In the past, one of the sources of strength for progressives rested in reading the laughably incorrect past predictions of conservatives or traditionalists about the likely consequences of progressive reforms to their institutions. It’s a tremendous hoot, for example, to go back to the 1960s to read the alarmed predictions of opponents of admitting women to formerly all-male institutions about the consequences to those institutions.

This goes for a certain kind of liberal prediction too, mind you: I’m fond of pointing out that many long-standing claims about the impact of violent media on children were essentially predictions that were fundamentally wrong. If you argue that violent media create a strong causal predisposition to violent actions, and you document that the amount and variety of violence represented in media is rising dramatically, you have just predicted a dramatic rise in violent actions. Which never happened: quite the opposite.

There are other less comforting histories of prediction and consequence for liberals as well. I think it’s not unreasonable to argue that a certain kind of high modernist liberal hubris about some forms of planning and state intervention turned out pretty poorly, and that some conservatives may have had a prophetic insight into why they would.

The problem right now is that if we are right in our predictions about the changes being ushered in by a President selected by a minority of our voting citizens, things will turn out very badly. Depressingly enough, this has to be what we are in some sense hoping for. It is why anyone who is not one of Trump’s bootlicking supporters needs to hang back and let him and his people have complete ownership over what they are doing. What they do now is all them. No one else has any responsibility for it. That goes for his voters, too: whatever complexities went into the choice they made, whatever circumstances shaped them, the next chapter is one they chose to write.

Yes, we should fight and resist and expose, but no one should be drawn in to bogus attempts at “compromise” with the people in power, because none of them would offer any such thing except as a trap. Even if they take hostages, in effect: no deals with hostage-takers. If the people in power want a compromise at some point for some real and urgent reason, they should have to crawl on bended knees in the sight of all, under the most desperate of circumstances, before anyone even considers such a thing.

Everything that happens next needs to be on them.

In a tragic way, we need to hold fast to our belief that what happens next will be very bad. Because that is what will allow us to step back into the picture afterwards to try and fix what has been broken. Our job now is to keep using whatever powers remain to force the disclosure of information, to compel the people in power to answer for what they’re doing, to keep attention focused on the consequences.

Our other job is to retool, rethink, reimagine our own fractured and exhausted visions. We need to stop being distracted by trivial in-fighting, to stop focusing on demands that already-progressive institutions enact a yet more brittle and overly precise etiquette of perfected gestures, to stop pushing some divisive ad hoc issue to the fore every time something like a general consensus among progressives threatens to break out. When we sense that we are risking accord among people who basically agree on most things over some minor tactic or gesture, we have to push it aside for another day, to stop the vain and lazy attention to instruments and institutions that are readily at hand because of the difficulty of opposing those that are far away and well-protected. We need a clearer idea of the foundations on which our own values and priorities rest, to find our way to an enduring sense of common cause, away from a politics that runs frantically this way and that every time a hashtag calls us out to some scene of individual drama and narcissism.

Because sooner or later, we will be called back to a scene of woeful failure and asked to make it better. By the time that happens, we need to be ready to do just that. To be better than we were, to have a clearer sense of our own values, to not be helpless accomplices to the systems that brought us to this sorry moment. By the time that moment comes, we should be looking ahead to a better, different world that we can once again describe with charity, hope and authenticity to those who have yet to imagine it.

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11 Responses to Interregnum

  1. I believe that the jury is still out on the effects of violent media on our children. I agree that the predictions of increased violence have yet to come true, but that is only one prediction about violent media that has been made. Another is that the time our children spend deeply absorbed in fantasies is bad for their mental development, for their connection to reality. This turns them into people who cannot think rationally, it turns them into people who think that everything that happens on TV is just a story that has no effect on their lives. The question that we adults should be asking is whether or not permitting, even assisting, our children to spend hour after hour focused on violent media, is a good way for them to let those hours slip away at the time their brains should be training to do things that are rational. Everybody has a theory about what is wrong with our education system, and they all may be right. But it is most likely that we overlook the importance of time.

    Children have only so much time to spend doing things that will build a well-trained brain. I think that our education system has forgotten the importance of that. In my schooling the master teacher in our small Texas town, who taught all the math and science, told us regularly that her job was to train our brains to follow useful routines, procedures that would help us deal with the future. She talked about our brains all the time. We students thought about our brains all the time. Not as a biological organ, but as a nascent computer, with the ability to draw inferences, with the ability to recognize and understand subtle distinctions. Upon her retirement, many years after I graduated, I wrote her a letter of congratulations and thanks. Others did as well. She responded to all of us, and in each letter she said something like this: “Your brain was the 38th best I ever taught.” We students found that she had trained our brains to think rationally, not by just teaching the quadratic formula (which we memorized anyway), but by teaching us to analyze the world before us. Math was secondary. Rational thinking was primary.

