Darkness on the Edge of Town

On the evening of November 5, 1980, a 31-year-old rock ‘n’ roller in a sweaty white shirt stood at a microphone in Tempe, Arizona, and ominously intoned to a crowd of thousands, “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening.”

With that, he launched into one of his signature fist-pounding anthems, whose opening lines declare:

Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland

Got a head-on collision smashin’ in my guts, man

I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand

The man on the stage was Bruce Springsteen, and the previous day’s “what happened” was the election of Ronald Reagan as the 40th president of the United States.  The song, “Badlands,” was written and recorded two years prior, but its driving rhythm section and portentous lyrics seemed to capture the national mood as no other track could—at least among the American left.  It was as though Bruce had been saving it up for just the right moment.  As it turned out, the dawn of Reaganism was it.

Indeed, the prince of the Jersey Shore would spend the balance of the ensuing decade fortifying his reputation as an apostle of blue-collar America—the embodiment of the desperate, unwashed workingmen who felt betrayed and abandoned by their country and government in favor of the upper 1 percent.  In this milieu, the Reagan administration, with its tax-cutting, “trickle-down” economics, would, in short order, become Enemy No. 1.

From that concert in Tempe onward, Springsteen’s whole musical identity assumed a more political bent, his songs coming to reflect the times as much as the dreams and inner torment of the artist himself.  Where Bruce’s earlier work breezily spoke of young love on the boardwalk and hemi-powered drones screaming down the boulevard, by 1978 he was already losing faith in the institutions that had raised him—the government, the social compact, his family—and increasingly threaded this perceived societal drift into otherwise personal tales of love, hatred, anxiety and midnight drag racing.  (A typical lyric from that time:  “You’re born with nothing / and better off that way / soon as you’ve got something they send / someone to try and take it away.”)

Because this heightened social awareness and unease coincided with the Reagan Revolution—and also because of his open advocacy for such people as John Kerry, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—Springsteen has long (and rightly) been associated with the Democratic Party and its base.  So it came as something of a shock for me when I recently re-listened—for, say, the dozenth time—to Springsteen’s 1982 album, Nebraska, and found that, song-for-song—in some cases, like-for-line—the record seemed to speak directly to the plight of the prototypical Trump voter in 2016.  Contained in those tracks—and, by implication, in the mind of the man who wrote them—are most (if not all) of the fears, disappointments and anger that drove millions of bitter, hardworking citizens—many of whom voted for Obama twice—to turn to Donald Trump as the last best hope to save the soul of their beloved, beleaguered country.  In many ways, Springsteen’s Nebraska—35 years old in September—serves as their voice.

You could begin with the album’s title track, which recounts the (true) story of a Bonnie and Clyde-like duo who senselessly murdered their way across the Midwest in the 1950s, only to conclude, “They wanted to know why I did what I did / well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”  Immediately following is “Atlantic City”—a concert staple to this day—whose protagonist bemoans, “I got a job and tried to put my money away / but I got debts that no honest man can pay.”  Worse still, in “Johnny 99,” we learn, “They closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month / Ralph went out lookin’ for a job / but he couldn’t find none.”  And so forth.

What is most consistent, and ominous, in these tracks—today and in their original context—is how inexorably the weight of economic despair eventuates in violence.  Along with the aimless, homicidal couple in the opener (“Me and her went for a ride, sir / and ten innocent people died”), the man in “Atlantic City” is forced to join the mob to make ends meet (“Last night I met this guy / and I’m gonna do a little favor for him”), while Ralph, aka Johnny 99, knocks off a town clerk in a drunken rage, later pleading to a judge, “The bank was holdin’ my mortgage / and they were gonna take my house away / Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man / But it was more ‘n all this that put that gun in my hand.”

Indeed, experience teaches us that certain acts of violence spring purely from desperation, hunger and a general lack of good options in life, and the ordeal of the 2016 election did little to disabuse us of this notion.

