Monday, October 15, 2018

Without Rules, Boundaries, or Mercy

Thomas L. Dumm
Amherst College 

Every day we see new evidence of the deep corrosion of American politics. The hollowing out of democratic representation from the 1980s to 2016 gave rise to the availability of a Trump. Perhaps for a long time we were misled by the purloined letter aspect of this corruption, and saw Trump as a cause, not a symptom. But we are beginning to know better, if we did not sooner, that the systemic undermining of representative bodies into white corporate minority holding companies was the prelude to Trump. In retrospect, a certain inevitability, as we wearily check in on each new news cycle.

What Trump is, is one thing. What is that thing? We need not hesitate to name it any more. But simply calling it fascism isn’t enough. We need to be constantly aware of the madness underlying it. Here is a description.

He is a person who is impulsive in action, likely to do things without thought of consequences or future discomfort to himself or to others. He does not seem capable of learning from experience, and he shows an unusual pattern of intermittent periods of productive activity followed by patently irresponsible actions. He cannot tolerate feelings of frustration as a more normal person can, and he is poorly able to rid himself of feelings except through antisocial activity. . . His self-esteem is very low, and he secretly feels inferior to others and sexually inadequate. These feeling seem to be overcompensated for by dreams of being rich and powerful, a tendency to brag about his exploits, spending sprees when he has money, and dissatisfaction with only the slow advancement he could expect from his job. . . He is uncomfortable in his relationships to other people, and has a pathological inability to form and hold enduring personal attachments. Although he professes usual moral standards he seems obviously uninfluenced by them in his actions. In summary, he shows fairly typical characteristics of what would psychiatrically be called a severe personality disorder.
This is an excerpt from a psychiatric report not permitted to be admitted into evidence concerning the state of mind of Richard Hickock as he was tried, along with Perry Smith, in March of 1960, for the murder by shotgun of four members of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas on November 15, 1959. It is taken from the famous account by Truman Capote, In Cold Blood. (New York, Vintage, 1965, p. 295) The reason it was not allowed because of the M’Naghten Rule, taken from English common law, that does not allow for speculation concerning state of mind of a criminal actor beyond whether he or she knows right from wrong. 

It is almost unnecessary to point out that this is an uncannily spot-on description of Trump. Whether one refers to narcissistic personality disorder, sociopathy, or even psychopathy, for many Americans it seems clear that there is something really wrong with the man. But for others, it may not be so clear, or perhaps it is that the form of Trump’s illness is something that is so widespread in American culture as to be understood as normal behavior by many. Maybe it is a Cold Blood world we are now living in.

In that sense, the pathological elements of Trump’s personality that have been refracted through the right-wing Fox-Breitbart media/fundamentalist Christian/capitalist resonance machine is no longer only an element of our politics, it may have absorbed so much of what we can affectively know about the whole of politics as it is now practiced as the national level, that we are confused as to how to respond. But one thing is clear -- we no longer need to speculate as to whether someone knows that what they do is wrong. We know that the elated hypocrisy of, say, a Mitch McConnell, is a clear indicator of his deep knowledge of the wrongness of what he does. They know what they do.

To follow upon Bill Connolly’s “How DOES A Democracy Die?”, the norm-breaking associated with a pathological personality disorder now is shaping the common sense of American politics. Everyone knows Trumpism is wrong. Everyone who embraces it does so anyway.

The examples abound, and have recently been highlighted by the sickening displays of grandstanding and hypocrisy that marked the confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh. Those hearings were marked by the outrage of a wounded white male, in which the classic myth -- “A” students who captain the basketball team and do charity work cannot possibly be drunken rapists -- found its latest iteration (I experienced this phenomenon at work at Amherst College a few years ago – football players who write honors theses can’t possibly engage in sexual assault, argued the athletic director of the College in response to a column I wrote urging that we look into athletic culture as a problem…) . The outrage of Kavanaugh was immediately echoed by Lindsay Graham at a key moment – “I am a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I should shut up. But I won’t be shut up!” he raged. That Trump was able to pick up on this – “our young men are in danger” – and was able to reverse the accusation of the victim – women are destroying innocent men, the democrats are a riotous mob, etc., -- is no surprise. This is now a key element of the ongoing Republican playbook.

It may well be that it will soon be the same playbook for the mirror of the GOP, the Democratic Party.

Sometimes the smallest asides in an ordinary political column most importantly signal the depth of the degradation of party politics, in part because the writers of those notes assume that the fall has become complete. So it would seem, if one of the oldest and most conventional of political journalists is to be believed. I found it in the last line of an op-ed column in the October 11, 2018 New York Times, penned by Thomas Byrne Edsall. Edsall is perhaps one of the most conventional electoral politics reporters of the last thirty years, someone who has patiently traced the rise of corporate monies and their influence on both the Democratic and Republican parties, someone who has fervently believed in the conventions of party politics, and wrung his hands over the years as he has witnessed their fall from (relative) grace.  

In his column, “Is the Rust Belt Still Trump Country?”, he writes, in what feels like a throw away line, “No matter what happens in November, one thing is certain: For the Democrats to beat Trump in 2020, they will need a tough candidate prepared for battle in what has become politics without rules, boundaries or mercy.” In other words, the 2020 presidential election is to be a version of Thunderdome: “Two men enter, one man leaves!” In other other words, in response to the psychopathology of Trumpism, all politicians must become psychopaths.

This is not hyperbole. If Thomas Byrd Edsall is writing this way, it is the new common sense. Against which, we need to develop the resources of a new uncommon sense, one of mass protest, flooding of hallways, both real and virtual, and the sort of care of selves that will enable our traumas to become bearable as we seek the resources within ourselves and among ourselves to fight for democracy itself.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2018

How DOES a Democracy Die?

William E. Connolly
Author of Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy Under Trumpism (2017)

Within minutes after Judge Scalia's death in February, 2016, a Federalist Society leader tweeted, "If Scalia has actually passed away, The Senate must refuse to confirm any justices in 2016, and leave the nomination to the next President." (Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, p 145). Within a day Senate Leader Mitch McConnell announced there would be no hearings on any Obama nominee. This is a prime example of partisan flouting of a longstanding norm. Old democracies die, Levitsky and Ziblatt assert, when elected officials and political parties become highly polarized, break tacit norms of democratic governance, and refuse to enforce democratic guardrails. This time the Republican Party blocked Obama and soon confirmed a right wing Supreme Court justice nominated by President Trump. The argument: proliferation of such breakdowns presages an end to democracy, even when the formality of elections is retained.

The book is replete with such examples; it explains their sources largely in the political polarization and breakdown of guardrails by political elites. It is a fine study as far as it goes. Clearly, addiction to norm breaking has taken a huge toll on the ethos of democracy, as we can readily see in the latest Judiciary Committee treatment of the Kavanaugh hearings. The book should be read closely; its examples must be pondered; and its comparisons between countries are important. Nonetheless, the book does not reach far beyond a political science study of electoral politics to probe deeper sources of the contemporary threat to America. Consider a few pertinent issues.
 First, I did not find reference to the high probability that Donald Trump conspired with Russia--a hostile foreign country--to turn the election in his favor. If true, that would be the most extreme "norm breaking" of all, amounting to treason or at least “high crimes and misdemeanors” ; it would result in Impeachment, unless the Republican Party broke yet another norm and failed to convict. It does not suffice to say that the juridical evidence was not settled when the book was in production. The authors are not jurors in a trial. Political analysts must weigh the evidence and consequences of such a dark attack on democracy. Well before this book appeared I said in print in 2017 that Trump collusion "was highly probable”, reviewing available evidence at the time. (Aspirational Fascism, 2017). Others made similar judgments.

Second, while representational politics and free, competitive elections are absolutely critical to democracy, they do not suffice. Another essential side of democracy involves social movements by activists who press the state, corporations, churches, localities, bureaucracies, and universities to act upon grievances and suffering below the radar of public normality and electoral politics. Numerous things the authors now support—open voting laws, racial equality, gay rights, women's rights, religious diversity, and action to respond to rapid climate change--were pressed first by vibrant social movements that challenged the embedded norms, disciplines, interests, and vigilante violence that had blocked them. Parties and political elites wheeled into action later. That means that norm protection and revision cannot be trusted to elections, elites and political parties alone. There is too little appreciation in this book of the vital role of social movements, hence insufficient respect for the bi-focal character of democracy itself. This omission is doubly important today, since Trumpites, if they were to succeed in quashing the Mueller probe and last vestiges of Republican integrity, would soon move dramatically to block social movements on the left. When Trump roars every day that CNN and MSNBC report "fake news"-- stealing the phrase from those concerned about evidence-free Facebook implants—he also signals the desire to take more repressive steps, if the opportunity arises. Note Kompromat, and the surveillance glasses worn by police in China today. Indeed, several of Trump's Big Lies against others provide tells about his own ambitions. Take the charges of “fake news”, a "rigged election" a "deep state", and a climate "hoax" for starters. His own hoax is that there is no accelerating climate crisis and that it is rational to return to an extractive industrial system of the nineteen fifties.

