Monday, September 26, 2016

The “Deplorables”, Election Polls, and Spirituality: Or, Why The Authoritarian Personality Still Matters

William E. Connolly  Author, Facing The Planetary: Entangled Humanism and The Politics of Swarming (forthcoming, Duke) Yes, Hillary Clinton made a campaign mistake when she called half the people who support Trump “deplorables”. The charge was too generalized, and it did not take into account the sometimes trying circumstances from which the harsh orientations of a minority of white people against Gays, African Americans, Muslims, and others have been forged. It wrote off a large, dispersed constituency rather than seeking ways to inspire it differently, or even to divert some of its members in other directions. It even excited previously submerged tremors of sympathy in a few quarters for the very constituencies she identified. That is not to say, though, that Clinton failed to speak to an important phenomenon. She was onto something that must be engaged differently. One problem is that too many hesitate to engage it deeply, in part because of the very land mines that make this territory treacherous.  
Think for a moment about election polls. They are problematic in several ways, some of which are acknowledged by pollsters. Yes, pollsters have a hard time defining and finding a representative sample in a changing populace. Yes, there is the difficulty of weighting the poll results so as to represent those who are most apt to vote, trying to weight those differentials through variables of age, gender, class (or education as the pollster’s proxy), and racial identification. Yes, there is the problem of the difference between land phones and cell phones. And on and on, in a now familiar litany.  
 But the pollsters tend to minimize one crucial factor and to downplay another closely connected to it. They minimize the role that a new and untimely event may play in shifting the orientations of this or that constituency. Police violence, urban unrest, a terrorist attack, a shocking development in the Mideast wars, a new expose of Clinton or Trump—any of these could tap into latent anxieties and tip things. And, connected to that, pollsters do not try to assess the role that the spirituality of different participants plays in their readiness to vote, the choices they make, and the resonance machines they are predisposed to join. They try to measure "trust" in the candidates but that is not enough. Some constituencies, for instance, could distrust Clinton because she does not support the deepest prejudices they espouse. Trust is not a good proxy.  
 The role of spirituality in politics, then, is the insight Clinton almost expressed in a garbled way. Indeed, it is both difficult to express and essential to do so if polling is to become less crude than it now is. More than that, it is important to explore to improve our understanding of the current situation and to improve the capacity of the Left to participate in electoral campaigns.  
  By spirituality, I do not mean simply the specific religious or nonreligious beliefs an individual or constituency professes. That is pertinent, too. I mean, as a first shot, the extent to which the orientations of people are infused with positive attachments to the larger planet we inhabit and toward a set of minorities pressing to have a larger say in this world. Presumptive receptivity to others. Some spiritualities--perhaps in some cases because of neglect and suffering their adherents have experienced and in others because a previous sense of Great Entitlement has now been challenged—are filled with existential resentment against the most fundamental features of the human condition, as they understand that condition. A section of the white working class feels not only that its economic situation should be improved--it should. They also feel that their self worth is demeaned unless a host of minorities are shuffled into demeaning positions and kept below them economically. Many in the financial and donor classes express similar sentiments, though for different reasons. In their case it is often because they have cultivated a stringent sense of special entitlement and now find people challenging it. So you find a spiritual affinity across classes sustained by different grievances.  Similar spiritual dispositions also find selective expressions in other social locations. Where you stand on the slogan “political correctness” may provide a crude proxy of sorts for this dimension today.  
 Others, some of whom have also suffered significantly, are filled with a sense of presumptive receptivity toward others undergirded by the sense that their positive attachment to this planet provides them with energy to struggle valiantly against the differential effects of the Anthropocene on different regions and constituencies. Armed, too, with a sense of presumptive receptivity and generosity toward those in different subject positions that encourages them to stand against aggressive nationalism, income inequality and white triumphalism.  
 Some people may use the words ethos or sensibility to describe what I am characterizing as a spirituality. Those words work okay, but I now prefer "spirituality" because it points to actual and potential linkages between supporters of this or that religioius creed and those with affinities of disposition who do not profess a monotheistic creed. Pope Francis and Bruno Latour manifest affinities of spirituality across creedal differences. The Left needs to better negotiate affinities of spirituality across creeds to construct a viable movement. The Right already does so at several interlocked levels of activation, from local school boards to court campaigns, from TV news programs to extremist blogs, from corporate donors to neighborhood campaigns, from defenses of neoliberal ideology to church confessions of an evangelical right aligned with it. 
 There is much more to be said about the spiritual dimension and its essential role in political understanding and campaigns. But the initial point is that any poll that does not venture into this treacherous territory is suspect, even if it is treacherous territory to explore. Think of how late polls in the UK anticipated a tight victory to stay in the EU, while in fact Brexit won handily. Think about how, often enough, an African American candidate in a southern state enters election day with a definite lead in the polls, only to lose by a significant margin. The election season we face in the United States today is one in which the spiritual element of politics cuts into class, age, education, gender and creedal dimensions, making each of them insufficient to the phenomenon being studied and informing campaigns. A portion of the electorate tempted to vote for Trump is unlikely to report this to the pollsters, in part because they are rather ashamed to do so and in part because they are still struggling with contending aspects of their own spirituality. Events could help to tip things one way or the other in the latter cases 
  After the advent of Fascism in Europe critical theorists who had suffered immensely through the holocaust and war sought to articulate the components of a fascist personality. They also tried to figure out how differences in such tendencies are not entirely reducible to the usual categories of class, race, creed, etc. They even came to conclude that some people who stood with the Left on specific aims expressed tendencies that could readily carry them to the authoritarian Right. The authors of The Authoritarian Personality (1950), writing about personality types in the United States, constructed the “Fascist Scale" to offer a reading of types most susceptible to a fascist movement. Theodore Adorno--the most subtle of the authors--distinguished between personality types who displayed conventional prejudice, those who manifested traits of the authoritarian personality, and those who manifested those of a manipulative personality. The second type sought out minorities to demean; they were drawn to envy; and they sought to obey the third type. The manipulative types were ruthless, impulsive and narcissistic in ways that remind one of Donald Trump today. The authoritarian types were susceptible to Big Lies-- even if they did not always believe them--because the lies gave them pegs upon which to hang their deepest hostilities and identity demands. Three loosely intercoded spiritualities, with the first potentially open to change, the second less apt to be, and the third both ruthless and capable of attracting followers from the first and second during periods of tumult.  
 The authors did not examine how under situations of duress the three types could be mobilized into a resonance machine that cuts across religious creeds, classes and genders, even while being more concentrated in some than others. Today, we need to explore how right wing TV shows, extremist blogs, distressing events, and Big Lie campaigns can work together to forge an intense political constituency out of such types, even as it taps the anxieties and uncertainties of a larger faction of the populace.  


 That early study was roundly criticized by the empiricists of the day. One could see why, in a sense. But the critics then failed to build the question of existential spirituality into their own polls and political studies in reflective ways. To do so would have necessitated combining polls with depth interviews. Moreover, the whole project would run the risk of being subject to charges of bias.   

 The point, though, is that not to fold the spiritual dimension into polls and political understandings is to infuse an even bigger bias into polling and political understanding. It is also to run a big risk of downplaying a crucial ingredient during the current period of tumult. For today a variety of embedded cultural assumptions about the future of America now face severe body blows from the intensity of racial animus among a section of whites, urban police violence, the rapidity of climate change, growing economic inequality in income and security, resentments against newly legitimized minorities, and anger in several world regions about the adverse effects of America upon them. These realities inflame the spiritual dimension of politics. Spirituality is a real, dangerous force in American politics today. It is also a potential source of positive power.   
 You cannot start, then, by placing all the "deplorables" in one basket. (Note how even the authors of The Authoritarian Personality thought of three different types who contrasted with the democratic personality, and how they began to study the life experiences that fostered each). You cannot get very far, either, by ignoring how contending spiritualities are not entirely reducible to religious, class, race, and gender identifications, though they are certainly connected to them. You must come to terms with how those with affinities of spirituality can become organized into constituencies with considerable political punch. And if you seek to oppose and resist the ugliest elements in politics today it is also important to foster a counter resonance machine that augments and inflates a set of positive spiritualities already extant in cultural life.   
 Trump is well attuned to the most militant elements of his assemblage. His rhetorical style is effective at inflaming them, even if it also turns off others. Hillary Clinton speaks to policies that address some important issues. But she does not really amplify the positive energies needed. That is a major reason she has not been able to attract enthusiasm from younger citizens who flocked to Bernie Sanders, who are inspired by Cornel West, and who listen closely to Elizabeth Warren. Today others must fill in for Clinton if we are to avoid the worst.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Despondent? Or Respondent? (de-)Medicalizing Resistance

Bonnie Honig 
Brown University, author, Antigone, Interrupted.  

I have taught Sophocles’ 2500 year-old play Antigone for many years now and it changes every time I teach it because it is changed by the times. Two years ago, right after the killing of Michael Brown, whose dead body was left lying in a Ferguson road for 4 long hot hours, my students were haunted by Polynices, Antigone’s brother, left out as carrion for birds and dogs: “unwept, unburied,” Antigone says, outraged that the sovereign, Creon, has commanded such sacrilege. In the two years since, we have seen tens more such images, the bodies of murdered African Americans lying in a road, in a park, in a playground, silent testimony to a sovereign police power unashamed by its violence or unused to accountability. Terence Crutcher and Keith Scottt are the most recent to die at the hands of police. We know the rhythm of the aftermath: the voices of the Antigones and the Creons call for justice, plead for calm, convene grand juries, file no charges, maybe someone is fired, maybe not.
I taught the play last week, before this latest wave of violence. It was the day after it was announced that the family of Sandra Bland had settled their suit against Waller County, Texas. Hearing that news while reading the play, I suddenly realized that Sandra Bland, just like Antigone, killed herself while walled off away from others in a rocky cell. Both women were found dead, hanging by a noose of their own fashioning. Both might have lived had they waited a bit longer. Both chose not to wait out their time.
Antigone does not wait because she fears that a long slow death is all that awaits her. For violating Creon’s decree and burying her bother, she has been immured in a cave with some rations to last a few days so that Creon and the city are distanced from her punishment. The rations mean, in a way, that the gods have more time to decide her fate. They can take their time. But this is not a mercy; it is a torture. As she is led to the cave, Antigone airs her fears, recalling the terrible slow death of the goddess, Niobe. The chorus criticizes her for comparing herself to a goddess. But Antigone is not self-aggrandizing here. She sees in Niobe’s example her own future and it terrifies her: “think what a living death she died,” Antigone says. Niobe was “there on the mountain heights,” the stone grew around her and was “binding as ivy” and it “slowly walled her round.” Antigone describes Niobe’s long slow death – “wasting away” -- accompanied by unceasing tears, to this day: “and the rains will never cease, the legends say.” It is horrific: a death that never ends. Who would want that?
James Ridgeway's Solitary Watch
 This is why Antigone hangs herself in her cave right away -- to save herself from the long slow death decreed by Creon. She takes matters into her own hands, chooses a hasty exit from this life and, in so doing, she shows she has agency even when imprisoned, tucked away from contact with the world. With her suicide, she moves from an object of Creon’s wrath to an agent fulfilling a destiny. It is an agency that Creon never suspected she had.
Bland, too, was entombed in a rocky place away from the world, hung herself, and was found, too late, dead. No one suspected she had the agency for such an Antigonean act. And even now, no one does. In its aftermath, her act was medicalized. She had reported feeling depressed and suicidal and was not given the medical attention that was her right. It is part of the settlement – in addition to the money the family will receive – that from now on the jail has to have appropriate medical staff on duty at all times. I assume the legal claims of Bland’s family were strengthened by the compelling evidence that Bland felt depressed and suicidal, reported this to the police, and was not attended to properly. We could medicalize Antigone that way, too. Creon did! He says she is insane, mad. She certainly sounds depressed and suicidal. She says she is fated for death, that she is indeed already dead, and that she longs to be with her dead brother in the afterworld. Creon notes that she seems to “long for death.” But most of Antigone’s readers see her as a political martyr not a depressed suicide. 
   
Could we not also de-medicalize Bland? I read that, in the months leading up to her fateful encounter with Texas police, she had been posting on Facebook about police killings of black people, that she was paying attention to injustice, that she was becoming ever more impatient with racial inequality, that she was saddled by debt. She may have suffered from depression, she may have felt suicidal. These are serious medical conditions, symptoms of mental illness. But they may also be symptoms of rising consciousness, signs of conscientious objection, which may lead to an increased inability to go on living in an unjust world. To be despondent is to be a respondent – to inequality, to racism, to injustice. Perhaps Bland could not resign herself to the stone of racism growing around her, “binding as ivy,” as it “slowly walled her round.” She might well have felt that a slow death like Niobe’s was all that awaited her, too. Who would want that?  
Korryn Gaines Killed for Refusing to Submit to Baltimore Police
“You’re in love with impossibility,” Ismene says to her sister, Antigone, upon hearing her sister’s plan to bury her brother in defiance of Creon’s law against it. “Very well then,” Antigone replies: “Once my strength gives out I will be done at last.” Did Sandra Bland’s strength give out, too? I imagine Antigone hanging in her cell, and Sandra Bland hanging in hers. I cannot shake the image of these two women, impatient for justice, who rejected the long slow deaths to which they were consigned and took matters into their own hands. Antigone worried that by dying in a cave, sequestered from the world, she might never gain the glory she sought. She anticipated the #SayHerName project of the African American Policy Forum. She wanted the world to say her name. “Tell the world,” she says to her sister, Ismene, knowing that she depends on others for her story to be told the way it should be told.   

Sandra Bland depends on others too. Say her name. Tell the world.