5.9.18

A UTOPIA OF SCOLDING.

Thomas Frank's Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society provided additional on-train reading, and Book Review No. 24 will also precede any analyses of the train rides. The reports focus on four different areas of current life, ostensibly to present the message that the Powers that Be, and the Winners of the Lottery of Life, no matter have to care about Everybody Else.

That might be one interpretation, but buried in the curated columns might be the possibility either that the bad news is wrong, or that there's more than one way to respond to the bad news.


Consider first Mr Frank's analysis of plutocracy, five columns on upper-middle-class excess and the mistreatment, by way of Creative Class downtowns and frequent flier rewards and McMansions, of the common folk.  Left for further research: whether the proliferation of rewards and coffee bars and headache-in-a-glass pale ales isn't what you'd expect of an upper middle class that is expanding rather than being crowded out.  I fear that zoning against big-box retailers and imposing regulatory restraints on corporate agriculture will not help people who are being left behind: then there's the amusement value in a self-styled progressive standing athwart emergence, as it were, hollering Stop!

Next come three columns on the role of higher education in perpetuating the social stratification, whilst delivering nothing.  "Too Smart to Fail" as the section heading introduces arguments that a reader familiar with, for instance, Charlie Sykes's Prof Scam or Insta Pundit's regular College Bubble Updates or for that matter just about any week's postings here on Cold Spring Shops.

Perhaps the book is Mr Frank's confession of being mugged by reality: it's not so much false consciousness in Kansas as it is a strong consciousness there that the people purportedly intending to Do Good are actually not doing Kansans much good, although they're doing well riding their inflated, overpriced credentials.

He first approached this theme in Listen, Liberal and his third section, "The Poverty of Centrism" raises the possibility that the talk of "bipartisan consensus" and "Expertise" comes across as nest-feathering by rent-seekers.  I particularly enjoyed his "Beltway Trifecta," a meditation on all the Team of Rivals talk during those heady early days of Hope and Change.  Turn to page 117.
To a Washington noble of the pre-Trump era, a team of rivals was a glorious thing: it meant that elections had virtually no consequences for members of the consensus.  No one was sentenced to political exile because he or she was on the wrong side; the presidency changed hands, but all the players still got a seat at the table.

The only ones left out of this warm bipartisan circle of friendship were the voters, who woke up one fine day to discover that what they thought they'd rejected wasn't rejected in the least.  And all in the name of Abraham Lincoln.
That puts Sarah Palin's "How's that hopey-changey stuff working out?" in a new perspective.  There wasn't that much change, really, apart from the torpor that accompanies increased helpings of High Modernist Authoritarianism and inedible school lunches, and the voters she helped rile up caught on.

As far as compromise itself, Mr Frank notes that the Southern Rebellion happened only after there was no more opportunity to compromise (three-fifths compromise, Missouri Compromise, Compromise of 1850) and "Abraham Lincoln first rose to prominence (page 119) as a highly moralistic opponent" of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

To the Permanent Bipartisan Government, however, it's still Bipartisanship and Compromise First.  Consider the recent rites for the late naval aviator, senator, and failed presidential hopeful, John McCain.  How do you perceive this?
Present in the pews were not only three former presidents – Obama, Bush and Bill Clinton. There were also all four of the national candidates from the bitterly disputed 2000 election – Bush and Dick Cheney, Al Gore and Lieberman. Others who have felt the pain of losing presidential races were there: Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and Bob Dole. There were at least three Nobel Prize winners. And the current congressional leadership, Republican and Democratic, all of whom had their battles with McCain.
Are you nostalgic for a lost era? Contemplating a sinking society?

Or is your reaction more like this?
There are, after all, disparate realities—one inside the holy halls of the National Cathedral, where powerful people mourn the death of civility; and another in the surrounding city, where many of those same powerful people drive nails ever deeper into its coffin. And there is a greater juxtaposition still—this one between the virtue-signaling, convention-worshipping insiders of Washington and the mad-as-hell, burn-it-down voters in the provinces. This might not be Donald Trump’s town, but it’s still his country.
If so, dear reader, is your objection an objection of the Left, or an objection of the Right?  If, like Spengler, you are moved to puke, where do you stand?
By civility and bipartisanship, the Establishment refers to the policy consensus that squandered America’s dominant position in the world after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. America had no military competitors of importance when George W. Bush took office in 2001, and an edge in high technology that made the American economy seem insuperable.
A plutocracy taking care of itself? Or a greatness squandered?

And thus we get Donald Trump, or as Mr Frank's fourth section calls it, "The Explosion."  He's more interested in bringing left-leaning Democrats back into power, although he fears that they don't have the message.  Turn to page 222,  "Who needs to win elections when you can personally reestablish the rightful social order every day on Twitter and Facebook?"  Plus, "If economic conditions don't change and Democrats play out their strategy of indignant professional class self-admiration, they have only a fair chance of chasing him out of office -- after which they will undoubtedly be surprised by some new and even more abrasive iteration of right-wing populism."

It might be more constructive for Mr Frank to sit down for drinks with David Bernstein, Kurt Schlichter, and John Kass.  They might find some things to agree on.  Mr Bernstein writes, "Trump has at times promoted bigotry, is a congenital liar, and engages in demeaning and belittling behavior toward his political opponents. Indeed, I think these things are obvious. But much of the country isn't listening when the traditional gatekeepers point this out, and that is, at least in part, the gatekeepers' own fault."  Mr Schlichter notes, "When establishment hacks talk about the 'rule of law,' they mean that they should be able to use the law to rule you while they get to ignore the law when it’s inconvenient." And Mr Kass observes, "Trump's voters know what put him in the White House. It wasn't merely that Hillary Clinton was a lousy candidate. It was that Trump voters detested the crowd that backed her, loathed them; and those voters in turn were viewed as something to be stepped on, to be ridiculed for heresy."

It would be better, though, for these four to meet privately for drinks, perhaps with a tape recorder running.  Put them on live television, particularly with some polemicist moderating, and you'd get a food fight.  Let them interact like four guys in a bar, and they might come up with something.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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