Thursday, August 31, 2017

Roll Over, Katrina — Make Way For Harvey (And Harvey-Descendants To Come)

At last, this blogger has found a weather geek who doesn't traffic in hysterical and apocalyptic clamor. Today, this blog is honored to offer an essay that is reasoned, sensible, and free of hyperbole. The tragedy is that we learned (and did nothing) after experiencing Katrina in 2005 and that goes for the occupants of the Oval Office in both 2005 and 2017 and on down to the occupants of City Hall in New Orleans and Houston. Unmentioned in 2005 — in this blogger's recollection — was mention of climate change that surely was a factor in the force and devastation of Katrina. Of course, in 2017, we have science-denial from the Oval Office on down family tree of traitors willing to destroy the United States of America. If this is (fair & balanced) hatred of ignorance, so be it.

[x Politico]
Harvey Is What Climate Change Looks Like
By Eric Holthaus

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In all of US history, there’s never been a storm like Hurricane Harvey. That fact is increasingly clear, even though the rains are still falling and the water levels in Houston are still rising.

But there’s an uncomfortable point that, so far, everyone is skating around: We knew this would happen, decades ago. We knew this would happen, and we didn’t care. Now is the time to say it as loudly as possible: Harvey is what climate change looks like. More specifically, Harvey is what climate change looks like in a world that has decided, over and over, that it doesn’t want to take climate change seriously.

Houston has been sprawling out into the swamp for decades, largely unplanned and unzoned. Now, all that pavement has transformed the bayous into surging torrents and shunted Harvey’s floodwaters toward homes and businesses. Individually, each of these subdivisions or strip malls might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but in aggregate, they’ve converted the metro area into a flood factory. Houston, as it was before Harvey, will never be the same again.

Harvey is the third 500-year flood to hit the Houston area in the past three years, but Harvey is in a class by itself. By the time the storm leaves the region on Wednesday, an estimated 40 to 60 inches of rain will have fallen on parts of Houston. So much rain has fallen already that the National Weather Service had to add additional colors to its maps to account for the extreme totals.

Harvey is infusing new meaning into meteorologists’ favorite superlatives: There are simply no words to describe what has happened in the past few days. In just the first three days since landfall, Harvey has already doubled Houston’s previous record for the wettest month in city history, set during the previous benchmark flood, Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001. For most of the Houston area, in a stable climate, a rainstorm like Harvey is not expected to happen more than once in a millennium.

In fact, Harvey is likely already the worst rainstorm in US history. An initial analysis by John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist, compared Harvey’s rainfall intensity to the worst storms in the most downpour-prone region of the United States, the Gulf Coast. Harvey ranks at the top of the list, with a total rainwater output equivalent to 3.6 times the flow of the Mississippi River. (And this is likely an underestimate, because there are still two days of rains left.) That much water—20 trillion gallons over five days—is about one-sixth the volume of Lake Erie. According to a preliminary and informal estimate by disaster economist Kevin Simmons of Austin College, Harvey’s economic toll “will likely exceed Katrina”—the most expensive disaster in US history. Harvey is now the benchmark disaster of record in the United States.

As with Katrina, Harvey gives us an opportunity for an inflection point as a society. The people of Houston didn’t choose this to happen to them, but what happens next is critically important for all of us.

Climate change is making rainstorms everywhere worse, but particularly on the Gulf Coast. Since the 1950s, Houston has seen a 167 percent increase in the frequency of the most intense downpours. Climate scientist Kevin Trenberth thinks that as much as 30 percent of the rainfall from Harvey is attributable to human-caused global warming. That means Harvey is a storm decades in the making.

While Harvey’s rains are unique in US history, heavy rainstorms are increasing in frequency and intensity worldwide. One recent study showed that by mid-century, up to 450 million people worldwide will be exposed to a doubling of flood frequency. This isn’t just a Houston problem. This is happening all over.

A warmer atmosphere enhances evaporation rates and increases the carrying capacity of rainstorms. Harvey drew its energy from a warmer-than-usual Gulf of Mexico, which will only grow warmer in the decades to come. At its peak, on Saturday night, Harvey produced rainfall rates exceeding six inches per hour in Houston, and its multiday rainfall total is close to the theoretical maximum expected for anywhere in the United States.

Weather patterns are also getting “stuck” more often, boosting the chances that a storm like Harvey would stall out. Some scientists have linked this to melting Arctic sea ice, which reduces the strength of the polar jet stream and weakens atmospheric steering currents that can otherwise dip down and kick a storm like Harvey on its way. To be sure, a storm like Harvey might have been possible in the absence of climate change, but there are many factors at play that almost assuredly made it more likely.

Adapting to a future in which a millennium-scale flood can wipe out a major city is much harder than preventing that flood in the first place. By and large, the built world we have right now wasn’t constructed with climate change in mind. By continuing to pretend that we can engineer our way out of the worsening flooding problem with bigger dams, more levees and higher-powered pumping equipment, we’re fooling ourselves into a more dangerous future.

It’s possible to imagine something else: a hopeful future that diverges from climate dystopia and embraces the scenario in which our culture inevitably shifts toward building cities that work with the storms that are coming, instead of Sisyphean efforts to hold them back. That will require abandoning buildings and concepts we currently hold dear, but we’ll be rewarded with a safer, richer, more enduring world in the end. There were many people in Houston already working on making that world a reality even before Harvey came.

If we don’t talk about the climate context of Harvey, we won’t be able to prevent future disasters and get to work on that better future. Those of us who know this need to say it loudly. As long as our leaders, in words, and the rest of us, in actions, are OK with incremental solutions to a civilization-defining, global-scale problem, we will continue to stumble toward future catastrophes. Climate change requires us to rethink old systems that we’ve assumed will last forever. Putting off radical change—what futurist Alex Steffen calls “predatory delay”—just adds inevitable risk to the system. It’s up to the rest of us to identify this behavior and make it morally repugnant.

Insisting on a world that doesn’t knowingly condemn entire cities to a watery, terrifying future isn’t “politicizing” a tragedy—it’s our moral duty. The weather has always been political. If random whims of atmospheric turbulence devastate one neighborhood and spare another, it’s our job as a civilized society to equalize that burden. The choices of how to do that, by definition, are political ones.

Climate change hits the vulnerable in a community hardest. It is no different in Houston with Hurricane Harvey, where even if an evacuation would have been ordered, countless thousands of people wouldn’t have had the means or ability to act. There is simply no way to safely evacuate a metro area the size of Houston—6.5 million people spread across an area roughly the size of Massachusetts.

The symbolism of the worst flooding disaster in US history hitting the sprawled-out capital city of America’s oil industry is likely not lost on many. Institutionalized climate denial in our political system and climate denial by inaction by the rest of us have real consequences. They look like Houston.

Once Harvey’s floodwaters recede, the process will begin to imagine a New Houston, and that city will inevitably endure future mega-rainstorms as the world warms. The rebuilding process provides an opportunity to chart a new path. The choice isn’t between left and right, or denier and believer. The choice is between success and failure. # # #

[Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist, weather and climate journalist and a contributing writer for Slate and the Wall Street Journal. Holthaus received a BS with honors (meteorology) from Saint Louis University (MO), an MA (climate and society) from Columbia University (NY), and a PhD (geography and development) from the University of Arizona.]

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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

If The Three-Dollar Bill Returns To Circulation, There Is A Perfect Presidential Portrait Waiting In The Wings

The sun is shining here and the rains may have moved on to plague neighbors to the east and the Traitor-in-Chief is gone after his "inspirational" trip to the storm-ravaged Gulf coast. (For a deliriously snarky post-mortem of the Traitor-in-Chief's performance at the scene of a national disaster, read it here.) For a change of pace, The New Yorker's Adam Davidson does offer a warning about the sanctity of the US dollar in the current misadministration of the US government a'la the DOE, HUD, and EPA. If this is a (fair & balanced) discussion of unfilthy lucre, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
How The Dollar Stays Makes A Return — There Is A Perfect
By Adam Davidson

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The factory that makes the paper for US currency smells like a clean barn just supplied with fresh hay. Built in the eighteen-seventies, in Dalton, Massachusetts, it runs today, as it did then, on the power of the adjacent Housatonic River. The scent emanates from the centerpiece of the mill, a giant, elevated iron sphere larger than a house. Tons of raw cotton and linen are poured in at the top, along with water, and the sphere is heated and spun like a washing machine to break up the fibres, which are run through the paper-making machinery at another, slightly younger plant down the road.

It’s in that plant that this nineteenth-century product is outfitted with the latest technology. The hundred-dollar bill, for example, is embedded with a micro-optic security ribbon—a blue line, next to Benjamin Franklin’s face, patterned with alternating images of the Liberty Bell and the number “100” which, when the bill is tilted, move up and down, left and right. The effect comes from more than a million microscopic lenses, each sitting atop a precisely printed image thinner than a human hair. Crane Currency, the company that has produced the paper for our currency for almost a hundred and forty years, now makes bills for dozens of other countries, and has created even smaller lenses with even more remarkable effects. One bill, when slanted, appears to have a large drop of water slowly moving down its face. Tod Niedeck, the head of marketing for Crane, says that he was inspired by the “Harry Potter” films, in which enchanted photographs come to life, and believes that in the near future Crane will be able to create bills with more complex animation: George Washington walking to a chair and sitting down, Franklin winking and waving.

The official reason for all this modern technology is that it makes the currency hard to counterfeit, but that explanation isn’t quite sufficient. In reality, there has never been much counterfeiting in the US. Last year was typical: about sixty-four million dollars’ worth of counterfeit currency was seized by the Secret Service, nearly half of which came from one operation in Peru. There is more than a trillion dollars’ worth of paper currency in circulation, which means that, in any given year, counterfeit bills represent five one-thousandths of one per cent of the total.

Larry Felix, the former director of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, told me that anti-counterfeit measures “don’t make much sense from a direct financial perspective,” since the cost of preventing counterfeiting is much greater than the infinitesimal loss caused by fake bills. But these measures have a broader, psychological purpose. “Banknotes depend on confidence,” Felix told me. (Our paper bills are called banknotes because they are, technically, promissory notes—formal IOUs—issued by the Federal Reserve.) “You accept a banknote because you figure the person you will hand it to will also accept it.” This is the essential circular mystery of money: its value comes from each of us believing that everybody else will continue to believe in its value. The physical bill reinforces this bit of theatre, with the feel of the cotton-and-linen paper reminding us that dollars are long-trusted, and the ever-upgraded magical effects reassuring us that they will hold value far into the future.

This basic faith in currency has collapsed in other countries, most famously in Weimar Germany and, more recently, in Zimbabwe, Iraq, and Brazil. (The Hungarian pengö suffered the worst known currency collapse to date, going from an exchange rate of thirty-three to the US dollar in 1944 to four hundred and sixty septillion—a trillion times a trillion—to the dollar two years later.) The dollar, however, has been remarkably resilient. A decade ago, there was serious discussion of the euro or the Chinese renminbi becoming the central global currency. Then there was a great recession caused, in large part, by the failures of the American financial system. This coincided with advances in digital-payment systems, such as bitcoin and Apple Pay, and the proliferation of cell-phone payments in the developing world. Yet the dollar emerged dominant, showing that a currency doesn’t have to be great to be trusted—it just has to be the least bad. (Wall Street traders refer to the dollar as “the cleanest dirty shirt.”) Today, more than half of US banknotes, including the vast majority of hundred-dollar bills, are held outside the country, acting as a store of value more dependable than local currencies and as an extension of American influence.

This year, many US institutions have come under attack by a President who doesn’t seem to understand their nature or their importance. So far, our currency has been spared, its value protected by the Federal Reserve Board, which has remained outside the general madness. In the coming year, though, President Trump could replace Janet Yellen and Stanley Fischer, the highly respected chair and vice-chair of the Fed, with new appointees. It’s not hard to imagine Trump installing unqualified toadies, people who might inflate or deflate the dollar to achieve political goals. Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser and, reportedly, the top candidate for the chair, represents so much that is odious about the Administration: the former president of Goldman Sachs, he blatantly favors the interests of banks and of the wealthy. Cohn does have one crucial qualification, however. He recognizes that reckless policies could undermine confidence in the dollar, creating wreckage that would far outlast this Administration. # # #

[Adam Davidson writes the It’s the Economy column for The New York Times Magazine. He co-founded "Planet Money," NPR’s team of economics reporters whose goal is to translate often confusing and sometimes terrifying economic and financial news. Davidson was the Middle East correspondent for the public-radio program “Marketplace” (2003-2004). He has also written articles for the Atlantic, Harper’s, GQ, Rolling Stone and others. Adam Davidson received a BA (religion and the humanities) from the University of Chicago.]

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A Suggestion To A Visitor Just Arriving In Texas: Take Your Red Hat & Shove It Where The Sun Don't Shine

To add insult to injury, Texas has been hammered by an incredible Hurricane.Tropical Storm and now a second disaster descends as Air Farce One lands in Austin before Traitor-Trump goes on to "inspect" the Corpus Christi area where the worst weather ever in Texas history made landfall before following the coastline eastward to Houston. In today's Austin Fishwrap, former editor Rich Oppel warned the Bi-Polar Traitor-in-Chief to assume his Dr. Jekyll persona and leave his impersonation of Mr. Hyde somewhere behind. It may be a reach too far because Traitor-Trump gloated about his TV ratings after his imbecilic presidential pardon of the former Maricopa (AZ) Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Undoubtedly, the Traitor-in-Chief will pay closest attention to the ratings received by The Weather Channel compared to Fake Media coverage of the Fake POTUS's disaster tour. Suffice it to say that this blogger will eschew the spectacle of Fake Concern evinced by Traitor-Trump. If this is (fair & balanced) outrage, so be it.

[x Austin Fishwrap]
Dear Trump, Make Your Visit About Harvey Recovery — Not You
By Richard (Rich) Oppel

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We remember the picture [in Port Aransas] because it speaks to life here on the island. One summer morning in 2015, our granddaughter Roxy springs from bed, rushes to the deck in her nightdress and peers over calm seas – a 5-year-old lost in a child’s dreams.

Our condo at The Dunes in Port Aransas is an escape from life’s complexities, at ages 5 or 75. We eat, fish, swim, walk, read and watch University of Texas, Duke and Florida State basketball and football on TV.

Only last Friday did it become a place of anxiety.

That’s when Hurricane Harvey bore down on Port Aransas with 130-mph winds.

“This event is unprecedented & all impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced,” the National Weather Service tweeted on Sunday.

Harvey left catastrophic destruction in Port Aransas, Rockport and other nearby coastal towns. It moved on to produce Katrina-like floods in Houston.

Hundreds of Texas families know and love The Dunes, one of the oldest condos in Port A. It stands like an aging woman of warmth and solid character, showing a few wrinkles and eccentricities after 40 years in summer’s brutal sun and winter’s chilling winds.

If you love the Four Seasons, The Dunes is not for you. The pony-tailed fellow in the lobby with a stringer of dripping fish in one hand and a can of Bud in the other would be a turn-off.

We are the people of T-shirts, sandals and gimme caps.

In our apartment, George Shipley, Ross Milloy, Leon Thompson and I gather a few times each year for drinks before the next morning’s pursuit of redfish and trout with guide Joe Mendez.

In the hot tub, I like to chat up young working men and women from San Antonio for a restful weekend.

My wife, Carol, and I love the Winter Texans. They arrive in January and stay until April, when snows of the Midwest melt. They are farmers, accountants, railroad workers, nurses and lawyers. They love music, barbecue and good conversations.

The Dunes still stands today. We can’t get to it. Mayor Charles Bujansays authorities will first make the city safe. Too many hazards.

Speaking of hazards, the absurd man from Washington with the angry eyebrows threatens to visit Texas today.

I’m of mixed views. He does need to say something about Harvey to reassure victims and unify the country behind an expensive rebuilding. But I pray that he will not take the occasion to pardon El Chapo, herald the redeeming characteristics of Nazis or slander transgender soldiers.

We owners at The Dunes don’t need his reassurances. If The Dunes can’t be repaired, our only really losses will be memories. We are insured.

But Mr. Trump might give more thought to people of modest means who work as bookkeepers, cleaners and desk managers at the coastal beach condominiums — and to those who work in Houston refineries and on offshore oil rigs.

Many own cars that were destroyed, live in houses that are flooded and held jobs that were lost because of Harvey. For them, medical care often is out of reach.

Mr. President, you seek to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would put a further burden on the poor. You call climate change “a hoax.” That hoax may be causing the violent, aberrant weather that weather experts say is unprecedented.

As you chopper in, please give care to what you will say. The people of Houston, Port Aransas and Rockport are feeling pretty low.

Don’t jabber on about your “perfect words” at Charlottesville and how the media lied. This is not about you. This is about Texas.

Lose that “Make America Great Again” hat. Right now, we’d like to make America functional again. # # #

[Richard (Rich) Oppel is a former senior editor of the Austin American-Statesman (1995-2008). Previously, he was previously editor of the Charlotte Observer (NC), which earned three Pulitzer Prizes (sharing one with the Atlanta Constitution (GA) for editorial cartoons) under his editorship. Oppel received a BA (political science) from the University of South Florida.]

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Monday, August 28, 2017

Meet The Bi- (For Bipolar) 45th POTUS

Tom/Dan wrote in the e-mail that brought today's 'toon to the In Box:

I finished this one up on Friday night, right before the Arpaio pardon was announced. The appalling Friday news dump is now just part of our national weekly routine.

The current owners of the Village Voice announced this week that they’re ending the print edition, but claim the paper will still live on as a website and a “brand,” which I think is corporate-speak for “it won’t live on.” A month or two ago, I was asked to sign an open letter in support of the Voice's union (which I did), and I wonder if that battle had something to do with this decision. The Voice was really the first altweekly, and as a young cartoonist it was the brass ring, the pinnacle that you hoped for but never really believed you’d get. Except that I did, starting in about 1997 or so, and for ten years (give or take, my memory’s a bit fuzzy on the exact dates) I was a cartoonist for the Village Voice. I even did several covers for them! But then the New Times cowboys bought it and tried to turn it into a cookie cutter version of all the other papers in their chain, and things went downhill from there. That same crew had a habit of buying papers and starting newspaper wars in various cities, as a result of which they ultimately killed both altweeklies in San Francisco (their own and the paper they went to war with) *and* both altweeklies in Cleveland, and probably more than I’m not even aware of. When the history of this industry is written, those guys will bear every bit as much responsibility for its demise as the shift to digital/online. It’s a genuine shame, because these papers filled a very specific niche; at their best, they were the local watchdogs, taking on fights that the more cautious local dailies wanted nothing to do with. I don’t mean to write the obituary for the entire industry prematurely — I still run in a lot of the remaining papers — but in the last few years we’ve lost the Voice, as well as papers in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco, that I know about. None of this bodes well.
Until next time,

Dan (aka Tom)

And so, this blogger must look forward to the nonsense of a "presidential visit" to flood-ravaged Houston on Tuesday as the skies are clearing. This blogger would gladly trade that visit on the ground for a replay of The Dubster flying over New Orleans after the Katrina disaster; The Dubster never made it to New Orleans on the ground. The Traitor-in-Chief probably explored the possibility of holding a "rally" in Houston as the signature event of his visit. If this is (fair & balanced) rejection of excuses and dissembling, so be it.

[x TMW]
Trump Two-Step
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow." His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Daily Kos. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly. Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002. When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political blog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001. More recently, Dan Perkins, pen name Tom Tomorrow, was named the winner of the 2013 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning. Even more recently, Dan Perkins was a runner-up for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning.]

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Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Most Chilling Thought In Today's Post: The US Constitution Can Be Re-Written If Two Additional Blue States Turn Red (Along With Their State Legislatures)

On his way out the door of the White House, ousted Reichsführer Steve Bannon sneered at the fixation of the political opposition on identity issues while he still would beat the drum for economic nationalism... and see victory. And so, Professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University has fixed upon the problem of identity politics as a loss-leader for the patriotic opponents of the Traitor-in-Chief and his treasonous supporters. If this is a (fair & balanced) case of mistaken identity, so be it.

PS: Look at the Directory below and click on the [bracketed number] to go to that essay; click on "Back To Directory" to return to the top of the page.

Vannevar Bush hypertextBracketed numericsDirectory]
[1] Point: Mark Lilla's Take On The Politics Of Identity
[2] Counterpoint: The New Yorker's David Remnick Cross-Examines Mark Lilla

[1]Back To Directory
[x CHE]
How Colleges Are Strangling Liberalism
By Mark Lilla

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Donald Trump is president of the United States. This momentous event has turned our campuses upside down. The day after his victory some professors held teach-ins, some students asked to be excused from class, and now many have gotten engaged and have been joining marches and attending raucous town-hall meetings. This warms the heart of an impassioned if centrist liberal like myself.

But something more needs to happen, and soon. All of us liberals involved in higher education need to take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we contributed to putting the country in this situation. We need to accept our share of responsibility. Anyone involved in Republican politics will tell you that our campus follies, magnified by Fox News, mobilize their base like few things do. But our responsibility extends beyond feeding the right-wing media by tolerating attempts to control speech, limit debate, stigmatize and bully conservatives, as well as encouraging a culture of complaint that strikes people outside our privileged circles as comically trivial. We have distorted the liberal message to such a degree that it has become unrecognizable.

After Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, American liberals faced the challenge of developing a fresh and truly political vision of the country’s shared destiny, adapted to the new realities of American society and chastened by the failures of old approaches. And this they failed to do. Instead they threw themselves into the movement politics of identity, losing a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation. An image for Roosevelt liberalism and the unions that supported it was that of two hands shaking. A recurring image of identity liberalism is that of a prism refracting a single beam of light into its constituent colors, producing a rainbow. This says it all.

The politics of identity is nothing new, certainly on the American right. And it is not dead, as the recent events in Charlottesville remind us. The white nationalist march that set off the conflict, and then led to one protester’s death, was not only directed against minorities. It was also directed at the university and everything it stands for. In May 1933 Nazi students marched at night into the courtyard of the University of Berlin and proceeded to burn “decadent” books in the library. White nationalist organizers were “quoting” this precedent when they flooded Thomas Jefferson’s campus looking for blood. This was fascist identitarianism, something liberals and progressives have always battled in the name of human equality and universal justice.

What was astonishing during the Reagan years, though, was the development of an explicit left-wing identity politics that became the de facto creed of two generations of liberal politicians, professors, school teachers, journalists, movement activists, and officials of the Democratic Party. This has been disastrous for liberalism's prospects in our country, especially in the face of an increasingly radicalized right.

There is a good reason that liberals focus extra attention on minorities, since they are the most likely to be disenfranchised. But the only way in a democracy to meaningfully assist them — and not just make empty gestures of recognition and "celebration" — is to win elections and exercise power in the long run, at every level of government. And the only way to accomplish that is to have a message that appeals to as many people as possible and pulls them together. Identity liberalism does just the opposite, and reinforces the alt-right’s picture of politics as a war of competing identity groups.

Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people — African-Americans, women, gays — seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights. But by the 1980s it had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities. The main result has been to turn young people back onto themselves, rather than turning them outward toward the wider world they share with others. It has left them unprepared to think about the common good in non-identity terms and what must be done practically to secure it — especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort. Every advance of liberal identity consciousness has marked a retreat of effective liberal political consciousness.

Campus politics bears a good deal of the blame. Up until the 1960s, those active in liberal and progressive politics were drawn largely from the working class or farm communities, and were formed in local political clubs or on shop floors. Today’s activists and leaders are formed almost exclusively at colleges and universities, as are members of the mainly liberal professions of law, journalism, and education. Liberal political education, such as it is, now takes place on campuses that, especially at the elite level, are largely detached socially and geographically from the rest of the country. This is not likely to change. Which means that liberalism’s prospects will depend in no small measure on what happens in our institutions of higher education.

Flash back to 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan. Republican activists are setting out on the road to spread the new individualist gospel of small government and pouring their energies into winning out-of-the-way county, state, and congressional elections — a bottom-up strategy. Also on the road, though taking a different exit off the interstate, you see former New Left activists in rusting, multicolored VW buses. Having failed to overturn capitalism and the military-industrial complex, they are heading for college towns all over America, where they hope to practice a very different sort of politics aimed at transforming the outlook of the educated classes — a top-down strategy. Both groups succeeded.

The retreat of the post-1960s left was strategic. Already in 1962 the authors of the Port Huron Statement wrote, "we believe that the universities are an overlooked seat of influence." Universities were no longer isolated preserves of learning. They had become central to American economic life, serving as conduits and accrediting institutions for post-industrial occupations, and to political life, through research and the formation of party elites.

The SDS authors made the case that a New Left should first try to form itself within the university, where they were free to argue among themselves and work out a more ambitious political strategy, recruiting followers along the way. The ultimate point, though, was to enter the wider world, looking "outwards to the less exotic but more lasting struggles for justice."

