Monday, August 28, 2017

Who is Mark Lilla?

Ignorance is like cancer. It lies quietly, sometimes for years, growing and spreading until it is discovered, hopefully in time to ameliorate the damage done and corrected in time to avert further problems. That's where I have been since the presidential election. Like everyone else shocked to see the results of that election, I have spent many hours trying to discover what the heck happened. What went wrong? And in the words of David Remnick "Why is it now possible to drive across the country for thousands of miles without hitting a blue state or county?"

I never heard of Mark Lilla until a couple days ago. He's younger than I (b.1956 when I was 12) and a product of the academic world of professional intellectuals, a card-carrying member of the cognoscenti. When I was drafted as a conscientious objector in 1965 he was still in elementary school and about the time he was finishing high school I was getting married, abandoning academia and embarking on several decades rearing a family, joining a Sandwich Generation taking care of a geriatric population and what has come to be called Generation X. Until now our paths never crossed.

A Facebook link to the New Yorker, A Conversation with Mark Lilla on His Critique of Identity Politics, is what brings Lilla to my attention. I spent the better part of a day plowing through the transcript of an interview set me to doing homework. I learned that
  • Mark Lilla is a very smart, well-read man, quick on his feet and good at threading rhetorical needles,
  • is regarded by today's progressives as someone not to be trusted, perhaps a "Richard Spencer lite" and
  • like many other people these days has yet another book to sell
Here are a few Facebook remarks and comments I want to keep for future reference...
As an old guy who missed most of the last three or four decades supporting a family and staying employed, I have the advantage of latter-day ignorance, despite having once been an activist who became and remained a life-long liberal. I never heard of Mark Lilla prior to this, but after reading this interview, and listening to another at Slate (in which he seemed to employ many of the same phrases and arguments verbatim) I think he's on to something important -- elusive, for sure, but more than rhetorical trickery.

Before tossing aside this link, I suggest listening to the Slate interview. Be warned that the transcript starts out pretty close, but toward the end long parts, both questions and responses, have been omitted. It may have been to save time or space, but I couldn't help thinking it may also be to dilute Lilla's points.

This is the link.

At 25:52 the transcript skips a huge swath of the interview, much of which is compelling, both questions and responses.

Transcript misses much after this: "Liberal elites in this country—and not just in the party but also in media, in the legal profession—are produced by the university now. Democratic Party elites used to be mayors, governors, county commissioners, union officials—people and farmers who are shaped by those experiences out in the world after the ’72 election that changes the rules. Those people were pushed out of power, and now it’s the college-educated who run the party and are the leading figures in American progressivism and liberalism. They come out of this university, and this way of looking at politics rubs off on them."

=> All content from that point for the next ten minutes is left out for some reason. It resumes about 34:05 with "I write in the book about the websites of the Republican Party the Democratic Party. You look at the website of the Republican Party and smack in the middle of it is a list of 11 principles, 11 sentences of what we stand for. That’s the product of thought, and that’s the product of a lot of debates that happen in the conservative movement."

Sorry to be nit-picking, but for someone like me, trying to ingest ideas that are new, and in this case both elusive and controversial, leaving out that much material, though it may have been "inadvertent" makes me wonder if it might have been intentional.

I'm open to arguments against what Lilla says, but I find what he says both persuasive and well-said. This snip from Remnick hits the mark, especially that line that "citizens are not roadkill."

My long-time web buddy Tom Watson commented "What bothers me is that an academic can make so many obvious errors. Most egregious? Stating that Clinton lost women - she won! But of course, the really offensive stuff is the class trumps all business. So upsetting."
And he's right. 

You're right. Another interview at Slate pointed that out in the transcript. (I got a screencap of that -- but it was not mentioned in their interview.)
I never heard of this guy before yesterday, but only because I lost the better part of four decades of academic/intellectual discussion while keeping a job, supporting a family and leaving my youthful activist impulses on the shelf.
Before (and after) linking this discussion, I had to catch up finding out who the heck this guy Lilla is and where he falls in the political ecosystem.
Turns out he's something of a not-so-closeted conservative, part of the academic cognoscenti, whom most contemporary progressives consider something of a "Richard Spencer lite". So anything he says is subject to the filter of suspicion and countered with adroit arguments.

Time permitting, check out that interview, but don't just read the transcript. A whole chunk of their conversation is omitted, beginning at about 26 minutes and doesn't pick up until ten minutes later. During that time I heard a commercial for ZIP Recruiter (which reminded me of Cambridge Analytica, but that's off topic) and Lilla laid out a taxonomy of academic programs that conservatives put in place years ago aimed at coaching, grooming and shaping lawyers and others in the ideological mold from which Gorsuch and others were hatched. The thrust of his points about the Federalist Society and others strike me as repellent -- brought back my old college days disgust with YAF (Young Americans for Freedom). But his general argument is spot on.
Here is the Slate link.
I just looked up YAF and notice that the acronym now stands for Young America's Foundation. But a separate Wikipedia article for "Young Americans for Freedom" indicated it was absorbed by a more reactionary outfit with the same acronym.
"On March 16, 2011, Young Americans for Freedom passed National Board Resolution #001, unifying the Young America's Foundation with Young Americans for Freedom on April 1, 2011."
(Reminds me of how the old SSOC was absorbed by SDS and subsequently disbanded. Organizational morphing never seems to end, with big fish eating the little ones even in that part of the woods.)
In any case the "Young Americans for Freedom" article has a fascinating list of "Conservative or libertarian organizations" that doesn't appear at the other YAF article.
But I digress...
It's the middle of the night and I need to go back to bed. Hope you get a chance to hear this other interview.

