Are They Everywhere or Are We Paranoid?
The rush to condemn the Covington high school boys over an imagined slight against a native American and the clamor to ditch Virginia Governor Ralph Northam over a yearbook photograph depicting two figures, one in blackface and the other in KKK costume -- when they would not criticize him for his views on infanticide -- underscore the excruciating sensitivity of American politics to race, gender, and victimhood. The latest example is an op-ed in the Daily Beast alleging that "Tom Brady’s New England Patriots Are Team MAGA, Whether They Like It or Not."
Their star quarterback, coach, and owner all supported Trump. But that’s not the only thing that makes the Super Bowl LIII-bound Patriots the preferred team of white nationalists. ... The whole institution of Boston sports, from root to stem, is tinged with the sort of racism that brought Trump into office. The Boston Red Sox were the last MLB team to desegregate, more than a decade after Jackie Robinson entered the league. The Sox’s first owner, Tom Yawkey, was an infamous racist whose speech was peppered with racial slurs. Larry Bird became a symbol of white resentment during his time in the NBA, his jersey appearing as a symbol of white entitlement to black spaces in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. His large teammate, Kevin McHale, was spotted at a Trump rally during the election.
Ridiculous or perceptive? While some of these accounts are clickbait or tongue in cheek, part of the panic is doubtless genuine. What is in the water that makes people so sensitive to perceived conspiracies? Maybe it first began when Lawrence Summers caused someone to faint when he asked about women in STEM. The Crimson wrote on that occasion:
Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers has triggered criticism by telling an economics conference Friday that the under-representation of female scientists at elite universities may stem in part from “innate" differences between men and women, although two Harvard professors who heard the speech said the remarks have been taken out of context in an ensuing national media frenzy. MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins ’64 said she felt physically ill as a result of listening to Summers’ speech at a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) luncheon, and she left the conference room half-way through the president’s remarks.
That was the first of the storm petrels. Now there are racists and Nazis everywhere. They lie in wait on freezing streets ready to victimize people of color. They surround hapless native Americans in Washington with insulting smirks. They are depicted as chasing children while driving around in trucks flying confederate flags. Racists are even able to masquerade as Democratic officials. Is there nothing they can't do?
Those who see this as the true picture of America in 2019 are genuinely terrified. While some might dismiss this as paranoia, the woke explanation is that Nazis are everywhere and the sightings are real. Despite the apparent gains of recent decades, they were just hiding, lying dormant. They are now emerging under the patronage of Trump, like roaches when the lights are dimmed, to fill every nook and cranny. This persistence confirms the existence of intractable white, male, and privileged malevolence that not even decades of liberal culture can eradicate.
That may have contributed to the shocking nature of Summers' remarks. If he could say it there, then there was no safe place. The year 2016 was a traumatic experience, shattering the left-wing sense of safety and dominance. Hillary's defeat -- and to a lesser extent Brexit and the rise of populism in Europe -- demonstrated the astonishing fragility of the mainstream liberal project and provided shocking proof that "the plague never dies." The boogeymen the progressives seek to exterminate can apparently resist any fumigation, indoctrination or persuasion, leaving liberal activists like those characters in horror movies who shoot at Dracula without effect. This in turn led to renewed interest in outright socialism among Democrats. If Hillary and her billions proved useless against the MAGA werewolf, perhaps Bernie Sanders and AOC have the silver bullet.
The alternative explanation is that there were serious defects in the liberal project and the pushback is due to those defects and not to some racist virus. That would explain 2016 too. Perhaps the most powerful contribution of the revolt against Bolivarianism in Venezuela is how it demonstrates that poor brown people can rise up against socialism without being members of the KKK. It's not always race but rather the economic system that makes the difference.
But this can hardly be persuasive to true believers for whom gender, race, and sexual politics explain history. For them abortion, high taxes, and a giant state are articles of faith and challenging them is evil. Words, arguments, or symbolic proofs are largely useless against strongly held beliefs. Only experience can falsify -- and only temporarily -- cultic belief. In this respect, Venezuela is also instructive. It changed. For decades Venezuela's poor held loyal to the belief that the socialists were on "their side." Now they are fighting Maduro. How did this turnabout happen?
One insight into the phenomenon comes from the field of signal processsing. Because a radar detector's signal weakens going outward as well as going backward after being reflected from a target at long distances a jammer can overpower the radar. J > S. That's why socialism "looks good" if it is far enough into the future or at long enough remove. Its protective narrative emits a flattering signal. It's not a bandit. It's friendly. But as the actual reality nears the present, the jammer can no longer overcome the the signal and we start catching glimpses of the dismal future. Eventually S > J. The youthful activist or enthusiastic slum dweller sees the truth. This is called the "burn through" moment.
The most telling indicator of socialism's fall in Venezuela is that forces have flipped. Now it is the poor who challenge Maduro and the Russian- and Cuban-supported military that props up the regime. One way to understand this is that the burn through moment in Venezuela occurred.
This might also throw light on why Hillary failed precisely at the very moment the dream seemed close enough to touch. At that instant it was clear enough to see.
Is the return of racists and Nazis the explanation for the current headlines? Or are people genuinely rising up against bloated incompetence? Time will tell. Reality always tells us which model is correct.
On that will turn the Democratic Party's future. Will it be someone like Bernie Sanders or someone like Howard Schultz?
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Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person -- capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or "tribes," a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today's divided world.
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The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
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Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific