Let’s Unpack “the Personal Is Political”

Official Portrait of Staff of Grant High School, 2016, from the school website

Official Portrait of Staff of Grant High School, 2016, from the school website


This morning brought, on the usual disreputable websites, the appearance of another disapproving look, this time by a military historian, of the past two Presidential administrations.  Andrew Bracevich the author of America’s War for the Middle East: A Military History, in which the well-known critic of bellicose U.S. interventions abroad (whose own son was killed in Iraq, serving in the U.S. armed forces) took a longer-range perspective on the recent history of them.

In one sense, then, a father who will forever mourn his child’s death is saying that there is a lot of mistakes to correct in the constant state of war in which this country has found itself since, oh, let us say, as a reasonable statement, since the Korean undeclared war of 1950.

His first sentence is as follows.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in October 1989 abruptly ended one historical era and inaugurated another. So, too, did the outcome of last year’s U.S. presidential election.

Now, whether you agree with the former Colonel Bracevich’s analysis or not, you’ve got to admit that this mental step, that of examining the course of an era that has just closed, is likely to shed more light than any number of analyses of what we’re facing at the present.  That is, if you believe there’s any value to historical analysis at all.

The mental step involved reminds me of the requirement,in dynastic China, that the history of each dynasty had to be written, not by any officer or member of the dynasty itself, but by someone living in the dynasty that followed it.  Today, with the rapid turnover of events, perhaps we can be forgiven the initiative of deciding when historical eras have come and gone without reference to the name of the emperor’s family.

In the course of that analysis, former Colonel Bracevich takes the not-unsual tack that the United States continued a hostile attitude, following the collapse of Communism, that eliminated the possibility of close international co-operation with our former enemy Russia.  In that sense his contribution to the Republic of Letters was by no means unusual and not worthy of my wasting your time reading my commentary on it.

Has everybody left now?

No, what distinguished Bracevich’s commentary was his characterization, in discussing the historical epoch 1989-2016 (“The Age of Great Expectations” — presumably with an implicit nod to the ironic Charles Dickens novel), of three themes: one, globalization or “free trade”; two, unquestioned U.S. world hegemony; and the third, a sort of unleashed individualism.  Emphasis added.

The third theme was all about rethinking the concept of personal freedom as commonly understood and pursued by most Americans. During the protracted emergency of the Cold War, reaching an accommodation between freedom and the putative imperatives of national security had not come easily. Cold War-style patriotism seemingly prioritized the interests of the state at the expense of the individual. Yet even as thrillingly expressed by John F. Kennedy – “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” – this was never an easy sell, especially if it meant wading through rice paddies and getting shot at.

Once the Cold War ended, however, the tension between individual freedom and national security momentarily dissipated. Reigning conceptions of what freedom could or should entail underwent a radical transformation. Emphasizing the removal of restraints and inhibitions, the shift made itself felt everywhere, from patterns of consumption and modes of cultural expression to sexuality and the definition of the family. Norms that had prevailed for decades if not generations – marriage as a union between a man and a woman, gender identity as fixed at birth – became passé.

As an author myself of very modest publications in the history of science I am quite interested in “modes of cultural expression,” but am intrigued, to say the least, when a discussion of the major characteristics of the historical era just passed, by a specialist in military history, finds a need to emphasize them.

For example, it is my own firm opinion that the citizens of the United States are tolerating the progressive elimination of all sorts of civil liberties under the rubric of national security because we are being allowed to forget about the nuclear weapons which are the real, genuine, true threat to our existence, as a people and even as a civilization.  [That is my own idea, buttressed somewhat by an interview with a conscientious former Secretary of Defense of the U.S.  It has little to do with Colonel Bracevich’s views.]

What does have a lot to do with the former colonel’s unusual invocation of cultural trends is what my two adolescent sons tell me, daily, about life in the local public high school they attend, here in Portland, Oregon.  They speak of a continual, comprehensive, universal obligation to support advantaged treatment for minorities, especially lesbian, gay, and transgender individuals.  They speak of a teacher from whom an apology is demanded for having addressed his students as “ladies and gentlemen” — he left out the transgenders in the audience  (if any).  They show me an officially sponsored student anti-racism video, which, during the election, was submitted to the national group which judges such things as highschool student videos, and which won a prize, and which explicitly stated that “racism is Trump”.

I forbear extending the list beyond a couple of examples.  There are incident like this virtually every day.  Basically, my boys stress the atmosphere of rigid political correctness which does not tolerate any questioning of its righteousness.

A second example, which struck the Portland progressive community not long ago, is the public “shaming” of a prominent gay black man, Cameron Whitten, for being “misogynist”– for attempting to address a rally, warning them that the police were standing nearby.  During the facebook storm which followed his “shaming”, he was told by a white man that he had been insufficiently deferential to the black lesbians who organized the rally.

The point is, not to examine the possible justifications or critiques of these cultural tempests in teapots, but to indicate their extraordinary weight in present-day discourse.  This centrality arose, Bracevich claims, in the short historical epoch that has now ended, and their awkward form, their disproportionate emphasis, their very unsustainability, reveals that they are no longer promoting minority rights, but rather represent a means of distraction.  He writes

for all the talk of empowering the marginalized – people of color, women, gays – elites reaped the lion’s share of the benefits while ordinary people were left to make do. The atmosphere was rife with hypocrisy and even a whiff of nihilism.

There’s a problem here, though — the changing definition of the family did not have a lot to do with the economic inequality that left “ordinary people” (since the very sense of “ordinary” is exactly what is in play, its use raises an eyebrow, at the least) “to make do.”  In this piece the very item that is unusual in a progressive’s viewing with alarm of the last thirty-odd years of constant class warfare (also known as “globalization”) and foreign intervention (that American Empire, termed “hegemony” for euphemistic value), that very item, social justice war, is then left too vague for any real articulation in his narrative.

Bracevich returns to it, when discussing how Trump won the 2016 election.  As we all can accept, he criticized Clinton’s mantra of globalization, and he rejected the meme of American exceptionalism.  Bracevich continues

No less important than Trump’s semi-coherent critique of globalization and American globalism, however, was his success in channeling the discontent of all those who nursed an inchoate sense that post-Cold War freedoms might be working for some, but not for them.

Not that Trump had anything to say about whether freedom confers obligations, or whether conspicuous consumption might not actually hold the key to human happiness, or any of the various controversies related to gender, sexuality, and family. He was indifferent to all such matters. He was, however, distinctly able to offer his followers a grimly persuasive explanation for how America had gone off course and how the blessings of liberties to which they were entitled had been stolen. He did that by fingering as scapegoats Muslims, Mexicans, and others “not-like-me.”

Trump’s political strategy reduced to this: as president, he would overturn the conventions that had governed right thinking since the end of the Cold War. To the amazement of an establishment grown smug and lazy, his approach worked.

The gap in the argument continues, though; we are to believe that one of the three central themes for Trump’s unexpected success was something about which he had little to say, indeed was completely indifferent.

That does not mean that Bracevich drops the third theme, the unusual one.  He returns to it.

Note, for example, that his mandate is almost entirely negative. It centers on rejection: of globalization, of counterproductive military meddling, and of the post-Cold War cultural project. Yet neither Trump nor any of his surrogates has offered a coherent alternative to the triad of themes providing the through line for the last quarter-century of American history.

One cannot say that we do not have a good idea of what rejection of globalization means.  It means tariffs which protect selected United States manufacturing concerns.  And we, again, can with reasonable specificity cite what non-intervention consists of.  But rejection of “the cultural project”?  That is indeed a null set.  It signifies nothing, an emptiness.  From this, Bracevich urges specific remedy.

Starting with Trump himself, and Clinton herself, we can suggest that we are looking for someone who neither acts like a mendacious, spoiled brat, nor mouths platitudes for personal political advancement, and who rather actually expresses a vision.

“Where there is no vision,” the Book of Proverbs tells us, “the people perish.” In the present day, there is no vision to which Americans collectively adhere. For proof, we need look no further than the election of Donald Trump.

The vision that Bracevich offers, however, and this is equally interesting, is not his own.  The vision he proffers for the possibility of filling the void at the center of U.S. social, economic, and political life, is that of Christopher Lasch.

Lasch called for a politics based on “the nurture of the soil against the exploitation of resources, the family against the factory, the romantic vision of the individual against the technological vision, [and] localism over democratic centralism.”

There is ample meat here for moral mastication, but it’s still in the realm of broad and general terms.  Not surprisingly, Your Intrepid Reporter turned to the link provided (it’s about ten pages long, and one of the pages is missing), and found an article from 1980 that did something similar, in conceptual terms, to what Bracevich did this morning: he looked at the era just ending, as a basis for what we can say about where we are at present.  Lasch invites to consider the era 1898 to  1980:

One does not have to accept the thesis of a “managerial revolution” or a “new class” to acknowledge the force of Riesman’s observation that the “bullet that killed McKinley marked the end of the days of explicit class leadership.” Nineteenth-century politics, according to Riesman, turned on “easily moralized judgments of good and bad” and on “agreement between the leaders and led that the work sphere of life was dominant.” Although the power of the ruling classes rested at bottom on force, they sought for the most part to govern through moral persuasion. They defended their leadership by appealing to a common fund of moral principles and to common standards of political justice. These ideals, of course, were open to conflicting interpretations, and the standards of right and wrong upheld by the governing classes –for example, the proposition that every man had a right to the fruits of his own labor — could be turned against the established order and made to serve as the basis of demands for its reformation or even overthrow.

But the bitterness of ideological conflicts in nineteenth-century politics itself testified to an underlying agreement about the nature of political discourse. All parties to these debates assumed that political actions had to be justified by an appeal to a body of moral principles accessible to human reason and subject to rational discussion. The idea that moral judgments are by definition subjective and therefore lie outside the realm of rational debate played little part in nineteenth-century politics.

