I’m puzzled by the so-called “Jewish State” bill currently in the process of making its way into Israeli law.
Not by the politics of the law – that I understand. The law is a classic “wedge” issue, a symbolic way of spitting in the eyes of one’s opponents. It’s disgraceful, but it’s not exactly uncommon in politics. All the right people – that is to say, the left people – will be outraged, and in their outrage will say things that convince all the right people – that is to say, the people on the right – that they had better vote for “patriotic” parties in the upcoming election.
But would the bill actually do anything?
The original context in which the law was drawn up would be comical were it not so pathetic. The Israeli government demands that, as part of any peace agreement, the Palestinian side recognize Israel as a Jewish State, something the Palestinian side has always explicitly refused to do. When the bill was originally conceived, the notion was that, if Israel were defined in law as a Jewish State, then recognizing Israel would by definition be recognizing its Jewish “character” – and surely the Palestinians would not withdraw their recognition of Israel as such. Thus: de-facto recognition of Israel as a Jewish State would be accomplished.
This was a ludicrous rationale for a law on its face, because it was obviously not going to work. You can’t premise success in negotiating a peace agreement on the idea of tricking the other side into agreeing to something that they don’t actually support, or on the idea of tricking your own camp into believing their objectives have been met. This really is playground-appropriate stuff.
But Benjamin Netanyahu, in defending the bill, argued that there was a substantive purpose as well: preserving the “national rights” of the Jewish nation without, as he saw it, contravening the precepts of democracy:
The state of Israel is a Jewish and a democratic state. These two values are intertwined, and one does not outweigh the other. We promise equal rights for everyone, regardless of religion, race or sex. At the same time, Israel is the nation-state of the Jews only. This combination between the the rights of the nation and the rights of the individual, serves as the central thread in all of Israel’s founding documents.”
What are those “rights of the nation” that Netanyahu refers to? As examples, Netanyahu cited “a flag, anthem, the right of every Jew to immigrate to Israel and other national symbols.”
Here’s what I find puzzling about this. Suppose that there were a proposal to change the Israeli flag to something less-identified with the Jewish people – say, one of those tricolors the Europeans are so mad for. What would the consequence of the Jewish State law be for such a proposal? Would it be inadmissible for consideration in the Knesset? Would only Jewish MKs be allowed to vote on it? How would the “Jewish nation” exercise its national “rights” on this question?
Obviously, these kinds of prohibitions would be transparently undemocratic. But if nothing of the sort is contemplated, what, exactly, is being codified here, other than a reaffirmation of the status quo?
Well, we should be clear about what the status quo means – within the Green Line, not in the territories. It means that Arab citizens can be discriminated against in housing, including state-supported efforts to move Jewish citizens into Arab-dominated regions coupled with local discrimination to keep Arab citizens out of Jewish areas. That they can be discriminated against in education – most Arab citizens are educated in a separate school system from Jewish Israelis (actually, there are three official “streams” in Israeli education, secular state schools, Jewish religious state schools, and Arab schools, plus a large set of ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious schools that are outside state control but receive state support, plus a small smattering of independent schools, but now I’ve probably given too much information). And so forth.
That status quo has substantial majority support among Jewish Israelis. But it does not have overwhelming support among the judiciary. The High Court recently upheld the current law that permits discrimination against Arab applicants in housing in small communities, but did so on a narrow majority on largely procedural grounds. There’s every reason to believe that, even as the country moves right, the judiciary might increasingly flex its muscles against that majority’s efforts to criminalize dissent and sanction invidious discrimination.
This, in my view, is the most tangible practical significance of the Jewish State bill: that it would provide a legal justification for upholding the legitimacy of the discriminatory aspects of the status quo when faced with legal challenge.
The Law of Return, after all, already exists, as does the Chief Rabbinate, the national anthem, the flag, and so forth. None of these are expressions of liberal ideals, but none of them exceptional among nations either – other countries have flags and anthems that reflect or come to embody a national character, established religions are hardly unheard of (particularly in Israel’s region), and even the idea of immigration preference for the dominant ethnic group is common among countries with a large co-ethnic diaspora. There’s no plausible purpose to a law that merely reiterates these things that are already established, and no way that passing such a law would secure them against a popular majority that actually wanted to change them – and meanwhile a majority of Israeli citizens is moving rapidly in the other direction politically-speaking, so such a liberal majority is not exactly in the offing. The only practical threat to existing arrangements comes from the courts. So that’s where I locate the practical import of the law.
The more pressing practical question of identity that Israel needs to deal with, as I’ve been saying for years, is whether to grant national minority rights to its Arab sector, which would imply a higher degree of autonomy in questions of land use and so forth. If Israel really does want to remain a Jewish national state while also moving towards something resembling fair treatment of its Arab minority, that would seem to be the direction to go.
Meanwhile: if Netanyahu is really determined to place the question of the Jewish character of the state beyond the reach of democratic politics, I modestly propose that he go all the way, and thereby remove all doubt about where the country is headed.
“Foxcatcher,” the new film directed by Bennett Miller, is based on a true story. David and Mark Schultz really were gold-medal-winning American wrestlers at the 1984 Olympics. John du Pont really was the incredibly wealthy scion of the du Pont fortune, and he really did lure the Schultz brothers and other young wrestlers to his estate, Foxcatcher, to train for the 1988 Olympics. And (spoilers – lots of spoilers – stop reading if you hate spoilers) John DuPont really did end up murdering David.
But why did he end up killing him? What did the crime mean? What’s the story here, as opposed to what’s merely true?
The film, based on Mark’s book about his experiences, appears to make Mark the protagonist – it’s his story. When we first meet Mark, he’s living on the edge of poverty, even though he’s already won a gold medal, eating ramen for dinner and taking $20 speaking gigs at middle schools. He’s an angry, frustrated, impacted man, his rage at the world – and at his brother, who was also effectively his parent after their parents’ divorce – bursting out and then being shoved firmly back in.
His life changes when John du Pont enters the picture, inviting him to his mother’s horse farm, Foxcatcher, where he has built a state-of-the-art training facility for Mark and his fellow Olympic wrestlers. From the beginning, it’s clear that du Pont is a deeply odd duck, and it doesn’t take long for us to learn that he’s potentially quite dangerous – but it’s not at all clear that Mark understands this. He seems genuinely to buy in to the thoroughly unpersuasive line of bull about America and freedom and victory that du Pont is handing out, seems all-too-willing to call du Pont a mentor, even a father.
Channing Tatum, I have to say at this point, does an exceptional job of inhabiting this emotionally weak and pliable young hulk – the best work I’ve ever seen him do. I completely believed that Mark bought into du Pont, and that, once he figured out that du Pont was a problem, and was sucking him into a completely one-sided and destructive relationship rather than actually helping him to win, he couldn’t see how to escape it. The structural problem with the film, though, is that Mark never breaks out of that state of dependency.
Du Pont eventually turns on Mark, and offers David enough money to come up to Foxcatcher to be his de-jure assistant, de-facto head coach. Mark resents this, and acts out – until its clear that he can’t win on his own. Then his brother saves him from himself, and ultimately facilitates his escape from Foxcatcher and from du Pont, leveraging his importance to the operation to get a guaranteed income for Mark even after Mark leaves Foxcatcher and cuts ties with du Pont.
