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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Dylan's Nobel Prize and the nature of poetry

by John MacBeath Watkins

I'm glad to hear that Bob Dylan is happy to accept the Nobel Prize for literature. This is a major stick in the eye for the American poetry establishment, which it seem to me has destroyed poetry as a popular medium.

Dylan's lyrics were sometimes allusive, sometimes bitter, sometimes funny, but always aimed at a wide audience.

He revolutionized folk lyrics with Subterranean Homesick Blues.

Johnny's in the basementMixing up the medicineI'm on the pavementThinking about the governmentThe man in the trench coatBadge out, laid offSays he's got a bad coughWants to get it paid offLook out kidIt's somethin' you didGod knows whenBut you're doing it againYou better duck down the alleywayLookin' for a new friendThe man in the coonskin cap, in the big penWants eleven dollar bills but you only got ten

Motorpsycho Nightmare was excellent light verse, and All Along the Watchtower is strange and mysterious, a song that ends as if it were beginning:

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl 
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

Those lyrics are old, from the 1960s, but Dylan has continued to work, striving to fulfill the role of the balladeer.

It's easy to forget that poetry was once a popular medium, not the cloistered, academic artifice that it had become by the time Dylan came on the scene. Casey at the Bat first ran in a newspaper. Can you imagine a newspaper running such a poem today?

Lyric poetry was all about performance. It was a way of making literature that could be memorized and repeated with great accuracy, because if you busted a rhyme or missed a beat the mistake was at once evident, and the meter and rhyme assisted memory. Modern poetry, which often abandoned meter and rhyme, is more dependent on the written word. A poet that the academics might have favored for the Nobel is W.S. Merwin, one of the best of the free-verse poets. But it is much harder to remember this...

From Our Shadows

This has caused poetry to lose much of its audience. Fortunately, there are better judges of poetry than academics, such as audiences for music or poetry slams.

I graduated from high school with credits from five different schools, because my family moved around. As a junior, it appeared I would be short of credits to graduate when my senior year ended as a result of my peregrinations. Fortunately, I wrote a sonnet that won me a scholarship to a createive writing class taught by three University of Washington professors at the Cornish School of Allied Arts, which I attended as one of about a dozen high school students the summer between my junior and senior year, gaining enough credits to graduate.

The most important thing they taught me was that I did not want to be like my professors. They seemed to spend all their time trying to get published in incestuous little poetry journals which had an audience consisting almost entirely of people trying to get published in them.

I wanted to write for a broader audience, so I studied journalism. Perhaps, if I'd learned to be a musician, I might have had another outlet for the kind of thing I liked to write.

This is the point of giving the Nobel to Dylan rather than someone like Merwin. The Nobel committee was trying to reward lyrics written for a large audience, to encourage a return to poetry that sings.

Poetry is now more audience-driven than it was when I studied with those three professors. I can only hope the trend continues.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Trump can only win if the election is rigged

by John MacBeath Watkins

In the Bizarro world that American politics has become, everything seems to the the opposite of what it is, at least in Donald Trump's mind.

Howard Dean says Trump might have been snorting coke, so Trump says Hillary should take a drug test.

Trump has a record of disrespect to women, so he attacks the Clintons for disrespect to women.

Trump can only win the election if the voting is rigged, so he claims his opponent can only win if the voting is rigged.

His chance of winning is now 1 in 8 by the most popular measures. If he should win, wouldn't people suspect something? Unless, of course, he had some way of immunizing himself.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Donald and the primal scream

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've just witnessed the ugliest presidential debate ever seen, at least until the next one. And the worst thing is, it's exactly what one would have expected of a debate in which Donald Trump participates. The reason it happened that way is that a large minority of voters agree with Trump's statement that "I am your voice," and want him to scream their rage at the world.

Trump got a big rise out of his supporters in the audience when he said that if he were in charge of the country's laws,. Hillary Clinton "would be in jail."

This was reminiscent of Chris Christie's performance at the Republican Convention, when he had the crowd chanting "lock her up!"

Now, Hillary Clinton has been investigated repeatedly by the Republican-controlled senate and by less political agencies such as the FBI. No one has found a legal case against her that would hold up in court, and given the effort that has gone into it, if she were really guilty of a crime, she would have seen the end of her career by now.

But "you would be in jail by now" is exactly the sort of thing Trump's supporters want to hear.

But why? Not because it will help get Trump elected. While the fever swamps of the far right seep out a miasma of allegations which, if true, would certainly merit prosecution, these are a symptom, not a cause, of the hatred Trump's followers have for her.