It would appear that, to Lasch, the basic problem with twentieth-century American social and economic development is, that it turned away from the populism of the 1890s.  If we were to characterize the moral debates of the 2010s, it would have to be that there is one right moral standard, and the conflict rages because the traditionalists refuse to accept the moral standards urged by the family-hostile proponents of unlimited individualism.  Rational discussion, by the way, has little to do with the matter.  Twentieth-century attacks on the ability of rational argument to determine the single best moral standard put an end to that years prior to 1980.

To gain a broader perspective than that one article cited by Bracevich, let us turn to Wikipedia.

By the 1980s, Lasch had poured scorn on the whole spectrum of contemporary mainstream American political thought, angering liberals with attacks on progressivism and feminism. He wrote that “A feminist movement that respected the achievements of women in the past would not disparage housework, motherhood or unpaid civic and neighborly services. It would not make a paycheck the only symbol of accomplishment. … It would insist that people need self-respecting honorable callings, not glamorous careers that carry high salaries but take them away from their families.”[19] Liberal journalist Susan Faludi dubbed him explicitly anti-feminist for his criticism of the abortion rights movement and opposition to divorce.[20] But Lasch viewed Ronald Reagan’s conservatism as the antithesis of tradition and moral responsibility. Lasch was not generally sympathetic to the cause of what was then known as the New Right, particularly those elements of libertarianism most evident in its platform; he detested the encroachment of the capitalist marketplace into all aspects of American life. Lasch rejected the dominant political constellation that emerged in the wake of the New Deal in which economic centralization and social tolerance formed the foundations of American liberal ideals, while also rebuking the diametrically opposed synthetic conservative ideology fashioned by William F. Buckley, Jr. and Russell Kirk.

Back in 1980, it might be supposed that opposition to feminism would possibly work, as a way of emphasizing the centrality of the family; there is today, however, virtually no one who opposes the idea that women ought to receive equal pay for equal work.  Arguably, that aim has been achieved.

Nor is there hope, in 2016 of ever making divorce difficult to obtain, and from a conceptual point of view, surely all (secular) sides agree abortion ought to be safe, legal, and rare (it is declining in frequency).

While the vague gestures in the direction of environmental wisdom, of communitarian responsibility, and of restoring agency and autonomy to local groups are provided lip service, the invocation of Christopher Lasch unleashes a musty odor of traditionalist thinking of the last generation.  There’s a lot missing in Lasch’s discussion.  What about the war on masculinity, so evident in the mass media for the last 50 years?  Or the derogatory view, from groups as popular as Black Lives Matter, of fatherhood?  How is matriarchy in any way superior to patriarchy, as a social program?  In short, we are presently at one extreme end of a swing of the social pendulum, an unsustainable extreme which will swing back sooner or later.

So, as a teacher of several decades of experience in public schools, as a father of two boys, and as a political activist of long standing (and recent time behind bars), I agree with the slogan, that the personal is political, that the political is personal.  The very fact that the good colonel put that unusual cultural item into the formula for the characteristic mix of the last historical era, reflects a major shift in the mental universe of even a military historian, when examining recent history.

If we are to rejuvenate a vision for the future, then, I would hark a lot further back than the Populists.  Rather, I would bring under consideration the ideals, as opposed to the practices, of the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, that set of ideals which we encode in the so-called Declaration of Independence, a hypocritical document written by a slave-owner (and probable serial rapist of one of them) and edited by a war profiteer.  Those ideals were cited, again and again, when Lincoln debated Douglas prior to the Civil War.  They are in what my anti-war comrade Brian Willson calls our “cultural DNA” (about most of which he has not much good to say).

All human beings have equal worth and standing in society.  All have rights that preserve their property, privacy, and persons against arbitrary action by government.  As for governmental power, it corrupts, in measure the greater, the greater the power given.  In that sense, I see a hope for a nurture of the soil against the commercial exploitation of resources, for the family as the center of social development as opposed to the marketplace, and for the mind of the individual as opposed to the dictation of community authority.

Update 10 February 2017: Immediately after posting this essay, I opened my email, to find a message to the Grant Community from the Members of the Student Leadership.  The reader is advised that there is now a campaign for a Culture of Consent.

We are working to change the climate of Grant concerning lack of boundaries. The culture of consent does not only apply to sex. The umbrella of consent encompasses everything from dancing to interactions in the hallway to statements and comments in class and on social media to physical contact. These all contribute to the presence of rape culture in our community.

Those who doubt that there is, presently, a “rape culture” in Grant High School are officially marginalized as not worthy of entering into the conversation.  There is a rape culture, it goes without saying, and we are obliged to combat it.  Sigh.



About M. Meo

Worked as translator, museum technician, truck lumper, lecture demonstrator, teacher (of English as a Second Language, science, math). Married for 25 years, 2 boys aged 18 & 16 (both on the Grant cross-country team). A couple of scholarly publications in the history of science. Two years in federal penitentiary, 1970/71, for refusing the draft.
This entry was posted in Bradley Manning, Cameron Whitten, Diffeomorphisms on a manifold, Don Gavitte, Education, Elections, Empire, Fascism, Free Speech, Inequality, Local government, Marxism, Mathematics, Pacific Green Party, Ronald Reagan, Spiritual life, U.S. Constitution, Uncategorized, US Senate, War. Bookmark the permalink.

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