LBJ’s Very Trumpian Campaign of 1948


Even as early as 2016, pundits began writing that the signs and precursors of Donald Trump’s rise to power had been there all along, visible to all who had eyes to see. Although I’m no pundit, I did my share of this, too. And I stand by it. Historical analysis is the best guide, sometimes the only guide, we have to try to understand the ever-unfolding present.

(I also stand by cognitive psychology when it says we should avoid overvaluing hindsight. It turns out that almost everyone has eyes to see when it comes to explaining things after they occur.)

Still, you don’t want a specific interpretive framework to take over everything you think. Even though Trumpism’s treasonous assault on our democratic institutions dominates the whole political horizon right now, it will, in all likelihood, be rebuffed and turn into a touchstone that future historians will use to try to understand new trends.

So when I took up Robert Caro’s epic biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson over the summer, I did so fully intent on taking it neat. I just wanted to read the thing from cover to cover, from as neutral a perspective as possible, not writing little notes in the margins about Trump and Trumpism.

For the most part, I’ve succeeded. Caro’s five-book biography is a love letter to American politics, and it can be cherished by any observer of that drama, from the left, right or center. Caro takes you into a sprawling, Tolstoyan embrace of our country’s political life and transports you straight to the heart of Texas’s Hill Country, where LBJ’s unlikely rise to power began. It is a huge story of naked ambition, played out in uniquely American terms. It teaches much of broader interest along the way–about geography, about elections, about media, money and influence, and, of course, about power. But the core of the story is very much LBJ’s story.

Caro’s work stands alone, excellent on its own merits. But his main argument is, like all good history, relevant to the present. Politics changed in fundamental ways as a result of how LBJ sought, gained and used power, Caro writes. And in LBJ’s watershed career, nothing was more of a watershed than his 1948 campaign for the U.S. Senate. The things he did to win that race left deep marks on our political culture.

Most of LBJ’s legacy has nothing directly to do with Trump. But then again, what does? Trump is such an accidental phenomenon. He wouldn’t have become anything if our culture didn’t already value swagger, wealth, celebrity, egomania, and other, far less endearing character traits before he came along. Writing long before Trump evinced any interest in politics, Caro draws out several of LBJ’s features that helped prepare our political culture for Trump’s arrival. We’re constantly hearing how Trump is breaking with time-tested traditions and setting new precedents. LBJ’s 1948 Senate campaign, though, shows that most of the tricks in the Trump playbook were not actually new.

Here are the ways I noted LBJ prefigured Trump in Caro’s account of the 1948 Senate campaign.

  1. He discovered the power of lying, emphatically and all the time. In 1948 Johnson was running against Coke Stevenson, a beloved former two-term governor known as “Mr. Texas,” who was deeply admired for his discipline, work ethic, and integrity. Flinty and stoic, Stevenson refused to campaign for elections tit-for-tat for the same reason some Civil War generals refused to use spies–he thought it was low and unbecoming of a gentleman. He was determined to win clean by running on his record alone. Johnson, who knew he was far behind Stevenson in early polls, sniffed out an obscure issue having to do with a controversial labor law and turned Stevenson’s reticence on it (Stevenson was reticent on everything) first into an innuendo then into an outright lie. By the end of the campaign, Johnson was openly accusing Stevenson (Mr. Texas!) of being a communist. Johnson’s campaign managers told Caro in interviews that they knew they were lying, but they also knew they could count on Stevenson’s refusal to speak up for himself. Since he would just sit there and take it, they repeated the lie about Stevenson thousands of times over the course of several months. It appeared in speeches, newspapers, radio shows, mailers, ads, and even in the mouths of “missionaries”–local people paid to spread lies in their towns’ gathering places. Basically the core of LBJ’s campaign was that one lie, told over and over. See Orwell on how all authoritarian regimes use this tactic.
  2. He normalized name-calling. While Trump feels compelled to coin denigrating nicknames for all his opponents, LBJ was more of a dabbler. He did it when he thought it was necessary. But unlike Trump, he could leave off the schoolyard insults and and impersonate a statesman when he needed to. In 1948, mostly because LBJ didn’t have a policy angle for getting to Stevenson, he started calling him “Old man” (Stevenson was 60, LBJ 40) and “Do-Nothing Stevenson.” Eventually, he stopped using Stevenson’s real name, only using the nicknames, and his supporters followed suit. Sound familiar?
  3. He used the power of spectacle–and the spectacle of power. Coke Stevenson drove thousands of miles along Texas’s long, dusty roads in his own car to meet his supporters in 1948. Johnson’s aides wanted their man to cover more ground, so they leased him a helicopter. (Actually, Johnson’s friend at the helm of contractor Brown and Root, Herman Brown, paid for most of it.) In a proto-Trumpian touch, Johnson had his name painted on the side of the big Sikorski S-51. In 1948, helicopters were brand new. They hadn’t even been used in combat in World War II, just three years before. But Caro records how Johnson showed remarkably little interest in the main questions that would occupy an ordinary man’s mind about the contraption–Is it safe? Will it work? “When they were up in the air, what Johnson was watching was not the control panel but the faces of the people on the ground,” Caro writes. Johnson took to calling out through a PA system, “Hello down there! It’s your friend Lyndon Johnson.” His was a voice from on high. And it worked. “[A]s he neared a town where a landing was scheduled, he could see below him not only people running through the streets toward the landing site, but, in the countryside outside the town, plumes of dust moving along dirt roads. Farmers . . . were racing to see the helicopter land.”
  4. He courted the ignorant. Who can forget Trump’s brash admission in 2016 that he loved the “poorly educated!” LBJ did too. Or, he knew he needed their support. Caro recalls that, once LBJ had Texas’s business leader sewn up, he went after the rural demographic: he knew he had to aim “squarely at unsophisticated farmers.” And, since he calculated there was no time to bring them up to speed on the issues, he would appeal to their emotions instead: “He had to make them angry at [Stevenson],” Caro recalls. How did he do this?
  5. He used fake news. In August 1948, LBJ’s staff created a fake newspaper and mailed it to 340,000 rural mailboxes. They calculated that, while it wouldn’t fool many city dwellers, it might just work among country folk. And, Caro reports, they were right. Most rural Texans who received the Johnson Journal gave it the credibility of a newspaper simply because it looked like a newspaper. And of course it was stuffed with lies, innuendo and propaganda written to look like straight political reporting. In Trump’s case, fake news is more sophisticated and a lot of it is provided free of charge by volunteers. But it’s not new.
  6. Repeat, repeat, repeat. At a critical point in the campaign, Texas business leaders asked Johnson to start giving populist speeches about Stevenson and his (fake) labor supporters, decrying them as “racketeers,” “goons,” and “mobsters.” The precedent for this demagoguery had been set by one of Johnson’s former opponents, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, who would “just drum, drum, drum with his little catch phrases–” a contemporary observed, “‘labor leader racketeers, ‘Communist labor leader racketeers’, . . . You just wouldn’t think there would be that many ways to get ‘labor leader racketeers’ into a sentence.” But it worked. Johnson, who was at first loath to stoop this low, found the little catch phrases indeed caught on, and before long the voters were using them spontaneously despite their lack of connection to reality. “Voter fraud,” anyone?
  7. He was fueled by narcissism. All of Johnson’s campaigns were emotional rollercoaster rides, Caro relates. The man had huge ups and downs (and not just in the 948 campaign). But his biggest ups all came in one of two varieties–either humiliating his subordinates or basking in the adulation of crowds. “People who had known him for years,” Caro write, “said they had never seen Lyndon Johnson so ‘high'” as when he was being adored by an audience. And the helicopter gave him this rush over and over. “He really thrived on the helicopter,” recalled a friend, “and the crowds that would come out. He was energized, he was really charged up.” Who knows, if fist pumping had been a thing in 1948, maybe there would have been some of that too.
  8. He used the military as a prop. Unlike Trump, who connived to avoid military service, LBJ actually did a hitch. As a U.S. Congressmen in 1941, he had told his supporters that, if war broke out, he would take up a rifle and fight on the front lines alongside their sons, husbands and brothers, “in the mud and blood with your boys,” as he put it. What he actually did was to arrange a cushy Naval reserve commission as a Lieutenant Commander and spend five and a half months driving up and down the U.S West Coast mostly partying with a friend, occasionally drumming up contracting business and building political connections. On a brief fact-finding trip to the South Pacific in June 1942, he did in fact experience combat on an Army Air Corps B-17 bomber. He didn’t really do anything except be inside the B-17 as it got shot up by Zeroes for 13 minutes over New Guinea, but eye-witnesses said he was exceptionally calm. Although the crew, who took heroic measures to get their crippled plane back to base, went unrecognized, LBJ was awarded a Silver Star–the military’s third-highest honor–for his ride along. Unsurprisingly, Johnson immediately began to embellish the episode, and by the time he ran for Senate in 1948, he was telling crowds that he had fought extensively with their boys throughout World War II. He wore his Silver Star on his lapel and would hold it high for the crowds to see. He told flat lies (“I was in the jungles of New Guinea.”). His most shameless acts, though, were his deliberate use of war veterans as campaign props, and not just any veterans. Caro reports that LBJ’s campaign manager was given the specific task of seeking out vets “whose service and sacrifice had been dramatized by the loss of a limb” to introduce Johnson’s speeches. Eventually, there was hardly a man with all his limbs, Caro writes, trotted out to introduce LBJ. Trump, whose only positive regard for military service seems to be based in movies, does not miss a chance to bask in the glow of military honor, at least as he narrowly and cynically conceives of it.
  9. He transformed the election campaign into an amoral contest to be won at any cost. One of the reasons Caro made an entire book in his series about the 1948 Senate campaign was to draw an historic contrast between Johnson and Stevenson. Stevenson, in Caro’s estimation, was the last of his kind–a politician who felt a duty to present himself honest and unadorned to the tribunal of the vote. There was something hard and Roman about him. And, not to get all sentimental, but there was something hard and Roman about American politics writ large. Not after LBJ though. LBJ introduced the idea to American politics that the ends justified any means when it came to winning a campaign. And Americans, it turns out, kind of liked this idea, sleaze and all. When Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis used to say, “Just win, baby!” this meant, “Cheat if you have to,” and we all knew that. Not to give him too much credit, but Trump and his enablers are sort of the Oakland Raiders presidency. The thing about our democracy, however, is that it falls apart once everyone starts pursuing victory at all costs. Rules are the glue that hold institutions together. If you normalize the idea that they are mere impediments to winning, you’ve started down the road to obliterating democracy. Without a culture of rule-following, there are no rules.
Johnson used his Sikorsky S-51 to land in hundreds of small Texas towns on the 1948 campaign trail. Sometimes if he saw a lone farmer in a field he would tell his pilot to set down for a handshake. LBJ’s good friends at Brown and Root picked up most of the bill for his chopper.

In closing, I want to be clear about one thing: By dabbling in history and drawing some ho-hum-looking comparisons between Trump and LBJ, I am not trying to downplay how bad Trumpism is for us. Trump’s amplification of LBJ’s foibles (along with other, more toxic faults) has brought our system of governance and politics to the brink of ruin. So, in putting some key facts down in black and white, I am merely attending to one of Orwell’s cardinal reasons for writing: the “[d]esire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” If posterity is to recover from the sickness of Trumpism, we need to understand now how it got here. Part of it, at least, got here in a helicopter.

P.S. Actually I want to be clear about one more thing. Lyndon Johnson was a reprehensible man defined by naked ambition, but unlike Trump he was also enormously complex. He was capable of superhuman levels of work, and he constantly fought and won political battles that looked unwinnable. He was much more than Trump’s political Vorgänger, as my post might suggest. I called Caro’s books about LBJ Tolstoyan, but there was something more Dostoevskian about LBJ himself–something deeply mysterious at his core that drove him to demonic exertions of will. He remains worthy of study. Trump, in contrast, is a one-dimensional clown. As many serious historians will bother setting down his biography as will serious personages bother attending his funeral. Zero.

James Baldwin’s Path to Liberation


James Baldwin’s 1963 essay “The Fire Next Time” is one of the greatest essays in the history of American letters. Long before the New York Times‘s “1619 Project,” Baldwin argued with electrifying power that America’s racial reckoning could only be achieved through courageous introspection and extensive public education. Americans are “still trapped,” Baldwin wrote, “in a history which they do not understand.” And only when a large majority of them stopped believing the lies and omissions that made up their country’s founding story could our national life be made sane and decent.

One big lie was this: The European colonization of America was a fundamentally good start at building a democratic republic. Although the project has required modifications over the years, the basic approach was sound.

A related omission was this: In the beginning, there were only freedom-seeking settlers, striving alone by the sweat of their brows to tame a wild land. Okay, there were Indians, too, who helped the settlers, but the enslavement of African people came later, as America’s economy expanded. The “peculiar institution” became a tragic subplot to our founding narrative, which anyway was made negligible by the passage of the 13th Amendment.

The day may come when I try to write an essay about all the big reasons why “The Fire Next Time” is so great. It clearly evinces what we would today call a strong “through-line,” describing what it means to be black (and white, and other colors) in America. I have already written a little bit here celebrating the moral clarity of Baldwin’s writing. I find his essays comparable with Orwell’s and Camus’s; the beauty of Baldwin’s writing shines with unmatched beauty in “The Fire Next Time.”

But every time I read Baldwin’s greatest essay, I get caught up in the trenchancy of its individual sentences and paragraphs. I can’t take the whole thing in. Today is such a day.

Before Baldwin became a writer, he was a preacher. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (which I reviewed here), is a fictionalized account of how this happened and how he lost his religion in relatively short order.

James Baldwin at home in southern France (Image: NBC)

The stumbling block, as we learn in “The Fire Next Time,” is that Baldwin, in the maturity of his thought came to believe that, “If the concept of God has any validity or use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this,” he writes, “then it is time we got rid of Him.” In the end, Baldwin rejected not only his own charismatic-Christian version of theism, but indeed the whole idea of being tyrannized by a heavenly father.

