Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Misery of the Elites

I've always been a sucker for Halloween lit, so when I first glanced at Ross Douthat's latest New York Times column, my heart went pitter-pat with crazed excitement. Since he titled his effort "The Misery Filter" I thought it might be a squeamish conservative's guide to reading the Stephen King bestseller of the same name.

Reader, I read it. And its hypocrisy was every bit as terrifying as anything Edgar Allan Poe could ever have dreamed up.

For those of you who've blessedly forgotten the Reagan Wonder Years of the 80s, King's Misery is the story of a pulp fiction writer who is imprisoned and hobbled by a psychotic serial killer nurse named Annie Wilkes. She is so smitten with her captive's series of books about a heroine named Misery that she keeps him alive just so he can type out the next episode, exclusively for her. It's a kind of gender-reversal retelling of the Scheherazade story.

But much to my disappointment, it turned out that Ross isn't into Grand Guignol black comedy at all. Like so many of his Republican ilk, though, he is suddenly very much into "wokeness." The same misanthropes who've been howling like werewolves for decades about "unassimilated illegals"  and lazy "welfare queens" are suddenly realizing that empathy for others might be the better tactic if they hope to have a respectable journalistic career in this Trumpian age of cruelty.

Of course, when these conservative types talk about empathy, what they really mean is empathy for one of their own class or profession. This empathy tends to rise to the surface whenever one of them gets stricken with a terminal disease or other unexpected bit of bad luck. Even then, they persist in narrowly framing the definition of loving-kindness in terms of the political corporate Duopoly. In young Ross Douthat's own tell-tale column, the scolding is in terms of that old Nixonian standby, the "generation gap."

Naturally, the meme of the cluelessness of the generic college student is an ideal scapegoat for the causation of Trump. Those privileged young-uns, those coddled snowflakes, so totally explain why Donald Trump won, and Hillary Clinton did not.
Because this seems to me to be the signal failing of modern education — visible among my own peers, now entering the time of life when suffering is more the weather than a lightning strike, but especially among the generation younger than us, who seem to be struggling with the contrast between what social media and meritocracy tell them they should feel and what they actually experience.
In America we have education for success, but no education for suffering. There is instead the filter, the well-meaning deception, that teaches neither religious hope nor stoicism, and when suffering arrives encourages group hysteria, private shame and a growing contagion of despair.
How to educate for suffering is a question for a different column. Here I’ll just stress its necessity: Because what cannot be cured must be endured, and how to endure is, even now, the hardest challenge every one of us will face.
Even on Halloween, Douthat can't face the awful truth: that the force enabling Trump is the record economic and social inequality causing all this misery in the first place. Douthat's own clogged filter chugs out the same old exhaust, refuses to acknowledge that the polar opposite of empathy is not ignorance. Rather it is cold-blooded greed. It's personified not just by Trump, but by the outlandishly powerful, blood-sucking predators of the global oligarchy, a club in which only six or eight billionaires own as much wealth as the bottom half of the entire world.

 Therefore, Douthat has fashioned something called the "misery filter" - the ability of the coddled to ignore suffering, and the falsely equivalent incapacity of the suffering to embrace the virtues of stoicism, and or noble acceptance of their lots in life. It sounds every bit as appetizing as the medieval scold's bridle.

My published response:
 "What cannot be cured must be endured" was also the dogma of the Calvinist settlers who landed on Plymouth Rock. This cruel philosophy is the entire basis of wealth for the deserving few, and poverty for the unworthy masses.
Stoicism is what the ruling class dictates to the underclass as justification for their membership in the Ebenezer Scrooge Club. As Princeton's Gilens and Page established in their study of affluence and influence, the very wealthy simply don't want to be taxed to make the lives of ordinary people better. Rather than admit this selfishness, though, they preach such beatitudes as "blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Or, if they're really mean and nasty, they hire"values" politicians who preach to hungry children: "Those who do not work shall not eat."
In other words, there will be no decent wages, no secure jobs, no well-funded public schools and no guaranteed health care on Planet Plutocrat. Forget educating for suffering, Ross: the hyper-rich are desperate to privatize education to regiment the future wage slaves of America while putting all the dividends into their own deep pockets.
 Before people can develop hope, or stoicism, their oppressors need to develop some cognitive empathy. They should stop hoarding and virtue-signaling and lecturing people, and start imagining what life is really like in an oppressed person's shoes.

There's cruelty, and then there's benevolent paternalism. Both are inherently anti-democratic.


Since reading Douthat's version of misery left me with an unhealthy craving for some real Stephen King,  I picked up a book of his called Grave New World. I hadn't seen it on any recent bestseller lists, so I'd assumed it was a sequel to Pet Sematary or The Shining, and that I'd missed it.

