Remember the Story of Guillermo Rodriguez

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On Aug. 19, 2015, shortly after midnight, the brothers Stephen and Scott Leader assaulted Guillermo Rodriguez. Rodriguez had been sleeping near a train station in Boston. The Leader brothers beat him with a metal pipe, breaking his nose and bruising his ribs, and called him a “wetback.” They urinated on him. “All these illegals need to be deported,” they are said to have declared during the attack. The brothers were fans of the candidate who would go on to win the Republican party’s presidential nomination. Told of the incident at the time, that candidate said: “People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country, and they want this country to be great again.”

– Teju Cole, A Time for Refusal

Tyranny comes from democracy

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I read Chris Hedges’ book The Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, many years ago, and I was impressed by his strong statements and his searing condemnation of the educated class to which we belong, and how we lost the people by the cynically serving them spectacle, and how that spectacle would eventually become indistinguishable, to them, from reality.

In his trademark manner he articulated and clarified many things that had been vague, unformed ideas I’d entertained, writing of a future characterized by a widening gulf between the literate and the illiterate, complexity no longer understandable by the masses. His writing was hyperbolic, dire, doomsday. It seemed like an apocalyptic screed and much too dark. No more. His prognostications have been realized, the day he warned of has arrived.

Chris Hedges writes again, with many more now hopefully listening, that neoliberal kowtowing to corporate masters destroyed the underclass and opened the doors for fascism. He writes in an August 2016 article:

College-educated elites, on behalf of corporations, carried out the savage neoliberal assault on the working poor. Now they are being made to pay. Their duplicity—embodied in politicians such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—succeeded for decades.

On behalf of corporations indeed. He excoriates the press too, in this interview with my former boss David Talbot, dismissing most journalists as stenographers for the powerful.

There are tens of millions of Americans, especially lower-class whites, rightfully enraged at what has been done to them, their families and their communities. They have risen up to reject the neoliberal policies and political correctness imposed on them by college-educated elites from both political parties: Lower-class whites are embracing an American fascism.

These Americans want a kind of freedom—a freedom to hate. They want the freedom to use words like “nigger,” “kike,” “spic,” “chink,” “raghead” and “fag.” They want the freedom to idealize violence and the gun culture. They want the freedom to have enemies, to physically assault Muslims, undocumented workers, African-Americans, homosexuals and anyone who dares criticize their cryptofascism. They want the freedom to celebrate historical movements and figures that the college-educated elites condemn, including the Ku Klux Klan and the Confederacy. They want the freedom to ridicule and dismiss intellectuals, ideas, science and culture. They want the freedom to silence those who have been telling them how to behave. And they want the freedom to revel in hypermasculinity, racism, sexism and white patriarchy. These are the core sentiments of fascism. These sentiments are engendered by the collapse of the liberal state.

The freedom to hate has arrived and we can see it in the streets, in stores, in classrooms today, unleashed by the election of Trump.  All over the internet you can find innumerable examples of rising fascism such as this, which happened yesterday in Queens:

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Hedges quotes Richard Rorty, an old favorite of mine, whom I encountered because of his chapter “The Barber of Kasbeam”about cruelty in the work of Vladimir Nabokov in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity particularly “the potential of cruelty inherent in the quest for autonomy”. Rorty writes in his 1998 book Achieving Our Country a prediction of our current state of affairs:

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

But we can go even farther back than 1998 for this prediction.  Plato, in his Republic, warns that democracy is the very birthplace of tyranny. “Too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery, for both private man and city.” The Third Reich rose out of an era of great liberality and decadence, particularly in the cities, among the elite, a society of great freedom for women, gays, and Jews. At the time there was what people were calling a “überfremdung”–an “overpowering”–a great influx of foreigners into Germany.

There is a section, if you can bear to read it, on page 789 of your Bollingen edition of Plato, and continuing onto page 790 that describes a former oligarch, become a democrat, now shameless and resplendent in his freedom, sharing “equality” all around. See if you don’t recognize us in it:

“And does he not,” said, I, “also live out his life in this fashion, day by day indulging the appetite of the day, now winebibbing and abandoning himself to the lascivious pleasing of the flute and again drinking only water and dieting, and at one time exercising his body, and sometimes idling and neglecting all things, and at another time seeming to occupy himself with philosophy. And frequently he goes in for politics and bounces up and says and does whatever enters his head. And if military men excite his emulation, thither he rushes, and in his existence, but he calls this life of his the life of pleasure and freedom and happiness an cleaves to it to the end.”

