Living in the fever

Yeah. This is what has me worried. Liberal democracy may not be the stable plateau we’ve liked to think. May be prone to “deconsolidation” under pressure from anti-democratic forces. Forces we’ve been witness to, in recent days, right here at home.

According to an article in today’s NYT, two researchers, Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, have devised a sort of early-warning system for modern democracies. The system has three factors that they say together can tell you whether a democracy is under stress.

The first factor was public support: How important do citizens think it is for their country to remain democratic? The second was public openness to nondemocratic forms of government, such as military rule. And the third factor was whether “antisystem parties and movements” – political parties and other major players whose core message is that the current system is illegitimate – were gaining support.

If support for democracy was falling while the other two measures were rising, the researchers marked that country “deconsolidating.” And they found that deconsolidation was the political equivalent of a low-grade fever that arrives the day before a full-blown case of the flu….

Venezuela, for instance, enjoyed the highest possible scores on Freedom House’s measures of political rights and democracy in the 1980s. But those democratic practices were not deeply rooted. During that apparent period of stability, Venezuela already scored as deconsolidating on the Mounk-Foa test.

And look at Venezuela now. It’s a shit-show. Poland likewise seemed a robust democracy when it joined the European Union, but showed at the time worrisome signs of deconsolidation – and is now is seeing the rise of anti-system parties and its democratic institutions under attack.

When the test’s applied to democracies of this moment – it don’t look good.

Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations.

Support for autocratic alternatives is rising, too. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.

There’s more in the article, check it out. I’m doing the test here sans data, but you don’t really need me to do the math, right?

  1. A significant number of Americans appear willing to curtail the constitutionally protected freedoms of other Americans (citizens or no).
  2. They voted for a man who boasted repeatedly of his intention to erode or ignore democratic norms.
  3. A man who is the quintessential anti-system candidate.

The fever, we in it, people.

Ideogram at 10,000

Looks like the blog’s going to hit 10,000 hits today. Thanks, all, for coming by and staying for a bit. A second, an hour, I’m glad for your company.

This morning, a grab bag of thoughts from a shall we say historic week.


Norman Fischer, on Facebook:

Gotta learn to see the world through others’ eyes.


I am appalled, terrified, outraged. Ready to fight. How to keep your fighting spirit free of hate? Try to see the world through others’ eyes.

Which I can’t do if I decide the folks who elected Trump are all racist sexist jerks. They’re the hateful ones. . . . Our civic life needs to be more than a game of projective whack-a-mole with disowned psychic dark matter.

Challenge? There was loads of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, in that campaign. Heaping shit tons of it. Some Trump voters voted just for that, some voted for him in spite of it, and no one’s going to figure out the ratios.


In the Atlantic, headlined “I Voted for the Middle Finger, the Wrecking Ball.”

I am Southern. I am white. I am a male. I was raised Roman Catholic and now go to a Methodist church regularly with my wife and kids. I value the 2nd Amendment but do not own a gun. Every male in my family, save me, is currently serving or has served in the U.S. military. . . . Until recently, I attended field trips with my kids to our state capitol where the Confederate flag still flew, and I am genuinely glad we finally took it down.

He seems an eloquent, honourable man with whom I’d have as many agreements as differences. Not, for sure, my image of a Trump rally a-hole.

I have a Masters degree. My kids go to public school with kids of all races, colors, and creeds. Our neighborhood has immigrant families, mixed-race families, minorities, and same-sex couples. Our sports teams are multi-cultural, diverse, and play beautifully together, on and off the field. I have neither the time, energy, or room in my heart for hatred, bigotry, or racism.

I don’t think he’s just ticking the boxes here, I take him at his word, and reading this throws my stereotypes of the Trump supporter into sharp relief. Asks me, even, to compare them to other stereotypes we all agree are beyond the pale.

I do not hate on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender, or faith in any way shape or form. I like liberals, conservatives, and independents. I do not hate Obama or Hillary; I do not know them. I did not deny Clinton my vote because she lacks a penis.

