Where Demagoguery Can Lead You

Earlier this morning, I led my high school students through a discussion of Waiting for Godot. The students will be making a film trailer for their version of the play (we won’t actually perform the play; just make a trailer for it), so I showed them a bunch of YouTube clips of  various performances and commercials for performances. I also wanted them to see how Godot has influenced playwriting and scriptwriting throughout the 20th century, in case they want to do a trailer for a more creative interpretation of the play.

One of the influences we discussed was Beckett’s use of language, the way he sets the language free, allowing it to take command of his characters rather than the other way around (see Lucky’s monologue for the prime example of this). To get to this point, I showed the students a clip from the BBC sketch show, A Bit from Fry and Laurie, where Fry and Laurie, in a very funny way, discuss this very thing.

In the sketch, Stephen Fry makes a hilarious yet intelligent argument about various elements of the English language, and wonders whether English would even allow such a thing as demagoguery. Fry imagines that, had Hitler been speaking in English to an English audience, the people wouldn’t have been riled up by his words, but rather would have laughed at them. This led me to ask the students if they knew what demagoguery is, which then led to me asking whether they’d ever seen Hitler speak.

And it turns out they hadn’t. So off we went again to YouTube, where we found a Hitler speech that included English subtitles.

Anyway, during the speech, which seems to be a kind of coming out party for the Nazis, Hitler talks about when it was difficult to be a National Socialist in Germany. But he says, even then, “when our Party consisted of only seven members, it already had two principles. First, it would be a party with a true ideology. And second, it would be, uncompromisingly, the one and only power in Germany.”

Okay, so we watch that and move on as a class to talk about the ideas for the trailer.

But here’s the thing. Just a few minutes ago, during a quick break, I checked the front page of the NY Times, and what did I see? An article about the Tea Party candidate who just defeated Sen. Richard Lugar (R) in a primary challenge. The blurb of the article reads, “Richard Mourdock, who defeated Senator Richard G. Lugar in Indiana’s primary, rides motorcycles, runs marathons and believes only one party can prevail.”

Now, I don’t want to say that Republicans (or Tea Partiers) are Nazis. That would be a ridiculous statement used by ridiculous people to make ridiculous points in a political argument. But it is telling that Hitler’s principles above — a party with a true ideology and a uncompromising dedication to becoming the one and only power in the country — are more transferable to the Republican party than to the Democrats. It’s easy to imagine Republicans (or Tea Partiers) coalescing around a demagogic leader who brooks no compromises and rallies the faithful to the “fixed pole” of an ideology. It’s less easy to imagine a Democrat who draws a line in the sand.

The question, of course, is whether President Obama should be categorized as a demagogue. I suggest that he should not. He is a gifted and inspiring speaker, that much is true, but demagogues appeal to prejudices and fears, whereas President Obama appeals to hopes and dreams.

I think it can be safely said that the Republicans run on a fear-based platform that appeals to Americans’ xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and ignorance. I’m not suggesting the Democrats are a heck of a lot better — after all, Democrats seem to be demonizing successful entrepreneurs, as well as some of those who are bound by religious/moral precepts — but generally speaking, the Republican platform has a lot more enemies in it than does the Democrats’.

Some examples from Governor Romney’s website:

  • Afghanistan and Pakistan: “We are not safe from enemies who plot freely against us from the other side of the world”
  • China and East Asia: “If the present Chinese regime is permitted to establish itself as the preponderant power in the Western Pacific it could close off large parts of the region to cooperative relations with the United States and the West and dim hope that economic opportunity and democratic freedom will continue to flourish across East Asia”
  • Iran: “The result [of Iran improving its ballistic missiles] will be a nightmarish cascade of nuclear tensions in the world’s most volatile region. Iran’s sponsorship of international terrorism would take on a new and terrifying dimension.”
  • Latin America: “Decades of remarkable progress in Latin America toward security, democracy, and increased economic ties with America are currently under threat.
  • Energy: “…for every ‘green’ job created there are actually more jobs destroyed.”
  • Healthcare: “[Obamacare] will make America a less attractive place to practice medicine, discourage innovators from investing in life-saving technology, and restrict consumer choice.”
  • Immigration: “A porous border allows illegal immigrants to enter the United States, violent cartel members and terrorists possibly among them.”
  • Labor: “Unions drive up costs and introduce rigidities that harm competitiveness and frustrate innovation.”
  • Regulation: “Regulations…drive up costs, hinder investment, and destroy jobs.”