To wit:  It is a matter of public record that the core of Donald Trump’s minions viewed themselves (rightly or wrongly) as the most economically stretched class of people in a generation—folks without jobs, prospects or any real political power—and that Trump’s campaign, in turn, was the most physically intimidating in modern times, with scores of campaign rallies descending into fist fights, the aggressors egged on by the candidate himself, who bellowed, “If you see somebody with a tomato, knock the crap out of them,” adding, “I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”  (He didn’t, of course.)

Certainly nothing good can come from lashing out at your own society in such an ugly way.  Yet Nebraska does not look down on its characters when they commit despicable acts.  Bleak as it is, the album is fundamentally an exercise in empathy for those whose circumstances have led them to feel that a life of crime is the only choice they have left.  In their shoes, are we so sure that we wouldn’t behave the same way?

Encouragingly, perhaps, Springsteen himself has not changed his view on this one whit.  In an interview with Rolling Stone last October—during which he couldn’t summon a single positive word for the president-to-be—he posited, “I believe there’s a price being paid for not addressing the real cost of the deindustrialization and globalization that has occurred in the United States for the past 35, 40 years, and how it’s deeply affected people’s lives and deeply hurt people to where they want someone who says they have a solution.  And Trump’s thing is simple answers to very complex problems. […] And that can be very appealing.”  Asked if he is “surprised” to learn that the man who inspired his 1995 song “Youngstown”—an elegy to the American steel industry—is now a Trump supporter, Bruce responded, “Not really.”

Trump, he seems to agree, is what David Brooks once characterized as “the wrong answer to the right question.”

Which is all to say that Springsteen understood the American electorate in 2016 better than the Democratic Party—as, in their own way, did the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—and that unless the party makes a more honest reckoning with its relationship to America’s basket of deplorables, it will be quite some time before Democrats win back the House, the Senate, the presidency and the Supreme Court.

If you’ve lost Springsteen, you’ve lost America.

Bern Notice

Could Bernie Sanders be elected president?  Could he even be nominated by the Democratic Party?  Would the latter be political suicide with respect to the former?

For the many despairing liberals who think they already have these questions figured out, indulge me a brief history lesson that just might give you pause and—dare I say—hope.

At precisely this point in the 2008 election cycle—namely, early October 2007—Hillary Clinton led Barack Obama by anywhere between 16 and 21 points in opinion polls of Democratic primary voters.  What is more, out of the 133 national surveys conducted between January and October of that year, Clinton bested Obama on 131 occasions.

This trend continued throughout the fall, with Clinton more than 20 points up in the final days of the year.  In fact, the first time Obama prevailed in any poll in the latter stage of the campaign was in the first week of February 2008—a full month into the actual primary process.

From that moment on—that is, between early February and the first week of June—everything flipped.  Of the 52 polls taken during that time, Obama defeated Clinton by a score of 47-5.

Long story short (too late?), the man who’s been leader of the free world for the last six-and-a-half years did not even become leader of the Democratic Party until after many, many months of being firmly in second place.

While the thrust of history tends to wash away memories of what might have been, it is worth recalling how overwhelmingly likely it seemed that Hillary Clinton would be her party’s nominee for president in 2008.  How very few people—for a very long time—took seriously the notion that a first-term senator with mixed blood and an African name could defeat the partner-in-crime of the most popular Democratic president of modern times.

For all the early passion of Obama’s smitten supporters—paired with the understandable exhaustion with all things Clinton—most, if not all, political prognosticators pegged an Obama victory as little more than a pipe dream until very, very late in the process.  Clinton, it seemed, was unbeatable.

What changed?  People starting voting, that’s what.

Once Obama won the Iowa caucuses—thanks, in large part, to his campaign’s superior organization and mastery of social media—the fantasy of his election suddenly became plausible, and all those who preferred him but feared Clinton was the only viable option were liberated to vote with their hearts, with the assurance that in doing so, they were also voting with their heads.

Which is all to suggest that this premise of “electability” is totally, utterly worthless.  In truth, you cannot anticipate how the country will vote until it actually does so.  History is inconceivable until it becomes inevitable, and someone who is unelectable today just might become president tomorrow.

It happened with Obama.  Why couldn’t it happen with Sanders?

To be sure, the analogy between the two men is not exact.  Their candidacies exist in different times and contexts—different political worlds, really—and the candidates themselves are hardly mirror images of each other.