As I picked up “The Fire Next Time” recently and read (again) about Baldwin’s path out of religion, it occurred to me that his key turns of mind are like stations of the cross. They guide reflection. Although Baldwin’s prose is incisive in this passage, which spans barely three pages, each crisis of faith he describes broadens out into an expansive critique of theism as a whole. These are the stations in Baldwin’s path of liberation:

  1. Notice that large groups of sane people believe differently than you. Most of Baldwin’s high school peers were Jews, he recalls, and they evinced no compunction whatsoever in ignoring the Christian Gospels. This came as a shock to the young Baldwin, who grew up believing you either had to accept Christianity or consciously reject it. He did not know that simply ignoring it was an option. Interesting news indeed.
  2. Accept the human authorship of the Gospel texts. Baldwin’s Jewish friends pointed out to him something he hadn’t learned in church–that the Biblical texts he thought of as divine were in fact written by ordinary men long after the reported events occurred. Although many Christians eventually come to accept the textuality of the Gospels, this topic tends not to be discussed early on in one’s “faith journey.” Blind, passionate belief is a more effective starting point for religion.
  3. Read the Gospel message for what it says. Jolted out of complacency by his friends’ disbelief, Baldwin reads with new eyes the pamphlets he’d brought to school in search of converts. Repent! they said. Be washed in the blood of the Lamb and win eternal life! “[T]hey were indeed,” he wrote, “unless one believed their message already, impossible to believe. I remember feeling dimly that there was a kind of blackmail in it.” Believe what I say based on faith, or go to hell: blackmail doesn’t come any starker than that.
  4. Question the genuineness of “divine inspiration.” Christian faith, for many people, is primarily a system of defense mechanisms against doubt, and Baldwin had one such tactic at the ready when confronted with the human authorship of the Gospels–namely, that the authors of the Gospel texts were “divinely inspired.” Well, as an anointed preacher, Baldwin knew something about this kind of confidence trick: he was, as he put it, “behind the curtain.” “I knew,” he reflects, “how I worked myself up into my own visions, . . . .” Divine inspiration is really just human flimflammery baldly asserted as authority, and Baldwin knew it.
  5. Reject the very idea of thought crime. As a born-again convert and later, as a preacher, Baldwin says, “I spent most of my time in a state of repentance for things I had vividly desired to do but had not done.” I know what he means. I was a teenager once too. The idea that an all-seeing God can convict someone for thoughts arising in the privacy of one’s own minds is morally repugnant. All modern dictators aspire to it.
  6. Reject the Biblical doctrines of race and slavery. The authors of the Gospel texts were not merely human, Baldwin realized; they were white. Unsurprisingly, they encoded a racial hierarchy of white supremacy in their sacred texts, which Baldwin experienced as a concrete reality. He reflects, “I knew that, according to many Christians, I was a descendant of Ham, who had been cursed, and that I was therefore predestined to be a slave.” When Baldwin witnessed Catholic priests blessing young Italian men in New York leaving to go fight for Mussolini and fascism in Ethiopia, he could not fail to appreciate that the church’s racial hierarchy was still very much alive. Indeed it was demonstrably sadistic in its desire to kill and subjugate black Africans.
  7. Give no one a religious pass for their cruelty. Baldwin’s father, who was also a preacher, abused him physically and psychologically. Naturally, Baldwin hated him; they were locked in a lifelong grip of fearful hostility. Both were intensely pious, but what good had it done them?–The very center of their lives was a jagged, painful ruin. One of the last times Baldwin’s father struck him, knocking him across the room, Baldwin realized that “all the hatred and all the fear, and the depth of a merciless resolve to kill my father rather than allow my father to kill me–I knew that all those sermons and tears and all that repentance and rejoicing had changed nothing.” The saving power of the Gospel is said to be able to redeem a whole world of lost sinners, but it couldn’t even help two of its most ardent believers stuck in a small apartment together in Harlem.
  8. Follow the money. Baldwin learned early on that the church–any church–is a money-making racket. There may be fine talk and rousing songs there about saving your soul, but it’s your dollars they really want. “I knew how to work on a congregation,” Baldwin recalls, “until the last dime was surrendered–it was not very hard to do–and I knew where the money for ‘the Lord’s work’ went.” His senior pastor owned a Cadillac. The congregants owned next to nothing and were constantly on the verge of starving.
  9. Reject the learned masochism that the church demands. The worst part of the idea of an almighty God is not his ability to convict one of thought crime, although that is repellent enough. The ghastliest evil of the Gospels is that God commands the faithful to rejoice in all the tyranny, crime, outrage and tragedy he is pleased to visit on them. Heaven will balance these debts, says the church, so just bear up, like Job. As Baldwin instructed the youth in his congregation, their “copper, brown, and beige faces” staring up at his, he said he felt he was “committing a crime in talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling them to reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to win the crown of eternal life.” And this is merely the most common social expression of God’s demand for abasement. On an individual level, it is far worse: God creates us sick, the theory goes, and commands us to be well–and to love him for it. This is pure, sadistic evil. If you poisoned your own child with an illness, commanded him to heal himself and then sat back to observe his tears and pain–all the while demanding an endless string of apologies and “I love yous,” you would be guilty of several real and heinous crimes. But God gets a pass. Go figure.
  10. The church is a mask of self-delusion. “When we were told [in church] to love everybody,” Baldwin writes, “I thought that that meant everybody.” But then the pastor told the congregants they should never, under any circumstances yield their bus seats to white people, even a the old or infirm. Although Baldwin appreciated the political salience of this rule, he wondered how it had managed to vanquish the Gospel’s doctrine of radical, transformative love. “What was the point, the purpose of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me?” Baldwin asked. The church’s official promotion of selfless love was really a smokescreen for tribal animosity, Baldwin came to understand–“It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair.”
  11. Religion is an instrument of political power. “The spreading of the Gospel . . . was an absolutely indispensable justification for the planting of the flag,” Baldwin writes. “Priests and nuns and schoolteachers helped to protect and sanctify the power that was so ruthlessly being used by people who were indeed seeking a city, but not one in the heavens, and one to be made, very definitely, by captive hands.” Questioning the authority of the ruling religious ideology by anyone, Baldwin observes, “contests the right of the nations that hold this faith to rule over him.” Challenge the faith, and the state will most certainly come down on you.
  12. Christian civilization has proven to be suicidal. Baldwin shuddered at the horror of the Holocaust, less than a decade gone by when he traveled to Europe to seek a new home in 1950. “Millions of people in the middle of the twentieth century, and in the heart of Europe–God’s citadel–were sent to a death so calculated, so hideous, so prolonged that no age before this enlightened one had been able to imagine it . . . .” But that was not the breaking point for Baldwin. It was the nuclear moment that he said changed “the nature of reality and [brought] into devastating question the true meaning of man’s history.” Christendom was the Leitkultur that produced nuclear weapons as man’s crowning glory. “We have taken this journey, . . . to the threat of universal extinction hanging over all of the world,” Baldwin writes, “and arrived at this place in God’s name.” What kind of God was that to crown mankind in this way?

So there are only 12 stations of the cross, not 14, in my re-reading of Baldwin’s path to liberation. So be it. Two more might weary the point.

And what is the point? That you cannot pattern your life on any of the frauds perpetrated in holy books–that you are much better off trying to make your own way even if you feel unmoored from tradition and set off alone from the people around you.

In another essay, “In Search of a Majority,” Baldwin showed, however, that he had not entirely dropped the concept of God despite his very public renunciation of Christianity. But he qualified that the idea needed to be made bigger. He wrote:

To be with God is really to be involved with some enormous, overwhelming desire, and joy, and power which you cannot control, which controls you. I conceive of my own life as a journey toward something I do not understand, in which the going toward, makes me better. I conceive of God, in fact, as a means of liberation and not a means to control others.

Something I do not understand, in which the going toward, makes me better. Amen.

Review of “The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900 – 1914” by Philipp Blom


The French have been crazy about bicycles since day one. No sooner had they produced sleek, new sporting bikes in 1899 than they invented the Tour de France, just four years later, to race them. On machines that looked like ten-speeds still look today, the Tour champions zoomed down hills and mountains at 60 mph. Crowds turned out in the thousands to see them.

And the crowds bought their own bikes too. Not those Victorian contraptions with the comically huge front wheel ridden by men with bowler hats, but new machines that looked like what the champions rode. And just like that, ordinary people could really go places. They might not zoom down hills at 60 mph, but they could get on their bikes and reach destinations of their choice at a fraction of the walking time, and on their own schedule. It was a gusher of freedom. How much freedom?

In 1912 a writer in the journal Je sais tout (“I know all”), a popular science magazine, calculated that you would have to be 15 meters (50 feet) tall to walk as fast as a bicycle would carry you. To match a train’s speed, you’d have to be 51 m (168 ft) tall.

It’s enough to give you vertigo.

In turn-of -the-century Europe, society wasn’t changing in small increments anymore. It was changing dramatically, and overnight. The thing about social change, even when fraught and palpable, is that the people going through it can only have the vaguest sense of what it all means. What, for example, does the current “datafication of everything” portend for us denizens of the early 21st century?–We have no idea.

Although I like to believe that we have such a large, generous, and knowledgeable set of public intellectuals at our disposal that we at least can learn from them what kinds of questions to pose about the future, we are probably not much better off than Europeans were in 1914 when it comes to getting a grip on what is really happening to us and what’s waiting around the corner. You would have to live long enough to read the history books of the future, the books that explain large-scale change.

Philipp Blom’s The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900 – 1914 is an outstanding exemplar of this kind of book. Published in 2010, it makes two wonderfully simple propositions: (1) that social change in turn-of-the-century Europe happened so fast and on such a large scale that it was fundamentally disorienting for European civilization, and (2) that the era of this dramatic change is best understood without the (usual) baggage of hindsight.

Yes, we all know what was waiting around the corner for Europeans in 1914, and we can too easily think of the march to World War One as inevitable. But the years Blom narrates were a dreadfully anxious time, and the thing about anxiety is that it occurs because things are not inevitable. Anxiety is literally a fear of what might happen. We can really only get inside the skins of Europeans in 1914, Blom argues, if we do our utmost to imagine how deeply uncertain they felt about their future and, even, present.

Europeans had ample reason to feel uncertain at the turn of the 20th century. For Britons, simply the passing of Queen Victoria’s 64-year reign in 1901 signaled that whatever had seemed permanent and good and established could vanish in an instant. Great Britain’s statesmen went from confidently believing “that the British race is the greatest of the governing races that the world has ever seen,” (as Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain put it) to nearly being beaten by a band of Dutch-South African farmers in the Boer war. Then there was generally having to clean up the messes of the louche, feckless King Edward. As land came to be replaced by raw materials and financial services as the main source of wealth in Britain, the aristocracy, in the space of a generation, lost its 400-year old grip on power.

France was coming off a series of territory-losing wars that marked its fall from scientific, cultural and military preeminence in Europe. To compensate for its very public decline, Paris ruthlessly conquered colonies in Africa, Asia and South America, and, in falsely convicting Dreyfus for espionage, created a grand conspiracy theory that said Europe’s Jews were moneyed outsiders who constantly connived against the native establishment. Et voila: there was a new, multipurpose enemy to be blamed for whatever ailed European societies.

Germany, on the other hand, was on the climb. Formed from various German-speaking principalities only in 1871, Germany’s wealth, population, and industrial output were eclipsing its neighbors at a dizzying speed by 1900. Its emperor, Wilhelm II, was known as Wilhelm the Sudden. He enjoyed stoking the engine of the imperial train’s locomotive to the maximum, sometimes pushing it to its full speed of 145 kph. Wilhelm traveled eight months out of the year, raced yachts, forced his guests to do calisthenics with him. Blom writes, he “had a famously short attention span and constantly wanted to do something.”

In Russia, the Tsar was testing the core proposition of feudalism, which seeks to know how deeply the poor can be immiserated without provoking violent revolt. For the 99 percent, Russia was a cauldron of misery. There were no state schools, illiteracy was the given condition of the masses, and peasants worked the famously unforgiving land without reward. They moved to the city to work in factories and lived like animals, kept so ignorant they could not organize politically despite living cheek by jowl. Women were the most repressed of all: they absorbed the all fury of the violent, alcoholic men undone by the Tsar’s system of mass exploitation.

Though westerners tend to recall the Communist Revolution of 1917 as the day Russia changed, Blom reminds us that that sudden-seeming event was actually the culmination of a tectonic shift that started with the peasant revolution of 1905. That was the day Tsar Nicholas II (only 1/128th part Russian) received the answer to feudalism’s core proposition about keeping the people down. He ignored it. On 22 January 1905, later known as Bloody Sunday, tens of thousands of peasants marched on Nichlas’s palace in St. Petersburg to beg him for the tiniest scraps of democratic rule and workers’ rights. His troops fired on the peasants, and he arrested their leaders, including Father Gapon, a priest who cried out, “There is no God! There is no Tsar!” Just like that, in the course of a week, the idea was born among Russia’s poorest that they need no longer believe the two myths that had propped up feudalism’s power for centuries.

Much of this captains-and-kings history of Europe has been covered in, not least, Barbara Tuchman’s miraculously great 1966 book, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890 – 1914. (This would be one of my 100 desert island books, by the way.) Where Blom breaks new trail is in his exploration of the undercurrents of European society and the inner workings of–for lack of a better term–the European mind. Everyone was going a little crazy in fin-de-siecle Europe, and some were going very crazy.

Blom devotes an entire chapter to one particular insane person, the German schoolteacher Ernst Wagner from near Stuttgart. One day in September 1913, Wagner woke up, killed his wife and four children, and then calmly went about the rest of his day. He was arrested and tried, of course, but was not executed, as would have been common for such a crime in Wilhelmine Germany. Instead he was institutionalized and studied. By the time Wagner died, 25 years after his crime, he was in regular correspondence with his therapist and, from all appearances, was contrite and nearly sane again.

