Brooks, Cohen, and Krugman

Bobo’s decided to pretend that The Short Fingered Vulgarian doesn’t exist.  Today he’s graced us with a thing called “The Beauty of Big Books,” in which he informs us that a law professor takes a swing at the mother of all questions.  In the comments “syfredrick” from Providence, RI had this to say:  “Another book report from Mr. Brooks as he whistles past the graveyard.”  Nothing else needs to be said.  Mr. Cohen, in “How Dictatorships Are Born,” says thanks to Trump the unsayable can now be said. “Go back to where you came from,” is the phrase of the moment.  Prof. Krugman considers “The Clinton Agenda” and says a large margin of victory will be needed for an effective presidency.  Here’s Bobo:

Not long ago, an astonishing book landed on my desk. It’s called “Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan” and it weighs in at an impressive 1,076 pages. The author is Anthony Kronman, the former dean of the Yale Law School.

In an age of academic specialization, this is an epically ambitious book. In an age when intellectuals have lost their sense of high calling, this is an intellectual adventure story based on the notion that ideas drive history, and that to dedicate yourself to them is to live a bigger, more intense life.

Kronman has always had an abiding obsession: to understand the meaning of the modern world. “Since I first began to think about such things in even a modestly self-conscious way,” he writes, “I have been haunted by the thought that destiny has placed me in a world with a unique historical identity and been anxious to know what this is.”

Kronman has never been religious, but he felt that to understand the current era, you had to understand it in relation to all the other moments in history.

He was convinced that if he understood the meaning of this history, he would be saved from the moral perplexities of life, and he would even in some way conquer death: “Although we cannot be immortal, the worldis, and … every increase in our understanding of it, and in our power to sing its song, is a further, deeper experience of the deathlessness of the world.”

When Kronman was a college student in the 1960s, Karl Marx explained all things to him. In Marx’s view, history is driven by a single mechanism, class conflict, and it has a goal, communism, and we’re one revolutionary step away from it.

Then Kronman became a follower of Max Weber. Weber argued that science and reason give us vast powers, but the price is that we no longer feel our lives enchanted by religious significance. We live in a godless universe and must have the courage to face that squarely.

Later, as a middle-aged law professor, he became more Burkean. The search for a big philosophic explanation for everything is a fool’s errand, but we can gradually add to the practical wisdom of our species, and work out better ways to do things.

But the antiphilosophical position is too cold. Kronman wanted a worldview that would explain the sense of loving gratitude that is the proper response to living: “A life without the yearning to reach the everlasting and divine is no longer recognizably human.”

He is now a “born-again pagan.” He’s learned from the Greeks and the atheists, but he thinks such thinkers render people too prideful and solitary. He’s also learned from the Christians, but he thinks their emphasis on the next world disparages this world. He doesn’t like the way religion asks the intellect to bow down before faith.

To be a born-again pagan is to believe that God is not something outside the world; God is the world, down to its smallest detail. Kronman’s mother’s last significant words were, “The world comes back.” He reflects, “perhaps what she meant is this — that the world, from which we are separated at birth, returns to reclaim us at death, that it leaves no stragglers behind.”

His guiding philosophers now are Spinoza, Nietzsche and Walt Whitman, men who saw God “as the eternal intelligibility of the world itself, now expanded to include the whole of reality.”

Whitman, for example, was the prophet of diversity. The point is not for all of us to approximate a single model or a fixed pattern of living. Instead, “the supreme goal of democracy is to promote the uniqueness of every individual” — for each person to be vibrantly distinct.

Democracy isn’t a political or legal bargain. It’s enchanted like romantic love, but on a larger scale. Each democratic citizen receives the love of her fellows as a gift to which the only appropriate response is gratitude and love in return.

The poet has a special responsibility as society’s seer, who grasps the eternity in the present and sings to people about their own unique divine powers within.

Personally, I have issues with born-again paganism. Shapeless, it leads to laxness — whatever moral quandary you bring it, it gives back exactly the answer you’d prefer to hear. It throws each person back on himself and leads to self-absorption and atomization, as everybody naturally worships the piece of God that is one’s self. Naïve, it neglects the creedal structures that are necessary for those moments when love falters.

