Saturday, June 16, 2018

on "Afrological" and "Eurological" musical paradigms and why I'm not entirely sure I'm on board with the terms

 
Of all the diverse forms that popular music takes, hip-hop poses the greatest challenge to the Western classical habitus. Hip-hop is rapped rather than sung; it is cyclical rather than linear; it is produced rather than performed; it uses samples and other forms of intertextuality rather than valuing the “original” expression of a lone composer; it is improvisational rather than score-driven; and it originates in marginalized minority communities of low socioeconomic status rather than among aristocratic or academic elites
...

Any would-be music educator who brings popular music expertise to a university will have a challenging time getting accepted. Koza (2009) describes the way that audition requirements of her university’s music education program only permit Eurological music. “Stringent and restrictive notions of what constitutes musical competence, together with narrow definitions of legitimate musical knowledge, shut out potential teachers from already underrepresented culture groups and are tying the hands of teacher educators at a time when greater diversity, both perspectival and corporeal, is needed in the music teaching pool” (85). Some popular musicians, including me, find their way into higher music education via sideways routes like music technology, where our skill sets are valued and needed. Others are musically “bilingual,” with a mastery of multiple musical codes. Those people are admirable, but it is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect all music educators to be proficient in both Eurological and Afrological idioms.

..
 
I'm cautious about the terms Afrological and Eurological for a simple reason, I am not convinced that these are avoiding foundationally racial and racist assumptions about the way sound can be organized.  There's a variety of other potential terms to delineate differences in cognitive approaches t perceiving and interpreting music as well as to composing and organizing music than stereotyped appeals to Eurological and Afrological idioms. 
 
Suppose we say that Afrological music is characterized by recurring loops that catalyze improvisational rather than strictly written-out composition?  Okay, well, figured bass from the Baroque era had this, too.  Compositional idioms in which improvisation over a set of formulaic popular bass lines and dance patterns is said to be characteristic of popular music or Afrological idioms.  Yes, but that's also true of early and middle Baroque music from the European tradition.  It's not that surprising to me that the classical music musicians (for want of a better term) who can be more open-minded about fusions with popular styles or with jazz can seem to be more steeped in Baroque music than repertoire from "the long 19th century" or steeped in German idealism. 
 
The thing that has me cautious about Afrological and Eurological is that I'm not convinced that some of the shorthand definitions about what makes Afrological music different from Eurological music is actually the case.  Early and middle Baroque music had not yet formalized the major/minor tonal distinctions of what is sometimes called the common practice period in Western literate music.  Thanks to biases in European and American musical pedagogy the odds that music students would ever get to go through a treatise on figured bass/thorough bass by Mattheson as an undergrad is zero or very close to zero.  It may even be that one of the reasons European musical pedagogy is more open to fusions with popular/vernacular styles could be because they have institutional traditions that preserved the improvisation-over-popular-ground-bass literature of the Baroque era in such a way that they can see that jazz and popular musics have revived idioms that fell out of favor in the long 19th century; American musical pedagogy, striving to catch up with or participate in 19th century ideals of European high art music, never had that body of literature to rediscover because there's no equivalent of a Mattheson treatise on figured bass in Anglo-American musical pedagogy, perhaps. 
 
Even on the matter of sampling and intertextuality these are not necessarily concepts that are alien to Baroque music.  If sampling is thought of as accessing ready-made well-known fragments or whole melodies existing within local musical culture than sampling in the Baroque era could be observed in something like the chorale fugue.  Intertextuality could be a fantasy on a well-known hymn in which understanding the traditional text and tune of a hymn would be important to understanding the intended affect of the work.  Fusions of disparate styles into a cohesive whole was also a known and admired approach in Baroque aesthetics. 
 
All of which is to suggest that the beauty of American Afrological music is Afrological in whatever ways someone like Hein might suggest, but that if you look at what the long 19th century gutted from Eurological theory and practice in music that in some way is vital to the Afrological vernacular idioms, one of the appeals for European and some American audiences steeped in Baroque idioms is that African American popular compositional approaches did not so much invent their respective elements of improvisation over loops (as if whites or blacks could be thought of as having sole credit for inventing a range of techniques and ideas the others couldn't) as reintroduced them into Western contexts after a century of pedagogical high culture attempted to expunge these practices and theories from formal musical pedagogy, so to speak. 
 
When Adorno lambasted Stravinsky's approach to composition in Philosophy of New Music he asserted that there are two polarities within music in the Western idiom. There's a linear-dynamic tradition and a spatial-rhythm tradition.  One derives from song and the other derives from dance and while the "best" music in the Western tradition from Bach to Mahler had some dynamic balance between one mode of compositional activity and the other, Stravinsky went all in for the pulse-pounding mob-governing dance-based beat of the spatial-rhythmic approach to music, music that was designed to obliterate a subjective sense of self in some kind of mob activity that reached back to a kind of prehistoric identity obliterating groove.  Adorno wasn't even addressing music by black musicians from American in making such a polemic but he argued that music anchored entirely in the spatial-rhythmic paradigm with no referent to the linear-dynamic paradigm was capitulating to fascist impulses, mob activity and the subject-erasing paradigm of the culture industry that churned out song after song.
 
Still another way to describe different paradigms within the allegedly Eurological approach is George Rochberg's distinction between a time-space and a space-time.  The time-space is more suited to a "narrative" or a "drama" in which a linear developmental-formal process brackets out identifiable themes and their development.  Space-time can be thought of more as characteristic of soundscapes by Xenakis or Varese in which time is relative to the perceptual existence of sonic elements in a kind of three-dimensional sonic world that can be perceived by an audience member listening to a soundscape.  Rhythm and sonority as distinct, identifiable elements without respect to a "narrative" becomes more prominent in this kind of listening experience and some conservatives and traditionalists of the Western musical pedagogy scene won't even grant that this approach can even be called music.  I'm not that kind of sort myself. 
 
Whether in Adorno's polemics against Stravinsky or Rochberg's attempt to distinguish between a Varese soundscape and a Beethoven string quartet the demarcation of "time space" from "space time"; the linear-dynamic from the spatial-rhythmic in strictly intra-"Eurological" polemics in 20th century European score-based music makes it seem difficult to treat the Afrological and Eurological distinctions as being all that firm or clear even just from within the ostensibly Eurological side of the would-be nomenclature.  
 
Nor, for that matter, can an honest musical historiography take altogether seriously the proposal that improvisation, circular/cyclical grooves, reliance on dance, or inter-textual re-appropriation of known existing musical material is not in the "Eurological" musical history any less than what would be described as "Afrological" music-making.  It would seem that these approaches to composition, musical philosophy and aesthetics exist across segments of the ostensibly Eurological and Afrological paradigms.  It's one of a variety of reasons why I'm not sure these terms are historically or culturally useful beyond a possible race-baiting narrative that I don't think we need.  As someone who's legacy is a combination of Native American and white parentage I'm just not seeing that the reductive narrative of white and black is necessarily where we want to go here.  I live on the West Coast so even in terms of spatialist paradigms where would a Takemitsu or a Liu Tianhua fit into the mix? 
 
Just because American pedagogues in a university system don't make a habit of discussing a Stevie Wonder song at the same theoretical level or with the theoretical terms with which one might discuss a Scriabin or a Beethoven piano sonata does not mean the thing can't be done.  The idea that pedagogues somehow can't or won't take the time to be "bilingual" seems plausible to people who are already entrenched within academics, perhaps, but for musicians themselves there's not really a compelling reason to be stuck in that trench.  I don't have to worry about feeling like a long-form analysis of early 19th century guitar sonatas with an emphasis on sonata forms has to be at odds with discussing what makes "Living for the City" so brilliant and amazing.
 
 
My concern is that people who are trying to break the stranglehold that 19th century European pedagogy and American anxieties about the legacy of such pedagogy have had that Americans feel unable to measure up to within critical-productive establishments have a worthy, admirable goal, but my concern is that the rhetoric and alternative master narratives used to combat the old master narratives are ultimately just as racist as the old master narrative about white colonialist Euro-centric art--what makes it all the more daft is that that master narrative of the best white people have to offer from the 19th century purged a lot of wonderful music from the ninth through eighteenth centuries as if that was all in some sense a millennium without a bath. 
 
So in the larger history of Western musical idioms spanning the late medieval period through to the present it's not really the least bit certain that hip hop presents the biggest challenge to an ostensibly Eurological pedagogy.  Advocates of late Renaissance ars perfecta could charge that the early Baroque era composers and performers were just talking gibberish and wailing and panting and wheezing and that figured bass wasn't even really composing music, just a bunch of stupid charts for formulaic non-music ... and yet those idioms cumulatively catalyzed opera and evolved into the middle and late Baroque periods. 
 
For those of us whose musical interests in the Western traditions skew more Baroque (and 20th century!) than Romantic the proposal that hip hop somehow most conflicts with Western European "Eurological" musical thought seems ... tendentious. 
 
Now maybe if you read through a Heinrich Schutz piece from Little Sacred Concert pieces it looks like a vocal line over a figured bass that doesn't tell you a whole lot and that would be puzzling.  In a similar way you could look at any standard from the jazz repertoire by the great Thelonious Monk and wonder if a bare melody over a chord chart is going to be music but for someone who is a fan of Heinrich Schutz AND Thelonious Monk it's not hard to see and hear how both approaches lead to some beautiful music.  Let's say that jazz introduced a new and gorgeous era of "figured treble" where in the Baroque era there was an era of "figured bass" but both traditions have a lot of beautiful music in it.
 
Now if we could just agree that what we're trying to do is shake music pedagogy in the United States free of the stranglehold of German Idealism and a long 19th century then, sure, totally on board with that. If "that" is the Western "Eurological" pedagogy against which the existence of hip hop and popular styles (white as well as black) present problems then, yeah, that seems like a statement that's easy to agree with.  Pedagogues of 19th century art music ideals have no more ease describing the appeal of a Hank Williams Sr. song than a hip hop number because the ideals of 19th century European art music were predicated not on the song or the chant but on instrumental music, music considered able to convey "interiority" and a "striving for the infinite".  But jamming on a popular bass line was something pretty normal in the Baroque era, and having idioms in which the line between improvisation and composition was a bit nominal was also known to happen in the Baroque era.
 
The trouble is that the temptation to formulate master narratives never seems to go away and formulating a contrast between allegedly "Eurological" and "Afrological" aesthetic and methodological paradigms needs to be formulated carefully if it's going to be useful or even historically accurate.  And, to get a bit personal, I'm concerned that American journalistic and scholarly discourse can get a bit white-and-black at the expense of other groups and groups of relations between groups.  Let's say that someone says the shape note tradition is basically "white", well where would the Native American Thomas Commuck fit into that kind of master narrative?  We could say that blues is "black" music but there's been some reasonable scholarly consensus that Charley Patton was black but that he was partly Native American.  Does that invite the possibility that blues could be thought of as a working class musical style that could be taken up by working class people with working class challenges, perhaps?  Or does a narrative of blackness preclude that?  That's one of many issues that can emerge in which it's more than just possible that academics could create rather than ameliorate historical and historiographical problems. 
 

links for the weekend

...
 
1. Rags to riches – a steady rise from bad to good fortune
 
2. Riches to rags – a fall from good to bad, a tragedy
 
3. Icarus – a rise then a fall in fortune
 
4. Oedipus – a fall, a rise then a fall again
 
5. Cinderella – rise, fall, rise
 
6. Man in a hole – fall, rise
 
 ...
 
According to Olga Khazan a reason to worry about declining birth rates is connected to a rise in populist sentiments ... ?
 
 
Discussion about the great American baby bust often seems meant to induce fear. The concern is that with fewer babies, economic growth will plummet, and too-few workers will have to shoulder the burden of an aging population. But if I’m being honest, the latest news about the drop in American births did not raise my blood pressure much.
 
Maybe it’s because I, myself, am kind of “eh” on kids in general. Maybe I’ve just been watching too many men beseech women to do their feminine duties on Handmaid’s Tale. So American women are opting out of parenting? Good for them! More time for Netflix, making money, reading my articles—to name just three very pleasurable activities that don’t cause stretch marks.

Or at least, so I thought. I recently came across something that’s made me sit up and pay attention to fertility rates: There is research linking falling fertility to rising populism.
Definitions of populism vary, but it’s often thought to be a political philosophy in which “the people” are pitted against elites and outsiders in a struggle for domination. The rhetoric of President Trump is often considered to be populist.

...

The problems typically associated with falling fertility are a struggle to pay for Social Security and Medicare in the long run. Fewer babies today means fewer workers in the future, which means less money in the Social-Security pot.

These might seem like relatively manageable threats: We could simply raise immigration quotas to boost the number of “missing” workers, for example. But it’s the very arrival of these immigrants that might fuel populist sentiment. The way this would work, as my colleague Derek Thompson has explained, is in a sort of doom loop: Population plummets, immigration increases, people get scared by the influx of newcomers, they become more xenophobic, and thus more inclined to support nationalist parties.

“There is a growing body of evidence that as rich majority-white countries admit more foreign-born people, far-right parties thrive by politicizing the perceived threat of the foreign-born to national culture,” Thompson writes.

...

This being an article by Khazan at The Atlantic the societal self-imposed double bind of native women (as distinct from immigrants) foregoing childbirth and childrearing plays a part in the decline of births of those who could contribute to the future welfare network and be perceived by reactionary sentiment as a sign of decline that has to be averted by increasing the birth rate.  The doom loop doesn't seem like something that can be averted if the native birth rate goes up. 