Okay, then, if no “lock her up,” if not “Trump the bitch,” why’d you vote for him, when she’s so manifestly competent, and he’s a blowhard and a bigot?

I am tired of the machine rolling over us – all of us. The Clinton machine, the Republican machine, the big media, investment banking, hedge fund carrying interest, corporatist, lobbying, influence peddling, getting elected and immediately begin fundraising for the next election machine – they can all kiss my ass.

Maybe Trump won’t do a thing to change or fix any of it. Hillary definitely would not have changed any of it. So I voted for the monkey wrench – the middle finger – the wrecking ball. . . .

Go ahead: Label me a racist, a bigot, a hate-filled misogynistic, an uneducated redneck. But I turned down Yale, motherfuckers, I ain’t who you think I am.

I don’t know if this guy is typical of a small minority or a great majority of Trump voters. I do feel that his words are a net gain for civil discourse. Not that he remains wholly civil – he’s about to call a lot of liberalism crazy – but I challenge my liberal friends to translate their views this clearly into terms outsiders can empathize with. Whole article here.


Same time, though, I’m not backing one inch off my insistence that the man we’ve elected (wish I could say “they” but it’s all of us; wish I could cry “not my president” but we need to say how things are; see M. Colbert on this point; instead of refusing the present, shape the future, cry “impeach!”) is a threat to our democracy.

In a recent piece in the New York Times Magazine, Teju Cole invokes Ionesco’s play The Rhinoceros, which imagines the transformation of a liberal democracy into a fascist state as the change of villagers, one by one till almost all, into rhinoceroses.

Almost everyone succumbs: those who admire the brute force of the rhinos, those who didn’t believe the sightings to begin with, those who initially found them alarming. One character, Dudard, declares, “If you’re going to criticize, it’s better to do so from the inside.” And so he willingly undergoes the metamorphosis, and there’s no way back for him.

Gradually almost everyone’s assent is won. This is the “normalization” that Masha Gessen writes about. Cole makes the connection with devastating clarity:

In the early hours of Nov. 9, 2016, the winner of the presidential election was declared. As the day unfolded, the extent to which a moral rhinoceritis had taken hold was apparent. People magazine had a giddy piece about the president-elect’s daughter and her family, a sequence of photos that they headlined “way too cute.” In The New York Times, one opinion piece suggested that the belligerent bigot’s supporters ought not be shamed. Another asked whether this president-elect could be a good president and found cause for optimism. Cable news anchors were able to express their surprise at the outcome of the election, but not in any way vocalize their fury. All around were the unmistakable signs of normalization in progress.

The piece is called “A Time for Refusal.” Four years is a long time to hang in there but others in other states have hung in longer.


Ezra Pound used the ideogrammatic method to express indirectly, concretely, by assemblage, an idea he couldn’t state directly. What maybe I’m up to here? Ideogram of Post-Electoral Tristesse and Grave Resolve.

Ezra Pound, hurt by loss into fascist sympathy. And yet, and yet.


Put a safety pin on the left lapel of my blazer evening before last. It’s a complex act and I had to poke at my intention a bit first.

Is this about being seen by others?
—Well, yes.

Is that all it’s about?
—No, it’s also a reminder of my own intention, it brings it to the fore.

The part about being seen by others, is it to be admirable?
—Partly, yes.

Is some of the rest of it to say you belong to a tribe?
—Yes, there’s that too.

—Subtract wanting to look good and wanting to belong. Is anything left? Is any part of it not about you?
—There’s wanting to say I want to be of help.

How much of it is that part?
—Doesn’t matter. Not about amounts.

Wear the pin.

A woman knocked on my door yesterday morning, she was my neighbour, lived in the little apartment complex across the road. I vaguely recognized her. She was apologetic and embarrassed asking to borrow a buck fifty because her stomach was hurting. I was sort of confused but asked if five would help her and could she just get it back to me next week. After a moment I got it, she was going to the doctor and needed bus fare.

After she left I put a story together. A woman of about 30, Hispanic I think, in who knows what situation, herself, her family. This week it will have got more stressful, maybe a little or maybe a whole lot. And stress goes to the stomach, I know that myself, all too well.

