Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sic Transit Arcadia

Thomas Cole was an American naturalist painter who lived during the first half of the 19th century. Like Thoreau and others of his time, Cole was inspired by a naturalist idealism which drew its breath from the Arcadian splendour of an unsullied continent. But after a tour of Europe, Cole returned with a foreboding of empire that infused his paintings with a fantasy realism that earned him little favor with critics or the public. He died shortly before the Civil War at his home in his beloved, rustic Catskills.

Lincoln's First Inaugural

Having grown up in the shadow of past glories, I have always been fascinated by the generation and decay of civilizations. And what I did not see around me, I could see in history books, such as the fascinating etchings contained in Ludwig Friedlander’s 19th century opus on Life & Manners in the Early Empire. What he, and Tacitus and Gibbon taught me was that, in so far as the application of history is concerned, detecting symptoms is as important as understanding causes.

Roosevelt's First Inaugural

Among the symptoms that indicate where we stand in the trajectory of history are the ceremonies and celebrations that attend the swearing in of the Chief Magistrate or, as he is more likely to be called, our Commander in Chief.

In a nation without a monarch, it is natural that a certain amount of celebration and hoopla will be generated around the inauguration of a new administration but by and large, throughout most of our history, these have been gaudy but low key affairs typically consisting of a denominational service of choice, an address, a parade, and a few invitation-only public parties. As for the rest of us without connections, we could buy trinkets, wave little flags, go to a bar to get drunk or just go home.

Kennedy's Inauguration

The ceremonialization of the presidency began under John F. Kennedy; but even then he kept things fairly low key and we could all be grateful for the all too evanescent savoir faire he brought to official occasions.

With differences in style (or lack of it), things remained at much the same until the election of Ronald Reagan. A symptomatic revolution occurred when he switched the situs of the inaugural from the front of the Capitol to the rear. The imperialization of presidential style had begun.

Reagan's Accession

In tandem, the hitherto traditional hoopla of parades and pennants was metamorphosed into a glitzy, multi-media, star-studded, gala-extravaganza, Celebration of Freedom in which we could all co-participate and co-share our hope, unity, optimism and happiness at being Americans. Of course, as of 2002, these and like carnivals of popular culture and patriotism were held under the watchful surveillance of security copters and kevlar padded police, but apparently none of the multitudes that crowded into the fenced off Mall let this detract from the unifying and uplifting stimulus of the moment.

Bush Accession

It was thus with some passing and idle curiosity that I wondered if President Elect Obama would return the Inaugural to the front of the Capitol -- in symbolic evocation, of course, of Abraham Lincoln. But as the multitudes crowded onto the Mall before the Lincoln Memorial for the Pre-Inaugural, Inaugural Address and Star Studded Evening Gala Prequel, I noticed that the change remained the same.

For all our sakes, I wish Obama well; but I am not going to watch the Inaugural, because I have already seen it.

The Consumation - Thomas Cole
(click to enlarge)

©WCG, 2009

Saturday, January 17, 2009


I began listening to Wagner more as a matter of historical interest than musical curiosity. Although Romantic music was pleasant enough, I was more attuned to and moved by Baroque and Classical scores. What I knew of Wagner was limited to the usual audio-clips more often than not serving as background noise for some documentary.

I did note, however, that Wagner seemed to have a unique ability to enthrall or enrage that went beyond mere taste. Unlike, “I don’t care for Puccini all that much” or “Don Giovanni is wonderful,” people rolled their eyes heavenwards and said “Ah... Wagner! or scrinched their noses and snarled, “Ach, Wagner!!” with emphatic disgust. Nietzsche apparently did both and in some places they wouldn’t play Wagner at all. The most neutral thing said about him that I could find was Mark Twain’s bon mot, “I hear he’s better than he sounds.”

So I called up a friend of mine who was an audiophile and and an opera groupie and asked him what he thought would be a good piece to start with. “You don’t know Wagner at all?” Tim asked. “No, not really.” Tim inquired what kind of music I did like and then paused before replying, “Hmmmmm, well I’d start off with the more conventional Wagner.”

“The more conventional Wagner” .... Was this the “better than he sounds” or the “worse than he sounds” Wagner? I wondered.