    In my working life I hired several hundred programmers and systems analysts for my business. Over three decades I saw a steady degradation in their ability to think clearly. I saw an increase in the number of foolish mistakes. I saw a tendency for them to pretend to work, and I saw them play video games when they should have been working. These were young college graduates, who had majored in the field for which I hired them. The net was the quality of output suffered, and development costs went up. When I retired, I accepted a six-week assignment with the Plano, Texas, schools. The head of the math department at one of their high schools needed to take a leave of absence to deal with a health problem. I was shocked. The place was a shambles. I could go on and on about what was happening there, but I must say that no one paid any attention to rational thought. The math teachers had degrees, but they knew no math, and the math they thought they knew caused them to reject the official textbook and write their own. They handed out each day’s lesson at the start of the day. The students had no text. I am sitting here right now shaking my head at the harm they were doing to the children. But, watching this awful mess proved what I had long suspected: the Texas public schools were falling apart.

    Your point about “liberal hubris” and the “forms of planning and state intervention that turned out pretty poorly,” prove my point. Neither liberals nor conservatives know how to intervene in our welfare system. If we assume that we do want to do something about the tragedy of our lower classes, the two forms of thinking fail. Conservatives want to punish the poor people for being poor. Our history constantly shows this. So, they want to trickle out financial aid while making the poor recipients apologize for needing it. The liberals want to give aid by training poor people for jobs that are not available, and they want to account for every cent of direct aid so the data collected will feed college schools of social science to enable jargon-filled PDF files to flash around the Internet.

    The correct approach is to prevent the formation of underclasses in the first place. By giving every citizen a lifetime stipend of $36,000 per year from birth to death, and by training our children from the beginning that that money is there for them to use to build long lives that worth living, we will have taught them the wisdom of careful financial planning so that they will spend the money on things that are good for them and good for society. This means, of course, that violent media or anything else that wastes their precious time should be expunged. Failing that, then the violent media should be constructed to permit only three hours per week of action.

    Money, like water, is an inexhaustible national resource, and, like water, it should flow into every household. Poverty will be washed away.

    Your point about “the problem right now” also proves my point.

    The problem right now is the onrushing catastrophe of global warming. The students you are teaching right now will suffer much unless we elders do something and do it right now. Of course, Trump can keep us from facing and solving the immense problems we have created for ourselves, but that is not news. Obama did nothing either. Bush the senior did nothing, Bush the lesser did nothing. I daresay that your university is doing nothing. Oh, you may be able to point to a scholar who is doing good work in the field, but what you should be doing, and I’ll bet are not doing, is gathering all the intellectual power that you and your colleagues have, to spend the next two months with all of your students studying global warming, what it is, what are its causes, what it is likely to do if left unchecked. And after that dreary, but necessary survey, spend the next months trying to map out a plan for saving the world. And the most important part of that plan is the final step, implementation.

    If every college in the U.S. would do this starting right now, I predict that the momentum gained would overwhelm Trump and his lackeys. If you don’t do this, then what happens from this moment forward is on you.

    I am sorry to tell you, but no matter what Trump does, when he is gone we will be looking ahead to a bitter, difficult world, that we will have no idea how to deal with. Hope will become anxiety and turn to despair unless we go to work. Charity, hope, and authenticity are nice words, but we are beyond words that accomplish nothing. What we need is action.

    So, I say again. Trump will fail, but even if he doesn’t, he will do nothing about global warming. We must go to work spending the next four years putting in place a plan, and starting to implement that plan. Global warming is real, it is getting worse faster than we have predicted, and we may have already run out of time. Like the little boys who waste time playing video games, we are wasting time talking among ourselves.

  2. Tim Blankenhorn says:

    Some thoughts. I’d be grateful for a reaction.

    1. Conservatism in the US as currently practiced, is not a philosophy of government, but rather a critique of the main governing philosophy, a pragmatic progressivism. It ridicules, finds fault, and offers up a laundry list of criticisms of policies and initiatives – and vows to overturn them. (This is not to say that there aren’t conservatives with a philosophical bent, but there are many more who just try to make enough people angry to stay elected.)
    2. It is not enough to say that these espoused views by conservatives make no sense. It is not their purpose to make sense.
    3. What is really going on here is anger at the progressive establishment, the Fancy Schmancies who think that they are better than the average person, who has suffered serious reversals in the last several decades, and who thus has lots of resentment to vent.
    4. Feeling trumps logic, and anger is an inclusive and cynical feeling.
    5. Now that the conservatives have chased – and caught – the car, their lack of coherence and lack of any governing idea will become manifest.
    6. Their goal was – and remains – to be the equals of the Fancy Schmancies with their degrees and spelling rules. They have won the election. They keep saying it. They have won the Presidency, and they deserve respect.
    7. The lack of symmetry between the political sides is profound. It means that Progressives, who want to govern well, and who view governing as a technical skill, will float ideas in elections and will poke fun at the inadequate ideas of right-wingers. It means that right-wingers will ridicule the governance of progressives – and the nerdiness of progressives themselves. They will talk past each other.
    8. Nothing was more futile in the last election than the airing of ads saying that Donald Trump was a scumbag. The people who ended up voting for Trump know all that – and saw the election as a battle of scumbags.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I think “they caught the car they were chasing” is the central observation that is important. They don’t know what to do with power, in part because they’ve gotten a lot of what they wanted by not having executive power. (Arguably both Clinton and Obama more effectively enabled a conservative agenda that George W. Bush did, in fact.) But they also don’t know what to do if they have power over the fancy schmancies, and that’s what kind of scares me. It wouldn’t be the first time that people who just wanted to scapegoat some group without doing anything about it found themselves in a situation where they almost had to do something, and that almost never ends well.