Mark, in other words, never achieves real independence, emotional or financial. He moves from dependence on his brother (the good mentor and father figure) to dependence on du Pont (the bad mentor and father figure) and back to dependence on his brother. And, from the final scene of the film, it looks like once his brother is dead, he descends into the lurid and degraded world of cage fighting – the final betrayal of his Olympian achievement.
I want to be clear: the problem is not that this is a downer. I love a good downer. The problem is that Mark’s failure to achieve independence means that the story doesn’t really have an arc, and that therefore I don’t know what his story means.
Why, after all, does Mark fall for du Pont? I don’t mean why does he take the gig – he desperately needs the money, and while the film could do a better job of making it clear why he’s so poor (to maintain his eligibility for the Olympics under then-extant rules, Mark had to remain an amateur, which meant not getting paid for any athletic activity), his financial need is manifest. But David has similar pecuniary reasons for compromise, and he never falls for du Pont for a second – he’s clear eyed about what he’s doing. Why does Mark fall for him?
One possibility is that Mark is responding to the fact that du Pont clearly has some kind of desire for him. Most of the chatter about the film has focused on du Pont’s sexuality, and the film can be powerfully critiqued for playing into lurid gay stereotypes. But, as Jordan Schildcrout points out, the real problem isn’t that du Pont embodies those stereotypes – maybe the real du Pont was like that – but that he doesn’t have much interiority, that the film doesn’t really let us know what it’s like to be him. But that, in turn, is only a fatal problem if this is du Pont’s movie. And it isn’t. It’s Mark’s. This isn’t “Gods and Monsters” in which the presumably-straight young hulk is just the observer, so we can be seduced by the fascinating older monster along with him. Mark is the point. What does he see in du Pont?
Well, what it looks like to me is that Mark is telling the truth when he says, in words du Pont put in his mouth, that he was looking for a father figure, and he finally found one. Du Pont is a pretty pathetic father figure, but he’s one Mark found on his own, and therefore one that can separate him from his brother. The film gestures toward the possibility that Mark is involved sexually with du Pont, but inasmuch as it gestures that way – having Mark frost the tips of his hair, having him wrestle with du Pont at night in the gym – it also suggests that Mark is humiliated by the relationship. The obvious, surface read for that is a homophobic one – Mark is humiliated that a man has a sexual interest in him. But I think a deeper way to read it is that there’s a kind of quasi-incestuous betrayal playing out in Mark’s mind as he realizes that his new father is a weak and emotionally hungry man who just wants to use him. It really doesn’t matter whether that “use” includes sex or not.
But that understanding makes it all the more imperative that Mark achieve some kind of independence. Instead, Mark is saved by his brother, and drifts out of the movie. Du Pont finally kills David – because David took away his surrogate son and love object, and because David refused to say anything nice about him on the hagiographic video he had produced about himself. David forced him to confront his own manifest impotence, and so he had to be killed. And, reading the ending back into earlier parts of the movie, David’s decision to stay with du Pont reads like a sacrifice of his own life to save his brother.
Now, consider how the film would read if, instead, Mark had killed du Pont. Mark is clearly jealous when his brother arrives. He’s angry at du Pont for saying that the team can’t succeed without David – that Mark’s not good enough. He’s furious at his brother seeing him in the degraded state to which he’s fallen (that’s clearly how he thinks of it). What if, later, when his brother tries to “save” him from the meal ticket that he, Mark, had found for all of them, that only heightened his impotent rage, ultimately leading him to kill du Pont.
That would have been a much more lurid film. It might have played even more problematically in terms of what it was saying about the psycho-sexual overtones of the relationship between Mark and du Pont. But it would have kept Mark at the center. The question would have remained: who is this man, and what will he do? And I think it would have been more narratively satisfying.
That’s not how it happened, of course. But then again, there are a lot of other things in the film that vary from “how it happened.”
For example: Steve Carrell’s du Pont is a fascinating and creepy creation, and totally real – petty, stupid, emotionally stunted, but real. One of my favorite things about his performance is the way in which he reveals du Pont’s human vulnerability at the same moment that he makes it all the more clear how deeply disturbed the character is. The scene on the helicopter, when du Pont takes cocaine and actually smiles as he plays with multi-syllable words; the scene after Mark has given him a haircut, and du Pont thanks him for being such a good friend, unlike his only childhood “friend” who his mother paid to play with him – forgetting, apparently, that exactly the same pecuniary relationship obtains with Mark. Those kinds of scenes.
What he doesn’t seem is obviously psychotic. Which the real du Pont apparently was:
John du Pont was insane. There was no doubt about that, even early on. I only met him a few times—he didn’t regularly attend training sessions—but even casual contact with John left me with an uneasy feeling. He had a bizarre look in his eyes that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Even a chance encounter with John just left you with strange pangs of foreboding.
Stories about John’s strange behavior were legion. He had a bad habit of driving inebriated around the estate and crashing into things. On more than one occasion, he drove the car into a pond. He also regularly carried a handgun with him and once, during his 50th birthday party, he inexplicably starting shooting off an AK-47.
By all accounts, in the months leading up to the shooting John’s behavior became even more bizarre. He kicked three African-American athletes off the farm, saying that Foxcatcher was run by the Ku Klux Klan and confronted one wrestler, Dan Chaid, by pointing an assault rifle at his chest. The warning signs were there, but it was hard for anyone to admit it.
Why was it hard to admit it? Because all the wrestlers needed that meal ticket. There’s a story there to tell, a lurid parable of America in the 1980s, in which du Pont’s wealth lures the wrestling world up to his farm, where he prances about like a mad hatter with an AK-47 and everybody looks away because they need the money. And, again, “Foxcatcher” gestures toward that film – but the tone of that film is incompatible with the tone of the story of Mark and du Pont’s emotionally stunted folie à deux.
To see what I mean, consider the difference in tone between “Foxcatcher” and what is probably the emblematic 1980s movie about money. Like Mark, the Charlie Sheen character Bud Fox in “Wall Street,” – which came out in 1987, the year in which “Foxcatcher” is set – is torn between two mentors and father figures: the good one (Fox’s actual father, a union leader at an airline), and the bad one (Gordon Gekko). But there the comparisons end. Gekko stands for something; he’s an attractive anti-heroic figure. Fox is a young man of promise. We’re seduced along with him – because Gekko is the true spirit of the age. Du Pont, by contrast, is repellent from the moment we meet him. There is nothing – nothing – attractive about this man. He’s obviously weak, creepy, stupid and dangerous.
If we read the film is a kind of parable of the malign 1%, with Mark as America, then it’s a pretty damning comment on America that we were ever seduced by the Reaganite myth. I mean, who but an emotionally weak and vulnerable idiot would ever be genuinely seduced by the likes of John du Pont? On that level, I “get” the movie, but it feels weirdly displaced in time – a parable of the Great Recession pasted onto the era of “greed is good.”
By contrast, consider how the film would play out if David were the main character. Mark Ruffalo plays David as a conscientious and fundamentally giving person, without ever making him seem like a goody-goody or somebody without guts in his belly. He’s both a good man and a real man. It makes sense that Mark could get sucked into du Pont’s orbit, and couldn’t figure out how to escape. What does it mean that David was willing, for the right price, to take his place?
Now we’ve got a story to tell – a story in which David thinks he’s protecting his brother, thinks he’s promoting the sport of wrestling, thinks he’s doing all the right things. Du Pont can be a monster – he can even be the creepy monster of this film, and not somebody seductive at all. Maybe that very manifest weakness and stupidity is why David, representing the best of America, thinks he can handle the monster of gruesome wealth, accept its suzerainty for the sake of the good it can do. And then the monster kills him.
