La La Land and the loving lap of capitalism

Show me the money: 

How post-Depression movie musicals choose the dollar bill over happy endings

Show me the money: La La Land and the loving lap of capitalism
La La Land (Credit: Summit Entertainment)

From its opening number — a cross between a restrained “Gotta Dance” from “Singin’ in the Rain” and a demure “Hot Lunch” from “Fame”— “La La Land” promises a Hollywood musical about fools who dare to dream and dreamers who dare to be fooled, both about love and career, though never the twain shall meet. From the moment the nameless hopefuls hopefully leap from their cars on a stalled Los Angeles freeway and begin singing about how they left their small towns for Tinseltown and Emma Stone gives Ryan Gosling the finger, director/screenwriter Damien Chazelle promises both screwball comedy and a nostalgic paean to the gilded age of musicals past. For the most part, he delivers.

Listen, no one will ever be Fred and Ginger. As my wife would say, Fred Astaire is the Michael Jordan of dance. There is, however, a certain dreamy, floating quality to Mia and Seb — Stone and Gosling — that is more reminiscent of Astaire movies than, say, the deranged earnestness of Garland and Rooney. The hopeful hopefuls trying to make it in the big town and put on a show. And by make it, I mean, make hay and make hay. Let’s remember that Fred Astaire movies were big at the height of the Depression. In fact, all movie musicals of this era are about class and entitlement. (See “Gold Diggers of 1933.”) Thus the obsession with the rich people falling down in the mud and the idea of the madcap heiress in a gilded cage or the girl who struggles as a dance instructor becoming a big star (“Swing Time”). Interestingly, aside from the Golden Age — the forties and fifties — the leaning of the Hollywood musical is more rom-trag than rom-com. For one, the music people were listening to on the radio had changed. “Hair” happened. While Broadway is mostly built on nostalgia and happy endings, “Hair” was a takedown of the establishment that basically ruined musical theater for the next 20 years. Meanwhile, “Grease,” a puff-piece valentine about a nice girl who puts on hot pants so everyone will like her, stole America’s left ventricle and reminded us how fun it was to be a slut and a delinquent and then get into a car and fly away.

When you really think about it, the “Grease” blip makes total sense after Watergate, as “La La Land” does in the era of 45. America hated all agents of power. Hollywood began banking on the fact that people were trapped in a nostalgic reverie of epic proportions. People knew America was in the shitter. The country witnessed an expansion of an earlier trend from pre-Depression capitalism that operated in a narrow band of faith. In short, the Depression, put on pause, merely popped up in the seventies. Thus the message of musicals: Democracy is a lie, capitalism is flawed, so forget that sunset, kids.

Capitalism may also be why the ol’ juggling-love-and-career trope rears its seemingly sexist head in “La La Land.” It’s not that Mia should choose a man over vocation as Annie Oakley was forced to in “Annie Get Your Gun,” as much as a bittersweet reminder of what still keeps us apart. How who we were make us who we are and what you have to sacrifice to make it in this lousy world. Is Seb a sellout? Is Mia? Does it matter? In America, the two most coveted dream gigs are movie star and rock star and this film kinda brass-rings it for both, at least from a bank account perspective. Aside from the song “The Fools Who Dream,” one of the most poignant moments in “La La Land” is when Seb listens to Mia talking to her mother on the phone about his lack of work as he gazes sadly at a rust stain on his popcorn ceiling. The rust stain is his stalled career. The death of jazz. Maybe even Hollywood itself.

True, class tension exists in all comedy, especially musical comedy. See Plautus or “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” The low-person-brought-high gives itself over to certain types of story that make it easy for a storyteller to expose a certain tension in certain systems about power and desire. This is what commedia is about. Love and money, the girl and the gold, hearts and dollar signs and the itchy impossibility of trying to get both simultaneously. In “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Millie, a lovable gold digger, comes to the big city to get a job and marry a rich man but instead ends up with a “green-glass love,” AKA the dorky loser who, lucky for her, turns out to be the son of an heiress.

What’s more, as Watergate made America embarrassed about itself, the idea that sad endings were more real and relevant pervaded.” Grit was good. Movie musicals, even those with “happy” endings, moved into complex territory. Even “Sound of Music,” the most successful movie musical pre-Nixon, was a harbinger of bittersweet endings to come — The von Trapps cross the Swiss mountains on foot only, oh wait: all the Jews died in an oven. “Cabaret” is both about the Holocaust and wacky broads who make life out of tragedy. “Chicago” has a happy ending about two vaudevillian murderers who manage to get away with it, and in “Rent,” Mimi, another performer, somehow rises from the dead, though we can only assume this will be short-lived.

In Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” we see the entire debate between love and money writ large. Will the hooker with a heart of iron pick the penniless artist or will she sell herself out to the wealthy man? Obviously, we’re supposed to root for Ewan McGregor and hope that Nicole Kidman joins him to starve in a garret. Because rich people are villains and capitalism equals the root of all evil. Money bad. Heart good. Only Nicky Kid dies in a big musical number in front of all of Paris, so not only does the whore die — yeah, yeah— but capitalism dies; so what are we left with? A new kind of story, where the nice rebel boychik gets his start in show biz by writing a tale that will live forever. Welcome to Hollywood, Mr. Arnstein.

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is the anti-“Moulin Rouge!” yet with a more rueful intensity. It’s about love and life and what could have been and can never be because of class and family and war. At the end of it all, Geneviève rolls up at Guy’s gas station in a Mercedes looking fab and they have a chat and then they say a wistful goodbye. Snow is falling. He kisses his children. There is, in this film as in “La La Land,” a sense that these characters wound up with the life they needed to have. I mean, Catherine Deneuve pumping gas? Get real. It’s not that they shouldn’t love each other, it’s that they cannot have a happily ever after. What’s romantic about “Umbrellas” is that they tried. . .

Maybe it’s not that love and commerce can’t intermarry, or that the girl can’t get the guy and the gig and the gold. Indeed, the pull of rich versus poor wages a strange war on a country’s heart. Who knows. Maybe they can still be friends.

Emily Jordan is a YA writer living in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @EmilyBeJordan.

In the age of Trump, conservative thought has died at last

From Edmund Burke to Mr. Burns:

Conservatism once had a coherent philosophy. After the neocons, the bigots and the neo-fascists, nothing’s left

From Edmund Burke to Mr. Burns: In the age of Trump, conservative thought has died at last
Edmund Burke; Charles Montgomery Burns, William F. Buckley, Jr. (Credit: Wikimedia/Fox/AP/Nancy Kaye/Photo montage by Salon)

One way to understand what we are witnessing, amid the national humiliation of Donald Trump’s presidency, is to see it as the total collapse of conservative ideology. That might seem like a strange claim in a year when the far right seems ascendant throughout the Western world, and when the Republican Party nominally controls the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time in a decade. But I think it’s accurate, and all the breathless Ayn Rand fanfics hidden away in the hard drive of Paul Ryan’s Windows Vista PC don’t make it less so. (It does not follow, by the way, that “liberal” ideology is in such great shape either, and the two phenomena are not unconnected. Topic for another time!)

As a political force, American conservative movement has been morally and philosophically bankrupt for decades, which is one of the big reasons we are where we are right now. Largely in the interest of preserving their own power and empowering a massive money-grab by the class they represent, Republicans have cobbled together cynical coalitions by trying to appease multiple constituencies with competing and often contradictory interests: Libertarians, the Christian right, the post-industrial white working class, finance capital and the billionaire caste. Those groups have literally nothing in common beyond a shared antipathy for … well, for something that cannot be precisely defined. They don’t like the idea of post-1960s Volvo-driving, latte-drinking liberal bicoastal cosmopolitanism, that much is for sure. But the specific things they hate about it are not the same, and the goals they seek are mutually incompatible and largely unachievable.

But behind that political devolution lies the ideological implosion that’s been coming a long time, longer than I can possibly summarize here. It’s safe to say that Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton, two 18th-century titans the modern conservative movement likes to cite as forebears, would be horrified by the limited, narrow-minded and intellectually inflexible nature of so-called conservative thought in the 21st century. How those guys would make sense of the fact that supposedly intelligent people who claim to share their lineage have hitched their wagons to the idiocy, mendacity and delusional thinking of the would-be autocrat in the White House — an implausible caricature of the stupefied mob democracy Burke and Hamilton hated and feared — I can’t begin to imagine.

Even so, the final stages of the collapse have arrived with startling suddenness. Just a few decades ago, William F. Buckley successfully appointed himself as the intellectual standard-bearer of the American right, in large part by purging overt white supremacists and conspiracy-minded ultra-nationalists from the mainstream conservative movement. Buckley was a slippery and devious character, and despite his command of classical languages and all that, was more like a guy who plays a first-rate intellect on TV than the real thing. Arguably his decision to drive the troglodytes from the temple was more a matter of political strategy than moral principle (although I believe he was genuinely ashamed of his early embrace of segregation).

In any event, racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and other forms of paranoid thought were never absent from American conservatism — as in the “Southern strategy” that got Richard Nixon elected in 1968, and made a big comeback during the great renaissance of the Reagan revolution. Those who expressed such views were expected to keep it clean, so to speak, and to observe rhetorical limits. Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas were welcomed at the country club; Klansmen and neo-Nazis and guys who handed out homemade brochures set in 8-point type about the Bilderberg Group were exiled to the strip mall. Immigration, always the great rift in conservative politics, was politely and pointedly ignored, like the ripping fart laid by the bank president’s wife at her garden party.

It couldn’t last, and it didn’t: The grand bargain the Republican elite thought it had struck with the loonier fringes of the lumpenproletariat came undone in spectacular fashion in 2016. Donald Trump and his pitchfork brigade stormed the country club, chugged all the Pinot Grigio straight from the bottle and then barfed it up on the imitation Persian carpets. Blowhard bigot Steve Bannon is running strategy for the White House, while his crony Stephen Miller — variously compared by late-night TV hosts to “Sméagol in a suit” or a younger Montgomery Burns — dispenses outrageous lies on the president’s behalf.

What’s left of the conservative intelligentsia is either whimpering in the corner alongside New York Times columnist David Brooks or groveling before its new overlords and swearing eternal fealty. Either way, it’s pathetic. Buckley may have been an erudite con artist to a large extent, but he had a coherent worldview, avoided telling outright falsehoods and would genially have agreed that there were some good things about the Enlightenment, and perhaps even about postwar American culture. It’s a long slippery ride downhill from him to this dude, the leading intellectual apologist for the Trumpian counterrevolution.