“Well like what then?” Tim, who could be incredibly indecisive at times, hemmed and hawed before suggesting the Flying Dutchman... “or maybe...” “No, that’s fine.” “No...maybe Tannhauser would be better...” “Well which one?” “I suppose either would be alright.” Wagner was getting more foreboding by the second.

After thanking Tim for his help, I hung up the phone and decided to bite the bullet without further delay. Soon I was fingering through plastic CD cases in the Wagner section of the stacks. “Definitely not The Ring,” Tim had warned, although he added that I’d probably “be OK” with Rheingold.

The Ring Cycle! Several years before the San Francisco Opera had done “the full cycle”. People talked about the upcoming event with a kind of delighted dread. They were setting aside the time for.... And would probably be too wiped out to.... But it was a once in a lifetime.... I couldn’t decide who was more nuts, Wagnerians or devotées of Werner Erhart (who had also gesamtkunsted in the Opera House).

Well at any rate not the Ring. So I flipped through the stacks trying to decide which of the covers looked more inviting and in the end, reminding myself that it was just an historical investigation after all, pulled free of Tim’s enthrallment, and opted for the cheapest -- a Bayreuth performance of Tannhauser.


It was a sun-bright, faint-breeze San Diego afternoon by the time I returned home. It was warm inside and Hobbes, the cat, was draped over a chair in feline languor. Leaving the front door open, I turned the stereo up to “opera” level and sat down. Hobbes remained languid as the soft and somber refrains wafted through the air.

At a remove of many years it is hard to recapture how I heard Wagner during those first listenings. His seamless melody which now seems structured and clear then seemed like so much tonal ambling. Tannhauser began melodiously enough but these melancholy bars suddenly turned something that sounded like a jingling gallop at the races

Hobbes looked up annoyed

which abruptly crashed into an ear-splitting, plate smashing, shrieking marital squabble

Hobbes let out a pained mee-OW and ran out the door

before resolving once again into some sort of stately pageant. For sure, overtures tend to be a tonal stew of courses to come, but the problem was that the whole opera was like the overture. When it was all over, I was decidedly unimpressed.

Hobbes struggles with laut Motifs

In fact, I must have been fairly disappointed because, after a break, I decided to sit down and listen to it again, libretto in hand. This time around the seamless jolts were a little less jarring and I got a better sense of the why’s and whereto's. But at the end of the day, Wagner placed in a tie with Schubert.

It certainly did not provide any historical insight.

It was several days, maybe a week, later that I decided to listen to Tannhuaser again. I don’t think I was still making an effort to “understand” the music. It was rather that the sing-song of the Pilgrim’s Chorus, kept traversing my mind and I wanted to listen to it again in vivo. So, I lay back on the sofa with my feet up and listened again. Perhaps simply because I had heard it twice, the parts seemed more connected, the shouting less ear-splitting, the marches and choruses as full and melodious as before. And then it happened.

Wolfram had ended his evensong lullaby, as the dark and devastated spectre of Tannhauser came dragging back into “musical view,” heavy laden past endurance and mad with grief. I sat up. What I had anticipated as more “talking” before a sonorous choral finale, now nailed my attention. If this wasn’t the very sound of world-weariness nothing was. With a sort of suspended inner quiet, I followed the narrative of Tannhauser’s Passion; and then, at a certain moment broke into uncontrollable sobbing. Some kind of internal structure just collapsed leaving me to mutter unintelligible things between sobs. Many times Bach had stilled my soul the way no other music ever could; but no other music had ever provoked my soul as this.

When it was all over, I lay on the couch feeling the physical sensitvity of an emotional wound Wagner had pierced ... or... was it, lanced? After a while, I got up and went for a walk in the park.

Und dann ich bekamm ein Wagnerianer.

Now, forgetting history, I wanted nothing but to listen to all of Wagner at once. I gave up practicing Invention 14 and begged my organ teacher, Jim Statz, to teach me to play the Pilgrim’s Chorus. Of course, I could only manage the Idiot Version in G (Reader, Hold your peace!) knowing that I could never attain the four hand-flying pedal version that Jim let loose on the pipes.

It perhaps goes without saying that not all of Wagner strikes me as deeply, and sometimes it doesn’t strike me at all. But the thing I have noticed, is that I never know when he is going to strike me in just that vulnerable way.

It was therefore with some reluctance that I sent away for a remastered DVD of a 1982 performance of Tannhauser at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, conducted by James Levine and staring Richard Casilly, Tatiana Troyanos and Eva Marton. I told myself that I would not have to listen to it during the Christmas Season; I knew that once it arrived, I would.

Traditionalists interpret Tannhauser as a morality play about the choice between lower, erotic lust (represented by Venus) and higher, chaste love (represented by the virginal Elizabeth). In the dramatic finale, teetering on the choice between Heaven and Hell, Tannhauser makes the right choice and is saved.

I have always resisted this interpretation. Not only is it morally trite, such a commonplace catechism seems unworthy of Wagner. And yet, not only did he compose it, it is unmistakably clear, at the end, that Tannhauser’s last cri de coeur is “Elizaberth!” after which the chorus applauds the choice and sings of the eternal bliss awaiting those who chose love over lust.

But while that was true, it was equally the case that much of the musical score is “sympathetic” to eros and Venus is more human and caring than a mere Circe. In addition, the dramatic action in the opera unmistakably entails an indictment against conventionality and formulaic morality, which Elizabeth herself protests against. So while the text of the finale was fairly explicit, I felt the music and drama as a whole were “ambiguous.” However, “vague and ambiguous” is not much of an interpretation of anything. One might as well simply say, Wagner was sloppy and confused. none of which makes for great art.

A number of years later, (after a couple of attempts to explain the “ambiguity” in my favor) it occurred to me that Tannhuaser’s “choice” was not between two external love-objects but rather between two internal love impulses. Internalizing the choice shifts the issue from “what do I want to have” to “how do I wish to be” -- and I think that interpretation is, if not essentially correct, closer to the truth of what Tannhauser is about.

Still, it wasn’t all coming together and I think the reason for this was that I was just listening to the music and the lyrics. If Wagner had just wanted to write music, he would have done so; but he was very clear in his insistence on gesamtkunst -- an “altogether-art” that blended in words, music, gesture, setting, in equally essential parts.

The difficulty here was that virtually all current performances eschew Wagner’s deciddly 19th century stage directions and opt for some innovative, provocative, trendy, far-out, reinterpretation. I suppose this is as fine as it goes, but it only gets one to an opinion which, in Tannhauser’s case, usually gets back to the moral cliché I ran away from in the first place. Then, just before the holidays, I chanced onto a Youtube clip of the Guest Entry from the Met’s production which had evidently gone back and given full play to Wagner’s instructions. I was intrigued beyond resisting.

Once I saw it all-together, Tannhauser’s riddle became clear: it was not about a dialetical choice of eros versus agape, but rather the story of the ascent from eros to agape. Far from “blowing the whistle” on eros (as Benedict XVI has put it), Wagner was exploring the convergence of the two forms of love. What is implied at the end, is not so much a rejection as a maturation.

The ascent motif (ahem), is indicated by the fact that Venusberg is located in the Earth’s interior whereas Wartburg Castle is on a hill, in the Earth’s exterior nearing the sky. Tannhauser’s pilgrimage to Rome, is a digression which takes place within the larger pilgrimage from grotto to castle. The pilgrimage to Rome begins with his ejection from Wartburg but the larger pilgrimage began with his rejection of Venus -- a rejection not born of disparagement but of a desire to breathe a human life.

Tannhauser’s is not the only pilgrimage. It is an “external” pilgrimage that has its correlative in Elizabeth’s “interior” pilgrimage which is just as dynamic even if she never moves from Wartburg. Although Elizabeth is presented as “virginal” she indisputably has sensual feelings, just as Venus has compassionate ones. To think of Elizabeth as some sort of asexual monster runs contrary to the text. Elizabeth’s prayer to the Virgin in the final act (III) which indisputably acknowledges “erotic” desires on her own part -- desires which may not have been fully understood in Act II (“emotions n’er experienced; longings never known”).

More important than questions of purity, Elizabeth’s progression is from needing to giving. When first seen, Elizabeth is much like a girl, dreaming and waiting for a not fully understood enfatuation. As Tannhauser had begun in Act I freeing himself from, Elizabeth begins in Act II the process of giving herself to, and in the end, prays for death in order to intercede for Tannhauser.