But that’s David’s story. Not Mark’s.
This has been a difficult write-up for me, because I really like stories in which each character has weight, in which we can even be confused about who exactly is the protagonist. One of the scripts I wrote, the one I’m probably most attached to, works that way a bit – though there is a main character, I try to give you the perspective of each of the major characters, see the whole film from the inside as each of them would. Many of Chekhov’s plays are like that – is there really a single protagonist of The Cherry Orchard or The Three Sisters or Uncle Vanya? I don’t think so.
I’m just not sure this is that kind of story. There’s a powerful story hidden in this film, about fatherlessness and emotional dependence, about the corruptions of wealth – particularly hereditary wealth – and the impossible demands of American masculinity. And Tatum, Carrell and Ruffalo all give gripping and nuanced performances – plenty strong enough to keep me in the film. I’m unequivocally glad I saw it – would be happy to see it again.
I just worry that the truth got in the way of the story.
Before tackling more serious subjects today (like my absurd backlog of theater write-ups), I wanted to briefly touch on Damon Linker’s latest column, about how “traditional religion” would adapt to the discovery of intelligent extraterrestrial life. In Linker’s view: not well.
Just as the scientific Copernican Revolution destabilized and downgraded humanity’s place in the cosmos by substituting heliocentrism for a geocentric view that placed the Earth and its inhabitants at the center of creation, so the discovery of advanced life on other planets would imply that human beings are just one of any number of intelligent creatures in the universe. And that, in turn, would seem to imply either that God created many equally special beings throughout the universe, or that God cares for us more than he does for those other intelligent beings. How the latter view could be rendered compatible with basic tenets of monotheism (including divine omnipresence, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence) is beyond me. Did God create those other intelligent creatures, too, but without an interest in revealing himself to them? Or did they, unlike human beings, evolve all on their own without divine origins and guidance? . . . But I have an equally hard time accepting that believers would be capable of wrapping their heads around the possibility that God loves all intelligent creatures on all planets equally. Does God send Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed to visit other worlds to deliver the same moral and theological revelations? Or does he raise up analogous prophets — and in the case of Christianity, incarnate himself in extraterrestrial species — in order to spread his message to everyone throughout the universe who is capable of receiving it? I suspect that these puzzles are so corrosive in their skeptical implications that contact with intelligent life from other worlds would produce a rapid collapse of faith rooted in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Quran, with a rapid spread of atheistic secularism in their place.
I love topics like this, because they don’t matter at all – and, because they don’t matter at all, they may reveal hidden assumptions more effectively than subjects that actually do matter. In this case: assumptions about what makes religions tick, what drives their success or failure. Linker assumes, implicitly, that unpleasant or unexpected facts are a profound threat to traditional religion. But the evidence for this is surprisingly limited. Let’s begin with the non-Abrahamic religious traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, traditional Chinese religion, African animist beliefs, etc. It’s not clear that the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe would pose any kind of challenge to these traditions. Indeed, the bulk of scientific discoveries about human origins and development are more readily compatible with these traditions than they are with Judaism, Christianity or Islam. You would think, therefore, that the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions would have already put the wind in the sails of these non-Abrahamic traditions, and hobbled the growth of Christianity and Islam. But precisely the opposite has been the case: both Christianity and Islam have continued to spread, and make converts across Asia and Africa. Next: let’s look at what Christianity specifically has already assimilated or resisted successfully. It has, as noted, survived overwhelming scientific evidence that humanity was not created immaculately in its current form, but arose through the process of evolution by natural selection – i.e., by surviving in a brutal contest for survival with other species. It has also survived the transition from a heliocentric worldview to one in which the Earth is an almost invisibly small speck in the corner of a galaxy that is itself only a tiny part of an incomprehensibly vast universe. But before that, it survived three more profound challenges:
- The encounter with America. Linker thinks it would be devastating to Christianity to reckon with the reality of intelligent beings that either never experienced God’s love through revelation and incarnation, or who experienced those things through a separate revelation and/or incarnation. But Christianity had to reckon with that reality five hundred years ago. And it’s still here.
- The rise of Islam. Which is a more troubling fact for Christianity: the possibility that the biblical account of creation is profoundly inaccurate, or the possibility that another religion has the true revelation? Well, when Islam swept over the Christian holy land, and went on to conquer much of the known world, Christians were faced with that question. Christianity has still not really formulated a coherent theological response to the rise of Islam, at least not in my view. But Christianity has survived and thrived despite that failure.
- The death of Jesus of Nazareth. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Christianity is founded on the prima facie absurd notion that when your leader and hoped-for messiah is captured, tortured, and executed, that this is good news. It is a religion founded on the complete failure of normal, rational expectations, and consequently a complete revaluation of the meaning of plain facts. That’s what Christianity was at its origins. And we’re supposed to believe that this religion wouldn’t be able to handle a few little green men?
Now, I’m not going to argue that any of the above “proves” that Christianity would have no trouble surviving an encounter with extraterrestrial life. But I do think it proves that we can make no easy assumptions about what might or might not pose an insurmountable challenge to any particular religious tradition. Religions do not grow and shrink in response to reasoned analysis. Their origins are mysterious and their subsequent trajectories are the function of too many variables to be easily teased out. Why did Mohammed’s conquests lead to the formation of a new world religion, while Genghis Khan’s did not? Why did Jesus beat out Mithra in the contest to succeed Roman paganism? Why was there any such contest in the first place? What, for that matter, do the Abrahamic religions offer that is so appealing that they continue to grow at the expense of non-Abrahamic traditions that, objectively speaking, require much less of a leap of faith, much less suspension of disbelief in the objectively absurd? I don’t know the answer to these questions. But they have more bearing on the prospective future of Christianity – and what that future will look like – than the possibility that Christianity will seem absurd in the face of this or that scientific development. Even so revolutionary a development as the encounter with extraterrestrial intelligence. UPDATE: For those of you unfamiliar with the book that the image above is taken from, here it is.
Commenter Stas Wirthing on my last film-related post thinks I missed what Damien Chazelle was aiming for in his movie, “Whiplash.” His comments are well-worth a post of their own – which is what I’m giving them here:
I see the film as more than a Gladwellian parable. It examines the agony of being frustrated in one’s quest for greatness “for all the wrong reasons.” It’s this “for all the wrong reasons” that makes the film so original. Andrew’s musical genius is never examined because, in his eyes, it is never in doubt. (The entire film is through his eyes, so subjectivity is everything.) He wants to be one of the greats. He knows himself to be well endowed with genius. Only one obstacle on his way to greatness: his sub-par ear-eye coordination. “Are you rushing or are you dragging?” He knows he is the new Buddy Rich, except a Buddy Rich who can’t keep tempo. He’s Lawrence Olivier with a stutter; Marilyn Monroe with acne; Martha Argerich with arthritis. His barrier to artistic greatness is a shortcoming that is the antithesis of art itself: the mere capacity to beat like a metronome. Andrew is not trading with Mephistopheles for genius but for better neuromuscular junctions. This is the anti-Salieri. . . .
So it’s not just that Whiplash is not about jazz or art. It’s not even about Andrew and Fletcher. It’s about the Faustian calculus one is willing to engage in to accede to what one believes is one’s due when the only obstacle is a pedestrian handicap with a passing connection to the greatness of the goal.