This is insane. [“This” being continued immigration by “Third World foreigners.”] This is the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die. Trump, alone among candidates for high office in this or in the last seven (at least) cycles, has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live. I want to end the insanity.

I don’t know about you, but when I encounter someone with an expensive education who ought to know better using the term “my people” with no clear point of reference — he does not mean, say, the general population of the United States — I can almost hear the singing and see the flickering torchlight. As Molly Ivins once observed about a famous 1992 speech by Pat Buchanan (which I witnessed live, from the floor of the Republican convention in Houston), that probably read better in the original German.

That’s the climactic passage from “The Flight 93 Election,” a now-infamous viral essay by Michael Anton, a onetime George W. Bush speechwriter who has more recently been hired as a policy aide by Trump’s National Security Council. Anton published it in September under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus, a reference so obscure and self-aggrandizing that even Buckley would have found it unbelievably pompous. (The historical Decius was a Roman consul who supposedly sacrificed himself for his troops — and, of course, for the empire.)

Several things strike me about the “Flight 93” essay, the first of them being its sheer propagandistic balls-out bogosity. Anton is a compelling prose stylist in a distinctively contemporary vein: He can turn a phrase and establish a rhythm, is not averse to pop-culture references and Internet-speak, and can deploy big words without getting in over his head. But his arguments are based in shameless Trumpian bullshit; I may be kidding myself, but I don’t believe Buckley would ever have descended to such a torrent of lies. In Anton’s imaginary universe of September 2016, crime was “way, way up” and “rising fast,” the economy was in ruins, Hillary wanted to admit “a million more Syrians” and America was about to be swamped in “a tsunami of leftism” that would unleash “vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent.”

None of that is remotely related to reality, and Anton certainly knows it. What is startling for a leftist reader is the fact that roughly one-third of Anton’s arguments correspond closely to those of, say, Bernie Sanders, as when he excoriates “the sophists of the Davoisie oligarchy” (i.e., the neoliberals) who rationalize “lower wages, outsourcing, de-industrialization, and endless, pointless, winless war.”

On the other hand, like nearly all right-wingers Anton has an enormous blind spot that prevents him from perceiving any difference between mainstream liberalism and “the left.” It’s almost hilarious to envision a world in which Hillary Clinton, of all people — the most conservative and most nationalistic Democratic presidential nominee since approximately forever (since Al Smith? Since Woodrow Wilson?) — could be successfully depicted as a socialist-feminist dictator in waiting. Since that world was our actual world last fall, it isn’t funny at all.

Or maybe he’s just pretending to think that Clinton was Trotsky in a pantsuit. Anton is no neocon, but he speaks and understands the neocon code. As a former Bush administration employee he is almost certainly an apostate to the neocon worldview, which is internationalist and imperialist, enthusiastic about free trade and agnostic on immigration, and eager to minimize religious and racial conflict. (If you haven’t noticed those are all things about recent conservatism that the Trump movement forcefully rejects.) One could plausibly say that it is the remnants of the neocon old guard, like John McCain, Lindsey Graham and their allies in the CIA, who are fighting a last-ditch counterinsurgency against the Trumpian takeover of conservatism.

I would speculate that Anton’s Göbbels-scale lies about virtually everything, although their substance is borrowed from Trump and Bannon, have their ideological roots in the neo-Platonist scare-gospel of Leo Strauss. That legendary University of Chicago political philosopher taught generations of young neocons that selling falsehoods to a gullible public in service to a noble cause is not merely defensible but necessary.

Anton’s gullible public, however, is his fellow conservative intellectuals. He is trying to convince them that their cause is lost and it’s time to try something new. Like most liars, salesmen and writers, he gets carried away by the force of his own rhetoric and reveals more than he means to. The gist of “The Flight 93 Election” is only partly that America faces an invasion of transgender P.C. Islamic terrorism and, like him or not, Donald Trump represents our last chance to eat non-Sharia, non-Communist apple pie without kale mixed into it and chai poured on top of it. Anton himself admits that conservatives say that every four years, and it’s never quite true.

His real point is that conservatism has failed — that the entire 200-odd-year tradition of strategic counterattack against revolution that began with Burke, and was designed to preserve as much power and privilege as possible and carve out a middle way between too much autocracy and too much democracy, has arrived at a dead end. Those on the right who accepted the pre-Trumpian status quo, even if they complained about it, Anton says, had “implicitly admitted that conservatism is wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong on the nature of politics, and wrong in its policy prescriptions.”

Is he trolling his fellow so-called conservatives, or trolling himself? That passage feels to me like a mea culpa and an act of repentance. Anton’s solution to this impasse, needless to say, is not for conservatives to go back to first principles and recover the analytical, conciliatory and pragmatic spirit of Burke. He mocks the Burkean tradition once by name, and several times by implication, which is something like a priest denouncing the pope. Conservatism is wrong; Anton wants “his people” to live, and he sees that life made possible through in a unique revolutionary leader, an “alleged buffoon” who is “more prudent — more practically wise” than all those who opposed him. In other words, he wants conservatives to abandon their failed ideology and embrace a new one. That one has a name too, and many people on the American right were positively aching for it.

http://www.salon.com/2017/02/18/from-edmund-burke-to-mr-burns-in-the-age-of-trump-conservative-thought-has-died-at-last/?source=newsletter

Milo Yiannopoulos isn’t ready for “Real Time” and it shows

Bill Maher’s public service:

Most people have no idea who Milo is, except that he claims to be “Dangerous.” Friday night, Bill Maher showed them

Bill Maher's public service: Milo Yiannopoulos isn't ready for "Real Time" and it shows
(Credit: Getty/Drew Angerer/HBO/Salon)

When it was announced that this week’s episode of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” would feature so-called “right-wing provocateur” Milo Yiannopoulos, some people freaked out. Many seemed to believe that bringing Yiannopoulos on the show would legitimize a noxious professional troll, as if that horse hadn’t already escaped the barn when America elected one president.

