The Less Fortunate And More Frustrated

Someone commented that, “there’s just something about alt-right that is extremely draining. I’m not even sure if it’s my own personal reactions. It’s just such a negative, cynical, and above all hopeless lens to view things from. Friends say it’s not healthy to get immersed in it, but I wonder if it’s also unhealthy for the alt righters themselves, not just for outsiders.” I agree, but I’d put it in context.

It’s draining because it isn’t natural, far from the normal state of humanity. It’s not tribal hate. If alt-righters ever met actual tribal people, the two groups would not recognize or understand each other’s worldviews. Alt-right isn’t really about tribalism, any more than it really is about race or any other overt issue. What it is about is frustration, anger, and outrage.

That isn’t to deny the racism. It’s just to point out that we have a severely messed up society where racism is inseparable from other forms of oppression and social control that harm most Americans. Very few people are privileged enough to entirely escape the shit storm. Heck, even the wealthy are worse off in a society like ours, as has been shown in the research on economic inequality. This is not a healthy and happy society.

Part of me has a lot of sympathy for these lost souls. I understand what turns the mind in such dark directions. We live in a society that chews people up and spits them out. Nothing in our society is as advertised. Many people actually want to believe in the American Dream of upward mobility, of a growing middle class, of the good life, of each generation doing better than the last. People can only take all of the bullshit for so long. Alt-right gives them a voice, in a society that seeks to silence them.

Such things as alt-right are an indication of societal failure, not just individual failure. If we had increasing upward mobility instead of worsening downward mobility, if we had a growing instead of shrinking middle class, if we had no severe poverty and extreme inequality, if basic needs were taken care of and people had a sense of their own value in society, if people were supported in their aspirations and could live up to their potential, no one would ever turn to ideologies like the alt-right.

The average alt-righter isn’t a poor rural hick, hillbilly, or redneck. The alt-right tends to draw from the middle class, which mostly means the precarious lower middle class. Many people in the alt-right are those who want to be part of the liberal class, to live the liberal class dream, but something failed along the way.

There is a white guy I know. He is in academia and, though liberal in many ways, he became drawn to the alt-right. He wasn’t making much money and he felt stuck. He didn’t want to be living here and yet couldn’t find good job opportunities elsewhere. Even as he technically was in the liberal class, he was economically struggling and his life was not going according to plan. Worse still, there is little hope that the economy is going to improve any time soon for people like him.

That is type of person in the failed liberal class that the rest of the liberal class would prefer to ignore. What the liberal class doesn’t get is that their dream is desirable for many people even outside of the liberal class. But when it becomes unattainable for most of the population that leads to frustration. There are many poor whites who would love to go to college or send their kids to college, to have professional careers, to work toward a better life for themselves and their families, and to have all the good things that are available in liberal class communities such as nice parks, well-funded schools, etc.

If the liberal class is serious, they shouldn’t be supporting policies that make it harder for people to join the liberal class. New Democrats like Clinton support tough-on-crime policies, mass incarceration, privatized prisons, endless wars, growing military-industrial complex, corrupt corporatism, international trade deals that harm the lower classes, and all the other ways that screw over average and below average people. Why is it that the liberal class can’t understand that supporting neocon and neoliberal candidates is actually self-destructive to the liberal vision of society?

Liberals often like to pride themselves on not being racist or whatever. I call bullshit. If many of these liberals ever faced the threat of serious economic problems, downward mobility, and constant frustration of their dreams and aspirations, the majority of them easily could be swayed toward racism and other similar forms of bigotry. Research shows that such biases lurk just beneath the surface. What the liberal class lifestyle allows is for such people to not just be oblivious of what is going on in the world but also oblivious to what is hidden within their own minds.

After a period of societal stress and economic uncertainty, if an authoritarian came along promising progressive economics along with law-and-order rhetoric, most in the liberal class would support him. That is what the liberal class did in Germany when they supported Hitler. You are ignorant of history and human nature if you think it can’t happen here. As I put it in an earlier post:

“By the way, if your concern about Trump voters relates to right-wing authoritarianism, there is a key point to keep in mind. Groups like the Klan and the Nazis drew their strongest support from the middle class. That shouldn’t be surprising, as it is the middle class that is the most politically engaged. One would predict almost any political movement will attract many from the middle class. Also, it’s not so easy to pin this down ideologically. What you should really fear is when the liberal middle class (AKA liberal class) submits to the authoritarian trends in society, as happened in the past. Never forget that the Klan and the Nazis were rather progressive in many ways. Hitler rebuilt infrastructure and promoted policies that helped many ordinary Germans. The Klan supported child labor laws, public education, etc.”

I could add much to that, as I did in some comments to that post. Consider the Progressive Era. Many progressives supported eugenics, immigration control, and similar policies. The New Deal institutionalized racial biases that impacted the generations following.

Overt racist bigots and white supremacists would be a lot less powerful without the tolerant complicity and sometimes direct support of the liberal class. This can be broadened to the oppression that liberals so often allow and promote, such as their participation in anti-communist red-baiting and witch-hunts. Minorities (racial, ethnic, and religious) along with poor people and the political left have always been favorite targets of the liberal class, at least when they feel their privileged lifestyle is being challenged or there is a threat of social disruption. The liberal class, first and foremost, will always defend the status quo that makes possible their liberal good life… even when their defense betrays their stated liberal values.

The liberal class in a society like the US are among the fortunate few. Most of them don’t know what it is like to deal with tough times. They don’t know what is in their own hearts, what could emerge under much worse conditions. None of us ever knows what we are capable of until our back is against the wall, but many people are privileged enough to never find out. That is no reason for feeling self-righteous toward the less fortunate and more frustrated.

The Sting of the Scorpion

There is continuous failure in American society, continuous for my entire life. This past campaign season and election has been a wake up call for me, even as others continue to sleep and dream. I’ve been shocked by how so many people, especially among the well educated, don’t seem to grasp what is going on. No matter how bad it gets, they always find new ways to rationalize it and make themselves further complicit in making it worse. They can’t see what has been happening, what has caused it, and where it is heading.

It isn’t a refusal but an inability to understand. They just don’t get it. I doubt they will ever get it, at least not until it’s too late to doing anything about it. That might be intentional on an unconscious level. These people realize they aren’t capable of the changes that are necessary, that must and will happen. Repressed desires can get expressed in odd ways, oftentimes in the form of resistance and fear that makes the desired outcome inevitable. I’ve previously observed this pattern in human behavior. Sometimes people know a change needs to happen. But on a conscious level they can’t take responsibility for making the change happen. So they create situations that will force the change to happen.

An example of this is people who obviously don’t like a job. They have the skills to work other jobs and there are other jobs available. Yet they won’t quit the job they have, instead acting in ways that will get them fired. To an outside perspective, it is clear the person is trying to get fired. It is what they want, even if it isn’t what they can admit to wanting.

Trump’s election is like that. On a conscious level, Democrats didn’t want a crazy demagogue Republican as president. Even so, everything they’ve done has created the conditions to put Trump into power, even going so far as the DNC promoting him into the Republican nomination. Trump will force the changes to happen, good or bad, and so force us all to take action. He will accomplish for Democrats what no establishment Democrat ever could. Democrats needed to make manifest the unseen, to exacerbate and exaggerate the situation so that it would be so overwhelming as to not be denied. Trump is playing the role required of him, a role taken to the extreme of caricature.

Arnold Mindell has a theory about this. If something goes unclaimed in the collective psyche, it must find a way to manifest in our collective experience. It’s similar to the process of a patient’s transference and a pscyhotherapists countertransference, but on a larger scale of our shared humanity — a group dynamic. This sometimes means an individual person needs to embody the issue that the group needs to confront. Trump has taken all of the problems we are facing and made them visible and visceral, made them concretely and personally real. That is what was needed. All our problems are now unavoidable. Trump is in power because, as a society, we didn’t know how to face our problems in a different way. Trump is holding a mirror up for Americans to see themselves.

As with Trump, Democrats, the liberal class, and the mainstream media are also playing roles. Few of them understand this. But that is irrelevant. For those of us who do understand, it is our responsibility to act accordingly and to treat them accordingly.

Consider the fable of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion asked the frog to carry him across the river. Even though knowing scorpions are dangerous, the frog thought he was safe because he assumed the scorpion wouldn’t sting him while carrying him across. He was wrong and the scorpion did sting him. As the frog faced the reality that they both would drown, he asked the scorpion why he did it. The scorpion said because it was in his nature.

Like the scorpion, those in power and their minions on the pseudo-left can’t help themselves. It’s in their nature or, rather, it’s in the role they are playing. They’ve become fully identified with that role with its scripted behavior. But like the frog, the rest of us have a choice. There is nothing forcing us to carry the scorpion on our backs. It would be the wise thing to do keep as far away from the scorpion as possible. We already know how that story ends.