Hillary Clinton has spent her adult life fighting for social justice. She is that figure greatly derided on the right, a Social Justice Warrior, or SJW.

Wikipedia defines an SJW as "a pejorative term for an individual promoting socially progressive views; including feminism, civil rights, multiculturalism, [citation needed] inclusiveness, and identity politics."

But who would oppose social justice? Those who perceive themselves as benefiting from social injustice. Not that they would put it that way, even to themselves.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, researched the sort of people who became Trump supporters, interviewing 60 people over a period of about five years. She wanted to research an area as far to the right as Berkeley is to the left, and she chose Louisiana as the place to do her research. (Nationally, 39% of whites voted for President Obama in 2012, in Louisiana it was 11%.)

Horchschild describes a world in which a "feels like it's true story" is "...a story of unfairness and anxiety, stagnation and slippage—a story in which shame was the companion to need."

It's a world where people aren't doing well, and they want to know who's to blame. This makes them vulnerable to mountebanks peddling conspiracy theories. One example she gives is that 66% of Trump supporters think President Obama is a Muslim.

Horchschild appeals to me in part because her portrait of this group is sympathetic. She describes a "deep story," a sort of central myth, that describes how they feel.
You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you're being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He's on their side. In fact, isn't he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It's not your government anymore; it's theirs.
Of course this story isn't true in any conventional sense. But it feels true to the people she's talking about.

Now let me tell you another story about standing in line. I was born in 1952 in Louisiana, on an Air Force base. My parents, both from Oregon, experienced a certain amount of culture shock. One story my mother tells is about standing in line to get a Louisiana driver's licence in 1952 outside the base.

She joined the end of the line, behind a black man. As time passed, white people would join the line ahead of the black woman. At last, near closing time, only two people remained in line. The clerk looked around the black woman and said to my mother, "can I help you?"

"He's ahead of me," my mother said, indicating the black woman.

The clerk closed her station and left.

The only thing unusual about that story at that time and place was my mother's behavior, which was completely out of keeping with the norms of local white culture. You can see why people born into that culture would feel the world turned upside down, with a black man in the white house. A world that relied for so long on giving one group rights over another is not well constituted to deal with equality -- it feels all wrong.

The Trump campaign, like the tea party, is a backlash against our first African-American president. The same people who think Barack Obama got into Harvard because of minority preferences yearn for a time when all the preferences were for whites, because without those preferences, they feel their place in the world is precarious. The people they've looked down on all their lives could end up doing a lot better than them, and that's really not okay with them.

This is not a policy-driven group of voters, and they are not part of a coalition to accomplish some carefully thought-out agenda. These are desperate people who feel their world is not just threatened, but disappearing. They are angry, and they are less worried about whether the person who represents them is electable, than whether he will truly represent them, shout out their rage, give expression to their sense of grievance and their sense that their enemies are those who have made an alliance with those they fear will supplant them.

Donald Trump represents the primal scream of an injured group. He is an almost perfect symbol of white, male privilege, exactly what his followers wish they were. His privilege is what they wish they shared with him, his resentment against the allies of minority groups is what he has in common with them.

How is our country to deal with these people? By making them better off. White males working for wages haven't seen real incomes rise since the 1970s, as illustrated by this chart from the Washington Post's Wonkblog. 

I encourage you to follow the link and read the Wonkblog entry in full, because it has a lot of information on the economic basis for the Trump phenomenon.

The thing about this is, looking at the relative status of white men in relation to the other people in the Wonkblog chart shows that their relative position has been eroded, even as they continue to do better than other groups. This isn't about objective poverty, it is about positional status.

But it would certainly feel better to those experiencing this if their income were increasing, even if not as rapidly as other groups. The real problem here is that wages as a percentage of GDP have been declining for decades.

The top earners are getting their income based on things like stock options, not salaries or wages, and more and more money is going to the top. This is by design. The Republican agenda for the entire period of white male wage stagnation has been to lower taxes on the very rich and jigger the rules in their favor. Republican leadership has been getting the money to run campaigns from the people who benefit from these policies, but they've been getting their votes from people who have been hurt by them.

How is this sustainable? In the long run, it probably isn't. But it has gone on for a long time based on getting the people hurt by these policies to blame those they compete with directly, such as women and minority groups, rather than the people who have actually benefited from the policies.

Even as we've recovered from the worst recession since the Great Depression, those at the top of the income ladder have benefited more from the recovery. Only very recently have wages started to rise. Somehow, we've got to fix the imbalance that we see in the chart above, where less and less of the GDP goes to wage earners.