Much to my horror, it was not only written by a different Stephen King, but by a Stephen D. King who is a chief economic advisor to the monster called HSBC. This is another too-big-to-die multinational behemoth, the seventh largest bank in the world. Among other things, it's been accused of money laundering for international drug cartels. Despite (or more aptly, because of) this criminal background, it thrives and it grows and it devours.

So, while King's book is in part yet another apologia from yet another "woke" neoliberal, at least it's a lot more honest than what Ross Douthat has to offer. For one thing, the "other" Stephen King outright accuses the saintly Barack Obama of lying about the benefits of the moribund Trans-Pacific Partnership. King acknowledges it was never a free trade deal at all, and that Obama's claim that it would protect the workers of the United States is ridiculous on its face. The TPP essentially was the core of Obama's aggressive "pivot to China" in the selfish interests of US-based corporations and billionaires.

The two Stephen Kings actually do have something in common: a macabre sense of humor. 

In his time-travel novel November 22, 1963 the novelist King describes the future in a world where John F. Kennedy was never assassinated. The 21st century he envisions is a dystopian mess ruled by President Hillary Clinton.  (To be fair, not even Stephen King saw Donald Trump coming.)

The economist King, on the other hand, wrote his book after Trump's election. In his version of events, although Hillary Clinton didn't get to reign in Dystopia USA, she did help to create it. She just couldn't hide her elitism, even flaunted it proudly in the form of a $12,495 Armani jacket at the New York City celebration of her primary victory over Bernie Sanders. "She fooled nobody," he notes drily. (Did I mention that he is British?)

King the economist also mocks the elitist horror of all things Trump, most notably the dirge over the death of "international norms" as moralized by the exceptional United States:
Too often, the three words used by politicians and news organizations lazily seeking to establish some sense of moral superiority are 'the international community.' If the government of a particular nation acts in a way that 'draws condemnation' from the international community, then it has apparently done something very bad indeed. If it has merely acted in a controversial way - perhaps impulsively, without spending enough time weighing up the evidence - its actions may be 'frowned upon by the international community.' If, alternatively, a government has done something that appears to be morally upstanding, its actions are 'applauded by the international community.'
King, in a refreshing departure from the wit and wisdom of Ross Douthat, aptly notes that the real division is not between political parties, or ethnicities, or genders, but between rich and poor. "That our international representatives tend to be more comfortable in each other's company than they are with the citizens they are supposed to represent is, in itself, a serious challenge to globalization, particularly if they insist on looking down on their fellow citizens from a great height," he writes.

While the novelist Stephen King is commonly lambasted by "serious" literary critics as being two-dimensional and lurid, the economist/historian Stephen King is lambasted for being too glum. 

In its own review,The Economist sniffed at his prescriptions, which include an economic United Nations and a breakup of the Eurozone. 

They didn't even like his entertaining closing chapter, a Grand Guignol imagining of Ivanka Trump as the GOP's 2044 presidential nominee (rather than as an inmate in the penthouse of a Club Fed.)  She enthuses to loud and sustained applause:
 Ladies and gentlemen. As president, I will always make sure that the United States of America is in control. I will engage only with those countries that believe 100 percent in the American way. And those who don't can expect to be faced with the full force of my proposed Pacifying Protectionist Regime (PPR). I'm fed up with countries using their cheap labour to steal from good, honest American workers. So tonight I pledge to protect remaining American jobs come what may!

 They don't call Economics "the dismal science" for nothing, even when the misery is so hilarious as to be absolutely supply side-splitting.


voice-in-wilderness said...

When reading the news I often wonder how a teenager who is well-informed about political and environmental issues, thinks about the life ahead of them. If they are about to graduate from high school what should they do?

Should they aim at college, but avoid taking on more than a few thousand dollars of debt, even if it means perhaps a decade to earn a degree? Should they forego a college degree altogether? And with advice from all directions about choosing a college major, how would they balance their interests with a job landscape with increased automation and with continued outsourcing?

Kat said...

I don't know... from that review he doesn't seem quite the apostate. He seems to concur with the standard NYT view of globalization-- that the shape that globalization took was inevitable, that it was "free trade" that caused these imbalances and it is a story of the "most skilled" reaping rewards.

Kat said...

And I totally agree that that Ross Douhat column was ridiculous. The NYT has had more than a few of these "safe space" panic pieces-- sometimes in op eds and sometimes in the regular news. It appears that "snowflake" has supplanted "sheeple" as the epithet of choice for the right. Really folks, I think the bigger story out of academia is the purchasing by Kochs and their ilk via some establishment of some damn "center for freedom and free markets".