This leaves out of account the fact that the men who direct the Communist society are bad and fallen like all men, and are motivated not just by objective history, but by self-interest, vanity, and lust for power. The fascists start from the opposite point of view that all men are bad and therefore must be dictated to by a reactionary traditionalist elite.
What democracy really requires is a synthesis of that which is true in conservatism and that which is true in liberalism. Liberalism should be tested by the capacity of liberals to combine their programs for improvement with a realistic view of the qualities of human individuals; conservatism should be tested by the determination of those who believe in original sin to improve man’s environment nonetheless. In effect, the conservative-liberal opposition should wither away in a living democracy and be superseded by a kind of revolutionary traditionalism; that is to say, a determination to improve conditions, inseparably fused with a determination that the most valuable characteristics of tradition should be reborn within the future.
This brings me back to The Liberal Imagination. Mr. Trilling has stated two or three of the positions which most need stating in this book. He has analyzed with great authority the relationship of literature to the deepest political currents of a country and an age. He puts his finger on the weaknesses of the liberal orthodoxy, and he has indicated the self-criticism of which the progressive thinkers stand in need: “A criticism which has at heart the interests of liberalism might find its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its general sense of lightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time. If liberalism is, as I believe it to be, a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine, then, as that large tendency makes itself explicit, certain of its particular expressions are bound to be relatively weaker than others, and some even useless and mistaken.”
He might be criticized for analyzing the symptoms of liberal weaknesses rather than searching for the root of the disease. He accepts perhaps too easily the Goethean view that “there is no such thing as a liberal idea, only liberal sentiments.” The test of sentiments today lies in action: and action seems to be above all what is required of American liberals. For liberals, action may mean giving up a great deal, if not all, in order to save the soul of the world: and it is this kind of action which the vague liberal benevolence seems disinclined to undertake. But perhaps to have considered this would have led Mr. Trilling too far into politics. What seems the most serious defect in his book is his quite remarkable unawareness of any points of view which seriously challenge liberalism. The kind of discussion which is to be found in the remarkable correspondence between the socialist-minded J. B. Yeats and his son, the poet W. B: Yeats, does not exist here. Yet surely there are not just liberal writers and those who are not liberal through some kind of deficiency which nevertheless enables them to write better than the liberals? There is a serious anti-liberal ideology which has produced the best literature of our time, and this is the real challenge to liberal intellectuals. It is a pity that Mr. Trilling can find nothing to take seriously in the conservatism of W. H. Auden, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Peter Viereck, and others—considered, that is, as conservatism, and not just as lack of liberal ideology.
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The Liberal Imagination, by Lionel Trilling
Must-Reads from Magazine
The Elon Musk problem.
No one has ever mistaken me for a business writer. Show me a balance sheet or quarterly report, and my eyes will glaze over. Bring up “chasing alpha” at the bar, and I’ll ask for the check and give you the old Irish goodbye. Business chatter—the kind you can’t help but overhear from young stockjobbers at the gym and bloaty middle managers on the Acela—bores me to tears. I’m especially allergic to the idea of “The Market” as an autonomous, anthropomorphic entity with a unitary will and mind of its own.
But even I can tell you that Elon Musk is imploding.
The latest omen came Friday when footage of the South African-born magnate smoking a fat marijuana blunt dropped online. The video is worth watching; the Guardian has the key bits from the 150-minute interview (do people really watch interviews this long?).
Rogan, whose fame has been a mystery to many yet is an inescapable fact of our online lives, offers the joint to Musk but is quick to add: “You probably can’t [smoke it] because of stockholders, right?” (On second thought, I think I know why Rogan is famous—because he knows how to push his subjects’ buttons.)
“I mean it’s legal, right?” Musk replies.
And so Elon Musk—the founder of an electric-car company worth $50 billion and a rocket company worth $20 billion—presses the blunt between his lips and takes a drag. He washes it down with a sip of whiskey on the rocks.
“I’m not a regular smoker of weed,” Musk says a few minutes later. “I almost never [smoke it]. I mean, it’s it’s—I don’t actually notice any effect.” His speech by now is noticeably more halting than it has been earlier in the interview. “I know a lot of people like weed, and that’s fine. But I don’t find that it is very good for productivity.”
The Market was not amused. News of two senior Tesla executives quitting their jobs broke soon after the interview appeared. Tesla shares slid 8 percent. On Twitter, where he competes with President Trump for the World Megalomaniac Award, Musk tweeted out his Rogan interview, adding: “I am a business magnet.” Perhaps he was still coming down.