That leaves us in a situation of uncertainty. Those of us who saw it all coming didn’t chose this fate. But it is the shared fate that has chosen us, by default of being part of the same society that includes those who did make that choice. It is irrelevant what we’d prefer. We have to deal with what is before us. Knowing the nature of those involved, knowing the roles that are being played, how do we respond? What do we do?

It does no good to blame the scorpion. The scorpion simply acts in the way any scorpion would act, as scorpions have always acted since time immemorial. The scorpion isn’t evil. Likewise, we know that it is in the nature of pseudo-liberal Democrats to betray us when it matters most. It is simply what they do. They can’t be trusted any more than a scorpion. But they aren’t evil. It’s just a role they’ve taken on and the script they are playing out.

It is up to us to understand our own nature. No one can do that for us. We have to choose our own role and take responsibility for what it entails. Anger, outrage, frustration, and even hatred are normal human responses. It’s fine to feel the full range of your humanity, including that of hope and longing. The issue we face is how might we act, rather than merely react. In this scenario, what role is being ignored and is demanding to be fulfilled. What might that role represent? And are we capable of playing it?

If it turns out we don’t like any of the roles on offer, that takes us down another level deeper. The roles available are based on the story we are collectively living and manifesting. Every story has a particular ending. To change the ending, we’d have to change the story. In telling a new story, we would have different roles to choose from. And in choosing some other role, we’d enact a worldview that would displace what came before. Enough people do the same and all of society will follow.

You can listen to the stories told to you. Or you can tell your own story.

“Where were they?”

Maybe Trump is a fascist who will destroy America. But where were these people when Obama was bombing wedding parties in Kandahar, or training jihadist militants to fight in Syria, or abetting NATO’s destructive onslaught on Libya, or plunging Ukraine into fratricidal warfare, or collecting the phone records of innocent Americans, or deporting hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers, or force-feeding prisoners at Gitmo, or providing bombs and aircraft to the Saudis to continue their genocidal war against Yemen?

Where were they?

That question was asked by Mike Whitney over at CounterPunch. And it’s a good question, directed at liberals. Where were they? It’s a question I take seriously, as I’m sympathetic to the liberal cause, even as I’m frustrated by liberal failure. Whitney states, “Can we agree that there is at least the appearance of hypocrisy here?” After a lifetime of observing liberals up close, I’m strongly inclined to argue that it is far more than mere appearance. It easily could be taken as straight hypocrisy. And I have no doubt that hypocrisy was involved for many.

But to be fair, there was much else going on. From a personal perspective, I have to admit that I never protested in the streets about Obama’s wars, although for damn sure I made my voice heard as best as I was able. I didn’t vote for Obama in 2008 and so it wasn’t as if I felt he was my responsibility. I was openly and vocally complaining of Obama even before he was elected, often arguing with partisan Democrats about him. And I didn’t stop my criticisms in the following 8 years.

The thing is I did protest against the Iraq War during the Bush administration. It was the largest protest movement in world history, at least at that time. And it happened before the war even began. Even the Vietnam War protests only happened after many years of fighting and many soldiers dead. The anti-war protests under Bush were impressive and they included people across the spectrum. Most Americans initially did not support that war and it required a lot of beating of the war drums along with deceitful propaganda to change that.

Yet public opinion and public outrage meant nothing. Not even the largest protest movement in world history could stop the oligarchs from doing what they wanted. When Obama came along, he was simply repeating the policies of Bush. Sure, new countries were involved, but it was the same old shit. It was a continuation of the War on Terror, which plenty of Democrats supported even under Bush. It’s not like Obama’s wars were shocking and came out of nowhere.

I didn’t protest because protest was proven impotent. I realized that, unless the public was well informed and unless a new narrative could take hold in the public mind and unless we the public could force politicians to comply by threat of force if necessary, outward forms of political activism could accomplish nothing. The Bush years left me demoralized. And I never believed Obama’s bullshit. It was obvious to me that Obama would do little if anything good while in office and I was proven right.

So, what were we supposed to protest? That the same old shit continues no matter what we the public do. What concerns me is that the next time I care enough to protest it will mean we are on the verge of revolution. And that might come quicker than some expect. The coming years likely will radicalize many Americans.

A Holiday Experiment

During the holiday season, there is an increase in alcohol consumption. This led me to some thoughts.

Liberals have higher rates of alcoholism (and drug addiction) than conservatives. But oddly it is conservative states that have the highest rates of drunk driving arrests, accidents, and deaths. Why is that? Do liberals hold their alcohol better? Or do they fall into a drunken stupor more quickly? Are most liberals simply too lazy to try to drive after drinking? Or did all that pot they smoked while drinking cause them to get the munchies and so they’re waiting for the pizza to be delivered?

Research has found that, when inebriated, liberals tend to think and act more like conservatives. For example, they are more likely to express conservative-minded stereotypes and prejudices. So, when conservatives get drunk, do they simply become even more conservative? If so, how does a conservative act when they are even more conservative? Do the conservatives look at the temporarily conservative-minded drunk liberals, saying “that’s not conservatism” and then telling someone to hold their drink?

These are important questions. For those with a nice mix of liberal and conservative family members, I recommend you get them all drunk and observe the results. Think of it as a scientific experiment.

On Rodents and Conservatives

My parents are always worrying about the bird feeders in the backyard. They think they’ll attract rodents that will get in the house.

First of all, in the years my parents have lived here, they’ve had the bird feeders and rodents have never gotten in the house. And, second, rodents are unlikely to ever get in because it is one of these modern sealed-up houses with no cracks in the foundation, no loose siding, no crawlspace to be easily accessed, and not even a drafty attic.

This is how the conservative mind leads to paranoia. Somehow something or someone who isn’t supposed to be here will get in, no matter how improbable according to a rational analysis. This is the same fear that is seen with immigrants, minorities, the poor, or anyone who is different. The way my parents talk you’d think that rodents are welfare queens trying to game the system, and admittedly rodents are sneaky critters who will take advantage of any situation. This is what would lead some extreme conservatives to sitting on their back stoop shooting at shadows in the dark — fortunately, my parents’ fearful attitude is a milder variety.

The fear isn’t rational, for fear is ultimately never rational, just an emotion that may or may not indicate something beyond itself. And so there is no way to counter fear with rationality. There is only one response that fear demands and that is taking action, which pushed to its end point means fight or flight. In my parents’ imaginations, it’s almost as if the rodents are already in the house scurrying about. There is very little distinction, in the conservative mind, between imagining something as real and it actually being real.

I love my parents dearly. But it can be a challenge sometimes. It’s not that the bird feeder issue is a big deal. It’s just one of those thousands of things that regularly come up. As my parents gave voice to their fear of a rodent plague destroying all that is good in the world, an uprising of nature against mankind and civilization, I could see the gears in their head clicking away. Looking out the window, they could see the rodents that weren’t there… not yet, but once night comes with naive liberals sleeping soundly in bed the rodent threat will swarm over the landscape.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit for effect. I’m just feeling amused.

It reminds me of a popular Buddhist story. Two Buddhist monks were walking along. They came to a stream where a woman was having difficulty in trying to cross. The older monk helped carry her to the other side. Then the monks continued on. Further down the path, the younger monk decided to chastise his companion because it was against their religious vows to touch a woman. In response, the older monk shared a bit of wisdom. He said, I put the woman down back at the stream, but you’re still carrying her.

As a liberal, that is how I see conservatives. They are constantly carrying in their minds all kinds of things, from rodents to immigrants, from welfare queens to terrorists, their minds overflowing with fears and anxieties. And they rarely if ever put them down. It’s hard for anyone to shake something once it gets in their mind, but it’s particularly hard for conservatives. Even when their thick boundaries allow them to temporarily cut off their worries and concerns in order to focus on some other matter, those worries and concerns never really leave their minds and will quickly return to their awareness with the slightest trigger.

It’s not as if my parents will bring up the imagined rodent problem all that often, but for as long as they live in this house it will remain at the back of their minds. Every time they see those bird feeders, the narrative of rodent invasion will play in their minds, though probably most often below the threshold of consciousness.

I should clarify a point. Conservatives aren’t always wrong about what they fear. Theoretically, rodents could get into my parents’ house. It’s just the probability is extremely low (from a liberal perspective, ridiculously low), not the kind of thing worth worrying about. If my parents lived in an old house with lots of cracks and crevices, their fear would be valid. That is the problem. Conservative fears aren’t dependent on context. To the extent that someone is conservative-minded, there is a state of fear constantly on the look out.

Still, motivated by rodent phobia, conservatives such as my parents might be less likely to have rodent problems or at least more likely to deal with them swiftly and harshly. War on rodents? Maybe Trump could look into that. With conservatives in the world, maybe we liberals benefit from being kept safe from the rodent plague, although it must be admitted that conservative European societies back in the day failed to prevent the rodent-inflicted Black Plague. So, I don’t know.

I just like watching the birds.

All is Lost

This election, for many Democrats, wasn’t only about a candidate.

