American Nakba

I’ve recently been writing a paper on the topic of stigmatization (available here), which includes some discussion of the rather acrimonious left-right debate over the “culture of poverty,” and the extent to which the lower classes should be held responsible for the various self-destructive behaviours that they tend to engage in. This had me reading some conservative cultural criticism, which led me to David Frum’s How We Got Here: The ‘70s. I was vaguely aware of this book when it came out, but never got around to reading it. After checking it out from the library I found myself quite looking forward to it, because Frum has been a consistently interesting voice on the American scene in the past 5 years or so (since he was expelled from his post as movement conservative). Thus I was quite surprised by just how bad the book is. Part of this I suppose is due to the fact that it was published in 2000 (i.e. a long time ago), and Frum has become much wiser in the intervening years. More on that below, for the moment I just wanted to draw attention to one fabulous paragraph, in which Frum discusses some of the difficulties that the American automakers were experiencing with their workforce, during what is now being looked back upon as the golden age of American manufacturing:

One-quarter of Ford’s assembly-line workers quit in 1970. Unexcused absences from work doubled at Ford and General Motors between 1961 and 1970, spiking upward most sharply in 1969-70. In the spring of 1970, 5 percent of General Motors’ workers were missing without excuse on any given day. On Fridays and Mondays, up to 10 percent of the workforce failed to show up. At GM’s most troubled plant, a Chevrolet factory in Baltimore, absenteeism shot up from 3 percent on a typical day in 1966 to 7.5 percent in 1970. Disgruntled workers took to vandalizing cars, especially the expensive models. Fortune reported that “screws have been left in brake drums, tool handles welded into fender compartments (to cause mysterious, unfindable and eternal rattles), paint scratched, and upholstery cut.” (21)

Also, “a 1977 survey of 159 firms found more job dissatisfaction than at any time since the survey was first taken in 1952.” Frum doesn’t mention it, but drug use also became extremely widespread among American assembly line workers in the early ‘70s, which contributed to the rather significant decline in quality. (I’ve had American car aficionados describe to me which models are worth collecting and which aren’t, based roughly on the percentage of the workforce that was stoned at the time of manufacture – the cutoff is sometime in the late ‘60s). Anyhow, I think this is worth dredging up just as a reminder that those fabulous manufacturing jobs that everyone wants back from the Mexicans and the Chinese were not actually considered all that fabulous at the time when Americans had them. One-quarter of Ford’s assembly-line workers quit in a single year! This observation, however, connects up to the broader theme of Frum’s book, and actually goes some way toward explaining what’s wrong with his more general critique of the ‘70s. It is important to keep in mind, always, that the past as remembered is not nearly the same thing as the past as experienced by those who lived through it. (On this point, I should note that Frum was born in 1960, which means that his lived recollection of the ‘70s is basically that of a teenager.)

What surprised me the most about Frum’s book is that it is an absolutely perfect, archetypal example of the “reactionary mind” at work. To say that Frum presents a litany of grievances would be an understatement. I hated the ‘70s too, but nowhere near as much as Frum did. The book is essentially a very, very long list of all the bad things that happened in the ‘70s, all of the ways in which America lost its way, betrayed its highest ideals, and suffered decline. What’s strange is that Frum adheres so rigorously to the reactionary formula, and yet he appears almost completely unselfconscious about what he is doing. The overall effect is like reading a Harlequin romance, written by someone who is completely unaware that other books have already been written in that style. What comes across to the reader as “going through the motions” or “shooting fish in a barrel” is presented by the author as though it were a devastating new insight or a cutting observation.

Contemplating the peculiarity of this book led me to read Mark Lilla’s recent The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, which contains some nice essays on the topic. Lilla is good at showing how “reactionary” thought follows a similar template in all of its manifestations. His basic argument hinges upon a contrast between the progressive and the reactionary. Both are similar in that they are committed to a vision of the ideal (or at least dramatically improved) society. The progressive, however, situates this ideal in the future, and then strives to push things in that direction. The reactionary, by contrast, situates the ideal in the past. The fact that contemporary society in no way resembles that ideal is then explained as a consequence of a “fall” that took place – that must have taken place – sometime in the intervening period, in which society “lost its way” and strayed from the ideal. Thus the reactionary often endorses a political program that is just as utopian as the progressive’s, and yet often fails to recognize this, because he conceives of it as a restoration of a past state of affairs, rather than as an innovation. One central strategy that the reactionary adopts, in order to achieve this restoration, is cultural criticism, or the “narrative of decline,” which tells the story of the fall, in the hope that people will realize how mistaken they were, and work their way back to the true path.

Right now France is probably the world leader in the production of reactionary literature. Lilla develops a particularly interesting comparison between Éric Zenmour’s Le suicide français and the basic narrative of radical Islamism, both of which have essentially the same structure. Indeed, he argues that understanding the structure of reactionary thought is essential to understanding the ideology of radical Islamic groups today:

It is in the Muslim world that belief in a lost Golden Age is most potent and consequential today. The more deeply one reads into the literature of radical Islamism, the more one appreciates the appeal of the myth. It goes something like this. Before the arrival of the Prophet the world was in an age of ignorance, the jahiliyya. The great empires were sunk in pagan immorality, Christianity had developed a life-denying monasticism, and the Arabs were superstitious drinkers and gamblers. Muhammad was then chosen as the vessel of God’s final revelation, which uplifted all individuals and peoples who accepted it. The companions of the Prophet and the first few caliphs were impeccable conveyors of the message and began to construct a new society based on divine law. But soon, astonishingly soon, the élan of this founding generation was lost. And it has never been recovered… (140)

Flash-forward to the present, this is roughly how the Islamist story goes:

The modern colonizers’ strategy was to weaken Muslims by converting them away from religion altogether and imposing on them an immoral secular order. Rather than meet holy warriors on the battlefield, the new Crusaders simply held out the trinkets of modern science and technology, mesmerizing their foes. If you abandon God and usurp His legitimate rule over you, they purred, all this will be yours. Very soon the talisman of secular modernity did its work and Muslim elites became fanatics of “development,” sending their children – including girls – to secular schools and universities, with predictable results. They were encouraged in this by the tyrants who ruled over them with the West’s support and at its bidding suppressed the faithful. All these forces – secularism, individualism, materialism, moral indifference, tyranny – have now combined to bring about a new jahiliyya that every faithful Muslim must struggle against, just as the Prophet did at the dawn of the seventh century. He did not compromise, he did not liberalize, he did not democratize, he did not pursue development. He spoke God’s word and instituted His law, and we must follow his sacred example (142).

Lilla goes on to observe that “there is little that is uniquely Muslim in this myth,” it is simply another instance of the reactionary template being applied. “What is striking,” Lilla claims, “is how few antibodies contemporary Islamic thought has against this myth, for reasons historical and theological.”

I think the term “antibodies” is the appropriate one here. Reading through the “literature of reaction,” seeing the same template being applied again and again, but each time to a different period of time, in a different society, it becomes difficult not to see it as a sort of mental virus, like the “tales of miraculous healing” that cultists are always so impressed by. It is, at very least, a kind of large-scale fallacy. And there is something to be said for the suggestion that our own traditions contain somewhat more robust antibodies against it. Frum, for instance, in the penultimate paragraph of his book, offers a somewhat begrudging acknowledgement that the period of time before the ‘70s might not have been that great either:

It is not true that things in general were better half a century ago. Things in many respects were worse – more militaristic, less innovative, more statist, less tolerant, more unionized, less humane, more prejudiced. Nostalgia for the past would be misplaced, and even if it were not, nostalgia is the weakest and most useless of emotions, the narcotic of the defeated and the helpless. But if things in general were not better, some things in particular were. It was better when people showed more loyalty to family and country, better when they read more and talked about themselves less, better when they restrained their sexuality, better when professors and curators were unafraid to uphold high intellectual and artistic standards, better when immigrants were expected to Americanize promptly, better when not every sorrow begat a lawsuit (356).

This paragraph is a fascinating bundle of contradictions, or at least tension between the content of what is said and how it is said. Compare the turgid and perfunctory list of things that were worse in the second sentence, to the detailed and impassioned list, in the final sentence, of what was better. Compare the peculiarly emphatic denunciation of nostalgia (weak, useless, for the defeated and helpless), with the rather self-evidently nostalgic view of the past that follows. Consider also that Frum never considers the possibility that some of the losses enumerate in the second list might have been the price paid for eliminating some of the items on the first (e.g. the diminished expectation that immigrants “Americanize promptly” might have had something to do with the desire to make America “more tolerant,” etc.). In any case, the tone of the final sentence makes it obvious that what is really animating Frum is the same set of convictions that has animated reactionary thinkers for centuries. The paragraph as a whole, however, constitutes at least an acknowledgement that his work might be perceived this way, and a half-hearted attempt to distance himself from that interpretation. Herein lies a recognition that it is no longer intellectually respectable to be a full-throated reactionary, one must at least pretend to be doing something other.

One last observation about Frum’s book, while I’m on the topic. When I said that book was basically just an enormous list of all the bad things that happened in the ‘70s, I wasn’t joking. The list-like quality is amplified by the fact that it is the most peculiarly under-theorized work of this sort that I have ever read. Frum just moves from one topic to another, without making any attempt at all to explain why any of the bad stuff that he is describing happened, or what could have been motivating any of the parties involved, or what broader currents of social change it might have been a part of. It’s just a list: traitors lost the Vietnam war, people stopped going to church, women became sluts, egoists got divorced, crime got out of control, Americans became litigious, the courts went crazy, and so on. In the final few pages of the book we discover the reason for his refusal to explain anything, or even speculate about why any of these things might have happened. It turns out to be a peculiar example of another popular conservative fallacy, which is the thought that offering any sort of broader explanation for people’s behavior involves excusing that behavior, and so the only way to hold anyone responsible for anything is to refrain from offering any sort of explanation (this is the argument that my stigmatization paper deals with). Here is what Frum says:

If what happened to America in the 1970s was the product of some overwhelming global cause – if it was the inevitable consequence of the invention of the birth control pill, or the after-shocks of World War I, or something called “modernity” – why then, we are all excused, aren’t we? What else could we have done but what we did? What else can we do but continue as we are, and hope that it will all somehow work out for the best? While it may be true that grand historic forces beyond any man or woman’s control made the 1970s possible, what made the 1970s happen was individual choice. It was a person, not an impersonal social force, that mugged the old lady on the corner in order to buy heroin; and it was some other person or group of people who relaxed law enforcement and transformed mugging into a paying proposition. Identifiable people refused South Vietnam the bullets and fuel that might have turned the tide of war, other identifiable people decided that immigrants to the United States should be educated in Spanish, not English, and still further identifiable people opted to deal with the Arab oil embargo by extending price controls rather than abolishing them. Those were all choices, and they all had consequences. Other choices could have been made, and they would have had different consequences (351-352).

As a philosopher, this seems to me an astonishing series of non sequiturs. One of the core convictions of popular postmodernism is the view that bad politics is a consequence of bad metaphysics – so that by curing people of their erroneous metaphysical convictions, they will somehow all become progressive left-wingers. This view always struck me as both false and self-serving (“to the hammer everything looks like a nail”). On the other hand, in the passage above Frum really does appear to be the victim of a bad metaphysical view, which has become quite intellectually debilitating. Basically, he doesn’t want to try to understand anything about the world, beyond the most superficial details, because understanding people’s actions would involve explaining them, and once you’ve explained them, then you are denying that the individuals involved freely chose to act as they did, and if you’re denying free choice, then you are denying moral responsibility. Yikes. Somebody should really explain the concept of compatibilism to him… (Hume or Kant, pick your flavour).

In any case, one can see in this paragraph one of the sources of contemporary conservative anti-intellectualism. Consider, for instance, the insistence that the only “cause” of crime is the decision by the criminal to break the law. Okay, but then what are we to say about the enormous and quite terrifying wave of crime that struck the United States, starting in the early ‘70s, and disappearing again at the turn of the century? (The murder rate in New York City jumped from 7 per 100,000 in 1963 up to 22 per 100,000 in 1973. It continued to rise, to 23 per 100,000 in 1983, and 27 per 100,000 in 1993, until falling back to 7 per 100,000 again by 2003.) What’s the view here, that thousands of people just spontaneously starting killing other people, and that the next two generations just spontaneously kept on doing the same thing, and that one day people just spontaneously stopped? As an account, that seems almost perversely uninformative. Obviously the conservative analysis here is an exercise in normative sociology – allowing a moral concern, about wanting to hold people responsible, to intrude into the analysis and impose an explanation, in this case a peculiarly non-explanatory one (of spontaneous, unexplainable choice). In any case, the whole view is obviously being driven by some serious confusions about free will and morality.

Incidentally, if anyone thinks I’m being uncharitable to Frum’s book, perhaps they can take solace in the thought that I’m just a professor, trying to uphold high intellectual standards…


American Nakba — 5 Comments

  1. Frum apparently does develop his… analysis… of these trends further in his earlier book Dead Right. Way back when (it’s weird to think the blogosphere has been around for 15 years…) John Holbo had a very long takedown thereof. Frum basically argues that everything went wrong because technocratic welfare-state liberalism made everyone too well-off and secure and thereby free to grow their hair out, flaunt ethnic differences in manner and dress, and do crimes.

    The thing that makes capitalism good, apparently, is not that it generates wealth more efficiently than other known economic engines. No, the thing that makes capitalism good is that, by forcing people to live precarious lives, it causes them to live in fear of losing everything and therefore to adopt – as fearful people will – a cowed and subservient posture: in a word, they behave ‘conservatively’.

    Wild stuff. And this is what relatively moderate conservatives in 2017 believe.

  2. Could you explain the title of the post ? It almost implies a dismissal of the suffering of the Palestinians from the nakba as based completely in nostalgia.

    (I would want to hear your thoughts on Palestine more broadly)

  3. Very well-written article, but I did have one question.

    You mention that you “hated the ’70s too.”

    Why did you hate the decade?

  4. The popular descriptions of the demise of GM are hilarious. It was the unions that destroyed the company, many would lead us to believe. Crushing payouts and employee health plans destroyed the place, said the headlines. It wasn’t the machinists and assembly line workers who spend a generation ignoring trends in the automotive sector and kept trying to sell the same product year after year. It was management who made those decisions, for which they paid themselves healthy bonuses year after year. But when market share in the USA for GM products shrunk from 50% to less than half that, somehow the employees were to blame. How does that work? How can management be so smart when things go “well” but so innocent when things go badly? GM employees lost many of their health benefits and union payouts, but management never had to pay any of those bonuses back.

  5. Lilla seems uninformed about the role of knowledge/science in Islamic theology (or history for that matter).