Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Some Limits of Space

Spatial metaphors can be useful in providing a visual frame for any activity. To think outside the box, you need a box. But problems occur if the shape of your vessel is not congruent with whatever you hope to insert into it: square peg, round hole, etc. Two of these mismatches have scratching at the blackboard of my soul of late, so I thought to raise them here.

The first of these is the autism spectrum, as if autism were a radio dial. At one end you have the lower-functioning classically autistic person: severe learning differences, possibly an absence of language, and all of the problems of daily life and isolation that then accrue. At the far end, your brilliant-but-quirky person who was formerly characterized by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual codes as an Asperger’s syndrome[i] patient: Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. Great minds, not so sharp with the social cues. Anyone who watched Dylan uncomfortably fumble about with a partially appropriated speech for having been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature will recognize the conundra that raises. Maybe it would have helped if the committee had been able to state clearly that Dylan was being given the award for song, for the idea that song itself could be literature, and not waded into the silly deep weeds of whether or not Dylan was a poet.[ii]

The reality is that no two autistic people are identical, so that, yes, the kid without language, Bob Dylan – or at least Robert Allen Zimmerman – and the Rain Man may all have some degree of what might now be diagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorder, but it is not as though the former is down at 560 on the dial while the others inhabit the rock-and-religious-revival end of the AM band around 1400.  A far more accurate spatial metaphor might well be longitude and latitude as applied to the mapping of three-dimensional surfaces. What those coordinates measure, well, that would be a discussion, but it might just be a discussion worth having.

My other dystopian spatial metaphor these days is the left-right spectrum of politics, progressives to the left, conservatives to the right, even color-coded at the moment blue and red,[iii] so that the Friday political commentators on the PBS Newshour, David Brooks and Mark Shields, might be said to be 25 or 30 degrees to the right in the case of Brooks, a moderate Republican, and maybe 10 degrees to the right of center in the case of “progressive” Shields. Similarly, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer may well be anti-Trumpians,  but they are only progressives in a world skewed very far to the right, one that tacitly agrees never to challenge capital. Never mind that capital itself threatens to destroy the world and to do so in the lifetime of our grandkids, if not before.

The arguments such inside-the-beltway progressives make is that Trump is so far off the charts to the right that the best means to capture the remaining portion of the political spectrum is to run a presidential candidate in 2020 who stands firmly in the center. Three guesses which candidate that might be.[iv] Never mind that, since 1996, no such candidate has ever won the presidential election. People don’t opine “Hmm, I, Mark Shields, am ten percent to the right of center, therefore I should vote Democrat.” Not even Mark Shields does that. Rather, people look at the political universe in a completely different way.

Let me give an example. In the game of chess, there are 64 squares on the board. To an utter beginner, each square is equal. But to anyone but a beginner, a chess board is a mountain in which the four central-most squares form a peak and everything is literally downhill from there, and measurably so by its distance from that hypothetical highpoint.

In the world of politics, there is a similar highpoint, meaning that the center is not the center of a spectrum, but rather a peak. In our time at least, that highpoint is wealth. People look at  that center and ask themselves, am I on the slopes of success or am I off the mountain altogether? Increasingly since the days of Ronald Reagan if not Richard Nixon, most American voters rightly conclude that they are in the flats. Whatever benefits the center disadvantages them. Therefore when it comes time to vote, the question is not am I on the left or the right, but what will disrupt the center the most.

Looked at from that perspective, every single presidential election since Jimmy Carter’s defeat of Gerald Ford arguably becomes quite predictable. Of the eleven elections that have occurred since 1976, the four that appear to fall the furthest from being completely represented by this model are the successful re-elections of Reagan, Clinton, Bush II and Obama. Here you could argue that incumbency is itself a powerful force, potentially capable of disrupting what I’m calling here the Center/Outside paradigm, although I would counter that when capital and government are perceived to be on the opposite sides of the paradigm, Capital (cap C) is seen as the center (bad) and government is seen as the potential disrupter (good). You could easily fit both Reagan and Obama into that model, Clinton likewise. And Bush II was always opposed by bulwarks of a perceived status quo: Al Gore and John Kerry, neoliberals each. Just like Joe Biden.

Donald Trump, whatever else he might be, is not a figure of the center. Even more than Reagan,  he represents an outside assault that took over what he terms the Deep State. Further, the stock market – which is not a surrogate for the economy even though talking heads on cable might think so – has responded quite positively to his agenda of cutting taxes on the superrich and enforcing none of the constraints on capital a rational person might want to employ. From the perspective of corporate CEOs, the notion that there is no sheriff in town with regards to the market is great news.

If the Center/Outside model is accurate, then the task facing the Democrats is quite clear: tie Trump to the capitalist class and promise to disrupt the collaboration of these dark forces. That sounds like a simple enough project, but it’s not if the platform of the party is to restore the center itself. That was the promise Walter Mondale made in opposing Ronald Reagan in 1988. If you remember, Mondale carried just one of the 50 states, his own, Minnesota. Putting a corporatist former Vice President up against an outsider renegade president enabled Reagan to pose himself as the disrupter even while being the incumbent. That is exactly what Joe Biden is trying to do in his campaign against Trump. Within days of announcing his candidacy, Biden announced the endorsement of the Fire Fighters Union and former senator Carol Mosley Braun and held a $2800-per-ticket fundraiser hosted by an exec of Comcast. This is a prescription for re-electing Donald Trump and giving him super-majorities in both houses of congress.

Plus the pundit-class, which lives almost entirely inside the beltway and thinks of poor sad Mark Shields as a true progressive, has been giving Biden the kind of free media ride it gave Trump in 2016, amplifying his name-recognition advantage over every other candidate. Now I like Joe Biden personally. He’s a colleague on the Penn Faculty and we even eat in some of the same restaurants around campus. But the left-right spectrum model of US politics flat out does not work and you would think 23 years of evidence to that effect would be compelling, even deafening. And if the Center/Outside model I’m proposing is more accurate, then we really need to be focusing much more on the other candidates for the presidential nomination: the socialist who gets elected time and again from Vermont; the woman with the deep, detailed policy positions from Massachusetts; the ex-DA from the capital of Silicon Valley who represents three modes of diversity with every breath she draws; the gay major from South Bend, Indiana. Every one of whom could mount a campaign in which they are the disrupter and Trump is the corrupt figleaf atop an otherwise naked capitalist class.

Of the 21 candidates running against Donald J Trump, there is only one who cannot, under any circumstances, defeat him. And that is Joe Biden.

[i] Asperger’s name has fallen out of favor given his collaboration with the Nazis during the 1940s. Plus he wasn’t the only practitioner to note that these other folks may have some successful social adaptations while still checking many of the boxes for autism per se.

[ii] My two cents: song and poetry, both interesting, not the same thing. 

[iii] A coding that is mimicked by the hearing aid industry, or vice versa.

[iv] Hint: he lives within walking distance of the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, and is a fan of Amtrak.