All over the country, in addition to hate crimes, Klan rallies, protest marches – these major strains in the social fabric – there are also, and far far more, these minor stresses. Anxiety, irritability, acid reflux. (If the story I came up with is at all true.) Everyone’s baseline stress level has shot up, and is like to stay up, a good while.

I don’t think I’m an especially nice or generous person. Basically decent, and ethical, but not especially nice. But this week has made me feel a lot more tender towards people. If Donald Trump has given me that, I thank him.


One more stroke. Daniel Engber in Slate on racism. He says we’ve been conflating two different senses of the word – a nuanced textbook sense and a more popular dictionary sense. In the former, developed by the academy,

the term was broadened to include more subtle agents of discrimination, exploitation, and inequality [than overt prejudice]. Entire institutions could be racist, and systems could be racist, separate from the people who composed them.

In the past few decades, scholars have stretched the boundaries of the term even further. Now we understand that people, too, can be racist in subtle, systematic ways. Even if you disavow white supremacy, you might still be subject to its influence, as well as the unintentional form of racial prejudice that social scientists call “implicit bias.” You and I are racist, essentially, in ways we’re not consciously aware of.

The broader definition of racism as something systemic or implicit has flourished on the left and in academia. That’s for good reason: It allows us to talk about the nation’s most important social problems – police shootings, for example – in the most impassioned moral terms without labeling specific people as evil or malicious. . . . This more nuanced understanding of racism calls attention to persistent racial injustice while at the same time framing it in broader, more communal terms. It calls out the problem and invites solutions.

But textbook racism, however useful it might be as rhetoric, comes into conflict with the more old-fashioned dictionary definition of the word. Last year, social scientist Patrick Forscher reviewed the most-cited studies on prejudice from the past quarter-century and found that almost every single one of them treats bias as something implicit and unconscious rather than malicious and intentional. This puts the literature at odds with a public understanding of prejudice as the product of malicious feelings, the source of hate crimes, and an ingredient of classic racist ideology. “The gap between common and researcher understandings of ‘prejudice,’ ” Forscher wrote, “can create problems when researchers attempt to communicate their findings to the public.”

It’s a helpful distinction and one I don’t think – even though I belong to the academy and the coastal liberal elite – I’ve properly understood.

If I’m being honest, whenever I hear a friend, colleague, or acquaintance call a system or practice “racist,” my first reaction is defensive – I feel accused. As if I, as a white man who benefits from that structure, were being blamed for it. My second reaction is to swallow my first reaction, make sure no one sees it. (Let’s really just be honest here.) My third reaction, if I’m lucky and mindful enough, is to try to get past the first two reactions. But the terms on hand for doing so – “white fragility,” “white supremacy” – are charged enough that they tend to re-energize my defensive reactions, rather than cool and contain them.

And I’m a member of the coastal liberal academic so-called elite, committed to equality, diversity, self-inquiry, social transformation. If the cognitive burden sometimes seems too much – made heavier by misconstruals, category slips, and sometimes by the indignant anger of natural allies – then how must it feel for Jane or Joe in the heartland, not inducted into these niceties, but told to be straitened by them. “That’s racist,” they’re told; “you’re racist,” they hear.

To all those who found the cognitive burden too much, the self-monitoring and second-guessing too much, Donald Trump must have come as a great relief. “He just says what he thinks.” If we want folks to do the inner work of combatting prejudice, that work has to look doable, and if it’s going to look doable, there has, I think, to be more compassion and less shaming.

Liberalism needs the critique the Trump voter implies of it.


Last last thought. Implicit bias is, funny enough, a race-neutral process. I found myself with a new bias category Wednesday morning. White kid, short hair, scruffy beard, baseball cap, gangly walk – Trump voter. Asshole.

Stereotyping is a way the mind works. The red berry principle. (So is the anger flash. “Asshole.” I gave myself a pat on the head for it, there, there.)

You can’t purge yourself of it. There’s no point beating yourself up for it. But you don’t have to take everything you think seriously. Norman Fischer‘s good on that point too.