But as hopes for a radical transformation of American life faded, ambitions shrank. Many who returned to campus invested their energies in making their sleepy college towns into socially progressive and environmentally self-sustaining communities. These campus towns still do stand out from the rest of America and are very pleasant places to live, though they have lost much of their utopian allure. Most have become meccas of a new consumerist culture for the highly educated, surrounded by techie office parks and increasingly expensive homes. They are places where you can visit a bookshop, see a foreign movie, pick up vitamins and candles, have a decent meal followed by an espresso, and perhaps attend a workshop to ease your conscience. A thoroughly bourgeois setting without a trace of the demos, apart from the homeless men and women who flock there and whose job is to keep it real for the residents.

That’s the comic side of the story. The other side — heroic or tragic, depending on your politics — concerns how the retreating New Left turned the university into a political theater for the staging of morality plays and operas. This has generated enormous controversy about tenured radicals, the culture wars, political correctness — and with good reason. But these developments mask a quieter and far more significant one.

The big story is not that leftist professors successfully turn millions of young people into dangerous political radicals every year. Some certainly try, but that seems not to have slowed the line of graduates shoving their way toward professional schools and then moving on to conventional careers. The real story is that the ‘60s generation passed on to students a particular conception of what politics is, based on its own idiosyncratic historical experience.

The experience of that era taught the New Left two lessons. The first was that movement politics was the only mode of engagement that actually changes things (which once was true but no longer is). The second was that political activity must have some authentic meaning for the self, making compromise seem a self-betrayal (which renders ordinary politics impossible).

The lesson of these two lessons, so to speak, was that if you want to be a political person you should begin not by joining a broad-based party but by searching for a movement that has some deep personal meaning for you. In the 1950s and early 1960s there were already a number of such movements — about nuclear disarmament, war, poverty, the environment — that engaged the self, though they were not about the self. Instead, engaging with those issues meant having to engage with the wider world and gain some knowledge of economics, sociology, psychology, science, and especially history.

With the rise of identity consciousness, engagement in issue-based movements began to diminish somewhat and the conviction got rooted that the movements most meaningful to the self are, unsurprisingly, about the self. As the feminist authors of the Combahee River Collective put it baldly in their influential 1977 manifesto, "the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression."

This new attitude had a profound impact on American universities. Marxism, with its concern for the fate of workers of the world, all of them, gradually lost its allure. The study of identity groups now seemed the most urgent scholarly and political task, and soon there was an extraordinary proliferation of departments, research centers, and professorial chairs devoted to it.

This has had many good effects. It has encouraged academic disciplines to widen the scope of their investigations to incorporate the experiences of large groups that had been somewhat invisible, like women and African-Americans. But it also has encouraged a single-minded fascination with group differences and the social margins, so much so that students have come away with a distorted picture of history and of their country in the present — a significant handicap at a time when American liberals need to learn more, not less, about the vast middle of the country.

Imagine a young student entering such an environment today — not your average student pursuing a career, but a recognizable campus type drawn to political questions. She is at the age when the quest for meaning begins and in a place where her curiosity could be directed outward toward the larger world she will have to find a place in. Instead, she is encouraged to plumb mainly herself, which seems an easier exercise. (Little does she know....) She will first be taught that understanding herself depends on exploring the different aspects of her identity, something she now discovers she has. An identity which, she also learns, has already been largely shaped for her by various social and political forces. This is an important lesson, from which she is likely to draw the conclusion that the aim of education is not to progressively become a self — the task of a lifetime, Kierkegaard thought — through engagement with the wider world. Rather, one engages with the world and particularly politics for the limited aim of understanding and affirming what one already is.

And so she begins. She takes classes where she reads histories of the movements related to whatever she determines her identity to be, and reads authors who share that identity. (Given that this is also an age of sexual exploration, gender studies will hold a particular attraction.) In these courses she also discovers a surprising and heartening fact: that although she may come from a comfortable, middle-class background, her identity confers on her the status of one of history’s victims. This discovery may then inspire her to join a campus group that engages in movement work. The line between self-analysis and political action is now fully blurred. Her political interest will be genuine but circumscribed by the confines of her self-definition. Issues that penetrate those confines now take on looming importance and her position on them quickly becomes nonnegotiable; those issues that don’t touch on her identity (economics, war and peace) are hardly perceived.

The more our student gets into the campus identity mind-set, the more distrustful she will become of the word we, a term her professors have told her is a universalist ruse used to cover up group differences and maintain the dominance of the privileged. And if she gets deeper into "identity theory" she’ll even start to question the reality of the groups to which she thinks she belongs.

The intricacies of this pseudo-discipline are only of academic interest. But where it has left our student is of great political interest.

An earlier generation of young women, for example, might have learned that women as a group have a distinct perspective that deserves to be recognized and cultivated, and have distinct needs that society must address. Today the theoretically adept are likely to be taught, to the consternation of older feminists, that one cannot generalize about women since their experiences are radically different, depending on their race, sexual preference, class, physical abilities, life experiences, and so on. More generally, they will be taught that nothing about gender identity is fixed, that it is all highly malleable. This is either because, on the French view, the self is nothing, just the trace left by the interaction of invisible, tasteless, odorless forces of "power" that determine everything in the flux of life; or, on the all-American view, because the self is whatever we damn well say it is. (The most advanced thinkers hold both views at once.)

A whole scholastic vocabulary has been developed to express these notions: fluidity, hybridity, intersectionality, performativity, transgressivity, and more. Anyone familiar with medieval scholastic disputes over the mystery of the Holy Trinity — the original identity problem — will feel right at home.

What matters about these academic trends is that they give an intellectual patina to the narcissism that virtually everything else in our society encourages. If our young student accepts the mystical idea that anonymous forces of power shape everything in life, she will be perfectly justified in withdrawing from democratic politics and casting an ironic eye on it. If, as is more likely, she accepts the all-American idea that her unique identity is something she gets to construct and change as the fancy strikes her, she can hardly be expected to have an enduring political attachment to others, and certainly cannot be expected to hear the call of duty toward them. Instead she will find herself in the hold of what might be called the Facebook model of identity: the self as a homepage I construct like a personal brand, linked to others through associations I can "like" and "unlike" at will. "Intersectionality" is too ephemeral to serve as a lasting foundation for solidarity and commitment.

The more obsessed with personal identity campus liberals become, the less willing they are to engage in reasoned political debate. Over the past decade a new, and very revealing, locution has drifted from our universities into the media mainstream: Speaking as an X.... This is not an anodyne phrase. It tells the listener that I am speaking from a privileged position on this matter. It sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: The winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned.

So classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B. This makes perfect sense if you believe that identity determines everything. It means that there is no impartial space for dialogue. White men have one "epistemology," black women have another. So what remains to be said?

What replaces argument, then, is taboo. At times our more privileged campuses can seem stuck in the world of archaic religion. Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters. Particular groups are given temporary totemic significance. Scapegoats are duly designated and run off campus in a purging ritual. Propositions become pure or impure, not true or false. And not only propositions but simple words. Left identitarians who think of themselves as radical creatures, contesting this and transgressing that, have become like buttoned-up schoolmarms when it comes to the English language, parsing every conversation for immodest locutions and rapping the knuckles of those who inadvertently use them.

It’s a strange and depressing development for professors who went to college back in the 1960s, rebelled against the knuckle rappers, and mussed the schoolmarm’s hair. Things seem to have come full circle: Now the students are the narcs.

That was hardly the intention when the New Left, fresh from real political battles in the great out there, returned to campus in hopes of encouraging the young to follow in their footsteps. They imagined raucous, no-holds-barred debates over big ideas, not a roomful of students looking suspiciously at one another. They imagined being provocative and forcing students to defend their positions, not getting emails from deans suggesting they come in for a little chat. They imagined launching their politically committed and informed students into the world, not watching them retreat into themselves.

Conservatives are right: Our colleges, from bottom to top, are mainly run by liberals, and teaching has a liberal tilt. But they are wrong to infer that students are therefore being turned into an effective left-wing political force. The liberal pedagogy of our time, focused as it is on identity, is actually a depoliticizing force. It has made our children more tolerant of others than certainly my generation was, which is a very good thing. But by undermining the universal democratic we on which solidarity can be built, duty instilled, and action inspired, it is unmaking rather than making citizens. In the end this approach just strengthens all the atomizing forces that dominate our age.

It’s strange: liberal academics idealize the ‘60s generation, as their weary students know. But I’ve never heard any of my colleagues ask an obvious question: What was the connection between that generation’s activism and what they learned about our country in school and in college? After all, if professors would like to see their own students follow in the footsteps of the left’s Greatest Generation, you would think they would try to reproduce the pedagogy of that period. But they don’t. Quite the contrary. The irony is that the supposedly bland, conventional colleges of the 1950s and early 1960s incubated what was perhaps the most radical generation of American citizens since the country’s founding. Young people who were eager to engage in "the less exotic but more lasting struggles for justice" for everyone in the great out there beyond the campus gates.

