Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Age of Anger

Several different things that I've read or viewed as of late have caused an ill feeling inside.  Here I want to talk about three of them and see if I can bring them together into a coherent narrative.  The first is the film version of 1984, which stars John Hurt and Richard Burton.  I watched it because I wanted to see another film with Burton after recently having viewed The Night of the Iguana.  On the link to Burton from the Night of the Iguana page, 1984 was one the films IMDB featured for further Burton viewing other than The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which I had seen not that long ago.  Plus, the campus Library had a copy of 1984.   It turns out, however, that while Burton's role in the film is important, the leading actor clearly is Hurt, and Burton's supporting role deliberately tones down on the passion front, so the film disappointed on that score.  But I found it remarkable as social commentary on the present, which is what I want to talk about here.  (The film actually was released at the tail end 1984, which I suspect was no coincidence.)

The second is the recent book by Thomas Geoghegan, Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement.  The book is most interesting as an articulation of an aspiration and as a goring of certain myths that Liberals cling to.  It is weak on explaining how to get there from here and in several places where an argument is being made there seemed to me to be a jump to the conclusion before all the necessary antecedent steps were presented.  It is unclear whether Geoghegan is trying to pull a fast one or if he is unaware that his reasoning is spotty in places.  As a consequence, I found this book more of a slug than was really necessary.  (Some of the stuff on the Wagner Act and what it does or does not permit employers to do when there is a strike was also a slug, but that part probably was necessary.)  Nonetheless, Only One Thing Can Save Us is exactly the sort of thing that we need right now to consider what the Liberal agenda really should be about.

The third is the barrage of emails I have been getting from the Democrats.  Most are of the form - here is the latest outrage, sign this petition, or of the form - in order to wage a broad based campaign against the Republicans we need donations from lots of small donors like you, please indicate how much you are willing to contribute.  I was getting just these sort of emails before the the midterm elections last year.  Look how that election turned out.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Albert Einstein 

What I'm not hearing from the Democrats, but desperately wish I were, is some kind of coherent strategy to generate greater voter turnout.  I've recently posted on this need from the point of view of macroeconomic policy.  It should be evident that the same need exists from the political perspective, if the Democrats are to become the majority again.  This lack of strategy is depressing to me.  Indeed, these emails are for me worse than no communication whatsoever.  It is like rubbing salt in a wound, where this adding insult to injury is being done by people I should be sympathetic to.  I wish they were aware that they are alienating me in the process.

Here's a little aside before I paint my little picture. When I was growing up we had at home the collection by Will and Ariel Durant, The Story of Civilization.  Then it was ten volumes.  An eleventh volume was published subsequently.  One of those volumes I had remembered as The Age of Reason, though apparently the full title is The Age of Reason Begins.   This was the age of Shakespeare, Montaigne, etc.  In my way of thinking, Reason is of higher order than Anger.  Thus, if we now live in Age of Anger while part of the Renaissance was the Age of Reason, we have gone backwards.  That was the purpose of my title.

I did a little Google search on The Age of Anger.  From that I found this Letter to the Editor, which I thought was spot on.  People begin with anger at themselves, self-loathing.  This is then outwardly directed - prodded by talk radio, cable news, various sites on the Internet and/or by the political parties, possibly other organizations.  The self-loathing is partly a consequence of not pushing back firmly at social threats, out of principle, not anger.  With sufficient principled push back, moderate outcomes can be achieved and a sense of reasonableness can prevail.  Without such push back, an us versus them mentality can take over.  The entire process can then become a vicious cycle. 

The letter was itself a comment on a column by Nicholas Kristof that urged readers to Hold the Vitriol.  The date of the piece is interesting to me, November 2003.  Maybe hindsight makes the past look more benign than it seemed at the time and maybe because I was working full time and putting in yeoman's hours on the job that I paid less attention to national politics then.  Even acknowledging that, however, things seem much worse now.  Kristof refers back to the previous decade when Bill Clinton was President and the hostility confronted from the Right.  That reference made it seem a starting point for such overt anger expressed in our national politics.  While I'm no media historian, for non-print journalism I'd point to two TV shows that began in the early Reagan years - Crossfire and The McLaughlin Group.  Both had bombast that I don't recall seeing on news/commentary shows before then.  Both shows repeatedly illustrated a lack of tolerance for alternative views.  And while they had an air of fairness to them, they had a definite rightward tilt.  Until then, it is my impression that the news/commentary shows were rather staid.  Following them, some of that sort of programming got more and more extreme, both with the in your face style of the shows and with positions articulated.

