Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fourteen years ago, I noted that the primary function of high culture has always been to allow society's elite to use their wealth and leisure to distinguish themselves from the "philistines" beneath them on the social ladder.  By using their position to educate themselves in the finer points of high culture, I argued, members of the elite can signal their status to each other, and exclude the less sophisticated from their circle.  I identified Matthew Arnold as one of the early advocates of this use of high culture, but observed that a modernist bohemian variant of it thrived in contemporary America.

Since then, though, a rather odd thing has happened--even odder for the complete lack of notice it's received:  highbrow culture has effectively disappeared from American society.  Magazines like the New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly, and the New Yorker, which were not long ago full of dense book reviews of even denser academic tomes on serious artistic and cultural topics, are now dominated by political screeds and fluffy pop culture roundups.  The self-important urban intellectuals Woody Allen used to lampoon, who once dropped references to great authors and obscure foreign films, now banter about subscription TV series and mass-market movies on Twitter.  And an imploding academia, obsessed with inclusiveness and identity politics, generates its endless stream of impenetrable humanities papers primarily on contemporary politics and pop culture, and not even on modern avant-garde art--let alone the classics.

Although the cause of this collapse is uncertain, I have a hypothesis: that this dumbing-down of intellectual elitism is a natural consequence of the expansion of the elite during the 1990s boom to encompass both the wealthy and the white-collar upper-middle class. An "elite" that encompasses twenty to thirty percent of the population can't possibly distinguish itself by deep cultural erudition, and must inevitably make do with cruder class distinctions, such as tastes in television and preferred pop culture references.  For the "serious" writers and academics who seek to make a living fostering and directing the shared culture of this elite, it is therefore no longer effective to champion obscure, inaccessible artists that their target audience has neither the time nor the inclination to study and appreciate.  Instead, they must focus on the level of cultural knowledge this audience is capable of collectively absorbing:  low-to-middlebrow commentary on low-to-middlebrow fare.

Monday, June 05, 2017

We have a new treat for our readers:  the inaugural ICBW podcast is now available for your listening pleasure (or whatever other emotional response it happens to produce in you).  In part one, found here, LTEC and I cover two topics:  Trump and the current state of the university.  In part two, found here, we discuss the strangely polarized, or tribal, character of modern political thought.  Comments are, as always, welcome.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Henry Farrell's article in Democracy Journal on the British Labour party and its recent Corbyn troubles includes a remarkable omission:  it manages to discuss radical party leader Jeremy's Corbyn's rise in the context of the last several decades' history of internal Labour party politics without even once mentioning the name, "Michael Foot".  In one sense, the omission is understandable--after all, if one wants to blame Corbyn's disastrous ascendance on a series of changes in Labor's procedural rules, as Farrell does, then it's hard to explain how an equally disastrous proto-Corbyn could have risen to party leadership before any of those procedural reforms were enacted (not to mention his being the primary motivation for those reforms in the first place).  But  to someone familiar with the history, Farrell's analysis looks like a textbook case of denial, conjuring up an implausible theory to avoid confronting the deeper issues that have allowed two different unelectable radicals to seize control of the party within 35 years.

These deeper issues stem from an interesting property of the "left" and "right" coalitions I discussed recently in the context of the Trump phenomenon:  their constituent factions are not always in mutually harmonious balance.  At its healthiest, a coalition is a collection of constituencies that are each granted policy primacy in the areas that are their respective priorities.  The so called Reagan coalition, for example, offered law and order and military strength to its white blue-collar constituency, deregulation and tax cuts to its business constituency, and culturally conservative positions to its religious constituency.  The Obama coalition similarly offered identity politics to its minority constituency, cultural liberalism to its young urban constituency, and credentialist, crony-capitalist economic policies to its white-collar professional constituency.

At times of political weakness, however, a coalition can become unbalanced, with defections leaving one core constituency dominant.  This effect can snowball, with activists pushing the coalition farther and farther in the directions favored by its remaining stalwarts, chasing even more members of other constituencies away.  In the early 1960s, for instance, the post-Eisenhower revival of the old New Deal coalition under Kennedy and Johnson reduced the "right" coalition to little more than its business wing, which then promoted arch-libertarian Barry Goldwater to the Republican nomination, with disastrous results. 

Similarly, the decline of organized labor in the industrialized world has left the affluent white-collar professional class as by far the dominant political force in the "left" coalition in most countries.  In Britain, when Margaret Thatcher smashed the unions, the Labour party rallied around academic far-leftist Michael Foot; and again today, having lost much of the working class to the populist right, it rallies around far-leftist Jeremy Corbyn.  Whether the "left" coalition in the US, having lost much of its non-minority blue-collar constituency to Donald Trump, will now follow the British Labour party's lead into political radicalism, will be the one of the more interesting political questions of the Trump era.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