All the same, I would maintain that their similarities are the key to understanding why and how Sanders is a more serious candidate than most people think, and that in several key areas, Sanders is actually better off than Obama was at this point in his presidential quest.

I mentioned Obama was polling at least 16 points behind Clinton in the fall of 2007.  As it happens, Sanders right now is in roughly the same position.  However, I would hasten to add that it was only two months ago that Clinton led Sanders by 30 points or more—sometimes a lot more—which suggests a Sanders tailwind that even Obama never enjoyed.

Then there are the polls that actually matter:  those in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two primary states that, for better or worse, tend to determine whose name ends up on the ballot.  (The last person to secure the nomination without winning either state was Bill Clinton in 1992.)  In Iowa, Clinton currently leads Sanders by 6 points—the same margin she held over Obama in the fall of 2007—while in New Hampshire, Sanders is ahead by double digits.  (There, Clinton led Obama by more than 20 points.)

“Feel the Bern” is not just a cheeky branding device; it is an actual, tangible phenomenon every bit as real as the worshipful throngs at the Obama rallies who thundered on about being “fired up and ready to go.”  (Whatever the hell that meant.)

Just this past weekend, a Sanders gathering in Boston drew some 20,000 people—the largest crowd ever assembled in Massachusetts for a political primary event.  Sanders has seen similarly huge showings all over the country for months now, and his campaign recently announced fundraising totals nearly equal to Clinton’s and, by some metrics, well ahead of ’08 Obama at this juncture in the race.

What is more, the reasons for this jubilation—this visceral, manic enthusiasm that Clinton can only fantasize about—are not terribly different from those that led Obama to be anointed the second coming of Christ.

In the twilight of the Bush administration—when it was clear to liberals that their government didn’t give a damn about lower-class concerns and that Congress was increasingly derelict in its most basic duties as a governing body—Obama promised to change the system:  To squash the influence of plutocrats and other special interest groups, to bring a measure of fairness and justice to American finance and to redirect critical funding from futile overseas adventures back to the home front.  And, of course, to moderate the “tone” on Capitol Hill so that Democrats and Republicans might occasionally treat each other with respect.

In other words, Obama premised his candidacy on creating a country in which ordinary people were given a stake in their own destiny, and it was a message so intrinsically appealing and so well-delivered that people responded with a fervor that hadn’t existed in decades.

That, in so many words, is what is now happening with Sanders.  While much more strident than Obama in his indictment of America’s ruling class, he, too, is billing himself as a fighter for the working man.  From his stump speech, his ultimate ambition is to create a society in which wealth and income do not determine how much (or how little) influence an individual exerts over his government, nor how much benefit he or she derives from it.

To America’s non-billionaires, this is a fairly irresistible platform, and given Sanders’ long and consistent history as a legislator, there isn’t a doubt in the world that he means it.  Whether his prescriptions are feasible is a separate question.  The more important point—as the sheer size of his campaign rallies attest—is that a significant chunk of the public apparently agrees with his diagnosis of the problem itself.

Bearing all of these considerations in mind—along with a few that we haven’t mentioned—the question isn’t, “How could Sanders possibly be elected?”  Rather, it is, “Why on Earth shouldn’t he be?”

If appealing to actual concerns of actual people means anything, what makes Sanders any less electable than anyone else?  To those queasy left-wingers who worry about Sanders having trouble in the general election, I wonder:  Why are you so afraid to vote for exactly what you want?  If you are convinced that his ideas about America are superior to everyone else’s, what exactly is stopping you from exerting every effort to put him in the Oval Office?

Is it simply that you don’t think enough of your fellow citizens are smart enough to see things the way you do?  Are you worried that by nominating a true blue liberal, the Democratic Party will lose any chance of carrying Ohio and Florida?  Are the stakes just too darned high to risk a long shot when a much safer option is available?