The universities of our time instead cultivate students so obsessed with their personal identities and campus pseudo-politics that they have much less interest in, less engagement with, and frankly less knowledge of matters that don't touch on identity in the great out there. Neither Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who studied Greek) nor Martin Luther King Jr. (who studied Christian theology) nor Angela Davis (who studied Western philosophy) received an identity-based education. And it is difficult to imagine them becoming who they became had they been cursed with one. The fervor of their rebellion demonstrated the degree to which their education had widened their horizons and developed in them a feeling of democratic solidarity rare in America today.

Whatever you wish to say about the political wanderings of the ‘60s generation, they were, in their own way, patriots. They cared about what happened to their fellow citizens and cared when they felt America’s democratic principles had been violated. Even when the fringes of the student movement adopted a wooden, Marxist rhetoric, it always sounded more like "Yankee Doodle" than Wagner.

The fact that they received a relatively nonpartisan education in an environment that encouraged debates over ideas and that developed emotional toughness and intellectual conviction surely had a great deal to do with it. You can still find such people teaching in our universities and some are my friends. Most remain to the left of me but we enjoy disagreeing and respect arguments based on evidence. I still think they are unrealistic; they think I don’t see that dreaming is sometimes the most realistic thing one can do. (The older I get the more I think they have a point.) But we shake our heads in unison when we discuss what passes for political activity on campus.

It would not be such a terrible thing to raise another generation of citizens like them. The old model, with a few tweaks, is worth following: passion and commitment, but also knowledge and argument. Curiosity about the world outside your own head and about people unlike yourself. Care for this country and its citizens, all of them, and a willingness to sacrifice for them. And the ambition to imagine a common future for all of us.

Any professor who teaches these things is engaged in the most important political work — that of building effective, and not just right-thinking, democratic citizens. Only when we have such citizens can we hope that they will become liberal ones. And only when we have liberal ones can we hope to put the country on a better path. # # #

[Mark Lilla is a political scientist, historian of ideas, journalist, and a professor of humanities at Columbia University, His new book is The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (2017), from which this essay is adapted. See other books by Mark Lilla here. After a brief time at Wayne State University (MI), Mark Lilla transferred and received an AB (economics and political science) from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and both an MPP and a PhD (government) from Harvard University.]

Copyright © 2017 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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[x New Yorker]
A Conversation With Mark Lilla On His Critique Of Identity Politics
By David Remnick

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The Trump campaign and Presidency have sparked not only an ever-expanding literature of biography, investigation, and pre-history but also a variety of polemics and essays—pointed attacks on the President, his character, his intentions, his abuses, and the political climate that he has created.

Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale who is best known in academic circles for his comprehensive studies of modern Europe, recently published a best-selling polemic called On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017), a primer on authoritarian tendencies of the past and how to resist them now. In October, Ta-Nehisi Coates will publish We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (forthcoming October 2017), a series of essays on race, written during the Obama era, that concludes with the current predicament: “The white supremacy swirling around Trump is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power.”

Now into the arena comes a distinctly more conservative brand of liberal and Trump opponent, Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia, who, on November 18th, published an Op-Ed in the Times declaring, “One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.” His article, written while Clinton voters were still in a kind of disbelieving haze, outraged not a few readers of the paper with its blasts at “the fixation on diversity in our schools” and the “moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force.” Lilla is hardly indifferent to injustices against women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color, but he claims that too many liberals and leftists, indulging in a politics of “narcissism,” are “indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.”

Lilla, who has expanded that article into his new, brief book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (2017), insists that his is the pragmatic view: that in order to secure progress for overlooked and oppressed peoples—in order to advance a liberal economic, environmental, and social agenda—political power must be won, which means that elections must be won. At the moment, the Democratic Party—from elections for the White House to state legislatures—is failing. The Democrats, he says, were once the party of the working class; now the Democrats are largely a loose coalition of educated coastal élites and minorities. Why is it now possible to drive across the country for thousands of miles without hitting a blue state or county? How did the Democrats lose a decisive number of Obama voters to someone like Donald Trump? Lilla believes that identity politics is a central part of the answer.

When I read Lilla’s book and then talked with him for The New Yorker Radio Hour, I found much to disagree with, not least his cutting dismissals of “social-justice warriors” or movements like Black Lives Matter, which he sees as a “textbook example of how not to build solidarity.” Lilla was once an editor at The Public Interest and a neoconservative on domestic issues, though not on foreign policy; Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan were his elders and allies. He still writes with marked ambivalence and irritation about the contemporary left, particularly as he sees it on university campuses. Beverly Gage, Adam Gopnik, Michelle Goldberg, and others have already delivered serious critiques of Lilla’s argument about identity politics.

And yet there’s little question that Trump and the distorting lenses of the right-wing and white-nationalist media have succeeded in inflating the “threat” of identity politics and political correctness as a key component of their rhetoric and electoral strategy. Steve Bannon represented Trump’s id on this subject and made it a centerpiece of Trump’s campaign, his Inaugural Address, and the early months of his Presidency. Lilla, who disdains Bannon for myriad political and moral reasons, also thinks that he may have a tactical point. And this is where our conversation began.

Remnick: We’re speaking a couple of weeks after Charlottesville, and a lot of things are converging all of a sudden, not for the first time: history, politics, identity. How would you rate the national conversation we’re having at the moment, when it comes to race, identity, and politics?

Lilla: Well, I wouldn’t call it a conversation. It’s an overused word. I’m a little tired of it.

Remnick: “The national conversation.”

Lilla: “The national conversation.” “We need to have a conversation” about something—which is a euphemism for avoiding something and a real conflict. But it’s something that’s been simmering below the surface for a very long time—it’s not that we haven’t been talking about identity issues. But to see this flash out from the right, very suddenly, just brings home, I think, the incendiary nature of this, and how, when passions are excited about identity issues, conversation stops. Not many journalists picked up on this, but the demonstration was actually a quotation of a demonstration in May, 1933, when Nazi students, shortly after Hilter’s appointment as Chancellor, marched through the University of Berlin at night, with torches, into the courtyard of the university. That’s where the famous book burning took place. They knew exactly what they were doing.

Remnick: Then what’s the proper response to such a demonstration? Persuasion?

Lilla: No, the first thing you do when fascists show up in the street is you show up, too. And that’s what people did. I have all sorts of problems with the Antifa people—we need to stay very far away from them—but look at what happened in Boston over the weekend. You had all these people show up. There really weren’t many people on the other side. And so I think there are moments like this, which are rare, of absolute moral clarity. People show their true colors in these moments. I guess the question for me now is, How do we, on our side—by which I mean, I’m a liberal Democrat, I’m a partisan—how do we use a moment like this and not get used by a moment like this?

Remnick: What do you mean used by a moment like this? There is a quote recently that Steve Bannon, of all people, delivered: “The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I’ve got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focussed on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” And you have said that it works for them—it being identity politics—but it doesn’t work for us. And there seems to be some link—not that I’m saying that your politics, by any chance, are anything like Steve Bannon’s—but you’re saying a similar thing, aren’t you?

Lilla: I just think it’s an objective fact. I mean, he has no reason to lie about this. And the past two generations of our politics, I think, demonstrate exactly that.

Remnick: Let’s define what identity politics is, because it’s a phrase that’s used now in all sorts of ways. And it seems to me that identity politics has been at the root of politics for half of forever.

Lilla: Well, certainly on the American right, ever since the Ku Klux Klan, we’ve had explicitly framed identity politics. That is in the sharpest sense. Now, you can say that people think of themselves as Italians or Jews or Germans, and then they become a kind of interest group. We’ve had interest-group politics before. But there’s a kind of essentialism to identity politics, where it means going out into the democratic space, where you’re struggling for power and using identity as an appeal for other people to vote for your side. And I think Bannon’s completely right, and I’ll stand by what I said: that it works for their side and it doesn’t work for our side, for all kinds of reasons. Now, that is not to say that we don’t talk about identity. To understand any social problem in this country, you have to understand identity. And we’re more aware of that than ever, and that’s been a very good thing. But, to address those problems with politics, we have to abandon the rhetoric of difference, in order to appeal to what we share, so that people who don’t share this identity somehow can have a stake, and feel something that other people are experiencing.