Naturally, Wagner’s case induced a bout of national soul searching. How had such an advanced, well-governed, culturally gifted society as Germany’s produced such a cold monster? If Wagner, the very picture of a good, docile Bürger, could snap in such a spectacular way, couldn’t anyone?

For Blom, Wagner’s personality was a petri dish of all the strains and anxieties eating away at Europeans since 1900. Moral disorientation was one of these. Writing between 1872 and 1888, Nietzsche had shattered confidence in the Christian morality that had guided Europe’s elites and commoners alike since Charlemagne. Moral “laws,” Nietzsche argued, were really just social fictions backed up by nothing more than the will of those who imposed them. There were no rules decreed by heaven anymore. It was Wagner’s getting dressed and carrying on with the rest of his day after the massacre that illustrated what a fully emancipated, post-Nietzschean man might look like, a man who authored his own moral laws and suffered no compunction over applying them ruthlessly.

One of the reasons Wagner was kept alive by the German state was academic. He proved to be a trove of fascinating information for specialists–an educated, forthcoming man who could describe what it was like to go murderously mad. Since Freud’s publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, psychoanalysts across Europe had adopted a whole new paradigm of the human personality that saw it as a miasma of hidden motives and influences, many of them dark, sexual, and violent. Freud prepared Europeans intellectually to accept that their streets were teeming with repressed rapists and murderers, and Wagner brought this lesson crashing home in a visceral way. The fact that he later regained his sanity–or at least a semblance of it–proved more disquieting than reassuring. Had he been sick and then cured, or did he show Europeans that there is a morass of criminal drives inside them all, and a “normal” human life may course in and out of this dark territory?

Further, Wagner’s case showed how European men were being increasingly unmanned, in more ways than one. First, industrial technology and deskwork were rendering masculine physical strength obsolete. Women, suddenly, could do the same work as men, and wanted to. Medical science helped this trend along, providing reliable contraception and safer abortion techniques. Blom underlines that the suffragist movement took off like a rocket as soon as women began to grab hold of a real stake in the world of making and doing and thinking that had always belonged to men. So, it wasn’t just that Wagner’s job wasn’t as safe as it used to be–his whole social realm was poised to be wrested from men’s control.

Second, the increasing specialization of work meant that men no longer plied trades that provided them the feedback of well-made physical products or anointed them with a craftsman’s identity. Labor became alienated. The new men went to an office or stood on an assembly line where their “job” was to integrate with a system, which had its own, bureaucratically defined criteria. Frederick Taylor, the American champion of managerial efficiency, urged this model on Europeans like a prophet, exhorting them, “In the past, Man has been first. In the future the system must be first.” There could hardly have been a louder clarion call announcing the priorities of the 20th century.

One of the responses of European men was, I suppose, to be expected. Threatened in their very masculinity, they manned up. Blom reports that Europe’s streets in this era were filled as never before with bearded, uniformed men, many seeking to fight duels. Most German industrialists joined the reserve officer corp, and almost all civilian officials had military-style uniforms. Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II converted large ranks of military officers to civil servants, grandly uniformed but unqualified to fill their new roles. Europe’s military men also enlisted industry to produce bigger, badder weapons of all kinds. Germany and Great Britain vied intensely to outdo each other’s battleships, contributing directly to a broader European arms race.

Not yet at war with each other, European armies turned their weapons for the time being on colonial territories in Africa and Asia. But they didn’t just occupy lands, dictate laws, and extract resources. They killed defenseless civilians on a massive scale. King Leopold II of Belgium slaughtered as many as 10 million Congolese between 1885 and 1908, enslaving millions more. Germany, coming late to the Africa game, killed as many as 125,000 Hereros and Namaqua in its colony of Namibia. Modern, wholesale sadism was also in the mind of Ernst Wagner, who wrote copiously about his act of familial slaughter in 1913. What he realy wanted to do, he said, was to destroy the world, or at least rid it of people he considered useless. “I wish I were a giant as big and tall as the mass of the universe,” he wrote, “I would take a glowing pike and would poke it into the body of the earth.” He went on:

A comprehensive reform of humanity is imperative. . . . I have a sharp eye for everything sick and weak. If you make me the executioner no bacillus shall escape. I can take 25 million Germans on my conscience without it being even one gram heavier than before. . . . Pity [for] the weak, the sick, the crippled is crime, is first and foremost a crime against those who are pitied themselves.

Wagner’s family was pitiable, yes, but that was, in his mind, perhaps the main reason they needed to die. How did Europe come to this, where an obscure, insane murderer spoke the fever dreams aloud that would shape the continent’s history for 30 years and cause the death (in a dark coincidence) of 25 million people? It was no simple matter of national strongmen killing their enemies en masse. Europe had lost faith in its own civilization–and lost it so completely that it nearly had to commit suicide before it would regain its senses.

Blom writes, European civilization wound down for a combination of reasons that were immensely complex but clearly interrelated. At the bottom of the unwinding, there was a loss of faith in mankind’s ability to know himself and his world. This crisis of unknowing was the pivot on which all the disruptive trends of the era turned–the drive for speed, the mad militarization, the proliferation of media, the systems-building, the great shifts in wealth and ruling power. As science peered deeper into reality at the turn of the century, it began to discover, for the first time in history, not illuminating facts but deeper mysteries: the subconscious, the atom, the gene, the relativity of space-time, the inscrutability of language. Blom summarizes, in the incisive final chapter of The Vertigo Years:

The new world taking shape in the 1900s was a creature of reason, of experts and scientists, statisticians and engineers. Until this era, reason had demystified the world, tearing away the veils of superstition in the tradition of Descartes, Hume and Kant. . . . Now reason no longer fulfilled this function. . . . If reason was not providing certainty but breaking it down, salvation must lie in instinct, in primeval forces, many intellectuals proclaimed.

In a speech in 1923 Virginia Woolf claimed, somewhat boldly, that human nature itself had changed–and in 1910 at that. “All human relations have shifted,” Woolf announced, “those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” Blom reports throughout The Vertigo Years on how artists were kicking out at this baffling, comprehensive change and giving it shape even as it was happening. From the weird, crashing atonality of Schonberg’s symphonies to the wild, expressive shaman shapes of Kandinsky’s paintings, something was deeply astir in human nature in 1910, and Woolf may have come as close as anyone to guessing what it was.

“The identities of the ‘new’ men and women of this time,” Blom concludes, “were always torn between old loyalties and new aspirations, between nostalgia and social reality. They were transitory and haunted by fragility, by decline, by impotence, . . . . Change occurred too fast; rationality had outstripped experience.” Change has been happening at an even faster pace since 1914. We should take courage that civilization is still here, but we should also take caution at what civilization can do to itself in times of doubt. If it is not too morbid, perhaps any group, any tribe, any nation would do well to recall that Ernst Wagner killed his whole family and declaimed lunatic prophecies to justify his crimes before he started to wake up and become sane again.

Vaclav Havel: Living Within the Truth


A few days ago I wrote about Václav Havel’s ingenious analysis of post-totalitarian political culture in his 1978 pamphlet “The Power of the Powerless.”

The main point was that, under a post-totalitarian system, masses of ordinary people could be brought to participate willingly in their own disenfranchisement. The Soviets figured out that they could run a state in a way that made it too inconvenient for people to be their authentic selves or stand up for what they believed in.

Yes, of course there was real terror at the base of Soviet system, but Moscow’s big discovery was that most of the time it wasn’t necessary: they could get people to go along with the system out of habit. By the time a peasant or factory worker woke up and realized they’d been mouthing slogans they didn’t believe for decades, there was just too much water under the bridge to bother changing. Besides, they always knew they could get that midnight knock at the door if they got too far out of line.

In today’s post, I will focus on Havel’s call to reject this mode of life and politics. The antidote to living within a lie is to live instead within the truth.

It sounds too easy.

Just live within the truth? Havel must mean something more than that you simply stop believing falsehoods and start believing the truth instead. To be quite specific, he meant you should stop mouthing those slogans you never believed in–what we might today call performative obedience. But Havel wasn’t really focused on what you literally believed or disbelieved. His concern was how individuals’ lives could be–and were–submerged in a swamp of performative obedience. His interest was in the question whether people lived in conformity with the whole program of government lies.

The answer to the question, How does one live within the truth?, for Havel, is a paradox.  To resist a system, you must start by having your own, inviolable life. You create such a life on the basis of things you know to be true. These things become impervious to official lies.

But this answer just pushes the question back one step. How does one build a life of inviolable truths? Math, after all, consists of inviolable truths. Should one become a mathematician?

Well, Havel points out, there’s something to that. Mathematicians might just make good dissidents. When Havel looked at Czechoslovakia’s budding resistance movement in 1977, he saw that “a ‘dissident’ is simply a physicist, a sociologist, a worker, a poet, individuals who are merely doing what they feel they must and, consequently, who find themselves in open conflict with the regime.”

Havel young
Václav Havel (Image: Radio Free Europe)

Another dissident Havel knew was a beer brewer. He typified what Havel called the “small-scale work” of dissent. He stood out because he was an excellent brewer, and he wanted the brewery (where Havel worked at the time) to produce excellent beer. Driven by inner priorities, he analyzed the problems of his workplace and made recommendations. The brewer’s assumption that his colleagues shared his desire to do better made everyone around him uncomfortable, including the power structures of the Communist Party. He was labeled a “political saboteur” and stripped of the little authority he possessed. He had, Havel wrote, “come up against the wall of the post-totalitarian system.” Just by trying to brew good beer.

No one, of course, consciously constructs their lives with this kind of function in mind. No one brews beer, plays guitar, models with clay or writes sonnets primarily to defy the government. But done with integrity, Havel argues, leading lives fueled by disciplined, creative energy has this effect nonetheless. As he puts it, “every piece of good work is an indirect criticism of bad politics.” Here is the paradox of living within the truth restated, more directly this time: To be your best political self, you must cultivate a robustly apolitical self.

Dissent comes from a realm that Havel called the “pre-political.”

I turn, as I so often do, to Orwell to add depth to this idea.

In 1941 Orwell was worried that Great Britain would cave to Nazi Germany and accommodate the wave of fascism rolling across Europe. But curiously, Orwell wasn’t that worried. He thought  the English, although capable of making peace with fascists, could never be very good fascists themselves. Why not? Among other things, Orwell wrote (in “England Your England”), they would laugh at the way fascists march. It was part of the English national character, he explained, to scorn in-your-face military swagger:

One rapid but fairly sure guide to the social atmosphere of a country is the parade-step of its army. A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim. Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would laugh. Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army.

The matter of what one finds ridiculous is deeply encoded in your character, seemingly as an instinct. What you hold in laughable contempt says volumes about who you are at your pre-political core.

What was it about the English in 1941 that Orwell thought set them against fascist theatricality at this basic level? Part of it is that the English did not and simply could not lead the kind of lives that could be invigilated in every detail by some overweening authority. Britons were too full of their own ideas and pursuits. And it was not important that these ideas and pursuits be lofty, which they emphatically were not, in Orwell’s estimation. What is important about the lives of the English is that they were theirs. Orwell writes:

[A]nother English characteristic which is so much a part of us that we barely notice it . . .  is the addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life. We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’. The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above. . . . Like all other modern people, the English are in process of being numbered, labelled, conscripted, ‘co-ordinated’. But the pull of their impulses is in the other direction, and the kind of regimentation that can be imposed on them will be modified in consequence. No party rallies, no Youth Movements, no coloured shirts, no Jew-baiting or ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations. No Gestapo either, in all probability.

Wait. Is Orwell, the great political thinker, honestly telling us that the English are good libertarians because they do crosswords and collect stamps? Orwell’s greatness, though, often consists in seeing what is right in front of his nose. The fact that the English were accustomed to having lives of their own–so much so they were not even aware of their condition–did not make the private sphere any less sacred or special. It made it more sacred and special, something worth guarding and sacrificing for.

For Havel, the oppressiveness of the communist regime made it abundantly clear what it felt like to be deprived of a private self. It was the same thing Orwell noticed but without having to be oppressed: “Individuals,” Havel reflected, “can be alienated from themselves only because there is something in them to alienate. The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence.”

Why do totalitarian governments form corporate states, a vast apparatus crowded with youth clubs and holiday camps and and ministries of culture, and that sort of thing? Because they want their citizens to assemble their entire identities from component parts that are optimized by the regime for surveillance and control. They don’t want excellent brewers or even Orwell’s humble stamp collectors, because such people are doing their own thing. Totalitarian systems are allergic to privacy, a hidden sphere of being. Havel writes that a totalitarian government “is perfectly aware of the potential power of ‘living within the truth’ rooted in the hidden sphere, and well aware too of the kind of world ‘dissent’ grows out of: the everyday human world, the world of daily tension between the aims of life and the aims of the system.” So it tries its best to abolish the everyday human world.

In a 2006 letter, Kurt Vonnegut had this advice to give to five students of St. Xavier High School of New York:

Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seen from the perspective of Havel and Orwell, this was deeply political advice. Because when you follow your inner imperatives, when you discover and express who you are in a way that makes your soul grow, you can be assured there is an authority somewhere who dislikes what you’re doing. Your inner excellence is an indirect criticism of their bad politics.

I should note that the Soviet Communist Party was not the only organization in the world that stood to benefit by abolishing privacy and shaping the component parts from which an obedient citizen is expected to build their lives. Our system does this too, with a smiling, indulgent face. Ours is no Soviet system based in state terror (at least for most of us); it hollows out lives and wastes them rather than repressing them or killing them outright. Our system gives us mass culture, bad food, the menace of gun violence everywhere, and public environments built for cars and corporations rather than people, and we voluntarily assemble our lives from these parts. We convince ourselves the parts are great because, aren’t we great, and aren’t we made of those things?