That’s certainly how the party felt in 2004 when it passed up firebrands like Howard Dean and John Edwards in favor of the more “electable” John Kerry.  GOP voters behaved likewise in 2012 when they picked the “electable” Mitt Romney over much more conservative alternatives.  Conversely, the Dems were said to be crazy to opt for an unknown quantity like Obama in 2008, and Ronald Reagan in 1980 was widely derided as a joke by most liberals right up until he won 44 states against Jimmy Carter’s six.

In other words, you don’t know who’s electable until the final results are in.  If you want someone who shares your worldview to be president, try voting for that person.  You might be surprised how many of your fellow citizens do the same.

This Holy Land is My Land

As a freelancer, I like to think that I can write about anything.  And yet, I somehow have a problem writing about Israel.

It’s not because I have a dog in the fight.  It’s because I don’t.  I too easily see both sides of the issue and sympathize with them, and that makes it awfully hard to take a stand in one direction or the other.  And if you don’t have a strong point of view, what’s the point of opening your mouth?

Except that I suspect most Americans—nay, most citizens of the world—also see the nuances in a contest that has brewed for several thousand years, and have likewise made the decision to keep their views to themselves.

The result, as with so much else, is a debate that has existed mostly at the extremes—namely, between those who think Israel is always and forever morally in the right, and those who think the opposite.

And in the rare moment when someone does introduce complexity into the mix—say, when Secretary of State John Kerry makes the obviously true statement, “Today’s status quo absolutely […] cannot be maintained”—that person is roundly condemned as a stooge for either the pro-Israel or pro-Palestine lobby and, for good measure, tarred as anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, or any other undesirable that would effectively disqualify him from the discussion.  (President Obama is regularly called all of those things at once.)

Further—and here is the main cause of my reticence to engage—once one does attempt to take a long and wide view of the clash between Israelis and Palestinians—or, if you prefer, between Jews and Muslims—one cannot help but be overcome with a sense of Sisyphean futility.  Here seemingly is a conflict that, almost by design, can never be solved.  It just keeps going around and around, accumulating fresh hatreds and injustices (and corpses) with each turn.

Certainly, the present battle in Gaza between Israel and Hamas is insoluble by definition, since the one condition that each side considers non-negotiable is also the one condition to which the opposing side will never, ever agree.  Namely, Israel’s demand to be formally recognized and Hamas’s demand that Israel cease to exist.  Since Israel isn’t going anywhere and Hamas is not about to alter its charter, this particular skirmish can only be resolved through the disempowerment of Hamas, a group that, while designated a terrorist organization by five countries (including the U.S.) and the European Union, is a democratically-elected body.

And that only concerns the events of the past three weeks.  Even if Hamas disbanded tomorrow, we’d still have a few thousand years of unfinished business to tend to.

On the $64,000 question—“How can Israelis and Palestinians coexist peacefully?”—we are met with one of the great paradoxes of the age:  In this challenge, with its bottomless well of complexities, the answer is both simple and obvious.

“The first thing to strike the eye about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute,” the late Israeli diplomat Abba Eban is supposed to have said, “[is] the ease of its solubility.”  With two groups of people credibly laying claim to the same piece of real estate, Eban continued, the only possible course of action is to divide the land equally, with one state for each group, so that everyone will have a place to call “home.”  Easy peasy.

Why didn’t this happen, say, 50 years ago?  Why, despite the world’s best efforts, has it continued not to happen in all the time since?  Why does it appear so unlikely to happen today or, indeed, ever?

It is always around this point in the conversation when the blame game begins.  The point at which everything is reduced to “It’s the Jews’ fault” or “It’s the Arabs’ fault.”  And of course, both of those statements are true.

It is true, for instance, that several former Palestinian leaders have passed up perfectly reasonable and mutually beneficial peace deals, essentially out of a mixture of spite and stubbornness about the “Israel’s right to exist” canard.

It is also true, for instance, that the Israeli government has spent the last many years building up and expanding its occupation of the West Bank—against constant protests from all corners of the globe—for no practical purpose except to poke its critics in the eye at precisely the moment when it ought to be shoring up goodwill and trust from both within and without.

We could go on like this all night, deeding yet another generation a lifetime of existing in a state of hatred and perpetual insecurity.  (Amidst the present carnage, it is encouraging to see the occasional appearance of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians who are sick of the whole thing, and who actually do coexist peacefully.)