If we compare that to Pres. Obama’s policies, we find that:

  • his economic policies, while addressing “too big to fail” and abusive financial practices, don’t have a real enemy
  • his education policies speak to an expansion of education (more grants, easier loans, protections from high interest, etc.)
  • his energy policy, which is an “all of the above strategy,” tries to strike a balance between environmental protections and energy production
  • he has a whole page dedicated to “equality,” where Romney has a page dedicated to “values”; the former looks at ways the president has expanded opportunity, while the latter focuses on the governor’s desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, stop stem-cell research, and “protect” marriage
  • the President’s healthcare policies also talk more about expansion than protection
  • his national security policies reduce our number of enemies to one (Al Qaeda) rather than expanding the list to include China, Russia, Iran, and parts of Latin America
  • his tax policies do go after millionaires and billionaires, but his wording attacks the tax code (and hence, the legislators who created the tax code) more than it does the people who benefit from the tax code
  • his policies on women’s health continues the argument of expanding opportunity
  • at no point does the President attack or demonize anyone or anything, not even the Republicans

Again, to bring it back to demagoguery, I’m not saying Governor Romney and his fellow Republicans are Nazis. I’m just saying that, after watching Hitler speak this morning and then seeing a NY Times article about a Tea Party candidate who won a Republican primary, I immediately saw how the Fürher’s words resonate in today’s political climate.

The end of the beginning

In June of 2006, a few weeks after graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in Theories of Writing, I decided to apply to an M.F.A. program in Creative Writing. The only school I wanted to attend required a longish writing sample (20 pages) as part of its application. Because most of the stories I’d written in the past few years were unfinished or less than 10 pages, I needed to write something specific for the application. I decided on a short story whose concept had obsessed me for months: the secession of Vermont from the United States.

My plan for the story was simple in form, but complex in execution. The general idea was to capture the secession in both its planning stage and its aftermath, and to allow the reader to imagine how the secession moved from one period to the other.

But the execution saw me creating a larger cast of characters than usually belong in a short story, with the perspective of the story shifting to a different character with each individual paragraph. Some of those characters were in the present day, but others were two hundred years in the future. The effect, I hoped, would make the reader feel like they were caught in a tornado (which was tied thematically to the idea of secession by way of The Wizard of Oz, i.e., secession leads to a new world of possibilities, and by the concept of the moment, i.e., the ever-swirling influences that come into and move out of each individual moment, including the moment of secession).

After I finished the first draft of the story, which was titled, “If you walk away, I’ll walk away,” something strange happened. I started crying. I remember being so happy with the story, so proud of it, that, all of sudden, it felt like everything I’d ever done, every decision I’d ever made that put me on the path towards being a writer, was validated. It was a pretty great moment, and my emotions were caught in the swirl of it.

After revising it once or twice, I sent the story off to grad school as part of my application, and a few weeks later, I was accepted. For my creative thesis, I decided to turn “If you walk away, I’ll walk away” into a novel. And for the next two years (minus a few weeks at the end of the first semester when I flirted with starting a completely different novel), that’s what I did.