This vertical and feminine (sic) axis is characterized in large measure by a theme of acceptance. The juxtaposition of Venus and Elizabeth is not as complete as moralists might want. Venus is not simply an unconscious erotic force. She is a goddess but one who needs Tannhauser and feels the hurt of his rejection born of human necessity. Somewhat conversely, Elizabeth begins as a not fully human child, and moves just as necessarily from longing to a transcending selflessness. Each both give and accept.. If Elizabeth sacrifices herself for Tannhauser in the end it is equally true that Venus forgives his betrayal and welcomes him back.

The vertical Venus - Elizabeth dynamic is not the only axis in the drama. Tannhauser has his male counterpart in Wolfram. For the most part, they meet at the center space between Venusberg and Wartburg, as pilgrims enter and exit, left to right, going to and coming from Rome. It this horizontal action that serves to inversely define Tannhauser.

Wolfram is a well meaning, utterly conventional blockhead -- accepting surface truths and incapable of profundity. His song at the music contest is a monument to kitsch (“heroes like fresh oaks, proud and green...”) and his harp plucking assertions about love (“see how I apprehend love’s purest essence”) is what ends up provoking Tannhauser’s, erotically proud disdain. To know who Wolfram is is to know what Tannhauser is not -- which conforms to Wagner’s statement that Tannhuaser is a person who feels all emotion deeply. Wolfram is not a bad man. He is in fact well meaning. He is Tannhauser’s competitor in song contests but he is not his enemy. He is the conventionality and complacency Tannhauser has to move away from, if he is to realize his quest for a humanity that requires freedom and ends in death.

Up to a point Wolfram serves as a foil for comic relief. In context, his lyrical ode to the Evening Star (“Oh loveliest of stars... Thy sweet light that points the way....”) is an absurdity almost beyond belief, except for the fact that Wolfram is obviously clueless. In almost the same breath, after singing a paean to Venus, Wolfram horrorificly warns Tannhauser of his imminent damnation to hell. All this comic nonsense as a prelude to the wrenching tragic finale!

The horizontal axis between Wolfram and Tannhauser, representing the dynamic between complacent conventionality and struggling freedom, is characterized principally by a theme of rejection, most pathetically Tannhauser’s excommunication from Wartburg and, most devastating, his damnation at Rome. To this extent the drama lays a hard indictment of the superficially good, the untested, the uncompassionate.

What occurs at the end (at least in the Met production) is not a choice but a convergence. Most tellingly, Venus was not rejected, but simply fades away as Tannhauser is transformed and dies.


There is always, it seems to me, the pitfall of beating a play or a painting to death. Analyses that go on too long become tiresome, and the “intuitive” understanding born of sensing the logic of the whole, degenerates into a heap of citations and counter-points. In Wagner’s case, the process also invariably degenerates into a fetishistic pursuit of Wagneriana, quoting letters to Cosima and whatnot. I have avoided the second and hope I have steered clear enough from the first, intending no more than to sketch the outlines of a dramatic geography.

Other reviewers have said that the Met performance, while it executed Wagners’s intention and directions, was open enough to leave room for individual interpretation. That is certainly correct, and I think that was Wagner’s goal. There is in the end a difference between drama and doctrine.

There is also a difference between enjoyment and hobbyhorsing. I am not an opera “buff” and can hardly argue the arcana of different performances. Of the three performances of Tannhauser that I now have Wieland’s is the least inspired. For my tastes, nothing can rival Solti’s Vienna Philarmonic/Boys Choir performance with René Kollo (Tannhauser), Victor Braun (Wolfram) and Christa Ludwig (Venus), for richness of color and articulation. But the Solti performance, as we have it, is a halbkunst. If Kollo’s singing edges out ahead, Casilly's sung-acting is overwhelming. Perhaps because he is too big to be lustfully lythe, Casillay is a little stiff in Venusberg, but his in your face haughtiness at the singing contest wonderfully brings you to the edge of the dramatic precipice. His return from Rome is beyond description.

I am a poorly versed musician, but Levine’s performance strikes me every bit as worthy as Solti’s perhaps brighter, and a tad more dramatically tense. If I had to distill the differences between the two, I’d say that Solti’s Tannhauser is European and sophisticated, whereas Levine’s is American and earnest.

Levine has an unfortunate appearance more suited for buffoonery than tragic opera but his own performance as conductor (during the overture) got it right, at least, he gesticulated what the music feels like to me. I particularly liked the way his tremmolo hand pointed up the connection between eros and heroism. This is odd, because although Tannhauser is a Christian morality play, these passages from the overture are (to my ear) unmistakably Promethean.

Lastly, one criticism The Virgin Mary niche. I can understand how leaving for openness would require not having a prominent statute to the Virgen De Guadalupe center stage left. But what they have, looks like a fire alarm box. There were more felicitous alternatives that would have worked just as well.

Twenty years after the fact, I would certainly recommend this performance. More generally, I am convinced now that the only way to experience Wagner is the way he intended and directed. No more Tannhausers in turtlenecks!!!

©WCG, 2009


Monday, January 5, 2009

Playing the Wedge Card

Undeterred in its ongoing effort to confuse the American public, the clarion of the corporate media struggles to hide the real agenda behind deregulation, the bankster bailout, the Iraq/Afhgan War, the national security police state, and devastating environmental policies.

Writing in the NYT/IHT laureate Paul Krugman asserts that "Forty years ago the Republican Party decided, in effect, to make itself the party of racial backlash" and that Bush administration policy and electoral failures can be traced to this original fault.

Nonsense. Assuming for the sake of argument that the Administration has in fact failed at what it set out to do (it hasn't), neither its policies nor its supposed failures are the result of racism. Once again, America's intelligentsia wallows in the narcosis of false consciousness, ignoring class conflict and seeking bugaboos in moralities and panaceas in personal validation issues.

Krugman begins his "analysis" by noting that Republican post-election "whining takes the form of claims that the Bush administration was simply a matter of bad luck... or the bad luck of" choosing Bush as the party's standard bearer."

Is Krugman seeking an explanation for electoral defeat or for the environmental, economic and geo/political disaster we are living? He apparently thinks it's an all-together sort of thingy. "Everything that has happened in recent years, from the choice of Bush as the party's champion, to the Bush administration's pervasive incompetence, to the party's shrinking base, is a consequence of that [racist] decision."

It is somewhat appalling to hear the Administration's devastating policies being soft-pedaled as a form of incompetence; but be that as it may, the "incompetence" has nothing to do with racism. On the contrary, Republican racist pandering has been very competent.

It is also hardly news. Forty years ago, not even the New York Times failed to note the Nixon - Agnew resort to code-words for "nigger". (Not that the Time's own "inner city youth" wasn't a code of its own.) Everyone knew what Nixon's Southern strategy was all about, even the blathering bimbos on the evening news. Lyndon Johnson had stated that the Civil Rights Act, which he pushed through a reluctant Congress, would be the death-knell for FDR's Democratic Coalition and it was. The Dixiecrats were up for grabs and the Republicans nabbed' em.

What Krugman astonishingly overlooks is that racism was not the only wedge the Republicans resorted to. There was that small issue of Archie Bunker and them Hippy College Kids. How Krugman manages to overlook this fault-line when Hollywood made Nielson ratings on it for years is truly amazing.

Krugman overlooks Archie Bunker because he is doing his level best to racialize the issue and get his readers to loose sight of the real problem: the neoliberal war being waged on the "Homeland" by corporate and financial interests. Archie Bunker would tip Krugman's hand because he is iconic for a cluster of disparate wedge issues the very clustering of which makes you look for what they have in common; and what they had in common was that everyone else was getting ahead except Archie. How Archie complained was great entertainment but beneath the squeals was the fact that Archie was getting screwed.

Take for starters Archie's contempt for anyone with some learning. As de Toqueville pointed out, America has always been notoriously anti-intellectual. He attributed this to a pervasive spirit of egalitarianism that disrespected all hierarchies, including those based on scientific or academic merit. But what de Tocqueville called a spirit of egalitarianism was a polite and aristocratic way of referring to class inequality and hatred.

The fact is that American college kids were never very intellectual in the first place. They were simply privileged brats on legacy scholarships destined for legacy jobs. What "those dumb college kids..." really meant was "you think you're better than me; but I'm just as good as you." No one could seriously interpret this as contempt of intellectualism, because them college kids were dumb. But they also were social betters with better shoes, better cars, better houses, and bank accounts. The howl bespoke the wound. The resentment reserved for them, was the resentment of dispossessed or struggling lower classes.

