Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Death of the Liberal Class

essaysbysean.blogspot.com

Death of the Liberal Class


Such is the title of a book by Chris Hedges, the correspondent who wrote War is a Thing That Gives Us Meaning.  It's because of his splendid book War book, never mind that Hedges has a shared Pulitzer prize, that whenever Hedges speaks I listen. Today I would like to offer a book review of Death of the Liberal Class… but words fail me.

I’ve written before about Universities. I remember a young professor who told us, at a rehabilitation conference here in Calgary, of criticizing an institution for the mentally handicapped, (retarded) an institution that, on its board of directors, included a household name of TV journalism. The directors went to the governor of the state: "We want him fired!" Who went to the president of the university: "I want him fired!" Who went to the faculty head, who maybe went to the department head (I forget) who said softly, “I can’t. He has tenure.” Here is a scary thing: A leading light in the rehabilitation world was nearly fired, not for  being a communist, (he wasn’t) but merely for offending the powerful. Here is a quote from Hedge’s book:

QUOTE Tenured professors are going the way of unionized steel workers. There are fewer and fewer tenure-track jobs—only about thirty percent of current academic positions offer tenure—and this percentage is declining. The desperate scramble by academics to placate the demands of college administrators and university presses that will publish their work so they can get tenure, has only grown as the number of secure jobs diminishes. The majority of academics are itinerants who may teach in a series of schools over a career, or at two or three schools at a time, with no job security. Adjuncts are usually hired on contracts of a year or less. They are considered part-time employees and are ineligible for benefits. Many earn as little as $1,000 a course. The lack of job security further inhibits any propensity to write or speak about topics that have political or social relevance. It is better for one’s career to stay away from politics and wallow in the arcane world af departmental intrigue and academic gibberish. (P. 126) UNQUOTE

I’ve written before about computer nerds who, in their Internet forums, such as digg and reddit, seem awfully dumb for nerds. (But I do like essayist Paul Graham and his YCombinator’s Hacker News) Here is a quote from Hedges:

QUOTE …(The liberal class was) forgetting, as Macdonald wrote, that “as in arts and letters, communicability to a large audience is in inverse ratio to the excellence of a political approach. This in not a good thing: as in art, it is a deforming and crippling factor. Nor is it an eternal rule: in the past, the ideas of a tiny minority, sometimes almost reduced to the vanishing point of one individual, have slowly come to take hold on more and more of their fellow men.”

The cultural embrace of simplification, as Macdonald warned, meant reducing a population to speaking in predigested clich├ęs and slogans. It banished complexity and further pushed to the margins difficult, original, or unfamiliar ideas. The assault on radical and original thought, which by definition did not fit itself into the popular cultural lexicon, saw art forms such as theater suffer.  (P. 88) UNQUOTE

Classifications don’t exist in nature, of course, and when it comes to people, we make them up. Perhaps in America there is an upper class. Perhaps there is an oligopoly, as a character explains so convincingly in Inside Out by Barry Eisler. (A story based on the 92 missing C.I.A. torture tapes) Or perhaps there is a power elite, a term used by Hedges. The power elite would work together like folks in the TV series Survivor, only the conspiracy would be continent-wide. Except that in Survivor, unlike in civilized society, there is no intermediary between the selfish nobles and the commoners. No liberals. No John and Robert Kennedy as the Gracchi brothers.

As a boy, I had the impression that actors, more than most grownups, were into equality for, say, persons of the Jewish persuasion and Negroes and homosexuals.  I couldn’t imagine Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra, even in the U.S. south, telling Sammy Davis Junior they couldn’t eat together. From the time of Shakespeare writing about merchants, right up to the present day, actors seem to be a part of our liberal conscience, or, as Hedges would put it, a part of our liberal class. As a traveling troupe said on Star Trek, in an episode about Kodos the Executioner, “The play’s the thing, wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the king.” (Shakespeare)

Incidentally, according to a "making of Star Trek" book, (I think from the early 1970’s) the writers bible for the Star Trek franchise made it clear that while they could show a planet controlled by women, or by organized crime, there could be no satire like Kornbluth’s Gravy Planet or Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars: No planets controlled by business.

Hedges classifies the entire liberal class, from actors to Zen artists, from teachers at university to trade unionists, from social workers to shipyard workers espousing solidarity, as all being like a buffer, like a safety valve for pent up steam, or like a flashing light of hope for incremental progress. Nothing radical, no liberals calling for revolution, but liberals as a conscientious force for continual progress, for having our children, at least, live in a better world.

This concept of a "liberal class" is a new idea for me. As a boy reading about the Romans I realized Rome's classic virtues, which will forever inspire mankind, were from their days of being a republic. Nevertheless during childhood I rather preferred the later centuries where their empire was expanding. The high school history texts would say the empire, expanding for many generations, was “running on momentum,” but I didn’t get it. As an adult, of course, I get it; I “get it” that by having decadence, and by not having a middle class, the Romans were doomed. As a boy, and to this very day, my favorite decade has been the 1950’s; and I’m not the only one: there is a comic book series called American Century that explores that fun decade.

But now I have to wonder: Were the 1950’s a case of America running on momentum? If so, that would account for the curious combination of soaring economy and lifeless conformity. Were the witch-hunts and blacklists of actors and writers and trade workers and professors merely the last few nails in a coffin that was mostly finished back around World War I? Were the 1950’s only a shadow decade? Hedges makes a convincing case that the liberal class has become non-effective… dead.

