Friday, November 8, 2019

Going to Extremes

In my last post (discussing the situation in Chile) I once again violated a resolution I keep making and then breaking. I broke my promise to stop using the political labels of “left” and “right.”

The problem is that these labels—along with “liberal” and “conservative”—are just too handy not to use. After all, everyone else uses them, and people generally understand what you mean by them. The older I get, though, the more I wonder whether these labels actually have any real meaning or whether they are merely banners to cluster around—like national flags or the names of sports teams.

Do these labels actually inform our understanding of the day’s politics or do they simply impose a mental filter that keeps us from perceiving the true reality?

A brief recap. The left/right political paradigm goes back more than two centuries. It comes from legislative seating arrangements in the time of the French Revolution. Members of the aristocracy sat in the honored position to the Speaker’s right. Commoners sat to his left. It is worth noting that in those days commoners in the legislature were not peasants or laborers but the rising capitalist class, that is, the bourgeoisie. This is also the roots of our concepts of conservatives and liberals. The former strove to conserve the institutions of monarchy and the established church, while the latter worked to liberate the people from the power of those institutions. That is somewhat at odds with our modern concept of the two words. Nowadays in America a conservative is more likely to be trying to restrain the power of government, while the liberal would be in favor of increasing it.

Of course, individual people’s political opinions do not all fall neatly into two broad categories. There is a huge array of beliefs and positions on issues of the day. For convenience, people place individual philosophies on a broad spectrum, in an echo of 18th-century France, running from left to right. Movements like communism, socialism, centrism, libertarianism, and fascism are placed along a row like colors of a rainbow to help us understand how one might relate to the others. Movements at the extreme ends tend to be authoritarian in character, while those in the center are considered more democratic.

What is interesting, though, is the affinity that those near the center tend to feel for their more authoritarian fellows on their half of the spectrum. Republicans will accept—if not exactly advertise or celebrate—any votes they can get, even if they come from the far right. Democrats, likewise, will not refute votes from hard-core Marxists if it gets their candidates across the electoral line. Why do things work this way? Why is there not more cooperation among those in the middle, even if they belong to different parties? For that matter, why do believers in authoritarianism not cooperate with others who, like them, want the government to exert more control?

The second question is easier to answer. If authoritarians want the government to have more power, it is not simply as a matter of principle, They want the power specifically for themselves or for people who think like they do. That is why you do not see communists and fascists making alliances of convenience.

Actually, that is not exactly true, is it? Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union did exactly that with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, although it did not work out well for either of them. In fact, what strikes me about German history between the two world wars is the proliferation of radical movements. They all meant to rescue the country from its post-war state, and they all had authoritarian tendencies. Adolf Hitler’s movement went through several name changes, but they all had the word socialist in the title, including the Nazi party of which the full name was National Socialist German Workers Party. Historians put the Nazis on the right end of the political spectrum, but one wonders why. Because Hitler was virulently anti-communist? Yet that enmity looks to me more like a vicious rivalry among radical autocrats than like movements separated by a vast philosophical gulf.

By placing the Nazis on the extreme right of the political spectrum, though, it makes it easier for Democrats to compare Republican presidents they do not like to Hitler and Republicans in general to fascists. Hitler and Stalin may have ended up as bitter enemies, but did they not have a fair amount in common—at least in terms of disdain for democratic norms? Of course, linking politicians of the present to extremists of the past is not exclusively a Democratic tactic. Republicans unhappy with Democrats’ handling of the current impeachment inquiry, for example, have been quick to compare the closed hearings to Soviet show trials.

What interests me is why politicians in the broad center have a certain amount of tolerance for the extremes on their side of the spectrum. Is it all down to political expediency because it is the only way to get to a majority? Does that lead them to hear only what they want to hear from the fringes? Extremists have a habit of extolling the virtues of democracy in their rhetoric, yet both the hard left and the hard right would be similarly repressive—although in different ways—if they ever came to power.