Third, no citations appear in the Index to either neoliberalism or capitalism. That is unfortunate. For decades now dispersed white working and lower middle classes have been caught in a bind between the neoliberal wealth/income-concentration machine and noble movements by the pluralizing left. Its wages have stagnated; it has suffered underwater mortgages due to neoliberal collapses and harsh bankruptcy laws aimed at low income earners; it is hard pressed to send its kids to college in an economy organized around higher education; its public schools have declined; its labor unions are weakened by neoliberal courts; it has felt closed out of affirmative action. And on and on. If you define the white working class through the cluster category of relative income level, wealth, education level, life-time earning prospects, inheritance, retirement assets, access to health care, and the ability to make ends meet within a neoliberal infrastructure of consumption, it is clear that a time bomb has been waiting to explode. Some of us have warned about this for years. It is absolutely critical to say that other constituencies have been doing even worse. But this, too, is a minority in need of attention. Unless and until social movements and the Democratic Party attend to this constituency things will be precarious, to say the least. Yes, the racism and misogyny in sectors of it must be adamantly exposed and opposed; but as its dispersed geographical distribution and Trump's ugly incitements reveal, a larger segment of it must be drawn into any dynamic movement to promote pluralism, democracy, and egalitarianism together if these goals are to progress. This, too, is a neglected minority.
 Fourth, after voicing suspicion that courting the white working class would mean discounting other minorities, the authors do note a few "universalist" policies to reach across constituencies. Social Security, Medicare and a minimum wage are included. Good. But that list needs enlargement to include real job security, protection against corporate authoritarianism, legislation to strengthen labor unions, free public college tuition, better retirement prospects, and fair bankruptcy laws, just for starters. Reverend William Barber, Cornel West, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other activists have been fomenting such cross-minority movements even as we speak. The institutional conservatism of the authors inhibits them on this front.
 Fifth, the authors say that democracies often die slowly. Yes they do. However, we now face rapid aspirational drives toward a distinctive type of American fascism. Drives to create the deep state Trump purports to expose, to intimidate the media, to entrench white triumphalism, to promote misogyny, to merge with Fox News, to suppress poor and minority voters, to further weaken labor unions, to flood courts with right wing judges, to whip up anti-immigration frenzy, to demean and discourage women, to test public tolerances of new cruelties by a right wing state, to collude with urban police to intimidate and attack Blacks and other minorities, to encourage vigilantism, to build a Supreme Court majority to support an expansive view of Presidential sovereignty, and to use real or fake security threats to intensify the base. Things are moving fast. Seeing it this way, we must ask ourselves what to do if Trump either closes down an inquiry that is boxing him in or a Republican Congress refuses to impeach and convict if evidence of conspiring with Russia to sabotage an election becomes overwhelming.

We are living through an attempt to assassinate democracy. I certainly do not say things must necessarily break that way. Other possibilities are real, though they probably will involve public mobilization on several fronts. However, the authors do not advise what to do if or when things take such a sinister turn. My own sense is that if they do concerned citizens need to foment a nonviolent, general strike: withdrawing from work, minimizing consumption for its duration, flooding town halls, taking to the streets, and lobbying institutional leaders intensely. I hope it does not come to that. But if it does the magnificent recent actions by women activists against Kavanaugh provide one superb example in action.
 So I disagree with the two authors in some ways. I also appreciate their attention to the norms or ethos of democracy. I trust that, across these differences, we will be aligned to resist efforts to assassinate democracy.
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Thursday, August 16, 2018

Dietetic Capitalism

William E. Connolly
Author of Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy Under Trumpism (2017)

On a scintillating panel several years ago, Jane Bennett, Bonnie Honig and Melissa Orlie promulgated the health and political virtues of the slow food movement at an American Political Science Convention. One rump group in the room would have none of it. Such a movement, they insisted, is inherently class based. It speaks only to the upper middle class and the rich who can afford such luxuries of time and expense.