To give you an example, I’m not a black motorist. I will never be a black motorist. I don’t know what it’s like to look in the rearview mirror of a car and see the lights flashing and feel my stomach churn. But I am a citizen. And that person is a fellow-citizen. And, if we can make the case that there are citizens in this country who can’t just go for a drive without being worried about this, and they won’t be equally protected by the law, I think I can make the case to people who aren’t black that that’s a terrible thing, right? And so I want to frame the issue in terms of basic values and principles that we share in order to establish sympathy and empathy and identification with someone else.

Remnick: But, Mark, what are you asking African-Americans to do? Be a little less specific? More polite, somehow? You’re asking them to be less aggressive in their demand for justice, whether it’s on the road or on the street? I understand the over-all yearning for a more generalized rhetoric of “us,” of liberal values, of civil rights. I’m not sure why you have the disdain you do, the suspicion that you do, for a group like Black Lives Matter. You’re saying that they’re going about it in all the wrong ways, unless I’m misunderstanding.

Lilla: Well, to read the full passage of what I said about Black Lives Matter, I said, “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity. There’s no denying that by publicizing and protesting police mistreatment of African-Americans, the movement mobilized supporters and delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience.” I’m totally onboard with that.

Remnick: So what did Black Lives Matter do that you’re, at best, ambivalent about—and very critical, really?

Lilla: And then I say, “But there’s no denying that the movement’s decision to use this mistreatment to build a general indictment of American society and its law-enforcement institutions and to use Mau Mau tactics to put down dissent and demand a confession of sins and public penitence played into the hands of the Republican right.”

Remnick: But, Mark. “Mau Mau tactics.” Are you familiar with—

Lilla: Of course I remember it. What was that confrontation they had with Hillary Clinton, if not that? They were shouting down people at various venues. No, those were Mau Mau tactics, sure.

Remnick: You’re comfortable with that phrase?

Lilla: Sure. I mean, “Mau Mau tactics,” I’m also thinking of Tom Wolfe—

Remnick: No, I remember the opening of the Tom Wolfe piece. But I also know where Tom Wolfe stands politically, which is much farther than you’re saying you are to the right.

Lilla: Well, I’m not to the right.

Remnick: So, some of the criticism that’s aimed at your book has less to do with the generalized demand for a more common politics and a desire to win than it does with a certain tonal thing. In Beverly Gage’s review of your book, she says—and I’m not quoting, but I’m remembering—that you seem disappointed in your students. There’s a tone to the book that you have been offended by politics on campus to a degree that seems outsized. Can you address that? What’s been your experience on campus of identity politics that offends?

Lilla: Well, to begin with, what leads to my frustration and my tone is that I’m sick of noble defeats. I’m tired of losing. I’m sickened by the fact that Donald Trump is in power right now, and not just that but that Republicans control two-thirds of our state legislatures, two-thirds of our governorships, twenty-four states outright. If they win two more they can call a constitutional convention. To my mind, that is the biggest threat to every group that Democrats care about. That’s the most important threat.

Remnick: And it’s impossible to have both at once? You can’t have a winning strategy without maintaining some semblance of a concentration on identity?

Lilla: The distinction I’m trying to make—between analyzing a social problem and developing a political program in order to win power—people who are in movement politics fail to see the distinction, I think. Because identity politics is maximalizing. That’s how you succeed—you see this as the only issue. There’s a difference between speaking truth to power and seizing power to defend the truth. And those require very different things, right? And it’s important to speak truth to power out in society. We’re journalists, right? We need to write about this kind of stuff. But, when we go out on the stump, it makes no sense to call out to various groups, as Hillary Clinton did, and inevitably leave people out. She would list the groups that liberal Democrats care about today: African-Americans, gays and lesbians, women. One out of every four Americans is evangelical. Thirty-seven per cent of Americans live in the South. Seventeen per cent, as many as there are, of African-Americans in this country live in rural areas. There are different ways in which people think of themselves, right? And those people did not feel called out to.

Remnick: Why do you think they felt called out to by Barack Obama and not by Hillary Clinton? What was the key difference there?

Lilla: Precisely because Obama did not list groups. Because he talked about “we.” He didn’t always finish his sentences—he would say, “That’s not who we are,” and wouldn’t quite tell us who we are. But he understood that. Both Obama and [Bill] Clinton understood that playing identity politics in electoral politics is a disaster for the liberal side.

Remnick: So, you don’t think, to any degree, that the Trump victory, however narrow it was, was the result of a post-Obama hangover, of having had an African-American President for eight years?

Lilla: Oh, I’m sure that’s true. I mean, there are so many things—it’s overdetermined, any one explanation of this election. But we also know that there are people who voted for Obama and voted for Trump, and they’re kind of a mystery to us. But I think we get too focussed on Presidential elections in order to read where the country is.

Remnick: Because the Democrats are getting killed on a local level, on the state level.

Lilla: Right. And what people in identity movements haven’t faced up to is that institutional politics will trump movement politics all the time. We have a constitutional right to abortion in this country. And there are large sections of the country where a woman cannot get an abortion. That’s not because we haven’t been speaking truth to power, or we haven’t been organizing, or tweeting enough, or marching enough. It’s because we haven’t gone out into those states and established a beachhead. By being able to go out and speak to those people and get them on our side.

Remnick: Mark, would you have written this book if Hillary Clinton had won? It was a victory by Trump of some eighty-thousand votes and some key counties and three Midwestern states. Would your argument hold up if it had gone just the other way?

Lilla: Yes, because it’s not about Trump. It’s really about the change, electorally, at the state and local level, which is really where the action happens now. That’s where the fight against unions is happening, that’s where the fight against public schools is happening, that’s where the fight against voting rights for African-Americans is happening. I probably wouldn’t have been spurred to write it, but that’s where the story is. But, even more, we are held in contempt—

Remnick: Who’s the “we” in this sentence?

Lilla: Whenever I use the “we,” I’m talking about liberals. Liberalism has become a dirty word. Now, that’s largely the result of very successful work in the right-wing media in order to demonize us—

Remnick: And one of the things right-wing media does is take some examples of exaggerated identity politics, in your terms—cartoonish moments—and blow them up on Fox or Breitbart or the rest, and make it seem as if every student at Columbia or Oberlin or the University of Chicago is inflamed with this. Am I wrong?

Lilla: Oh yeah. They are absolutely able to exploit things and exaggerate them like that. However, when they use it to show a mentality, a way in which we think about things, whether on campus or elsewhere, I think we are exposed. When some of the campus craziness happens, it reveals something that is there in the university that doesn’t always take the craziest form. And the way in which we have ended up educating, and in my view miseducating, the liberal élite in this country for political action.

Remnick: What’s your experience on campus, in real life? You’ve been at the University of Chicago, you’re at Columbia now, you’ve been elsewhere. Is the cartoon true? How much does this enter your life as a teacher, as a faculty member? Or is it all blown up? What’s the reality of it, day to day?

Lilla: Well, my case is a little special. I don’t belong to a department—I have a university-wide appointment—so I don’t have to sit in on faculty decisions about hiring and things like that. I teach “Homer to Virginia Woolf” to eighteen-year-olds. If I don’t send out signals that we’re going to talk about identity, they don’t. We talk about the books. But I see them after they go out, after their first year, and I can see that many of them get absorbed in this. They come into my office, and I just listen to them. I don’t argue with them.

Remnick: And what do you hear?

Lilla: What I see, essentially, is that, to the extent that they are political, their political interest is circumscribed by either how they see their own identity or what they think identity issues are. I’m struck by the lack of interest in military affairs, class structure, economics that’s not economics in order to get into business school. There’s a lack of interest in American religion. All of these subjects that might help you understand the country in a richer way. They’re very much drawn to classes that are about themselves. Of course, they’re eighteen to twenty-two, and they’re also searching—searching politically and to situate themselves in terms of racial and other identities. And, certainly, sexually, they’re trying to figure themselves out. And so they’re drawn to classes that speak to that.

Remnick: But I can almost hear the listener questioning: OK, there are two white guys in a room discussing this. There are identity issues that really are of tremendous urgency, whether it has to do with sexuality, race, religion, and all the rest. “Easy for you to say”—easy for me to say, perhaps. Why shouldn’t those things be of tremendous urgency to an eighteen-year-old or a nineteen-year-old? Or do you think it just overwhelms everything else?

