FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Scialabba for the Defense

by

Four years ago I reviewed George Scialabba’s For the Republic: Political Essays in CounterPunch and am pleased to now review his latest collection Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews 1980-2015, whose title is borrowed from W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”, a poem written on the eve of WWII:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Although the book stops a year before Donald Trump’s election, there is no better way to understand this low, dishonest president than by reading Scialabba’s take on those who paved the way for him, especially Ronald Reagan. While I certainly understand how surprised some Americans are by Donald Trump’s awfulness, as if he was some sort of historical deus ex machina, I cannot escape a sense of déjà vu as if the years 1981-1989 were being replayed. Are we being forced to endure horrible reactionary presidents for all of eternity like Bill Murray enduring Groundhog’s Day? God help us.

Reagan, whose hair was as artificial as that of the current authoritarian occupant of the oval office, leveraged television fame into a career as a rightwing politician. As with Trump, the connections between garbage on TV and garbage in the White House is palpable.

Like me, Scialabba tends to review books by authors for whom he has an affinity. In “The Reagan Counter-Revolution”, written for the Boston Phoenix in 1985, the parallels with Trump stick out like a sore thumb. The article was occasioned by one written that year by Walter Karp in Harpers titled “Liberty Under Siege: The Reagan Administration’s Taste for Autocracy”. Karp, to whom Low Dishonest Decades is dedicated, died in 1989. In putting this new collection together, Scialabba will bring young readers’ attention to some of the outstanding scholars and journalists of the left, some of whom like Walter Karp and Alexander Cockburn died far too young.

Citing Karp, Scialabba points out that “On orders from the White House budget office, the Environmental Protection Agency consulted with the chemical industry on how to circumvent toxic-waste laws; when Congress tried to investigate, the president refused to release internal EPA documents.” Rings a bell, doesn’t it? In fact, rather than searching for predecessors for Trump in Nazi Germany or fascist Italy, nearly everything that Trump is now trying to do comes out of the Reagan playbook but, of course, raised to a higher power. What is Trumpism? Reaganism on steroids.

For Scialabba, one of the main preoccupations in the various reviews and essays is how we ended up with someone like Reagan. He is searching for an explanation of the “Reagan Democrat”, the forerunner to Trump’s “deplorables”. Indeed, we discover in a review of Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas” titled “Prairie Fire” that his parents were just the sort of people who could have been seduced by Reagan or Trump:

For years the battle raged across my family’s kitchen table. My second-generation, inner-city, working-class parents complained angrily about welfare fraud, affirmative action, the coddling of criminals, too-welcoming immigration policies, and overly generous foreign aid, while honest, hardworking Americans like themselves, “born in this country,” couldn’t get a break. My older brother sometimes joined them but mostly sat back and enjoyed my exasperation as I, the college boy, insisted shrilly but unpersuasively that all their anecdotes were just exceptions, that liberal policies were essentially fair and rational, and that instead of blaming the unfortunate they should make common cause with other little people against the rich, who, for some reason, were completely off their radar screen. Fortunately, the habits of a lifetime kept them from ever voting Republican. But what Thomas Frank calls “the Great Backlash” had won their hearts.

As is the case today, liberals and radicals alike wrestled with the question of why white working-class voters voted for someone like Reagan who was so inimical to their material interests. For Frank and so many others, the answer was that the Democrats lowdishonesthad forsaken their New Deal roots and emphasized cultural politics that alienated “the deplorables”. When Scialabba wrote this review, the rightwing was exploiting outrage over “Piss Christ”, a 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano of a crucifix submerged in his urine. Today, the outrage is over the transgendered taking a piss in the “wrong” bathroom. Bodily fluids once again trumping reason and humanity.

“Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews 1980-2015” is a book that will be richly rewarding to young activists trying to get a sense of the historical background that led up to the Trump presidency. Since many of the reviewed authors are economists or social scientists, their analysis is worth considering even if it often misses the mark or in the case of Charles Krauthammer, misses the wall that the mark is drawn on. In his characteristically elegant prose (a scalpel rather than the meat cleaver I prefer), Scialabba takes the neocon con artist apart in a review of his “Things that Matter”:

For the tragic waste of Krauthammer’s considerable talents represented by Things That Matter, a good deal of the blame should doubtless go to the bad habits fostered by op-ed writing and talk-show commenting. Krauthammer is an expert simplifier, summarizer and close-quarters scrapper. His skill at producing zingers is enviable. But remarks are not literature, and zingers are not political wisdom. You can’t surprise yourself, breathe deeply and get to the bottom of things in 800 words or twenty seconds.

I would only add that Twitter is far worse. With a ceiling of 140 characters rather than 800 words, I wonder why any thoughtful person would bother. Then, again, there is Donald Trump.

I admit to being puzzled by Scialabba’s decision to read and review Krauthammer’s ponderous tome. Written for The Nation, was it a project they imposed on him? As someone who writes movie reviews for fun rather than money, I am glad that I don’t have to write about Adam Sandler movies to pay my rent.