Journalist Jeremy Scahill, co-founding editor of The Intercept, canceled his own booking in protest. In his one-on-one segment with Maher at the top of the show, Yiannopoulos called that approach out: “If you don’t show up to debate, you lose.” On one hand, not every debate is worth sitting in the makeup chair for. (I’ve seen the Milo show; I’ve seen better.) But Yiannopoulos isn’t leading a political movement; he’s an attention-seeking troll. They don’t feed on legitimacy, but rather scandal and outrage, which Scahill helped deliver. For my part, I was irritated that I’d have to sit through an interview with this guy before getting to Leah Remini’s Scientology Dirt Bag, so it’s not like I had a high horse to climb off of.

It’s easy to forget, if you don’t live on the Internet, that most people in America — and quite possibly most “Real Time” home viewers — likely have no idea who Milo is or if they should care about him at all. (Third *NSync alum from the right?) If their first up-close exposure to Milo Yiannopoulos, C-Lister Famous for Something or Other, was last night’s “Real Time,” I can’t imagine they now understand what all the fuss is about.

Yiannopoulos came out quite saucy and self-satisfied — ain’t I a stinker? — so Maher, ever the comedy veteran, heckled him right out of the gate: “You look like Bruno.” Milo pouted, and then turned his exaggerated frown into a smirk after a beat. “You know I told [the make-up artist] to dial down the contouring.”

Despite their flirty greetings, Maher didn’t let Milo off easy. They agreed on a few things, like how liberals are too easily offended, but throughout the interview, Milo seemed squirmy, a bit flustered and obviously outmatched by his host. Maher wasn’t interested in gossiping about Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman, whom Milo lamely joked were funny before they “contracted feminism.” In fact, he dismissed most of Milo’s low-hanging outrage-bait as just kind of stupid.

Maher’s challenge here was not being cast as Principal Skinner arguing with Bart Simpson, and for the most part, he succeeded. “You’re wrong about certain things,” Maher tells him flatly, giving examples from Milo’s own spiels: “Black Lives Matter is a hate group. There’s no such thing as white privilege.”

Maher, a consistent atheist, also dinged Yiannopoulos for “bullshit stupid thinking” when Milo gave Catholicism a pass he doesn’t extend to other religions.

Yiannopoulos insisted that he’s funny and that his jokes “build bridges.” All he cares about, he claimed, is free speech and free expression, which he described as “now a conservative position.”

“I’m the guy who always defends jokes, right up to the point where they pointlessly hurt people,” Maher said, bringing up the campaign of vicious harassment against “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones that got Yiannopoulos banned from Twitter.

Milo’s defense was a mess of facile talking points. “I like to think of myself as a virtuous troll,” he said. He also claimed, “What actually hurts people is murder, violence. Mean words don’t hurt people.”

“Which some people would say you’ve incited,” countered Maher, though he didn’t give any concrete examples.

“They would be idiots,” said Yiannopoulos.

For a couple of years in the 1980s, my family lived in Germany, where Nazi symbols were, for very understandable reasons, forbidden. As an earnest 7-year-old who read a lot of children’s literature set during World War II, it freaked me out to see swastikas scratched and inked into naughty graffiti, presented with as much gravity and political intent as butts-and-boobs doodles were back home. Little kids test social boundaries all the time. They’re drawn to the illicit — like giggling over Nazi symbols, which they know are bad but don’t quite understand — because that which is frightening for abstract reasons can also be thrilling, even titillating. Part of growing up — as I hope the kid at my Catholic school who was responsible for that graffiti did, eventually — is learning how one kid’s abstract illicit thrills can be another person’s concrete and dangerous threats, and adjusting your behavior accordingly.

Yiannopoulos is an intriguing conundrum because even though he’s an out gay man in his 30s, not a doodling child, he refuses to connect his own flippant denigration of gay people as hyper-sexed, druggy and untrustworthy — abstract jokes he’s in on — to the concrete threat of discrimination or even violence that LGBT people face from those who may feel emboldened or justified by those attitudes. Maybe he feels those fears are idiotic. Most of his fans are likely in it for the dark thrill of an illicit giggle alone: the permission to laugh at a gay joke because a gay man made it. But how grotesque of a spotlight-chaser does one have to be to ignore the possibility of the fan that isn’t? And how narcissistic is it to forcibly extend that “in on the joke” intimacy to those who haven’t issued an invitation first, like women, black people or Muslims?

On one hand, it’s a pity Maher didn’t have time to delve that deep into a discussion of the philosophy of “j/k lol” with Yiannopoulos. On the other hand, it’s not like Milo said anything on “Real Time” that indicated he’d be up for a challenging intellectual discussion about where the line is, and what it’s used for.