Hillary Clinton was not just a candidate but their candidate. Not just a Democratic candidate but the Democratic Party itself. The Clinton New Democrats have defined and controlled the party for decades. And Hillary Clinton has become the face and voice of the party establishment, of the Democratic worldview. Many Democrats, especially women, have looked to her as a leader long before she ran for the presidency.

What ended was an era. It felt like a stake to the heart of what was left of the progressive vision. It was a loss of a promise, a loss of the guarantee that no matter how bad it could feel at times the United States was fundamentally good and getting better. Democrats didn’t just lose an election. Their entire sense of reality was demolished and their vision torn out by the roots.

How could someone like Donald Trump win? It is incomprehensible to these good liberals. Trump stands for everything they fear and hate, the type of old school bigotry-spewing demagogue and misogynist that this country supposedly left behind when we entered this new century. These Democrats see themselves on the side of good. How could they lose? It was supposed to be impossible for someone like Trump to come to power. All the mainstream media, all the experts, all the polling said it couldn’t happen.

Now, having put all their faith in Hillary Clinton, they’ve been profoundly demoralized and publicly shamed. Their entire sense of the world has been shaken. They are asking themselves, what country is this that I live in? Simply put, they are shocked, maybe traumatized even, and they find themselves in a state of mourning. Nothing will ever be the same again. In their anguish and despair, they’ve gathered in public places to comfort one another, to protest, to have the opportunity to speak and be heard. They want to be reassured that they are not alone, that there are others who understand and share their sadness, their fears, a jumble of emotions and doubts.

Those on the outside see it as a strange response. It’s an election, like many elections before. There are always losing candidates and bad feelings among those who supported those candidates. Also, this isn’t the first time a party has been so severely challenged. In fact, this country has faced many periods of worse conditions than this. Objectively, the stolen election of 2000 was a far more important failure, and yet most partisan Democrats were oblivious of its significance at the time (and most remain oblivious). Nor is this as bad as the Whig Party losing power in being replaced by the Republican Party, Republicans losing to Franklin Delano Roosevelt for three elections in a row, Richard Nixon’s presidency ending with the Watergate scandal, etc.

We haven’t experienced an assassination, civil war, revolution, coup d’etat, or societal collapse. It was just another election, nothing particularly shocking about that. Elections happen on a regular basis. That misses the point, though. It’s easy to be dismissive. This wasn’t a normal election, in so many ways.

It’s slowly dawned on me how this has impacted partisan Democrats and why that impact has been so powerful. When they look upon someone like Trump and his ‘deplorables’, the good liberals feel disgust, an unmoderated and overwhelming disgust. To be fair, Pew found that 55% of voters in general state that they feel disgust about the campaign. But Pew also found a clear difference in Democrats taking it more personally: “Clinton backers – particularly highly educated ones – have more difficulty respecting Trump supporters than the other way around.”

This disgust response is not a rational assessment of the problems we face but a visceral reaction that knocks their legs out from under them, hits them in the gut, hurts their heart, etc. For many of them, it makes them physically ill, in the way that smelling puke can make you puke. And I wouldn’t be surprised if many Clinton supporters took a sick day after the election.

Why is that?

J. Scott Wagner, in his new book The Liberal’s Guide to Conservatives, offers an explanation that seems to fit. In differentiating the two main ideological predispositions, he explains the disgust response (Kindle Locations 4767-4778):

“I think conservative disgust ties in with the strange, strong evidence of conservative strength in the sense of smell, where the disgust response long ago originated in humans. They seem to have a way of “sniffing out” situations, and then use appropriate, mild levels of disgust to set a boundary that doesn’t just max out all at once, like liberal disgust. The emotional reaction is muted. Some research has shown conservatives with broadly higher levels of specific types of brain activity than liberals when disgusted, yet reporting the same perceived level of disgust: this may mean that they’re used to interpreting and dealing with greater impacts from disgusting events without being as emotionally affected.[ 145] It feels to me as if mild levels of disgust are so common for them that they learn to live with it, so that it doesn’t overwhelm them unless there’s a strong reason to be disgusted.

“When I’m around liberals who are disgusted, it’s hard to miss. With conservatives, in situations like business or casual social situations, it can be hard to detect, yet the effects can be dramatic, at least over time. Their politeness often takes the form of being reserved, after all, so what they’re thinking and feeling doesn’t spill out as readily or clearly, even if they’re experiencing disgust.”

Wagner is right about his assessment. And he is right that this fits into the issue of boundaries and boundary types, a topic I’ve discussed with him before in this blog. Liberals can’t simply shut off disgust or compartmentalize it, at least not to the extent that conservatives are so easily able to do. About emotional unpleasantness, liberals “can leave the experience with a much worse feeling than the conservative does; more emotionally affected” (Kindle Locations 3267-3268).

This is because liberals tend toward being thin boundary types. There is less division and distance between aspects of a liberal’s life and experience. This applies as well to perception of time, as the past is never entirely past for the thin boundary type. As such, an election doesn’t just end. Also, the results aren’t limited to the boundaries of politics. Thin boundaried liberals take it personally. I could hear this in the words that liberals spoke after Trump’s election. They immediately jumped to the personal effect they imagined this would have on people they personally know and care about. The potential harm that could follow from bigotry let loose is real to them, as if it has already happened to them personally.

So, it wasn’t a mere lost election. The world they know, feel, and experience is threatened. And the worldview they held no longer makes sense, no longer applies to what this election has shown the world to be. It may not be the literal end of the world, but it is the end of their world, that is to say the world that they have become personally invested in and fought for. It doesn’t matter that, as someone like myself might argue, that the good liberal dream has never been a reality. Nor does it matter that Hillary Clinton was never actually the person they believed her to be. What has been destroyed is a hope and a promise, the sense that the world was moving toward something better.

Naive as it may seem, good liberals genuinely believed in the good liberal vision, no matter how many inconvenient facts critics and doubters pointed out. It wasn’t that the good liberal vision always succeeded and perfectly matched reality. The point was they had good intentions and that, however slow it took, real progress was being made. They saw themselves on the right side of history, a moral arc that bent toward justice. But now they feel as if they’ve been abandoned and all is lost.

What Liberalism Has Become

Liberalism, an endlessly perplexing beast. What exactly is it?

One interesting perspective is that of Domenico Losurdo. As a Italian left-winger, he doesn’t share the biases of mainstream Anglo-American thought. He takes liberalism as a larger worldview that appears to include even what Americans think of as conservatism. It’s not just a narrow ideology limited to a political party or social movement but an entire system, a paradigmatic worldview.

I found this a strange interpretation at first. It has since grown on me. This both explains the often reactionary nature of liberalism (anti-radicalism, anti-communism, etc) and explains the often liberal tendencies of conservatism (individualism, free markets, etc). They really are two varieties of the same post-Enlightenment social order, mainstream liberals and mainstream conservatives working in tandem to maintain the dominant system and worldview.

A main focus of mine has been on conservative(-minded) liberals. It’s common here in the Midwest, as part of the cultural norms. I particularly associate it with Democrats who are or were raised working class, typically having spent formative years in areas that included unionized factory towns and small farming towns.

It’s a weird mix of social liberalism and social conservatism, of workers’ rights and work ethic. It’s about taking care of those who deserve it, the emphasis being on who gets perceived as worthy and who doesn’t. In the Midwest, this takes shape through a heavy emphasis on family and community. But on social issues, it is mildly libertarian in having a live and let live sensibility, such that being perceived as lazy is worse than being perceived as gay. In the South, a person is praised by a statement that, He’s a good Christian. It’s different in the Midwest where the praise, instead, will be that, He’s a hard worker.

I personally associate it with the Midwest because that is where I’ve spent so much of my life. But I imagine it might be similar in other areas outside the South, such as the Northeast.

This isn’t a form of conservatism that is spoken about much in the mainstream. You won’t find it regularly discussed in the dominant spheres of politics, academia, and the media. It is a liberalism on the ground that remains largely hidden in plain sight. Few in the mainstream, left or right, want to acknowledge its existence. It doesn’t fit the established social and political narratives.

Still, some scholarship touches upon it, if you look for it. It’s fairly well known, for example, that mainstream liberalism when it was most dominant in the past more than relented to conservative tendencies, including working class racism such as in labor organizing and communist witch-hunts. Conservative liberalism often took the form of liberalism for whites, men, and the economically well off while maintaining a reactionary stance toward everyone else.

There was a class component to this, not just about working class but the right kind of working class, respectable and not radical (in a recent post about fascism, I quoted Barbara J. Steinson: “From its beginning in Indiana the Farm Bureau made it clear that the organization was composed of respectable members of the farming community and that it was not a bunch of radicals or troublemakers”). In the past, this was the working class aspiring to be middle class with hopes that their children would go to college and become professionals (and, yes, in the Midwest many farmers also sent their kids off to college). They sought bourgeois respectability, to be the right kind of people.

College-educated professionals have existed for centuries and they’ve played a pivotal role in the past. But something changed when college suddenly became available to large numbers of people. The once small professional class became significantly large. That new generation of mid-20th century professionals formed what others have called the liberal class (related to the recent category of the creative class, i.e., the knowledge workers). They are the ones that made it, the members of the self-perceived meritocracy.