Lilla: It’s the latter. I mean, I understand. These are real subjects worth studying. But when you think of what should happen during these four years, especially if you want to create liberal citizens who think of themselves as citizens and are prepared to engage, and that means understanding the whole country, it leads to a kind of truncated sense of what politics is. It gives a distorted picture of what’s going on in the rest of the country. And so we end up producing liberal élites who are clueless about the rest of the country, and clueless about all sorts of other themes, especially class. There are a lot of progressives saying all of the same things, progressives who’ve written books attacking identity politics. (Walter Benn Michaels is probably the best known.) And they are saying that it’s taken our eyes off class in this country. I’m very sympathetic to that point of view. We end up talking to ourselves and training young people in this limited range of issues that tend to be self-referential, so that when they go out there, and are ready to engage, they’re incapable of talking in large themes.

Remnick: Mark, it seemed that the Bernie Sanders campaign was almost all about class. He had a real ambivalence toward, even antipathy toward, what you describe as identity politics, no?

Lilla: He did, yeah. And we can talk about the Bernie campaign. Young people were attracted to that once they saw it, right? But this was new for them. They weren’t hearing that on campus. What we haven’t talked about is that it’s a question of vision. Liberalism from Franklin Delano Roosevelt into the seventies had a picture of the kind of country we wanted to create. What we were as citizens, what was owed to us, what we owed to each other. It was a political vision that legitimized the use of government to build social solidarity and defend equal rights. And the New Deal set the terms of political debate, even on the Republican side. For example, Nixon proposed a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans, he proposed a national health-insurance program.

Remnick: But when the early civil-rights leaders came to Franklin Roosevelt and made a series of demands about voting rights, civil rights, Roosevelt famously said, “Make me.” You have to go out there and make me. You have to create a politics that pushed the Democratic Party and its leadership to act on it.

Lilla: Sure.

Remnick: And that’s protest politics. In your book, you’re saying we need less protest politics and we need more mayors. Don’t we need both?

Lilla: It’s a question of our time. There was a time in this country from the fifties up until 1980 when all the action was in movement politics, and that’s what made the change. As my colleague Ira Katznelson writes in his book about the New Deal (2013), the Dixiecrats prevented many of the programs from helping—

Remnick: But it was protest politics married to Lyndon Johnson. It was not just Martin Luther King, it was also LBJ—which is something that Hillary Clinton pointed out, to her peril. So why don’t we need both?

Lilla: Well, at the time, identity groups understood that that’s what this was about. And they spoke not in terms of difference but about what we shared. So, African-Americans had been—and still are—disenfranchised from the great democratic “we.” That we all are citizens and they’re being denied their rights as citizens. The same thing with women. So it was, in a sense, wanting to actualize the vision that the Democratic Party had and make it real. Then what happened, though, was that Reagan came along with a very different vision of the country, that said, No, we’re not a country about solidarity; government is the problem—essentially, we’re a country of individuals, you’re in your families, churches, good luck to you, we’re going to get off your back, have a happy day. Now, we know where that led. That vision has come to an end, and Donald Trump helped to bury it. No one believes anymore that a tax cut’s going to solve anything.

We now find ourselves in a visionless society. The two large visions of what we are as a country and where we can go have both atrophied and died. So, in a way, this is actually an interesting opportunity for us. It’s really up to us now to give Americans a different way of thinking about what we share and what we can do.

Remnick: And is your hope simply a return to the Roosevelt dispensation?

Lilla: No, that can’t be done, because our situation is very different. To begin with, we’ve learned that the government can only do so much, and that certain programs don’t work, and we understand that better. Our economic situation is completely different. We have a globalized economy. It’s no longer possible to organize labor in the way we used to. Women are a part of the workforce. All kinds of things have changed. But our basic principles, I think, haven’t changed, and that’s that we stick together. Citizens are not roadkill. We take care of each other. We stand for the equal protection under the law. If we can only articulate what those principles might mean in the present, I think we’ll be able to move on from our obsession with, or our self-limitation to, identity, in order to reach out to people we haven’t been able to reach out to.

Remnick: Mark, tell me about your own political journey. You grew up in the Midwest, and somewhere along the way you were an editor at The Public Interest, which was identified as a neocon magazine. Is that the way you would identify yourself, politically, and have you changed?

Lilla: No, I think the world has more changed around me. I grew up in a place, Macomb County, Michigan, which is famous among Democrats and journalists.

Remnick: It’s the tipping point.

Lilla: It’s the home of the Reagan Democrats. Books have been written about it. In the early nineteen-sixties, it was the most liberal suburban county in America. This is flat-on Detroit. Eminem’s 8 Mile Road. I grew up on 12 Mile Road. And 8 Mile Road was a racial barrier. In 1972, George Wallace won the Michigan primary. He won more votes there than in any other county north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The state and the county ended up going for Nixon, and they never looked back. Sometimes they voted for Democrats, but essentially they became the white working class that’s resentful of liberals and Democrats. I saw this happen in my family. I saw this happen in my neighborhood.

Remnick: Your family was working-class Democrat that became Reagan Democrat?

Lilla: My particular family was very liberal. My sister was a Democratic county commissioner in Macomb County. But I saw these people who were neighbors and so on, and a lot changed, and they became unreachable, for a lot of reasons that would take a while to elaborate—a lot of it had to do with Vietnam. So, ever since, I’ve been wondering why it is that we’ve not been able to reach these people, trying to understand them. I started at Wayne State, putting myself through school by working nearly full-time, and finally I got a scholarship to go to Michigan, and it was a very different environment. When I was at Wayne State, I was an evangelical, and I was involved in prayer meetings with black members, and belonged to the Union for Radical Political Economics.

Remnick: You were an evangelical Marxist, in a sense.

Lilla: Yeah. And then I went to Michigan and suddenly found myself being lectured to about the working class by the children of executives of Ford Motor Company. They were running off on their fancy vacations and had contempt for the people I grew up around, they had great contempt for religion. And I reacted against that. I was drawn then to The Public Interest and what neoconservatism was in the seventies. And the people who attracted me were Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Daniel Bell, who was sort of my mentor, and Nathan Glazer, with whom I wrote a book. And those people were pre-McGovern Democrats.

Remnick: So, not the Commentary crowd. It was something different.

Lilla: No, no. They were interested in foreign policy and Jewish affairs, and I was never that. So I became an editor of this public-policy magazine, because I had a public-policy degree. I had studied urban policy as an undergraduate. And then, in 1980, Reagan was elected and I saw this world utterly transformed by power. Everyone was going to Washington, talking about the Laffer curve. And at that point I got off the bus. But I remain, kind of—and in that sense, I am a dinosaur—at heart, a pre-McGovern, blue-collar Democrat.

Remnick: What was called at one point the Bobby Kennedy coalition.

Lilla: Sure. It was not Gene McCarthy.

Remnick: And how do you identify yourself politically now?

Lilla: I consider myself a centrist liberal. But it’s not even a question of where we are on right and left anymore, you know? The problem I’m having, and I try to make the case in the book, is that, as identity consciousness has increased among liberals, political consciousness has decreased. So, I’m a political liberal. Cultural liberalism is another thing, and I’m sympathetic to a lot of it, but I think our energies need to be devoted to seizing power and developing a vision of where we want to take the country. A rainbow is not a vision of the kind of world that we want to build together.

Remnick: Do you see politicians on the horizon, whether on the national or local level, that have a political vision and a political rhetoric that you find appealing?

Lilla: No. I mean, our bench is very short. There are people who I feel get this. Joe Biden certainly gets it. I don’t know if there are any younger people coming up. And that’s what worries me. Because, within the Party, the people who work in the Party, the people who are active in the Party, are very focussed on not only groups but on the idea that we’re putting together a coalition. And, you know, what was extraordinary about Reagan is that, up until 1980, the Republican Party had all these warring factions and they didn’t have one message. And once Reagan offered up this very simple vision of the country, the differences between those groups became much less important, because they all saw themselves in this vision. And that’s what has to happen to us. We need to be able to put forward a vision so that African-Americans look at it and say, those are the principles I stand for, and white working class people look at it, too, and they’re not thinking so much about their differences.

Remnick: Unless I misread your book, you seem to say that, in the interest of winning—and politics is about power, ultimately—the Democratic side ought to think about abandoning certain issues, certain kinds of rhetoric, in order to win. But abandoning certain things like full-throated opposition to bathroom bills will mean that certain people—transgender people, some of the most vulnerable people in our society—will get hurt. How does a party go about sacrificing people on the altar of the general good?

Lilla: Well my main point is this, and I want to get this across: we cannot do anything for these groups we care about if we do not hold power. It is just talk. Therefore, our rhetoric in campaigning must be focussed on winning, so then we can help these people. An election is not about self-expression. It’s not a time to display everything we believe about everything. It’s a contest. And once you hold power, then you can do the things you want to do. Your rhetoric has to be mobilizing, and it’s got to mobilize—

Remnick: But you can imagine how outraged a transgender person would feel about such a tactic?