Throughout the segment, Milo demonstrated that as far as provocateurs go, he’s nowhere near Maher’s level. You can disagree with Maher’s positions on politics and religion, but he’s a pro who can back a gag or a flat statement up with reason and consistency. Milo’s a snarky brunch friend on a second round of Bloodies for people who don’t have snarky brunch friends. (Get off Gab once in a while and buy a round, fanboys! You can get your fill of Lena Dunham jokes in person.) He’s managed to build a public speaking and publishing career on little more than being shameless, disgusting and reasonably attractive at the same time. America, land of opportunity!

Maher closed the segment by scolding his audience. “Stop taking the bait, liberals!” he cried. “You’re all freaking out about this fucking impish British fag! You schoolgirls!”

Maher’s using his words as a blunt instrument here, but the sentiment’s not wrong. Exposing Yiannopoulos as a lightweight “famous for doing nothing” vacuous Twitter celeb on TV — as Maher just did — is likely going to be more effective at limiting his cachet and influence than inadvertently building up his illicit, underground cred through outrage. Pushing a malignant thing like Milo Yiannopoulos out into the spotlight isn’t necessarily normalizing it. Sometimes the cliché is true, and sunlight really is the best disinfectant.

Will the Trumpian nightmare lead to a real “political revolution” after all?

Out of darkness, light:

Slavoj Žižek argued Trump would be better for the left than Clinton — and if we survive this, he might be right

Out of darkness, light: Will the Trumpian nightmare lead to a real "political revolution" after all?
(Credit: Getty/Win McNamee/Andrew Harrer)

Last November, the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek turned a lot of heads when he announced shortly before the 2016 presidential election that if he were American, he would vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton — not because he thought Trump was the lesser evil, but precisely because he was the greater evil.

The Slovenian intellectual’s hope was that the election of a vulgar, right-wing extremist like Trump would “be a kind of big awakening” that would trigger “new political processes” in America. In other words, with a reactionary demagogue as transparently abhorrent and dangerous as Trump in the White House, a popular movement on the left would emerge to challenge not only Trump’s reactionary populism, but the neoliberal status quo that had long prevailed in Washington. Clinton, argued Žižek, stood for an “absolute inertia” that would stifle a populist movement on the left, and while there was great danger in a Trump presidency, there was also great danger in electing Clinton — especially in the long run.

This was obviously a controversial — and very Žižekian — opinion that most on the left did not espouse. One of the most prominent leftist intellectuals of our time, Noam Chomsky, called it a “terrible point,” remarking that “it was the same point that people like him said about Hitler in the early ’30s.” Chomsky means the German Communists, who in the early 1930s were more critical of the reformist Social Democratic Party — which they preposterously labeled a “social fascist” party — than they were of the Nazis.

“The left could have been organized to keeping [Clinton’s] feet to the fire,” noted  Chomsky in an interview with Al Jazeera. “What it will be doing now is trying to protect rights … gains that have been achieved, from being destroyed. That’s completely regressive.”

While Chomsky is absolutely correct — the Trump administration’s assault on civil liberties, democracy and the Constitution has only just begun, and the left will be on the political defensive for the next four years — Žižek’s point was perhaps not quite as far off as as Chomsky believed.

Shortly before the election, many people wondered what would become of the far-right populist movement that had been energized under Trump after the election, which most assumed he would lose. It is doubtful that it would have just withered away, as many liberals no doubt hoped. With Clinton in the White House, the Democrats would have been at a clear disadvantage in both the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 elections (think of the Obama backlash during the 2010 midterm elections, and then consider how much more well-liked Obama was than Clinton).

This is particularly important when you consider that 2020 is a census year, which means that the party that comes out on top will have greater control of redrawing district lines across the country. The GOP has been able to maintain control of the House since 2010 in large part because of the extreme gerrymandering that was implemented after the 2010 Obama backlash — and in four years the winning party will have similar power (currently, Republicans control state legislatures in 24 states, while Democrats only control five).

Of course, this is still some distance away, and a lot can happen in the interim. Though we are just one month into Trump’s term, his presidency has already surpassed all recent predecessors in scandal and controversy, and the dysfunction is palpable. At times it is hard to imagine how the United States can survive another 47 weeks of this unhinged and extremist administration. While many had hoped that Trump would curb his divisive rhetoric as president and take a more pragmatic approach to governing, the exact opposite has occurred, and it is now clear that fanatics like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller are running the show (and that Trump’s erratic, impulsive and thin-skinned personality cannot be controlled).

Thus, Chomsky’s pessimism was well-founded when he said that the government is now in the hands of the “most dangerous organization in world history.”

At the same time, it appears that some of Žižek’s hopes are materializing as well. The clearest example of this was the massive Women’s March in Washington — along with hundreds of sister marches across the country — the day after Trump’s inauguration. According to various political scientists, it was the single largest day of protests in American history — and peaceful demonstrations have continued ever since.

Trump’s controversial executive orders and cabinet picks have led to a sustained grassroots resistance in the first month of his presidency, and it is unlikely to die down anytime soon. Moumita Ahmed, who founded the Facebook group “Millennials for Revolution” (originally “Millennials for Bernie”), recently told CNN that she believes this is “not just the beginning of the ‘tea party of the left’ but a larger movement for civil rights that could make history,” and that the protests will “continue and get bigger and bigger.”

As long as Trump is in the White House, the demonstrations are likely to grow. What remains unclear is whether this grassroots resistance will be as effective in shaping electoral politics as the Tea Party was back in 2010 — and whether the Democratic Party will be as welcoming to the populist left as the GOP was to the populist right.

The current tension between progressive activists protesting on the street and the Democratic establishment was displayed by an interesting exchange last week between House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and an NYU student at a CNN town hall. After pointing out that a majority of millennials no longer support the capitalist system, the young student asked Pelosi whether she felt that the Democratic Party could “move farther left to a more populist message, the way the alt-right has sort of captured this populist strain on the right wing,” and if the Democrats “could make a more stark contrast to right-wing economics?” The question — or, more explicitly, the statement that young people are rejecting capitalism — made Pelosi visibly uncomfortable, and the congresswoman felt it necessary to emphasize the Democratic Party’s loyalty: “I have to say, we’re capitalist ― and that’s just the way it is.”

This is understandable — after all, the Democratic Party does support capitalist party, and the House minority leader can’t be expected to make radical pronouncements. But Pelosi was so concerned with defending the sanctity of capitalism that she failed to answer whether the Democrats could or should espouse a more populist economic message, akin to the social-democratic platform that nearly carried Bernie Sanders to victory over Clinton.

That kind of Democratic resistance to economic populism is making many progressives question whether the party is ready to lead a viable resistance against right-wing populism. Some progressives are starting to join other left-wing organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Of course, it is a truism in American politics that third parties are not viable alternatives if the goal is to succeed in electoral politics — and as long as there is a winner-takes-all system in place, this will obstinately remain true. The pragmatic approach for the populist left is to work to transform the Democratic Party itself, as groups like Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats have set out to do, while sustaining a popular movement on the ground.

Likewise, the pragmatic approach for the Democratic leadership is to embrace the growing grassroots left and combat Trump-style populism with their own anti-establishment message. With a historically low approval rating, Trump is already the most unpopular president in modern history, and his party is now the “establishment.” That means the Democrats will have the perfect opportunity to lead a popular and successful resistance in 2018 and 2020 if they can adopt a compelling populist message of their own.

With the many profound crises that currently face humanity, there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the future. The worst-case scenario is that the Trump presidency could sound a “death knell for the human species,” as Chomsky put it last year. But if we are lucky enough to avoid World War III, this nightmare could also bring about the “big awakening” that Žižek imagines — and could trigger a popular movement to reverse the damage that has been done over the past 50 years.

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

The Trump press conference: A ferocious conflict within the ruling elite

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17 February 2017

The news conference given by Donald Trump Thursday afternoon was extraordinary and unprecedented. The event took on a surreal character as, for more than 75 minutes, the US president traded insults with journalists and otherwise engaged in a bitter battle with his nemeses in the media. It is not comparable to anything seen before in modern American history, even at the height of the Watergate crisis.

In witnessing such a spectacle, it is always necessary to uncover the rational content, the underlying political dynamic. In this case, the press conference gave expression to a vicious conflict within the American ruling class over foreign policy as the United States hurtles toward war.

The news conference was initially called to announce Trump’s new pick for labor secretary, but this took up only one minute of the event. Trump began with a litany of achievements and actions he has taken since his inauguration, which was largely directed at the ruling elite in an appeal for support. The stock market has “hit record numbers,” corporate regulations are being eliminated, immigrants are being targeted for deportation, and Trump has ordered a “massive rebuilding” of the US military, among other right-wing measures.

However, from the media, channeling the US intelligence apparatus, questions focused almost exclusively on the ties of the Trump administration to Russia and the circumstances behind the forced resignation earlier this week of Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, over his pre-inauguration telephone conversation with the Russian ambassador.

Trump responded with a diatribe in which the media served as a stand-in for his real opponents in the US ruling elite, comprising the bulk of the permanent military-intelligence apparatus that really runs the government, regardless of which party controls the White House or majorities in Congress. He repeatedly denounced what he called “illegal leaks” to the media from sources within the intelligence agencies.

It was remarkable that when Trump directly denounced the media as a mouthpiece for the intelligence agencies, there was no attempt to rebut him. Everyone knows it is true. Likewise, when he flatly denied any contact between his campaign and Russian intelligence agencies, not a single reporter could cite evidence to the contrary.

In the course of the press conference, Trump blurted out a number of astonishing comments that point to the extreme dangers facing the entire world.

Responding to questions about what he would do about a Russian ship conducting surveillance operations in international waters off the coast of Connecticut—the same type of operations US warships conduct on a much larger scale off the coasts of Russia and China—Trump said, “The greatest thing I could do is shoot that ship that’s 30 miles off shore right out of the water. Everyone in this country’s going to say ‘oh, it’s so great.’” He continued, “If I was just brutal on Russia right now, just brutal, people would say, you would say, ‘Oh, isn’t that wonderful.’”

Trump pointed out the implications of such a clash, given that Russia and the United States have the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world. “We’re a very powerful nuclear country and so are they,” he said. “I have been briefed. And I can tell you one thing about a briefing that we’re allowed to say because anybody that ever read the most basic book can say it: a nuclear holocaust would be like no other.” In other words, there are ongoing discussions, at the highest levels of the American government, about a potential nuclear war with Russia, for which preparations are well advanced.

When challenged by one reporter on why there was no response by the US government to a series of what he called “provocations” by Russia—largely consisting of incidents provoked by US and NATO war maneuvers along Russia’s borders—Trump replied, “I’m not going to tell you anything about what response I do. I don’t talk about military response.”

