Friday, September 2, 2016

Bothsides vs. No Sides

Empress Catherine II of Russia, via GlobalHistoryCullen—can't find a date or painter's name.
Back in the good old days, says David Brooks ("Identity Politics Run Amok"), Americans talked about politics from a purely intellectual standpoint, impersonally, without any reference to the nasty realities of our different ethnic and class identities, divided only by their attachments to different philosophical perspectives:

Once, I seem to recall, we had philosophical and ideological differences. Once, politics was a debate between liberals and conservatives, between different views of government, different views on values and America’s role in the world.
"Seems to recall" indeed. He's been telling himself this story so long that he's created a spurious memory of having lived in it.

What he actually recalls, from his casual reading of popular history books, mostly Great Man biographies, is an America in which ethnic and class identity had no role in political discourse because the discourse was carried out almost entirely by people with the same identities: upper-class white Protestant men. Brooks may think it was because they were all so philosophical in those days, but the real reason identity didn't come up was that nobody with a different identity had a voice.

Even then, it wasn't true that their conflicts were on a high and abstract moral plane. Early American politicians weren't sages out of Plato's republic deciding every question by deduction from principle but men deeply engaged in their economy, with important interests of their own and important interests among the voters that represented them that they had to think about all the time, on tariffs and banking and land rights and SLAVES. Because some of them owned quite a lot of those and depended on them for their income, which isn't very pretty, but is true.

The original American partisan battle was between a young investment banker, Alexander Hamilton, who wanted to use the national debt to fund factories and a young plantation owner, James Madison, who wanted to use it to fund farms (for war veterans). And they didn't really compromise, either—the investment banker won, because the (incorruptible) president liked him best.

But this year, it seems, everything has been stripped down to the bone. Politics is dividing along crude identity lines — along race and class. Are you a native-born white or are you an outsider? Are you one of the people or one of the elites?
Politics is no longer about argument or discussion; it’s about trying to put your opponents into the box of the untouchables.
To me the heroic side of American history is when the oppressed and dispossessed acquire voices and make themselves heard—let's say black folks, women, industrial workers, Catholics and Jews, new immigrants, for starters, and people on the intersections of these divisions, which were always there too, demanding a seat at the table of power and getting one sometimes; not receiving liberation from on high like Austrians or Russians from Joseph II or Catherine the Great but proposing it, citizen to citizen and face to face, and once in a while working it out as advantageous to everybody. Not all that often.

To the eminently civilized David Brooks, of course, such people are almost impossible to see, even well-lit behind the glass of their dioramas in the museum of history, and certainly not in the dust and racket of the present. All he can see is their prickly, demanding, ungracious character. He sympathizes with their difficulties, really, but wonders why the devil they can't be more like him?

Brooks's piece is actually not ostensibly about that stuff at all, at its cool surface, though I hope to show you it's all about it in the depths. What he's officially writing about today is the Trump, and his weird excursion yesterday when he took off for Mexico to show what a mature and thoughtful and gracious leader he could be and then went back to Arizona with the sense that he needed to make up for that shit by being as violently racist and mean as he can.

Brooks has noticed that immigration is not as bad for America as Trump says it is, and says so in eight paragraphs with backup research he might well have done himself with minimal or no help from the research assistant (since 75% of it consists of articles from last year in The Atlantic and the rest is an extremely gnarly piece from the Cato Institute of which he has surely read only the first sentence), so I don't really have any fault to find with that.

But then he's compelled to goose it throughout with these little Bothsides notifications:

Donald Trump didn’t invent this game, but he embodies it.
It is just that Trump (like other race and class warriors) takes these kernels of truth and grows them into a lie.
identity politics is inherently the politics of division
Identity politics, as practiced by Trump, but also by others on the left and the right, distracts from the reality that we are one nation
In which sense his message isn't about Trump at all but about drawing an equivalence between Trump and all those voices of liberation who have insisted since the 1820s or so that though they weren't white, or male, or rich, or native-born, they deserved to be heard.

OK, so for one thing that isn't even what Trump is doing. Brooks has him confused with those imaginary hillbilly voters who supposedly constitute Trump's core support, or with the 21st-century emanations of the Ku Klux Klan, who speak openly, though absurdly, about the threatened existence of the white race and its traditional culture. Trump doesn't do that at all.

Nor does he talk about working-class identity, or his own class, for that matter, of owners, bosses, entrepreneurs, gods forbid. The only identities he ever discusses are those of the Others not in the audience, the evil practitioners of identity politics, "the blacks", "the Hispanics", "the out of touch media elites".  Trump is as opposed to "identity politics" as he is to "political correctness" or any other code that makes racists look bad.

He adopts precisely the standpoint of the traditional conservative like David Brooks who can't understand why it always has to be about race, as in the script prepared for Donald Trump's visit with Bishop Wayne T. Jackson of Great Faith Ministries International in Detroit, as reported by the New York Times:
As President, I must serve all Americans without regard to race, ethnicity or any other qualification. I must approach my task with the utmost wisdom and make sure that all Americans have opportunities to achieve to their potential. If we are to Make America Great Again, we must reduce, rather than highlight, issues of race in this country. I want to make race disappear as a factor in government and governance
What Trump is about, in short, is that standard conservative stratagem that works by telling you race and class don't really exist, except as a pretext for getting liberal governments to give those N_____z free stuff, to be discussed only by dogwhistle. If we are to Make America Great Again we have to start by denying that these inequities exist, even though they do—silencing those voices of the other identities, which make us white dudes so uncomfortable.

And return to that glorious time when government was by No Sides, just persons of such wisdom that they didn't have an opinions at all.

A stratagem from which benefits in the very explicit form of tax relief for the rich might accrue to some very wealthy white men (like Donald J. Trump and David F. Brooks), not that Brooks would ever say or think anything of the sort (he's too handicapped in arithmetic in any case). What's wrong with the Trump from the Brooksian point of view, I think, is that he just keeps giving up the game so that everybody knows what it's about, and that's awfully embarrassing. 

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