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.

More articles by:

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.

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

June 28, 2017
Diana Johnstone
Macron’s Mission: Save the European Union From Itself
Jordon Kraemer
The Cultural Anxiety of the White Middle Class
Vijay Prashad
Modi and Trump: When the Titans of Hate Politics Meet
Jonathan Cook
Israel’s Efforts to Hide Palestinians From View No Longer Fools Young American Jews
Ron Jacobs
Gonna’ Have to Face It, You’re Addicted to War
Jim Lobe – Giulia McDonnell Nieto Del Rio
Is Trump Blundering Into the Next Middle East War?
Radical Washtenaw
David Ware, Killed By Police: a Vindication
John W. Whitehead
The Age of No Privacy: the Surveillance State Shifts into High Gear
Robert Mejia, Kay Beckermann and Curtis Sullivan
The Racial Politics of the Left’s Political Nostalgia
Tom H. Hastings
Courting Each Other
Winslow Myers
“A Decent Respect for the Opinions of Mankind”
Leonard Peltier
The Struggle is Never for Nothing
Jonathan Latham
Illegal GE Bacteria Detected in an Animal Feed Supplement
Deborah James
State of Play in the WTO: Toward the 11th Ministerial in Argentina
Andrew Stewart
Health Care for All: Why I Occupied Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s Office
Binoy Kampmark
The European Commission, Google and Anti-Competition
Jesse Jackson
A Savage Health Care Bill
Jimmy Centeno
Cats and Meows in L.A.
June 27, 2017
Jim Kavanagh
California Scheming: Democrats Betray Single-Payer Again
Jonathan Cook
Hersh’s New Syria Revelations Buried From View
Edward Hunt
Excessive and Avoidable Harm in Yemen
Howard Lisnoff
The Death of Democracy Both Here and Abroad and All Those Colorful Sneakers
Gary Leupp
Immanuel Kant on Electoral Interference
Kenneth Surin
Theresa May and the Tories are in Freefall
Slavoj Zizek
Get the Left
Robert Fisk
Saudi Arabia Wants to Reduce Qatar to a Vassal State
Ralph Nader
Driverless Cars: Hype, Hubris and Distractions
Rima Najjar
Palestinians Are Seeking Justice in Jerusalem – Not an Abusive Life-Long Mate
Norman Solomon
Is ‘Russiagate’ Collapsing as a Political Strategy?
Binoy Kampmark
In the Twitter Building: Tech Incubators and Altering Perceptions
Dean Baker
Uber’s Repudiation is the Moment for the U.S. to Finally Start Regulating the So-called Sharing Economy
Rob Seimetz
What I Saw From The Law
George Wuerthner
The Causes of Forest Fires: Climate vs. Logging
June 26, 2017
William Hawes – Jason Holland
Lies That Capitalists Tell Us
Chairman Brandon Sazue
Out of the Shadow of Custer: Zinke Proves He’s No “Champion” of Indian Country With his Grizzly Lies
Patrick Cockburn
Grenfell Tower: the Tragic Price of the Rolled-Back Stat
Joseph Mangano
Tritium: Toxic Tip of the Nuclear Iceberg
Ray McGovern
Hersh’s Big Scoop: Bad Intel Behind Trump’s Syria Attack
Roy Eidelson
Heart of Darkness: Observations on a Torture Notebook
Geoff Beckman
Why Democrats Lose: the Case of Jon Ossoff
Matthew Stevenson
Travels Around Trump’s America
David Macaray
Law Enforcement’s Dirty Little Secret
Colin Todhunter
Future Shock: Imagining India
Yoav Litvin
Animals at the Roger Waters Concert
Binoy Kampmark
Pride in San Francisco
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail