Fertilizing the Wasteland: A Retroactive Conversation with Philomene Long
As time passes, we need to start preserving the memories of the Venice Beat writers, and above all identify the spaces where they flourished before they are bulldozed into oblivion. Finding these locations might become quite difficult, however, since many of them moved around a lot, and the clues are becoming ever fainter. We could perhaps benefit from a high-tech boost, an upgrade of those 3D glasses from the 1950s that sought to expose the hidden schemata of everyday life. With a little luck, we might even begin to see the spiritual emanations that matter…
A few steps southeast from the back of the Cadillac Hotel, just across Speedway, are some not very conspicuous clues. At first they seem like little more than splats of gray paint a careless handyman let drip when making some improvements to the building, the Ellison. They’re concentrated on the narrow cement strip that runs along the building and separates it from Speedway, but they also spill onto this alley. And they’re directly below one of Philomene Long’s closets that nurture more skeletal traces per square inch than any other Beat enclave in the city. These splats are clues for grasping the meaning of more haunted space. But this gets ahead of the story.
The Mad Woman of Paloma
Philomene is the most famous resident survivor of Venice West. It’s fitting she lives a short block from one of its key sites, the Dudley corridor. She’s lived in this sector since arriving in 1963, and even over on Park for a while near Larry Lipton’s house. So it’s no surprise she’s passionately devoted to the history that breathes through it. We often ramble into the wee hours about whether it will survive the haunted folks and spaces. She’s hopeful.
“Venice has been a special place ever since Abbot Kinney created it from the swamp,” she says. “The inspiration’s out there…all we need to do is let it happen!”
“But what if the time comes when no one knows what’s happening?” I ask.
“There will still be hotspots that flare through the ignorance…it’s in the air and land.”
We owe much of what remains of Venice West to Philomene’s discoveries and continued creativity. She was named Venice’s Poet Laureate by Councilman Bill Rosendahl during the city’s 2005 Centennial. Her acceptance was a manifesto for poetry as a power to see better and live committed to what really matters, but especially as the power for keeping a healthy slant on Venice’s past and present.
I’m walking to her place along Speedway, eager to launch into the weekend with stimulating conversation. My notes are in order, and I’m prepared for all contingencies. I’ve even swung by Henry’s Market for Shyla’s veggie burger special for ballast in case the language gets liquefied. I approach the final steps below her window, carefully arc my way around the gray splats while paying close attention to traffic on the right.
When I turn left at Paloma there’s a line working the intercom so I follow the crowd into the Ellison. Surprising Philomene has advantages. Sometimes I even lie in wait across from the entrance to hitch a code-free pass up the stairs. Dropping in on neighbors is a valuable custom that distinguishes the small-town element of this community. Though Philomene relishes this spontaneous quality, she prefers advance notice since it gives her time to close the closets and straighten things up. She’s always apologizing for her messy place.
She surely doesn’t need to, but I sense she’s feeling the pressure to clean up her act. In fact her son chipped in recently during a stay. Perhaps overcompensating for the fallout from their blissfully-beaten, anti-nuclear family experiment, he repaid the favor by finding a slot for everything, leaving her with a waste-free folder-rich upgrade that appears to have set her writing schedule back several weeks. Perhaps she’s learned that too much method can be maddening.
I walk softly to the stairs. I never take the elevator when I’m in the surprise mode. The sound might tip her off. Plus a detour up the stairs offers another angle on this architectural wonder, one of the city’s first structures. I’ve learned that keeping the spirit of early Venice close helps access Philomene’s frame of mind and prepare to grasp her free associations. I knock on the door, visualizing her panic from having to do many things at once. I hear rushing footsteps and a sonorous, “Who is it?”
She opens the door, looking like she hasn’t a clue, and I glimpse her state in the brief moment before her memory returns. She seems preoccupied. Philomene thrives on good conversation but relishes her solitude. She’s become quite adept these days at shifting in and out of moods.
Her look changes slightly like she’s about ready to snap out of it. But she’s angled in the door frame like it could go either way, perhaps needing an extra push from someone. Her hair prophesies the dilemma. Like an unkempt eucalyptus on Rose Ave ready for the gentrifying shears, her locks are multitasking.
“Are you ready for some…”
“…thought you were coming after you ran…got this deadline, some literary mag in Spain wants me to go on and on about sex and orgies here in the 1960s. I’m so tired of seeing my aunt lying in that bed. I didn’t have a chance to get any more wine…Illuminate’s at it again!”
“I brought what you left at my place…want me to come back later?”
Her gestures pull me across the threshold into the light streaming through the beach-facing windows. It disorients me. But as I angle inside it paints the mounds of memorabilia in clear relief.
“This place is transformative…can’t imagine you ever leaving.”
“The muse is here! Many very creative people in Venice’s history have spent time here.”
“It reminds me of the Sailhouse Lofts over on Main and Marine…those balconies facing inward to the courtyard. Some are keeping the look of early Venice alive.”
“The look maybe, but creativity needs sacrifice and struggle.”
“The muse can’t be accommodated in million-dollar closets?”
“No…the rich are welcome in Venice too, it’s just that to create you must be in touch with the spirit and…what’s really meaningful gets deadened by the material possessions and lifestyles you have to maintain to keep them.”
“Isn’t that an outmoded idea? Don’t you also get deadened by not having enough, from always having to do survival things to stay even with the game?”
“Yes…it’s one of the tragedies of what’s happened here…but being slaves to material objects makes us more insensitive to the things and people that matter. We can’t have a quality life without freeing ourselves from them. It’s not about choosing to be deprived, just living more selectively. ‘Blessed are the poor and meek for they shall inherit the earth’, one of my favorite beatitudes.”
The final syllable leaves her wide-eyed and glowing with satisfaction, like she’s solved a perplexing mystery. How apt in this shrine for the preservation of the past, renewal space for many who’ve never stopped believing beat. Sappho’s words on the near wall: “The sounds of mourning do not suit a house that serves the muse; they are not wanted here.”
“If you get your head straight about what really matters in the everyday scheme, learn how to stay away from material objects and pleasures, you’re home free and richer in spirit than the rich? A lack of worldly things gives you more privileges spiritually?”
“It’s dedicated poverty.”
“Will the victims of poverty, the good people who wanna get out of it, have a clue about what all of this means?”
“Well…Christianity, with its power and wealth, keeps many poor people in its clutches, encourages them to accept their deprived states and love their masters. But the truth is out there!”
“Where? How do they find it?”
“Well, every once in a while there’s a breakaway, some want to bring things back down to earth and practice those great ideas in the gospels, turn their attention to this life but not deny the other one either. It’s Liberation Theology, the rage around the time when I went into the convent in 1958, revived through the inspiration of Pope John 23rd.”
“It’s interesting that he died in 1963, the same year as JFK, a Catholic president who was telling youth to help others and serve their country, and also the year you dropped out of the convent? Those must’ve been fertile times for dedicated poverty.”
“I think there was so much going on then that escaped our ability to grasp it.”
“It was then when altruism seemed to be the natural gospel, not greed and me-firstism. Community and sharing and spiritual betterment seemed right.”
“Yes! Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how that happened. Compared to now it’s like…well this seems like another planet.”
“The world of the poor and deprived seemed to inspire many then. I think of Kerouac’s fascination with hobos and ‘negroes’…but wasn’t this ‘slumming’ sort of like tourism? It seems they barely broke bread with them before finding the freeway.”
“It was right, maybe not pure, but people were trying to bridge worlds.”
“It’s interesting that dedicated poverty was happening in good economic times and when consumerism was becoming the national religion.”
“That’s what they saw through, what motivated them…but the media confused the messages. There was a core that refused the hype and did its best to ignore the false signs and…that’s where Zen came in. Get your own house in order, don’t force anything that…”
“Didn’t this get trendy too, a way to drop out and turn away from…”
“Yes, but the energy created from the practice of living directly and genuinely in the moment produces a smile of understanding, a sudden intuition, a wordless transmission that reveals both the problem and the solution.”
I imagine this power and see another quote on the wall. It’s over by the calligraphy made by Zen master Maezumi Roshi for her marriage to John Thomas. From Tan Taigi: “Many mosquitoes bloated with blood during Zen meditation.” I picture waves of energy radiating from a squinting monk that spread out everywhere and empower all subjects eager to strive for some purity of resolution.
“That’s a tall order! But doesn’t the world stay as screwed up as ever…the caring mind just getting a reprieve from the whole mess that society…”
“If you care it shows and your attitude will urge others to follow. The right course comes from just accepting. You’ll possess the truth and…it can’t be violated.”
You do feel possessed when you enter this space. It’s like entering church in a sense, with the large wooden cross, and nuns everywhere. The liturgies are thought waves created from the intense desire to communicate that saturate the many journals and binders of poems, papers nesting with flyers and yellowed newspaper clips, the surplus of books yet to find their resting place. They can incense you at random with a eucharistic power to make meaningful patterns.
Many who’ve crossed this threshold speak of succumbing to conversational rapture where new words and phrases pulse them through the night. There have been some epic rap sessions. Like those between Philomene and John Thomas who died in 2002, a philosopher-poet who arrived here in the heyday of Venice West and could never leave. His ghostly voice remained on the message tape for years after. Fielding calls from the tribe of visionaries who refuse to pass? Perhaps those random traces of dusty sea breezes on the wall over the bed are really stains of his thoughts and feelings.
When possessed by this space you do feel it’s bigger, like the late night polemics and yearnings have stretched it out, played with your perceptions, jujitsued the actual cubic volume into a cathedral.
“Would you say your philosophy is a mix of Zen and Catholicism, similar to Kerouac’s?”
“Yes, well…like many Catholics, Kerouac was driven beyond the simple and ordinary, inspired to do extraordinary things, but would retreat into himself and return to Lowell and his mother. Maybe transcendence gets confused in a philosophy that’s been made over into something quite ordinary, and after a while you need to get a better perspective so you embrace the East, leaving as much of your baggage behind as…”
“Which is what you’ve done?”
“Yes…but I have less baggage because I was in the convent and worked through and out of Catholicism. I left in 1963 because I couldn’t take the brainwash that there’s only one way to be saved and all that. But I’ve carried many positives with me and I’d like to believe I’ve married East and West successfully, though I’m definitely more Zen.”
“More than the Beats as a group, or Kerouac?”
“He was a special case.”
“Do you see yourself as a member of the Beat family, or do you have serious issues with it?”
“As far as the values and philosophy, yes, for the most part. I write about many of the same things, but they were a womanizing boys club, and especially the Venice clan. Bob Alexander, the high priest at the Temple of Man over on Cabrillo during the 1970s, was the worst…the scene was full of men taking advantage of women, treating them like property, and not many could get up the confidence to resist…”
She suddenly looks exhausted. The energy of the space seems to evaporate with her final syllable.
Philomene’s poems are passionate testimonials like those of her male mentors, especially Ginsberg whom she knew well and used to drop in here. Her love affair with Emily Dickinson is a plus. Not exactly a Beat but a fine muse for Beatresses everywhere when it comes to dodging literary rules in a flip-off of male privilege. It’s poetic justice that she’s the only resident survivor of Venice West. The last word from a woman who can enlighten us about this special past. I’m trying to think of a question that might restore her energy when I hear a tap, tap, tap on the window facing Speedway. Philomene turns around to welcome a surprise visitor.
It turns out those gray splats below her window are not smatterings of paint after all but weathered dollops of pigeon doo-doo. On any given Sunday these birds flock to her second-story ledge, finding ample nutrients to get them through the day. They’re always up there but on Sunday they converge on Philomene’s space like strafed fighter pilots who’ve spotted the carrier. This is when tourists are thick as thieves and the fuming SUVs carrying them are particularly foul. They disperse more freely during the week, returning to the ledge only after their radar encounters a few aggressive hotspots left from the weekend.
This is good and bad news for us residents. With most getting their fill at Philomene’s for Sunday dinner, there’s less of a chance to be splat on our strolls to the beach. But avoid the Ellison since they might be vengeful from having their space violated. The gray matter seems to drop faster than the force of gravity, dunging all targets at random.
Over the years she’s given pigeons sanctuary in a climate that’s becoming increasingly hostile to feces-specific species whose very existence irks the clean-up committees. They’ve flourished alongside the seagulls and other fairer fowl that are making the grade better these days. Though no wimpy wasters themselves, seagulls are more photogenic and get more respect. Their size and mannerisms dwarf their droppings and even create the impression they’re on a higher link in the chain of being.
“But how can you be so excited about these birds!? Does anyone really care that…”
“They have authority…were some of Venice’s first residents. Abbot brought many from Italy and set them free along the shores and they homed in on this street, Paloma.”
Philomene knows her bird types. She’s been strain-spotting since 1963 when she shed her convent habit to find Venice, which fortunately led to her salvation through words in the family of disaffiliated writers rooted here. And one of the benefits from her mastery of words is the uncanny ability to see what many don’t through the cracks and crannies in our everyday worlds. She has a special gift for picturing species as they evolve. She’s convinced there is such a bird as the Paloma Ave pigeon. For as long as she can remember this special breed has appeared on her ledge pecking away with the desire to communicate.
“What’s so special about that type of bird?”
“It’s different than the rest. It pecks away with personality and hangs around longer, even plays house and does the family thing for a while. Ma and Pa Paloma, as I call them, have been here for a long time, bringing their share of marvels into the world. Many sit and stare for hours like they’re ready for anything to keep the flow going. They have a dove-like innocence about them…pigeons are really low-brow doves! So I read them poems…they love Poe and Dickinson and…it’s amazing how they take to words. One I call the poetess really gets into it, like she understands the meanings.”
“How could you tell?”
“It was her pecks, blinks, and nods and a glint in her eyes like a child has when it begins mumbling. It made sense, like maybe she found language…perhaps pidgin English!…but then she began to get these twittering cheeps from the rest and started to withdraw, avoiding eye contact. After a while the other birds pecked away at her until she flew away.”
“So is this the fate of sensitives who try to survive these days in a flock of hostile forces?”
“For the ones who stay around and seem to want something special, and perhaps have a little passion for…humanity!…they have trouble.”
“Have Ma and Pa Paloma ever popped a pure dropout?”
“After the poetess left they persevered for several hours on a dark and cold and rainy day on the ledge and delivered a creature that seemed to be at such odds with the surrounding gloom that I named her Illuminate, a truly beatified bird.”
“Perhaps she was nervous about what awaited her beyond the cracked shell so she took her sweet time to make a break?”
“She refuses to peck…her head’s just not into what the hustling herd takes seriously, I guess…or maybe she’s autistic.”
“Or maybe she’s just getting her act together and could care less about what sort of birdseed there might be on those bigger art-condo ledges over on Main.”
“She certainly doesn’t seem competitive.”
“It seems you and her have a bond…she obviously won’t bite the hand that feeds her, but you must see something we don’t.”
“Most here could care less about much that matters, and so it keeps me hopeful to find humanity in places they ignore. It says we’re immune from nothingness if beings from the lower depths–I guess it’s really the higher and flightier echelons–can also refuse to fit. Illuminate captures something of what I feel the alternative spirit was all about before Venice became a circus.”
Many dismiss this pigeon play with predictable putdowns: she’s starved for companionship in a poetry-shrinking community and must consort with wild life; this is what happens to those who pursue the purity of the word in a world muddied with figures and graphs; the Beats, what do you expect from those who view the 9-5 drill as the curse of death.
But these naysayers have a stake in Venice’s gentrification and measure progress differently. If they had their way they would likely refigure the breeding balance at the expense of pigeons. So they’re not apt to be reliable observers of Philomene’s behavior even if able to make sense of it. The widening gyrations in lifestyle are an unfortunate sign of our times. The center, a middle ground where folks all over the spectrum can hash out their differences, doesn’t appear to be holding. This is all the more reason to appreciate what Philomene means to this community. Her ability to spot the right signs is one that many of us need in these moments when alternative life forms are fading and messages are getting confused.
What she sees around her and how she puts it in perspective is what matters. It figures that she’s attracted to animal life. Many poets and artists have played with the spectrum of life forms to comment on the state of civilization. If society’s looking pretty dreary why not turn back the evolutionary clock and seed suspicions about linear progress?
For Philomene, whose mind is flush with words and the means to overlap and separate their meanings, it makes sense that diverse beings should share the same space. She’s primed to welcome them. Birds of course are plentiful along the ocean, and you can see her most any twilight hour happily hugging the edge of civilization, zoned into the natural cocktail, the roaring immensity and celestial light show. This sensual bath bumps her visionary prowess to discover the correspondences that most of us miss.
“Illuminate seems like a perfect pupil for you. With lots of time on her hands she must have that make-do-on-my-own-terms mentality found among all serious dropouts.”
“She’s receptive, a blank slate, though scratched up with some genetic surprises!”
“She must be a natural for the hunt and peck method…not exactly the hip-techno way to get noticed these days, but…”
“Well, if the medium’s still the message.”
“She could get one of those manual typewriters like Stu gets once in a while at Marina Appliance on Lincoln. Don’t you have one over there in the corner?”
“Yes, I love thinking with that machine. Strange, it makes me more creative. I often feel like a robot with my computer. It’s always going down and…actually, I love to handwrite things when I can.”
“If we use the old machines regularly maybe we can imagine the worlds of their users. There’s actually an upright on the back cover of Lipton’s book.”
Illuminate’s head-bobbing away on the ledge, stretching and jerking what could be a chain of pipsqueaks, alliterations and nonsense rhymes, apparently hunting for something. Replaying the hunt for the right letters and words might be exactly what humans need who want to express the fleeting and unknown. In a land laid waste by keyboarded haste, playing with a different medium might free up new messages. She might be a perfect role model if we’re tempted to jump back into the rat race. Hopefully she’ll remain here and keep breeding.
“Can sensitives like Illuminate survive long against these pressures, and especially with Venice’s changing winds that seem to be licensing the animal instincts?”
“They fly away eventually, off somewhere…never see them again. But there’s always more. The other day I looked out on the ledge and noticed Illuminate was gone, then another strange one appeared who had that starved look and familiar mannerisms, so I started reading poems and it really got into it. Pa Paloma arrived, followed by a few hopefuls, and I just kept reading and reading. Afterwards they chirped nonstop for several minutes.”
“Do you think Illuminate will come back?”
“She always has.”
Inspired beings yearn to test alien skies. Hopefully she’ll return to Philomene’s encampment. This would be a good omen. If a bird can survive such adverse conditions and keep pecking along, there’s hope for all beaten beings trying to make it in the new Venice order.
Fecal Force Field
Philomene loves these pigeons as if they were her children. But she’s also concerned with what they mean to those whose mentalities are blocking quality renewal, especially gentrifiers on their clean-up missions. And since she doesn’t hold out much hope for politicians to renew the city, she’s become a believer in the power of symbols to shape an awareness of what the stakes are.
It’s no secret that the sanitizers detest these wasters. But they tend to feel the same way toward most beaten beings and underbirds: those who have untended plants, refuse to get designer haircuts–or any other kind–at the salons on Kinney Blvd, let weeds overtake grass in their yards, neglect to bathe daily, let the dust bunnies flutter and consume their pads, commit unforgivable sartorial sins, beach-gaze at mid-day when the ticker-tape is still moving.
What can be done in the face of such prejudice? If the gentrifiers, like the best televangelist rappers money can buy, want to force all wasters to be free and see the light, suppress the evidence of their existence, then how do these birds express themselves?
For Philomene this is about controlling the rap on waste. Many are convinced our fair city has become a wasteland, but there’s no consensus about what it means. It’s hard to imagine her and others who believe passionately in Venice’s quality renewal having a good sit-down with the players who view waste as mostly a matter of appearances and refuse to change what matters. The battle lines have been drawn.
The gentrifiers do their thing, rarely mince their words and use their power and resources to remake Venice into a squeaky-clean beach resort. They won’t rest until all those who can’t freely pay their way are gone. Those armed with words and images mostly lack the political savvy to envision an alternative plan, or the power to implement one. They see the obsession with clean-up as the problem since the gentry’s removal strategies are really people-displacers. Dehumanizing policies are actually behind the streaming lines of architectural standardization and polished surfaces.
No one wants garbage-strewn streets. And you’ll not find many ecstatic about bird-family droppings, especially from pigeons. Though not all residoo is treated equally. Deposits from canine companions the size of baby stud horses (laws of property beckon body guards) are on the rise among up and comers to our shores. Yet these droppings, and despite their greater visibility, are not noticed. It’s like they’re a natural part of the landscape. This hypocrisy complicates the fight and gives sanitizers an unfair boost.
They get one too from the examples of “successful” improvement in areas around Venice, especially that of Santa Monica. Our northern neighbor provides the model for material progress that improving communities feel pressured to embrace. And this city does indeed offer many amenities. But when a hot place like Santa Monica out succeeds others around it there’s bound to be unintended consequences, and this has certainly proven true for Venice.
As Santa Monica sends more and more of its unmentionables across the Navy Street border, for example, we’ve had to spend more time devising ways to pass them on to Mar Vista! Our waste piles are a boon for the brown-bobbing shadows that dutifully spear and swab while their masters are at the ticker-tape parade. They can even consort with their nanny natives. They’re also a godsend for the homeless. Our nooks and alleyways are still a gourmet smorgasbord compared to Santa Monica’s.
By the way, you can always tell when a hood is on the up-and-up, turning that proverbial corner on the waste problem. The receptacles become aesthetically pleasing, even get padlocks to make sure only members use them. Planners know the truly wasted deposit suspicious packages. And owners of the newer condo complexes, no weepy wonks when it comes to stratification theory, pitch in with monitors and roving security squads.
A big barrier to quality renewal is the sanitizers’ obsession with wasted surfaces. The right façade is everything. Visionary homeowners spare no cost to erect better looking fences and maintain them, getting the best substances for whitewashing graffiti-waste away. Our taggers are no substance abusers though, usually finding a way to waste these efforts. Some get stroked by the muse and make their angry etches into meaningful messages, even murals.
The graffiti wall was the result of this simmering passion. A section of wasted material became the target of serial scratchers for several years, becoming pasted over and over with new messages. Unfortunately it was dozed some years ago as wasting gibberish. In the face of such odds, Philomene and others realize they need to get more inventive.
“What if,” she said one night, “suddenly Paloma Ave pigeons were everywhere, breeding so often that no one could miss them. These masses of beaten birds perched throughout the town could become the masters.”
Then it hit us like a lightning bolt. We could actively breed pigeons and place them all over town. Unlike Hitchcock’s aggressors, these peckers would have good values and educate us in being more humane. We could mount a public relations effort to change their image as degenerate dung droppers into carriers of special insight about dropping out. Eventually many might come to reject the idea that a beaten-looking community is automatically wasted.
But Philomene knows better than anyone that what most would likely see in this breeding explosion is merely more feces and flies, and this will likely spur an increase in vigilantism to make them extinct. And since there’s only so much she can do to protect her beloved beings, she’s enraptured by their symbolic power. As we’ve seen, she holds out little hope for a serious renewal of Venice through absentee powers. She loves T. S. Eliot as a poet and thinker, but rejects his idea of the wasteland because it relied on an outside redeemer and is too pessimistic. It’s a change in consciousness from the bottom up and within the community that propels her. She’s an optimist who believes people can make things happen themselves.
Doo-doo is a powerful symbol for grasping how a wasting community can renew itself. It’s a substance voided of life yet full of its potential; an end-product that can sprout new product from the dead ground. Fertilizer makes the world go round. You don’t need to be from Iowa to know how those big round splats in the field–cowpies–can do the persistent bidding of good folks committed to rebirth and crop yields.
Visualize Illuminate and other pigeons piling up special power below Philomene’s ledge. As the breeding process gets going it will increase and become a special sign with mind-changing potential, even foster creative acronyms. CRAAP, concerned residents against airport pollution, is already into the act.
Since those closer to the crap and privy to its material conditions, like pigeons, can more easily spread around its magic, consumerism may become an ally. With all the eateries these days upgrading menus for the trust-funders, there’s been a bump in the quality of street droppings from our fowl friends. At Mao’s Kitchen, where the cultural revolution is as faded a memory as their two-dollar commune pancakes, dumpster drippings–especially after peak dining hours–come with more protein and less cholesterol than the power breakfast at the Café 50s. This could lead to subversion from within.
But no matter how improved the waste or how much it accumulates, this noxious life-force has to circulate. Fertilization needs a vehicle. The compost below Philomene’s window teems with possibilities, but it’s merely manure until activated. Digestive tracks get it all going, but the tire tracks keep it going. So on Sunday, when the traffic is especially thick, there’s the potential for pigeon power to get transported around town.
Unfortunately, these vehicles are mostly SUVs and land-roving domiciles, the choice of tourists or those taking advantage of a respite from the rat race to stalk property. This means the delivery paths will be limited. Once this crowd creeps along Speedway and gets its fill of the bazaar, they’re off on the popular arteries. East on Rose to the 10 FWY and up to Brentwood; north on Main through Santa Monica; down toward Windward and beyond to Venice Blvd and the 405 FWY; or south on Pacific through Marina del Rey.
Ironically, while these fuel-inefficient vehicles pass this powerful substance on, too much of it will likely disperse outside Venice where it will get diluted. A few nodules might drop along these getaway paths but they likely won’t juice the inspired locals who keep a low profile until the tourists have made it back to wherever.
So we owe a debt to those who’ve learned to kick the benzine habit and amble around on foot, as well as a critical mass of bicyclists. Many of them hang around Philomene’s hub where the Venice West vibes remain strong. Whether fully aware or not, they’re ready and able to sponge up the residoo and carry it throughout the field of barren and barely visible locales and walkways where the waning but unforgettable Venice alternative spirit hovers. Here many are ready to rediscover their own community.
Power to the Pigeonry
Philomene feels the city’s pigeon prejudice, and knows how difficult it is to force changes in perception. She hardly expects to find anything remotely resembling pigeon-under-glass at Tony Bill’s gastro-gourmet restaurant on Market. But then her culinary tastes are well below market anyway, so she’ll likely only be surprised secondhand. If the truth be told, she is secretly hopeful Papa Joe will soon add a Paloma wrap to his menu at the South Beach!
But this prejudice is deeply rooted in our institutions. Preoccupied with words, Philomene’s fond of referring to the official books, like the dictionary and thesaurus, where the learned find the handles to define what’s important. Just consider the meanings associated with her beloved birds: stoolpigeon, pigeon-holed, pigeon-hearted, pigeon-toed, pigeon-post…a rash of frames that deny our fluttering friends the qualities necessary to be socialized. They’re slow, clumsy, and can’t even feel, or relate to others emotionally with the organ–the heart–that clearly separates the civilized from the barbaric. They’re figures for stereotyping. If you’re pigeon-holed you can’t be authentically identified. And they’re synonymous with dupes. Stoolpigeons, marvelous story plants to texture the dark and unpredictable crevices of street life for Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, can’t be trusted. And their abbreviation is even worse: stoolies. That adage has never been truer: you are what you do. Pigeons are doo-doo, forever tethered to a stool.
These meanings seem clear. We want these creatures to stay put or be downwardly mobile; get away from us and find their hole in the wall, or ledge at the Ellison if they’re fortunate. But just as doo-doo is not mere dead matter but power-packed potential for sprouting new life, these definitions are merely the beginning. They’re the most common ones but not the final answer. As Philomene says, when you find a word in the good book it’s defined by other words, which are defined by still more words. We follow this trail eager to pin down the meaning of the word we want to clarify, but eventually realize how far we’ve strayed. We may even end up in a meaning space that’s nearly opposite the one that set our search in motion, one with less popular meanings.
So stoolpigeons, per the linguistic fates, share meaning with tricksters who can manipulate circumstances to their liking and play fast and loose with appearance and reality, qualities traditionally associated with magicians and creative artists.
And sophistry. This is not surprising since the Sophists were hair-splitting equivocators and poetic word wizards from just before Socrates, flighty characters who despised reason and arrogant logo-machos claiming to possess the absolute word. They were skeptics, moral relativists, postmodernists of their day, adjuncts to society who roamed around with soap boxes challenging the endowed chairs of authority soon to be occupied by Plato’s fraternity.
Ironically one of its key spokesmen was a tricky-tongued character named Hippias. It was likely birds of this feather that Plato had in mind when he argued that poets should be mere functionaries that praise great leaders and coddle the gods. Free and loose tongues can threaten the political state, and surely its real estate.
Just consider the definition of a pigeon’s neck, not the most delectable or eye-catching bird part for most. It can be associated with diversity and difference in the good book. And it comes packaged in French for cultural reinforcement: gorge-de-pigeon. Illuminate’s neck does seem especially long and flexible, capable of quick and varied contortions.
Even those despised stoolies can get associational relief. A stoolie can double as an informer doing work for the man and a freelance sleuth investigating the truth.
Much depends on what happens in practice, what word pairings and combos the wordsmith uses, and under what circumstances. He or she may have a coherent intent or be driven by impromptu urges. Unexpected meanings lie in the network of language that complicate or even challenge the user’s intentions. This is really only language doing its work. Prejudices and official definitions can therefore lose their power and authority through slips of the tongue that erupt from the shock and awe of the warped society. And these slips might catch waves of meaning that flip into moments.
Perhaps underbirds can lift themselves up through the same system that denies them; their weak power can expand through a playful twisting of meanings that disarms their stronger masters. And if they’re continually assaulted with slurs and insults, even degraded to the status of their lowly stools, there’s bound to be a moment when they say they’re simply not going to take it anymore. So if they’re good patriots, have a heart, mind their own business without hurting anyone, and are far from witless, these assaults will likely only backfire.
A sort of piling-on principle, to crudely paraphrase that famous German philosopher who used his share of bird metaphors in quest of the gray truth, might come into play. This is where quantity can become a quality force. When too much of a bad thing accumulates, whether it’s foul odor or vile insult, it can convert to its opposite. Excreta that piles up on the street, or in any other space, can become fluid spiritual excretations, passes of meaningfully-loquacious vapor that smell like roses, or even strongly suggest an entirely new attitude toward cleanliness. And it’s certainly not too much of a leap to say that a greater presence of pigeons and beatens just might begin to change mentalities on the street, even eventually undermine gentrification.
Think of the possibilities. Overdosing on circus and carnival might make you more than a devout debauchee. It could lead to a fixed boost in the hang-loose attitude that allows you to go at ordinary everyday activities more relaxed and perceptive. It might even put such a permanent smile on your face that it will infect everyone in your immediate circle, and each one of these charged-up agents might pyramid the spark to others.
Philomene’s philosophy makes sense. We could do worse than look to the underbird world for salvation. This is where the energy lies that can topple top-down systems with barely a whimper. There’s no need for outside help from evangelical redeemers or big bang politicos. Only indigenous visionaries like Philomene who can shepherd the flock toward a better consciousness from within.
This dropout ditty has been criticized by benevolent activists because it allows the powers that be to have their way with the flock. With so many drugged out on mind-games, so they say, business proceeds as usual.
But it seems that Philomene’s philosophy models a solution to the wasteland. Her words are soluble, her rhyme schemes stretchable, and her politics playfully non-partisan. She’s way beyond sectarian hair-splitting. Her openness is what immunizes her from a maddening take on her beloved city, and perhaps full-scale madness.
And if we could all monitor her brain waves and act them out, we’d likely be protected from having to live with democratic centralism, or the LA City Council’s makeshift version of it. Once juiced-up we could get more active in community affairs, and possibly even return to the days when the alternative culture controlled Venice. Our special kind of anarchism might get revived with a face more human than ever. We might even become catalysts for bringing some variant of humane socialism in through the back alleys and swamp waters. But will enough juice get loose in time to reach the dwindling numbers?
Much depends on whether Illuminate’s feces start to fertilize the fallow consciousness-fields so that the alternative community can be renewed from below.
Reprinted from Moon Tide Press…
The Democrats are celebrating their win in the November election as a victory for democracy, a welcoming assertion if they’ve indeed checked the anti-democratic tendencies in the Republican Party and elsewhere. But it was also surely a defaulted one, dependent to a great extent on Republican failures: their mediocre candidates, refusals to explain positions on key issues, extremist, alienating rhetoric, measures to curtail voting, the blowback from Roe, etc.
This margin of victory would’ve been much greater had the party aggressively recruited the diversity of voices it once represented. The party leadership spent considerable time and resources to support moderates and defeat progressives to solidify its centrist course. This despite polls showing that most Americans support the issues the progressives represent (though not the label!). The form of democracy within the Democratic Party has repressed the democratic potential in the larger society.