As Robert Bresson used to say, the greatness of an actor is not measured by what he shows but by what he hides. That’s why Whiplash shines in ways Black Swan doesn’t: its refusal to compromise by tossing to the viewer any artistic insight left me quite impressed. I saw it as a remarkable sign of cinematic confidence and maturity in such a young director.
That said, it’s easy to misread the film, as Richard Brody did by wrongly lending seriousness to the characters. The only seriousness is the madness engendered by the burning desire to overcome mediocre neurotransmitters. It could be a movie about Schumann’s unhinged efforts to strengthen his weak fingers, which led, in part, to his descent into madness.
To which I replied:
I know Andrew wants greatness for all the wrong reasons – but how do I know that the movie knows this? In particular, how do you square your read with the movie’s ending, which seemed to me to clearly signal Andrew’s ultimate victory, over his father’s skepticism, his mentor’s cruelty, and his own hands? What does that ending mean in your reading?
Which led to:
I don’t know what the director really meant but perhaps this doesn’t matter. Though I did hear him say in an interview that the film was partly autobiographical. He was a drummer in a jazz ensemble with an abusive teacher. Evidently they played in the White House and were voted Best High School Jazz band in the country by Downbeat — which raises the issue of our society’s tolerance for abuse in the face of success (see Penn State, Rutgers, etc.): a separate issue though one worth examining.
Why does the movie know Andrew wants greatness for the wrong reasons? Actually I think the movie suggests he wants it for the right reasons, precisely because he’s not particularly good with the mechanics of drumming. It’s not that Andrew can’t do super-fancy fills — he can — the problem is that he can’t keep basic time. But presumably he does not situate the genius of drumming in one’s capacity to keep a steady beat. So I infer that he has artistic genius in him (or thinks that he does) from these three factors: he sucks at basic drumming; he thinks he can be great; he is not unhinged. The last point matters because the narrative arcs turns him into a semi nut job by the end. . . .
The ending? My suspicion is that it’s ambiguous enough to allow for all sorts of interpretations. This is my read for whatever it’s worth. By then Andrew has joined ISIS-jazz (or whatever the cult of Fletcher might be called). His solo is artistically superb but what matters is his teacher’s approval. Pure Stockholm syndrome. My take is pessimistic. He’s become Fletcher and will eventually teach jazz and abuse his students, having ruined all of his artistic potential.
My analysis could be off. But that’s why the movie worked for me. Its lack of didacticism and hand holding left us with questions and no clear answers. As a piece of social commentary, I see the movie as darkly satirical. And this ties with the abuse scandals I mentioned earlier. I can imagine the last frame with the letters: “And now, before you dismiss this film as fiction, please go and read about Mike Rice, Bob Knight, Jerry Sandusky…”
At the same time, one can draw a number of other conclusions. My only peeve, I guess, is the complaint that the film fails to show the joy of jazz. Evidently, the same director made an earlier movie precisely about the joy of jazz, so there is evidence that he gets it. Whiplash leaves out the joy of music in the same way a film about rape might leave out the joy of making love.
The heart of our debate relates to the question of subjectivity. “Whiplash” stays very close to its protagonist – we’re seeing the world through his eyes. But, as Wirthing notes, it doesn’t hold our hands. It doesn’t tell us that his view of the world is skewed. So it’s easy to conclude that the film believes that what Andrew sees is the world.
A good point of comparison would be Martin Scorsese’s film, “Taxi Driver,” which stays very close to its protagonist, Travis Bickle, to the point of having him in every shot. Scorsese’s goal was to make sure we don’t get any emotional distance from Bickle, because if we did we’d dismiss him as a nut-job. He didn’t want us to feel sympathy for Bickle; he wanted us to feel what it was like to be Bickle – and Bickle didn’t have perspective on being himself, so we couldn’t either.
Was Chazelle aiming for something similar? Did he want us to be with Andrew in that sense: so close to his perspective on the world that we couldn’t avoid seeing the world as he did, but counting on us to be able, once we left the theater, to recall that his perspective is thoroughly twisted? It’s entirely plausible – and, if so, then I have definitely mis-read the film. But it does seem to me that one difference between “Taxi Driver” and “Whiplash” is that Scorsese might have felt confident that Bickle was objectively so deranged that nobody in his audience would actually think he was siding with Travis Bickle, and therefore mis-read his film in the way that I might be mis-reading “Whiplash.”
Of course, maybe he shouldn’t have been so confident. John Hinckley aside, the ’70s was the era of social breakdown and panic about same, and, in that context, enough people read “Taxi Driver” as a Charles Bronson flick to make Travis Bickle a culture hero. I may well be making the same mistake with “Whiplash” – reading the film as grimly affirming what it intends merely to make me feel from the inside – but recoiling from it in consequence rather than rejoicing.
In any event, whatever Chazelle was aiming for, he should be very pleased that people are having arguments like this about his film. Any film that generates this kind of debate is by definition worth seeing.
“Whiplash,” the new film from writer/director Damien Chazelle, will surely earn J. K. Simmons his first Oscar nomination, and may be a contender for other nominations as well. It’s an engrossing story about a folie a deux between two strong-willed artistic personalities, and the overpowering drive for greatness. It’s simple, it’s got a powerful drive, and it’s got a very direct and overwhelming performance. The Academy will eat it up.
It’s also got a hollowness at its core, which I don’t think will hurt it one bit. It didn’t hurt another film that got the Academy’s attention a few years back, also about an artist consumed with ambition. That film, Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” won Natalie Portman an Oscar for her performance as a driven young ballerina. On the surface, the contrasts with “Whiplash” are more notable than the similarities – to begin with, Aronofsky’s film is far bigger, more visually inventive, more overtly expressionist in its method, while Chazelle’s is a classic small-scale “indie” film – but I think they have something essential in common that is worth picking at like a scab on our culture’s soul. To whit: an unwillingness – or inability – to wrestle something far more elusive than artistic ambition: the true nature of artistic genius.
Chazelle’s film follows Andrew (Miles Teller), a drummer at a prestigious music school called Schaffer Academy (a thinly-disguised Juilliard). Andrew is determined to become one of the great jazz drummers in history, and the surest ticket to that destiny (as he sees it) is to earn a spot in the studio band run by the famously abusive Mr. Fletcher (played with great gusto by Mr. Simmons). Nobody else sees anything much in Andrew – his father is at best perplexed by his ambition to be a great drummer, and the rest of his family is downright hostile (and Andrew returns that hostility tenfold). But Fletcher sees something in Andrew, and asks him to join his band when Andrew is still a freshman. Thus begins a classic sado-masochistic mentor-mentee relationship, Fletcher alternating between building Andrew up and ruthlessly cutting him down, including humiliating him in front of his fellow musicians, repeated physical assault, and a host of twisted mind games.
Andrew buys in completely to Fletcher’s theory of greatness, according to which the best way to produce great artists is to demand the impossible of them, and to abuse them mercilessly when fail to deliver, the better to motivate them to try harder. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’ ” Fletcher says, and Andrew smiles in agreement.
