beware the ides of Marching

Sometimes (well most of the time) a blog is means for exorcising and exercising one’s thoughts. Sweating them out of the mind, where maybe you can return to them later. It’s the “beware the ides of Marching” as we’re in the middle of it now and perhaps some caution is warranted.

David Brooks has a piece in the NY Times following on the Women’s March. Brooks and I would agree on very little. He has no love for Trump; we agree on that. Below might be some more minor points of agreement, akin to things like agreeing on whether it’s Thursday or not.

Brooks identifies the following as the key problems we face, and I agree these are serious problems. “Ethnic populism is rising around the world. The crucial problems today concern the way technology and globalization are decimating jobs and tearing the social fabric; the way migration is redefining nation-states; the way the post-World War II order is increasingly being rejected as a means to keep the peace. All the big things that were once taken for granted are now under assault: globalization, capitalism, adherence to the Constitution, the American-led global order.”

However Brooks asserts that the Women’s March focused on the “wrong issues,” that it was “built, oddly, around Planned Parenthood, and lots of signs with the word ‘pussy’ in them” and thus that “the marches couldn’t escape the language and tropes of identity politics.” He then goes on to reference Mark Lilla’s op-ed from November on the subject of identity politics. Half of this is little more than trolling in my view. I’m not sure what’s so “odd” about the idea that a “Women’s March” would centrally feature concerns about health, reproductive rights, and sexual violence.

As for the “identity politics” issue, maybe there’s a rhetorical problem and maybe it’s a rhetorical problem manufactured on the right. Brooks identifies the problem of ethnic populism. Of course, it’s not just “around the world.” Ethnic populism (which is a soft, obscuring way of saying fascism) is what brought Trump into office. It’s the basis of his social agenda (if you can call not having a society a “social agenda”). In my view, the March and the political action that will follow on it are battling to protect, restore, and expand human rights. Women, children, immigrants, refugees, people of color, lgbtq people: these are humans whose human rights are threatened by ethnic populism. I’m not sure how that’s a “wrong issue.”

The political opponents to such human rights measures fall into a couple categories.

  1. There are those who believe that beings who do not look like them or share their beliefs are not fully human and thus have no reason to expect to receive human rights. We can call these people “ethnic populists” but probably white supremacists or fascists would be more to the point.
  2. Those who believe human rights are a zero sum game so that when other people get rights then they lose rights. As such, they think they are protecting their rights by taking away the rights of others. I’m tempted to call these people idiots. I realize that’s cruel and unfair to idiots everywhere. I really don’t know how else to explain it though. Should I say people whose fear and desperation has paralyzed their capacity for rational thought? They just don’t understand how human rights function. They’re holding to the equivalent of saying 2+2=5.
  3. Those who believe any call for human rights is superseded by religious morality. E.g., every human has rights but homosexuality is a sin and cannot be included as a right. I believe the term “radical Islam” is misleading for a variety of reasons I won’t go into right now, but if you’re willing to use that term then analogously I would term this group “radical Christianity.” However I would prefer a less inflammatory term and call them religious extremists.
  4. The last category that comes to mind right now (maybe I missed some?) are those who do not believe the government has a capacity or responsibility for ensuring human rights or at least that such responsibilities are superseded by the imperative that states make way for capitalism. This is probably a mix of liberatarians, anarcho-capitalists, and the corporate elite: people who believe that their money and/or guns are enough to protect them and see some financial or cultural advantage in limiting the power of the state to ensure the rights of citizens to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Primarily I think this is about the 1%ers.

So it’s not just fascism (ahem “ethnic populism”) that’s operating here, but rather this brutal cocktail of social-political violence that must be confronted by a human rights movement.

In constructing the strategies and tactics for the movement, I do think it’s important to recognize that the groups mentioned above have always been around and are likely to continue to exist. The question is what has inflamed and galvanized them in this particular moment? Here is where we might look at the problems Brooks identifies: globalization, technological change, migrant populations, and the breakdown/failure of nation states to collaborate in maintaining peace among themselves. If you’re thinking, “Wait, weren’t those the causes of the rise of fascism and WWII?” The answer is, yes, basically.

In the 1920s and 30s we failed to find a good response to those conditions and we ended up in a horrible war. However, I don’t want to be alarmist. I think good responses exist. We aren’t doomed to repeat history. Regardless it won’t go down the same way as before as the other conditions are quite different now.  The specific causes and effects of our current economic problems are for more diffuse. Nevertheless, the days when Americans worked in factories and had secure “middle-class” lives are over. They’re as gone as the days of the Jeffersonian gentleman farmer and the manifest destiny homesteader.  So what happens next? I don’t know, but when people are living secure and meaningful lives then they’re less likely to be so energized to find other people to blame for their situation. Maybe that just means better bread and circuses. Maybe it’s a better redistribution of wealth without much other change. Or maybe a more substantive transformation, akin to the one that created a manufacturing-based middle class in the 50s, is required.

While we come up with the answer to that question, I think it is a crucial rhetorical move to communicate that a human rights movement is a part of that solution, a part of making all people’s lives secure and meaningful, not a list of demands that are in competition with it. Maybe Brooks would agree with all that. Maybe not. Who cares, really.

I will end with one point where I most strongly disagree with Brooks. It’s basically his conclusion: “If the anti-Trump forces are to have a chance, they have to offer a better nationalism, with diversity cohering around a central mission, building a nation that balances the dynamism of capitalism with biblical morality.” OK, yes probably the movement will be more effective if it can remain cohesive (or become more cohesive). I’m not sure what “better nationalism” means. If it means “less nationalism” then I agree. If you want to say “patriotism” and by that mean a belief in the promise of a country that values the inalienable rights of all humans, then sure.

But my real problem is with the idea that we must balance “the dynamism of capitalism with biblical morality.” First off, that’s just nonsense, by which I don’t mean that it’s a bad idea but rather that it is an empty, meaningless statement. At best capitalism is a machine that encodes material forces into abstractions (e.g. money) allowing for circulation. We live in a capitalist world and almost all humans live in extreme poverty in comparison with Americans. There’s absolutely nothing in capitalism (or whatever its “dynamism” might be) that would insulate us from the same fate. In short, capitalism is disconnected from and unconcerned with the well-being of humans. It offers us nothing. On the other hand, in my view, “biblical morality” is far worse. I’m not going to go into a rant about that, but there’s a long historical record demonstrating that biblical morality can mean almost anything you want. All it really means is that one is seeking to authorize one’s claims by saying God requires them. We need a different foundation for ethical practice, one that is not grounded in supernatural beliefs but rather is located here. “Because God said so” cannot be the authorizing principle of our values.

Think about it this way. It’s the Bible and capitalism that got us in the situation we’re in now. That’s like saying we’re going to stop being drunk by drinking more whiskey. In its place we need a new mechanism for community and country that better secures human rights, material security, and human flourishing (i.e. pursuit of happiness, making meaningful lives, etc.).

In all that a March in the name of human rights seems like a good place to start, wouldn’t you think? The other parts will be more challenging and demand greater acts of invention, discovery, and experimentation on our parts.