Over time, this liberal class has become more and more disconnected from the working class they came from, specifically as upward mobility declined. The liberal class has increasingly turned into an inherited rather than achieved social status. The line between working class and middle class has become drawn sharply. There is no longer a respectable working class, according to mainstream society. Those who aren’t able to escape their humble beginnings, at best, might deserve pity and not much more. It is assumed that the losers of society represent a permanent underclass of Social Darwinian inferiors, the trash of society. The working class aspiring to middle class has been left behind, as I noted in a post about the demographics of supporters of the main presidential candidates:

“It would be reasonable to assume that Trump’s supporters have felt these changes in their lives, as have so many other Americans. Many people characterize these people as the white working class, sometimes even portraying them as outright poor and ignorant, but that is inaccurate. They aren’t that unusual. In fact, they were once the heart of the middle class. Their status in society has been downgraded. They have become the new broad working class, the downwardly mobile and the trapped. They are outraged because they’ve lost hope that the world will get better for them and for their children and grandchildren, and they are likely correct in their assessment.”

It’s not just that those people once were part of the middle class or perceived themselves as such. These people represented the broad base upon which was built the progressive movement, labor organizing, and the New Deal. These people proudly inhabited the vast stretches of suburbia, once the location of the American Dream but now a reactionary backwater. They are the despised losers of the neoliberal order. The good liberals look down upon them, as liberalism takes a Hamiltonian turn.

This liberal class is the focus of Thomas Frank’s new book: Listen, Liberal. I read some of it, but I quickly realized it wasn’t a book I needed to read. I’m already familiar with the subject.

It’s not new territory. Still, it’s important as it is presenting the issues in an accessible form that is getting widespread public attention at a time when it is needed more than ever. It’s part of a debate that finally is entering mainstream awareness. Frank is one of those authors that the liberal class can’t ignore and so his message is able to hit its mark. A thousand more academic tomes could describe the same problem in greater detail and they would be mostly ignored. What is needed is a popular writer who can communicate the obvious in straightforward language, and that is what Frank achieves. He simply explains what everyone should already know, if they were paying attention.

My curiosity was more about the response to Frank’s book. It’s only been out a couple of months and already has hundreds of reviews available online. One review that interested me is by Wojtek Sokolowski, “Excellent yet wanting“. One thing that the reviewer clarifies for me is that, despite his criticisms of the liberal class, Frank is coming at it from a liberal angle of attack. He isn’t a radical left-winger opining on the failures of liberalism. Rather, he is a disgruntled liberal. There are limitations to the liberal analysis of liberalism, as the reviewer points out:

“Yet this moral explanation and moral remedy that Frank offers is somewhat disappointing when we consider the fact that similar transformations occurred in socialist and social democratic parties in many European countries as well. This coincidence cannot be simply explained by the change of heart of the people leading those parties. We must look into the structural determinants.”

Structural determinants have always been a major weak point for liberalism, even among many liberal critics of liberalism. Standard liberalism by itself can’t go very far. There are old radical strains of liberalism that do deal more with the structural aspect, but you would hardly know that from the mainstream media and mainstream politics. Liberalism, at least in its primary American form, is a defanged ideology. And, though Frank is no radical, he would like to give some bite back to the political left. But it’s not clear that he succeeds.

The reviewer of Frank’s book asks, “What structural elements are missing from Frank’s narrative, then?” A great question and, in response to it, a great answer is offered:

“One clue can be found in his bibliography – despite impressive documentation of his claims, his bibliography misses a rather obscure, to be sure, work by Walter Karp titled “Indispensable Enemies”. This book attempts to answer the same question as Frank’s work does – why the US political parties do not represent the interests of their constituents – but the answer it provides emphasizes the structure of the party system rather than preferences of their leaders. Karp’s explanation is a variant of what is known as Robert Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” which in essence claims that the leadership of an institution is first and foremost concerned about its own power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. In case of US political parties, the party bosses are more concerned with keeping their control of their respective parties than with winning elections, and they tacitly cooperate by excluding any challenge to their leadership by dividing up their respective turfs in which they maintain their respective monopolies. Paradoxical as it may sound, such behavior is well known outside politics where it is referred to as oligopoly or niche seeking.

“Karp’s thesis offers a much better explanation of the abandonment of the working class and middle class constituents by both parties than the preference for meritocracy claimed by Frank. Even from Frank’s own account of the Democratic Party’s ‘soul searching’ in the aftermath of Humphrey’s defeat in 1968 it is evident that that the emerging party leadership was not afraid of losing a series of elections (McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis) before they could cement their hold on the party under Clinton. Clearly, a party whose leadership’s main goal is to win elections would not make such a cardinal mistake as losing elections for 20 consecutive years by abandoning their core constituency. Likewise, Obama’s abandonment of the “hope” promise led to a spectacular loss of both houses of Congress and numerous state legislatures, but that did not persuade the party leadership to change the course. Au contraire, they are determined to keep the course and undermine any challenge to the party leadership (cf. Sanders). This is not the behavior of a general who wants to win a war (cf. Robert E. Lee), but of one who wants to keep his position in his own army (cf. George Brinton McClellan).”

I have never before come across that exact explanation, although the general idea is familiar. It cuts straight to the heart of the matter. So much that didn’t make any sense suddenly makes perfect sense. I had been intuiting something like this for a while now. Early on in the campaign season it occurred to me that the establishments of both parties might rather lose the election than lose control of the respective party machines. But why might that be the case? Karp suggests a reason and I find it compelling.

As this campaign season goes on, I find this kind of viewpoint every more compelling. Standard narratives no longer make any sense, assuming they ever did. In particular, the actions of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the DNC only make sense when you think of a political party as a bureaucratic organization that first and foremost seeks to maintain its own existence, just as those who control it seek to maintain their power. All else is secondary. The blatant resistance to reform is a result of this, blatant not just in the party machine itself but also through its representatives in the mainstream media. The entire elite, public and private, works together so closely that they operate as a single entity.

Everyone knows that Clinton is the weaker candidate against Trump. She is one of the most unpopular candidates in US history. Everyone knows the only reason she did so well was because of a political establishment backing her, a media biased toward her, and a system rigged in her favor. Everyone knows that Sanders would have easily won the nomination if there were open primaries not excluding Independents. Everyone knows Sanders would win vastly more votes than Clinton in a general election.

So, if the DNC and Clinton don’t care about risking a Trump victory, why is it the responsibility of everyone else to bow down to their corruption out of fear? If Clinton gave a shit about either the Democrats or the country, then she would step down and hand the nomination to Sanders who is the only candidate certain to beat Trump. If she is that egotistic about winning and that cavalier toward the threat of Trump, then more power to her. But the point is she doesn’t care about any supposed threat from someone like Trump, a decades old friend and crony.

The elections are irrelevant except as controlling them represents power.

Corey Robin brought in another element to this, careerism. He posted about it on Facebook, in linking to a recent WP article that mentioned an old LRB piece by him. In that piece, he concludes that:

“The main reason for the contemporary evasion of Arendt’s critique of careerism, however, is that addressing it would force a confrontation with the dominant ethos of our time. In an era when capitalism is assumed to be not only efficient but also a source of freedom, the careerist seems like the agent of an easy-going tolerance and pluralism. Unlike the ideologue, whose great sin is to think too much and want too much from politics, the careerist is a genial caretaker of himself. He prefers the marketplace to the corridors of state power. He is realistic and pragmatic, not utopian or fanatic. That careerism may be as lethal as idealism, that ambition is an adjunct of barbarism, that some of the worst crimes are the result of ordinary vices rather than extraordinary ideas: these are the implications of Eichmann in Jerusalem that neo-cons and neoliberals alike find too troubling to acknowledge.”

I find it sad that liberalism is so caught up in careerism, along with the bureaucracy of party politics. There is an obvious class element to this, as careerism is the defining feature of the professional class, which has come to be seen as the liberal class. This society is becoming a technocracy where the highest praise to give someone is that they get things done. Pragmatic realpolitik is what rules. Constrained by this worldview, liberals end up being more conservative than conservatives. Liberals are now the ultimate defenders of the status quo.

That is what it means to live in this liberal age.

Reactionary Democrats and Pseudo-Liberals

“The historian Plutarch warned us long ago of what happens when there is no brake on the power of great wealth to subvert the electorate. …We don’t have emperors yet, but one of our two major parties is now dominated by radicals engaged in a crusade of voter suppression aimed at the elderly, the young, minorities and the poor; while the other party, once the champion of everyday working people, has been so enfeebled by its own collaboration with the donor class that it offers only token resistance to the forces that have demoralized everyday Americans.”
~ Bill Moyers

Many Democrats unsurprisingly associate reactionary politics with Republicans. But in doing so Democrats don’t notice the reactionary tendencies of their own party.

It wasn’t just the GOP that had a reactionary backlash to the 1960s. It was Democrats voting against the liberal progressive candidate, George McGovern, who instead chose to vote for Richard Nixon and got him elected. And, in 2000,  more Democrats voted for George W. Bush than voted for Ralph Nader. Think about that.

Why do partisan Democrats have such short memories and lack of self-awareness? Without learning from history, the same mistakes are repeated. Once again, here we are with the reactionary partisans supporting the corporatist neoliberal and war hawk neocon instead of supporting the progressive liberal.

Will Democrats ever learn? Or are Democrats simply being true to themselves by embracing reactionary politics? If so, then maybe we should build a strong third party to challenge the bipartisan duopoly of reactionary politics.

* * *

About McGovern, the point isn’t whether or not he could have won. Rather, if Democrats were the party of progressive liberals, then Democrats would have voted for McGovern and not Nixon. It’s easy to forget that Democrats had a lot of conservatives in the past (and still do).

Even during Reagan’s administration, Blue Dog Democrats gave the Republicans a conservative majority in Congress. Then the Clinton New Democrats used a Southern Strategy that brought more conservatives back into the party and in doing so shifted the entire political spectrum in Washington to the right.

Democrats have always been a big tent party, not a liberal progressive party as they claim in their rhetoric. In this campaign season, once again the rhetoric is being shown as false.

* * *

About Nader, there are a few points. Most Nader voters weren’t Democrats. They were largely Independents and many of them wouldn’t have voted if not for Nader running. For the others who would have still voted, about an equal number would have voted for Bush.

Nader was never that popular with Democrats, as you know, and so it’s unsurprising that he didn’t draw that many Democratic voters. Even in terms of supposed liberals, 13% voted for Bush compared to 6% for Nader. The fact of the matter is Nader didn’t get that many votes in general. Not much of a spoiler.

Then again, the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, was so unpopular among Democrats that a massive number didn’t vote at all. Democrats were plenty divided and demoralized without any need for outside influence.

* * *

It’s not that I’m against Democrats being a big tent party. I just wish they were more honest about this in their rhetoric. That way, voters could make honest decisions based on the facts.

Politicians like the Clintons appeal as much to conservatives as to liberals. They talk out of both sides of their mouths, using codewords (from progressive rhetoric to dog-whistle politics) that appeal to different groups and so they change their talking points depending on which group they speak to. The Clintons are not progressive liberals. They are simply opportunists who shift with the tide.

However, it’s not just sleazy politicians that are the problem. There is something else going on.

In the 2000 presidential election, 13% of supposed ‘liberals’ voted for George W. Bush compared to only 6% who voted for Ralph Nader. In Florida, it was 17% of all liberals who voted for Bush, a total of 191,000 votes. It wasn’t just that more registered Democrats voted for Bush than Nader.

These betrayers of the political left were worthless liberals. Don’t trust a liberal. I say that as someone who has identified as a liberal for my entire adult life. I’m simply an independent from now on.

A similar thing is shown in Pew data, that liberals are confused in the head. About 1 in 10 of those who are liberal across the board identify as conservative. Does liberalism have any meaning? Or has it simply become some form of nebulous identity politics?

I’ll try not to laugh when clueless pseudo-liberals tell me that Clinton is a progressive liberal. Liberals need to get their act together and figure out what they stand for. And Democrats need to figure out what kind of party they are. As for me, the Democratic party is dead to me. They’ve lost me for life.

Any candidate of any party that wants my vote, will have to fight for my support by showing that, first and foremost, they care about democracy. Beyond that, we can negotiate. This is the only way change will happen, when enough Americans demand reform and refuse to accept anything less.

* * *

How Groups Voted in 2000
Roper Center, Cornell University

How Florida Democrats torpedoed Gore
If the vice president had locked up his party’s traditional base in the Sunshine State, the election wouldn’t be tied up in the courts.

by Jim Hightower, Salon

No More Mister Fall Guy:
Why Ralph Nader is Not to Blame for “President” Bush

by Tim Wise, TimeWise.org

The Ralph Nader Myth
by gjohnsit, Daily Kos

Dispelling the Myth of Election 2000:
Did Nader Cost Gore the Election?

by Irene Dieter, CAGP

Still Blaming Nader?
Green Party of Sonoma County

Debunked: The Myth That Ralph Nader Cost Al Gore the 2000 Election
by Good German, Disinfo

Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals

According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans identifying as environmentalists is about half of what it was a quarter century ago, when I was a young teenager. Yet the other polls show that Americans are more concerned with environmental issues than ever before.

This is similar to how fewer Americans identify as liberal precisely during this time when polls showing majority of Americans hold liberal positions on diverse issues. Older labels have lost their former meaning. They no longer resonate.

It isn’t as if Americans are becoming anti-environmentalist conservatives. Quite the opposite. It’s just that an increasing number of Americans, when given a choice, would rather identify as progressive, moderate, independent, or even socialist. In fact, the socialist label gets more favorable opinion than the Tea Party label, although libertarianism is gaining favor.

Young Americans are the most liberal of any age demographic, in terms of their politics. They are more liberal than even the supposed liberal class, despite the young not self-identifying as liberal. They are so liberal as to be leaning leftist.

Conservatives are mistaken when they put too much stock in ideological labels and too little stock in substance of views. Their confusion is understandable. Many pollsters have had a hard time keeping up with changing labels, not initially realizing they needed to offer choices beyond the standard binary of liberal or conservative.

Not all of this can be blamed on pollsters, though. There was enough polling data to show major shifts were afoot. Some pollsters were able to discern that Millennials had a majority positive opinion of the ‘socialism’. That interesting fact of public opinion began showing up about a decade ago, but apparently few in the mainstream were paying attention until Sanders’ candidacy came along.

The older generations are shocked. As children of Cold War propaganda, they unsurprisingly have a knee jerk reaction to the word ‘socialism’. More interesting is that these older Americans also dislike libertarianism. For the young, socialism and libertarianism are two expressions of their growing extremes of liberal-mindedness.

So, it’s more of a divide of generations than of ideology.

Central to this are environmental concerns. Most older Americans probably assume they will die before major environmental catastrophes happen, allowing them to shut these problems out of their minds and pretend they aren’t fully real. Younger Americans, on the other hand, realize they’ll be forced to deal with these problems they’re inheriting.

* * *

Americans’ Identification as “Environmentalists” Down to 42%

Americans’ Concerns About Water Pollution Edge Up

U.S. Concern About Global Warming at Eight-Year High

For First Time, Majority in U.S. Oppose Nuclear Energy

Opposition to Fracking Mounts in the U.S.

In U.S., 73% Now Prioritize Alternative Energy Over Oil, Gas

Good Liberals vs Savage Nihilists

In every American community there are varying shades of political opinion. One of the shadiest of these is the liberals. An outspoken group on many subjects, ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally. Here, then, is a lesson in safe logic.
~ Phil Ochs, introduction to “Love Me, I’m a Liberal

I’ve grown impatient with liberalism or at least a particular variety of it. Maybe call it mainstream liberalism (e.g., Democratic partisanship), conservative-minded liberalism, or even reactionary liberalism. It is definitely liberalism, some might even consider it the primary example of liberalism, with its close kinship to classical liberalism. Whatever name is given, it is weak and inconsistent, an uninspiring example to say the least.

The advocates of it are the good liberals with their self-portrayed good intentions. And most of them do seem sincere about it. But from the perspective of comfortable lives, they ultimately are defenders of the status quo. In olden days, they probably would have argued for a Whiggish colonial worldview of progress (Manifest Destiny, converting the savages, etc) and they still tend to defend universal values and a globalist belief system based on neo-imperial neo-liberalism (promoting free trade, spreading democracy, etc).

The problem for this kind of liberal is this. Most of them lack the awareness to make these connections. Liberalism is centuries old now and its roots go even further back. It carries a lot of baggage that requires unpacking.

It’s taken me a while to more fully come around to this critical attitude. After all, I identity as a liberal. I’ve spent years defending the good name of liberalism from critics on both the left and the right. Yet I’ve entertained the possibility many times that it is a pointless battle. The word ‘liberal’ can seem meaningless, for all the ways it is used and abused.

My complaints here are hardly new. I’ve been fond of pointing out the problems of my tribe. I’m a liberal through and through, and for that reason I’d like to have a liberalism worth defending. But there is a particular kind of obtuseness and cluelessness that is found among the liberal class and they typically are of a class, only the libertarian demographic being wealthier than liberals on average. Thomas Frank, in Listen, Liberal, points out that they are the new professional class increasingly disconnected from the working class (even though the working class may hold a fair amount of liberal views, they don’t identify with the liberal worldview—as portrayed by the liberal class in the MSM).

One example I spent much time analyzing is Jonathan Haidt, with his typical liberal desire for everyone to just get along. This is a desire I share, except when the sentiment is used to compromise liberal values in an act of reaching out to those who don’t share liberal values. The main failing of Haidt is his mind being trapped in the mainstream paradigm of politics, leaving him oddly confused about what is liberalism and what makes the liberal mind tick.

