Friday, August 14, 2020

A "Pre-review" of Kurt Andersen's EVIL GENIUSES: The Unmaking of America

Though I haven't read Kurt Andersen's EVIL GENIUSES: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History, a review in the NY Times points to some important elements to look for in this account of what went wrong in America beginning in the 1970s. 

What America lost, according to Andersen, is "an openness to the new" in favor of a "mass nostalgia." I experienced this in multiple ways--culturally in music and politically in the resistance to the new technologies needed to spare the world the ravages of climate change. 

Andersen's book is described as "saxophonely written," and since I'm a sax player, I will point out that a look backward is not necessarily a bad thing, if the aim is wisdom rather than nostalgia. Both classical music and jazz spent most of the 20th century pushing forward into ever greater abstraction and complexity until the music became largely unlistenable. If the audience rejected the new music, the composers and performers would point out that past innovators like Stravinski or Charlie Parker had also experienced resistance to their innovations. Ultimately, this means of rationalizing increasingly abrasive music began to wear thin. 

I think of the 1980s as the point when jazz in particular, led by musicians like Wynton Marsalis, began reaching back to the beginnings of jazz for elements of value that had been discarded in the constant pursuit of the new. This for me was a welcome integration of old and new. I remember feeling in a broader cultural sense, leaving the 1970s, that we were entering an era freed of the conformity that nonconformist movements sometimes impose. We had, it seemed, entered an era more broadly accepting of difference, where one could be retro, straight ahead or avant-garde, and style was whatever you wanted it to be. 

There was in the 1970s as well a political sense that government was not proving capable of vanquishing enemies, real or imagined. The "war on poverty" was not going well, or at least that was the perception, and of course the Vietnam War had been a debacle. Liberalism had lost three of its great leaders to assassination in the 1960s--two Kennedys and Martin Luther King--and I would contend that those losses had a suppressing effect on potential new liberal leaders. Stick out and you'll become a target--that was the underlying message. By the late 1970s we had a less than charismatic President Jimmy Carter fighting off a quixotic challenge in his own party by the last and least appealing Kennedy. Teddy Kennedy gave full throated expression to liberalism, and one thing to look for in Evil Geniuses is whether Andersen believes that liberalism fell from favor beginning in the 1970s due to a lack of charismatic leaders or through a national fatigue with liberalism itself. The answer would be more clear if the dynamic Mario Cuomo had chosen to run for president in the 1980s rather than Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. 

When it comes to technological advancement, Andersen's diagnosis of America's loss of "an openness to the new" was most symbolically portrayed for me when President Reagan dismantled the solar panels his predecessor Jimmy Carter had mounted on the White House roof. Saving a planet is much less glamorous than leaving it, which was the galvanizing challenge John F. Kennedy used to mobilize a trip to the moon. Reagan's embrace of fossil fuel extraction and combustion, his turning away from the technologies needed to sustain nature, our climate and coastal communities, will prove to be the most tragic brand of nostalgia that came to the fore in the 1980s. Does Andersen note that America turned away from technological innovation when it threatened the entrenched desire to dominate and extract from nature, when it sought to nurture and sustain rather that exploit or destroy?

According to the review, Andersen documents well a "shameful liberal complicity" in the conservative shift of the 1980s and 90s. "It is head-spinning to be reminded how much of the nation’s turn to the right and to the rich the Democrats enabled," states the reviewer. Certainly there has been much damage done whenever Democrats try to act like Republicans, but I have mixed memories of this. The left's view of Democrats from that era as having failed to adequately defend liberal values needs to be informed by an understanding of the forces afoot at the time. There was Reagan's charm and political talent, his Trump-like instinct for and success at claiming credit for things not his doing.

There was above all the rise of a relentless rightwing decrying a liberal media and pounding any liberal who dared to lead. Famed editor Ben Bradlee in his memoire admitted that relentless rightwing criticism caused the Washington Post to hold back on investigations of Reagan's scandals. It's all too easy for the left to fault leaders like Bill Clinton for supporting legislation like the odious three strikes crime law, forgetting how vulnerable Democrats were at the time to accusations that they were "weak on crime." The assassination of liberal leaders in the 1960s segued into the character assassinations beginning in the 1980s, with lies and distortions substituting for bullets. Rightwing cable news media were newly ascendent, able to drive national discourse, leaving liberal leaders vulnerable. The left would criticize Clinton for his compromises, seemingly unaware that his capacity to get elected served as a bulwark to hold back a conservative tide. 

The left's "shameful complicity" in the conservative shift could just as easily be identified with the candidacies of Ralph Nader in 2000 and Jill Stein in 2016, both of whom drew critical votes away from the less than stellar candidacies of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton respectively, enabling the catastrophic depredations of the Bush and Trump presidencies. A more boisterous, relentless left is needed to balance the rightwing's highly effective pushing of the envelope, but when it comes to the election itself, leftist purity is the enemy of the good.

It is at the same time true that presidents Clinton and Obama did not use messaging and sound bytes in the repetitive way needed to effectively shift people's views away from the Reagan model and towards a more positive view of government and the need for collective action generally. The nation's failure to control the pandemic is rooted in an entrenched resentment towards government that conservative media have worked so hard to perpetuate. Rather than using intentional collective action to solve problems, the anti-government posture leaves us only capable of unintentional collective actions--spreading the virus and combusting fossil fuels--that make problems worse. 

The lack of adequate messaging by Democrats may stem in part from the belief that what is true and right will ultimately prevail, that the nation's destiny is sure to be a positive one, like the countless movies in which good wins out in the end. If anything has been learned since 2016, it is that lies are more mobile, marketable and contagious than truth, which is often nuanced and slow to come to light. And the notion that a nation will come together around what is true and right becomes illusory when so many can profit from artificial polarization.

One insight offered by the review is that "we all live in their world now"--meaning a world defined by conservatism and wealth. This is most apparent for me when I walk out the door and see fossil fuels being heedlessly consumed by the stream of vehicles passing by. Regardless of the widespread support for action, the world we live in reflects a rightwing denial of the dangers of climate change. 

There is something chilling about reading President Carter's remarks as he dedicated the solar panels atop the White House in 1979:

"A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people—harnessing the power of the sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil."

This offering of a stark choice would seem geared to motivate action for the preferred outcome, and yet there is something in us that is drawn more to the poetry of dissolution and complacency than to earnest do--gooderism. I felt the same chill when reading Andersen's description of two futures that we could plausibly choose between:

“For Americans now, will surviving a year (or more) of radical uncertainty help persuade a majority to make radical changes in our political economy to reduce their chronic economic uncertainty and insecurity?” Andersen writes. Or, he wonders, “will Americans remain hunkered forever, as confused and anxious and paralyzed as we were before 2020, descend into digital feudalism, forgo a renaissance and retreat into cocoons of comfortable cultural stasis providing the illusion that nothing much is changing or ever can change?”

There is a danger in describing an undesirable option too well, and making the desirable option sound like a whole lot of work. We're exhausted before we even begin. It's important though to note that Andersen avoids the illusion of America working "together" to achieve an end. Instead, he sees the goal as being to "persuade a majority." This is a welcome shift towards reality.

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