And, after all the week’s losses indignities and catastrophes, it’s this that makes me cry? Kate McKinnon playing Hillary Clinton playing Leonard Cohen playing “Hallelujah.” Go figure.

Peace to you, friends, and strength.

Masha Gessen on autocracy

How Masha Gessen wishes Clinton’s concession speech had begun:

Thank you, my friends. Thank you. Thank you. We have lost. We have lost, and this is the last day of my political career, so I will say what must be said. We are standing at the edge of the abyss. Our political system, our society, our country itself are in greater danger than at any time in the last century and a half. The president-elect has made his intentions clear, and it would be immoral to pretend otherwise. We must band together right now to defend the laws, the institutions, and the ideals on which our country is based.

Her conciliation, Obama’s too, was an abdication, says Gessen, and I can’t say I disagree. This is not an ordinary defeat to an ordinary opponent. We need to sustain the norms of civil society – peaceful transfer of power and such – while saying loud and clear that the other party is an enemy to those norms.

Gessen sees us headed for an autocracy like that of Putin’s Russia. I hope she’s wrong. I hope the inertia of a massive civil service, and the dispersal of so much of governance to the several states, and the moral competence of ordinary women and men in positions of care and stewardship, will get us through. But honestly I’m scared shitless.

Scared whatever scale I look at this catastrophe on. Attacks on people of colour and queer folk on a steep rise right this very moment. Sea level rise getting locked in that’ll straiten human and non-human life the planet round for millennia. Attacks, autocracy, apocalypse.

Well, what matters is to act, not the scale of the act. Can’t stop global warming but I can spread the word re: resistance guidelines. Gessen’s Rules for Survival in an autocracy:

  1. Believe the autocrat. He means what he says.
  2. Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.
  3. Institutions will not save you.
  4. Be outraged. It is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock.
  5. Don’t make compromises.
  6. Remember the future. Nothing lasts forever.

The whole article here. It’s eye-opening.

The unthinkable

So the unthinkable happened. Enough people could think it, and it did.

I’ve passed this day from stunned disbelief to gradually dawning horror. A fascistic strongman with weak impulse control and no moral centre or care for democratic norms is set to become the head of the most terrifyingly destructive military in history and the leader of the putatively free world.

And the checks and balances meant by the Founders to keep us from just this catastrophe are in the care of the gormless obsolescent party that let him hollow it out from the inside on his slither to victory.

Had to hold it together enough to look after my students this morning. I couldn’t tell them it’ll be okay, because I don’t know it will be okay. It might but we’ll have to be lucky.

Fears were many. One student’s Japanese-American and felt haunted by the internment camps and Trump’s talk of deportation. Another’s queer and disabled and said she felt unsafe setting foot outside her apartment – the fear of difference that’s been whipped up. Another spoke of how America seems to have said it’s fine with being a rape culture.

Didn’t go to my own fears but I share all these. That a man could crown himself in hate and be called king for it. I also, because I love especially the nonhuman world, which doesn’t get to speak at our conference tables, fear the consequences for our climate. Which are for us, too.

That world will eventually bounce back, burgeon new species, maybe absent us. Have I believed too much hype, to feel that’s what’s at stake here, our persistence at all?

What I came to this morning – it probably won’t be as bad as we fear it will.

Said, I grew up in the last two decades of the Cold War. We lived knowing someone could take a blip on a radar screen at NORAD for the front edge of a nuclear attack, press a button, and that would be it. We made it through that.

Said, it’s good not to feel powerless. What matters is to act, not the scale of the act. I’m going, I said, to write a blog post, and maybe it’ll have five readers. Maybe you’ll write a poem – that’s a political act.

Do what you need to to feel empowered. Whether that’s waving a placard or holding a friend’s hand. Add to the store of meaning in the world.

Fascism is giving your power over to another, proudly, abjectly, a strongman. The most crude process of identification imaginable and an abdication of meaning. Resisting fascism, whether in Mussolini’s Italy or Trump’s America, means creating meaning, heightening the depth of meaning the world bears.

Got more thoughts about meaning. Trump is a drain of meaning, came to me last sleepless night, and I got up to scribble it down. It’s how he uses words not caring if they’re true or no – and how he uses people with no sense of any thou there. But I’m past midnight and’ve not et yet.

For now, just to say, the meaning of small acts has loomed large for me today. A student in a headscarf who caught my glance and smiled as we passed on campus today – why? did she see how downcast I was and want to bear me up? did my downcastness make us allies in her eyes? Dunno. Small happy mystery of other as other than other.

There were more I wanted to say but if I write any longer, dinner will be breakfast. Love to you, friends. These are hard times coming.

Something wicked this way ->

Elizabeth Kolbert gets close to it in the New Yorker:

One way to understand the up-is-down logic of this election is as an expression of what might be called American sentimentalism. What moves the electorate is not true facts but true feelings.

Donald Trump is the kind of jerk who authentically, genuinely, unabashedly inhabits his own jerkiness…. His narcissism, petulance, and whatever other character flaw you care to choose aren’t under wraps; they’re on view for all to see and hear. In this sense, he truly is the real thing.

Clinton, meanwhile, is constantly role-playing. On the campaign trail, she displays an interest in people that, one can only assume, she doesn’t always feel. In her speeches, she invokes lofty ideals, when doubtless she’s often motivated by expedience.

A libido is trustworthy. It just is what it is. Same’s true of a rock. A person, that’s complex, a person has layers, makes choices, compromises, gets compromised. But for better or worse we need persons for president, not rocks or libidos, let alone libidos who claim the prerogatives of rocks – rolling, falling, being thrown, raining down – because we need choices made on our behalf by folks we’ve judged competent to make them.

Make it new, yes, it’s my poetics. But not in hate. If it’s hate, just stop.


I’m really scared. Don’t even know how scared to be – Nate Silver can’t, it turns out, tell me how certain to be about uncertainty. How little we know about anything, probability, uncertainty, other minds, values we thought we shared, really is coming home to me. But whatever happens next week, some kind of work of reconciliation has to begin.


Please vote? for a person who behaves as one? treats others as such?

And I seem in my assembly to mean something about magical thinking.


Elizabeth Kolbert, who tells us, career-long and with a cool head, of the maybe end of the world. Ice sheets, new inches of ocean. That we can think at all is magical – matter’s astonishment – and no guarantor of persistence.

Rape culture / Peace on earth

When the truth comes it comes to the body. My limbs go tense suddenly, electric. Arms ready to punch or flail but there’s no one to punch or flail so they stay still. Thighs and calves tight, prepped, coiled, but what to run from? I’m leaning back on the couch, cat on my lap as I read the news on my laptop, what threat? Why has my attention gone taut? But it has – everything at the periphery has grown larger, brighter. Word for it is hypervigilance. Tears leak from my eye holes.

The trigger is the opening of an article in the NYT:

“Women: tweet me your first assaults,” [Kelly Oxford] wrote on Twitter at 7:48 p.m. “They aren’t just stats. I’ll go first: Old man on city bus grabs my ‘pussy’ and smiles at me, I’m 12.”

Why does this break through me when DT’s own words, I could, with SNL, hold at a distance, laugh off? Because I thought I heard in them his death knell? Because no victim was audible in them? Because here there’s a child?

What’s empathy anyway? Where are its edges?

There’d been signs my empathy was blocked. “Oh, this is good, he’s bound to lose now.” “Yeah but guys just talk like that.” (Do we? really?) “How is this worse that all the other shit he’s said?” (Okay, fair question – incitement to assassination?!) Happens when I don’t want to feel something through, till it breaks through.