These disasters follow the summer’s going-private fiasco. In early August, Musk claimed he had secured the vast funding needed to take his company private and then did a switcheroo. Tesla short-sellers, whom Musk constantly tries to show up, were vindicated. The Market got angry; shares slid.
“Moving forward, we will continue to focus on what matters most,” Musk wrote in a statement to investors two weeks later, “building products that people love and that make a difference to the shared future of life on Earth. We’ve shown that we can make great sustainable energy products, and we now need to show that we can be sustainably profitable.”
That apparently entails shooting the THC-laden breeze with Joe Rogan for two and a half hours.
The question now is: How did Musk ever get so big in the first place? There were many Tesla-skeptics, of course, chief among them those very short-sellers. They were onto something, perhaps because they sensed that a sound inventor-investor-executive would be more concerned with producing a reliable, profitable, non-subsidized automobile than with . . . showing up short-sellers. Even so, Tesla shares climbed and climbed. Even now, after Friday’s Harold and Kumar routine, the stock is trading north of $260.
Two explanations come to mind. The first is that, after Steve Jobs’s death, Wall Street and Silicon Valley types were seeking the next Eccentric Visionary to whom they could hitch their dreams. And Musk was straight out of central casting for Eccentric Visionary. Ending climate change. Colonizing Mars. Super-trains linking cities across vast distances. Everything seemed possible with him. Who knows, maybe the hopes were well-placed at one point, and the adulation went to the man’s head?
The second explanation, which needn’t be mutually exclusive with the first, is ideology. So much of Musk’s business reputation rested on his claims of solving climate change and other planetary crises that loom large in the minds of the Davos crowd. Musk embodied the ideological proposition that no modern problem eludes solution by noble-minded technocratic elites. The Market, it turns out, was as prone to magical thinking as any of the rest of us.
Clarification: News of the Tesla executives’ departure broke following Musk’s pot-smoking interview, but at least one of the departures had been finalized earlier this week.
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The course the West followed has been a disaster.
The West has squandered the last, best opportunity to rid the world of the criminal regime in Syria.
Damascus was designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, and it has lived up to that title every year since. Syria’s descent into civil war presented several opportunities to dispense with the despot in Damascus and avert a crisis in the process, but they were all ignored. As I wrote for National Review, Syria is a case study in the perils of ideological non-interventionism. The results of the West’s over-reliance on covert action, outsourcing, and diplomacy in Syria is arguably the worst-case scenario.
Had Barack Obama not abandoned his infamous “red line” in 2013, the U.S. might have preserved the 100-year prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons. The collapse of that taboo has been rapid and terrifying. In the years that followed, chemical arms have been regularly deployed in Syria, and rogue powers have been using complex nerve agents on foreign (even allied) soil in reckless state-sponsored assassination campaigns.
Ideological adherence to non-interventionism well after it had proven an untenable course of action allowed the flourishing of terrorist organizations. Some parties in the West with a political interest in isolationism deliberately confused these terrorist groups with secularist movements led by Assad regime defectors. In the years that followed, those moderate rebel factions were crushed or corrupted while Islamist terror networks, which provided a politically valuable contrast to the “civilized” regime in Damascus, were patronized and nurtured by Assad.
The incubation of terrorist organizations eventually necessitated the kind of American military intervention Obama had so desperately sought to avoid, but at a time and place not of America’s choosing and with a footprint too small to achieve any permanent solution to the crisis. All the while, a great human tide poured out from Syria in all directions, but especially into Europe. There, an influx of unassimilated migrants eroded the continent’s post-War political consensus and catalyzed the rise of illiberal populist factions.
Even as late as the summer of 2015, there was still time for the West to summon the courage to do what was necessary. In a stunning speech that summer, Assad himself admitted that Syrian forces suffered from “a lack of human resources” amid Western estimates that nearly half the 300,000-strong Syrian army had been killed, captured, or deserted. “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria,” an intelligence source told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. But Obama dithered still. Just a few short weeks later, Vladimir Putin, upon whom Obama relied to help him weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad for his crimes, intervened in Syria on Damascus’s behalf. That was when the greatest crimes began.