It’s worth noting that while their meeting of the minds happens very quickly, this particular exchange takes place after quite a bit of plot has washed under the bridge. Andrew has, by this point in the film, already been through several cycles of favor and disfavor complete with tongue-lashings and flung furniture; has already demonstrated the insanity of his commitment by demanding to play the drums in competition immediately after crawling bloody from a car he has just totaled in a horrific accident; and, most important, has already turned on his former mentor in retaliation for his most-recent rejection, resulting in his mentor losing his job. Andrew believed in Fletcher’s philosophy before Fletcher ever arrived on the scene, and he still believes in it after he’s formally rejected him. And sure enough, the film builds to a climax and conclusion that appears to validate Fletcher’s philosophy completely.
Fletcher thinks of himself as a counter-cultural figure, railing against the prevailing acceptance of mediocrity, but he’s just representing another strain in our culture: the ”Tiger Mother,” vigorously applying the spur of negative motivation to ultimate achievement. His notion of where greatness comes from is very Malcolm Gladwell; you practice for 10,000 hours, and you at least have a chance. And his currency is external recognition: winning the competition, impressing the audience, getting a job. This is not counter-cultural; if anything, what’s notable about “Whiplash” is how unaware it is of the achievement focus of our culture generally. It’s as is nobody in Andrew’s world had seen “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent” or “Ender’s Game” or any other piece of contemporary adolescent dystopia pitting children against each other in a brutal contest contrived by adults. Had they done so, they might have recognized Fletcher as a type.
The thing is, it’s not obvious that most of Fletcher’s abuse has anything to do with promoting outstanding musicianship, as opposed to promoting a twisted emotional dependence on his personal favor. Fletcher doesn’t do any instruction. He doesn’t teach. Moreover, there’s no sense that there are particular qualities of play to be cultivated; Fletcher is all about accuracy, being on tempo and on pitch. Now, these things are incredibly important, especially for a drummer, but while good musicianship definitely requires these things, it’s also about feel – indeed, without feel, all the accuracy in the world won’t get you anywhere near greatness. But feel is something Fletcher seems to have no interest in. And neither does Andrew – his own practice seems focused, overwhelmingly, on going faster, faster, faster.
* * *
“Black Swan” would seem to start in a similar place when it comes to the question of what makes great art, but to end somewhere different. Its heroine, Nina Sayers (Ms. Portman), is the same kind of driven personality, determined to be great. She’s devoted her entire life to this ambition, spurred on by her former-dancer mother (a deliciously over-the-top Barbara Hershey), and to the exclusion of any kind of social or romantic life. As with “Whiplash,” the story turns on an unexpected opportunity to move up the ladder – in Sayers’s case, to play the lead in a production of Swan Lake. And there’s a mentor, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who isn’t above playing some mind games, particularly pitting her against another rising ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis).
Leroy’s main objective, though, isn’t to push Sayers to her physical and mental limit – she’s already doing that to herself – but to open her up to a more ecstatic dimension of experience; to find her dark and passionate side so that she can actually play the Black Swan as well as the White. It seems that practice, discipline, and ascetic athleticism aren’t enough. You have to live. You have to feel.
There’s an obviously erotic dimension to this emotional opening-up, but Sayers ultimately finds her dark passion not in that erotic awakening but in finally giving full rein to the violence of her ambition, and killing her rival – at least in her mind; much of the pleasure of Aronofsky’s film lies in the distinctive way in which he blurs the line between reality and fantasy, and the visceral impact of his own imagination (particularly as it relates to the horror of corporeality itself). In any event, when she finally lets go, she is able to dance the role with the required abandon – but at the price of her own destruction.
That sounds like almost the opposite of where Chazelle’s film goes – but under the surface, they share something deeper in common, and that is a fundamental lack of interest in the experience of creating art, the reduction of that experience to achievement, to passing some kind of test. We never really understand why Sayers wants to be a dancer, or what she gets out of dancing, beyond achieving what her mother never did. We don’t ever really understand why Andrew wants to be a drummer, or what he gets out of drumming, beyond wanting to prove to his uncomprehending family that he is great. The thing itself – the dance, the music – isn’t really in view.
Unlike Chazelle’s, Aronofsky’s film is aware that his heroine is missing something – but it’s the wrong something. It’s not sex, or the love of the body, that Sayers is missing. It’s a love of the dance. And the film – which is so visually striking that you know Aronofsky is in love with his own medium of film – is missing it, too. You don’t come away from “Black Swan” with any feeling for dance.
* * *
Artistic genius is an elusive thing. Romantics tend to think of it as something innate, that only needs to be let out. And there is an element of the innate, most often; the great painters, writers, musicians, etc. – most of them started out with a gift. But not all of them, and not all to the same degree. Cézanne was not Picasso. Beethoven was not Mozart. Some truly great artists are more labored, and you can tell, while others make it look effortless.
What they have in common, though, is a fierce attachment, a love, of the activity itself, not for the sake of recognition, not as an index of personal achievement, but for the sake of the thing itself and what is being done. And that’s even true of drummers, those work-horses of the music world who one too often thinks of as only serving as a kind of background for the “real” musicians.
For my proof text, I’ll offer the documentary, “Beware of Mr. Baker.” Much of the film is devoted to Ginger Baker’s chaotic life and apparently unscratchable itch for personal conflict. But much of it is about the music, the one thing that Ginger Baker loved unequivocally and passionately in a life otherwise marked by a great deal of anger, spite and outright misanthropy.
I came out of that film energized, filled with a ludicrous desire to be as good as Ginger Baker at, well, at anything. Not because I wanted to prove something to an uncomprehending father or an over-controlling mother, but because I could hear, I could feel, what he was doing – and I could see, on his face, that he could feel it, too. That feeling looked like something worth having, worth more than many more comfortable things in life. Certainly more than praise from the teacher.
That’s the feeling I never got looking at the face of Miles Teller – or the face of Natalie Portman. That’s what they have in common, and it is the saddest thing about both films.
As a follow-up to my discussion with Stephen Walt, I wanted to say a few more words about Chuck Hagel’s tenure as Secretary of Defense.
When Hagel was originally hired, I questioned the consensus that his nomination signaled a shift to a more restrained foreign policy:
It’s pleasant to think that the President actually wants Hagel’s advice, but that strikes me as somewhat unlikely. First of all, the President, by all reports, takes most of his advice from a very close circle. Though Obama got a favorable impression of him in his brief time in the Senate, Hagel isn’t in that circle. Second, what’s Hagel going to offer advice about? Handling the DoD? Hagel has expressed an interest in trimming the fat at Defense – but that’s very different from seeming like the sort of person who would be effective at out-maneuvering vested interests who will oppose that trimming. Handling Iran? Hagel’s shown a real interest in an approach that emphasizes the desire for normal relations over one that assumes a confrontational posture is the only realistic option, but that’s not the same thing as saying that he has any particular regional expertise. Handling Congress? Was Hagel a notably effective Senator?
Another possibility is, as noted, that the President wanted to make a point – to signal that he was interested in a less-confrontational foreign policy, and in modestly reducing military spending. But if he wanted to send a signal, why send it tentatively?
Meanwhile, the opposite interpretation is also possible: that the President wanted someone like Hagel to endorse whatever his policies already are. . . . And a third possibility is that President Obama didn’t think that carefully about the symbolism of the choice, but thought of Hagel simply as “a Republican I can work with” that would earn bi-partisan points for bringing him in. That would have been foolish of him, but you know, discounting the possibility of incompetence is rarely wise in evaluating what goes on in Washington.
I concluded as follows:
[T]he real question is whether Hagel would be effective at managing the Pentagon. I don’t have any particular insight on that question, but it’s not obvious to me that Hagel fits that particular bill. The last Secretary of Defense I can recall who muscled material reductions in military spending was a fellow named Dick Cheney. And look what he turned into after 9-11. So you really never can tell.
Now, in the wake of Hagel’s departure, we’re getting news stories like this one, claiming that Hagel was largely kept out of the loop of decision making (which we already knew), but also that Hagel was hardly the advocate of foreign policy restraint that his boosters might have assumed, specifically advocating a firmer line on Russia than the Administration was willing to take. That doesn’t surprise me too much, as Hagel was also responsible for over-hyping the threat posed by the Islamic State before the White House had settled on a response.
To be fair, the heart of Hagel’s criticism, as articulating in that WSJ story, is that the U.S. has not been sufficiently clear in its policies, that we’ve lurched from strong statements to weak actions – which is, I would agree, a very fair criticism – and that we don’t have an overall strategy. Hagel correctly understood that the Administration approach of asserting American centrality in every conflict while being very cautious about actually committing resources was causing foreign observers to question America’s true level of commitment. But he wasn’t willing to advocate either a more outright hawkish approach to these conflicts, or an outright more restrained policy that took American intervention off the table. He didn’t want to oust Assad but he wanted to be “clearer” about our goals in Syria. He wanted to de-escalate tensions with Russia but he wanted to do more to rein in Putin and reassure our European allies. He thought we needed to consider “creative” options but “he didn’t advocate a position different than the ones Mr. Obama was pursuing.”
Hagel was frustrated by the indecision and lack of strategic thinking at the highest level. But he was similarly indecisive and had no particularly noteworthy strategic insights to add. He became a vehicle for expressing the dissatisfactions of the Pentagon with the President rather than someone who could successfully bridge the growing gap between the President and the Pentagon. None of which surprises me at all – it’s entirely in keeping with the impression I formed of Hagel when he was a Senator.
The challenge for advocates of a more restrained foreign policy remains the same as it has been for a generation now since the end of the Cold War. We either have to accommodate the rise of other powers by bringing our own policies more into line with their interests, which might facilitate working in concert to maintain order internationally – or we have to accommodate the rise of other powers by actively withdrawing from areas in which they have greater interests than we do, effectively giving up on the idea of concerted maintenance of international order in favor of something more closely resembling a spheres-of-influence approach.
But neither alternative is particularly popular. We – both the foreign policy establishment and, if we are honest, the American people – seem prefer lurching between trying to maintain hegemony on the cheap, and trying to maintain it more expensively. Both Hagel and Obama have done their share of lurching. We should assume that the next two years will feature more of the same, regardless of who Hagel’s successor is.
It’s been a long while since I’ve done a bit on bloggingheads.tv, and I’m delighted that on my first visit back I got to discuss American foreign policy with Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard.
We talked about Chuck Hagel’s ouster, how President Obama was “captured” by the foreign policy establishment, and whether it’s even possible for American foreign policy to change course in a material way.
You can see the complete video of our exchange here.
Hey – it beats battling the crowds on Black Friday.
Well, it’s semi-official: Jim Webb has formed an exploratory committee to run for President in 2016. As I’ve written before, while I don’t rate Webb’s chances particularly highly, I think it would be highly salutary for Clinton to face a serious challenge, generally and on foreign policy in particular.
But is that the debate we’ll get?
Webb’s campaign is going to be severely under-funded, and Webb himself is going to start out of the gate a terrible campaigner, so it may be that Clinton will simply ignore him and we won’t get any debate at all. But if she wants to make him instantly irrelevant, the last thing she’d do is engage him. Rather, all she – or, rather, her surrogates – need to do is to position him as a culture war conservative, someone who is at best iffy and at worst outright hostile on women’s equality, gay rights, affirmative action, immigration, and so on down the line. Once that becomes the story, that will likely be the only story – the only one that matters, anyway. And then, either he sinks without a trace or, if he gets a little bit of traction, it’ll be another story about how culturally conservative working class whites who rejected Obama are rejecting Clinton as well. Which, in turn, will further facilitate their consolidation as a GOP voting bloc – precisely the opposite of what Webb intends to achieve.
So what can he do to make it more likely that he is read as challenging Clinton on foreign policy and economic policy primarily, which I believe is what he wants?
I think – and I admit, I’m in danger of committing the pundit’s fallacy here – that he needs to get out in front of this kind of positioning with counter-positioning.
He can’t simply disavow his past positions on these issues – first of all because in some cases he still believes them (in other cases, not), and second because that would vitiate a primary source of his appeal as someone who actually stands by what he believes. Rather, he needs to make it clear that he’s not running on them – that, in fact, he’s in part running against them as organizing principles of our politics.
He needs to say, in effect, that he used to be a Republican because the GOP seemed like the party of people like him: a Scots-Irish military man. But when he left the GOP, it wasn’t just because he’d decided its policies were wrong – though they were. He also left because he no longer was willing to respond to that kind of appeal, an appeal to identity. Because that appeal made it hard for him to see the ways in which the GOP’s actual policies were detrimental to ordinary Americans.
Heck, he can quote Thomas Frank if he likes. The point of saying all this is to say further: and I didn’t join the Democratic Party in order to adopt a new identity, or to keep fighting the culture war but now from the other side. There are issues, he can say, on which my views have changed. And there are issues where I respect that my party and I don’t agree 100%. And there are also issues where I will try to convince my party to change. (For that matter, there are issues where Webb didn’t need to change to be in the mainstream of the Democratic Party – like abortion – and issues where Webb is more liberal than many Democrats – like penal reform and executive power.) But I am not running to make the Democratic Party more appealing to people who look like me, or who have my cultural background. I became a Democrat because I realized that the Democratic Party already held the best promise of standing for ordinary Americans, and for rejecting the kinds of policies, foreign and domestic, that have done them so much harm. And I’m running for President to make sure the Democratic nominee keeps that promise.
And then he needs to make the case for a new foreign policy and a new economic policy, in each case organized around husbanding and building up American strength rather than taking it for granted while frittering it away.
Webb is never going to be the great progressive hope – and that’s fine. Indeed, it’s better than fine. It’s better for Clinton to be challenged on foreign and economic policy by a Jim Webb than a Bernie Sanders. People who aren’t the usual suspects might just listen. But he needs to avoid being defined by the cultural signals he gives off. Otherwise, instead of opening up a vital conversation about policy, he’s going to wind up making it just a little bit easier for the GOP to avoid that conversation altogether.
I want to commend Daniel Larison for continuing to talk about the Libyan war, which should, by rights, be pretty central to any discussion of our current foreign policy. I just wanted to add a quick 2 cents, because the Libyan war is the paradigm case of the “assist the tides of history” theory of foreign policy that Larison has written about before, and that still holds way too much sway out there in policymaker land.
We should remember the context of the Libyan war. The Arab Spring had sprung. Dictators from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond were gone or were being pressured to leave. But by and large these were strongmen who ruled friendly Arab countries. Were we really going to sit back and let our friends get overthrown, while we let our enemies stay in power by brute force? No, we weren’t. (As well, the Libyan war originated as an Anglo-French project. Were we really going to demand they help us with our democracy-promoting wars, but refuse to help them with theirs? No, we weren’t.)
So we gave a little assistance to the “tides of history.” We made sure that Qaddafi fell, and we hinted that Assad would have to fall as well (though we really hoped we wouldn’t have to do anything to make that actually happen).
It turned out, though, that what mattered most for the trajectory of these post-revolutionary states was the internal condition of the country in question. Tunisia turned out pretty well, perhaps vindicating those who point to its higher per-capital GDP, perhaps vindicating those who point to the relative weakness of Islamist groups in the country, and I’m sure there are other theories. Egypt, though, slid back into a dictatorship comparable to the pre-revolutionary situation except even more obvious in its military character. Libya, meanwhile, problematic from the beginning, now seems to be slipping towards outright chaos.
To extend the nautical metaphor perhaps too far: the tide came in, and some boats caught it. Others didn’t. We pushed some out into the water to “help” them catch the tide. Of those, the ones that caught it were the ones that already had capable crews. The ones that didn’t – sank.
Back during the 2012 Presidential campaign, I wrote about another aquatic metaphor for foreign policy, and talked about “surfing” the “tides” of history, rather than trying to control them:
President Obama and Mitt Romney both assume that America is invested in events around the world, and in the Middle East in particular. But they understand that investment differently.
President Obama understands America’s centrality as an inescapable fact that, while valuable, imposes on America unique burdens. Sometimes those burdens are burdens of action, and sometimes they are burdens of restraint. President Obama is not really interested in reducing that burden – as, say, a Rand Paul would be. But he’s interested in managing it well, and maintaining American centrality (hegemony, if you prefer) by means of good management.
What does that mean for the Arab Spring/Islamist Awakening? Not any one thing, as should be clear from Obama’s record so far, which includes declining to get involved in the Tunisian revolution, trying to ease Mubarak out of office without abandoning the Egyptian military, isolating but refusing to intervene in the Syrian civil war, and actively intervening on the side of the rebels in Libya. That pattern, to me, suggests a man trying to get on the “right side” of events more than trying to dictate them. That’s not intended to be a criticism – it’s a description. King Canute was not particularly wise to try to dictate to the ocean rather than getting on the right side of the tide.
I believe Obama views the so-called Arab Spring as driven by the internal currents of the Arab world, and not something America can control. Given America’s inescapable centrality, however, those currents can’t simply be ignored, which means we have to surf those unpredictable waves as best one can, so as to keep our own interests afloat. Inevitably, sometimes we’re going to get wet doing so.
I stand by much of that description, but it’s far more clear to me now than it was in 2012 that Libya really was more about trying to “dictate” the tides rather than trying to “surf” them. The narrative of the Arab Spring just wouldn’t have been as satisfying if Qaddafi and Assad had remained in power while Mubarak fell. We wanted to make sure the story came out the way we wanted it to. And now here we are.
There are many lessons to take from the Libyan war. We have much more power to do harm than we have to do good, particularly when we’re talking about the application of military force. We are, in general, much more ignorant than we realize about the internal conditions in other countries, and these conditions matter much more to outcomes than we realize. Just because a given operation is designed to minimize direct risk to American assets doesn’t mean that we won’t have incurred obligations and commitments that will pose risks down the road. And so forth – all arguments that have been made on Larison’s blog and elsewhere in TAC.
But another lesson is that thinking in terms of narrative satisfaction can blind us to the reality of conditions that will actually determine the outcome. Just because it would be a lot more satisfying, emotionally, for the next “beat” to be for Qaddafi to fall, doesn’t mean that’s the beat we’re going to get. And if we “force” a re-write, we’re in a whole new story altogether.
Because this is my blog, you know what I’m going to do now. I’m going to go to Shakespeare, who, as always, was way ahead of all of us. Remember that scene in Julius Caesar that started the whole tidal metaphor thing?
What do you think
Of marching to Philippi presently?
I do not think it good.
This it is:
‘Tis better that the enemy seek us:
So shall he waste his means, weary his soldiers,
Doing himself offence; whilst we, lying still,
Are full of rest, defense, and nimbleness.
Good reasons must, of force, give place to better.
The people ‘twixt Philippi and this ground
Do stand but in a forced affection;
For they have grudged us contribution:
The enemy, marching along by them,
By them shall make a fuller number up,
Come on refresh’d, new-added, and encouraged;
From which advantage shall we cut him off,
If at Philippi we do face him there,
These people at our back.
Hear me, good brother.
Under your pardon. You must note beside,
That we have tried the utmost of our friends,
Our legions are brim-full, our cause is ripe:
The enemy increaseth every day;
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Brutus sounds like he’s winning this argument. But he isn’t. Cassius knows the correlation of forces is already against him, and that a direct confrontation is likely to prove fatal. He is trying to conserve the assets he knows he has. Brutus’s response says nothing about the likelihood of actually winning at Philippi. He just expects the correlation of forces to get even worse, so he figures it’s better to take the gamble now. And not even trying to win would be too unsatisfying to consider. He’s not worried about sinking. He’s worried about a life “bound in shallows and in miseries.”
Brutus’s counsel is the right one for a drama. We like characters who say “never tell me the odds” and just go for it. They’re romantic. But under the surface, it’s the counsel of despair, of somebody who expects to lose and just wants to lose gallantly. Brutus, the “noblest Roman of them all,” was also a self-righteous prig lousy at retaining allies and stupid enough to let his most dangerous enemy go – and, before that, was pathetically easy for Cassius to manipulate into a “venture” that never had very good odds of success. Does this sound like somebody who would have been a successful ruler for Rome? Who would even have had the chance to be the ruler, even if fortune brought him victory at Philippi?
The story we’d write, if we sent the 82nd airborne to Philippi, would be far less narratively-satisfying than we imagine. How much less so than that when we’ve no Brutus to champion.
I’ve been following a thread today about how the Democratic Party can get their mojo back, in which everybody agrees that the key is to do more to actually help working class (but actually working) voters.
The thread started with Harold Meyerson complaining that the Democrats have been depending on demographics – the “coalition of the ascendant” – for victory, and that the 2014 elections should prove once and for all that this is insufficient. Unless they can deliver broad-based prosperity, they are going to lose:
Sixty-three percent of respondents told pollsters they believed that the U.S. economic system generally favors the wealthy, while just 32 percent said that it is fair to most. And a wave of ballot measures to raise state or city minimum wages carried wherever they were put before voters — from deepest-blue San Francisco and Oakland to solid-red Nebraska, South Dakota, Arkansas and Alaska.
Yet Democrats were singularly unable to take advantage of such unarguably populist sentiments. Never mind their failure to win in red states or hold the Senate. They failed to turn out their voters, or persuade the hitherto persuadable, in such blue bastions as Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois, where they lost governors’ races. Even in the people’s republic of Vermont, the incumbent Democratic governor won so narrowly that the race will be tossed to the legislature (as Vermont law requires when no gubernatorial candidate breaks 50 percent). If current margins hold, there will be just 18 Democratic governors in January, and just eight in the 31 states that don’t border the Atlantic or Pacific.
Tuesday’s verdict makes clear that the Democrats cannot win by demographics alone.
Noam Scheiber agrees, and adds that, in his view, there’s nothing basically standing in the way of re-jiggering the Democratic message. They don’t need to abandon social liberalism, just emphasize economic populism more. And they don’t need to worry that economic populism will alienate their more upscale, college-educated demographics, because said populism is increasingly acceptable in those quarters:
The white working class is increasingly open to social liberalism, or at least not put off by it. As Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin observed this summer, 54 percent of the white working class born after 1980 think gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, according to data assembled from the 2012 election. (This tolerance diminishes as people get older, but even middle-aged working class voters are relatively open-minded on this issue.)