Except I decided from the get-go that I didn’t want it to be a novel. A novel would have followed a relatively straight path from the origins of the secession, through the eventual battle(s), and into their aftermath (perhaps doing so as a trilogy). But I wanted to stay true to the form of my short story, which went “around” the secession rather than through it. I also wanted to use my creative thesis to engage (in a fictional way) with all of the strange, philosophical ideas that I encountered during my undergraduate career. The end result wouldn’t be a novel, per se, but a fictional exploration of political philosophies, utopias, and ontological states of being.

To highlight this, I gave it the working title: The Gods of the Hills: An act of creative non-philosophy.

At the end of the two years, and after receiving feedback from some incredible advisors at the college and from some incredibly supportive friends, I completed the book, now titled (to erase the academic flavor), Gods of the Hill: An Act of Secession.

And then I let the book sit. Didn’t touch it. Didn’t think about it. Completely let it go. For five months.

When Spring came, and I finally picked it up, I sat down with a few glasses of wine, and over a couple of days, read through the whole thing, at the end of which I said to my wife, “I don’t care what anyone thinks. I like that book.”

And then I got to work rewriting it.

This process went on for three more years. I’d finish a rewrite (which, in my process, involved not only cutting and adding scenes, but also a wholesale retyping of every single page), then I’d let it sit for about five months, then I’d give it another read, after which I’d declare how much I enjoyed it, then get to work on another revision.

And then, on Thursday last week (one day before my fifth wedding anniversary), I finished it. That’s right. Finished it. Gods of the Hills: An Act of Secession…is…finally…done.

And on Monday, I sent it off to an agent to see if she’d like to represent it to publishers. Within two hours of receiving my query letter and the first group of the book’s pages, she asked me to send her the whole thing. I can’t tell you how excited that’s made me.

What’s kind of scary, though, is that the agent will be the first person in three years, besides myself, who will have read my book. I completely suspect that she will not want to represent it (it is, after all, a piece of experimental fiction that actively prevents a “traditional plot” from breaking out), but still, the fact that she wanted to read the whole book is a good thing indeed.

Even if she does choose to represent the book, I completely suspect that she’ll have some suggestions on how to improve it, which means, of course, that the book isn’t “done done.”

But sending it off to an agent…it’s a big deal. Because it means that the beginning stage of seeing my manuscript turn into a real book is…truly and completely…done.

There were no tears this time. Just a sense of resoluteness.

Because any way you slice it, five years is a long time.

Oh, and did I mention that my wife and I, after five years of marriage, will be having a baby pretty soon? 

It’s the end of the beginning in oh so many ways. And I can’t tell you how excited that makes me.

The Republican Brotherhood

During All Things Considered yesterday, Robert Siegel interviewed an Egyptian parliamentarian named Abdul Mawgoud Rageh Dardery. Dardery is a member of Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, which is the political arm of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. If you remember, the Muslim Brotherhood is an organization that calls for Sharia law while also remaining dedicated to democratic principles. In Egypt’s democratic elections following the fall of Mubarak, the Freedom and Justice Party won over half of the seats in the country’s new parliament, but they also insisted they would not run a candidate for president. This was meant to inspire good will between the Brotherhood and those revolutionaries who had fought for the creation of a modern democracy in Egypt.

Well, last month, the Brotherhood broke their promise and nominated a candidate. Siegel’s interview with Dardery focused on that broken promise, with all of his questions dripping with the West’s distrust for the Muslim Brotherhood. Dardery, I thought, answered every question with aplomb, but his answers aren’t what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about are the questions.

Each question that Siegel had for Dardery implied that the Muslim Brotherhood has an obligation, for the good of its country’s democracy, to find a balance between the forces of moderation and the forces of fundamentalism. Here are the questions he asked the parliamentarian:

  • The prior policy of not running a candidate had been taken by some liberal secular Egyptians or Christian Egyptians as a sign that the Muslim Brotherhood did not intend to monopolize political power and take advantage of their present popularity to do so. Should they be concerned at this point that your movement will indeed monopolize power?