Another example came to my attention, that of Kenan Malik, an author I’ve been casually following for a few years. That will be my focus here. In a recent essay (After Brussels: Once Again Thinking Through Terror), he discusses the terrorist attack in Brussels, Belgium. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way. Malik clearly stated his central premise and conclusion right at the beginning of the piece:

Contemporary terror attacks are not responses to Western foreign policy. What marks them out is their savage nihilistic character

There is something dismissive about this. It is more political rhetoric than cool, reasoned argument. It shuts down debate, rather than inviting discussion. The words chosen are intended to elicit emotion and incite reaction, to express the anger and frustration of the author and so bring the reader into that emotional space. Terrorism can have a way of closing down the liberal mind and, at such times, the liberal is drawn into the conservative worldview of us vs them (as research has shown: liberals who repeatedly saw tv footage of 9/11 attacks, as compared to radio listeners, were more likely to support the Bush administration’s War On Terror).

When Westerners kill innocent Arabs, it is justified military action. When Muslims kill innocent Westerners, it is terrorism and savage nihilism. Malik doesn’t put it so bluntly, which makes it all the worse, a soft-pedaling of prejudice.

Whether or not that is a fair appraisal of Malik, that was how it struck me. My first response to Malik’s essay was emotional. Skimming it, I intuitively sensed that it was more of an attempt to disregard a problem than to understand it, despite the stated intentions of analysis. The use of ‘nihilism‘ as a frame felt like a sledgehammer being brought down on my skull. So, yeah, I had a strong reaction.

It seems like a non-explanation. Most people who are nihilists aren’t violent. And most violent people aren’t nihilists. Simply concluding, based on no evidence, that Islamic terrorists are savage nihilists is the opposite of helpful. This offers no insight.

After some thought, I began to wonder what Malik meant by that word, nihilism. I was familiar with the basic sense of how it’s typically used. Most people use the word in indicating a lack of belief in meaning. And so to call someone ‘nihilistic’ is essentially to call them meaningless. This accords with Malik’s use of the word, as when he argues that, “This is not terrorism with a political aim, but terror as an end in itself.” He continues,

Terrorists often claim a political motive for their attacks. The trouble with much of the discussion of terrorism today is that it misses a fundamental point about contemporary terror: its disconnect from social movements and political goals. In the past, an organisation such as the IRA was defined by its political aims. Its members were carefully selected and their activities tightly controlled. However misguided we might think its actions, there was a close relationship between the aims of the organization and the actions of its members. None of this is true when it comes to contemporary terrorism. An act of terror is rarely controlled by an organisation or related to a political demand. That is why it is so difficult to discern the political or religious motivations of the Tsarnaev brothers. They neither claimed responsibility nor provided a reason for their actions. It was not necessary to do so. The sole point was to kill indiscriminately and to spread fear and uncertainty. Far from being part of a political or religious movement, what defines terrorists like the Boston bombers is their very isolation from such movements.

These terrorists supposedly lack all meaning, purpose, and reason. As such, they are the complete opposite of the Enlightened liberal. In the mainstream liberal worldview, violence is morally acceptable if and only if a good reason is given. Hundreds of thousands of people killed with good reason (e.g., Afghanistan War) is better than a dozen people killed with no clear reason at all (e.g., Boston Bombers).

The former is in defense of the liberal order (either as a supposed reality or an ideal to be achieved) and the latter undermines liberalism altogether. This ignores that the former easily can make the latter more probable. Actually, it’s not a matter of ignoring it. Malik acknowledges it, only to deny it. Westerners harming and killing millions of Middle Easterners for generations can have nothing to do with Middle Easterners committing terrorism in the West since 9/11.

It’s a total lack of context. Malik waves away the splintering of the Ottoman Empire after WWI, Western alliances with authoritarian regimes, overthrowing of governments, undermining of democracy and independence movements, promotion of theocracy, arming of para-military groups, military invasions and occupations, the endless drone attacks, failed neocon state building, neoliberal economic manipulations, neocolonial resource extraction, economic sanctions, food shortages and instability from droughts caused by climate change, mass unemployment and poverty, migration of refugees, xenophobic racism, ethno-nationalist nativism, European ghettoization of minorities, unemployment and economic problems in Europe since the Great Recession, etc. Nope. It’s just ‘nihilism’. There is a willful obtuseness about this.

As Patrick Cockburn explained (How politicians duck the blame for terrorism),

There has always been a disconnect in the minds of people in Europe between the wars in Iraq and Syria and terrorist attacks against Europeans… Separating the two is much in the interests of Western political leaders, because it means that the public does not see that their disastrous policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and beyond created the conditions for the rise of Isis and for terrorist gangs such as that to which Salah Abdeslam belonged.

In After Paris, Malik writes the same sentiments that he repeats in other writings:

Such attacks are not about making a political point, or achieving a political goal – as were, for instance, IRA bombings in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s – but are expressions of nihilistic savagery, the aim of which is solely to create fear. This is not terrorism with a political aim, but terror as an end in itself.

He does admit that some terrorists are refugees. His argument, though, is that they aren’t the majority. That’s true. As I recall, something like 20% are refugees, which admittedly still is a large number. More important is the entire atmosphere. Even for non-refugee Muslims in Europe, they likely would be surrounded by and regularly in contact with Muslims who are refugees. In general, they’d be constantly reminded of the refugee crisis in the media, reminded of the public response of hatred and bigotry, and probably mistaken as a refugee themselves.

He is caught up in a typical liberal double-bind, unwilling to connect his liberal values to large issues, making it impossible for him to see what it means and so he ends up projecting meaninglessness onto terrorists. He can’t admit that normal people can turn to violence, often for normal reasons that are easily understood. He has to separate all issues as if they were isolated. Western foreign policies, climate change, refugee crisis, etc—none of this can be related to terrorism, and terrorism can’t be related to politics and religion in any way. It doesn’t even matter what the terrorists themselves say. We must not bring up the fact that, in the Paris attack, the terrorists openly stated concern about politics—a witness said: “I clearly heard them say ‘It’s the fault of (French President Francois) Hollande, it’s the fault of your president, he should not have intervened in Syria’. They also spoke about Iraq.” Terrorists in the attacks in Paris and elsewhere yelled “Allahu Akbar,” making their religious intentions known.

In response to a comment I made, Malik asked, “I wonder what ‘clear political message’ jihadists are sending to the West about its foreign policy when they slaughter 148 children in a Peshawar school, or kill dozens with a suicide bomb in a market in Beirut, or throw gays off a tower in Syria, or blow up a café in Morocco?” Well, he could simply pay attention to what the terrorists themselves say. Just because Malik doesn’t approve of their politics doesn’t mean they have no political motivations. What Malik denies is obvious to many others—such as Habib Siddiqui, from The Nihilistic Assaults on Paris, concluding that:

If we want a world in which human dignity is to be respected and honored, and human rights protected, our world leaders must learn to walk their talk. When they are silent about the horrible terrorist attacks in Turkey (that left approximately 128 people dead and 500 injured and in October) and Lebanon and are all agog about Paris, they send a wrong message. When they categorize Paris attacks as attacks on ‘civilization’, are we to interpret that the attacks in Beirut and Ankara were not against civilized people? Do French lives matter more than Lebanese, Turkish, Kurdish, and Yemeni ones? Were these not, too, “heinous, evil, vile acts”?” When they define Israel’s war-crimes on Gaza as acts of self-defense that is like mocking history, an insult to the memory of the thousands of dead Gazans, including hundreds of children, killed by the Israeli army. When their drone attacks against targeted individuals (the alleged terrorists) kill mostly unarmed, innocent civilians from Pakistan to Somalia, what they are committing are war crimes. Pure and simple! It is also an act of hypocrisy from a country that claims to be a firm defender of human rights and accountability.

Like many of the other colonial enterprises, the French society is imploding. Like the British and U.S. governments, it used the “civilizing” and “liberalizing” narrative to deny sovereignty, justify the colonization process and build an empire. Under Sarkozy, it defended the fallacy of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to support an illegal war. These “civilizing”, “liberalizing” or “national security” justifications were wrongful foreign policy narratives that have brought extensive suffering and had disastrous and long-term implications not only for the ‘other’ people in ‘liberated’ countries but also their own societies. As Malcolm X would say, the chickens have now come home to roost.

As long as the powerful governments fail to learn from its past mistakes they will likely perpetuate the long-lasting injustice of the area, obviate further atrocities, and prolong the suffering of entire populations. There is no escape from this sad outcome.

It also could be added that the Saudi Arabia, supposed friend and ally to the West, supports Islamic extremism. Yet Iraq which was a secular government that kept Islamic extremism in check was destroyed, allowing Islamic extremists to take over. Only a complete idiot wouldn’t see the connection to rising Islamic violence and the political significance of it all.