* * * * *

In the poignant opening scene, members of Oceania are gathered in a large hall facing what appears to be an enormous TV.  Each is wearing the same type of blue overalls.  Gender matters not for attire.  They are sitting on benches watching the monitor. On it there is the personage of the rival nation-state, Eurasia.  They hate this man.  They are angry.  They start screaming, yelling epithets for everyone else in the hall to hear.  As their passion swells they arise from their benches and get louder and louder.  This culminates in their giving salute, both arms raised and crossed in front.

The protagonist, Winston Smith, we don't yet know his name from the movie but we're sure it's him nonetheless, follows along with the others.  He is feigning his actions, because he knows he is being watched and he doesn't want to bring attention to himself.  The essence of the entire film is captured in this first scene.  Mind control happens by keeping the members in very public places in front of large TVs, forcing them to listen to the latest outrage and then to take pride in the latest victory in the ongoing war.  Anger and patriotism are thereby coupled.  It is much easier to capitulate to this manipulation than to resist.  Most if not everyone else in the room are unlike Smith and earnest in their actions.  They have become slaves of the state, whether they realize this or not.

It is possible to resist, to preserve one's sense of independence, capable of generating one's own thoughts.  A heretical book, authored by "Goldstein," offers a plan for insurrection and overthrow of the state.  Those sensing a need to resist have a desire to read this book.  But the thought police are everywhere.  If caught, a person must deliver a painful confession.  This is captured on video and delivered to the nation on those TV monitors.  Thus, a stark tradeoff is offered.  One the one hand is mindlessness which is bundled with anger, pride, and a sense of security.  On the other is thought, secrecy, and paranoia.  The state leaves no doubt as to which choice it wants the person to make.  Yet some do resist, at their own peril.

Before moving on from 1984, let me say that I read the book such a long time ago that I was unsure of what was actually in the novel and what was unique to the movie version.  The fear and paranoia I suppose was in the book. I'm less sure that the screaming and overt expressions of anger were in the book as well.  If you reflect on just this behavior, it seems clear there is a socio-biological need for such expression.  This is why we have big time sporting events played against hated rival teams, so these emotions can find expression in a comparatively benign way.  When such games are watched on TV, we distinguish between doing so with home team announcers, who typically are quite biased in favor of their side, from national announcers, who strive for neutrality in their broadcast.  What this opening scene shows is politics as sport with true homers for announcers, but where this it not diversion from work; it is life itself.  That is the dystopia.   As social commentary about our current reality it is not 100% spot on.  But it seems to me not too far off, which is why this movie is worth watching, evening now.

How might this dystopia be averted with democracy restored?  This is the question that Geoghegan takes on, though he looks at it as much through an economics lens as a political one.  Indeed, in considering his book you can readily invoke the old saw - economics is about politics and politics is about economics.  Put a different way, politics is about power and those without power, even if they have great numbers, will only get a very little piece of the pie.  Democracy in outcomes, then, requires some power to accompany the numbers.  For Geoghegan, a new kind of labor movement, one modeled after how things are done in Germany, is the way to restore power to the masses.

To Geoghegan, democracy should happen as much within organizations as it does in how government gets elected.  Much of his book concerns getting labor to have real representation on corporate work councils.  In other words, he'd like to cast the relationship between labor and management as a partnership with equal say, rather than as vertical arrangement with labor at the bottom and management at the top.

But we are nowhere close to that now.  At present Labor is very weak and organized labor, think AFL-CIO, UAW, and other unions, seem wedded to a past that will not repeat.  In that past the union hierarchy held power while the rank and file had to toe the line.  In other words, the structure itself wasn't really democratic.  This is why a different approach is necessary. 

How does this brave new world come into being?  As I said, this is the part of the book that is hardest to embrace.  It brings to mind that old New Yorker cartoon.  Geoghegan offers up two different strands of possibility.  One amounts to guerrilla tactics for labor - quick hitter strikes that show elements of protest aimed at getting the point across yet with sufficient limit that there is no retaliation for striking by the employers against these employees.   The idea is to use existing law in a clever way, understand what the employers are actually fearful of and use that against them, and thereby push the agenda along.  If all these employees had law degrees a la Geoghegan, this might work.  Absent that, this union labor would need free consulting from lawyers like Geoghegan to orchestrate such a strategy.  How long would it take for it to achieve the desired result?  Who knows.  In the meantime, what lawyers apart from Geoghegan would do such pro bono work?