Every time I go for a “good” walk in the suburbs, I indirectly critique bad politics in the way Havel foresaw. The sidewalks, you see, do not connect with one another in the suburbs. They appear and disappear. They don’t go anywhere. Isn’t a sidewalk a kind of path? And aren’t paths by definition supposed to go somewhere? I cannot try to go for a good walk without pointing up the badness of the policies that led to the sidewalks’ design. This complaint on its own seems trifling, but it is connected to a host other objections to be raised about the built environment. Together, these complaints indicate a lie, in which we are constantly pressured to live. That lie is: the built environment is for humans. In reality, though, the aims of the system diverge from the aims of life: the system is not for humans. Pretending otherwise is humiliating, because people are not meant to accept lies as the framework of their lives.

So walking becomes a way of living within the truth.

There’s one last thing I think Havel would want us to know about living within the truth; it is a project that can be taken up immediately. This is because, as Havel notes, it is an answer to a sense of responsibility, and responsibility is something we carry with us everywhere. In this regard, the decision to live within the truth is like Christianity’s notion of a sudden conversion. Just like Christianity, Havel writes, living within the truth “is a point of departure for me here and now–but only because anyone, anywhere, at any time, may avail themselves of it.”

Vonnegut emphasizes this too. Once you ascertain the best thing about life–that it is irrevocably yours–you may act on this good news immediately. Right after encouraging the students of St. Xavier High to grow their souls through art, Vonnegut exhorts them, “Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of [your teacher], and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.”

Notice one more thing. That list of “artwork” looks a lot like Orwell’s catalog of private English pursuits–so humble and ordinary! All those things are connected up with what Havel calls the “aims of life.” Pursue them with discipline and vision and you will eventually find yourself in conflict with the aims of the system. To live within the truth by making your soul grow is a refusal to identify with the system; it is a refusal to be the system. There is nothing more important than this.




Dipshit Nation: A Photo Essay


Sometimes a picture really does say it all. Like this one:


The man in the photograph, if you do not know him, is Jerry Falwell, Jr. He’s a rich, famous evangelist who charges pious, eager minds $22,000 a year to receive moral instruction at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Virginia. He runs the place, under the same “holy orders” as his dad before him.

He is a dipshit, as you can see in the picture–or so I will argue in a moment.

But first, I’d like to give that term–dipshit–some philosophical depth. Consider my effort a small gesture in the same spirit as Harry G. Frankfurt’s admirable 2005 book that developed the pungent but vague idea of bullshit into a precise, usable concept.

The first qualification for being a dipshit is that one must look like one. I am aware of the non-scientific, indeed, question-begging nature of this criterion. Bear with me though. For half a century, the idea that criminals had criminal faces was a going scientific theory, thanks to Cesare Lombroso. In his influential 1876 book Criminal Man, Lombroso wrote that the wrong kind of face was a sure sign of criminality and could even indicate a “love of orgies and the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim, but to mutilate the corpse, tear its flesh, and drink its blood.” It was a picturesque theory.

Anyway, guided by Lombroso’s thinking, for years and years police actually harassed and arrested people for the way they looked. Lucky that doesn’t happen anymore.

While Lombroso was eventually debunked as a criminologist, I bravely advance a variant of his theory that still awaits falsification. How can you tell a dipshit? Start by looking at his face. I mean, check out Falwell up there. And if his companion burns with a higher wattage of intelligence, she has taken special care to conceal it.

Which brings me to the next criterion. A dipshit is a special kind of stupid. By this I do not mean that his mind is an entirely vacant house. He is more of a middling ignoramus, but of a certain brand. The dipshit is a bold, aggressive fighter for the kind of intellectual solipsism that Alexis de Tocqueville observed among Americans. “In most of the operations of the mind,” Tocqueville wrote, “each American appeals only to the individual effort of his own understanding.” In the 19th century, Americans treated matters of epistemology as matters of politics, asserting that, in a free country, their knowledge claims were as good as anyone else’s. It mattered not whether those claims were based in proven common sense, hoary superstition, or outlandish religious fantasies. What mattered is that they were honestly come by in a country of free and equal citizens.

Today this attitude has become supercharged. Tom Nichols, in his timely and insightful 2018 book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, argues that what used to be a special political attitude toward knowledge has become a kind of deranged existential stance that encompasses one’s whole identity. Americans still believe, as Nichols puts it, that “having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion about anything must be accepted as equal to anyone else’s.” But now people take personal offense at expertise. Nichols writes, “The issue is not indifference to established knowledge; it’s the emergence of a positive hostility to such knowledge.” The dipshit puts himself vocally and visibly in the service of this hostility.

But surely we can recognize a kind of rebellious, ragged glory in this individualism. Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true.” Aren’t the people I’m scorning as dipshits actually following an inner light, living authentically as “students of real life,” or some such?

No. Being a reactionary simpleton is a choice, made brazenly in the face of demonstrably better options. It is not the same thing as being an honest, average Joe who navigates life’s trials with zeal and conviction, learning along the way. This voluntarism is a distinguishing mark of the dipshit.

The dipshit is (just) conscious of the great repository of human knowledge that helps us flourish. Thanks to this knowledge, surgeries get done, airplanes keep flying, and teachers continue to teach our kids how to calculate standard deviation. But the dipshit’s refusal to harmonize his life with a culture whose collective knowledge dwarfs and ennobles his own is a deliberate act of self-trivialization. He hates and fears the most open-ended part of being human–the ability to learn, and the dependency on others we experience as learners. We should no more flinch from naming the dipshit as such than H.L. Mencken hesitated to call out the “lesser sort” of man, who shouted hosannas to drown out science and poetry. Mencken’s lesser man may not know what a philistine is, but he is an expert at being one.

One of the Bible’s most beautiful, inspiring verses, Philippians 4:8, is an ode to not being a philistine. It runs, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” The dipshit sneers at this attitude. If shouting it down doesn’t dispel it, he may wave a gun in the face of its champions. You will recognize the dipshit by his hostility to the Philippian virtues.

Finally–and this is more of a corollary to the main criteria, not a criterion as such–to be a dipshit is to earn permanent obloquy. There is no coming back from it. This is because, unlike crimes or sins, which deserve serious attention that can result in judgment, dipshittery is a base, clownish thing that sits inert, unadjudicated by decent folk. It is a low-pressure mass in the soul, unable to attract the freshening winds of moral deliberation.

Dante illustrated ingeniously that sins have varying degrees of seriousness. To offend gravely brings grave consequences. Alas, there can even be a kind of grandness to evil, just as there can be transcendent mercy in forgiveness. Furthermore, serious evil can be didactic, as anyone who has read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky knows (I am thinking especially of the “Rebellion” chapter). The dipshit has no acquaintance with this moral register. Unaccustomed to engaging in matters of any moral weight, he retains the stench of cheapness until he dies.

Well, that’s the outline of the thing. Now, on to cases.

I have already anticipated much of what I would wish to say about Reverend Falwell, above. Again, he certainly looks like a dipshit, something his students and acolytes should try harder to appreciate. Unfortunately, they will get hung up on other things–his state of undress, the drink in his hand, and the overall lewdness of the mise en scene. They err, as usual.

The real offense of Falwell consists, not in the license he takes, but in his expectation that his followers will adore him in public and thereby collude in his fraudulent increase of wealth and power. It is not enough that Falwell fleeces his sheep for millions of dollars a year. He clearly believes he has debased them so far that he can get a lusty “Hell yeah!” from them when he tweets out his creepy idea of what real Christian men get up to on their yachts. His deepest dipshittery consists in his belief that his followers are as crass and stupid as he is. I don’t know, maybe they are. That would be a shame.

Mark and Patricia McCloskey of St. Louis (Image: NPR)

And here we have Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who brandished their guns at Black Lives Matter protesters in June.

Dipshit face? My computer lacks a font large enough to check that box appropriately, at least for Mark. He displays a mastery of the form. Patricia, in a more mysterious frame of mind, is vacantly scanning the middle-distance, possibly lost in contemplation of some secret pain. If her reverie were to let her hand drift just five degrees husband-ward, though, this scene could be down one dipshit. They probably should have take more gun-brandishing lessons.

gun guy 2
Brandon Lewis in Richmond, Virginia, January 20th 2020 (Image: 13News)

Maybe from this guy? Honestly I kind of hate to call him a dipshit. There are like a dozen pictures of him on the internet, and he looks this jolly in all of them. Which doesn’t jibe with the rest of his appearance, that of a sketchy special forces soldier who, after an unwanted discharge followed by a years-long Krispy Kreme jag, finds occasion to line up the scope of his sniper rifle on your chest and then put a hole the size of a coffee can through it. Which is what the Barrett M28A1 rifle is for. And, yes, the helmet is for special operators; it’s so they can hear better. Plus it’s pretty light.

But back to the man himself. His name is Brandon Lewis, and he owns a gun shop in New York. It is with a sigh that I do, in fact, pronounce him a dipshit. By gathering together with other putative gun rights protesters in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital city of the Confederacy, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he put himself oafishly at the service of a cause that could not fail to threaten and demean African Americans. If he wishes his real cause, whatever it is, to receive due attention, he should write a letter or give a speech, not dress up as Commander McFeed, First Special Reconnaissance Detachment of Gastronomie Directe.

demon sperm dr
Dr. Stella Immanuel (Image: Religion Dispatches)

Okay, I’m not trying to duck the hard part of the job here (you know, writing), but I think a short formula should serve the case of Stella Immanuel. She’s the doctor who went on national TV to defy pretty much all the public health measures that have proven effective at limiting the spread of COVID-19 so far. So here’s the formula: Belief in demon sperm + doctor × steps of National Capitol = Dipshit.

Still, Immanuel strains against the stated criteria in two ways. For one, if she is a real doctor, she risks doing actual harm by advocating batshit crazy healthcare ideas and amplifying the Trump administration’s panorama of bullshit about the virus. It is one thing to have slack-jawed yokels sound off about serious matters that impact the health of millions, but to have a credentialed expert do so?–Immanuel certainly deserves the same airy disregard we give the dipshit, but she also calls for professional rebuke and sanction. She should know, and act, better.

As to less serious matters, can we honestly ascribe a dipshit’s face to Immanuel? It’s not that I hold back for fear of aggrieving the fair sex. It’s more that Immanuel actually has a pretty charismatic delivery. She shows enough vim that one wishes she actually had a bracing moral or something else of good report to declaim. She could, indeed, be the kind of preacher Abraham Lincoln said he liked–one who appears to be fighting with bees. This is all in contrast to, say, Falwell, who is so loathsome one is almost glad that noble words never find their way through his throat. Were he to speak worthy phrases–which he could only acquire by theft–one feels he should be punished with electric shocks for abusing man’s noblest gift. Let him stick with the mouth slurry that suits his character.

michigan protester
Brian Cash, Michigan protester (Image ABC News)

This guy, Brian Cash, is a tough call, and not just because it’s hard to look like a dipshit while simultaneously doing a viable impression of an enraged wolverine. The crossover is very hard.

Tragically, Cash seems never to have been admonished as a child to say it don’t spray it. The times are not right for expectorating speech. Or, so says the governor of Michigan, whose COVID-19 mask-and-lockdown policies Cash and others were protesting on April 30th, when the picture was taken.

Days later, Cash took an opportunity to explain his overwrought appearance to the media, telling the Detroit Free Press that the photo left out important nuances. Cash was not erupting at the two law officers  mere inches from his face, but at another law officer behind them who, the day before, had been filmed ejecting three protesters from the Michigan State House. The ejected protesters were women, and Cash found the manhandling of them ungallant. In the photo he is inviting the law officer, actually the Sergeant-at-Arms, to assault a real man for a change. Cash clearly intended the encounter to be instructive.

So, let us pass by the fact that Cash had probably not read the findings of Dr. Sima Asadi, et al., in the September 2019 Scientific Reports noting that “Aerosol emission and superemission during human speech increase with voice loudness.” From Asadi et al. it can be deduced that one’s fury droplets do not, like Luke Skywalker’s photon torpedo, travel straight to the object of one’s attention. They disperse, in a cloud-sort-of-dealio. (It’s in the paper.)

Of course one can’t be faulted for the scientific papers one hasn’t read. That’s not what I’m suggesting here. (Although those of us with enough leisure should read more science.) Where Cash takes a hard turn toward Dipshitville is in his militant service of an aggressively stupid political campaign based on childishly simple lies. Of course Cash and his fellows do not believe in COVID-19 (he says as much in his DFP interview). Or, they do believe in it when they say it was sent here by China, but then they go right back to not believing in it.

But this garden variety hypocrisy is only the tip of an enormous iceberg of anti-intelligence. Another nuance the photo of Cash leaves out is the performative accouterments of the gathered protesters, which included military fatigues, nooses, Confederate flags, and, of course, assault rifles. The protesters assembled that day were from a dozen anti-government militias in Michigan. (One political group backing the militias is The Michigan Freedom Fund, recipient of more than half a million dollars in donations from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.)

Guided by canny, connected politicians, the Michigan militias are trying to flip the script of the small-government, gun rights movement. Despite appearances to the contrary, they say they are not white nationalists, but rather color-blind freedom fighters resisting any and all government overreach. In a remarkable profile of the movement, New Yorker journalist Luke Mogelson recently observed that many militia members see themselves on the verge of a new revolutionary war to re-establish the liberty of all citizens. I repeat: they actually think they are getting ready to wage war against the United States. Officially, the militias are about freedom broadly construed, not just White gun rights. “We want gay married couples adopting Chinese kids to be able to protect their marijuana fields with their machine guns,” a Boogaloo militia member told Mogelson.

In reality, though, the movement’s White Christian identitarian instincts cast a long shadow. When BLM protesters asked to join the militias in a June demonstration in Lansing (actually on the eve of Juneteenth, a date likely chosen to offend BLM), the BLM partners were tentatively accepted but then, when it turned out the form of government overreach they were there to protest was the excessive policing of black Americans, they were shouted down, insulted (as “thugs” and “gangbangers”), and hustled off the scene. The white militias instead cheered the police, whom they had flamed just weeks earlier as pro-mask, fascist stormtroopers. Times do change, rapidly sometimes.