  • The Associated Press reported this week that your party’s candidate for president…promised a group of of ultraconservative Muslim clerics, or at least they say he promised them, that clerics would be given the power to review legislation to ensure that it’s in line with Islamic law. First of all, is that a position, as you understand it, of your party, and isn’t that awfully close to implementing Islamic law as the law of the land in Egypt?

  • The concern that a lot of Americans had since the very beginning of the Arab Spring is that the ideas of the intelligentsia and the ideas of the leadership can be very worldly and very cosmopolitan and very much committed to contemporary thoughts about democracy, but the mass of people who have not experienced life beyond their country’s borders might not see it that way, and there could be real support for a much, much more authoritarian and religious movement running the country.

  • Do you find…that Salafists, who take a much more militant religious view of what government should be, can have an appeal with less educated voters that you have to answer, that you have to respond to?

Again, Dardery answered every question with aplomb, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that each of those questions could be rephrased so that, instead of being addressed to the Muslim Brotherhood, they could be addressed to the Republican Party.

Let’s give it a try:

  • The prior policy of being willing to work with the opposing side to find common ground had been taken by some liberal-secularist Democrats and Christian Democrats as a sign that the Republican Party would not try to monopolize political power and take advantage of their present popularity to do so. Should they be concerned  at this point that your party will indeed monopolize power?

  • The Washington Post has reported that your party’s former Vice President, Dick Cheney, allowed oil executives to review his administration’s energy policy before submitting it to Congress; Bloomberg has reported that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Washington-based, conservative think-tank supported by the Koch brothers and ExxonMobile, provides “model legislation” to representatives in various state houses, who then help turn that legislation into law; and now, with over 100 new lawmakers coming to Washington last year, corporate lobbyists are flocking to the staffs of Republican politicians in Congress. First of all, is it the position of your party to allow the moneyed interests to write and review its legislation, and isn’t that awfully close to turning our democracy into an plutocracy? 

  • The concern that a lot of Americans had since the very beginning of the Tea Party movement (if not before, with the rise of the Evangelical’s political power) is that the ideas of the Republican intelligentsia and the ideas of the Republican leadership can be very worldly and very cosmopolitan and very much committed to contemporary thoughts about democracy, but the masses of people who have not experienced life beyond their state’s or their county’s borders might not see it that way, and there could be real support for a much, much more authoritarian and religious movement running the country.

  • Do you find that Tea Partiers and Evangelicals, who take a much more militant view of what government should be, can have an appeal with less educated voters that you have to answer, that you have to respond to?

Unfortunately, I don’t think a single Republican politician would answer those questions with as much aplomb as the representative of the Muslim Brotherhood. Dr. Dardery talked about respecting the views of the opposing parties, of needing to educate the public so that radical views and heavy propaganda don’t brainwash the minds of less educated voters, of having elected officials be the ones who write and decide on laws, of the importance for having people being willing to listen to one another more than they talk to one another, of offering moderate alternatives so the people can see moderation being modeled, etc.

The Republican Party believes in none of that.

Rather than argue policies on their merits, they call their opponents socialists and terrorists.

Rather than passing laws to improve education in the United States and teach ideas that are “very worldly and very cosmopolitan and much committed to contemporary thoughts about democracy,” they promote the antithesis of science and art and multicultural learning.

Rather than helping to curtail radical views and heavy propaganda, their leaders regularly attempt to codify those views into law, regularly placate the most inflammatory voices in their party, and regularly promote a news channel that actively makes its viewers less informed.

Rather than encouraging its members to open their minds and hearts to cultures that may be different from theirs, they attempt to capitalize on xenophobia and ignorance.

Rather than offering their party members moderate choices among their politicians, they chase moderates from the party or challenge incumbent moderates with primary challenges from the far-right of their party, with those challengers (not to mention all the party’s presidential candidates, including the presumed nominee) running on a “brook no compromise” pledge.

Rather than trying to earn support through rational arguments based on facts and evidence, they regularly lie in order to promote a given agenda.