Here’s it breaking through:

“I won’t give details, but I was 12, and he went to jail,” Emily Willingham, a writer, posted on Twitter.

and

Sasha Stone, an entertainment journalist, told of being forced to perform oral sex on a man “after he offered me a ride home and then threatened me. I was 14.”

and

Wendy Luxenburg, 45, a hospital administrator in Chicago, recalled being in a Florida department store with her mother: “She was an aisle away. Man walks by me, rubbed by crotch. I was 11.”

and

And the actress Amber Tamblyn wrote on Instagram of being accosted at a nightclub by an ex-boyfriend who grabbed her by the hair and, with his other hand, lifted her by her vagina, bruising her badly, and “carried me, like something he owned, like a piece of trash, out of the club.”

and

“Grabbed from behind on the street. Thought it was my fault because I was wearing a dress,” Lynne Boschee, 50, of Phoenix, wrote on Twitter. “Never told anyone. I was 14.”

I hope this would break my heart and inflame my fury even if nothing such had happened to me. But it did also happen to me, and so I want also to say, it happens to men and boys, too. That’s where the taut limbs and the tears come from. Trauma is an equal-opportunity demon. Gail Sheehy has a good piece in Politico about how Trump is rousing terror and post-traumatic stress in ethnic minorities and vets and LGBTQ folks and their therapists alike.

I’ve been listening tonight, because curative, to Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, and reading John Taggart’s “Peace on Earth”:

To lift to lift up to lift without
effort to sing tene
to relax the circling rays to
stand still that the citizens of my city
may be drawn as with visible
chains to this splendor splendor of coronation
that they may see the shape of
the dance that they may see the lily-flower.

Carol heart’s ease ring of flower’s thought.

To lift up bones in the lily-flower dance
in the flower’s leaf ranged around
leaf splendid
bones and leaves as petals curled around each other.

Peace to you, brother, sister.

Hillary Be Hillary

Okay. She’s got me. Was always going to vote for her, I’m not a Bernie die-hard, and the stakes are ginormous. But she’s won me over to semi-fandom.

I’ve always sensed and disliked a falsity in Clinton. Now I think it’s just, she’s not a natural orator, and has to work in the shadows of the last two Dem prezzies, who both are. She often seems to be mouthing the right words with a bit too much feeling, or a bit too little, or a little soon or a little late, or just off somehow.

When I get that sense from someone, I worry they’re putting something over on me. Also I’m a word person who treasures ease in language.

Never thought she was lying, or crooked, never gave a flying eff about the e-mails, but thought she was slippery, with less skill at it than Bill.

Now I think she’s a private person forced, for this part, to be public. Seeing Chelsea Clinton, who seems the same way, was illuminating. (Her laugh – nervous, compensatory, I felt for her.) So were the kitchen-table parts of the bio-pic, where she was so at ease. They humanized her for me just as they were meant to. Colour me, Morgan, manipulable.

And, as her speech went on, and she got into the policy deets and the digs at Trump, she seemed to lose her self-consciousness and get her truth on, which was fierce. I’d be just fine with that person leading me.

If that one’s not always on-line when at a podium, okay. A presidency’s not a podium, and authentic’s not a show.

Kinda hawkish for me, still. But even Obama turned out to be. And you can’t always get, according to the RNC soundtrack, what you want.


This one’s everywhere I’m sure by now –

A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.

Her heart was in that. When she owns her truth, her ferocity, there’s no gainsaying it. When she second-guesses, there’s that falsity. (Why a woman of her time and nation might second-guess her own anger and instincts – a different post.)

And in that falsity she becomes a screen for our projections. Progressives who’ve hewn to Bernie read the falsity as (for example) a dismal capitulation to corporate interests. Republicans with an authoritarian bent (read this) see her as the rotten apple that rots the barrel. Those most keen to see the last glass ceiling smashed may read it as just the cost of entering, as a woman, this patriarchal political world.

Really maybe all it is, is discomfort being public, when you’re more private than that? I don’t know. I’m better being myself in front of a crowd of 75 than she is before a crowd of 30,000. Not much for a comparison. Maybe I should run for president? Not.

But I’m suggesting she’s become a screen for our projections – hopeful or ecstatic, indignant or hateful – just as Trump has.

But this difference. Trump feeds the projection, thrives on it, exists for and by it. Clinton abides it, waits for it to subside, so we can talk. (Obama’s way too.)