  4. John C says:

    @Timothy: “But they also don’t know what to do if they have power over the fancy schmancies”

    Are you sure about that? You can’t think of an administration that doesn’t use it’s power to go to war (GWB) or an administration that doesn’t use it’s power to establish “the Cathedral” (BHO). Is it really so hard for you to understand the actions of what an administration will do with it’s power under the motto, “America First” (DJT)? Did Trump not terminate America’s involvement in the TPP on his second day in office? It is entirely clear that “they” know what to do with power and I must come to the conclusion that you are just being disingenuous.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    So two thoughts on this, John. First is that whomever it is in the Trump Administration really wants “America First” (as opposed to just using it as a call-out to supporters) they may find that much of the Republican donor base and party apparatus does not really want it. I think it remains to be seen if they’re genuine protectionists, or if America First is more just about racial power, etc.

    Second on the fancy schmancies, meaning, I don’t think they know what to do specifically about educated elites. They love to have them serve as a kind of straight man, an object to stoke the fires of resentment and nihilism, but I think they’re uncertain about what actually hurting them entails and whether they actually want to. That’s clearer about Republicans other than Trump, but even Trump may be puzzled about what one does about that kind of enemy other than rail against them. Here too their supporters may require action of them that they originally were not necessarily going to undertake, at which point new kinds of very bad things may unfold.

  6. John C says:

    @Timothy: “Here too their supporters may require action of them that they originally were not necessarily going to undertake, at which point new kinds of very bad things may unfold.”

    First of all, you’re being either ignorant or disingenuous again. Trump’s victory was because of the college-educated voting him in. Here: (https://newrepublic. com/article/138754/blame-trumps-victory-college-educated-whites-not-working-class) So I guess you have no argument now. Do you just have a persecution complex where you think all working class people want to kill you? How incredibly strange. I mean when you say, “at which point new kinds of very bad things may unfold.” let’s not be vague. What the hell are you talking about?

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Seriously, you are working overtime here to interpret the election in a pretty peculiar way that ignores a whole range of information about Trump voters to privilege one group or fraction of his support as the only fraction that matters. You are not alone in this respect, though other “it’s only this one group that matters” folks settle on others to care about.

    I think even when we’re talking about one group of college graduates who voted Trump this election (or who vote Republican with some consistency) and another group, we’re often talking some form of class or social antagonism, of groups that live in different places and have different relationships to the political economy. I am not sure why you think it is uncontroversial that there is considerable resentment towards educated elites who work in education, the professions, government and non-profit organizations from people who work in other sectors of the economy, both those who have college educations and those who do not.

  8. Doug says:

    “Because sooner or later, we will be called back to a scene of woeful failure and asked to make it better.”

    Didn’t we do that in 2008/09? The short pitch for Obama in ’12 was “General Motors is alive, and Osama bin Laden is dead.”

    So how do you think we did with the scene of woeful failure that GWB & Co. left us?

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Kept the patient alive. Didn’t really address his underlying health issues. Partly because he wouldn’t let the doctor deal with the underlying health issues. Partly because the doctor didn’t have (and maybe couldn’t have) a treatment plan for those issues.

    This time I think they’re going to break every goddamn thing they can find. No policy, no practice, no institution is going to be left unmolested in some fashion. It already feels worse in three days than Bush felt in an entire year of fucking up.

  10. Doug says:

    Thanks! I tend to read that as “a good start” or at least “a decent start.” There was a line in TNC’s essay “My President was Black” also wondering whether Obama could have had a treatment plan for the underlying issues because a person, especially a black person, who made that kind of plan a centerpiece of their campaign would not have been elected.

    I do think you’re right about the Republicans’ intention to break as much as is breakable.

  11. Tim Blankenhorn says:

    Trump is going through a punchlist of stuff he said he would do, if elected. And it’s awful. But it is not really governing. Are they going to dissolve Social Security? Or Medicare? It depends on how seriously they take the punch list. But govern? Really take the bull by the horns? I doubt it. Because they don’t care about governing.

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