Teixeira and Halpin also cite a recent Center for American Progress poll that asked people about their views on racial and ethnic diversity. In that poll, 64 percent of white working class voters (overall, not just Millennials) agreed that “Americans will learn more from one another and be enriched by exposure to many different cultures.” Sixty-two percent agreed that “diverse workplaces and schools will help make American businesses more innovative and competitive.” A slight majority even agreed that “the entry of new people into the American workforce will increase our tax base and help support our retiree population.”
For their part, college grads are increasingly sympathetic toward economic populism, according to recent polling from Pew. The percentage of college grads who believe “[t]here is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies” has jumped 16 points since it bottomed out in the mid-1990s at 59 percent. The percentage who believe “corporations make too much profit” has jumped eight points since its low of 42 percent in the late ‘90s. The percentage who believe “Wall Street makes an important contribution to the American economy” has dropped 12 points since 2009 (when Pew first asked the question), to 66 percent.
Long story short, there’s a coalition available to Democrats that knits together working class minorities and college-educated voters and slices heavily into the GOP’s margins among the white working class. (As Teixeira and Halpin point out, Democrats don’t need a majority of the white working class to hold their own in the midterms. They just need to stop getting crushed.) The basis of the coalition isn’t a retreat from social progressivism, but making economic populism the party’s centerpiece, as opposed to the mix of mildly progressive economic policies (marginally higher taxes on the wealthy, marginally tougher regulation of Wall Street) and staunchly progressive social policies that define the party today. The politics of this approach work not just because populism is a “message” that a majority of voters want to hear. But because, unlike the status quo, it can actually improve their economic prospects, as Harold Meyerson recently pointed out.
Finally, Kevin Drum throws a bit of cold water by gently suggesting that the Democrats’ problem isn’t just failing to deliver on promises of prosperity, but declining expectations specifically turn working class voters against the prime beneficiaries of the welfare state:
I agree that social liberalism isn’t quite the deal killer it used to be. Scheiber and Teixera are right about that. It’s still an issue—especially gun control, which remains more potent than a lot of liberals like to acknowledge—but it’s fading somewhat in areas like abortion and gay marriage. . . .
But if that’s the case, why does the WWC continue to loathe Democrats so badly? I think the answer is as old as the discussion itself: They hate welfare. There was a hope among some Democrats that Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform would remove this millstone from around Democrats’ necks, and for a few years during the dotcom boom it probably did. The combination of tougher work rules and a booming economy made it a less contentious topic.
But when the economy stagnates and life gets harder, people get meaner. That’s just human nature. And the economy has been stagnating for the working class for well over a decade—and then practically collapsing ever since 2008.
So who does the WWC take out its anger on? Largely, the answer is the poor. In particular, the undeserving poor. Liberals may hate this distinction, but it doesn’t matter if we hate it. Lots of ordinary people make this distinction as a matter of simple common sense, and the WWC makes it more than any. That’s because they’re closer to it. For them, the poor aren’t merely a set of statistics or a cause to be championed. They’re the folks next door who don’t do a lick of work but somehow keep getting government checks paid for by their tax dollars. For a lot of members of the WWC, this is personal in a way it just isn’t for the kind of people who read this blog.
And who is it that’s responsible for this infuriating flow of government money to the shiftless? Democrats. We fight to save food stamps. We fight for WIC. We fight for Medicaid expansion. We fight for Obamacare. We fight to move poor families into nearby housing.
This is a big problem because these are all things that benefit the poor but barely touch the working class. Does it matter that the working class barely pays for most of these programs in the first place, since their federal income taxes tend to be pretty low? Nope. They’re still paying taxes, and it seems like they never get anything for it. It’s always someone else.
I could throw a bunch of responses into the mix here. For example: Schreiber is clearly overestimating the appeal of economic populism to upscale Democratic voters. 66% still think Wall Street makes an important contribution to the economy? That’s not exactly pitchfork territory. Drum, meanwhile, gives away the store when he says, of a list of priorities that include food stamps and Medicaid and Obamacare, that “these are all things that benefit the poor but barely touch the working class.” Last I checked, large percentages of work-eligible SNAP recipients are actually working, many elderly people in need of nursing care avail themselves of Medicaid’s benefits, and Obamacare was supposed to improve insurance markets particularly for those vulnerable to losing their insurance, which very much includes big swathes of the working class.
But the real point is, I feel like everybody in this conversation is dancing around the most important question: is there somebody out there who knows what will actually work? It’s not hard to articulate what either Democrats or Republicans would need to do to win. Simply say: our top priority is getting unemployment down and wages up. Not our only priority, but our top priority. And then actually deliver on that top priority.
Delivering turns out to be a bit tough, though – for both parties. Let me first look at the Republican side of things. President Bush took office just as the American economy started to tip into recession. After the 9-11 attacks, he had wide popular support even as the economy dipped further. The midterms translated that support into stronger legislative backing. He had a Fed Chair from his own party who wanted to see him succeed. If there were some well-known silver bullet that would have delivered robust economic performance, even if it broke with Republican orthodoxy here or there, don’t you think he would have pushed for it? Remember, this is President who gave us No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, Sarbanes-Oxely and McCain-Feingold. These were all major departures from Republican orthodoxy. It’s just that none of them were measures aimed directly at getting unemployment down and wages up. And economic performance was pretty lackluster throughout the Bush Presidency.
Now, on the Democratic side, President Obama was elected with a huge majority right as America dipped not merely into a recession but into a near-depression in the wake of a historic financial crisis. He faced intense opposition from Republicans in Congress, yes, but does anyone doubt where the political momentum was? That if there were some well-known silver bullet to deliver robust economic performance, he could have steamrolled any opposition? He did manage to pass Obamacare, eventually; he did manage to pass a huge stimulus bill (though not as big a bill as his own advisors thought was necessary); he did manage to pass Dodd-Frank. But the recovery was slow and fitful and wages in particular took a haircut with the crisis and haven’t recovered at all since then. And other than legislating a rise in the minimum wage, there really hasn’t been anything in the Democratic playbook that speaks directly to this issue.
Demographic appeals are the last refuge of a party without solutions to the problems voters care about most. Both parties, when faced with the failure of their economic policies to deliver the kind of broad prosperity that would lead to large reelection margins, turned to demographic appeals to “turn out” their base for victory. That worked well enough for the GOP in 2004 and for the Democrats in 2012, but left each party respectively with nothing to run on in 2006 and 2014. At which point each party in turn got a thorough shellacking.
The problem is structural. Wages have stagnated for decades. Recoveries in employment have been painfully slow in each of the last three recessions. This has been true under united governments of both parties and under divided governments. The most parsimonious conclusion to draw is that the main policymakers in both parties genuinely don’t know how to solve this problem.
That doesn’t mean there are no solutions, of course. There may be solutions within the standard policymaking playbook, or solutions may require more radical changes to our political or economic system. But if the solutions are out there, they are not known - that is to say, they are not generally accepted as knowledge. Which means pushing them is not some kind of electoral magic. I have my own notions of what is needed. But I’m under no illusions that there’s some kind of consensus that my notions are right. I’m under no illusions that there’s any kind of consensus at all on how to tackle what is plainly a long-term structural problem affecting the entire developed world.