It takes a whole heap of stupid to believe (and perform) the lie that Michigan’s militias are color-blind freedom fighters and that their cause is in any way enlightened by political principle. Cash, and a literal army of fellow dipshits, kick in with this supply of stupid, amply. What is required is the ability to ignore historical nuances (that word again) like these, noted by Mogelson, which capture the scale of the militias’ lie perfectly:

According to [the militias’ libertarian] narrative, police brutality against African-Americans, and the weaponization of law enforcement to suppress Black activism, were not manifestations of institutional racism; rather, they arose from the same infidelity to American principles of individual freedom that, in our time, defines the political left. The false equivalency of the anti-lockdown movement with the civil-rights movement appeals to the libertarian conviction that all government interference is inherently oppressive. It also elides the fact that the civil-rights movement demanded government interference on behalf of oppressed people.

The dishonesty is enough to make you spitting mad.

mypillow guy
Mike Lindell, dipshit

Maybe rest is what we need. Which is where Mike Lindell could come in to help. He makes the world’s best pillow, or so he says. Many of his customers agree. They sleep like babies, they say. The problem with Lindell is, he wants us to end our 244 year-old secular republic and replace it with a theocracy.

Well, it goes against my character, but I’ll play this game for a moment. Let’s consider that theocracy. If you’re going to have an established religion, I say have one with some oomph or grandeur to it. Give me an ancient, Latin-speaking pope grasping his throne with cruel old eagle-claws–someone who openly wants to dominate and says what he means.

Not this simpering, pray-for-a-good-parking spot, Jesus-make-me-rich evangelism of suburban megachurches with their book stores and cappuccino bars. The evangelical megachurch movement is not just a deranged outgrowth of low culture; it shows clear signs of debauched cruelty. Have you heard the “Christian pop” music played in its houses of worship or on the radio stations they spawn? It can only have been conceived by people who wish for the very idea of sound to be hateful to human beings. Give me old-time hymns any day, in which the singers melodiously entreat God to bring mankind’s suffering to end. They do not create that suffering anew.

But it is precisely this crassest, most demeaning and rebarbative form of religion that is in pole position to become our established church, as Lindell would have it. His dipshittery is emblematic of the whole sorry lot who share his enthusiasm.

In the picture above, Lindell is the business guy with 18 chins in the blue suit. No, not the business guy with 18 chins and blue suit trying to use x-ray vision to stealthily check out  the wiener of the first guy in the blue suit. The guy with the mic. That guy. That’s Lindell. In March this year he said the following about Donald Trump’s election:

God answered our millions of prayers and gave us grace and a miracle happened on November 8, 2016. We were given a second chance and time granted to get our country back on track with our conservative values and getting people saved in Jesus’ name. As I stand before you today, I see the greatest president in history. Of course he is; he was chosen by God.

So, it takes a real dipshit to still believe in the divine right of kings, right? I mean, we did not just fight wars (one of which lasted 30 years) to suppress the wickedness of this idea, but we actually reached a point where we saw it for what it was–a ridiculous fabrication. But when Lindell says Trump was elected, he means that in more way than one. (Actually I’m probably giving him too much credit, so let’s say we can easily understand a double entendré there even if Lindell doesn’t know what one is.)

As with any rich person who gets involved in political campaigning, we must always ask why the getting of money is supposed to qualify anyone to comment on anything other than the getting of money. In a news interview on August 18th, Lindell exercised his rich-guy license to comment right up to the edge of dipshittery as I’ve defined it. Challenged on how he could in good faith promote an untested herbal medicine to treat COVID-19, on which he stands to profit immensely, Lindell ranted for a full 10 minutes that his motives were divinely sanctioned, he had a Christian heart, and that sort of thing. He was also fulsome in his adoration of his demigod, Trump.

Drearily, I could go on. But you get the picture. I’ll close for now.

Religion has taught us that that it can be therapeutic to name your enemies. There’s nothing so testing of the soul like contending in the dark with demons you can’t see. I hope I have breathed new life into an old term that helps with the job of naming, and seeing, some of them.


Vaclav Havel and the Post-Totalitarian System: Living Within a Lie


Ever since I read George Orwell’s essay “Charles Dickens” and then immediately read it again, I’ve known that great literature is always political.

Dickens was constantly probing social problems in his novels, and he clearly thought they could be remedied by individual effort alone. Soften the heart and open the pocketbook of some tightfisted tycoon, he believed, and you could do a bit to alleviate poverty and hunger, stop child labor, improve education, and so on, at least in one green little corner of England.

“[Dickens’s] whole ‘message,'” Orwell writes in his eponymous essay, “is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.” Take Scrooge. He wakes up Christmas morning a harrowed and morally changed man. How do we know this? He gives the Cratchits a goose and some cash. For Dickens, this small act of generosity makes the world a better place.

I suppose it does, but does it address the deeper problem of endemic poverty? What England really needed was a tax-spend-and-regulate government that prevented Scrooge’s exploitation of the Cratchits and other poor people to begin with. And why did Tiny Tim have to be pitiable to earn Scrooge’s charity? Wasn’t it enough that he was a human child, with or without the crutches?

Orwell believes Dickens’s emphasis on sentimental, individual morality is the reason his hopes for improving society are so limited. “There is no clear sign,” that Orwell can see in Dickens’s writings, “that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature.’ It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system.”

Recently I’ve been re-reading some of the classics of 20th century central European liberation literature. These include Adam Michnik’s 1985 Letters from Prison and Ceslaw Milosz’s 1953 The Captive Mind. At the glowing core of this genre, for me, is Vaclav Havel’s 1978 pamphlet The Power of the Powerless, a wellspring of deeply humane wisdom that remains electrifying 42 years after its publication. Havel’s analysis of totalitarian political culture still illuminates what is wrong with our system as a system even today. It shows that we still have demons to cast out even in the post-communist world.

(Image: Penguin Random House)

Havel’s fundamental claim in The Power of the Powerless is that the people of central Europe living under Soviet dominion in 1978 existed, not as you might expect a dissident to say, under a totalitarian system, but rather under a post-totalitarian system. What does he mean by this?

Before I go into definitions, let me put my first card clearly on the table. Havel’s diagnosis of post-totalitarian politics applies to Americans today. That’s why I’m writing about it. Although our system is clearly not as bad as the Soviet one, it exhibits many of the same characteristics in embryonic form. More to the point, our system is based on the same fundamental proposition as the Soviet system was–the government tries to buy the people’s enduring loyalty by causing the provision of enough material goods.

If you would like a simple historical reference that helps keep this point in mind, recall the famous “Kitchen Debate” of 1959. That was when Nixon and Kruschev met in Moscow to compare the comfort and purchasing power of their citizens in terms of kitchen conveniences. Even though the communist economy consistently under-performed western capitalism on such quality-of-life scores, Havel writes that it is crucial to remember Moscow nonetheless accepted the comparisons as a valid measure of performance. “What we have here [behind the Iron Curtain],” Havel writes, “is simply another form of the consumer industrial society, with all its concomitant social, intellectual, and psychological consequences.” In other words, communists and capitalists were never as utterly different as they made themselves out to be. Moscow wanted to show its followers they were materially better off for being communists, and Washington wanted to do the same by capitalism.

So with this commonality in mind, let’s look at what Havel means by a post-totalitarian system; if such a system seeped its way into the basic bond between government and citizen then, under communism, it could happen today under capitalism.

In a classic dictatorship, Havel writes, governing authority is based on a dominant personality and is geographically circumscribed in the place where the dictator can exercise the full force of his charisma. Although fascism was becoming a broad political movement in 1930s western Europe, Hitler, to take the classic example, was never going to rule Italy directly as its dictator. Mussolini was required, to declaim in Italian from a wrought iron-railed Roman balcone about the glories of Rome, and so forth. Each man’s power was based on nationalism, which has borders on the map and a particular ethos and aesthetic.

Another feature of a classic dictatorship for Havel was the pivotal role of armed security forces. Although dictators start out popular (sometimes, at least), their lasting authority “derives ultimately from the numbers and the armed might of [their] soldiers and police.” Coercive force is everything for a strong man. (For a case study in how charisma and armed force fit together to form a classic dictatorship, see the life and career of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. He was a walking, talking definition of what Havel meant by a classic dictator.)

Havel identifies four ways in which Soviet communism differed from classic dictatorship and, in a sense, moved beyond the old model:

  1. The ideology of post-totalitarian systems has potentially global appeal and therefore competes for global influence. The point of its struggle is to master the world. And although Soviet communist ideology germinated in a small ideological center in Moscow, it had indeed spread over much of the globe by the time it was entrenched in Havel’s Czechoslovakia.
  2. While the authority of classic dictatorship depends on the ephemeral appeal of personalities, and is therefore unstable and insecure, post-totalitarian systems are rooted in real, historical movements that have (or once had) popular legitimacy. As Havel writes of Soviet communism, “Even though our dictatorship has long since alienated itself completely from the social movements that gave birth to it, the authenticity of these movements . . . give it undeniable historicity.”
  3. The governing “philosophy” of a post-totalitarian system is precise, adaptable, and comprehensive, which makes it valid across changing times and circumstances. It is, Havel writes, like a state religion, which answers all life’s questions and to which one can convert with a subjectively genuine feeling of conviction and enlightenment. The post-totalitarian system wants its citizens to feel like rational agents who choose the state’s ideology freely, not subjugated drones.
  4. In a post-totalitarian system, the means of exercising authority are comprehensively prescribed in a body of established laws and regulations. This is unlike a classic dictatorship, in which improvisations can be made at the ruler’s whim and government officials have to constantly update their operating directives accordingly. (Think of how utterly unpredictable North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un is and how assiduously his underlings must constantly change step to stay in line with him.) In a post-totalitarian system, a state official occupies a fully-elaborated, logically coherent system, with its priorities and procedure all spelled out. He is what Havel calls a “blind executor” of the system’s internal laws.

This last feature, although it looks ho-hum, is actually the dreadful summation of the first three, more sinister-looking features. Once you have a globally ambitious system that commands mass loyalty (or at least conformity) even without the charisma of a great leader or the direct threat of force, encoding the whole thing in law makes it a recipe for perpetual, self-regulating totalitarianism. This is a new danger in the world. Now, not just an armed brigand or a muscled Big Man can subjugate you, but any wan, anonymous bureaucrat can take your property, send you to prison, dissolve your family, or end your employment and say, “It can’t be helped, friend. This is what the law demands.”

Havel goes on to describe the symptomology of this disease. Even though communism had its pantheon of charismatic revolutionary heroes, by Havel’s lifetime, the job of governance could be, and was, mostly done by faceless functionaries. The system was automatic. It had a life of its own and followed its own aims. The most horrific effect of this transformation was to make each individual’s worth conditional on, and subsumed under, the aims of the system–even while the system gave the people a fake versions of their own lives as “good” communists. The state’s ruling ideology, Havel writes, “offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.”

Furthermore, the subjects of the system are self-policing. They speak in a code of shared loyalty with one another, where one person “helps” another show obedience to the ruling ideology, and the other person returns the help in kind. Havel imagines such an exchange in terms of political slogans. A grocery store manager displays a poster in his store window that says “Workers of the world unite!” But what the sign really means, is “I am obedient, and I have the right to be left in peace.” An office worker enters the grocer’s shop. Just hours before, she hung a similar poster in the hallway of her workplace. Although neither person “means” what the posters say, both display their posters to contribute to the “general panorama” of obedience, under an unspoken diktat. “Each proposes to the other,” Havel writes, “that something be repeated and each accepts the other’s proposal.”

Communism collapsed under the weight of so many lies, it might seem pointless to highlight one or two of them. But it is not. There is one fundamental lie that implicates the subjugated people in the creation of the very power structures that subjugate them. This is the ur-lie.

The state proclaims itself inerrant. Whatever it says or does is correct by definition. Of course people know this is not true. But if they wish to share in any fraction of the state’s power–even the tiny fraction of power required to live in peace–they go along with the state’s mystifications. Some of these mystifications are outright lies, capable of easily being shown false.

But still, people go along to get along. It seems so ordinary. But, Havel tells us, it is not. Going along to get along is what constitutes the post-totalitarian system:

Individuals need not believe all [the government’s] mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.

The bind that decent people find themselves in is this: they genuinely need that small share of the government’s power that allows them to live in peace. They need to go along to get along, tacitly assenting to the slogans that are pasted up in the general panorama, which propagates the myth of an inerrant government.

So it turns out that Charles Dickens was not wrong. The proper target of political literature (and other kinds of moral suasion) is human nature. Any government that demands that its citizens go along with a comprehensive network of lies in the service of some national program is effectively demanding that people debase themselves and, as Havel put it, “part with” their capacity to make moral choices–their dignity. This demand can only be defied one person at a time.

Havel was a miraculously clear writer and moralist. He wrote that if the main evil of a post-totalitarian system is living within a lie, the antidote is to live within the truth. This will be the focus of my next post on this topic.




Corruption Most Foul


At first I thought Gore Vidal just liked writing about whorehouses.

They show up in most of the seven historical novels that make up his “American Chronicles” series. His power characters–politicians, newsmen and captains of industry mostly–patronize brothels time and again. He depicts the goings on in them with an easy fondness.

Aaron Burr, whom Vidal liked for his ambition and canniness, was a regular customer. So were Lincoln’s smart, sensitive young secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay. Vidal even murmurs the rumor that Honest Abe himself caught syphilis in the arms of a professional during his youth in Illinois. This suggestion was loudly excoriated by critics when it appeared in Vidal’s 1984 Lincoln (part of the “American Chronicles” series), but the critics’ anger began losing its righteous edge in 1998 when history proved Vidal right on another supposedly salacious claim about a U.S. president’s sex life. In his 1973 novel Burr, Vidal had insinuated that Thomas Jefferson did not merely enslave Sally Hemings but fathered children by her as well. At the time, Vidal was shouted down, called “meretricious.” Then he was vindicated. Could he have been right about Lincoln too?