But Kronman’s book is like a gift from another epoch, a time when more people did believe that time-tested books held the golden keys to life, a time when people defined themselves by philosophic commitments as much as by partisan, sexuald or ethnic ones, a time when it was generally believed that if you didn’t throw yourself in some arduous way at the big questions of your moment, you’d live a meager life, and would have to live and die with that awful knowledge.

Bobo’s as much a coward as Paul Ryan.  Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

“Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?”

Of course Bob Dylan deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature. We’re all Mister Jones now. It’s the wildest political season in the history of the United States.

Just to make his pedigree clear, Donald Trump is now suggesting that Hillary Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty, in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends, and her donors.”

What was it the Nazis called the Jews? Oh, yes, “rootless parasites,” that’s it. For Stalin they were rootless cosmopolitans.

Just saying.

Societies slide into dictatorship more often than they lurch, one barrier falling at a time. “Just a buffoon,” people say, “and vulgar.” And then it’s too late.

I’ve been reminded in recent weeks of the passage in Fred Uhlman’s remarkable novella, “Reunion,” in which a proud German Jewish physician, twice wounded in World War I, and convinced the Nazis are a “temporary illness,” lambasts a Zionist for trying to raise funds for a Jewish homeland:

“Do you really believe the compatriots of Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Beethoven will fall for this rubbish? How dare you insult the memory of twelve thousand Jews who died for our country?”

Germans fell for the rubbish. The Republican Party fell for the garbage.

Today, millions of Americans who plan to vote for Trump are apparently countenancing violence against their neighbors, people who might be different from them, perhaps Muslim or Latino. It’s easy to inject the virus of hatred: just point a gun.

That Trump traffics in violence is irrefutable. His movement wants action — deportations, arrests, assassination and torture have been mooted. The most worrying thing is not that Trump likes Vladimir Putin, the butcher of Aleppo, but that he apes Vladimir Putin.

Speaking of Latinos, here’s what happened the other day to Veronica Zuleta, who was born in El Salvador and became an American citizen more than a decade ago. She was in the upscale Draeger’s Market in Menlo Park when the man next to her said:

“You should go to Safeway. This store is for white people.”

Zuleta was shocked. Never had she encountered a comment like that about her brown skin. But even the Democratic bastion of Silicon Valley is not immune to the Trump effect: Once unsayable things can now be said the world over. “Go back to where you came from” is the phrase du jour.

In the three months after the Brexit vote in Britain, homophobic attacks rose 147 percent compared to the same period a year earlier. It’s open season for bigots.

Financial and emotional pressures have been mounting on Zuleta. She lives in what the visionaries of Google, Facebook and the like consider the center of the universe. Where else, after all, are people thinking seriously about attaining immortality; or life on Mars; or new floating cities atop the oceans; or a universal basic income for everyone once the inevitable happens and artificial intelligence renders much of humanity redundant?

Y Combinator, a big start-up incubator, has announced it will conduct a basic income experiment with 100 families in Oakland, giving them between $1,000 and $2,000 a month for up to a year. Just to see what people do when they have nothing more to do. Oh, Brave New World.

Back in the present, prices for real estate have soared. Zuleta lives in a modest rented place on what used to be the wrong side of the tracks, in East Menlo Park, east of Route 101 that runs down the Valley. As it happens, her home is now a couple of blocks from Facebook’s sprawling headquarters designed by Frank Gehry that opened last year. She asked about a job in the kitchen, to no avail. She struggles to make ends meet.

Facebook, she told me, “is intimidating for people like me. It’s like, get out of here if you don’t know anything about technology.”

For its part, Facebook says it cares about and invests in the local community — $350,000 in grants donated to local nonprofits this year and last, new thermal imaging cameras for the local fire district, and so on. Its revenue in 2015 was $17.9 billion.