All of which is to say, as a country dedicated to “contemporary thoughts about democracy,” which include requiring politicians of integrity and voters who are educated about the issues and where politicians stand, America needs to recognize that the Republican Party is actively ruining democracy in this country, just as they fear the Muslim Brotherhood will ruin democracy’s chances in Egypt.

The difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Republican Brotherhood is only a question of which type of radical laws they’d like to initiate. The Muslim Brotherhood wants a Sharia state; the Republican Brotherhood wants an ultra-capitalist one.

As Americans who believe in the freedom of religion and the compassion of a social safety net, we should oppose both.

Last Week’s Instapaper: March 16th Edition

As many article junkies are nowadays, I’m a big fan of Instapaper, which is “a simple tool to save web pages for reading later.” I use it to save long-form articles that I come across on the web. After saving and then reading an article in Instapaper, you can “Like” the article or archive/delete it from your account. Here are the articles I “liked” last week. I highly recommend each of them.

  • Making It in America (The Atlantic)
    “How, exactly, have some American manufacturers continued to survive, and even thrive, as global competition has intensified? What, if anything, should be done to halt the collapse of manufacturing employment? And what does the disappearance of factory work mean for the rest of us?”

  • Twitter, the Startup That Wouldn’t Die (BloombergBusinessweek)
    “Throughout its first five years of existence, Twitter always seemed on the verge of committing some excruciating form of startup seppuku… Now something freakish is happening in San Francisco. Twitter, which for years treated the responsibility of earning money as an annoying distraction, may be turning into a viable business.”

The Credentialess College

In an essay for The New Republic, “The Higher Education Monopoly is Crumbling As We Speak,” Kevin Carey writes that “the single greatest asset held by traditional colleges and universities is their exclusive franchise for the production and sale of higher education credentials.” He continues: “Just as people are ultimately interested in buying holes, not drills, higher education consumers aren’t buying courses or degree programs. They’re buying credentials.”

To some extent — hell, to a large extent — Carey is correct. The vast majority of college and university students go to school for purposes related to job training and career preparation. According to this 2009 article from the NY Times, only about 8% of college students pursue a degree in the humanities, and it’s been that way for decades. The rest of the students pursue degrees or credentials in business, technology, and the sciences. You also have to factor in the changing demographics of college students, where adult learners are quickly becoming the majority and where “slightly over half of today’s students are seeking a ‘subbacalaureate’ credential (i.e. a certificate, credential, or associate’s degree).”

Carey’s argument is that institutions of higher learning face a threat in the rise of a model “where the education itself costs students nothing—the availability of free open educational resources is constantly growing—and students only pay small fees to cover the cost of assessing their learning.”

All that might be true, but as a humanities kind of guy, I’m less interested in an education whose result is a professional-level certificate and more interested in an education whose process creates open-minded individuals capable of finding and creating meaning in their lives and in the lives of their fellows.

Six or seven years ago, when I was an undergrad at an environmental liberal arts college in Vermont, I designed a three-credit, independent study in the concept of memes (not “internet memes,” but “memes“). Now, the college I went to charged roughly $2,500 for a three-credit course. According to Kevin Carey, as a higher education consumer, I was hoping to receive some sort of professional benefit from designing that course. But as you can probably tell, unless I was to go into sociology or some branch of evolutionary studies, I wasn’t about to get a job or learn a valuable skill from pursuing the concept of memes.

So why I did design it and pay for it? Because it was a concept that interested me and I wanted to learn more about it. The studying of the subject was the value of the subject. I basically paid $2,500 — or really, when you factor in my Bachelor’s degree and my Master’s of Fine Arts degree, over a hundred thousand dollars — for the right to stop being a productive member of society and instead indulge myself with intellectual pursuits.