The hidden secret of the United States is that class disparity and envy has existed since even before we all gloriously and fraternally united to throw those damn Brits out. The present Constitution was basically a coup d'etat by the moneyed interests who were terrified of the Jacobin sentiments unleashed by the successful toppling of royal law and order. Ever since then, the ruling elites have done their best to pump pixie dust into the air. The existence of slavery, of Injuns to tame, of immigrants to hate have all served to deflect and confuse the country's underlying class conflicts and resentments.

The Great Depression, almost woke up the working (and not-working) classes and after the World War there was a big push at fashioning a truly more egalitarian society (at least for Whites). Working through (and for the well-being of) the private sector, Government undertook to provide jobs and false embourgeoisiement for the industrial base coupled with academically routed upward mobility. For a while it worked. Spreading swaths of tract homes was about as equal-in-everything as one could get, and President Clinton was an example of how trailer trash could rise to the top.

Alas, the country's feeble attempt at corporate sponsored social equality began to crack apart in the Sixties.

The Vietnam War drove the first big wedge between blue and white collar -- between the new bourgeoisie and the worker. As the buildup for Vietnam began, McNamara made a cynical decision. To preserve the country's technological and administrative work-force (what the Nazis called "workers of the head") he promoted student deferments while "workers of the hand" were left to man the wrenches and the rifles. This cleavage, which had always existed ad hoc was now institutionalized and rationalized on the ground that a stint in the Army gave "disadvantaged" kids a chance to get their GED and learn a trade. Unfortunately, it gave them other chances as well.

The second wedging blow was Affirmative Action which made the least financially secure segment of the population foot the bill for the reparation of historic wrongs. Contrary to propaganda, the civil rights movement was not a simply mass uprising of Blacks. It was an agitation of a portion of the negro population in which jewish lawyers, stragglers from the "old left" and white east coast college kids collaborated. The resentment was foreseeable and intense. To be sure, it focused on the threat from below -- the Black who got the job, the promotion, or academic placement. But it also focused on the betrayal from above, against college kids and the "east coast elites" who neither fought the war nor paid for the "advancement of the negro" they so ardently championed at no cost to themselves.

What had started out as a push toward social egalitarianism, ended up being a collection of disparities. All this was the doing of the Democrats and the Republicans seized the initiative. Yes there was "code" for "enroaching negro" but Agnew's "nattering nabobs of negativism" was also code for "privileged brat" and those "limousine liberals" who nibbled canapés with convict-authors on Park Avenue (Leonard Bernstein) or reverse hob-nobbed with Vietcong soldierettes (Jane Fonda).

However, neither Blacks nor limousine liberals nor hippies nor feminists were the real problem. No doubt Democrat social policies were highly discriminatory. They pushed military deferments for middle class college boys and job integration for Blacks both at the cost of the "blue collar" worker class. It was an odd way to promote egalitarianism. But beyond that, the United States was in economic trouble, in part due to the cost of the Vietnam War and in part due to the oil-embargo. Just as the Baby Boomers entered the job market, the country went into recession and what had been the powerful engine of American productivity was now known as the "Rust Belt" -- a polluted, decayed industrial Appalachia.

Had the world suddenly lost use for steel? Were goods no longer being shipped from dock to dock? Of course not. The process of dismantling and tightening had begun. Particularly hard hit was the industrial worker, the Archie Bunker class, Deer Hunter's economic and military casualties.

The fact was, America's experiment with corporate social democracy was failing; and it was failing not because different folks were brought to the table but because there wasn't enough pie for all the guests.

Carter's uninspiring solution was for "everyone" to get used to eating less. The Republican "solution" was to push the clock back, past the New Deal, to some mythical Begin State of classical capitalism. Blaming the goal of an egalitatian society for being an ineffective means, they called for free markets, free trade, and the abolition of unions and welfare. The platform was mythical because there never has been a truly free market. It was not a solution to any socio-economic problem because, at bottom, it was simply a call to: Let the games begin and survival to the fittest!

The ideology of Republican neoliberalism is simply egotism dressed up as social policy. It was a program that could only benefit the few and the conundrum facing the true and hidden Republican base was how to get the many to vote for it.

The first trick was to confuse terminology. What the Republicans actually sought was a return to "pure liberalism" -- the economic philosophy that gave us child labor, sweat shops and all the wonders of the Industrial Revolution. For that reason, all the rest of the world calls it neo-liberalism. But in the United States, Republicans called themselves "conservatives" because that word kicked up the pixie dust of a "return to traditional values." People who were economically hurting could be misled into voting for the very party that was going to hurt them even more in the belief that it would bring back the good ol' days -- when everyone knew their place and loved their country.

The second, third, fourth and fifth tricks consisted of wedge issues that would divide the actual working class (and this includes anyone who derives his primary income from work and not capital) from itself. It is for this reason that the media-politics of the past forty years has been taken up with MIAs, Blacks, Womyn, Gays, "Illegals," Lawn Order, Abortion, Quotas, Snail Darters, in fact anything except anything that mattered.

In the end, these wedge tactics preyed on the the concept of society itself in order to promote the pillage and plundering interests of the true capitalist upper class. By 1980, Nixon's rough prototype code had been refined into an improved more encompassing model . Reagan's "L" word distilled and pandered to all of Archie Bunker's mis-placed hates while screwing Archie royally. It was a stunning con-job.

Krugman is completely correct when he writes:
"So the reign of George W. Bush, the first true Southern Republican president since Reconstruction, was the culmination of a long process. And despite the claims of some on the right that Bush betrayed conservatism, the truth is that he faithfully carried out both his party's divisive tactics ... and its governing philosophy."
But Krugman is utterly wrong to confuse the "tactic" with the "philosophy". The Party's philosophy was not racism or any other -ism except neo-liberalism; and what we have witnessed under Bush-Cheney has been the near destruction of any institution that stands for the public good.

Republicans in fact make no secret of this aim because any government that has the "common welfare" in mind will put limits on plunder, will regulate economic activity and will take steps to in sure the survival of the weakest, as Jesus and Jeremiah both commanded.

Does Krugman seriously believe that the Republican attempt to dismantle all regulatory functions of government is the product of "racism"? Unless he is as clueless as Archie Bunker, he can't possibly. Yet curiously enough he manages to insinuate that very misconception while avoiding any mention of the true bette noire.

Krugman is also disengenous to ignore the role of the Democrat Party in this denouement. Ideologically speaking, Reagan completed the destruction of the Democrats. What was left, throughout the Eighties, was a pathetic foil that vociferated the other side of the irrelevant wedge issues, as it stood on the political stage like some clown having eggs cracked over his head or seltzer water sprayed in his face, while Republicans sneered Libroool!

Under Clinton, the Democrat Party finally tired of masochism. But instead of promoting a true alternative political-economy they became Republican Lite. The Party continued to "champion" select wedge issues, rhetorically and largely ineffectually, while cribbing copiously from the neoliberal agenda. Clinton completed the destruction of welfare, deregulated financial markets and managed the unique feat of pushing through NAFTA while standing on the border and blaming them Mexicans for "coming here and taking away American jobs."

While Clintonomics was not as savage as Reganomics it was not, by any stretch, a revindication of America's tepid experiment with corporate-sponsored social-democracy. By any measure the social safety net shrank as corporate "freedom" grew paving the way for the present economic disaster.

Neither was Clinton any less aggressive in foreign policy, unless one considers the economic blockade of Iraq, the ongoing aerial bombing of Desert Fox, and the destruction of Serbia to be examples of the Peace Corps in action. Nor was Clinton any less slavishly servient to Israeli interests. It is by now public news that at Camp David II, Clinton did no more than play the role of Israeli enforcer, dooming for decades any chance of a compromised solution.

Last but not least, if anyone thinks that Clinton philosophy heeded constitutional restraints on the unfettered exercise of brutal police power on Americans, he need only remember Waco (the full story).

In short, it is true that the Bush regime was the culmination of a "long process" -- but that long process includes the collaboration and connivance of an equally neoliberal Democrtatic Party. That process is not racist but economic.

Similalry, to say that the New York Times promotes a somewhat lighter version of neo-liberalism does not mean that it does not fundamentally ascribe to the same philosophy that drives the Republicans. It does and its editorial board is stocked with major neo-liberal polemicists.

In fact, the Times continues to play the role of "Librool" foil, pandering to the other side of so-called "progressive" wedge issues while the Republicans palaver about patriotism and "conservative" values. It's truly a marvel how neo-liberals have honed the art of playing both sides of the wedge.