Russian intervention in Syria began not with attacks on “terrorists,” as Moscow claimed, but with attacks on covert CIA installations and arms depots; a dangerous campaign that continued well into the Trump era. The Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies then embarked on a scorched-earth campaign. They bombed civilian neighborhoods and hospitals and maternity wards. They surrounded the liberated cities of Homs and Aleppo, barraging and starving their people into submission. They even targeted and destroyed a United Nations aid convey before it could relieve the famine imposed by Damascus. All the while, Moscow’s propagandists mocked reports of these atrocities, and the children who stumbled bloodied and ashen from the ruins of their homes were deemed crisis actors by Russian officials and their Western mouthpieces.
America’s strategic obligations in Syria did not diminish with Russian intervention. They increased, but so too did the danger. Early on, Russian forces concentrated not just on attacking Assad’s Western-backed enemies but on harassing NATO-aligned forces that were already operating in the Syrian theater. Russian warplanes harassed U.S. drones, painted allied assets with radar, conducted near-miss fly-bys of U.S. warships and airplanes in the region, and repeatedly violated Turkish airspace. This conduct was so reckless that, in November of 2015, NATO-allied Turkish anti-aircraft fire downed a Russian jet. On the ground, Moscow and Washington engaged in the kind of proxy fighting unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as U.S.-manufactured armaments were routinely featured in rebel-made films of successful attacks on Russian tanks and APCs.
In the years that followed this intensely dangerous period, the Syrian state did not recover. Instead, Syrian forces withdrew to a narrow area along the coast and around the capital and left behind a vacuum that has been filled by competing great powers. Iran, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the United States, to say nothing of their proxy forces, are all competing to control and pacify portions of the country. Even if the terrorist threat is one day permanently neutralized in Syria—a prospect that today seems far off, considering these nations’ conflicting definition of what constitutes a terrorist—the state of competition among these powers ensures that the occupation of Syrian territory will continue for the foreseeable future.
And now, the final battle is upon the rebels. On Friday, hundreds of Syrians waving the “independence flag” poured into the streets of Idlib, the last of the country’s free cities, begging the international community to spare them from the onslaught that has already begun. The United Nations has warned that up to 800,000 people could be displaced in Damascus’s efforts to retake the rebel-held enclave, and the worst of the seven-year war’s humanitarian disasters may be yet to come.
Over the last two weeks, the United States has issued some ominous warnings. Senior American officials have begun telling reporters that the evidence is increasing of Damascus’s moving chemical munitions near the frontlines with the intent of using them on civilians. Trump administration officials announced in no uncertain terms that they would respond to another chemical attack with disproportionate force.
In response to these threats, Moscow deployed the biggest Russian naval taskforce on the Syrian coast since 2015. Simultaneously, Russia has warned of its intent to strike “militant” positions in the country’s Southwest, where U.S. soldiers routinely patrol. American forces are holding firm, for now, and the Pentagon insists that uniformed personnel are at liberty to defend themselves if they come under assault. If there is a conflict, it wouldn’t be the first time Americans and Russians have engaged in combat in Syria.
In February, Russian mercenaries and Syrian soldiers reinforcing columns of T-72 tanks and APCs armed with 125-millimeter guns engaged a position just east of the Euphrates River held by American Green Berets and Marines. The four-hour battle that ensued resulted in hundreds of Russian fatalities, but it may only have been a terrible sign of things to come.
Of course, a Western-led intervention in the Syrian conflict would have been accompanied by its own set of setbacks. What’s more, the political backlash and dysfunction that would have accompanied another difficult occupation in the Middle East perhaps presented policymakers with insurmountable obstacles. But the course the West followed instead has been a disaster.
The lessons of the Syrian civil war are clear: The U.S. cannot stay out of destabilizing conflicts in strategically valuable parts of the world, no matter how hard it tries. The humanitarian and political disasters that resulted from Western indifference to the Syrian plight is a grotesque crime that posterity will look upon with contempt. Finally, the failure to enforce prohibitions against chemical-weapons use on the battlefield has emboldened those who would use them recklessly. American soldiers will suffer the most in a world in which chemical warfare is the status quo of the battlefield of the future.
American interventionists are often asked by their opponents to reckon with the bloodshed and geopolitical instability their policies encourage. If only non-interventionists would do the same.
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And the demands of realpolitik.
Earlier this week, my housekeeper, Mary, arrived to work decked out in a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to Israel last Sunday for a three-day official visit.
Mary was at the Knesset on Monday, one of several hundred Filipino workers among approximately 28,000 in Israel, enthusiastically cheering her strongman president.
I asked her what she thought of Duterte–a leader who makes President Trump seem eloquent and measured, by comparison–and I was taken aback by her effusive, unhesitating endorsement: “Oh,” she enthused, “he is a very good president! The best!”