Zuleta works from 6:30 in the morning until midnight, cleaning homes, driving children to school and activities, running errands for wealthy families (like shopping for them at Draeger’s), and cleaning offices at night. In between she tries to care for her two young children. The other day, she was in the kitchen, collapsed and found herself in the hospital.

“The doctor said I need to sleep and relax,” she told me. “But I can’t!”

Life is like that these days for many Americans: implacable and disorienting. As a Latina, Zuleta said she would never vote for Trump, but she feels overwhelmed.

Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?

And now we get to Prof. Krugman:

It ain’t over until the portly gentleman screams, but it is, as intelligence analysts say, highly likely that Hillary Clinton will win this election.  Poll-based models put her chances at around 90 percent earlier this week — and that was before the campaign turned totally X-rated.

But what will our first female president actually be able to accomplish? That depends on how big a victory she achieves.

I’m not talking about the size of her “mandate,” which means nothing: If the Obama years are any indication, Republicans will oppose anything she proposes no matter how badly they lose. The question, instead, is what happens to Congress.

Consider, first, the effects of a minimal victory: Mrs. Clinton becomes president, but Republicans hold on to both houses of Congress.

Such a victory wouldn’t be meaningless. It would avert the nightmare of a Trump presidency, and it would also block the radical tax-cutting, privatizing agenda that Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, has made clear he will steamroll through if Mr. Trump somehow wins. But it would leave little room for positive action.

Things will be quite different if Democrats retake the Senate. Poll-based models give this outcome only around a 50-50 chance, but people betting on the election give it much better odds, two or three to one.

Now, even a Democratic Senate wouldn’t enable Mrs. Clinton to pass legislation in the face of an implacably obstructionist Republican majority in the House. It would, however, allow her to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Antonin Scalia.

Doing that would have huge consequences, for environmental policy in particular. In his final years in office, President Obama has made a major environmental push using his regulatory powers, for example by sharply tightening emission standards for heavy trucks.

But the most important piece of his push — the Clean Power Plan, which would greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants — is currently on hold, thanks to a stay imposed by the Supreme Court. Democratic capture of the Senate would remove this roadblock.

And bear in mind that climate change is by far the most important issue facing America and the world, even if the people selecting questions for the presidential debates for some reason refuse to bring it up. Quite simply, if Democrats take the Senate, we might take the minimum action needed to avoid catastrophe; if they don’t, we won’t.

What about the House? All, and I mean all, of the Obama administration’s legislative achievements took place during the two-year period when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Can that happen again?

Until the last few days, the chances of flipping the House seemed low, even if, as now seems all but certain, Democratic candidates in total receive more votes than Republicans. Partly that’s because G.O.P.-controlled state governments have engaged in pervasive gerrymandering; partly it’s because minority voters, who overwhelmingly favor Democrats, are clustered in a relatively small number of urban districts.

But a sufficiently big Clinton victory could change that, especially if suburban women desert a G.O.P. that has turned into the gropers-owned party. And that would let her pursue a much more expansive agenda.

There’s not much mystery about what that agenda would be. I don’t know why so many pundits claim that Mrs. Clinton lacks a vision for America, when she has actually provided an unusual level of detail on her website and in speeches.

Broadly speaking, she would significantly strengthen the social safety net, especially for the very poor and children, with an emphasis on family-related issues like parental leave. Such programs would cost money, although not as much as critics claim; she proposes, credibly, to raise that money with higher taxes on top incomes, so that the overall effect would be to reduce inequality.

Democratic control of the House would also open the door for large-scale infrastructure investment. If that seems feasible, I know that many progressive economists — myself included — will urge Mrs. Clinton to go significantly bigger than she is currently proposing.

If all of this sounds to you like a second round of what President Obama did in 2009-2010, that’s because it is. And why not? Despite Republican obstruction, Mr. Obama has presided over a remarkable rise in the number of Americans with health insurance, a significant decline in poverty and the creation of more than 11 million private-sector jobs.

In any case, the bottom line is that if you’re thinking of staying home on Election Day because the outcome is assured, don’t. Barring the political equivalent of a meteor strike, Hillary Clinton will be our next president, but the size of her victory will determine what kind of president she can be.

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