But what a blue-state approach can often forget is that many immigrants can be more socially conservative than the bleu state mainstream may wish them to be.  Anyone remember that Trump got ANY votes from the Latino demographic or the African American demographic?  The DNC assumption that people of color have or will automatically vote their way could be a strategic mistake over the next twenty-five years.  It's not that people of color necessarily have reasons to just go vote for Republicans so much as the sheer assumption that they never would seems like it could have played a role in 2016 being what it was, however small that role might have been compared to stuff like gerrymandering.

https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/05/trump-europe-iran-bush/561401/

...

But there are also some important differences between the Trump and Bush eras. The current round of anti-Americanism is taking place at a moment of anxiety about the fate of the U.S.-led world order and the relative decline of American power. Anti-American sentiments in Europe have often been linked to fears about expanding U.S. military power, economic clout, or the pervasiveness of American culture. These days, by contrast, Europeans seem less concerned about an unrestrained “hyperpower” flexing its muscles around the world, and more worried about an America withdrawing from the transatlantic relationship.

After World War II, Washington exerted its outsize power on the world stage to build that relationship. In 1947, the British writer and politician Harold Laski said that “America bestrides the world like a colossus; neither Rome at the height of its power nor Great Britain in the period of economic supremacy enjoyed an influence so direct, so profound, or so pervasive.” A year later, the United States would launch the Marshall Plan and work with its European allies to shape the liberal world order. Of course, even during the Cold War, there were rifts between the America and its European allies: the 1956 Suez crisis, the Vietnam War, and the debate over deploying intermediate-range missiles in Germany during the Reagan presidency. But the Soviet threat offered a terrifying incentive for the nations of the Western alliance to get over their differences.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. power was essentially unrivaled, and after 9/11 the extraordinary reach of U.S. military might worried many Europeans. There was widespread opposition to the Iraq War, plus a widely shared view that the Bush administration was pursuing the broader war on terror unilaterally. Majorities in most of the European countries polled by Pew during the Bush years believed that the United States was looking out for its own interests and not taking into account the interests of other nations. Back then, America’s poor global standing was linked to fears of unconstrained U.S. power and its disregard for international norms or multilateral cooperation.

Obama was much more popular in Europe than Bush, but even his administration occasionally bred fear and resentment. His increased use of drone strikes against terrorists in places like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia was widely unpopular. Meanwhile, Edward Snowden’s revelations about U.S. surveillance around the world highlighted what many saw as a troubling new dimension of American power: the capacity to reach through cyberspace and monitor the communications of almost anyone, anywhere. And the Snowden story had serious effects on American soft power. Pew surveys found that the share of the public who believed the U.S. government respected personal liberty declined in many nations following the disclosures. This issue was particularly important in Germany, where the United States reportedly eavesdropped on Merkel.

In contrast, Trump-era European anxieties are driven less by fears of unchecked American power, and more by a sense that the United States is stepping back from the world order it helped design.

The fate of that order has been the subject of considerable debate since Brexit and Trump’s election. Facing external pressure from the rise of China and other emerging powers, and internal stress from surging populism, the Western nations that shaped the international system for seven decades appear wobbly. And many Europeans believe the hegemon of the U.S.-led order is in decline. Pluralities of those Pew surveyed last year in France, Germany, and Britain, said China—not America—is the world’s leading economic power. A less-powerful America means uncertainty for the international system that has brought relative peace and prosperity to Europe for seven decades
...
Not that I'm particularly happy about Trump but for those who are, and can be more articulate than commentaries to the effect of MAGA hats, one of the things they have said in the last few years is that a key element in Trump's rhetoric has been to say that that world order the United States has helped design, or more probably bankrolled, is no longer worth bankrolling; the Atlantic-based coalition that played its part in the Cold War could be seen by those who back Trump with their votes as having reached and even passed its shelf life.  If the powers of Europe are taking this seriously it's no wonder they don't care for Trump because Trump's approach (if it could even be described as consistent, which plenty don't grant) has been to say that the shelf-life of the Euro-American coalition has passed and that American interests would involve brokering some new kind of deal. 

Actually ... as geopolitical trends go it's interesting that the cartoon The Miraculous Adventures of Ladybug and Cat Noir features a superheroine, Marinette, who is French-Chinese in lineage by way of a French-Chinese marriage.  The superpowers are derived from kwamis kept in the safekeeping of a Chinese master.  So it's not that hard to find in even the pulpiest lowest brow cartoons a reflection within French animation of the above-mentioned geopolitical shift, if you want to go with a Walter Benjamin style reading of lowbrow popular culture as an indicator of socio-economic and political alignment changes. 

From The Baffler, how puff piece journalism transformed into the power ... puff piece, title narrowly avoids one of my favorite pop cultural artifacts from the later 1990s ...

https://thebaffler.com/latest/power-piece-puff-piece-Roberts
...

But one hundred years after the puff piece floated into our consciousness, it is being swept aside by a new kind of celebrity profile, developed within a newly engaged culture. It may be no less calculating than its predecessor, but its purpose is the opposite. Rather than meaning nothing, it means everything. The power piece positions itself as the celebrity profile as activism, and sometimes it even succeeds.
 
In September, Graydon Carter announced that he was stepping down as editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair. The moment the sexagenarian actually left the building, however, arrived months later. The March 2018 issue of the magazine featured a cover story on Jennifer Lawrence, who, it stated, “is imbued with insatiable curiosity, professionalism, a work ethic, and extraordinary natural talent.” Thousands of words long with virtually no content, the profile relied on bromides to bolster the twenty-seven-year-old actress’s already well-established Girl Next Door brand. “I have read a lot of painfully banal celebrity profiles but this new VF one on Jennifer Lawrence,” tweeted Petersen, “it’s like toothache-magnitude-painful levels of banality.” In an untimely retrograde affair, Lawrence modeled gowns on a twenty-four-acre farm and cooked—“I can’t work on a diet. I’m hungry.”—for interviewer Krista Smith, Vanity Fair’s executive west coast editor and, according to the site, “de facto ambassador to Hollywood.” As the New York Post pointed out, the cover was unsettlingly similar to Lawrence’s Hollywood Reporter cover from December, a coarse metaphor for the interchangeability of the form.

The nature of the puffery may slightly change but the puffery is still about power and status.

Elsewhere, Conor Friedersdorf has a riff on the problem of any academic, but one in particular, making a case that there's a reason to hate men in general.

 
...
 
Still, the core question warrants a dispassionate, substantive answer.
 
“Is it really so illogical to hate men?”
 
Yes, it is.
 
It is always illogical to hate an entire group of people for behavior perpetrated by a subset of its members and actively opposed or renounced by literally millions of them. It is every bit as easy, and more just, to assign collective rhetorical blame to groups that deserve it, like “murderers” or “rapists” or “domestic abusers” or “sexists.”
 