The critics were right about a class dimension of this phenomenon, wrong to the extent they thought the situation does not require a radical class response. It is expensive today to enjoy slow, organic foods that enrich the microbial diversity of the gut, encourage brain health, and protect people on several health fronts. But that is because diet exploitation joins other modes of class/race exploitation in several capitalist societies. Dietetic Capitalism joins the stratification of work, consumption practices, retirement opportunities, housing possibilities, pollution, susceptibility to military duty, longevity, and sources of stress. It even helps to solidify them.

I grew up in a Midwest, working class family before fast food became pervasive and two bread winners were so dominant. We did eat too many potato chips and too much ice cream. We also loved hot dogs, but only as special treats. The working class had not yet succumbed to the fast food industry that now afflicts the health of so many in that class and elsewhere.  Additives of sugar and fat were less pervasive; livestock were less subjected to corn feeding and closed feeding pens, antibiotics were thus less needed; obesity was less common; and several other sicknesses were less frequent. It was an unhealthy diet, certainly, but still a step or two above a fast food diet. Whenever as a teen I was invited to my Italian girlfriend’s upscale house for dinner, olive oil, fish, tomato sauces, fresh garlic, red wine and good cuts of meat were on the menu. I spent evenings there often, for several good reasons.

The recent book by Emeran Mayer, The Mind-Gut Connection (2016) gives the lie to critics of slow, healthy food diets. Mayer is not himself focused on the class composition of Dietetic Capitalism, but his review of recent revolutions in neuroscience do carry implications for that issue on every page.  The older neuroscience of the brain as a self-contained computer is on life support. More recent versions, which concentrate on intersections between multiple body, brain culture processes, are undergoing another revamping too. The new scientists often enough appreciate the reality of creative thinking and judgment.

The more we learn about the role of the dense neuronal system in the gut, its numerous imbrications with the gut microbiome, and the complex communications between both of them and brain regions in the head, the more the subtlety of relations between ingestion, digestion, microbial composition, neuronal systems, moods, thinking, and health come to the fore. One focus in the book is on the two way communications between the neuronal system in the gut, the vagus nerve, and  blood pathways for hormones of numerous sorts from the gut. Gut bacteria and the hormones they produce infiltrate moods, appetites, susceptibility to disease, brain health, and vulnerability to inflammation of the immune system. The food we eat and digest affects the quality of the microbiome; its specific composition then feeds back into the character of the food it seeks. The gut is a complex source of desires, feelings and prejudgments.

Here are just a few things Mayer says:
  • "in recent years the gut-brain axis has taken center stage. This shift can be largely attributed to the exponential rise in knowledge and data about the bacteria, archaea, fungi and viruses that live inside the gut..."(p. 14)
  • benefits of microbiota for health: "Some of the best documented benefits include assistance in the digestion of food components our guts cannot handle by themselves, regulation of our bodies’ metabolism, processing and detoxifying dangerous chemicals,..regulation of the immune system, and prevention of invasion by dangerous pathogens." (p. 15)
  • immunity and its inflammations. "In addition to the gut-brain communication channel involving the endocrine cells, there is another system involving our gut-based immune cells and the inflammatory molecules these immune cells produce., the so-called cytokines." (p. 62)
  • the hidden mood/salience system: "most of the time the salience system operates below the level of conscious awareness. Trillions of sensory signals rise up from your gut every day and are processed in your brain’s salience network. They remain content to..percolate into your subconscious." (p. 173)
  • transmission of the effects of bad diet to the next generation: "If the human genome.. is the  book of life, then a brain cell, a liver cell and a heart cell each reads different sections of the book. Epigenetic tags are the bookmarks..that tell a brain cell to read one passage of the book and a liver cell to read  another." (p. 120)
  • "Epigenetics violated everything modern biologists had learned about inheritance." (p. 121)

The microbiome begins to establish its specific composition in the mother’s womb, continues to do so dramatically for three years, collects “chemical tags” that propel some of these tendencies to the next generation, and is susceptible to further change by the quality of food ingested and stresses adults face. It can contribute to later bouts of depression, diabetes, Irritable Bowl Syndrome, obesity, Parkinson’s, Dementia, immune disorders, cancer, and probably Alzheimer’s when it is not composed in healthy ways. Our moods and cognitive powers partly flow from interchanges between numerous micro-agents moving back and forth between the brain in the head and the gut system, through both the vagus nerve and the blood system. Olfactory sensors on numerous intercommunicating organs play roles of importance as well. Note, too, how such processes do not have to be construed as blind determinants of thinking and judgment; they can be read as micro-agentic participants in thinking, mood and judgment.  A conversation between Mayer and Alfred North Whitehead could be very illuminating in this respect, since the latter construes such processes to be micro-agents.

Mayer, after probing new research into microbiome, brain and health relations, celebrates a Mediterranean diet high in plant foods, chicken and fish, olive oil, nuts, whole grains, tomatoes, and a daily dose of red wine. This brain and microbiome diet is equipped to help reduce stress and maybe even curtail temptations to listen to manipulative politicians who seek to exacerbate and exploit class and race based stresses. Mayer also emphasizes how several other dietary traditions can contribute to similar effects. It is fast food--highly processed, high salt and sugar content, red meat, soaked with antibiotics, swallowed with diet drinks, and starched with carcinogens--that forms the backbone of what I call Dietetic Capitalism. Diet drinks spawn a bacterial regime that promotes weight gain.

There is much more in this book of particular interest to those who pursue gut-brain health as they think, teach and write about the contemporary condition, including some further refinements of what a few critics call "affect theory".  But here we focus on an upshot not pursued in the book itself:  how the health, mood, stress, and inflammatory benefits and liabilities pondered in this little book are stratified by Dietetic Capitalism.  Working class people, if and when they have slipped away from ethnic culinary traditions, are pressed toward unhealthy diets by their income levels, stress levels, available stores and restaurants, engrained gut demands, and feelings of depression about the future looming before them. Upper middle class people can go to organic stores and enjoy excellent restaurants. Our immune systems are less apt to be compromised if we do so; our brain processes somewhat less apt to fall into Parkinson’s or Dementia; our stresses less often apt to drive us inexorably to comfort foods with spiral effects on health and attitudes; our sicknesses less often to pull us into the stress of medical bankruptcy. Fast food agribusiness, stores, and restaurants treat people and livestock ruthlessly as mere objects of profit, when they can get away with it, pumping as much surplus value out of them as possible.

Not everyone in privileged settings eats a healthy diet, of course.  Intelligence, judgment and forbearance are needed to pursue that course, even when the opportunity is there. Donald Trump, the billionaire, eats horrible food; it shows in everything he does, says and thinks. His diet was once an insistent, impulsive  choice, and it has now become an addiction. Perhaps a fecal transplant could help start a dietary transition. It would only be a first step, of course. My stool sample is available, if needed. But I am not willing to travel to Russia for the operation.

Do not talk about capitalism writ large without including Dietetic Capitalism as an insidious mode of class/race exploitation. Michelle Obama realized this. Drives to reduce class inequality must include demands to increase healthy microbiome opportunities for pregnant women, babies, children, adults and old people in every walk of life. Key words here are “opportunity” and “detailed knowledge”. Information about precisely how such tangled processes work on and in our bodies is critical. Such accounts show us when and where to expect an upsurge of gut pressure and how best to counter it. Generic information in this domain only convinces until it is time to eat.  This is precisely the juncture at which Mayer becomes most pertinent to the war against Dietetic Capitalism.

To work, such detailed knowledges also require intensive support of local and organic produce. The urban gardens springing up everywhere are promising signs. It will additionally, however, require intensive regulation of food additives, food information labels, livestock conditions, the use of feedstock antibiotics, carcinogens, and corporate TV food advertisements designed to exploit the gut. All these must be joined to real reductions in income inequality and tough working conditions to reshape the stress, gut, comfort food, inflammation, and health compromising dynamic now in play.

Dietetic Capitalism reveals a lot about the insidious character of other capitalist modes of exploitation. It slides into the gut, circulates through the blood stream, seeks vulnerable objects to exploit, spawns addictive practices, and encourages denialism. 

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