Later I added this...

Looking more closely at the Wikipedia article on Young Americans for Freedom (YAF, not to be confused with Young America's Foundation) I notice a list of current and former elected representatives who matriculated through that now extinct organization. This is an impressive list that shows a depth of thought and influence that I, as a former activist with the political/philosophical Left, did not experience.

Perhaps the old Liberal world view was just that, a "world" view -- not looking through the lens of nationalism. That may be what resulted in today's conservative heirs to those roots having the power we saw surfacing during the Obama years, and becoming manifest in this last presidential election. Many of us respected the intellect of Buckley and courage of "Rockefeller Republicans". Their "Sharon Statement" is pretty thin gruel beside the Port Huron Statement, but it was the start of a movement in those ranks that grew slowly but provided deep roots for what was to become the libertarian-tainted hybrid that gave us Paul Ryan.

Sad to say, all these years conservatives have been toiling away, working the grass roots, while we on the Left have micromanaged with the best of good intentions a multitude of allied groups -- neglecting the need for a strong bond lacing them together into an effective national political force.
We love Occupy and take pride in that old Will Rogers line about "I'm not a member of any organized political party -- I'm a Democrat." But Occupy turned out to be a one night stand and the Democrat Party today lies in shambles. 

I wish I could advance a good remedy, but the best I can come up with is the hope that all who claim leadership, fellow-travelers and all, can somehow stop the infighting, join forces and get serious (as Lilla clearly suggested) to come against the MRSA infection now spreading in American politics.

I see the "old" YAF article now has one of those Wikipedia flags indicating it is apt to be altered from it's present form, and considering how swiftly the new YAF is able to move, it may even vanish from the site or be amended with enough material to make it even more marginal than it has become. 

Tom responded "I wouldn't overplay the shambles aspect. Compared to, say, Labour in UK, we're very effective opposition."
Again, he's right. But this was how I responded...

Of course. The parliamentary system consists of coalitions as a matter of design, and our two-party system is obliged to be better organized and open to compromise. That Will Rogers quote is a way to brag about the "big tent" Democrats have always had. But I'm coming to the conclusion that while advertising a "come one, come all" invitation we have inadvertently overlooked too many ordinary people -- people for whom the world of politics consists of slogans, sound bites and tag lines. This is a segment of the population that never darkens the door of a voting place unless something is twisting their tails or they feel threatened by something.
Unlike many I consider low voter turnout as a sign that stuff is mostly pretty good for a lot of people. But when groups get pissed or feel threatened they become more prone to become involved.

In the case of the presidential election, the outfit that got my attention was Cambridge Analytica, widely used by business and industry to target market opportunities and convert the results of focus groups into revenue streams for whatever is being sold (both goods and services -- that commercial message at Slate for ZIP Recruiters is a good example). In the case of Bannon and company (Mercers, etc) the impact on targeted political pay dirt, together with gerrymandering and the Teaparty vanguard, has put a creature into the oval office that none of us ever imagined had a chance.

I'm haunted by those questions Remnick raised, "Why is it now possible to drive across the country for thousands of miles without hitting a blue state or county? How did the Democrats lose a decisive number of Obama voters to someone like Donald Trump?"


Addendum Sept 7
Ta-Nehisi Coates mentions Lilla in an Atlantic tour-de-force, The First White President.

Mark Lilla’s New York Times essay “The End of Identity Liberalism,” published not long after last year’s election, is perhaps the most profound example of this genre. Lilla denounces the perversion of liberalism into “a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity,” which distorted liberalism’s message “and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.” Liberals have turned away from their working-class base, he says, and must look to the “pre-identity liberalism” of Bill Clinton and Franklin D. Roosevelt. You would never know from this essay that Bill Clinton was one of the most skillful identity politicians of his era—flying home to Arkansas to see a black man, the lobotomized Ricky Ray Rector, executed; upstaging Jesse Jackson at his own conference; signing the Defense of Marriage Act. Nor would you know that the “pre-identity” liberal champion Roosevelt depended on the literally lethal identity politics of the white-supremacist “solid South.” The name Barack Obama does not appear in Lilla’s essay, and he never attempts to grapple, one way or another, with the fact that it was identity politics—the possibility of the first black president—that brought a record number of black voters to the polls, winning the election for the Democratic Party, and thus enabling the deliverance of the ancient liberal goal of national health care. “Identity politics … is largely expressive, not persuasive,” Lilla claims. “Which is why it never wins elections—but can lose them.” That Trump ran and won on identity politics is beyond Lilla’s powers of conception. What appeals to the white working class is ennobled. What appeals to black workers, and all others outside the tribe, is dastardly identitarianism. All politics are identity politics—except the politics of white people, the politics of the bloody heirloom.

Lilla (at least through this lens) is another cog in the machine we dare not name, a perpetual motion white supremacy contraption. Coates is spot-on. I now need to find Lilla's place in the taxonomy of that universe. I dare say he never thought of himself in that way.

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