Fortunately a certain Richard Nixon of preachers has fallen in brand a bit but a Friedersdorf could argue that certain kinds of professorial bromides about the bros can paradoxically play into the hands of bros like Mark Driscoll. 





from The Music Salon blog, on the extremely low odds that you'll be a career soloist musician


 
I used to do a lot of concerts with a very fine flute-player. He was working hard at orchestral excerpts, preparing himself for an audition for an orchestral position. He mentioned to me that around two hundred flute-players applied for every opening. He did eventually win the principal flute position in the local orchestra and he has been there ever since (about twenty-five years). The best musicians, who also persevere, for years if necessary, do often win orchestral positions, but if you just review the numbers you will see that the vast majority simply will not. There are too many aspiring musicians graduating from music schools and too few orchestras to absorb them. There is, in other words, a permanent disparity between jobs and those who want them.

What keeps this Ferris Wheel turning is the passion that attracts people to music. Music is a transcendental art form that rises above all the trials and tribulations in this world. It is a perennial comfort and inspiration. But it is also a particularly difficult career to pursue and one that for most people, will inevitably end in failure. Young musicians really deserve the respect of being told the odds. If you are a flute-player the odds of your winning any one audition might be 200 to 1. But even if you reconcile yourself to doing 200 auditions, this is still no guarantee that you will win a position.

If your career choice involves being a soloist, then the odds are much worse!
For example, my career choice was basically "international guitar virtuoso" and while I did pretty well--few guitarists get multiple opportunities for nation-wide broadcasts of their performances of major concertos with well-known orchestras--the reality was and is that there are perhaps five guitarists in the world at any given time who have prosperous careers as soloists. All the rest eke out a living by teaching. [emphases added]



And THAT gets at Paul Hindemith's stern rebuke to American musical education from A Composer's World: Horizons and Limitations. Now I know plenty of people don't like Hindemith's music if they even know who he is, and plenty of people who do know who he is don't like him for various other reasons, but in terms of his critique of American musical educational culture it seems that the last half century has borne out at least the possibility that he had a point.  If we have had an educational system that favored music education in terms of creating teachers who make teachers or music education in terms of advocating that the people who study do so in order to become vocationally employed in the realm of study then maybe ... maybe that's a problem.  I don't think Hindemith was wrong to argue that we should educate as many people as possible in music so that amateur music-making can create musical cultures. 

As irascible and cranky as the commentary brigade at the site can be Slipped Disc seems good at highlighting strange things such as ...

http://slippedisc.com/2018/06/190-flutes-applied-for-audition-50-played-and-none-was-hired/

If 190 flutists applied for audition, a mere fifty of those played and not a single one of them was hired then shouldn't this be front and center to actual and prospective music students in the higher education systems of the West?

It's the thing, looking back, that literally never came up when I was studying music coursework, there was not a discussion of how these people actually paid their bills. 

from HyperAllergic--majority of visual artists make less than 30k a yea raccording to study drawn upon responses from 1016 artists

Why lead with the number of responses?  Because if Daniel Kahneman's writing is still worth consulting the sampling bias alone means we can't trust this study to be worth a whole lot. Just barely over 1k from 50 different countries is probably worthless in study terms.  "Maybe" 1,016 artists drawn from a single county might be more informative.  But ... it's not necessarily a concern in arts reporting across the board.  So ...
 


 
The majority of visual artists working today make less than $30,000 per year, according to a study released this week. Conducted by the Creative Independent, a publication affiliated with Kickstarter, the study draws on responses from 1,016 artists working in the US, UK, Canada, France, and nearly 50 other countries in hopes of demystifying the economics of being an artist.

While some of the study’s findings are not particularly surprising — like that artists’ satisfaction with their work increases in direct proportion to the amount of time they spend in the studio — others are quite illuminating, especially where the economics of being an artist are involved. For instance, only 12% of respondents said that gallery sales of their work have been helpful in sustaining their practices, and grants ranked similarly low; the majority (61%) said that freelance and contract work was the most significant economic factor supporting their art. Among responding artists, only 17% are making three quarters or more of their income from their art; nearly half said they make between 0–10% of their income from their art.

“Because of this myth of the ‘pure’ artist who is able to afford to live off of gallery sales, through grants, or some other mysterious way, we see many artists who feel like failures or sell-outs simply because they have to have a day job, take corporate work, or wait tables,” Willa K√∂erner, the Creative Content Director at the Creative Independent, told Hyperallergic. “If only art schools would better prepare artists for the business aspects of being a visual artist — including preparing them to overcome the debt they’re accruing from that very school — so many artists would be in better shape, and would stop being so hard on themselves when it’s really the system that’s failing them. ‘Trial and error’ is not really a great strategy for becoming financially stable, but that’s currently the most-employed strategy by visual artists. That needs to change.”
 
The full study on the financial situation of visual artists today is available from the Creative Independent.
 
If we want to imagine where and how the myth of the pure artist gets promoted and disseminated I wonder where and how that myth could be promulgated. 
 
I'm reminded of Paul Hindemith's rant against American music education as being devoted to teaching that produces teachers who produce teachers, and his complaint was that music education in America was emphatically not devoted to general music appreciation and participation at an amateur level.  The false promise was that any kid who worked hard enough could be a next Beethoven or Heifetz as if the world could have more than maybe a dozen such people.  What I doubt is likely to happen is that academics would concede they can play the role of the villain deceiving students as to how, whether, or most especially if, art students can actually make a living in the arts. 

Fredrik Deboerr part 2: on intra-left purity contests crippling the likelihood that an American left will ever get anything done

Default blue, red emphasis added.
 
 
 
Why does the left find itself so consistenly [sic] overtaken by in-group squabbles that sap enthusiasm, steal energy, turn off potential allies, and prevent the possibility of true solidarity?


What must be understood is that powerlessness itself creates the condition for further powerlessness. Powerlessness is both effect and cause. It’s counterintuitive but true: power is frightening to this who have never had it. Power has consequences. Powerlessness is a comfortable place to hide; if you have no ability to effect change in the world, you cannot really fail. Your ideas never make contact with reality and so there is no chance that they will be put to the test. And power, once taken, must be held, so that work leads only to more work. Far easier and safer is to luxuriate in powerlessness. [emphasis added]


Armed with powerlessness in the material plane, practitioners of this brand of politics concentrate almost all of their energies into the types of interpersonal politics that, for many, characterize left activism. You may not be able to slow global warming, but you can ruin the reputation of someone else in your bloc. You may not be able to fight imperialism, but you can fight amongst yourselves. When fighting capitalism, you feel useless; when hurting an individual person you may feel a certain rush. [emphasis added] You may combine this with the natural human tendency to exclude others, the way that we define who’s in through reference to who’s out. The result is a toxic tendency to denounce rather than to include.


Left politics is about structures, not people, and we have developed a vocabulary to match – white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism. But we do not have a structural focus in our internal debates; we have the opposite.


The specific mechanisms of unhealthy intra-movement politics have traditionally been multiple, typically involving splinter groups, secret meetings, deliberately obstructionist proceduralism, redbaiting, adoption of consensus-based decision making, and similar. I have lived through all of these in one form or another. Today, I find that the particular mechanism involves making accusations that a comrade is guilty of racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, ableism, or similar. This tactic is particularly prevalent because of a quirk in how we discuss those topics today: in the day-to-day scrum of real-world argument, many on the left act as if they must treat any claim of offense as legitimate in order to believe that such claims are ever legitimate.


Typically undertaken in a spirit of self-defense, this attitude treats all claims of a specific type of offense (whether racism, sexism, etc) as equally strong. This means that accusations of racism or sexism or similar are pursued even in those instances where the evidence of such offense is scant or nonexistent. And precisely because the world is indeed full of bigotry, and because the left must oppose it, these claims take on remarkable destructive power when wielded carelessly or in the pursuit of organizational power. Such accusations will often be correct, after all, considering the world we live in.


But there is also no doubt that the power of these accusations is often wielded cynically and recklessly. The left cannot abandon its commitment to fighting racism, sexism, homophobia, and other bigotries, or else it deserves to lose; it cannot entertain every cynical, exploitative accusation of these bigotries, or else it cannot possibly win. That there is wide righteous middle ground between these options is obvious; we could zealously oppose bigotry and reject false claims of bigotry at the same time. That there is currently no mechanism within the left that can steer us into that middle ground is obvious too.


The best fix for these issues is to go offline, as the online space imposes zero cost on making frivolous accusations in a self-interested way. There is a certain accountability and authenticity inherent to the face-to-face world. I have always valued the political uses of presence. But I have also seen far too many IRL left groups devolve into horrific infighting to believe that the real world is immune to these problems.


The left has had power in the past, in many places and at many times. We could have power again. The 20th century saw dozens of left movements take real material power, sometimes with smaller numbers than the American socialist left employs today. But times have changed. In particular, armed struggle is no longer a viable option. The state’s violent potential is far greater than it once was, relative to that of any realistic insurgency movement. Havana can no longer be taken with rifles and a dream. So the left can turn only to people power. There is no alternative path to power. And if we are to attract the masses, current inter-left dynamics cannot endure. Fair or unfair, for good or bad, there is no alternative to fixing what’s broken in the way the left communicates with itself. A true mass movement cannot possibly emerge from a constantly bubbling cauldron of invective, paranoia, and incrimination.

Until then, begin your analysis by recognizing that many people on the left want to lose. And so they will.

Of course one of the most common axioms I've seen in internet writing about an American left is that there is no real American left.  That may even be true, though a lot depends on how people define the what is left with connection to America.  Are we talking new left, old left? Progressive? Liberal?  For people who think of themselves as on the right this is all collapsed lazily into "cultural Marxism" by the kinds of people who (excepting guys like Roger Scruton) have probably never even read a single book by a single author of the Frankfurt school.  But then I increasingly have doubts that 20-somethings who say they're interested in critical theory have read even three paragraphs of what Adorno had to say about jazz, any given three ghastly paragraphs of what he had to say about jazz. 

One of the things, as a moderately conservative sort, I've seen in the last twenty years is that Anglo-American left advocates have done something that an older guy I knew in college decades ago said was the bane of American political life, that radicals and reactionaries had hijacked political discourse in a way that moved the boundaries for a negotiable center off of the field.  If radicals and reactionaries revise history so as to say that even JFK was a warmongering hawk (which, frankly, he was if we're going to get specific and, no, I don't think fantasies that he was going to pull us out of Vietnam matter since he did get assassinated) and if conservatives can lambast Reagan for having acceded to talk with Gorbachev then that's just a few small for-instances of ways that people on some strand of the left and right can redefine the left or right in such a way that nobody fits the bill. 

An unfortunate side effect of contemporary intra-left polemic can be that people who self-identify as progressive forget that if we turn the clock back a century progressives could be every bit as racist and brutal as Republicans are thought to be now.  For that matter the legacy of slavery tends to be so defined in white and black terms that slavery in literally all other global, ethnic, social, political and economic terms doesn't get discussed.  Couldn't we say the entire American academic system runs on a slavery system if we factor in the sheer enormity of student debt, lending systems, and the way work gets distributed?  Would American academics concede they are part of a gigantic and callously indifferent slave system?  That seems doubtful, though polemics about how neoliberalism has corrupted the university system are certainly out there. 

There's more than one way to have a master/slave dynamic and if within the left/progressive scene people imagine they are not part of an elite despite having gone to elite schools and gotten elite degrees and having any formal education beyond high school simply because they didn't vote for Trump then this might get at another aspect of why a self-identifying left fails, or even at why some left writers say there isn't even really a "left" in American political life.

And in that sense intra-left battles over who is genuinely left and who has an unexamined role participating in a cultural elite/culture industry can't go away because it's the nature of human beings in the United States.

Fredrik DeBoer on "back to things", on how we live in a world defined by What X Says About Y online

 
Recently I caught the 2 train at 96th Street heading south on my way home to Brooklyn. It’s about an hour long ride. I was sitting next to two men, professional-looking types who appeared to be in their early 30s. They were talking about a small shoe brand, recently trendy, very animatedly. Or perhaps they were not talking about the shoes.


They engaged in a kind of rhetoric that I imagine would be recognizable to anyone who spends too much time on the internet. While ostensibly discussing shoes, they were really discussing the social and cultural signifiers that attach to everything we have and are like barnacles. To wear those shoes was not to purchase and use a practical thing but to place oneself in a complex social and cultural web, to make an existential statement about yourself and your place in the economic, political, and interpersonal world. A $100 pair of sneakers, to hear them tell it, conveyed one’s deepest personal meaning, particularly as it pertained to position within the social hierarchies of the educated caste. There appeared to be no way to own and wear these shoes without sending these messages. And yet the men speaking seemed to think that they were only discussing the quality of the sneakers themselves.

In the world of politics, particularly left politics, we see a similar dynamic among those who can conceive of the political only as a way to define the self, as a tool not to create change but as a system for sorting all of us into tiers of enlightenment, as something you are rather than something you do.
 
Recently we have seen a lot of critical discourse on the internet and its consequences, which is good. Digital technologies have dramatically expanded the amount and scope of writing that overthinks the minutiae of life and ascribes to it cultural connotations of great importance. We are living in a world of What X Says About Y.  We have, to put it bluntly, too much culture. We have too many ideas. We have too many symbols. Our associations  about things have overwhelmed our apprehension of the things themselves. Wallace Stevens said that the greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world.  For myself I would say that the battle now is to live in a world outside of the web of other people’s tangled pathologies about how every minor detail of our consumption and behavior aligns us in a social hierarchy many of us never asked to join. The fight is to return to a world of things. To let a shoe be a shoe.

Now some authors might say we have too few symbols at the macro-cultural level but that's a topic for another time.  The capacity to assign any and every thing on the internet by way of reference to life to some obsessive status-indicating contest was what the recently departed Tom Wolfe made his whole literary/journalistic career chronicling. 

We do, certainly, seem to live in a society of What X Says About Y, though. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

a piece at The New Yorker on how Orwell supposedly anticipated our cultural moment, another of the magazine's book reports about dead guys who predicted the era of Trump ...

Subtextually this piece in The New Yorker is about how Orwell predicted Trump's America.  Not that surprising as a subtext from a publication that has held forth on how the Frankfurt school predicted Trump.  Eisenhower doesn't seem like he was the next Hitler ... but ... never mind that. 

https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-george-orwell-predicted-the-challenge-of-writing-today

Some essays are letters into the future. “The Prevention of Literature” is one such essay, and today I’d like to respond to it from 2018.

Orwell argues that totalitarianism makes literature impossible. By literature, he means all kinds of writing in prose, from imaginative fiction to political journalism; he suggests that verse might slip through the cracks. He writes, too, that there is such a thing as “groups of people who have adopted a totalitarian outlook”—single-truth communities of sorts, not just totalitarian regimes or entire countries. These are deadly to literature as well.

Orwell was writing in 1946, five or seven years before scholarly works by Hannah Arendt, on the one hand, and Karl Friedrich, on the other, provided the definitions of totalitarianism that are still in use today. Orwell’s own “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” which provides the visceral understanding of totalitarianism that we still conjure up today, was a couple of years away. Orwell was in the process of imagining totalitarianism—he had, of course, never lived in a totalitarian society.

He imagined two major traits of totalitarian societies: one is lying, and the other is what he called schizophrenia. He wrote, “The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is not, as it is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary.” The lying entailed constantly rewriting the past to accommodate the present. “This kind of thing happens everywhere,” he wrote, “but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”

He goes on to imagine that “a totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist.”

This inevitably reminds me that Ellul wrote that the thing about propaganda is that it is generally meticulously accurate about bare facts and that the big lies are in the interpretations given to facts more than in what facts have been reported.  Propaganda is used to so overwhelm the senses and thought process that people are mentally and socially confined to thinking about whatever is, basically, in the current news cycle. 

But if continuous alteration of our understanding of the past is inherent to totalitarianism it's pretty simple to see how conservative and reactionary groups would insist this is precisely what progressive versions of history do, constantly and contemptuously rewriting and revising the history of the United States to cast it in the grimmest light possible.  That totalitarianism is not necessarily about a specific platform for a left or a right but a methodological range of convictions and practices can be skimmed past by those who would exempt their own respective teams, as seems to be consistently the case at the moment. 

But something about the whole article feels like boilerplate. There seems to be a current of applying these various observations chiefly to political regimes of the most formal sort, political machines of the most obvious variety.  It's still puzzling to consider that the Weinstein moment only emerged in the wake of Clinton's electoral loss in 2016.  Could the Weinstein moment, could #MeToo have happened in an era in which Clinton was president?  Would the news of her advisor Burns Strider's conduct have become headlines in an age of Clinton rather than an age of Trump

  ...

But why, exactly, did Orwell think all this was so destructive to literature? He defined literature as a sort of conversation—“an attempt to influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries by recording experience.” He added that “there is no such thing as a genuinely non-political literature, and least of all in an age like our own, when fears, hatreds, and loyalties of a directly political kind are near the surface of everyone’s consciousness. Even a single taboo can have an all-round crippling effect upon the mind, because there is always the danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought. It follows that the atmosphere of totalitarianism is deadly to any kind of prose writer.” Note that he is once again talking about the atmosphere of totalitarianism: the lived experience rather than the mechanics of it. It would follow that, as with the perpetual lie, this literature-deadening effect can outlast state terror. Of course, taboos exist everywhere. But Orwell notes that “literature has sometimes flourished under despotic regimes.” It is having to cater to the instability imposed by totalitarianism—having to constantly adjust one’s world view—that is murderous to the writer, or at least to the writing.

Yet in the West a great deal of literature and art amounted to what could be called experimental formalism, far less concerned with message than with the medium.  The 20th century was an era of meta-theoretical musings about art and the nature of art.  The 19th century art religion transubstantiated itself into arts criticism and a kind of meta-literary musing on the ways literature shapes character via education.  The priestcraft shifted a bit but seems to have been retained and in a sense these invocations of Orwell come off like pious boilerplate because the assumption is that no great art or literature emerge from un-free societies. 

Orwell’s assessment is based on his own intuition but also on the observation that little literature of note came out of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. One might reasonably suspect, though, that censorship and fear were to blame, that better writing existed but had to be hidden. Certainly, Orwell could not have been aware of Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” a short cycle of poems about her son’s confinement to the Gulag. Or of Vasily Grossman’s Second World War novel “Life and Fate,” whose existence wasn’t exposed until the nineteen-seventies. There was, indeed, a literature in hiding then, including poems whose manuscripts were destroyed almost as soon as they were written, committed to memory until a time when they could be made public.

Some of this work is great, and this greatness might seem, at first glance, to undermine Orwell’s point. But great works of literature are always a miracle, and they are usually dissonant with their environment, which might be what allows them to transcend time and, in translation, space. But I would venture that Orwell is not talking about the unpredictable business of producing masterpieces. What is lost under totalitarianism is good and even good-enough literature. These are the books that may be popular and even win awards before they are quickly forgotten. These are the books that pad the best-seller lists. The books that will seem quaint, outdated, or, at best, like curious documents of a bygone era in just a few decades. These are also the very books that facilitate conversation, that create mental public space, that influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries. Without these books, politics—the discussion of how we inhabit a city or a country or a planet together—is impossible.

Ah ... because the greatness happens by accident and despite the totalitarian regime then the totalitarian aspect of the culture can't be credited with catalyzing any great art.  The masterpieces from masters somehow just show up because .... genius ... but ...

Orwell suggests one more way in which totalitarianism kills writing. “Serious prose,” he writes, “has to be composed in solitude.” Totalitarianism, as Arendt famously wrote, eliminates the space between humans, turning them into One Man of gigantic proportions. Separately, she spoke about the peculiar illusion of warmth and closeness that totalitarianism engenders. Totalitarian societies mobilize everyone. Supporters of the regime may be gathered in the big square, chanting their support for the leader, but opponents band together in tiny clumps that are always under siege, always in struggle to hold on to a patch of knowable truth. This is an honorable effort, but it is as far from an imaginative exercise as anything can be. No one can imagine the future—or, for that matter, the present or the past—with their teeth clenched and their minds in singular focus. This leads me to the best-known line from this Orwell essay: “imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.”
I want to zoom out a little to provide context for that famous phrase:

“Literature is doomed if liberty of thought perishes. Not only is it doomed in any country which retains a totalitarian structure; but any writer who adopts the totalitarian outlook, who finds excuses for persecution and the falsification of reality, thereby destroys himself as a writer…. Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another, literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes something totally different from what it is now, we may learn to separate literary creation from intellectual honesty. At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.”
It's remarkable that Orwell ends the essay on a note of some uncertainty. His lament for the possible—probable—loss of the imagination is itself an exercise in the imagination. That is what makes this essay both a work of literature and a political work.

