11/12/20 — The Gnashing of Teeth and the Smashing of Keyboards
Welcome to the first edition of my new biweekly newsletter: The Gnashing of Teeth and the Smashing of Keyboards. I’ll try to come up with a catchier name soon, don’t worry. I’ve also picked a rather intense week to start this newsletter. With the coming and going and then not really going but instead keeping its foot in the door where it will remain for another three months of the American election, there has been a lot written. And I mean A LOT. Looking back on it is a rather interesting document of how the internet, structured around clicks on the most of-the-moment article, promotes and then denotes certain ways of looking at things.
Elections, Reactions, Distractions, and Calls to Action
Before the election we were treated to a wave of articles that ranged from exuberant to cautiously optimistic regarding Biden; when election day ended and the uncounted ballots and less-than-stellar congressional results for the Democrats created the illusion of a GOP success story, a million and one jeremiads were launched alongside repeated reminders that the US is…insufficiently democratic in the small-D sense (which, if you want more on that at a Civics 101 level, check out Ezra Klein’s “The crisis isn’t too much polarization. It’s too little democracy.” in Vox.); when people realize that Biden had one decisively, optimism begin to creep back in. Now, with Trump contesting the election and the Democrats in inter- and intra-party conflict, the landscape is much more mixed.
With that said, one of my favorite articles the past few weeks came from before the election. It’s wisdom has not been altered, but only proven more wise by the outcomes. This is Jedediah Britton-Purdy’s “A Possible Majority,” published October 27th, 2020 in Dissent Magazine online. Simultaneously a recap of the past four years of American politics, an articulation of how the present moment owes itself to history of the 90s and 2000s, and a call to continued action, Purdy reminds us that no matter the result of the election, the real work that remains to be done is the grassroots creation of democratic majorities in a manner that does not simply attempt to jump through a trapdoor to electoral success.
“The basic social fact in the country today is that people are divided: into the vulnerable and the secure, the treasured and the disposable, those who fear the police and those who feel better when they are around, those who fear a doctor’s visit and those who find it reassuring, those who can withdraw from a pandemic and those who are thrown into its front lines. The basic political fact is that people are afraid of one another — in all directions, wherever they fall on the lines of power and precariousness. At the end of the day, what they most want from politics is to keep out of the hands of the people they most fear, whoever those are. Any faction can thrive in this anxious ecology, but the left, which needs to use the state, can succeed only by helping to overcome it.
If there is no majority for majority rule itself, if members of a polity cannot stomach the idea of being ruled by one another, then democracy is not possible. Unable to make a world together, people will have to accept other arrangements that may at least keep them safe from one another. The rhetoric of common purpose and civic unity that came easy in the Long 1990s was spurious not because it was pernicious but because it was unreal. We were divided, along the lines the crisis has made so vivid. Struggle and world-making have to precede a greater unity and harmony, but they are worthwhile in part because they just might.”
I would also cautiously recommend — the caution is because I think he can be a bit small-minded as a thinker — Bruno Maçães NYTimes op-ed “How Trump Almost Broke the Bounds of Reality”. If you’re like me and genuinely cannot understand the appeal of Trump’s charisma, you’ve probably spent the past week asking yourself “How do people still find this compelling or appealing?” Maçães addresses this question and finds a compellingly simple explanation: they really believe and take at face value the story he’s telling. While you or I might look at Trump’s claim that he’s, for instance, all but singlehandedly defeat ISIS and realize it’s obviously nonsensical bragging, his followers see the claim and go “Wow, that’s really impressive.” And it all adds up because no one before Trump would have even considered claiming to have been solely responsible for the defeat of ISIS. That brag out of the way — a brag which is even sillier given the ongoing existence of ISIS — Trump moves onto the next plotline, keeping his viewers enthralled. It’s the reality TV presidency through and through, and he’ll likely continue it even out of office.
“A key was to create deeply immersive story lines without allowing them to crash against the limits of reality. He was often successful, convincing his followers that they were living in a new country — even when very little of substance had actually been accomplished. His executive orders, for example — like one that pledged to protect people with pre-existing medical conditions — were often less acts of government than narrative tricks.”
I am going to cautiously leave my discussion of election-related articles off there. There has been too much written about the event while social data on it is still rolling in for me to be able to fairly recommend articles to you.
A Little Bit of Cultural Writing, Please?
Tired of America and its electoral system? I can’t blame you. Here’s something else: a NYTimes writeup on the work of the fine people at Dust-to-Digital. It is, of course, political. But hey, you can’t really escape that I suppose. Dust-to-Digital are a record label carrying on the work that folks like Harry Smith first undertook in the 50s: the archiving of American “folk music,” or traditional music, if you’d rather. The article looks not only at the work of Dust-to-Digital, the excellent anthologies they produce and the high quality physical releases they put out, but also at the political implications of archiving music from a country whose history is thoroughly colored by political domination racial conflict even in its music.
“The grandson of native Southerners, Vanlandingham-Dunn wanted to buy “Goodbye, Babylon.” But when he slid open its cedar box, twin rows of raw cotton balls surrounding the discs infuriated him, a tone-deaf symbol of the racist South his ancestors endured. He asked Lance to justify the design and balked at the simplistic explanation — cotton was a thread between poor people across the South, Lance offered, much like the music itself.
“I remember telling him, ‘If my grandfather would have seen that, he would have shot you,’” Vanlandingham-Dunn said from Philadelphia, where he is a writer. “I reminded Lance that white people weren’t enslaved or denigrated the same way Black people were. It’s fine to enjoy this music, but if you’re not paying attention to the situation of the people who created it, that’s a real problem.”
And I’ll leave it there. Hopefully you’ve gotten something out of this new newsletter!