“But,” I suggested, carefully, “he says and does some pretty extreme, crazy things. Does that concern you at all?”
“Oh, no!” she collapsed in laughter. “He doesn’t mean that. It’s just his style.”
Indeed, Duterte has “style.” Bragging of his intent to kill millions of Filipino drug addicts, and invoking Hitler and his genocidal rampage, approvingly, in this context; referring to President Obama as a “son of a whore”; boasting of his parsimony in keeping multiple mistresses available in low-end hotels; approving of sexually assaulting women, particularly attractive ones. And then there was the outburst during the Pope’s visit to the very Catholic Philippines in 2015 when Duterte called him a “son of a bitch” for causing a traffic jam while in Manila.
Mary is not a simple woman. She is university educated, hard-working, pleasant, and respectful. And whatever makes her overlook Duterte’s thuggish tendencies should interest us all, because there are many Marys the world over supporting populist leaders and governments. Mary admires Duterte’s strength of conviction in dealing with drug dealers, addicts, corruption and Islamic extremists.
Human rights activists and journalists, of course, see only a brute who visited Israel to shop for weapons and defense capabilities, which would be put to questionable use. Then again, Duterte is hardly the first and far from the only unsavory ruler to come shopping in Israel, America, or elsewhere, for arms.
Israel deftly managed the visit and optics. Whereas many were disgusted that the PM and President Rivlin gave Duterte an audience, according him a legitimacy and respect that is undeserved, their meetings were brief and remarks carefully calibrated.
In addition to acknowledging his personal gratitude to the Filipino caregiver who was a companion to his father in his final years, Bibi reminded us all of the enduring friendship the Philippines has shown Israel, and Jews, for decades. Prior to WWII, then president Manuel Quezon made available 10,000 visas as part of an “open door” policy to accommodate European Jewish refugees. Only 1,300 were used, ultimately, due to the Japanese invasion which closed off escape routes.
In 1947, the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in support of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, providing critical support for the momentum building towards the creation and international acceptance of the Jewish state one year later. These are important, historical events about which Bibi, quite rightly, chose to remind us all.
I am no cheerleader of dictators and thugs, but I do wonder why the morality of many objectors to the Duterte visit is so selective. Israel (and all western nations) has relations and ties with many countries led by dictators and rulers far more brutal than the democratically elected Duterte.
Much ado has been made in recent months of Bibi’s meetings with a number of right-wing populists and, worse. Some link it to what they see as disturbing, anti-democratic tendencies in his own leadership of late. Others, myself included, would read it as a careful effort to maintain and cultivate as many international relationships as possible that may enhance Israel’s strategic and economic interests, particularly in this period of extreme global political, economic and institutional instability.
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The paradox of success.
The monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Friday morning shows that the economy continues to flourish. 201,000 new jobs were added last month, while the unemployment rate stayed steady at a very low 3.9 percent.
Unemployment rates for African-Americans and teenagers continued their decline to historic lows, while US factory activity was at a 14-year high and new unemployment claims at their lowest point since the 1960s. The long-term unemployed (those out of work for 27 weeks or longer) has fallen by 24 percent in the last year. The number of part-time workers who want full-time work has gone down by 16 percent over the last 12 months. Wages are rising at a faster pace than they have, a sign of a tightening jobs market.
Corporate profits are robust (thanks partly to the cut in the corporate income tax) and consumer spending has been rising. The GDP has been growing at a more than 4 percent rate in recent months. In short, the American economy has rarely been this good and certainly wasn’t during the long, sluggish recovery from the 2008-2009 recession under the Obama administration.
In an ordinary year, one would expect that with economic numbers this good, the party controlling both houses of Congress and the White House would be looking forward to doing well in the upcoming midterm election, even though the party holding the White House usually loses seats in midterms. But, of course, no year is an ordinary political year with Donald Trump in the White House and the Democratic Party moving ever more to the left.
November 6 will be an interesting night.
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We deserve better.
You could be forgiven for thinking that everyone active in American politics has lost their minds.
What we’re witnessing is not, however, collective madness. The political class in the United States has adapted to a constant atmosphere of high drama, and they’ve adopted the most theatrical poses possible if only to maintain the attention of their fickle audiences. What might look to dispassionate observers like mass hysteria is just overwrought performance art.