We live in a time when intentional, systematic, destabilizing lying—totalitarian lying for the sake of lying, lying as a way to assert or capture political power—has become the dominant factor in public life in Russia, the United States, Great Britain, and many other countries in the world. When we engage with the lies—and engaging with these lies is unavoidable and even necessary—we forfeit the imagination. But the imagination is where democracy lives. We imagine the present and the past, and then we imagine the future.

If Orwell was right then the right and the left in the United States and the United Kingdom have damned themselves to embracing totalitarianism while pretending to themselves they are rejecting it.

If I were to hazard an admittedly cranky weekend guess as to how we got to this point in the Anglo-American west it's that a bunch of morons who really believed the libertarian theory of the press could be defended in any post-McCarthy context simply because some meatheads in Silicon Valley with delusions of grandeur assumed it could work "this time" decided that everything was cool and, lo and behold, the libertarian theory of the press still flies as much in the face of reality in a modern technocratic society now as it did half a century ago.  Look, I can get why the likes of Milton would advocate for a libertarian theory of the press centuries ago when it played a different sociological and economic role.  But we don't live in that kind of era.  

Loss of imagination can happen across the conventional left, right and center divides yet we seem to have writers who think that the loss of imagination is more or less only the consequence of thinking within the wrong ideologies.  So there's a lot of the essay that just doesn't seem worth quoting. 


 ... Orwell wrote that, for the fiction writer, subjective feelings were facts; being compelled to falsify those feelings in a “totalitarian atmosphere” amounted to the “prevention of literature.” Orwell’s perceptions of totalitarianism formed the basis for his novels, which, in turn, shaped much of our current understanding of totalitarianism. I am proposing that subjective hopes are also, for the purposes of writing, facts. These are the facts endangered by the fear and despair prevalent in our current politics. If one insists on writing the truth of those hopes—or, rather, if many writers do this—the result may not be great literature, which is always a miracle, but it will exercise the imagination. If it is good, or good enough, it will fuel conversation. And may it be half as prescient as
“Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

This is the kind of boilerplate that makes me grateful Adorno was the endlessly rambling polemicist that he was.  There is some place for using the proverbial left hemisphere of the brain.  Sure, Adorno was an elitist chauvinistic racist sort on a few issues, most of all Afro-American music in all its beauty and glory; sure Adorno was also capable of being virulently anti-Slav and rejecting the very idea that Slavic music could be art, most of all in Soviet contexts; and yet Adorno was trying to formulate theoretical frameworks from which artists could think about the problems of art.  I.e. he had that ultimate egghead notion that a proper theory could somehow liberate artists and art.  Feelings weren't unimportant but his contention was that in the era of capitalism feelings were the most easily reified and commodified things in the human condition and that most of the desires we might feel in such a society would be, so to speak, mimetic desires. 

The subjective hopes of writers have plenty often been precisely what totalitarians have appealed to.  We can never forget that Ezra Pound went in for fascism, or that Stravinsky openly praised Mussolini or that Webern assimilated himself by turns to National Socialism.  The idea that great literature can't emerge from within totalitarian cultures has been completely side-stepped by this article in favor of a claim that the great sea of middling to pretty-good literature is what will be sapped by totalitarian cultural thought.

Well ... if that's really the case then why?  We're supposedly the free world and if the free world has suddenly become not-the-free-world because Trump then what makes this current era totalitarian? Merely the election of Trump by the electoral college?  The assertion inherent in that just doesn't seem to hold up.  I thought it was terrible the guy got the nomination but I'm still not sure that Trump is more or even as virulently racist and adventurist with the military was Woodrow Wilson just yet.  We'll see.  He doesn't even come across as being as hawkish as JFK was at the moment, either.  That he could be a complete idiot about diplomacy and how that actually works seems easy enough to grant without writing of him as if he's already a fascist.  As racist sentiment goes Albert Einstein doesn't come off looking very good  But it's not that Einstein's xenophobia is shocking for his time, it's shocking for ours thanks to the cottage industry of sainting him as a patron saint of science. Science and scientists aren't supposed to be racist, right?  But why wouldn't they?  If there's an ideological commitment to the notion that science and the scientific method can't be racist then that's how the racism dives into the whole process.  A white supremacist armed with the scientific method and scientific processes doesn't see herself or himself as a white supremacist but as a scientist whose conclusions can be validated or disproven by scientific approaches. 

But if Orwell himself did not actually live in a totalitarian regime then maybe there's a point past which trusting his judgments on what constituted totalitarianism is like trusting a vegetarian to instruct us on how to best cook a steak.  Why wouldn't I want rather to read a Wole Soyinka or a Solzhenitsyn for someone who is a writer and has actually been imprisoned than an Orwell?  Not that Orwell's even bad to read, mind you, but I hope you can appreciate the point. 

In the post Weinstein moment and the era of #MeToo surely Orwell's moral point of note would be about Dali's remarkable skill being no excuse with regard to his being a disgusting human being; an exhibitionist and yet not a fraud. But that may not be the point authors at The New Yorker are interested in remembering because, and I'll make my thought simple here, the residue of art religion assumes that the artist should be a purer and better soul than the common rabble who are not artists even if there's no particularly compelling or rational reason this should be the case. 

By article's end we're already past the point of being able to say great literature cannot happen in totalitarian societies because miracles happen in art.  So we're left with a bromide about how the middling to very-good is so much less in so repressive an environment of a totalitarian state.  I'm just not convinced, having seen how things played out in a social media and internet-saturated and internet-saturating culture such as Mars Hill Church once was, that there's anything to this sort of bromide.  Just because there appears to be free communication within an ostensibly free social system is no guarantee of "real" freedom, whatever that means. 

Nor am I certain that we should imagine that "democracy" and "totalitarian" are ever necessarily or inherently opposed.

Some members of the American press lament US inability to change China as if we could have done that ... while lamenting loss of American leadership here and there

 
 
In 2000, Congress made the fateful decision to extend “permanent normal trade relations,” or PNTR, to China. As the economists Justin Pierce and Peter Schott have argued, the permanence of PNTR status made an enormous difference: Without PNTR, there was always a danger that China’s favorable access to the U.S. market would be revoked, which in turn deterred U.S. firms from increasing their reliance on Chinese suppliers. With PNTR in hand, the floodgates of investment were opened, and U.S. multinationals worked hand in glove with Beijing to create new China-centric supply chains. The age of “Chimerica” had begun.
 