We could also note (possibly in vain) the clear culpability of religion itself in the matter—a force that leads one to view a common land dispute not merely as a legal or culture issue, but as a matter of divine imperative.  After all, once you think you have God’s permission to seize and control a chunk of property from now until the end of time, why should some paltry earthly law get in your way?

We could sit back and allow the squabble to play itself out, hoping that, as in places like Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia, the two parties will essentially exhaust themselves into a reconciliation.  In the meanwhile, we Americans could wash our hands and breathe easy at the fact that it is not, finally, our problem to solve.

And, in any case, we can look forward to the glorious day when the stars perfectly align, and both sides of the dispute realize that sometimes human life is more valuable than land, and perhaps even more valuable than justice.

Will that day ever come?  It sure would be nice to think so.

The Best and the Brightest

Sooner or later, the thought passes through the mind of every educated person in the United States:  Why can’t everyone else in America be as smart as me?  Isn’t there some way we could force people to be less stupid before releasing them into the wild?  Shouldn’t things such as the right to vote be subject to a baseline level of knowledge and intelligence?

As it turns out, while the rest of us were merely thinking such insufferable thoughts, others were actually writing them down.  One such person, Jason Richwine, turned them into a Harvard dissertation in 2009.

Richwine’s paper, “IQ and Immigration Policy,” examines the apparent discrepancy in average IQ between immigrants to the United States (particularly Mexicans) and the native population.  Richwine concludes that it would be in the national interest for the United States to grant legal immigrant status based on an individual’s intelligence, withholding it from applicants whose IQ scores are too low.

The text of the dissertation made the rounds in recent days, and you can imagine how delighted everyone was with it.

Some have attacked Richwine’s premise, insisting the concept of “IQ” is a meaningless social construct, while others have condemned his conclusions, equating them to eugenics and the like.  Many have excoriated Harvard for having approved the topic as a dissertation thesis in the first place, with some going so far as to demand it be retroactively withdrawn.

The reason this particular four-year-old college paper has struck such a nerve is because its particular scribbler is also the co-author of a new paper by the Heritage Foundation about why immigration reform, currently under consideration in Congress, is a bad idea.

While the think tank’s paper does not recommend an IQ-based approach to U.S. immigration policy, Richwine was nonetheless compelled to resign his post there, as the foundation insisted the conclusions in Richwine’s paper were not its own.  By this point, it hardly mattered:  The hornets’ nest had been duly shaken.

Research on the science of intelligence, and the notion of an objective measurement thereof, runs deep.  Those who have studied the subject tend to cast a skeptical eye toward the theory that, to the extent that concepts such as IQ or “g” (for “general intelligence”) mean anything at all, they can be made to have any practical application of the sort Richwine proposes.

For the moment, however—for the proverbial sake of argument—let us simply grant Richwine all of his premises and proceed onward.

The central question, it seems to me, is whether it would be morally permissible to follow Richwine’s lead and admit into the United States only those of superior intelligence.  Supposing, again, that everything Richwine asserts is true—that intelligence can be meaningfully measured and that allowing for too many low-IQ immigrants would (and does) have a detrimental impact on the country’s overall well-being—should we act on this information, or ignore it?

Universities certainly have no problem discriminating on the basis of the relative intelligence within their applicant pools.  Sure, admissions officers might define “intelligence” in their own, disparate ways and include other, less tangible factors in determining which students to accept and which to decline.  Nonetheless, a college aspirant considered to be generally intelligent tends to fare better in the application sweepstakes than one considered to be generally unintelligent.

America, like a university, is under no obligation to open its doors to every last individual who wants to get in.  There must be some set of standards; a line has to be drawn somewhere.  Why not base it on smarts?

We might also alert ourselves (in case we forgot) to the requirement that, in order to become a U.S. citizen, one must correctly answer at least six of ten randomly-selected questions regarding American civics.  While by no means equivalent to assessments of intellectual aptitude such as the SAT, the citizenship test nonetheless illustrates our insistence on not being completely ignorant as a prerequisite for assimilating into American society.

In short:  The attempt to engineer a brainy citizenry is not without precedent.

Against this line of thinking is a longstanding national value and tradition, phrased quite succinctly by Secretary of State John Kerry, “In America you have the right to be stupid.”

“American exceptionalism,” that most nebulous of phrases, frequently employed but seldom well-defined, has at different times come to signify our country’s desire to be the best, but also our insistence that this need not be accomplished by the brightest.  High intelligence might be an advantage on the road to success, but it is not a requirement.

A final consideration that might give us pause in our quest to purge our immigrant pool of the dopes, dolts and dimwits:  Imagine what horrors we might unleash were we to follow a path of consistency and apply this standard to ourselves.

Truth-Seeker’s Lament

Last Wednesday’s first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, coupled with most of the postgame analysis on television and the Internet, demonstrated all that is wrong with presidential debates in the first place.

By now we all know the narrative.  Romney played to win; Obama played not to lose.  Romney showed up armed with spirit and compassion, Obama with mere statistics and tropes.  Romney held his head high; Obama’s tended to droop into his notes.  Romney offered a bold new vision; Obama offered more of the same.  Romney won; Obama lost, badly.

Bill Maher put it perfectly well after the first debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004, saying the verdict of each contest should be phrased in terms of “Who is right?” rather than “Who won?”  Assessing these events based on the latter, as we do, only begs the question of what “winning” a debate entails.  The answer, alas, only reinforces the shallowness and silliness of our politics.

Real debates—the ones between public intellectuals (a regrettably endangered species in America)—are not viewed in such a flippant manner.  Properly speaking, the essence of a debate is to put an idea, or proposition, on trial, with each side marshaling a cascade of evidence in support of one position or the other, with the “performance” of each side judged not in terms of theatrics, but in the cogency and persuasiveness of the arguments themselves.  The audience might vote on a “winner,” but such a concept only really exists in the mind of each individual viewer.

An underlying assumption here—as idealistic as they come—is that, as in an actual court case, the side that “wins” is not necessarily the team that turns in the most enthusiastic performance, but simply the side whose argument makes the most sense, and is grounded in objective, empirical truth.  A dazzling presentation might be a means to an end, but is never the end in itself.  Remember:  The only reason “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” worked is because the glove didn’t fit.

As you do not need me to tell you, this is not how electoral politics operates.  Presidential debates in the modern era have never been driven or determined primarily by argument or truth.  That is to say, a given candidate’s performance is assessed independent of whether the argument he presents, and the statistics he cites, is factually sound.  Fact checkers and analysts might correct any inaccuracies once the night is through, but rarely, if ever, does this change the picture that the debate itself paints.

This, in short, is the problem.

Forgive my stubbornness, but I still believe in a country in which there is such a thing as objective truth—a truth for which leaders in every political clique are accountable, however inconvenient it might be.  Yet, as things now stand, they’re not.

To wit:  In the days since the debate, one newspaper column after another has asserted, first, that the thrust of Romney’s case to the public contained plentiful false information and outright negations of past Romney positions, and second, that Romney was the evening’s clear victor, hands down.  As if the former had no bearing on the latter.

I sort of wish it did.

Mistake me not.  I do not mean to excuse the president for what plainly was, in Andrew Sullivan’s tart words, “political malpractice.”  Obama well knows how the game of politicking works—that optics matter, that the public responds to razzle-dazzle, whatever its form—and he has, in the past, taken as much advantage of it as any national figure of the time.  Much as he likes to position himself “above the fray,” in his gut he understands that, as former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder put it, “Politics is a fray.”

Nor, frankly, do I particularly fault Romney for intuiting the exact same thing and behaving exactly as one might expect in such a circumstance as his.  His modus operandi is, and always has been, to act in whatever fashion he thinks will result in maximizing his total vote yield, whatever the cost.  He plays by the rules of the game.

My principle indictment, really, is directed toward the enablers of all this unseemly behavior.  Those who allow, and oftentimes encourage, the dishonesty to fester, be it in the interests of partisanship or simple entertainment value.  They are journalists, bloggers, television and media people of every size and shape.  And they are us.