Lilla: Of course. Of course. And the situation of transgender people can be very, very difficult, especially young people, who feel trapped in a body. And suicide rates are terrible, and homeless rates are terrible. But let’s be concrete about this: transgender people make up less than one half of one per cent of the country. There is no electoral group that we’re trying to mobilize. That’s not to say that we don’t want to help them, and focus on that when we analyze our problems and when we get into power. But that is not how you seize power in this country, especially in the states we need to win. Look, we have the two coasts. We need to go to the middle of the country. And if we keep talking about groups, and small groups, and especially if we touch on anything that involves children and sexuality—that’s insane. You don’t campaign on the basis of that.

Remnick: Mark, you mention Joe Biden as somebody who gets it. Joe Biden was probably the clearest and foremost voice for gay marriage in the Obama Administration.

Lilla: Oh, of course, yeah, but how did we get gay marriage? It was not just that there was a fiat from above. On the contrary, it’s that this change happened socially. It happened in families, it happened at dinner tables, when children came out to their parents—sometimes parents came out to their kids.

Remnick: But it also happened because you had people in the streets shouting, “We’re here. We’re queer.” Which is something that, in the book, you say will only get you a pat on the head. Didn’t that help get power, too? Didn’t Stonewall help get power, the civil-rights movement help get power?

Lilla: Well, Stonewall certainly mobilized people to then focus on particular pieces of legislation, and also to mobilize in order to get research and work on AIDS and HIV. But that’s, again, just to focus on one particular issue and one particular group. And, if each group is just thinking about itself, it’s not thinking like a party. Party politics, right now, has to come first. Because we cannot help any of these people if we don’t get elected.

Remnick: The slogan of Occupy Wall Street was “We Are the Ninety-nine Per Cent.” That’s a pretty big tent. What did you think of Occupy Wall Street?

Lilla: Well, as I mentioned, nearly forty per cent of the country is Southern. One out of every four Americans is evangelical. I didn’t see those people represented there. You know, I thought it was, the fact that—

Remnick: But that’s what the discussion was about. It was about class.

Lilla: It was about class, but it was bourgeois activists who were there. And that’s fine, because at least someone was expressing outrage by the bailout of the banks and what happened after the crash. So I was happy that someone was saying anything. But it was theatre, right? And it doesn’t lead to anything else.

Remnick: Was it helpful theatre?

Lilla: Well, it was helpful in the sense that it certainly got liberals talking more about this, and it was just there that people were protesting. But by the time it descends into the drummers in Zuccotti Park, and people arguing into the night about which groups are being represented when they go up on the platform and speak, that just illustrates what’s wrong with us.

Remnick: How so?

Lilla: That we’re always about . . . Movement politics, I think, encourages people to radicalize their positions and to impose purity tests on each other. And so we’re always checking each other on our privilege or our positions. And that does nothing to seize power out there. That’s all about what you do within the group. Now the Women’s March was an extraordinary thing, and was worldwide. My wife and daughter were there. I was out of the country, or I would have been there. But it almost didn’t happen. Why is that? Because this woman in Hawaii had a very good idea and posted on Facebook: why don’t we show up in Washington and protest the fact that this President has spoken about women this way. What could be easier? And you know what happened afterward? She was attacked by black groups because she didn’t have a committee, she didn’t have other people represented—

Remnick: But isn’t that a footnote—a glitch, really? I mean, look at the outcome!

Lilla: I’m talking about the mentality that it reflects. And it hurts us in other ways. And one way in which it definitely did hurt us is that there was a group of pro-life feminists, religious feminists, who had asked to join the group, were accepted, and then, once word got around that they would be there, they were disinvited. That was an opportunity to build a bridge. Now, I’m second to none in my support of abortion rights—I’m an absolutist on a woman’s right to an abortion. But I also know that there are other issues we have to care about, and there’s got to be some way within the Democratic Party to accept that some people are going to have different views while still standing by the majority view. But when you’re involved in identity politics, you don’t see that. Your mind is not tuned. And nothing that you learn in the university prepares you to reach out and to speak thematically in this way.

Now, we not only have to speak about identity when it comes to understanding our social problems but we also want to change people’s hearts and minds. And that doesn’t happen through electoral politics. It happens through our churches, education, it happens through television—“Sesame Street,” “Murphy Brown,” all these shows sort of made this country a more tolerant place. But if we want to make people more tolerant, the psychology of that is very complicated. What we do know—and psychologists study these sorts of things—if you call someone a racist, they completely shut down. You’re not persuading, you’re not building a bridge to that person. And while it’s satisfying to speak the full truth about something, and I understand that urge, if you’re trying to persuade people and move them a little toward your position, you’ve got to find common ground. And that’s very hard to take for people who are in movements, and feel frustrated that things aren’t going their way.

Remnick: If you look at those movements, though, there are always more radical voices and less radical voices. You look at the AIDS activism—Larry Kramer was a radical voice, and said things, and still says things, that make people crazy, and that seem extreme, and all the rest. But couldn’t you argue that it depends on where you are in time? In other words, without a Larry Kramer, without some of the radicals in the civil-rights movement or in the women’s-rights movement, that, in fact, things might not push forward quite as well, or quite as quickly, or quite as effectively? But, in real time, when you’re experiencing those radical voices, and they say things that are outrageous or ridiculous, the tendency is to be dismissive of them or to find them ridiculous.

Lilla: I see that. But, every time I look at a documentary, say, about the civil-rights movement or about the African-American experience, and it comes to the sixties, and Stokely Carmichael comes on, I’d follow him anywhere.

Remnick: Because of what he’s saying or because of his magnetism?

Lilla: His magnetism, and his willingness to call a problem what it is. And to not beat around the bush. He was extraordinary. And so when you see a clip of him next to Dr. King, King pales. Do I think that Stokely Carmichael and the groups he represented did anything to help persuade white America about race? I don’t think so. And I think Dr. King did. Though the appeal for me, just given my personality, is—

Remnick: Wait, wait, wait. In fact, a lot of white kids went down south to follow Stokely Carmichael, every bit as much as Martin Luther King, and leaders of SNCC—

Lilla: Oh, if you’re talking about white liberals, yes. I’m talking about the attitudes toward race of other sorts of people.

Remnick: So, here we are. How are any of us reaching broad numbers of people among Trump voters, among Republican voters. Or is it folly?

Lilla: Well, as long as we think of ourselves as groups and think—as the Democratic Party is, which has me worried—that now they have to just add another group, or shift to another group, which is the white working class, we’re not going to get anywhere. The big changes in political life and consciousness in this country have come when a vision, again, of what we are as a country comes along, so that we can identify, no matter what group we come to, with the aspirations of that. It doesn’t mean that we say it’s the reality.

Remnick: What counsel would you then give to the university, to public radio, to a magazine like ours—to what, certainly in the popular vision, is seen as the coastal, blue audience rather than the rest of the country?

Lilla: Well, in journalism and for students, I suppose that’s a different question. But one thing that I’ve said to students is you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone. You’ve got to go to places where the Wi-Fi sucks, where you have no desire to take a picture of your dinner, where you’re sitting at dinner with people who have their heads bowed in prayer in thanks for that dinner, and they aren’t terribly worried about whether spaghetti and meatballs is cultural appropriation. That’s what you’ve got to do. And, if you can’t do that physically, you have to do that mentally. And so the challenge is for us. Can we get enough out of our own heads to not just treat the people who aren’t part of our circles as yet another group—

Remnick: You think narcissism is at the center, then, of the problem.

Lilla: Narcissism that’s fed by the fact that we’re a class-ridden society—class-ridden and also now geographically divided. We need to start thinking about the principles we hold that they also hold. We can’t do that by demonizing them and thinking that they’re all hopeless racists and reactionaries. Because that’s a comforting myth. Because then you don’t think you have to do anything but lay back, get behind your laptop, and send off some tweets.

Remnick: Are you describing the President or are you describing liberals here?

Lilla: [Laughs.] I guess I’d charge both of them with that. But we need to get back to our principles and also tell other people’s stories. By going out there and understanding just what it’s like.

Remnick: Mark Lilla, thank you very much.

Lilla: That was fun, thanks. # # #

[David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker. Remnick won a Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction (1994) for Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. His most recent book is The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (2010). See other books by David Remnick here. Remnick received an AB (comparative literature) from Princeton University.

See Mark Lilla's brief bio above.]

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