The party has consumed cyberspace with its top-down rhetoric of “diversity,” a laudable moral inspiration for sure that has led to the greater demographic inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities. But a more inclusive diversity is lacking in the party, one that pays more attention to the class status of those successfully included while more broadly representing the economically disadvantaged. And this broadening need not eclipse the importance of the cultural categories of race and multiculturalism.
As Thomas Frank has recently shown, the Democratic Party has been moving toward the center since the 1970s, courting the suburban and educated legions of the electorate to compete with the Republicans. Polls from the last two election cycles show that those making under $50,000 a year from all racial and ethnic groups are trending toward the Republicans.
The Democrats’ legislation to compensate students for their loan indebtedness, for example, speaks volumes about its priorities. In failing to address the causes of this problem, it offers no distinction between those who reaped the benefits of college and can repay their loans, and those who either didn’t go to college or haven’t received sufficient rewards from their degrees to retire them. And it ignores the plight of those in the lower and working classes who could never attend. The Democrats of course have been pushing the fast-track into college for some time while slighting those who have neither the aptitude nor the interest in college, reflected in their weak support for unions and their reluctance to develop workable programs to expand the trades. Expanding the competitive field to get more bodies into college will not fundamentally alter the inequality gap between the educated and the un-educated, the urban and rural populations.
Instead of working to transform the party to become fully diverse, the Democrats are shoring up their current position, even moving further to the right. Hakeem Jeffries is being hailed as the voice of the new generation. Appropriately, since he fits the image perfectly of cultural inclusiveness. But despite his claim—on Meet the Press, 1/8/23—that the Democratic Party represents everyone, he has been at odds with the progressives’ support for the lower and working classes for some time. Tragically, as mentioned, since the progressives only want a return to the days when the Democratic Party represented this larger diversity.
Instead of reversing these trends to expand its base of support, and delivering a more inclusive democracy, the Biden administration and the Democratic Party elite have repeatedly targeted MAGA as a “fascist” threat to democracy. However credible such comments might be, this rhetorical flourish helps them avoid the issue of how they’ve managed to lose so many of their traditional supporters to the Republicans and the MAGA movement. These have captured a significant number of the lower and working classes abandoned by the Democratic Party, especially the less educated populace in rural America. Seduced is a better word since MAGA and the larger Republican Party offer no real solutions. It’s a reactive populism.
This being the case, the issue then is how and why citizens who’ve traditionally supported the values of the Democratic Party could end up essentially going against their own interests and supporting a movement that negates these values. This hasn’t happened overnight. Years and years of exclusion since the Democratic Party’s move to the center have spawned irreversible damage. The average wages for workers have been essentially stagnant since then, the moment when inequality began to increase. This decline in the standard of living has compounded alienation over time.
This alienation, and not simply the blockage from representation, explains why so many victims of this decline believe their interests are served by a reactive populism, one that bodes little help for correcting these conditions; and not a progressive populism, one that proposes to return the Democrats to its roots as the party of the economically excluded. They’re also drawn by a powerful symbolism: the strident rhetoric from charismatic figures that promises to take care of all problems with authority; appeals to a faux nostalgia for a world that never existed; and success at blaming the real victims of our problems which only serves to detract from their essential causes.
The Democrats must broaden its policies to lure these disaffected citizens back into the fold. Failing this, we will be faced with continual stalemate and extremist ideologies.
Demonizing the Few to Alienate and Sway the Many
The only media fixation that’s more irritating than the saturation coverage of candidates running for an office nearly two years ahead of the election instead of discussing issues, is the punditry of phrase-pinning, the constant refrain that certain candidates are “socialist” and therefore untouchables.
George Stephanopoulos recently destroyed what burgeoning relevance had surfaced about this discredited ism with one of his patented interruptions. The issue at hand was whether the Democrats would have to field a candidate more mainstream in order to beat Trump. He blurted that the problem the “left” is having is that 75% of independents are uncomfortable with socialism and especially a socialist candidate. The air cleared, the “powerhouse roundtable” could turn to Joe Biden’s troubles (This Week, 4/7/19).
Polling-artifice can deliver a wealth of surprises. Many Americans react to the mere mention of “socialism” like it might leave a toxic stain on their being, so when questions are crafted to force a limited choice about it the results can be quite predictable. Those same independents supported Bernie Sanders and he has called himself a socialist from the start. With such an example we should be witnessing an epidemic of copycats.
But perhaps Bernie was immune because his transparency and passion trumped a claim that most didn’t really believe anyway.
Much of the mainstream media has been claiming for some time that the Democratic Party is moving to the “far left” and this labeling is often interchangeable with “socialist.” Jonathan Karl, piling on this sentiment, said that the 2020 election “will be a referendum on socialism” (This Week, 4/14/19). Hence this media’s obsession with the new firebrands in Congress, particularly Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They’re certainly not your weekend liberals who spend most of their time fundraising or hanging around K Street. They challenge the bipartisan do-nothing consensus and as a result seem so far removed from biz-as-usual that they’re destined for overkill coverage. They deserve attention, but this media has little interest in putting their resurgence in perspective. Since they’re so different than the standard Democrats in tone and style—forget substance for a moment—short-cut labeling works just fine.
The perfect formula for creating external threats: Demonize the few to alienate and sway the many, the gullible public; convince them these upstarts are really only the aggressive tip of the iceberg, that the whole party is becoming outside the mainstream, thus mimicking the Republicans’ persistent refrain.
The bulk of Democrats are still fixated on the Russians stealing the election and engaging in all sorts of nefarious actions against us; forming a bloc to challenge the Green New Deal proposed by a few; protecting incumbents in the upcoming election cycle; supporting Trump’s military excesses in the face of continued austerity, etc.
They’re even taking swipes at their more popular colleagues, dissolving the facade of unity, according to Aida Chavez (The Intercept, 4/12/19).
The public appears to be in sync here. According to a recent survey by the Hidden Tribes Project, the views of the Democrats who post on social media tend to be liberal and progressive but they are outnumbered two to one by those who don’t post and tend to be more moderate and conservative (“Liberals on Twitter Don’t Speak for Quiet Majority,” New York Times, 4/10/19).
A few more Congressional Democrats are admittedly starting to support Medicare for All, but how telling it was when Nancy Pelosi went on record recently assuring the private insurance industry their fears of this passing were unwarranted. How was she re-elected if the party is moving to the left?
Sticking with healthcare, can the call for Medicare for All be deemed that radical anyway when it is essentially the healthcare system in place for virtually every advanced industrial country, none of which are “socialist?” The northern European countries, especially Scandinavia, are often labeled socialist by those who conflate them with authoritarian, one-party controlled states which barely exist, but they’re multi-party, democratic states. The first attempt to get Medicare for All occurred in the mid-1960s, the current Medicare program in place for Seniors the compromise from that failure. The Democratic Party was hardly staffed with radicals in those days, though LBJ’s Great Society consensus included a different breed of liberal.
The Great Society liberal programs were essentially a retooling of the New Deal. It’s no accident that one of the biggest offerings from the new breed in Congress is the Green New Deal, a remaking of priorities through a massive public-private partnering modeled on the public works projects of the 1930s to invest in green, renewable energy, and a host of other related shifts designed to create quality jobs and bring more of the excluded into the system.
The goal of FDR’s programs was to stabilize capitalism not scrap it and start over with a socialist boilerplate. Getting the unemployed on the payroll was of course a major incentive but those programs were not meant to last and they were compromises, not meant to replace the private sector. This mentality was reflected in Social Security, a pension system devised by the Rockefellers and FDR’s class to ward off the system’s complete collapse. It was meant as a kind of stopgap, a last resort to supplement the hoped for growth of private plans beyond the Depression.
If the New Deal stabilized capitalism, the Great Society, proffered during a quite prosperous time, attempted to make it more secure by completing and deepening the innovations of the 1930s. The Democrats had the power of the postwar consensus on their side, the partnering of labor, management and government to build the middle class, and they controlled Congress during much of this stretch. Tax policy was a significant tool for advancing the middle class and including more of the excluded. The bracket for the highest earners was 70% (down from 91% during the Ike years), and this revenue stream fed the programs that could make this happen.
Proposals by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren to tax the rich at a higher rate are essentially a throwback to those years when capitalism offered protections to the lower and middle classes, and are in sync with what Bernie Sanders has pushed for years. They are certainly not “socialist.”
In this climate of labeling and political correctness there can be no clarity on what socialism is and how it differs from social democracy or some other emerging social formation, impeding progress toward new ways of thinking through our polarized state. The demonizing of positions deemed to be liberal or radical is nothing new, but this time around it’s clear that it’s being done to discredit policies and ideas that huge numbers of Americans want, or might want. Label them “socialist” and they’ll have second thoughts.
In his recent column Paul Krugman claims that neither the Green New Deal nor Medicare for All are “socialist in the traditional sense” (New York Times, 4/12/19).
Those in the media who see socialism breaking out everywhere hardly read Krugman but we have to wonder what a non-traditional socialism might look like. Perhaps it should be re-labeled. But first we should become firmly anti-anti-socialist and reconsider the relationship between capitalism, the public sector and labor.
The existing system has in effect been a species of un-labeled socialism for a select group of corporate brokers who pander market fundamentalism while usurping the public sector for some time. This partnership works toward the dissolution of democratic freedoms and the voiding of checks and balances in a virtual one-party state. Whatever the smattering of sympathies finally is among those on the left, they’re certainly for more democratic freedoms that can lead to checking the power excesses of the current corporate-socialist authorities, and above all bringing labor back into the partnership.
We’ve shifted so far to the right over the past several years that moves or even suggestions to revive an earlier status quo seem “far left” to many, but the new constituency for Sanders and the progressive faces in Congress see the political spectrum differently. It’s propelled mostly by millennials and post-millennials who’ve been exposed to new social models and witnessed the failure of the existing partnership, some the direct victims of the 2008 crash. These models themselves were responses to the failure of traditional socialism, its top-down centralization of power and economies of scale especially, that mandated anti-democratic methods. Bred on the wave of Zapatista-inspired anti-globalization movements and their flare-ups in the more recent Occupy movement, which drew attention to inequality through the coining of the 1%, they distrust large state-driven structures and parties supported by special interests. Strongly influenced by anarchism, they believe in seeding the scattered and repressed localities with the tools to participate in their own destiny; giving them access to a social contract permitting their perpetual input.
The big ideas of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal require a considerable degree of centralized control and this perhaps explains the reluctance to quickly embrace them even by some liberals. But Medicare is devoid of special interests and eliminates the overhead that can expropriate value, while the Green New Deal bonds previously excluded interests and communities with a redirected alliance of government and business.
But we’re in uncharted territory and the value of anti-anti-socialism is remaining open to what can happen through crafting one success at a time, using each to spawn a narrative series that will eventually redefine a replacement for “socialism.”
Reprinted from CounterPunch, April 26, 2019.
DROPS, AND THE DROPPED: DIVERSITY AND THE MIDTERM ELECTIONS
The left professes diversity as its vehicle and goal to expand power and bring more of the deserving into the system but, ironically, it’s one of the reasons why the Democrats fared so poorly in the 2016 election. Some, like Jay Haug, blame their intolerance. They force their issues of race, gender, and sexuality in the faces of their opponents with a politically correct inevitability that backfires (American Thinker, 1/20/17). Similarly, J. T. Young claims their diverse pitch is undercut by their homogenizing of substance and badgering methods (The Daily Caller, 11/30/17).
Could they have diversified and softened their pitch to those outside their orbit?
It’s difficult to imagine how believers in traditional marriage, for example, could have engaged in a productive conversation with the LGBT community. The left needed a more flexible frame to approach these outsiders—especially moderate, working class, and rural whites—and set aside their differences at least long enough to win elections, something the right has been very good at for some time now.
These differences were no minor obstacle. The success of the Sanders campaign challenged the Democratic Party’s established position on who should be included in its coalition. The Democrats have left the lower and working classes behind over the past forty-plus years as they’ve shifted to the right. In the mid-to-late 1970s the Democrats began to embrace identity politics, the special endorsement of racial, ethnic and gendered groups believed to be deprived and deserving of special treatment. As Robert Benn Michaels shows, the energy spent in protecting and elevating these groups consumed the field, leaving the class narrative to lie fallow (“Introduction” to The Trouble with Diversity, 2006). Their love affair with diversity erupted from this shift, replacing the mandate to expunge racism from society that had motored the civil rights movement into the 1970s and the solid support for equality that had been a mainstay of its platform. Though never completely losing the initiative to fight racism and inequality, the focus was on celebrating the differences that people of color brought to the social mix and finding ways to include them more successfully. The working class was and is not all white, of course, but the effect of this shift has been the exclusion of significant numbers of whites, particularly the lower classes. The Democrats and, more broadly, the left, have acted and legislated according to the belief that this approach was a necessary corrective since “white” is synonymous with “privileged.”
The 1977 Bakke case, where a white medical school applicant was successful in claiming reverse discrimination against the affirmative action process, was the beginning of a challenge to the easy conflation of white and privileged. Ronald Reagan’s election a few years later captured many of these disaffected whites for the Republican Party where they’ve mostly remained. The 2008 economic collapse should have returned them in droves to the Democrats, and would have to some version of the older party.