If we could all get collective amnesia and forget about the well-entrenched left/right political-spectrum concept, I wonder if it would become clearer to moderates of both parties that their interests lie with each other rather than the more extreme elements upon whom they sometimes rely for votes. As it is, though, Democratic voters currently appear to be leaning in a more socialist direction. Moderate Republicans, on the other hand, have worried for more than three years about the direction President Trump is taking their party.

Will the so-called center somehow prevail in spite of all this? Or do politicians, perceiving the country as having an appetite for radical change, doing their best to foster an impression of providing it? In doing so, though, do they risk power ultimately landing with either the nationalist right or the socialist left? And we have seen plenty of examples in history of where that leads.

If it should happen, we can blame (at least in part) that concept of the left/right political spectrum that has been pounded into our brains for the past two centuries.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

October Rising

In the late 1970s I spent a year living and studying in Chile. Ever since, I have followed news from that country with great interest, and to this day, I maintain contact with some of the people I knew there.

You might think that this would mean I have some insight into the country’s current turmoil, yet I am totally perplexed and not certain exactly what to think about it. I guess this should not be surprising. After all, I was born and have lived most of my life in the United States, and yet current events in that country are completely baffling to me. The funny thing is that I know many people who have never lived in U.S. who are absolutely much more certain about what is going on there than I am. Go figure.

Chile's then-unused La Moneda presidential palace in 1977
Here are some things that I do know about Chile. (Conveniently, I have lately been revisiting many of my old memories, as the novel I am currently writing has a couple of chapters set in Santiago in the early 1980s.) Unlike much of the rest of Latin America, throughout its history Chile has mostly been a stable country with a truly democratic political system. There have been, however, periods where this was not true. Between 1927 and 1931 General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo headed an authoritarian government. In 1973 General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the government of Salvador Allende and led a military dictatorship that lasted until 1990.

My own personal first-hand experience with the country was during the early years of the Pinochet regime. Even though it was a dictatorship and there was a suspension of many civil liberties, I did get a clear sense of the divisions in Chilean society. Supporters of the government, that is to say, conservatives were quite vocal about their views. Alternative views were, not surprisingly, less forthcoming, but non-supporters of the regime were more than willing to share their opinions once I gained their confidence. What was striking were the completely disparate accounts of what life had been like a mere couple of years earlier under Allende’s government. It was difficult to believe that people were all actually talking about the same country. What was consistently clear, though, was that there was much turmoil. In the early 1970s the middle classes were out in the streets and banging their pots on their apartment balconies in protest of the left-wing government. Under Pinochet, of course, there were no protests, and a military night-time curfew ensured no one was out late at night.

What do we know about the current series of protests? We know they began as a student-led protest against an increase in fares of the Santiago subway system and that they then exploded into violence that included looting, vandalism, arson, and fatalities. One million people turned out which works out to about one out of every seven Santiago residents. As a result, conservative President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency and then initiated a government shake-up.

The city center of Santiago in 1977
Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady notes the irony that this has happened at a time when Chile’s economic statistics are very positive. The official poverty rate has recently declined to under 9 percent, down from 68 percent in 1990. Furthermore, public transportation is heavily subsidized, and student fares were not actually affected by the recent increase. As a way of explanation, she cites a heavy leftist influence in Chilean schools to explain the young’s readiness to take to the streets. She also points to Cuban and Venezuelan influences.

Is it a paradox that instability should strike Chile when it is doing better economically than its neighbors? No. There was strong growth in the post-Pinochet 1990s, but in this century the middle class has seen its fortunes slip with rising prices and stagnant wages. Also, Piñera (who last year succeeded Socialist Michelle Bachelet as president) is one of the wealthiest people in the country and so makes a convenient target for student protestors. Objective commentary on the ground there suggests that the people’s grievances are real and justified while at the same time being exploited by the hard political left. Some also talk about intellectual and political laziness of millennials fed by materialism born of the years of economic prosperity.