It's annual prediction posting time!  On the happy occasion of 2016's end, we first revisit last year's predictions, before launching into next year's...
  • The US economy will stall this year, as trouble abroad (in China, Canada, and other oil-based economies) hurts exports and the Fed's tentative forays into non-zero interest rates burst various mild bubbles in the stock and other asset markets.  The stock market and real estate markets will fall, interest rates will remain very low, and the price of oil will not rebound significantly from its current lows.
As usual, I was early on this one--eight years into the business cycle, another recession is inevitable, but predicting its exact timing is very difficult.  The previous year, I expected it to occur within the subsequent three years, and took a chance on it being in 2016.  Perhaps this will be the year (see below)...
  • Immigrant-related issues will continue to distract the continent from the greater threat of disintegration due to the incoherence of its monetary union.  Hence bailouts of bankrupt southern members will continue as a quid pro quo for cooperation in stemming the flow of Middle Eastern and African migrants.  Meanwhile, rightist, populist, nativist parties will continue to surge across the continent, jettisoning many of the domestic and foreign policies anchored into place by the previously-dominant bureaucracy/union/activist/corporatist coalition.  (Hostility to Israel will of course be one of the few policies to survive the purge.)
My most accurate prediction of the year, I'd say.
  • Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton will narrowly win the presidential election over Republican nominee Marco Rubio, with the crucial Republican-vote-diverting assistance of third-party candidate Donald Trump.  However, the Republicans will maintain their Congressional majorities--just barely, in the case of the Senate.
I completely botched my presidential prediction, of course, but I'm in pretty good company in doing so.  And my congressional prediction was spot-on.
  • The stalemate in Syria will continue mostly unchanged, tying down the main pro-Assad participants (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah) as well as the anti-Assad ones (Turkey, Saudi Arabia) while the US largely stays on the sidelines.  ISIS will continue to weaken under the pressure of its many enemies, and its big terrorist "successes" of 2015 will be repeated very sparsely if at all.  On the other hand, Israel will find itself increasingly drawn into the fray in support of the Sunni rebel side, as the Iran/Assad/Hezbollah axis intensifies its drive to establish a front along Israel's Golan Heights border with Syria. Finally, the Kurds will once again be in the region's crosshairs, as Iran, Turkey and ISIS all increase their pressure on them, each for its own reasons.  The Obama administration will sit that one out as well, leaving the Kurds in a precarious state.
Generally in the right direction, but a bit off on magnitude.  Russian scorched earth tactics have been more effective against the Syrian rebels, ISIS has managed to generate more terrorist attacks against the West, Israel has been more hands-off in Syria, and the Kurds have been under less pressure, than I predicted.
  • The current "stabbing intifada", consisting mostly of random Palestinians spontaneously attacking random Israelis with knives, will evolve into a complex game in which the Palestinian Authority attempts to carefully calibrate the level of violence so as to keep Hamas and other radical groups occupied without provoking a major Israeli crackdown.  Ultimately this strategy will fail, and at some point Israel, responding to one or more high-casualty attacks, will launch a major "lawn-mowing" operation in the West Bank to round up terrorist organizations hiding out in PA-run areas.  World condemnation will follow, although European vituperation will be milder than usual, as a result of the new terrorist-hostile political environment there, as well as greater Israeli willingness to take active measures to counter European meddling.
The small-scale attacks appear to have eventually subsided, due to some extent to surprisingly effective Israeli countermeasures.  
  • Disney will announce that following the huge success of "Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens", Star Wars Episode 8 will be entitled, "The Force Has Breakfast".
Personally, I like my title better...

And now for this year's shots in the dark:
  • All that stuff I predicted about last year's economy will apply this year.  (Or next year--see above.)  If you object that such a prediction is non-actionable, keep in mind Bernard Baruch's (possibly apocryphal) aphorism:  "I made my money by selling too soon"...
  • The right-wing resurgence in Europe will continue in 2017, with several more countries electing new nationalist, anti-immigration governments.  Brexit negotiations will begin in earnest, but will not complete this year.  Continuing sporadic terror attacks will be joined by increasingly frequent and more severe incidents of nativist violence against immigrants.
  • Donald Trump's first year in office will be very similar to his predecessor's:  lots of "I won" bluster, but very few legislative accomplishments, apart from one or two bipartisan ones driven by Congress with Democratic cooperation.  (The Republicans will not abolish the Senate filibuster, although they'll keep the limitations on it instituted by the previous Democratic Senate.)  Neither Obamacare nor immigration will be addressed legislatively, although many of the Obama administration's executive actions in these areas will be reversed.  Reaction to Trump's usual bombastic pronouncements will be overwhelmingly partisan, and his approval ratings will therefore track his partisan support, which will hover within the 40-50-percent range. 
  • Trump's foreign policy will sound radically different from his predecessor's, but will in practice be similarly quiescent and timid, at least militarily--although thankfully without the open courtship of avowed enemies (with the exception of Putin's Russia) and sabotage against pro-US friends.  For example, despite the new pro-Israel tone, US reaction to the recent anti-Israel UN resolution will be much more muted than the current torrent of threats suggests.  Any funding cuts or formal status changes to the US' UN membership will be confined to ineffective token gestures, and the US embassy will end up not moving to Jerusalem this year. 
  • Both ISIS and the Syrian rebellion will continue to weaken, but will not yet disappear by the end of 2017.  As the Assad regime consolidates its hold, pro-Iranian proxies will be freed up for increased attacks on Israel, and Sunni radicals as well, seeking a less ruthless target, will start turning towards Israel in earnest.  Some minor attacks will occur, to which Israel will respond harshly.  Meanwhile, the corruption investigation against Bibi Netanyahu will take many months to complete, and likely won't be completed by the end of this year.  In any event, ultimately no charges will be laid.
  • Venezuela will collapse further into failed-state status in the Zimbabwe mold, with a corrupt and incompetent government using brute force to suppress opposition amid continuing economic collapse.  Meanwhile, the American opening to Cuba will do nothing for its population's destitution, and economic failure will lead to significant popular unrest in Russia, Iran and Egypt.
  • The next Star Wars film will not be named either "The Force Gets Dressed" or "Rogue Two".
As always, readers are encouraged to add their own predictions as comments on this post.  Until you've tried it, you can't really appreciate the truth of Niels Bohr's aphorism:  "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future"...