I hear Vidal answering, Of course! And furthermore, Who cares? The point of Vidal’s light touch when writing about sex generally and the use of prostitutes by well-connected men specifically is that the activity itself was so blasé, so immaterial to whatever the men’s lasting accomplishments were. Lincoln would still be the best and noblest of U.S. presidents even if the historical record were to reveal that he used a Springfield prostitute in 1840-something.

I was titillated–if that is the right word–to read this week about just how well and thoroughly serviced were the Texas politicians of Samuel Ealy Johnson’s day. Father of Lyndon Johnson, Sam was a Texas state representative on and off between 1905 and 1923. In 1905, Robert Caro reports in The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, it was common for lobbyists to occupy the offices of “their” representatives, drafting laws, making deals, and generally running the business of Texas’s legislature–sometimes even answering roll-call on the floor. So liberated from their duties, the elected representatives spent their time in Austin whorehouses, their rooms, meals and saloon tabs paid for by the lobbyists.  You may look this up for yourself on pages 46 and 47 of Caro’s wonderful book.

To all this I say, “Oh, for the good old days!”

By this I do not mean that I approve of prostitution. (I am a liberal, after all–I don’t think you’re entitled to debase or brutalize someone just because you’ve paid good money to do it.) What I mean is, I wish we could have 1905’s more honest, less harmful level of corruption in our politics today. I reject the wicked and sinister thing we have instead. Let us have Mitch McConnell openly boozing it up 24/7 in a bordello bought and paid for by the Blackstone Group. It would be far better than having him in his actual, scabrous form–scolding the poor over “entitlements,” bleeding them of their meager incomes by shifting the tax burden onto them, and all the time raking in millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains.

The character of Mitch McConnell, Republican Senator of Kentucky, is a matter of public record. There are no secrets behind, say, his 2016 refusal to have the Senate consider Merrick Garland, then-President Obama’s nomination to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. This was a shameless, deliberate dereliction of constitutionally-mandated duty by the Senate majority leader. But because it was excellent politics, McConnell got away with it. One of the reasons it was excellent politics was because it was the equivalent of a white sheriff telling a black man that sundown was coming, and the U.S. Senate was a sundown town: Don’t back-sass, and move along. A certain thirty-five percent of the electorate loved this.

As I say, McConnell is not hard to figure out.

Still, there are always more horrible things to discover about those we already know to be monstrous. The redoubtable Jane Mayer proves this dreary law in her highly insightful profile of McConnell as Trump’s “enabler-in-chief” in the April 20th New Yorker. (Author of the 2017 book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Mayer knows whereof she speaks: it is is the money that politicians receive and spend, and not the things they say, that reveals the truth of where they stand.)

While still a state congressman of humble background in the 1970s, McConnell taught a class at the University of Louisville, Mayer reports, in which he gave his thoughts on the “three things necessary for success in politics,” writing them on the blackboard. They were: money, money, money. McConnell would soon divorce his wife, a bookish historian, and seek a more promising situation. As he told his press secretary at the time, “One of the things I’ve got to do is to marry a rich woman.”

(Image: The Cut)

It was during these years that McConnell began to advocate for the idea that money was a functional equivalent of speech and therefore subject to constitutional protections under the First Amendment. This idea would come to fruition in the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010, which said basically that the rich could buy and buy and buy all the political power they wanted while you must be satisfied with your one measly vote. If there was a single moment in which our republic was sold to the owning class, this was it. And more than any other politician, McConnell made this sale happen. (To be fair, though, the campaign finance machine that McConnell perfected was conceived of and built by LBJ in 1940. See Caro, pp. 627-664.)

But back to McConnell and his wife situation. He eventually succeeded in marrying up. Most Americans probably know that McConnell’s current wife, Elaine Chao, is the Secretary of Transportation, and most Americans probably have a vague sense of how such appointments are made. You don’t need a PhD in poli sci to figure out that being a senator’s spouse can dramatically improve your chances of being asked to join the president’s cabinet. It’s just one of those things.

McConnell and Chao were already doing pretty well money-wise when Chao’s mother died in 2012, leaving the couple $25 million and making McConnell one of the wealthiest members of the Senate. But that’s not quite the end of the story that the money tells.

Much of Chao’s fortune comes from Chinese companies founded by her father, whose connections included Jiang Zemin, the former President of China. Her family members continue to sit on the boards of large Chinese (and U.S.) companies, including one that builds ships, including Chinese warships. When the Trump administration approached Chao in 2016 about her choice of secretary positions, Transportation was what she asked for. Chao could have chosen anything–education, labor, housing, but she chose ships.

Reporting by the New York Times shows Chao has used her cabinet position to build a highly profitable bridge between Chinese businesses and those owned by her family in America. Over the years, Chao’s father and his associates have given McConnell millions in campaign contributions; some of this money would have come from loans made by a Chinese government bank labeled by the Trump administration as a security threat to the United States.

The favors also come in from Mitch’s Legislative Branch. In July 2020, one of the Chao family’s largest companies, the U.S. Foremost Group, received large federal loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, which was guided through the Senate by McConnell. Of course, whatever Foremost got in PPP was likely no more than couch change compared to the corporate tax breaks they’ve enjoyed over the years helped long mightily by son-in-law Mitch. (Don’t call those entitlements, though.)

And if money is political speech, it is Wall Street financiers, not Kentuckians, who say they want McConnell as Kentucky’s senator. According to an article in Salon in July 2019, more than 90 percent of McConnell’s financial backing comes from outside the state, most of it from financial interests in New York. Many of these are umbrellaed under the secretive Blackstone Group. Business donors in red states such as Georgia and Indiana also kick in for Mitch. And McConnell is not only the beneficiary of the national campaign-finance machinery. He runs what Mayer calls the most powerful such machine in U.S. history. Thanks to McConnell, GOP candidates for Congress across the country are elected by moneyed interests from everywhere but their states. (It’s also a fair guess that some of the money, like McConnell’s, comes by way of multinational business from foreign powers opposed to U.S interests.) Altogether, to think of McConnell as representing the people of Kentucky–or of politicians backed by his machine as representing their states–requires a highly creative, or possibly perverse, reinterpretation of democracy.

Everything McConnell does to ensure our republic stays sold to organized money is legal, as far as we know. Likewise, everything he does to enrich himself and his in-laws in the process of carrying out his open campaign of corruption is legal–although the jury might literally convene on this matter sometime in the future. But honestly, the next time McConnell opens his mouth to accuse poor people of playing the system to snag “entitlements,” I’d really rather he just move into the local whorehouse, send the bills to Blackstone, and star in a reality TV show about how much fun he’s having. At least I could respect his honesty.

Careful What You Ask For: A Review of “The Mandibles” by Lionel Shriver


There is a strong case to be made for not reading Lionel Shriver’s 2016 novel The Mandibles right now. It tells a story of catastrophic institutional collapse in America, and it is clearly composed to make you believe it could be describing an immediate future. So, I don’t know, maybe that cuts a little too close to the bone right now. A scenario of imminent institutional collapse is an all too believable present for most of us. Isn’t everyone’s anxiety level already high enough?

I mean, with heavily armed Schutzstaffel troops marauding in the streets of Portland, and a public health “response” to the deadly coronavirus so disjointed and incompetent that it feels like the expression of a national death wish–maybe you’re already maxed out thinking about the apocalypse that’s happening for real.

But then again, what is literature for?

It shows us who we are. And you should always face up to who you are. You might think of a way out.

So, courage! And on with The Mandibles.

It is 2029. The Mandible clan are waiting for their wealthy 97-year old patriarch, Douglas to die and relinquish the family fortune, but Douglas just goes on and on refusing to oblige. One day, over in Russia, Vladimir Putin and a handful of allies band together to create the bancor, the world’s new reserve currency. In so doing, they call out America’s longstanding lie that it ever intends to pay back its gargantuan national debt or could even dig up the necessary cash if it wanted to. Feistily, the U.S. president renounces the debt–just says, in effect, we are not going to repay a single cent: rip up the loan papers.

If it seems shockingly delusional for a debtor–any debtor, let alone a sovereign nation–to think he could simply erase his obligation to repay a loan, I believe that is because Shriver wants us to appreciate something hidden but of great significance about America. For several decades now, at least since Reagan’s Voodoo Economics, we have been in a stealthy, drawn-out process of renouncing our national debt. The president in The Mandibles simply punctuates this decision by articulating it at a particular moment in time and saying it to our creditors’ faces. The fact that in reality Americans have gotten used to a slow-motion debt renunciation over the course of decades should not obscure how outrageous it is that we have simply decided to live on waves of ever-larger loans, essentially kiting checks forever.

(Fun fiscal fact: The World Bank calculates that a country’s debt risks tipping into unrecoverable territory once it reaches 77 percent of GDP. Our national debt is 107 percent of our GDP. This year, the interest alone on our debt is $378 billion. The principal itself is $18 trillion. To date, the rest of the world smiles and nods as the Fed keeps telling the lie that we have the wherewithal to pay this back.)

If you think I’m getting hysterical about the morality of lying, see it the way Shriver sees it. She does no anguished clutching of pearls. The problem with the government’s fiscal dishonesty is not the moral harm of lying. The problem is that money is a shared fiction, and it only has value so long as most of the people believe its authors are telling the truth. If the issuer of a currency is found to be fundamentally not credible, the social consensus on which the currency’s value depends evaporates. It could vanish at any moment, taking the contents of our bank accounts with it.

In The Mandibles, the dollar plummets in reaction to Putin’s ploy, jobs disappear, and the U.S. economy goes into free-fall, with no sight of the bottom. Washington can secure no more loans. Douglas Mandible loses everything. Oh, he still has his stocks, but they are denominated in dollars, which have become worthless. The bancor has done its work. The Mandibles, and the U.S. government, are poor.


Like many great novelists, Shriver tells her tale through the lens of a family. Macroecononics, after all, is a pretty dull thing unless it’s ruining people’s lives, and the family is an ideal crucible for drawing out the human effects of impoverishment. As the locus for gathering and spending so many life-giving resources, the family is where macroeconomics comes home to roost, so to speak.

Douglas has three children, with families of their own. Oldest son Carter is a newspaperman who, at 74, has aged out of the profession but cannot retire to Montana until his dad takes the, erm, Big Retirement. Carter is a decent man, but feels he is owed something for his life of decency.

Carter’s daughter Florence is the story’s heroine. As the only Mandible who owns more stuff–a house in Brooklyn–than paper at the time of the collapse, she eventually has to take in the rest of the Mandibles, whose dollars, stocks and bonds have disappeared. Her aunt, Nollie, is an opinionated novelist who has been living in France most of her life. (No need to wonder who she is: Nollie is an anagram for Lionel, an opinionated novelist who’s been living in England most of her life.)

Florence’s insufferable brother-in-law, Lowell, is a Georgetown economist who, having lost his job, explains to the other Mandibles, and the reader, how things were supposed to work according to classic economic theory. Everything will correct, he says. He holes up in the basement and writes a platitudinous tract on this subject while the other Mandibles face the dreadful new normal, which includes armed grocery shopping, scavenging cloth for “ass napkins” (toilet paper is gone), and caring personally for (now) 99-year old Douglas and his dementia-stricken wife. As the only characters who have ever had to cope with a less-than upper-middle class existence before the crisis, Florence and her can-do husband Esteban lead the clan in keeping body and soul together. Shriver is a wonderful observer of how slightly off the world seems when women have economic power rather than men, and this theme comes out strongly in Florence.

The pivotal character of The Mandibles is Florence’s 14-year old son Willing. He understands the fictional nature of, not just money, but all the other conventions that hold society together. These include table manners, library cards, sales contracts, prohibitions on murder, and so forth. To Willing, the vaunted eternal truths of civilized peoples are just things we’ve made up ad hoc and sanctified with fancy origin stories.

At the depth of his family’s desperation, Brooklyn has become a frenzied lawless zone, ravaged by the desperate poor. The police, unable to cope with ubiquitous crime, fade away. Willing mugs a 10-year old for the groceries he’s carrying, not because he’s evil, as he tells his mom, but because only people who adapt get to eat.

While the family’s adults keep on thinking in terms of the society they are watching disappear–There’s gotta be a law against this anarchy!–Willing is several steps ahead of them, adapting to the new reality. One night, a formerly nice family from down the street comes, armed, to dispossess the Mandibles of their home. Willing, who has been thieving for several weeks to put food on the family’s table and is now used to thinking fast on his feet, quickly concludes that the house-jacking is a blessing in disguise. The city is falling apart, he reasons, and the thieves are doing the Mandibles a favor by expelling them toward escape. Packing his meager possessions at gunpoint, Lowell, the economist, rages at the injustice, that the “protection of private property is the primary responsibility of the state!” But Willing smiles to himself at this PhD’s blindness and soliloquizes, “Some people just couldn’t shift their paradigm.”

Paradigms: they are funny things. So weighty, and yet as light and wispy as our imaginations.

In his 1985 novel Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut paints much the same picture of the fragility of a paper economy as Shriver does in The Mandibles, but with a dark whimsy that is worth recalling. In Vonnegut’s future society, a million years hence, human brains have devolved and can no longer sustain belief in abstractions such as money. And thank god. People are back to spearing porpoises and trading coconuts, which has worked out well. The only famines in this new reality are good, honest ones in which the food has actually run out. The cause of the 1985 apocalypse in Galapagos was an extinction-level starve-off that turned out to be, in Vonnegut’s terms, “simply the latest in a series of murderous twentieth century catastrophes which had originated entirely in human brains.” The famine was caused by a financial collapse and thus was

as purely a product of oversize brains as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It was all in people’s heads. People had simply changed their opinions of paper wealth, but, for all practical purposes, the planet might as well have been knocked out of orbit by a meteor the size of Luxembourg.

Vonnegut reminds us just how weak the foundations of social reality were back in the 1985 of Galapagos, when humanity was perched on the edge of financial ruin. He observes, “Mere opinions, in fact, were as likely to govern people’s actions as hard evidence, and were subject to sudden reversals as hard evidence never would be. . . . [P]aper money could be traded for food, clothing and shelter in one moment and line the bottom of a birdcage in the next . . . .”

In Shriver’s novel of financial apocalypse, the heroes persevere and win their way back to a kind of normality. It is not much like the old normality, at least in terms of national wealth, but the bedrock institutions of society do come back into view, dimly. Starvation recedes, under an affordable supply of chick peas and grasshopper protein paste. The United States claws back a viable if much reduced economy consisting of mostly service jobs. Cash is abolished, and everyone is implanted with a digital chip that both enables and monitors all their transactions, including taxes. With such expanded monitoring powers in place, the police can do their jobs again, and do so with relish.

Willing chafes under this new regime of e-tyranny and in 2047 leads most of the Mandible clan’s younger generation to resettle in the United State of Nevada, which has seceded from the union. The USN promises its citizens lives of austere freedom and taxes them a flat rate of ten percent. A grizzled old booster summarizes the clean protestantism of the new life in 10 percent Nevada:

No Medicaid-subsidized nursing homes. No so-called safety net. Every citizen in this rough-and-tumble republic gotta walk the high wire with nada underneath but the cold hard ground. Trip up? Somebody who care about you catch you, or you fall on your ass.

Bracing, but one must think this Brave New Man has never heard of cancer or liver failure or diabetes.

What I like about Galapagos is that Vonnegut literally has his characters and the whole mise en scene revert to the state of nature. In his imagined future, there has been no reboot of the social contract, only a wiping clean of society’s slate. The reader gapes at the things that are missing: law, cities, armies, bottled drinks, all of it.

In The Mandibles, Shriver lets the reader observe the hasty regeneration of society and draw her own conclusions about what its foundations consist in. But make no mistake. The story-telling angle may be different, but the status of the “bedrock” beliefs that make up society are no less ethereal for Shriver than they are for Vonnegut. It’s all castles in the air. Looking back at the collapse of 2029 and the resurgence of institutions since then, Shriver has Lowell reflect bitterly on what has been lost. He “was incensed by how readily the rest of his crowd gave up on standard procedure. It was when you neither believed in systems, nor employed the tools of systems, that the systems broke down for good.” The systems–from banks to companies to colleges to money–have no objective reality. Although they determine almost everything of significance about our lives, they do not exist absent our belief in them.

On its surface, The Mandibles is a warning to Americans that our country could go broke the same way people do–gradually and then suddenly. It is a gripping, courageous, and occasionally humorous look at economic Armageddon through the eyes of a family that had every conventional reason to believe their slice of the pie was safe, despite cracks in the foundations spidering around them.

But on a deeper level, The Mandibles should remind us that money is only one of many shared fictions that stabilize society and safeguard the possibility of human decency. At the very bottom of these fictions is the most powerful one of all, from which all the rest of them spring. It is the Hobbesian social contract, the willingness of each individual to surrender his right to lethal force to a mutually recognized authority. You either have a war of all against all, or you have the police. You can’t have both. Society, with all its wealth and order and comfort, depends for its existence on our (admittedly risky) commitment to stop being savages.

But we Americans have always half-assed the social contract. We’ve never bought all the way in. We retain a romantic attachment to the idea that we each star in a heroic drama that may require us to shoot our way out of trouble. The trouble may come from bears, red Indians, street thugs, home invaders, or the federal government, but we reserve the right to an armed showdown with them. We have always said: Fuck the police.

In a recent essay for the New Yorker on the invention of another shared fiction, the police, the historian Jill Lepore gives context to the ongoing conflict between the police and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. The violence between the two sides is the result of an arms race that springs from our steadfast refusal to enter and abide by the social contract. Alone among “civilized” countries, we prefer the social fiction that life is best as an armed struggle over other social fictions in which the police are entrusted with a monopoly on violence. Lepore writes:

American police are armed to the teeth, with more than seven billion dollars’ worth of surplus military equipment off-loaded by the Pentagon to eight thousand law-enforcement agencies since 1997. At the same time, they face the most heavily armed civilian population in the world: one in three Americans owns a gun, typically more than one. Gun violence undermines civilian life and debases everyone. A study found that, given the ravages of stress, white male police officers in Buffalo have a life expectancy twenty-two years shorter than that of the average American male. The debate about policing also has to do with all the money that’s spent paying heavily armed agents of the state to do things that they aren’t trained to do and that other institutions would do better. History haunts this debate like a bullet-riddled ghost.

The Mandibles is a story about the fragility of all the conventions that make up civilized society. And money is a great attention getter. I can see why Shriver chose it as the focal point of her novel. Tell prosperous people they really could go broke over night, and they just may sit up and listen to the rest of what you have to say.

But the real message of The Mandibles (and Vonnegut’s Galapagos, for that matter) is how selective Americans are in their commitments to the whole range of bedrock social fictions, even highly useful ones. We have a state, which indicates at least a latent desire for the goods of the social contract, but we also have romantic vision of ourselves as armed guardians of our dreams. We want the social contract, but we also want an escape clause. The fact that we are witnessing the dissolution of our society on our streets should warn us to be careful of what we ask for. In Lepore’s hard, crystalline phrase, the savage commitment to all-against-all violence that expresses itself in our gun culture debases us all. It makes us unworthy of the civilization we purport to want. There are much better fictions we could have chosen.

As always, my review is a personal one. You may enjoy these reviews of The Mandibles by professional journalists and critics. To keep my thoughts fresh, I avoided reading them before writing my own review.


The New Yorker

The Guardian

The New York Times

The Economist




My Country Right and Wrong: A Review of “Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography” by David S. Reynolds


I’ll be the the first to admit I can be kind of a grump in these pages. I’m constantly bemoaning how badly my country fails to live up to its ideals.

Just last week I was writing about how horrible it was that we adopted greed as our national ideology in the 1980s and school shootings became our defining trait in the 90s. I often contend that most Americans are too fatheaded to see how indecent our society has become. With the cheapest of bribes–junk food, reality TV, violent spectacle, gameshow religion, and so forth–the established powers buy our bovine loyalty. And they ensure  a generous supply of guns, drugs, and booze for the self-euthanizing of the weak, the useless, whoever can’t hack.

See? There I go again.

I think I make it pretty clear, though, that my scolding is done in the spirit of self-improvement. My critique is a measure of respect for our principles. If I didn’t care so much about our failure to live up to our ideals, I wouldn’t bother with all the anguished soul searching.

Still, here’s a thought: If you were in a relationship with someone who was constantly berating you for your moral failures and who was assuring you they wouldn’t be so critical if they didn’t love you so much, wouldn’t you want to hear their positive case for being in the relationship? Don’t we all need to hear a simple, heartfelt “I love you” now and then?

Well, America will get by with or without my professions of love. But still, I wonder sometimes why this part of the relationship is so much harder for me than the Maoist program of self-criticism. If I believe, as Abraham Lincoln did, that our union consists not just in adherence to a set of philosophical principles, but in “bonds of affection,” should I not feel that affection–a simple, untroubled fondness for my country?

Feeling are morally significant after all. Aristotle wrote that being virtuous is a matter of choosing the best action and doing so on the basis of good character. But that is not the end of the story. Having a good character should not just inform our choice of actions (like, say, an algorithm could), but should also implicate an experience of corresponding emotions, which Aristotle’s expositors call “proper moral affect.” For Aristotle, a true patriot would not just make patriotic choices based on critical study of right and wrong but would also feel the emotions appropriate to patriotism, primarily as love of one’s country.

Do I ever really feel this? Yes, I do.

The America that I love is the America of Walt Whitman. I was reminded of this this week as I was reading David Reynolds’s absolutely superb 1995 book, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. It tells in scholarly and loving detail how Whitman’s writings created a therapeutic image of a joyous, unified, benevolent America out of the elements of a fracturing society in the 1850s.


The last time I read Leaves of Grass, four or five years ago, I was so overwhelmed by the feeling it exuded of confident patriotism that I forgot how deeply divided the country was as Whitman was writing it. As I read, I pictured America simply as the lush Arcadia was painting in his poems. But this was not the actual state of the nation. The country was in deep trouble, and Whitman was forging an overt, calculated work of propaganda to try to keep it from falling apart.

A little context is needed here. In 1854 Whitman was in the midst of preparing the first edition of Leaves of Grass for publication, to come out the following year. As events unfolded, the 1855 edition and the next two–in 1856 and 1860–would all be framed by America’s deepening political crisis and Whitman’s evolving attitude toward it. Whitman thought Leaves of Grass could be the thing to save America, but the damage was mounting fast, and the America that needed saving kept changing right in front of his eyes.

In May of 1854 Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which called for any new states admitted to the union to hold popular referendums on the legality of slavery. The law overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had said there would be no new slave states north of the 36°30′ parallel, period. Thugs from Missouri crossed into Kansas in November 1854 and March 1855 to vote for pro-slavery governments, paving the way for Kansas to become a slave state.

Things were coming to a head across the country. In Boston on July 4th 1854, famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison burned the U.S. Constitution after a court ruled that Anthony Burns, an escaped slave, must be returned to his Virginia owner in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act. Deploring the failure of U.S. institutions to stand up to the South’s power, Whitman agitated for something close to open revolt in the streets. In his notebook he wrote that the Fugitive Slave Act was “to be defied in all parts of These States, . . . by speech, by pen, and, if need be, by the bullet and the sword.” In his poetry, soon to be published, he wrote, “Agitation is the test of the goodness and solidness of all politics and laws and institutions.– If they cannot stand it, there is no genuine life in them, and they shall die.”

Whitman had very recently been a stalwart of the Democratic party and and advocate of orderly political participation, but as the country spun into disarray in 1854, he came more to believe in a free-flowing populism that would overthrow and replace party politics. He saw a potential saving power in the masses, “the tens of thousands of young men, the mechanics, the writers, &c. &c. In all this, under and behind all the bosh of regular politicians, there burns, almost with fierceness, the divine fire which more or less, during all ages, has only waited a chance to leap forth and confound the calculations of tyrants.” The citizens would be the heart and soul of his poem.

But the divine fire of civil liberation wasn’t the only spirit burning in America as Whitman was preparing the second, much larger edition of Leaves of Grass. In May 1856, Missouri ruffians again crossed into Kansas, and in Lawrence they kidnapped several free-state politicians, burned their houses, and destroyed the printing presses of two free-state newspapers. After Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner called the marauders the “drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization” and condemned his South Carolinian colleague Andrew Butler for serving “harlot slavery,” the same cause as the Missouri thugs’, Butler’s cousin Preston Brooks walked into the Senate chamber and beat Sumner nearly to death with a gold-headed cane. Two days later, in Pottawatomie, Kansas, the radical abolitionist John Brown hit back at pro-slavery forces, massacring five pro-slavery settlers with homemade broadswords. Kansas was bleeding; the nation had no political center.

And so in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman strained even harder to try to stop America from tearing itself apart. The new collection was, Reynolds writes, more scattershot in its approach–offering something for everyone–and more polarized in its content. In a new poem, “Respondez,” Whitman condemns the republic to the ruin he seems to believe it deserves after the infamy of the Burns decision, the caning of Sumner, and the bloodletting of Pottawatomie. “Let there be no God!” he writes; “Let all the men of These States stand aside for a few smouchers! Let the few seize on what they choose! Let the rest gawk, giggle, starve, obey. . . . Let the infidels of These States laugh all faith away. / Let the white person again tread the black person under his heel!” (A smoucher is a greedy-guts, usually with political connections in Whitman’s writings.)

But then in the same volume, Whitman swings to the other pole, trying even more earnestly to bring America back from rock bottom. In another new poem, “Song of the Broad-Axe,” Whitman proffers new, more soaring visions of popular sovereignty as a mystical force, capable of replacing politics. Going straight to the point, he writes, “I see the headsman withdraw and become useless, . . .” The masses in Whitman’s nation are competent to take charge and purge the old system. He sees an America where “the slave ceases, and the master of slaves ceases, / Where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons, / . . . Where outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority, / Where the citizen is always the head and ideal, . . . ” Ordinary people built America, Whitman says, so let them run it.

But America’s downward spiral continued, even as disappointing reviews came in for the 1856 Leaves of Grass, spurring Whitman to form up for still another charge. By the time the next edition came out in 1860, events were making a political solution to America’s deepening crisis appear even more remote. In 1857 the U.S Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that slaves were not citizens, based on their race, and thus were deprived of any possible legal protections of their rights. In October 1859, after relocating from Kansas, John Brown launched his doomed attempt to spark a slave revolt by seizing the U.S. armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He was captured and hanged. Politically, there seemed no hope even for a clear, decisive contest between pro- and anti-slavery forces at the ballot box: four candidates crowded the field for the following year’s presidential election, virtually guaranteeing the winner would lack majority support. Indeed this came to pass. When Abraham Lincoln was elected, he won less than 40 percent of the vote, and he didn’t even appear on the ballots of ten southern states. Whitman didn’t like him. (Although he would come to revere Lincoln later.)

Through all this trouble and murk, Reynolds relates, Whitman tried to legislate the mystical unity of Americans by poetic fiat. (“What I assume, you will assume.”) And his words have such power, they almost pull it off. The America he describes in this most forceful, expansive edition of Leaves of Grass is the one I love. It overflows with natural beauty, material wealth, purposeful work, selfless affection, sexual freedom, marshal determination, artistic novelty, scientific curiosity, everything that can make a people bold, dignified and large-spirited.

So it might not be simple, but it is heartfelt: here is my “I love you.” I owe much of it to Whitman, and to his America, which Reynolds limns so expertly.