Where will all of this lead? I for one do not have a clue. The political hard right had its way with an authoritarian hand for the better of two decades in the last century.

Is the hard left now gearing up for its turn?

Friday, September 6, 2019

True Believers

“The believer is happy, the doubter is wise.”
 —Hungarian proverb
“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents … Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”
 —Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)
When I write fiction, my ultimate aim is simply to tell a good story. To the extent that my own personal world view slips in—or my opinions of political or social issues—they are meant only to serve the story, not to proselytize. Nothing kills the artistic quality of a work quite as definitively as the obvious, crass spectacle of blatantly serving the aims of a particular government, political party, or public pressure group.

Still, it is impossible not to let a little social commentary slip in once in a while. In my latest novel, The Curse of Septimus Bridge, I showed such weakness in the nineteenth chapter, called “Cultists.” A pertinent excerpt:
Lola fought the urge to panic. “Who are they? Are they demons?”
 “No,” said Septimus, getting to his feet. “They are worse than demons. They are human beings—and the worst kind of human beings. They are cultists.”
 “Cultists? You mean, like the people who hang out at the airport?”
 “Not precisely. The Fiend preys on those with weak minds, and he has no trouble finding simple intellects who can be duped. There are always those who will happily follow the tenets of his false religion and become warriors and agents for a cause they do not understand. There is never a shortage of aimless souls willing to be recruited and follow blindly.”
Five pages later:
The demon hunter went from one cultist to another, kneeling by each one to whisper something in his ear. One by one, they each stood and plodded—or limped—away.
  “The one good thing about true believers is that they are, by nature, easily open to suggestion.”
This is, of course, a thinly-veiled potshot at people who buy into their religion or politics with a dull, unquestioning loyalty. One reader emailed me to say that, in his experience, an example of such cultists was Trump supporters. I am Trump supporters could read the very same passages from my book and conclude that the real cultists are the NeverTrumpers or some other group with which they disagree.

That is the thing about identifying people who we think are easily led or who are mindless followers. Those people are always someone else. None of us thinks that we are the unquestioning true believer. We know that we arrived at our opinions through reason, experience, and insight. It is that other fellow who is easily manipulated by propaganda and open to suggestions from demagogues.

It was not an accident that Septimus referred to his foes as “true believers.” That was my nod to Eric Hoffer, the philosopher and author who wrote one of the best explanations of fanaticism ever published: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Writing in the aftermath of World War II, he clearly had in mind such movements as Nazism and Communism. Of such movements, he wrote chillingly, “[A]ll of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single-hearted allegiance…”

Hoffer was a fascinating character. As a young teenager, I became familiar with him through a 1967 CBS News special in which he was interviewed by journalist Eric Sevareid and which was re-aired two months later by popular demand. Born in the Bronx in 1898 to immigrants from Alsace, he never lost his German accent. After the death of his parents, he wandered for years, worked odd jobs, lived on Skid Row, became a migrant farm worker in California, and also prospected for gold in the mountains. In his 40s, he got work as a longshoreman on the docks of San Francisco. A voracious reader, he acquired a library card wherever he was living. He also wrote, and he came to public attention in 1951 with The True Believer. In his mid-60s, he left the docks to become an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley. He died in 1983.

Given the penchant these days to liken leaders whom one does not like to despots (both presidents Obama and Trump have been compared by their respective detractors to Hitler), it would be a great thing if more people read Hoffer to understand what fanatical movements are really like. If there is any optimism to be gleaned from the tribalistic rhetoric that increasingly fills our airwaves and social media, it is perhaps this observation by Hoffer regarding fanatical movements: “All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action.” Trumpers and NeverTrumpers are all certainly willing to troll and provoke, but are any of them actually willing to die for their beliefs? Probably not. But the danger may be that they inadvertently inspire and influence others who might be.

One final Hoffer quote that particularly intrigues me, from Reflections on the Human Condition (1973): “The Savior who wants to turn men into angels is as much a hater of human nature as the totalitarian despot who wants to turn them into puppets.”