This week was a case study in our national insanity, which began aptly enough on Capitol Hill. There, confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh got underway, but Judge Kavanaugh’s presence was barely noticed. The hearings soon became a platform for some familiar grandstanding by members of the opposition party, but the over-acting to which the nation was privy was uniquely embarrassing.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker chewed the scenery, as is his habit, by declaring himself Spartacus and demanding that he be made a “martyr” via expulsion from the Senate for releasing one of Kavanaugh’s emails to the public, supposedly in violation of Senate confidentiality rules. But there was no violation, said Bill Bruck, the private attorney who led the review of Kavanaugh’s former White House records in the Senate. “We cleared the documents last night shortly after Senator Booker’s staff asked us to,” he said in a statement. Perhaps by engaging in what he called “an act civil disobedience,” Booker was only following the lead of his colleague, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who declared the committee’s process illegitimate, thereby supposedly rendering the rules of the United States Senate unworthy of recognition.
Outside another congressional committee’s chamber, the crazy really ramped up to absurd proportions. Following a hearing on alleged bias in Silicon Valley, Senator Marco Rubio was confronted by the rabble-rousing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, which rapidly devolved to the point that both Senator and agitator were soon threatening to fight one another. “I know you’ve got to cover them, but you give these guys way too much attention,” Rubio later told reporters. “We’re making crazy people superstars. So, we going to get crazier people.” He’s right.
The Trump era has provided the press with fertile soil in which a thousand manic flowers have bloomed.
Amplified by the president himself, Jones has become one of the right’s favorite grifters. Unfortunately, he’s in plentiful company. The press has discovered a sudden interest in conspiracy theorists like Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, and Laura Loomer partly because they make for such compelling television but also because they’re willing to confirm the pro-Trump right’s most paranoid suspicions.
The “Resistance” has been a valuable vehicle for the unscrupulous and under-medicated. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has been feted in the press and in apolitical venues such as the MTV Movie Awards not despite but because of her penchant for radicalizing the left and feeding them fantasies about a coming anti-Trump putsch. Former British MP Louise Mensch, “D.C. technocrat” Eric Garland, and Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca spent most of 2017 basking in attention and praise from respectable quarters of the Washington political and media class. Their manifest unfitness for such elevated status somehow evaded drama addicts in mainstream political and media quarters.
And whether you’re pandering to the pro-Trump right or the anti-Trump left, there’s plenty of cash to go around for those who are willing to indoctrinate children or undermine the integrity of apolitical American institutions.
The week’s most hysterical moment belongs to the president and his aides—specifically, their reaction to an anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times purportedly revealing the existence of a cabal in the administration dedicated to thwarting the president’s worst impulses. Now, some have expressed perfectly reasonable reservations about the Times’s decision to publish an anonymous op-ed. Others have fretted about the pernicious effects this disclosure might have on the already mercurial president’s approach to governance. But lost in the over-the-top reactions this piece inspired among political observers is the hackneyed nature of the revelations it contained.
In sum, the author disclosed that many members of this Republican administration are movement conservatives dedicated to conservative policy prescriptions that are antithetical to the policies on which Trump campaigned. As such, they have often successfully lobbied the president to adopt their positions over his own preferences.
The admittedly dangerous “two-track presidency” has been observable for some time, and is the frequent subject of reporting and opinion. For example, the op-ed highlighted the discrepancy between Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia and his administration’s admirably hawkish posture, which has become such a glaringly conspicuous feature of his presidency that Trump has recently begun trumpeting his contradictory record as though it was a unique species of competence. There’s nothing wrong with taking issue with the way in which the obvious was stated in this op-ed, but the statement of the obvious should not itself be a source of special consternation.
But was it ever. The Drudge Report dubbed the author a “saboteur,” despite the op-ed failing to describe even one action that was taken on the part of this so-called “resistance” against the president’s expressed wishes. “Sedition,” former White House Aide Sebastian Gorka echoed. Sarah Huckabee Sanders attacked the anonymous columnist as a “coward.” The president himself pondered whether the op-ed constituted “treason” against the United States and demanded the Times “turn over” this “gutless” columnist to the proper authorities, whoever they are. This is certainly one way to refute the charge that Trump’s “impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions,” but it’s not a good one.
It’s hard to fault politicians and the press for selling drama. Banality doesn’t push papers, drive up advertising rates, or turn out the vote. At a time without an urgent crisis, when the economy is strong, and the fires abroad are relatively well-contained, it serves the political and media classes to turn up the temperature on mundanities and declare all precedents portentous. But radicalizing voters for such purposes is both trite and irresponsible. In America, healthy and productive politics is boring politics. And who would tune in for that?