The other strand comes from looking to the past, The New Deal in particular, and noting that the first labor movement was as much a top down creation of FDR's Presidency as it was a grass roots uprising. We need something top down again from The Kennedy School of Government types who occupy the halls of power in Washington.  Even if you buy the argument that there is such a need, how do you get any consensus whatsoever among those folks for the type of legislation and programmatic change that will matter and in a good way?  So this part of the book I found not convincing at all

A different part of his argument made much more sense to me.  This regards the role of education.  Geoghegan views education as essential but as to the role of college he is skeptical, even antagonistic in many cases.  Indeed he argues that the call for many more to get college education is a mask for the lack of promotion that what labor really needs is power.  Ask yourself whether a college education would be necessary for most workers if labor did have power.  Then ask whether a college education will matter if labor continues not to have power.

Geoghegan wants to divide education into two different domains.  The first is about literacy and good citizenship.  He argues here that we did better on this score in the post WW II era than we are doing at present and does so by comparing the denseness of newspaper articles in the late 1940s, when most people didn't have a college education, to the quality of newspaper writing today, where there is much more fluff and where even on the serious pieces the writing tests the reader's acumen less.  This is true though the fraction of the population with college is much higher now.

I concur with Geoghegan on this decline in general literacy.  As a long time reader of the New York Times, my sense is that it was more challenging to the reader when I first started with it, in the late 1960s, than it is now.  The schools take the brunt of the criticism for the decline in literacy, but I believe there are several other important factors to consider.  One of those is the much greater abundance now to alternatives to reading.  I am thinking mainly of video games and the movies but also counting things like Facebook which though textual in part don't provide coherent argument, so the young mind is challenged less to produce meaning of what is going on.  Tying this back to the theme of the post, it should be evident that literacy encourages reason.  It's absence does the opposite, thus makes anger as the norm more likely.

The other part of Geoghegan's education argument concerns the human capital side.  If you want to be a university professor, you need a college degree, indeed you need a doctorate, qua human capital.  As most college education has such folks as instructors, who if they are like me never held a real job of any responsibility, how can they possibly teach their students in ways that will be relevant for the work these students will do post graduation?  In other words, college education is not in the spirit of the master-apprentice model.  But human capital accumulation best occurs under that model.  Thus the production of human capital should be divested from college and done either by the employer on-the-job or, as Geoghegan argues, be done by the trades themselves and then mediated by the union. 

Let me point out further on this score that it has long been understood that students want a more practical education than most college instructors are willing to provide.  The gap between desired education and the education that actually is provided is apt to be a source of frustration for the students.  Such frustration also contributes to anger.

My final bit on Geoghegan allows me to segue to the Democratic party.  Geoghegan argues that the Democratic party has abandoned labor in all but name.  One big example of this is where the Democrats stand on the teachers and school reform.  Geoghegan is from Chicago and he is very disappointed in Rahm Emanuel as Mayor.  The public schools and particularly school closings follow a pattern of elite privilege and minority dislocation that is anathema to little-d democratic values.  So Geoghegan argues that much of the disruption that labor can cause should be directed at the Democratic party itself.  It is an interesting argument.  I doubt it can work, but on this one I would love to be proven wrong.

Let me make my last point and then close.  It seems to me that members of the Democratic Party listen to each other, but they don't go outside to hear voices that might generally be sympathetic but are not themselves within the party.  For example, in the last election the Federal Minimum Wage was one of the big issues.  Nobody with a liberal perspective is against such a proposal, but many feel that wages are still too low for people who are working well above the minimum.  The primary agenda, then, should be to raise wages across the board.  Does raising the minimum wage do that?  If not, what would?  That primary agenda was buried, perhaps implicit in some of the infrastructure proposal and elsewhere, but certainly not front and center.

If the Democratic Party had a coherent plan for raising wages across the board, its job then would be to educate the public both about the issues and then about how the plan addresses the issues.  Much of what the Democratic Party should be doing should occur on this education front.  Now there is very little of that sort of thing.  As I said at the outset, instead there is a lot of blather about outrage at the Republicans.  This is demagoguery.  We see negative campaign ads all the time because demagoguery works.  It makes people angry.  People then act out of passion.  But the reality is the Republicans are better at it than the Democrats.  The Democrats should stop responding in kind and instead do something else.  That they are not is what makes me angry.  How long will it take until they figure this out?

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