He expanded on this theme, declaring that he would not talk about military operations in Iraq, North Korea, Iran or anywhere else. “You know why? Because they shouldn’t know. And eventually, you guys are going to get tired of asking that question.”

Such conflicts within the ruling elite over foreign policy are usually fought out behind the scenes, as with discontent within the military-intelligence apparatus over Obama’s retreat from a direct military intervention in Syria in 2013, when he failed to enforce his so-called “red line” against the government of Bashar al-Assad.

This time, however, the conflict has exploded into the open. Aside from the specific form that the debate within the US state apparatus has taken, it is an expression of an underlying crisis of the entire capitalist order. Twenty-five years of unending war are metastasizing, with extreme rapidity, into a major conflict involving large nation-states. National security journals are full of articles in which there is open discussion about war with Russia, in which the question is not if, but when and how. Trump, on the other hand, has focused his attention on China. In either case, the consequences are incalculable.

What was perhaps most striking is how remote the entire press conference was from the sentiments and concerns of the vast majority of the American population. There was virtually no questioning at the press conference about Trump’s war against immigrant workers or the nationwide day of protest by immigrants and their supporters that was taking place at the same time.

Those participating in the mass protests that have erupted since Trump’s inauguration are not motivated by a desire to launch a war with Russia, but by hatred of Trump’s authoritarian, anti-democratic policies and the oligarchic government that he has set up.

Trump’s critics in the Democratic Party and media, however, are responding to powerful sections of the US ruling elite who welcome Trump’s ultra-reactionary domestic policies—tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, deregulation of corporations, attacks on democratic rights, persecution of immigrants—but regard his posture of seeking better relations with Russia as intolerable.

The Democrats have responded with passive handwringing while Trump has assembled his cabinet of billionaires, ex-generals and right-wing fanatics, and issued a series of reactionary and unconstitutional executive orders. But when given the opportunity to attack Trump as soft on Russia, they engage in savage witch-hunting that recalls nothing so much as McCarthyism.

There is no faction with the American ruling class that is opposed to imperialist war. In the struggle to prevent war, it is up to the working class to intervene independently, opposing both factions in the US ruling elite, both Trump and the line-up of the CIA, the media and the Democratic Party.

Patrick Martin

WSWS

Why Liberals Are Wrong About Trump

Glenn Rockowitz

author, formerly SNL, delight

Why are the liberals completely overreacting to Trump’s unique style of governing?

They’re not. He’s a fucking sociopath. And here’s a recipe for raspberry scones:

  1. Combine measured flour, 1/4 cup of the sugar, the baking powder, lemon zest, and salt in a large bowl and whisk to break up any lumps. Using a pastry blender or 2 knives, cut the butter into the flour mixture until small, pea-sized pieces remain.
  2. Pour in 3/4 cup of the cream and, using your finger, mix until just incorporated and a rough, slightly sticky mound has formed (not all of the flour will be incorporated). Turn the dough and loose flour out onto a work surface and knead until most of the flour is incorporated and the dough just holds together (be careful not to overwork it). Lightly flour a rolling pin and the work surface. Using your hands, roughly form the dough into a rectangle, keeping the long edge toward you. Roll the dough into an 8-by-10-inch rectangle (if the dough cracks, push it back together), again keeping the long edge toward you.
  3. Remove the raspberries from the freezer, evenly arrange them in a single layer over the lower two-thirds of the rectangle, and press them into the dough (it’s OK if some break).
  4. Starting with the top, berryless third, fold the dough lengthwise into thirds, pressing on the layers as you go (use a spatula or pasty scraper if the dough sticks to the work surface).
  5. Flour the rolling pin again and gently roll the dough into an even 1-inch-thick block. If the ends become tapered, square them with your hands. Slice the dough crosswise (do not saw back and forth) into 4 equal pieces. Cut each piece diagonally to form 2 triangles.
  6. Transfer the scones to the floured plate and place in the freezer for 5 minutes.
  7. Remove the scones from the freezer and transfer to the prepared baking sheet, setting them 2 inches apart. Brush a thin layer of the remaining 1 tablespoon cream over the tops of the scones and sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar. Bake until golden brown on the top and bottom, about 20 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

View story at Medium.com

Depression Is an Unlikely Advantage in the Fight Against Fascism

CULTURE
Life under the yoke of depression is frighteningly similar to life in Trump’s America, and knowing one can teach you how to approach the other.

Blurred photo of sad man in his room
Photo Credit: Atlantis Images/Shutterstock

If you’re one of the more than 16 million human adults in America affected by depression, and the current advent of fascism feels like a one-way ticket to hell, know that you’re not alone.

Watching the country I now call home unravel one headline at a time knocked me off my feet for most of January, threatening to undo my attempts to rebuild my life after I spent more than three years incapacitated by major depressive disorder.

The fog has only intensified since Inauguration Day, smothering America in a thick blanket of bizarre language and threats—doled out in “presidential” tweets and surrogate TV interviews alike—all the better to conceal laying the foundation for dismantling the Affordable Care Act in the middle of the night, among innumerable other heinous policies.

Now, when I can get to sleep at all, I wake up aghast at how quickly the new regime is pushing through executive orders and taking apart democracy.

Much of the time, things feel desperately hopeless.