“That is a perfect description,” he said, “of a devotee of equality.”

It is not reminiscent of the now classic description of the liberal elite as “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving”? And, too, this “devotee of equality” is not unlike Hedges’ description of liberals lavish in their inclusion, but excluding one group in particular:

These elites, many from East Coast Ivy League schools, spoke the language of values—civility, inclusivity, a condemnation of overt racism and bigotry, a concern for the middle class—while thrusting a knife into the back of the underclass for their corporate masters. This game has ended.

This game has ended indeed, and not how we thought it would. We’re paying attention now. These have been bad days, and after my sorrow and shock, I begin working on a plan.

I seek relief in poetry, Plato and the care and feeding of children and small dogs.

Drunk people respect authority

Really interesting research by Laura Van Berkel shows that people who are drunk, tired, or suffering other types of cognitive impairment such as distraction or stress are more likely to be vulnerable to “those in charge” and when asked, affirm that “control or dominance over people or resources” is  a “guiding principle in your life.”  Equality is something a calm, leisurely person is more likely to support. We revert to hierarchy under cognitive stress.

According to a 2009 review, conservatives tend to support hierarchy andauthority more than liberals do. Van Berkel, working with Chris Crandall and other colleagues, found that, in terms of how the hundred and seven subjects interviewed outside the bar thought about hierarchy, drunk people gave more conservative responses while sober people gave more liberal ones. Over the next few years, she and her team ran five more experiments, exploring the relationship between mental effort and support for hierarchy. In each case, they found that cognitive impairments, such as being stressed or distracted, made people more likely to favor hierarchy. Even encouraging “low-effort thought”—by forcing respondents to think quickly, say—made people more respectful of those in charge.

There may be some sub-category of people for whom being drunk arouses their own need to dominate. We’ve all seen belligerent, brawling drunks domineering drunks and aggressive drunks. And people who are stressed at work are also more likely to do what the boss says. Equality, the article notes, may be a state of mind.


Further Reading

Also mentioned in the New Yorker article:
 Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior by Christopher Boehm. A 1999 book in which Boehm, an anthropologist theorizes egalitarianism is in effect a hierarchy in which the weak combine forces to dominate the strong. Domination does not disappear, it just gets distributed.

Youth sports are destructive to family life

Soccer KidsI was in a meeting the other day in which we went around the table and introduced ourselves to each other. We were meant to describe our personal, non-work lives, and some people named hobbies, or told about their recent vacations, but more than half of the people at the meeting said they were big readers, or enjoyed hang-gliding, but 60% or so said they were the chauffeur for their kids and their soccer obligations, and slave to their children’s sports schedules.

I’ve found it’s nearly impossible to invite friends with traditionally schooled children to do things spontaneously on weekends–picnic or go hiking on a beautiful day, go out for dinner. “Sorry, Tommy’s got baseball”. “Can’t today, Melanie’s soccer practice.” Fortunately homeschooled kids seem to do a lot less organized sport and seem less invested in conforming with suburban social expectations. If you live in the suburbs, participation in team sports seems to be all the social activity on offer.

What an astonishing loss of life. Is it worth it to lose all that time with family and friends? The losses are steep. In a post on Mom’s Team, a blog for “Sports Parents”, Jeannette Twomey lists the things her family has missed:

“Over the years, we saw one family activity after another bow its head to youth sports. Dinner at home, reading before bedtime, visits to grandma’s house, household chores, games in the backyard, picnics, weekend jaunts into the countryside, camping trips, school vacations – all casualties of the children’s sports schedule.”

The rest of the family generally bears the brunt of one kid’s involvement in sports. How much lost time together, how many things missed? It boggles the mind.

Generally team sports  are not lifelong sports. You don’t see 50 year old men playing soccer or hockey. Lifelong sports are things like skiing, tennis, dancing, yoga running–70 year olds are still doing these. And the whole family can do them together.

Defining the role of Lead Parent

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Anne-Marie Slaughter’s husband wrote a great article about how he put his wife’s career first. He has a career, yet he takes the role of “lead parent”, a better term than the one I usually hear: “primary caregiver”.  I’ve read many similar articles, and the statistics and anecdotes in all of them are dismaying. This one was no different. But one thing I liked was how the author described his role and responsibilities, giving concrete examples.

Lead parenting is being on the front lines of everyday life. In my years as lead parent, I have gotten the kids out of the house in the morning; enforced bedtimes at night; monitored computer and TV use; attempted to ensure that homework got done right; encouraged involvement in sports and music; attended the baseball games, piano lessons, plays, and concerts that resulted; and kept tabs on social lives. To this day, I am listed first on emergency forms; I am the parent who drops everything in the event of a crisis.

Other things not included here would be: being responsible for buying, preparing and serving food and cleaning up after meals, while encouraging healthy eating and monitoring general health of the children. And beyond the parenting role, but intrinsic to the role nonetheless: being responsible for the house or apartment and its cleaning and maintenance. And likely also the car, as it is needed for shuttling kids to and from activities, grocery shopping and errands.

I was also moved by the implication in his last paragraph that so many men are missing something deep and meaningful in their lives:

At the end of life, we know that a top regret of most men is that they did not lead the caring and connected life they wanted, but rather the career-oriented life that was expected of them. I will not have that regret.

Photo via Flickr.

Champerty, Gawker and Peter Thiel

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It’s hard to pick a side in the Gawker-Thiel-Hogan lawsuit, reported today in Forbes. Billionaire Peter Thiel appears to be funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media, but the lawsuit and its outcome are a mere sideshow to the main story which is that this case is a terrifying development for those of us who value a free, democratic media. What is most frightening about this lawsuit is that the press has always played a significant role in defending the small and powerless against the big and powerful. Gawker has played this role in its own tabloid style, but Thiel’s funding of this lawsuit shows how money can protect that power through third-party litigation funding. 

Lawsuits like these can have a chilling effect on the rest of the media industry, said First Amendment expert Peter Scheer, as they may encourage other wealthy individuals to back litigation against media companies that run unflattering stories about them.

“That’s often the purpose of these cases,” said Scheer, the director of the First Amendment Coalition. “Winning is the ultimate chilling effect, but if you can’t win the case, you at least want the editors to think twice before writing another critical story about you.”

Champerty, as third-party litigation funding used to be called (and should probably be called again!) was formerly a crime, but the commercial litigation finance industry has been growing in recent years . It’s most commonly used as a form of speculation, in which “investors” seek potentially lucrative lawsuits, from which they receive a percentage, or as a means of protecting and expanding a company’s business. But the Thiel funding, coming as it does from a billionaire, is not an investment, but the settling of a personal vendetta  against a media company by someone with the money to drive a company to ruin through litigation.

Generally, people avoid frivolous lawsuits because it often exposes them to as much scrutiny as those they sue, so what is significant about this case is that by funding Hogan behind the scenes, Thiel could get his revenge, escape exposure, and influence the outcome of the case. Hogan’s lawyers made decisions against Hogan’s best interests, withdrawing a claim that would have required Gawker’s insurance company to pay damages rather than the company itself–a move that made Nick Denton, Gawker Media’s founder and CEO, suspect that a Silicon Valley millionaire was behind the suit. Gawker Media may or may not survive the suit in which Hogan was handed down a judgement of $140 million, which the publisher has appealed.

My hope is that the high profile of this case will hasten legal reform. The ethical dodginess of this type of funding is well known–after all champerty was once illegal.


Further Reading:

Gawker-Thiel-Hogan lawsuit article on Forbes

Why Denton thought Thiel was behind the lawsuit article on re|code

Arms Race: Law Firms and the Litigation Funding Boom article in American Lawyer

“There has always been discomfort about the role of money in the profession,” says Geoffrey Miller, co-director of New York University School of Law’s Center for Civil Justice. By adding investors to the litigation ecosystem, “are we losing something?” he asks. “Do we degrade our professionalism? Do we create in the public’s mind the sense that law is all about the money?”  Well, yes.

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