But Malik outright denies the validity of any external conditions and contributing factors in the larger world. There is just something different about these terrorists, he argues (After Brussels):

What draws young people (and the majority of would-be jihadis are in the teens or in their twenties) to jihadi violence is a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect. Insofar as they are alienated, it is not because wannabe jihadis are poorly integrated, in the sense of not speaking the local language or being unaware of local customs or having little interaction with others in the society. Theirs is a much more existential form of alienation.

This is a superficial way of looking at society. It doesn’t matter that, “The Kouachi brothers, for instance, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo killings in January were born and raised in Paris. So was Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who, that same weekend, attacked a kosher supermarket in Paris and killed four Jews. Three of the four suicide bombers responsible for the 7/7 attack on London tubes and a bus were similarly born in Britain. Most of the 4000 or so Europeans who have joined IS as fighters have been European-born, and many have been professionals, and well integrated into society.”

Many European Muslims still experience the negative effects of xenophobia, racism, ghettoization, and other forms of isolation, exclusion, and prejudice. They aren’t treated as fully integrated by their fellow citizens. Simply being born in a country doesn’t mean most people will see you as an equal. It takes generations for assimilation to take place. Even after centuries, Jews and Romani have continued to struggle for acceptance and tolerance in Europe.

Malik’s belief that religion can be separated from racism is severely disconnected from reality (see Islamophobia: the othering of Europe’s Muslims by Hassan Mahamdallie). His confusion might come from his sympathy with classical liberalism. He has previously written (Strange Fruit, p. 87) that, “Enlightenment thinkers were less interested in the biological differences between human groups than in the distinction between civilization and savagery.” The problem is most people aren’t Enlightenment thinkers. In this age of highly advanced science, biological differences are an obsession for many and a basic framework for society in general.

Malik seems to want to put everything into cultural terms. To his mind, it’s not really religion or politics. It’s a shift in social attitude, a collapse of Western values. It’s civilization versus savagery. But he thinks he is being a good liberal by talking around the history behind this worldview. The English treated the Irish as savages not just because they were seen as uncivilized but because they were considered a racial other, even though biological theories weren’t entirely dominant at that time. It didn’t matter that the Irish were more white than the English, as this didn’t stop the English from calling them white gorillas and comparing them to other racialized groups of ‘savages’, such as Africans and Native Americans.

To return to Malik’s article on Brussels, he writes that:

The consequence has been the transformation of anti-Western sentiment from a political challenge to imperialist policy to an inchoate rage about modernity. Many strands of contemporary thought, from the deep greens to the radical left, express aspects of such discontent. But it is radical Islam that has come act as the real lightning rod for this fury.

This gives a hint at the historical context of thought being expressed. Nihilism is an accusation that has been directed at the radical left since the late 1700s. Malik makes a direct link here, as he claims that left-wing identity politics and outrage against modernity feed directly into the European Islamic identity.

It is irrelevant to his mind that many of these people are the children and grandchildren of Middle Eastern refugees. It can’t be acknowledged that many don’t have citizenship, living in a permanent stateless condition, not accepted where they live and unable to return to their homeland. Once a person is born into a place, the entire legacy of a family and their homeland becomes meaningless background noise. All of the history of racism, oppression, and violence explain nothing since the moment a new generation is born and learns another language they are instantly assimilated—so Malik assumes.

The demise of traditional opposition movements has led many to look for alternative forms of struggle, and created a yearning for God-given moral lines. […] Shorn of the moral framework that once guided anti-imperialists, shaped by black and white values that in their mind possess divine approval, driven by a sense of rage about non-Muslims and a belief in an existential struggle between Islam and the West, jihadis have come to inhabit a different moral universe, in which they are to commit the most inhuman of acts and view them as righteous.

Wake the fuck up! There was once secular opposition movements in the Middle East. And they were often inspired by a global movement of anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, independence and liberation, self-government and social democracy. But in the proxy wars of the Cold War, these were destroyed by Western powers. Religious extremists were armed and theocracies were put into power, anything to defeat the threat of traditional left-wing politics. It was successful. And the impact has reverberated over the following generations. Without knowing this history, we flail around in the darkness of our own self-induced ignorance.

I bet most of those terrorists are a lot less historically ignorant than are most comfortable good liberals. I remember the first time I listened to a full video of Osama bin Laden explaining his reasons and motivations. I was blown away. He was extremely informed and rational. He laid it all out in great detail, all the things that Malik conveniently overlooks or dismisses out of hand.

It’s not that Malik’s argument is entirely without merit. I agree with some of the details. But those details can’t be understood without context. A central concern for him is identity politics:

The politics of ideology has, in other words, given way to the politics of identity. Because Islam is a global religion, so Islamists are able to create an identity that is both intensely parochial and seemingly universal, linking Muslims to struggles across the world and providing the illusion of being part of a global movement. Islamism, like all religiously-based ideologies, provides, too, the illusion of divine sanction for jihadists’ acts, however grotesque they may be.

Western ideologies of Christianity and capitalism have led to more oppression and deaths this past century than Islamic terrorists could ever imagine in their darkest fantasies. Neoliberals and neocons have globalist and universalist aspirations that are grander than any religion, even the imperialistic forms of Christianity out of which they formed. Large numbers of Westerners are willing to join the military and sacrifice their lives to attack Middle Eastern countries that never attacked them, never harmed their own families and communities. Now, that is a powerful belief system or simply powerful propaganda.

Plus, consider the situation in the United States. American Muslims on average are wealthier and more well-educated. But unlike in Europe they aren’t ghettoized nor racialized in the same way (we already have our racialized boogeyman with blacks). Maybe it should be unsurprising that per capita American Muslims commit far less mass violence than do native-born American whites. In the US, you’re more likely to be shot by a white terrorist and treated by a Islamic doctor, in terms of percentage of each population.

The same identity politics and decline of traditional politics have happened in the United States. In some ways, the loss of community and culture of trust is far worse here in the States. Yet Islamic integration seems more of a reality than in Europe. American Muslims apparently don’t feel disenfranchised and nihilistic, as Malik assumes they should feel. This undermines his entire argument, indicating other factors are more important.

Obviously, there is nothing inherently violent to either Arab culture or the Islamic religion. The Ottoman Empire was one of the great powers of the world, not particularly different than European empires. If any European empire with large contiguous territory (e.g., Russian Empire) had been defeated and demolished in a similar fashion and then artificially divided up as a colonial prize, we’d probably now have something in Europe akin to the present violence-torn Middle East. There is nothing that makes either region unique, besides the accidents of history. After WWI, the Ottoman Empire could have been left intact or even given assistance in rebuilding. In that case, none of the rest would have followed.

This is the common sense that defies so many Western thinkers today.

Still, I do think Malik has some of the pieces of the puzzle. He isn’t a lazy thinker nor entirely ignorant. Even leaving out the larger context, he is right that outrage against modernity and identity politics plays a role. But then again, none of that is entirely new. These are developments that are at least centuries old.

The present struggle for power among different Islamic groups echoes the past struggle of different Christian groups. Like the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire, Europe was in endless conflict following the fall of the Roman Empire and again with Protestant Reformation. It was a violent splintering along religious, tribal, and ethno-nationalist lines. Also, it was the the burgeoning of modern reactionary politics and militant fundamentalism.

It might be best to understand present fundamentalists as expressions of Corey Robin’s theory of the reactionary mind. Karen Armstrong explains (Violent Islamic radicals know they are heretical) that fundamentalism isn’t orthodoxy:

It is unrealistic to hope that radical Islamists will be chastened by a rebuke from “moderate” imams; they have nothing but contempt for traditional Muslims, who they see as part of the problem. Nor are extremists likely to be dismayed when told that terrorism violates the religion of Islam. We often use the word “fundamentalist” wrongly, as a synonym for “orthodox”. In fact, fundamentalists are unorthodox – even anti-orthodox. They may invoke the past, but these are innovative movements that promote entirely new doctrines.

This relates to Corey Robin making clear that conservatives were challenging the traditional order of the ancien régime. The reactionary, past and present, saw the ruling elite as having failed to defend against challenges from the political right. Their being reactionary, however, doesn’t mean that they are nihilists, at least not in the dismissive and simplistic sense. They are more obsessed with meaning that almost everyone else. And they know that they are outsiders, a social status of which they embrace.

It takes an outsider to see the problems of the system and force something new into being. But don’t be fooled by how the political reactionary embraces left-wing rhetoric and tactics. And, likewise, don’t be confused by how the religious reactionary flouts the rules and norms of orthodoxy. Even in their attack of its weaknesses, they are seeking to strengthen and not destroy the social order. They are forcing a response from the rest of society. And, in the case of the fundamentalist, maybe even trying to force the hand of God.

Some background would be helpful. Like the term ‘liberal’, the term ‘nihilist’ has a history that goes back to the early modern revolutionary era.

The first to label others as nihilists was Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, a Counter-Enlightenment reactionary. His criticism was that of Enlightenment thought and ideals, specifically of the radical Enlightenment. It was the view that rationality unmoored from faith, as speculative reason and radical skepticism, was dangerous and would lead to meaninglessness, moral relativism, materialism, atheism, fatalism, and atomized individuality (see atheism dispute for further info).