Of course, he was writing reviews mostly as an avocation. For nearly his entire adult life until his retirement in October 2015, Scialabba was a building manager at Harvard University—an administrative job that allowed him to enjoy a parallel career as one of America’s most esteemed public intellectuals. I only wish I had been at the retirement party that The Baffler, where he now serves as a contributing editor, had thrown for him as reported in The New Yorker :

On August 31st, he retired from the day job.

A week and a half later, the magazine The Baffler threw him a campy retirement party, “Three Cheers for George Scialabba,” at the Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge. There were toasts by Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Thomas Frank, Rick Perlstein, and Nikil Saval. The Cambridge City Council had just passed Resolution 658, making that day, September 10, 2015, George Scialabba Day. The whole idea was a cackling jab at the pomp and officiousness Scialabba himself so utterly lacks. The City Council’s resolution noted that Scialabba had “diligently fulfilled the room scheduling needs of overpaid professors for 35 years” and asked Cambridge residents “who still practice the habit of reading to place their collective tongues in their collective cheeks” and celebrate his marvelous deeds.

“I really don’t see any justification for it,” he’d told me the day before. To his admirers, Scialabba is something of a literary monk, shuffling virtuously in the background, spurning public attention. His writing completes the portrait: his measured essays generally concern better-known thinkers, more roaring, titanic writers whose own work stomps imperiously down the page. “As far as I know, I’ve never had a genuinely original idea,” he told me. He promised that this wasn’t a boast.

Trust me. George Scialabba, who I am glad to know as a friend, is filled with original ideas. Buy a copy of “Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews 1980-2015” and you will find them leaping off each page.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
April 28, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Slandering Populism: a Chilling Media Habit
Andrew Levine
Why I Fear and Loathe Trump Even More Now Than On Election Day
Jeffrey St. Clair
Mountain of Tears: the Vanishing Glaciers of the Pacific Northwest
Philippe Marlière
The Neoliberal or the Fascist? What Should French Progressives Do?
Conn Hallinan
America’s New Nuclear Missile Endangers the World
Peter Linebaugh
Omnia Sunt Communia: May Day 2017
Vijay Prashad
Reckless in the White House
Brian Cloughley
Who Benefits From Prolonged Warfare?
Kathy Kelly
The Shame of Killing Innocent People
Ron Jacobs
Hate Speech as Free Speech: How Does That Work, Exactly?
Andre Vltchek
Middle Eastern Surgeon Speaks About “Ecology of War”
Matt Rubenstein
Which Witch Hunt? Liberal Disanalogies
Sami Awad - Yoav Litvin - Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
Never Give Up: Nonviolent Civilian Resistance, Healing and Active Hope in the Holyland
Pete Dolack
Tribunal Finds Monsanto an Abuser of Human Rights and Environment
Christopher Ketcham
The Coyote Hunt
Mike Whitney
Putin’s New World Order
Ramzy Baroud
Palestinian, Jewish Voices Must Jointly Challenge Israel’s Past
Ralph Nader
Trump’s 100 Days of Rage and Rapacity
Harvey Wasserman
Marine Le Pen Is a Fascist—Not a ‘Right-Wing Populist,’ Which Is a Contradiction in Terms
William Hawes
World War Whatever
John Stanton
War With North Korea: No Joke
Jim Goodman
NAFTA Needs to be Replaced, Not Renegotiated
Murray Dobbin
What is the Antidote to Trumpism?
Louis Proyect
Left Power in an Age of Capitalist Decay
Medea Benjamin
Women Beware: Saudi Arabia Charged with Shaping Global Standards for Women’s Equality
Rev. William Alberts
Selling Spiritual Care
Peter Lee
Invasion of the Pretty People, Kamala Harris Edition
Cal Winslow
A Special Obscenity: “Guernica” Today
Binoy Kampmark
Turkey’s Kurdish Agenda
Guillermo R. Gil
The Senator Visits Río Piedras
Jeff Mackler
Mumia Abu-Jamal Fights for a New Trial and Freedom 
Cesar Chelala
The Responsibility of Rich Countries in Yemen’s Crisis
Leslie Watson Malachi
Women’s Health is on the Chopping Block, Again
Basav Sen
The Coal Industry is a Job Killer
Judith Bello
Rojava, a Popular Imperial Project
Robert Koehler
A Public Plan for Peace
Sam Pizzigati
The Insider Who Blew the Whistle on Corporate Greed
Nyla Ali Khan
There Has to be a Way Out of the Labyrinth
Michael J. Sainato
Trump Scales Back Antiquities Act, Which Helped to Create National Parks
Stu Harrison
Under Duterte, Filipino Youth Struggle for Real Change
Martin Billheimer
Balm for Goat’s Milk
Stephen Martin
Spooky Cookies and Algorithmic Steps Dystopian
Michael Doliner
Thank You Note
Charles R. Larson
Review: Gregor Hens’ “Nicotine”
David Yearsley
Handel’s Executioner
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail