Sunday, January 31, 2016

The future's not what it used to be

"Blind monks examining an elephant", an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724). Via Wikipedia.
Shorter Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, "Trump, Sanders and the Revolt Against Decadence", New York Times, January 31 2016:
What makes the Trump and Sanders campaigns alike is that both are protests against decadence, at least if you redefine "decadence" to mean something completely different from what it usually means.
  1. 1:  the process of becoming decadent  [= "marked by decay or decline"; Simple English definition "having low morals and a great love of pleasure, money, fame, etc."]
      the quality or state of being decadent
  2. 2:  a period of decline

Ross Douthat, verbatim:
But don’t just think about the word in moral or aesthetic terms. Think of it as a useful way of describing a society that’s wealthy, powerful, technologically proficient — and yet seemingly unable to advance in the way that its citizens once took for granted. (Monsignor's italics)
Or maybe it's a revolt against bankruptcy, if you stop thinking about "bankruptcy" in moral or aesthetic terms and just think of it as a useful way of describing not having more money than you did last year. Or maybe it's a revolt against ski slopes, if you think of "ski slopes" as a useful way of describing the Great Plains.

I think it's pretty plain why he wants to pull this ridiculous prank: to identify the impetus to vote for Bernie or Donald, as the case may be, as an essentially conservative impulse. Because Sanders voters and Trump voters really do have something in common in their attitude to the ongoing economic recovery, and it's the opposite of conservative; a rage against its increasing unfairness in the distribution of wealth and opportunity, as all the economic gains go to a tiny few while the rest of us continue to struggle.

It's not the same, of course. Trump's promises are aimed at the individual, like those of a Prosperity Gospel preacher, while Sanders calls to the common decency of the collectivity; for Trumpeters the rage comes inside the false consciousness of rightwing populism ("unfair to me"), for Sandernistas it exists in the progressive form ("unfair to everybody").

Either way, though, it's not about society being "unable to advance" but society advancing while most of us are left behind, and Douthat's project today is to conceal that. He tells us not to think of the "aesthetic and moral" aspects of decadence the way George Lakoff invites his students not to think of an elephant, to make sure we'll be thinking of them (except Lakoff is interested in education, so he explains the trick right away, where Douthat is interested in deception and just slides away from it) as he makes his specious claim. It's to attach these voters to the traditional conservative declinist narrative even as things fail, in fact, to decline (as he notes himself, through the better part of four paragraphs). It's to say if they were only a little more enlightened they'd be voting for Rubio (the king of the declinists this year, a regular little monotone Cicero with his litanies of despair), and perhaps there's still time.

One thing the Monsignor said sounded kind of acute:
Trump is offering nostalgia, but it’s not a true reactionary’s lament. He wants to take us back to a time when the future seemed great, amazing, fantastic.
But he doesn't get it quite right: Trump doesn't offer to take us back anywhere, certainly not to the Leave-it-to-Beaver fictional past that conventional Republicans dream of, though he does, come to think of it, make some effort to evoke those days in his razzle-dazzle persona, with his golf clothes and tuxes and arm candy in deep décolleté and Don Rickles political style. His message about the present isn't that there's anything fundamentally wrong with it, just that it's being managed "horribly". But he really does promise to bring back the good old future, in which things just got better and better, as in that extraordinary line Douthat quotes:

On the subject of Sanders—
in his case the glorious future is more midcentury Scandinavia than space age America
—he is, naturally, still more wrong. Sanders is very much interested in the present, and present-day Scandinavia, where they have things, like single-payer medical care and single-payer education from early childhood through postsecondary, and pensions people can live on, paid for with a truly progressive tax system, that we should have too. And he thinks we're waiting too long, in the present, to get them.

(What I sometimes fear is that his template for getting there comes from midcentury Britain, under conditions that could never be duplicated again, when we're better off, as I think Obama and Clinton understand, following an evolutionary model like that of Europe, leading to a more stable system, less subject to rightwing attack, and one that is higher quality, less stingy, and less likely to deteriorate into a two-tier inequality.)

Update: Roy must have been on the same wavelength:
 If I define "decadence" low enough, maybe someone else will help me obsess over it

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