My two favorite 20th century presidents both happen to be democrats: Harry “give ‘em hell” Truman and John F. Kennedy. When did we start saying liberals are losers? When did we stop being accountable, stop saying “Wall Street Meltdown” and start saying the wimpy phrase “2008 recession?” Words fail me. I fear if I try to say we no longer face things, if I try to explain Hedge’s book, then I’ll sound like, well, like a loser.


Sean Crawford
May
Calgary
2015
Footnotes:
~Everyone knows that Vintage is a fine liberal publishing brand. Well, my copy is by Vintage all right—Vintage Canada. On Google, on the top hits, I see the book is not published by Vintage, and not by one of the Big Five (Formerly the Big Six) but some obscure brand I’ve never heard of in my life. I tell you, the older I get, the more I believe in conspiracies.

~Kennedys as Gracchi brothers:
Rome’s decline into conspicuous consumption, instead of sober self-discipline, was horribly swift, taking only a generation or so. It was only after it was already too late that we get the story of Cornelius’s jewels. When a certain plainly dressed lady, Cornelius Gracchi, was visited by ornately adorned women, the other ladies would asked about her jewels. Cornelius would summon her two sons and say, “Here are my jewels.” As adults the brothers went on to try to do some good, but died violently. Just as in the song Abraham, Martin and John, the good die young.

Here’s the songlink, and here’s Robert (Bobby) making a speech. He had lengthy plans to work with the locals to reform one of the most infamous ghettos, and he was going to get us out of Vietnam because of his rock hard evidence, amidst all the swirling controversy, that pulling out was the right thing to do. This I know from his well-researched articles in his book To Seek a Newer World, which he put into the public domain so people could spread the word.

~I’ve written before (archives of March 2013) about how being unable to face the lessons of Vietnam means being utterly unable to face learning how to win the war on drugs, making the latter war as much a farce as the former. A war unlearn-able is a war unwinnable.

~Sadly, one of the things we’re no longer facing is how the US of A is no longer the greatest country in the world. Here is an edited down (condensed) video clip of someone explaining this, while noting that liberals are losers.


~I found the clip on a post exposing America (link) on a self-improvement blog by Mark Manson, a man who throws truth like a wet dishrag.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Poetics of I am Nothing

essaysbysean.blogspot.com


Like you and me, everyone lives center stage in their own play. Like the doctor who has to confront the Leader during an expansionist war. He had been asked to diagnose a strangely shy little girl living under the Dictator’s roof, a refugee from the fighting. He enters the Ruler’s office to make his report, using anger at the war to mask his fear of the CEO. He carries no pages of charts and graphs, no laboratory tests, nothing but a single sheet of paper.

The doctor explains to the Fuhrer that sometimes we ask patients to make a drawing, or a poem. Here is the complete report—a poem. The doctor puts on his hat. Good day, Sir. Exit stage left.

The Leader, in the center of his world of respectful doctors, lives with a narrow one-eyed blindness. To him war is a Good Thing for the strong; his wife is weak, and why the heck has she taken in a little refugee?

As for the girl, she doesn’t dare think she deserves to “own the stage.” She is nothing.

I won’t tell you any more of the plot of the short story I Am Nothing by Eric Frank Russell.  I like his writing as he shares a quality of Neville Shute’s novels and George Orwell’s essays: Like them, he has a fundamental decency.

You’ve probably never heard of Russell. (1905-1978) Here in Calgary Will Ferguson, the winner of the Scotia Bank Giller Prize-winning novel, 419, said in an interview that he learned to write by studying Russell’s novel Wasp. I’m pleased to have my own oft-read copy. The title is a metaphor for how in wartime great damage can be caused by isolated secret agents. But Russell’s wasp is not a glamorous unscathed James Bond. No. During his war many scattered wasps fall out of contact, and many naval starships fail to return. Russell knew: War is not glorious. If you don’t mind science fiction, then you might like Russell’s work.

As for me, not an orphan, I had to push my relatives off my mental stage, stop them from being my “committee in my head.” And stop being guilty that I had managed to “get a life.” My best friend couldn’t handle the guilt and drove back east to live there and help her siblings, victims of abuse in childhood.

As with war, life is not a game, but it follows the rules of probability. Take a hundred quaking boys and girls, refugees from parents screaming over the “goddam bills!” Tell them they live on the “wrong side of the tracks.” Deep down, some will feel, “I am nothing.” Statistically then, at least one of them is fated to try to medicate her frustration by being a bully or a criminal or having an addiction. You and I, of course, will always rise above our circumstances and control our base nature. I’m just talking about others.

If the innocent girl in Russell’s story avoids the Fates then it’s because she is so nice. Sometimes, consideration for others can be a lifesaver.


Here is the shy girl’s poem:

I am nothing and nobody.
My house went bang.
My cat stuck to a wall.
I wanted to pull it off.
They wouldn’t let me.
They threw it away.

Sean Crawford
May
Calgary
2015
Footnotes:
~It’s queer how some memorable stories are about motherless girls. In print, my favorite three are Friday, a grownup in the book by Robert Heinlein, and two girls, Pollyanna and Sarah Crew. The latter is what Wesley reads aloud to Fred (Winifred) when she is deathly ill in Angel. I have yet to read about Ann.

~I feature Fred as one of Two Imaginary People in an essay archived December 2012.


~I would guess that Indians who leave the reservation would, like me and my best friend, feel “survivor guilt” as one more force arrow against their assimilation. By this guess, a liberal who disagrees with folks who want to keep the “two” races separate, a liberal who favors assimilation, would not have to move mountains trying to abolish reservations, but merely work to make reservations into decent places.