Before all other qualities, the America that I love is a written country. We have inscribed and printed everything that says who we are. Our Declaration of Independence is a letter to the world. The debate over how to put our independence into action and make it compatible with freedom is contained the Federalist Papers. Nothing less than the Constitution followed. The meaning of our revolution for the world is boldly set forth in Thomas Paine’s essays. Frederick Douglass’s autobiography indicts our besetting sin of slavery and demands our republic rid itself of it. The Seneca Falls Declaration proclaims the equality of women as inherent in our founding principles and deserving of constitutional protection. Whitman’s belief that a written work would be the thing to save the nation was completely in keeping with our best and deepest traditions as a country that was written into being. I would love America best of all countries for this quality alone. (And, I would add, Whitman’s poetry continues the writing of America.)

Second, my America guards the sanctity of conscience. Because it takes in people of all faiths, America encompasses all faiths. We share a broad, generous vision of ecumenism, where many countries have an established religion instead. This goes well beyond the polite tolerance of other faiths or the hyphenization of them as “American.” American ecumenism, for Whitman, is the very ur-ground of all religion, the center of man’s universal search for meaning. We contain multitudes. Whitman effuses, “I adopt each theory, myth, god, and demi-god, / I see that the old accounts, bibles, genealogies are true, without exception.” Even further, Whitman holds up of an ideal of an American “[w]ho believes not only in our globe with its sun and moon, but in other globes with their suns and moons.” All new, as-yet uninvented faiths are also possible here.

As a liberal democrat, these are sacred pronouncements for me. They say to the whole world, come to America, because here your conscience reigns supreme. Your thoughts will not be policed; you may lead an inviolable life seeking whatever essential purposes you choose. I, Matt Herbert, might have hearty contempt for the particular articles of humankind’s religions (and I do), but I have the ultimate regard for the privacy of conscience from which they spring. When I stand up for your right to believe, I do so with the same, full affirmation as Whitman, adopting each of your theories, myths, gods, and demi-gods.

Third, the America I love is growing, dynamic and prosperous. In Whitman’s lifetime, the population of the United States grew six times faster than the rest of the world, Reynolds points out, reaching 30 million by 1860. Our national wealth grew from $8.4 billion in 1850 to nearly $50 billion in 1880. Whitman’s father was a carpenter in Brooklyn, where Walt spent most of his working life (for a while as a house builder himself), and where the family felt this growth rate personally. It was dizzying. Brooklyn’s population skyrocketed from 40,000 in 1840 to 250,000 when the first edition of Leaves of Grass came out in 1855. And while the city faced all the usual challenges that come with explosive urban growth, it evolved government institutions that met those challenges. Whitman believed then, and I believe now, that dynamic growth gives ordinary people the opportunity for adventure and purpose, grand enough for celebrating in poems. After the Civil War, large corporations drove growth on a new scale, which Whitman praised in his 1871 “Song of the Exposition”:

I raise a voice for far superber themes for poets and for art,
To exalt the present and the real,
To teach the average man the glory of his daily walk and trade,
To sing in songs how exercise and chemical life are never to be
To manual work for each and all, to plough, hoe, dig,
To plant and tend the tree, the berry, vegetables, flowers,
For every man to see to it that he really do something, for every
woman too;
To use the hammer and the saw, (rip, or cross-cut,)
To cultivate a turn for carpentering, plastering, painting,
To work as tailor, tailoress, nurse, hostler, porter,
To invent a little, something ingenious, to aid the washing, cook-
ing, cleaning,
And hold it no disgrace to take a hand at them themselves.

Finally, my America has an urban cultural core, which I cherish. Those of you who know me at all might wonder where this is coming from. I grew up in rural Missouri, 10 miles outside the closest town, which had 360 people. And when I felt like escaping that scene, which I assuredly did, I went west, to seek adventure under the high, arid skies of America’s desert and mountain wildernesses. The parts of America I still long to see are great, lonely spaces–Glacier National Park, Montana, the mountains of southeast Alaska, Wyoming’s Wind Rivers. Nature is and will always be restorative for me; my American heart will always beat somewhere west of the Rocky Mountains’ Front Range.

But the city fuels the life of the mind. Socrates taught in Athens, not on some god-forsaken rock outcrop of an island. I didn’t live in my first city until grad school in Chicago, and that happened late in life, at 29, but it changed me. Today I would not choose a hometown that lacked bustle or, more importantly, pedestrian access to the things that stimulate the mind–libraries, schools, theaters, museums, stadiums, monuments, bars, cafes, train stations, harbors, and, yes, businesses of all kinds. I’m a convert. My heart may beat in the big-sky wilderness, but my mind hums in the city. Americans in Whitman’s day certainly felt the pull of urbanization. Only 6.5 of Americans lived in cities in 1830, but 22 percent did by 1880.

The most fascinating part of reading Walt Whitman’s America is seeing how all the elements of our culture that Whitman would synthesize into a national poem came to him in our most vibrant city, New York. Everything he needed to fire his vision was within a short walk of his newspaper office. An archetypal image of Whitman that’s easy to muster is him striding across the whole of the country taking everything in, from prairie to bayou to mountaintop to metropolis. But this never happened. Except for a nine-month job in New Orleans, Whitman really only worked out of Brooklyn, frequently taking the ferry into Manhattan to go the theater or whoop it up with young roughs from the Bowery. From his urban cockpit, he drew in all things current and American: Quakerism, political oratory, hokey pop music, sensational journalism, daguerreotype technology, high and low theater, minstrel shows, tent-revival religion, the quackery of spiritualism, pseudo-science such as phrenology and harmonialism, new biology, the transcendental philosophy of Emerson, and more. Had Whitman not lived in America’s buzziest city, his poetic vision would have been that much less. City life made Whitman, and Whitman, in his way, made America.

I’d like to leave this “I love you” at that, but I can’t. There are too many caveats, and Reynolds does such a masterful job of helping us understand them that I cannot let them go unmentioned.

Just as America was changing rapidly right before Whitman’s eyes in the crucial decade he was writing and revising Leaves of Grass, it has continued to change. It still does, even faster. Some of the cultural sources that Whitman drew on in the 1850s to compose his vision of a harmonious, bountiful, self-confident America no longer exist. Much of this change has been for the good: who needs phrenology or Christian Science anymore? But there are other losses that ache. Since the America I love is basically Whitman’s America, I have to say I mourn some of the things now departed.

For one thing, labor is now thoroughly alienated. Jobs are not as meaningful as they were in Whitman’s time; nor are they likely to be as secure or subjectively satisfying. For most people today, work simply cannot form the basis of a compelling, dignified life narrative. Many of the physical tasks about which Whitman rhapsodizes–say digging or hoeing–are no longer invigorating parts of holistic professions but have been isolated for efficiency’s sake and made the focal point of shit jobs–jobs so hard, unpleasant, repetitive, or mind-numbing they will only be done by the most surplus of surplus labor. Think Caesar Chavez’s grape pickers. Others of us have bullshit jobs–organizational busy work (admittedly sometimes demanding and well-paid) that serves no discernably human purpose and leaves no mark on the world worth having. If your job is described primarily using buzzwords (say, “data-driven content manager”), chances are you have a bullshit job. Gig work, which may incorporate elements of shit- and bullshit jobs, presents symptoms of a grievous new pathology that designs maximal precariousness into work.

I’m not trying to berate anyone here for working for their living. The point is only this: Today, a much smaller portion of the laboring masses knows what their job is for or how it connects to a wider community or an essential purpose of humanity. These things were hardly mysterious in Whitman’s time. If you were a dairy farmer, you got milk from cows for people to drink. And significantly, you did the whole job, from raising the cows to contracting with a dairy to come buy the milk and take it away. Today, if you are one of the 1,200 employees of the country’s largest dairy farm, you’re either stuck in accounting, or you specialize in dosing the cows with hormones and antibiotics. Maybe you put on a hazmat suit and remove excrement eight hours a day–literally a shit job. Point is, your usefulness to wider society has shrunk to the same vanishing point as that of Henry Ford’s assembly-line drone who affixes doodad A to doodad B.

So why is this important? The saving power that Whitman perceived in ordinary Americans lay precisely in their work identities. Late in life, he even thought the great, engrossing work of professionals would be America’s crowning glory. He wrote of this in millennial terms:

A new worship I sing,

You engineers, you architects, machinists, yours.

[. . .]

After the great captains and engineers have accomplished their work,

After noble inventors, after the scientist, the chemist, the

geologist, the ethnologist.

Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,

The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

Even in Whitman’s simpler, bardic visions, he thought an America that was working purposively was united–“singing.” His choice of a working man’s garb reflected his faith that “beneath the ‘scum’ of social rulers lay the hearty goodness of average workers.” Reynolds also records how, when the young Whitman started learning the newspaper business in the 1840s, an editor ran the whole show, from the nuts and bolts of type-setting to reportage, to choosing a business model and selling ad space. This was how Whitman learned to work, as someone who saw the whole value of his job, to himself and others.

So that’s all gone. Or rather, meaningful work is now so unevenly distributed in complex societies that its social capital threatens to vanish altogether. The optimist in me says we can (in fact must) look elsewhere for the elements of our individual identities–the basis of political action. But I don’t feel optimistic. Right now my analysis of the future of work is pretty much the same as Yuval Noah Harari’s, who believes that technology will keep taking our jobs and depriving us of stable professions. Constant, frenetic “retooling” awaits us all. My main fear for my children’s generation is that they will lack the inhuman level of resilience and flexibility required to cope with the coming cascade of disruptions to the very idea of work. We sit on the edge of this deluge now. We are, at present, coming to grips with the prospect of having a growing class of useless people. In fifty years, the useless class will claim the large majority of us. What then? Americans, like everyone else, lack the wisdom to answer this question.

Which brings me to my second caveat. Whitman believed American society was so great that even the common man shared in the life of the national mind, by a kind of instinct, or possibly through the overflow of surplus genius. In his poem “Great Are the Myths,” Whitman claims that mere peasants have equal access to the guiding ideas of civilization, the same as the judge, the politician, the philosopher, or the master of industry: “Justice is not settled by legislators and laws, . . . it is in the soul. / . . . the great includes the less.” Reynolds’s analysis of this idea of socio-cognitive equality is illuminating. He writes, “Whitman’s emphasis on the common denominators of experience–the earth, sleep, work, sex, and the appetites–shows him trying to regain fundamental laws that are unarguable and sound.”

In fact, today there is a nearly hermetic barrier between the informed and the ignorant in America, so complete that it threatens to dissolve our bonds of social solidarity. It is Whitman’s idea of intellectual osmosis that has proven to be a myth. We are still a written country, and America produces an embarrassment of riches in all sectors of expertise, in history, economics, technology, and sciences hard and soft. The publication of books that present complex, trenchant and deeply informed analysis of vital issues (along with idle considerations of “mere” curiosities) is truly astounding here. The provision of a stupendously large body of knowledge in the English language is an unremarked glory of civilization (there, I said something nice). But provision does not mean proliferation.

The truth is, the “less,” who were supposedly included in the “great” in Whitman’s poem, have been even further demoted in the information age. They are now less than the less. In 1850 America outshone the whole rest of the world in literacy, and surging improvements in public education brought the dream of informed intelligence within any citizen’s reach. America published, sold and read more books than any other nation by far. Lectures were a popular form of entertainment for goodness sake. Crowds attended them.

Today there is a yawning informational class difference in America, which is abetted and reinforced by the political and financial elite. I am not just talking about Americans getting dumber, a statistical artifact of our having gotten smarter in the recent past. There is something diabolical afoot. The artful defunding of public schools, the provision of fake- and pro-regime news (along with, crucially, the deliberate, reckless razing of epistemological standards for distinguishing information intended to be true from schlock that is meant to be false), and the swamping of the American mind with aggressively stupid low culture–these are the main tools of the power elite for ensuring a large majority of our citizens either actively resist being informed or lack the capacity to understand any public affairs of significance.

When Whitman, a successful newspaper editor who never graduated high school, professed his belief that the “less” could join with the “great,” it was credible that the less literate–those who filled America’s one-room school houses and the city streets’ schools of hard knocks–were oriented on the same horizon of human knowledge that was heroically being advanced by (American) expertise. Today, Americans exercise the “freedom to choose” other horizons, which are not defined by overweening “experts.” And increasingly, they see this choice as a virtuous one, in line with an “American” conception of freedom. If you find this claim extraordinary and therefore in need of extraordinary evidence, behold, right in front of your eyes: a whole class of Americans so ghoulishly committed to the cause of ignorance they are flirting with mass suicide rather than taking simple steps proven to promote public health in the current pandemic. (I might have saved my breath and just said: see COVID-19 parties.)

One more thing needs to be said in the way of a caveat. Whitman got race and slavery entirely wrong, and to that extent, his genius has limited healing power for us today. Although he protested the Fugitive Slave Act loudly in 1855, his basic political cause was–like the early Lincoln’s–unionism, not abolitionism. In his later years, Whitman became more socially conservative and was unapologetically racist. In many parts of Walt Whitman’s America, Reynolds tries to portray Whitman as splitting a political difference that made sense at the time, recording, for instance, Whitman maintaining “a moderate course on the slavery issue.”

So this last caveat ends up being a good one. The America we have today says there is no moderate course on slavery or racism. We are all radicals now, thank goodness. The America we lost, Whitman’s America, was in many ways well and truly worth losing. We have not just kept the republic that Whitman wanted to hold onto, we have transformed it into something better, something closer to what we said it was in the beginning when we wrote our letter to the world proclaiming that all men are created equal.

Still, when I read Whitman’s poems, especially from Leaves of Grass, I can’t help feeling he remains a giant. He is still at the center of our country’s troubled spiritual life, as his friend John Burroughs felt when he wrote, “America–my country–I fear I should utterly despair of it. [Whitman] justifies it, redeems it, gives it dignity and grandeur, bears it all on his shoulders, as Atlas the Earth.” Whitman thought “every atom belonging to me as good as belong to you.” So if he once held up the country, dignified it, redeemed it, composed the vision of what it could and ought to be, that job now belongs to all of us, who are made up of his atoms. I think he would be happy with that.

As usual, I avoided reading any other reviews so I could keep my thoughts fresh. You may like these reviews by professional critics:

The New York Times

Publishers Weekly

The National Review