Of all this, Krugman writes not a word. Instead, he drags out the ol' tar baby and fetishes over race in order to blame the Republicans for exploiting racist phobias. Why? Because if the issue is really racist policies (as Krugman intones) then we might be razzle dazzled again into thinking that the election of a black Obama has ended those policies and that the New Beginning is arrived.

That is not the case. There will be no new beginning until neo-liberalism is anathematized for what it is and Americans develop a true egalitarianism founded in social consciousness.

©WCG, 2009


Friday, January 2, 2009

The Kommissar is Us

“Dreh dich nicht um, schau, schau,
der Kommissar geht um!
Dreh dich nicht um, schau, schau,
der Kommissar ist uns"
It was reported today that a family of U.S.-born Muslims, including a physician, a lawyer and several children, who were waiting to board a flight, were detained for investigation by agents of the Homeland Security Service. They had been overheard discussing their seating assignments and commenting on the fact that the seats adjacent to the wings were probably the safest. They were turned in by their fellow passengers.

Don't turn around, uh uh,

The detainees were eventually released and allowed to continue on their intended journey, but employees of the airline refused to let them board, on the grounds that the suspects had not been "cleared". Most of the news reports focused on this aspect of corporate obtuseness; none focused on the more critical fact that,

The Kommissar is us.

A little over seven years ago, Woodchip Gazette foretold the inevitable denouement of Bush's trumpetted "War on Terror".

"In all events, this war against terrorism on which we embark today, like the war on drugs on which we embarked years ago, cannot be won. ... And who is the enemy? ... What the Government will have to presume is that everyone is at least a potential terrorist. In the most fundamental sense that is a presumption that is entirely antithetical to the concept of civil friendship, i.e., societas." (The Devil's Bill)

Earlier in 2008, the Gazette's Dark Time Diary took note of a report that Homeland Security Service was training its agents to spot Western terrorist recruits, who were "capable of blending into American society and attacking domestic targets." We pointed out that was this training presupposed was none other than that all of us were presumptively "potential suspects." (Blendables)

And so the bill is being paid... without a murmur, even eagerly, plus with tips. Americans who are by and large dense to everything under the sun, are alert to anything suspicious... in fact to anything potentially suspicious... in fact suspicious to anything at all, because anything could potentially be a bad thing which, for the sake of safety, needs to be reported to our Guardians.

It does little good to play the "politically seasoned" and to slough off the incident as a regrettable but essentially minor case of The Swarthies -- Anglo-America's ongoing distrust of anything less creamy than buttermilk. The reason the excuse does not work is that what is at play here is not a form of racism but a generalized state of fear. The Muslim detainees had been speaking English and had said nothing patently untoward. Suppose they had been Hispanics speaking Spanish? Or maybe even Sephardic Israelis speaking Hebrew...or is that Arabic? The problem with generalized fear is that it needs something to grab onto precisely because it is "generalized" and therefore will grab onto anything in order to give itself a reason.

But a society that is suspicious of itself, is a society that has lost its fundamental coherence. In medical terms, the body politic has lost its health; it's biological processes become inverted and begin to work against the body rather than for it.

Aristotle pointed out millenia ago, that society is a form of friendship and is predicated on mutual trust. If we gathered together in a cave or a clearing it was because we trusted one another in the collective enterprise being undertaken. The gathering together could not have happened otherwise. Our subsequent living and working together and even our commerce become elemental forms of friendship that presume a basic level of good-intention and good-will.

To say, then, that we are each "potential suspects" to one another despite our "common appearance" is to put axe to the very root of society. We cease to be social and become inimicable. A society that is inimicable with itself is a mere husk, like a body wasted by a metastasizing disease.

The United States has always had strong collective, anti-social tendencies. Lacking a unifying culture above the habits of material consumption, the country fostered a culture of hucksterism that hid behind ersatz realism, empty bravado and self-adulation. Hud. This of course is the malignant core of neo-liberalism which sees society as a "beast" to be destroyed and ruthless Ego as the only good. The reductionist illogic of that ideology is precisely that it necessitates a fear of the equally ruthless other and when this fear is shared collectively, it becomes not simply fear of the foreign other but, turning inward, fear of self. At that point the body politic self-consumes.

©WCG, 2008