Unfortunately, we all seem to have an obligation to produce something for society. Ideally, for people like me, that means producing some sort of end result from each intellectual pursuit, a kind of travelogue of my mind’s journey, one that shows people either the value of following a similar path or wards them from chasing one of their similar thoughts into a dead-end. In reality, it means writing, publishing, and teaching.

But here’s the point. Kevin Carey’s article reports on the way the Internet is giving rise to a business model where the education is free, but the assessment will cost you. For people like me, however, where the assessment and credentials are not what interests us, the Internet provides an unlimited (and free!) education (and intellectual forum). The trick, I suppose, is to figure out how to build a business model on the idea.

I suppose I’m talking about a creating a kind of retreat…or monastery…where people pay for the privilege to be separated from the mundane drudgery of having to shelter and feed themselves while they explore the wonders of the human condition. They don’t receive a certificate from this experience, nor are they required to produce anything tangible as a result. What they’re paying for, in short, is spiritual and intellectual indulgence.

It’s a business model that would only appeal to those who can afford it, of course. But that’s essentially the business model of the entire vacation and tourism industries, and they seem to be doing okay.

Now I just need the land…

Religion For Atheists

From Aengus Woods‘ review of Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion

It is utterly impossible to get any sort of consensus on what we poor secularists need from religion. The beauty and danger of organized religion has always been its authoritarian aspect: It tells us what is wrong and what is right, what is healthy and what is impure. Apply these edicts to the secular world, and they begin to look suspiciously like indoctrination. Where is the place of criticality here, and exactly whose values get to be promoted?

Decaf Lifestyle

Back in December, I went through a small health issue that, among other things, resulted in my giving up caffeine. Prior to December, and for the previous ten years or so, I’d been a relatively hardcore coffee drinker. For most of that decade, I worked from home, so every morning, I’d brew a full pot of coffee and proceed to drink the majority of it by noon, which means about 12 cups of coffee a day. When I began a new job this past October that got me out of my house, I just replaced my (inexpensive) coffee pot with refills at the coffee shop across the street. The source (and cost) of my coffee had changed, but the volume remained the same.

But then my little health issue came along, and I decided to cut out caffeine.

The first day was the worst. The headache came on around 10am and didn’t leave me until I went to bed (and not even then). I popped some ibuprofen to dull the pain, but that only dampened the sharpest parts of it. I still had an all-around “ache” in my head. The second day was better. I took the ibuprofen first thing in the morning, re-upped in the afternoon, and pretty much got through the day without having to verbally complain to my wife about my pounding head. The third day, I forewent the ibuprofen, and the headache, while still present, was less of an ache and more of a nuisance.

And on the fourth day, it was gone.

As a hardcore coffee drinker, I’d always scoffed at people who drank decaf, but for the past three months, that’s basically the only coffee I’ve had (my wife decided to kick caffeine a little after I did, but after seeing me deal with the headache, she decided to ween herself instead of going cold turkey, so for a couple of weeks there, my first cup of coffee in the morning would be a home-brew of half-caf and half-decaf, with all the following cups being full decaf from the coffee shop). Some have asked why I’m drinking coffee at all if I’m drinking decaf, and the answer is: because I love the taste of coffee in the morning.

The problem with the decaf lifestyle is that…well…I’m tired in the afternoons. You know that friggin’ 5-hour Energy commercial, the one that talks about that 2:30 feeling? Well, that shit is true. At 2:30 in the afternoon, virtually every day, I get smacked in the face by a big ol’ bat of tiredness, and it pretty much doesn’t go away until after dinner. In fact, for the past two months or so, dinner has usually been followed by a cat nap…and it’s only after the nap that I feel anything resembling energy flow back into my body.

The solution to my mid-afternoon crash is simple, of course. Instead of requiring caffeine to fuel my day, I should exercise and use the body’s natural endorphins. Exercise fights fatigue and boosts energy. We know that. Now I just have to act on that knowledge.

Or…you know…I could just take another nap.