It mirrors the pain of depression; when it’s become so debilitating that you collapse further into yourself, sometimes the energy required to get out of bed is all you’ve got — never mind getting out in the street — and you end up feeling completely bereft, like you’re somehow failing at being human.

Well, you’re not.

Instead, you’re being defiantly alive in the face of an illness that has the power to kill you.

Amid the rampant confusion of our current times, it’s easy to overlook how similar depression and fascism are. If you understand the mental illness, you understand the political ailment because you already have firsthand experience of living under a dictatorship of lies.

What’s more, if you’re already resisting depression, then you’re automatically equipped to resist fascism — so even if you feel far from well, safe, or strong right now, take heart… because you’ve got this.

Both depression and fascism thrive on fear and terrorizing their host — be it your mind or your country — until you systematically question what your eyes, ears, and heart are reporting back to you; until you no longer trust your senses and either endorse the agenda of that which seeks to destroy you, or just give up.

For its part, depression gradually injects doubt into every aspect of personhood. It may undermine a once competent professional until their skills appear worthless and unemployability certain, or shred someone’s self-esteem until they believe a romantic relationship can only exist out of pity rather than love, or put the kibosh on one’s dreams — because, let’s face it, what future is there for someone who’s such an incapable and unlovable waste of space?

At its most virulent, depression corrodes your sense of self and erodes your identity, and the parasite feeds until only the physical representation of the host remains.

Our fascist leader is having the same effect on America that depression has on an individual. And he’s doing it the same way: by distorting reality, strafing journalists and citizens alike with falsehoods.

In both cases, the aim is for lies to supplant reality altogether.

If the farce endures in its grotesque glory, it’s because it takes initiative, courage, and knowing exactly who you are in order to stand against what you’re being told to accept as the norm, whether by your mind or the new White House occupier.

To the unsuspecting onlooker, when I was in the throes of deepest depression, I looked as I always had. But whenever I opened my mouth, it was clear that it wasn’t me speaking, but depression—through pained, inarticulate self-doubt.

To the unsuspecting onlooker, America still mostly looks like it always has. But whenever our leader opens his mouth, it’s clear it isn’t democracy speaking, but fascism, through absurd sentences almost entirely devoid of syntax or meaning.

Similarly, just as I remember a different life before depression flattened me, many of us remember a different life before our current political regime began normalizing hate.

Now that white supremacists are in charge, they believe that order can be restored by returning anyone who doesn’t fit their norm to their respective sub-human category, ranging from most similar and tolerable (healthy, able-bodied straight American-born Christian white women) to most different and undesirable (anyone else). Plainly put, many of us are now regarded as inferior, as lesser than, based on national origin, immigration status, religion, sexual orientation, skin tone, reproductive choices, physical and mental abilities, etc.

Our leadership would like us to believe that this hierarchy is “normal” — but it is not.

That we should have the audacity to define our own identities and demand equality — because America was founded on the basis of all people being created equal— is to invite shaming, if not mockery.

With depression, too, shaming wields great destructive power.

When depression became larger than life itself, it bullied me into identifying with it. The illness kept me under house arrest, stewing in shame because I couldn’t work, and therefore I couldn’t afford to consume health care and get well enough to work, a conundrum familiar to many sick Americans.

In the eyes of a staunchly individualistic society like ours, in which we’re always supposed to win, to achieve, I didn’t pass muster. I failed to measure up, I was weak, a “ridiculous loser.” Depression also built a wall around me to keep out other humans, chipping away at my self-esteem and declaring isolation as the new normal.

Under such conditions, staying alive — that is to say, performing the most basic human functions required to do so — becomes the greatest act of resistance you’re capable of.

Trite though it may sound, “While there’s life, there’s hope,” and your making it through each brand new day is proof of this.

In America, we’ve now got a Muslim ban, and soon we’ll even have a border wall to keep out other fellow humans. Those of us who refuse to fall in line with the regime are constantly being othered, divided, derided, debased — and yet we keep coming together regardless because we remember life before.

Do not ever discount the hope of better days buried deep inside you. As the intellectual ability to envisage alternatives to what is, hope is one of the most powerful weapons of all.

The modus operandi of the illness and that of the new regime are one and the same: to break you down little by little by destroying your critical faculties until you no longer protest, until you abdicate your own agency and trust them to do what’s in your best interests.

Like protecting you.

Like providing for you.

For the record, here’s what depression did for me — for over three years, it took away my ability to think and write so I could no longer earn a living, convincing me I’d become unemployable and forcing innumerable hardships onto my household.

My downfall was gradual and contradicted everything in my life at the time. On the surface, everything was great — love, marriage, immigration to a new country, a fresh start — but depression took hold regardless because deflecting torrents of abuse and lies is unsustainable in the long run.

It’s exhausting, and it wears you down.

Whether the lies are manufactured by your own mind or your own government, the desired end result is the same: capitulation.

The enemy thrives on confusion.

But remember that the impact of depression can be lessened, as can that of a fascist regime, so long as you resist them.

Your one job is to keep yourself — and the hope contained within you — alive, which has the added benefit of inconveniencing those fascism enablers who may bully you for being a “snowflake.” If you feel up to it or just fancy a laugh, remind them that one of the collective nouns for snowflakes is an avalanche.

Little do they know that depression has made you a veteran of resistance.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1–800–273-TALK

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