Jacobi was charged as being an unsystematic thinker. By stating that others were nihilists, it was his way of defending himself—in that, to his view, at least he believed in something. Belief was everything to him and so its opposite was nothingness, i.e., nihilism.

From the beginning, nihilism was directly implicated in political issues. Later on, it took on overt political form as a nihilist movement in Russia. It followed the mid-19th century freeing of Russian serfs. It led to revolutionary stirrings, not unlike what happened with how the land enclosure movement in England ‘freed’ the serfs from the land they lived and depended upon. The creation of a massive number of landless peasants, homeless and starving, tends to lead to problems.

The nihilists said fuck that shit! They didn’t know what kind of society was possible, but they were clear that the one then existing was horrifically oppressive and needed to go. The cup has to be emptied in order to be filled again. Heck, maybe just smash the cup and start entirely from scratch. They were skeptics of the highest order, especially toward the good intentions of the older generation of bourgeois liberals who were invested in the system. Nihilists were anti-authoritarians and so, at times, they were terrorists toward the ruling authorities.

It was Ivan Turgenev who popularized the term. Here is a passage from one of his novels, Fathers and Sons, where the anarchist and anti-authoritarian strain of nihilism is shown:

‘A nihilist,’ said Nikolai Petrovitch. ‘That’s from the Latin, nihil, nothing, as far as I can judge; the word must mean a man who … who accepts nothing?’
‘Say, “who respects nothing,”‘ put in Pavel Petrovitch, and he set to work on the butter again.
‘Who regards everything from the critical point of view,’ observed Arkady.
‘Isn’t that just the same thing?’ inquired Pavel Petrovitch.
‘No, it’s not the same thing. A nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in.’

Nihilists were and were not political, depending on what you mean by that. What they weren’t offering was a dogmatic ideology and a predetermined plan. They had no interests in replacing one set of unfounded beliefs with yet another. They didn’t know what was possible, but they thought it was worth finding out. Anyone who got in the way of their finding out simply had to be made to get out of the way, sometimes by whatever means necessary. They weren’t idle dreamers.

Nihilists were most closely aligned with anarchists. Toward the end of the 19th century, anarchists also became known for their terrorism, specifically of the bomb-throwing variety. Both of these were part of early anti-imperialist politics, which went hand in hand with anti-capitalist and anti-corporatist politics. Anarchists joined communists in the fight against fascism. Yet the old reactionary accusation of meaninglessness remained. Radical politics seemed merely destructive and some thought it wasn’t politics at all.

Malik fits right into this milieu. He is dredging up old ideological feuds, maybe even without knowing much about them. When one uses such words as nihilism, one ends up bringing forth more than maybe was intended. To label as nihilists those committing terrorism today is to strike a deep chord of history.

The same goes for when this gets combined with even more inflammatory words, such as savage and savagery. Like calling someone a nihilist, calling someone a savage had great potency in past times, particularly for liberals of the 19th century. It was on this basis that liberals inherited the reactionary tradition of the Counter-Enlightenment in defending Enlightenment values. In doing so, classic liberals could present themselves as the moderates in an age of social unrest and uncertainty.

This resonates with how Westerners still perceive Muslims. They are an Other, not quite fully entered into modernity and so not fully civilized. Malik is careful to not be so blatant as to call them savages, but the word gets applied indirectly. In relation to nihilism, this isn’t merely about what is outside the founds of Enlightenment rationality and liberal meaning. There is the edge of the apocalyptic to terrorism, even moreso when suicidal and not limited to simplistic ideologies.

The same could have been said of the Plains Indians who were revolting and terrorizing at the same time nihilists and anarchists were doing their thing. And indeed an apocalyptic mentality had come to dominate the society of the Plains Indians. The reason for this is that these tribes formed from the refugees of other tribes that had been decimated by genocide, war, disease, and starvation.

Like many Middle Easterners today, many Native Americans back then saw their entire world destroyed. They were apocalyptic because they had experienced apocalypse or were the children and grandchildren of those who had experienced it. These were people who felt they had little to lose. They were only nihilistic in the sense that the stable social order that had given their lives meaning was no longer functioning. Their future was bleak. Their ‘savagery’ was that of desperation and hopelessness.

To white settlers, these native freedom fighters were terrorists. The politics and religion of these oppressed people would have been simply incomprehensible. It probably seemed like meaningless violence, terrorism for the sake of terror alone. It is unlikely that most attacking Indians explained their motives to white society. Whites were left to try to make sense of it in what was happening elsewhere, from free soil militants in Bleeding Kansas to fiery abolitionists leading rebellions. As with Malik, it would have been easy to connect the violence of natives with the radicalism of left-wingers, and then to dismiss it all as nihilism.

All of these expressions of terrorism are the continuing repercussions and legacies of a long history of imperialism and colonialism. Without understanding this, Malik at times goes down pathetically simpleminded lines of thought, as was the case in a 2002 article (All cultures are not equal):

So the real question to ask in the wake of September 11 is not, as many have suggested, ‘Why do they hate us?’, but rather ‘Why do we seem to hate ourselves?’. Why is it that Western liberals and radicals have become so disenchanted with modern civilisation that some even welcomed the attack on the Twin Towers as an anti-imperialist act?

No one who has ever looked very deeply into the issues could ask these questions. Very few Westerners actually hate themselves. When I’m critical of my own government, it isn’t because I hate myself. I don’t hate my country and those who share this society with me. I hate that my government does horrific thing in my name and using my tax money. I hate that we don’t live up to our own values and ideals. Pointing out that the 9/11 terrorism was blow back from military adventurism.

I don’t think Malik is stupid enough to fully believe what he says. It’s a straw man argument—set it up and knock it down. He is using rhetoric to dismiss his opponents, rather than dealing with the actual issues at hand. I’d be more forgiving of his viewpoint, if he didn’t constantly fall back on this kind of intellectual dishonesty.

He is trying to promote a particular ideological worldview. From his perspective, the problem isn’t that Westerners—specifically among the upper classes in dominant empires/societies—view others as savages. It is only problematic when the wrong group gets labeled as such.

His is a liberalism that seeks to define and defend the boundaries of the liberal moral and social order, outside of which no meaning exists and so no respectable debate can occur. Since the Enlightenment, all of Western civilization is framed by liberalism, even conservatism. It is the basis of meaning for our society, and so much is at stake. To question and doubt this liberal order is to bring on an existential crisis for those invested in it. There is no one more invested in it than the good liberal who has taken it to heart. That appears to be where Malik is coming from when he uses ‘nihilist’ as a slur against the enemies of Western modernity, real and perceived.

This is about controlling the political frame and narrative, and hence to control public debate. This is explained by Roy Ben-Shai and Nitzan Lebovic in the book they co-authored, The Politics of Nihilism: From the Nineteenth Century to Contemporary Israel (Kindle Locations 156-160):

Nihilism comes from the Latin word nihil, meaning “nothing” or “nothing at all.” The argument presented in this volume is that nihilism (literally, “nothingism”) could function as a mirror image or a limit case to all forms of “legitimate” critique in the public sphere. Nihilism marks the point where critique becomes unacceptable, threatening, or simply “illegitimate.” This intrinsic attribute of nihilism was expressed even by the earliest usage of the term and that expression continues to this day.

There is one thing that jumped out at me. Malik’s argument borrows much rhetoric from the political right: moral relativism, Western self-hatred, etc. The nihilist allegation itself began as an attack on Enlightenment liberalism, oddly enough considering Malik’s own liberal position on Enlightenment values.

Interestingly, according to Corey Robin, it is the reactionary who borrows from the political left. I’ve considered the possibility that a conservative ultimately is a liberal turned reactionary. But what does it mean when a liberal turns reactionary by borrowing from the political right?

With this on my mind, I’m reminded of the connection of reactionary rhetoric to symbolic conflation. To explain symbolic conflation, the clearest example I’ve found is abortion. It is a visceral issue and emotionally potent, touching upon issues of life and death. For similar reasons, terrorism also is ripe for symbolic conflation.

If this is involved, then the explicit argument being made is hiding the real issue. And the issue hidden always involves social control. This fits perfectly Malik’s obsession with the civilized and the savage.

It also makes sense why he leaves so much unstated, for the power of symbolic conflation is how it obscures the source of its own moral imagination. It always points elsewhere and makes analysis near impossible. Complexities are condensed down to pithy talking points that are easily and mindlessly repeated. As such, savage nihilism isn’t meant to explain anything, even as it is meant to give the appearance of explanation. A symbolic conflation is a meme that lodges in the brain, seizing up all thought into a constrained focus.

The savages are attacking. We better circle the wagons. For those on the political right, this means how do we literally encircle our societies by controlling our borders and those who cross them. But for the good liberal, it’s less crude. Malik acknowledges that the savages are already among us. So, the good liberal advises that we must circle the wagons in our minds.