The priority given by the new Democratic Party to demographic inclusion over economic justice helps explain this failure and why so many people of color, especially Blacks, rejected Sanders. But more pointedly, according to Briahna Gray, they believed that since he is white his policies would exclude them—a misperception since these policies were more progressive than Clinton’s and geared to reduce inequality across the board and help keep the disaffected working class males from supporting Trump (The Intercept, “Fetishizing ‘Identity Politics’ Could Cost Democrats,” 6/18/18).
Those left of the liberals and the fringe to their left, relatively small in terms of numbers but not inconsequential, fought to include moderate, working class, and rural whites in the coalition because of their belief that economic justice issues should trump demographics. Had they had a more influential voice, the right would not so easily have captured this group.
But as it turned out, the reigning bloc of liberals wrote off small-town, de-industrialized, red-purplish-state America with its surfeit of deprived whites—and even sectors of moderate white suburbia—where many were certainly waiting for change. Had they scoured these areas inspired to grasp the economic damage these sectors suffered they could’ve possibly found a way to include these victims, though this would’ve required some quite innovative therapeutic conversion strategies.
They could’ve schmoozed with those privileged whites living in trailer parks on the non-living wages of the flexible, global economy and found ways to bring them into the majority. They could’ve become profilers and identified potential candidates with darker drops of blood and made use of the new testing technologies celebrated in the criminal procedure TV shows to learn if they possessed the requisite one percent or even more, and then worked out how much of a percentage was needed to make it into the coalition.
Once they knew who was in or out they could’ve held a meeting where these candidates, the drop-challenged, were interviewed about their role in slavery, giving them a chance to repent and receive political absolution. Many of the candidates would likely have acknowledged the injustices of slavery but also suggested they follow the money and go after families which accumulated great wealth from these injustices, even offering to authorize a payroll deduction at their credit unions in good faith. Some would surely have asked for help, however, in getting their kids into the better state colleges which had begun to recruit diverse candidates from outside the country to get higher tuition for their budget crises.
The real challenge then would’ve been to get the parties to engage in a conversation, no mean task since the effects of years of segregation have seeded fear and distrust in everyone’s minds. Those astute in conversion therapies might’ve succeeded in producing a consensus that more fairly placed the blame. But therapists would’ve faced an especially formidable challenge in getting those giving priority to racial, demographic justice and those pushing the priority of economic justice to see through the other’s eyes. Drop-challenged high school grads from deficit-ridden rural and inner city public schools would’ve had to mix it up with the drop-wealthy, some educated at elite schools and who might’ve been fairly recent arrivals from challenged countries. Could they have bridged the divide?
The “demographic destiny” of the drop explosion, the priority given to race, then as now, conforms to a certain ethic of equality. The liberal mandate is to mostly include the excluded, provide opportunities through expanded access that will somehow give the recipients a greater share of income and wealth, and spread the correct bodies through the social matrix in the hope that filter-down economics will deliver them from material evil. The flaw here, though, is that they will have to face off with the occupational structure and this means hierarchy and exclusion, no sure guarantee that the new included will find greater equality in a system that dispenses so many low wages.
As Jennifer Delton points out, while post-1970s diversity policies have successfully darkened the working populace in both the public and private sectors, this is mainly evident at the professional levels and, tellingly, as the society has witnessed an increasing gap between top and bottom (Washington Post, “The Left’s Grand Delusion,” 7/28/17).
The economic justice camp conforms to a different ethic. It pushes toward an equality of results, though never fully endorsing this extreme since it conjures a host of taboos for Americans. It means too much action from government and that will lead to welfare and eventually socialism, or even communism, since the individual must be free to achieve on their own. And the leaders are all-too-aware of the occupational barriers that must be confronted, not to mention the political ones. Many of the Great Society programs, for example, have been severely weakened, if not eliminated. So this camp has been ineffective, defaulting to an equality of opportunity approach that is easier to execute—just let the forces of our self-correcting system play out!—and sounds so right.
Perhaps these therapists can temper the drop friction and find a way to move forward. But more likely they’ll have to honestly admit that these notions of equality, ambiguously referenced in the Declaration of Independence, rift the cultural fabric and can’t be successfully united without force, some form of top-down authority that would surely provoke a backlash in the absence of a changed consciousness among the populace, and especially among liberals on the left whose diversity fundamentalism still mostly holds through the 2018 midterms.
While the recent election witnessed the success of progressive Democratic candidates and those of color who prioritized economic justice, the most progressive ones fell short as Ryan Grim claims (The Intercept, “How Midterm Results Will Keep Democratic Infighting Going,” 11/6). The electoral map shows that the Democrats’ biggest gains were in the suburbs (New York Times, 11/6). The Republicans still mostly captured those in economically deprived areas and the working class. According to national exit polls, the working class voted for Trump by 37 points in 2016 and Republican House candidates by 24 points in 2018 (Working Class Perspectives, “Class Prejudice and the Democrats’ Blue Wave,” Jack Metzgar, 11/26/18). This split between demographic diversity and economic justice will continue, according to David Brooks (Meet the Press, 11/11), until either the Republicans attract more people of color, beyond their already substantial following, or the diversity liberals can manufacture a new coalition. Otherwise 2020 won’t be much different than 2018.
The engineering of a vague sense of equality through the inclusion of many who are already privileged and the targeting of others strictly because they fit protected categories will continue to invest the ethic of equalization with contradictions and absurdities and invite further backlash in the absence of a fully inclusive coalition.
Consider the current lawsuit against Harvard by Asian Americans who contend they were denied admission in favor of lesser-qualified applicants (to create a more balanced student body, the school claims, based on life experiences as well as academics). There are simply not enough slots in elite or any other institutions to accommodate the qualified and tinkering with this balance from above and outside can only make our hyper-competitive society even more impossible, our democracy more fragile. The only fair and honest quota system is one that is fully inclusive but also realistically achievable. This will require an overhaul of the wage and occupational structures to absorb the surplus of applicants and compensate for the inevitable glitches and exclusions.
Forced and deficient quota systems invite a reactionary PC. Political correctness is a legitimate response to rigidity, the refusal of the system to change. It targets specific sectors where unsolved issues fester, and the link between race and class is certainly one. But politics is rarely correct. It is riddled with experimental errors forced through by special interests. Political rationality is irrationality masking as progress. It offers mostly sketchy constructs awaiting deconstruction.
Originally published in Counterpunch, December 19, 2018. Thanks to the student input from my Fall writing seminar in the expression of these thoughts.