PNTR was a euphemism designed to get around the fact that the traditional term for “normal trade relations” was “most-favored-nation” (MFN) tariff status, which basically meant a plain-vanilla relationship. A country could enter into a preferential trade agreement such as NAFTA, the accord between the United States, Mexico, and Canada—say, plain vanilla with chocolate sprinkles on top. But short of that, MFN status meant imports would be treated as favorably as those arriving from “the most favored nation.” Absurd as it might sound, this linguistic convention had meaningful political consequences. To argue that we ought to have normal trade relations with China was one thing. Sure, why not? To make the case that China ought to be treated as our most favored nation was a more vexing PR challenge, not least in the wake of the brutal crackdown that followed the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
 
 
 
Under the Trade Act of 1974, China was designated, alongside the Soviet Union and other socialist states, a non-market economy. As such, it could only be granted MFN status under certain preconditions. In 1980, as relations between the two countries thawed, the U.S. conditionally granted China MFN status. That status, however, had to be renewed annually, which gave China’s critics in Congress an annual opportunity to question the wisdom of doing so. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, an alliance of economic nationalists, human-rights activists, and anti-communists sought to deny China MFN status every year. And every year that alliance was defeated by those who insisted that by opening the American economy to Chinese imports, the United States would gently nudge Beijing towards economic liberalism, multiparty democracy, and a rejection of hegemonic designs—predictions that haven’t exactly been borne out.
 
...
What might the world have looked like had the U.S. never granted PNTR to China? One possibility is that China would have pursued an economic strategy built around fostering indigenous entrepreneurship and bettering the lives of its own workers, as it did in the 1980s. Instead, Beijing chose to transfer wealth from ordinary Chinese citizens to its politically powerful export sector, a path made possible by PNTR. China might very well have become just as rich by embracing a more balanced and humane approach to development. Doing so, however, would have required that its central government surrender a measure of control to its citizens. Rather than foster liberalism and openness in China, I suspect PNTR did exactly the opposite—creating the conditions for China’s central government to exert tighter control over the Chinese populace.
 
The United States, meanwhile, would have entered the age of globalization under markedly different terms: Instead of offshoring much of its industrial base to an often-hostile authoritarian power, perhaps it would have deepened its economic ties to democratizing states in Latin America, Asia, and the wider world. [emphasis added] Trade with China would have proceeded apace, to be sure, but U.S. multinationals wouldn’t have felt quite as secure in locating production facilities in one of the world’s last remaining communist dictatorships, which sees economic development as a weapon in its struggle for power and influence.
 
There is no going back. We can’t rewrite history. A bipartisan coalition promised Americans that granting China PNTR would help ensure our prosperity and that China would soon be transformed from foe to friend, and we were foolish enough to believe them. The question is what we should do now. For starters, I propose admitting that we made a grave mistake.
 
 
and from the National Review side of things ...
 
 
and from Foreign Affairs
 
 
The United States has always had an outsize sense of its ability to determine China’s course. Again and again, its ambitions have come up short. After World War II, George Marshall, the U.S. special envoy to China, hoped to broker a peace between the Nationalists and Communists in the Chinese Civil War. During the Korean War, the Truman administration thought it could dissuade Mao Zedong’s troops from crossing the Yalu River. The Johnson administration believed Beijing would ultimately circumscribe its involvement in Vietnam. In each instance, Chinese realities upset American expectations.
 
With U.S. President Richard Nixon’s opening to China, Washington made its biggest and most optimistic bet yet. Both Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, assumed that rapprochement would drive a wedge between Beijing and Moscow and, in time, alter China’s conception of its own interests as it drew closer to the United States. In the fall of 1967, Nixon wrote in this magazine, “The world cannot be safe until China changes. Thus our aim, to the extent that we can influence events, should be to induce change.” Ever since, the assumption that deepening commercial, diplomatic, and cultural ties would transform China’s internal development and external behavior has been a bedrock of U.S. strategy. Even those in U.S. policy circles who were skeptical of China’s intentions still shared the underlying belief that U.S. power and hegemony could readily mold China to the United States’ liking.
 
Nearly half a century since Nixon’s first steps toward rapprochement, the record is increasingly clear that Washington once again put too much faith in its power to shape China’s trajectory. All sides of the policy debate erred: free traders and financiers who foresaw inevitable and increasing openness in China, integrationists who argued that Beijing’s ambitions would be tamed by greater interaction with the international community, and hawks who believed that China’s power would be abated by perpetual American primacy. 
 
Neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted. [emphasis added] Diplomatic and commercial engagement have not brought political and economic openness. Neither U.S. military power nor regional balancing has stopped Beijing from seeking to displace core components of the U.S.-led system. And the liberal international order has failed to lure or bind China as powerfully as expected. China has instead pursued its own course, belying a range of American expectations in the process.
 
...
 
Rather than devolving power to the Chinese people, as many in the West predicted, communications technologies have strengthened the hand of the state, helping China’s authorities control information flows and monitor citizens’ behavior. Censorship, detentions, and a new cybersecurity law that grants broad government control over the Internet in China have stymied political activity inside China’s “Great Firewall.” China’s twenty-first-century authoritarianism now includes plans to launch a “social credit system,” fusing big data and artificial intelligence to reward and punish Chinese citizens on the basis of their political, commercial, social, and online activity. Facial recognition software, combined with the ubiquity of surveillance cameras across China, has even made it possible for the state to physically locate people within minutes. 
...
 
As the assumptions driving U.S. China policy have started to look increasingly tenuous, and the gap between American expectations and Chinese realities has grown, Washington has been largely focused elsewhere. Since 2001, the fight against jihadist terrorism has consumed the U.S. national security apparatus, diverting attention from the changes in Asia at exactly the time China was making enormous military, diplomatic, and commercial strides. [emphasis added] U.S. President George W. Bush initially referred to China as a “strategic competitor”; in the wake of the September 11 attacks, however, his 2002 National Security Strategy declared, “The world’s great powers find ourselves on the same side—united by common dangers of terrorist violence and chaos.” During the Obama administration, there was an effort to “pivot,” or “rebalance,” strategic attention to Asia. But at the end of Obama’s time in office, budgets and personnel remained focused on other regions—there were, for example, three times as many National Security Council staffers working on the Middle East as on all of East and Southeast Asia.

This strategic distraction has given China the opportunity to press its advantages, further motivated by the increasingly prominent view in China that the United States (along with the West more broadly) is in inexorable and rapid decline. Chinese officials see a United States that has been hobbled for years by the global financial crisis, its costly war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and deepening dysfunction in Washington. [emphasis added] Xi has called on China to become “a global leader in terms of comprehensive national strength and international influence” by midcentury. He touts China’s development model as a “new option for other countries.” 
 
...
Every empire falls at some point through imperial overreach.  The likelihood that this would happen has been predicted over the last half century.  It's not like Paul Johnson didn't mull over ideas to this effect in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.  I know there are those who would say that pointing out that whether Trump or Clinton won would make no different to how the American war machine handles things would sound like false equivalence but the people who would say "false equivalence!" probably don't understand how policy and internationalist interventionism have been implemented in the last century within the United States' history of foreign and domestic policy.  Even the blue state bromide about red-state warmongering is a trope that needs to be continually dismantled.  If you want to look at the times we've officially gone all in to kill people Democrats were in the Executive branch during those biggest moments.  Progressives may now want to believe progressives have no truck with war but Wilson was Wilson.  It's sadly one of the mythologies that doesn't die in the era of the internet, though, that the DNC and the progressive groups in the US were not in favor of military actions.  There was a time when conservatives and reactionaries didn't want the United States to get involved.  Now, of course, the opposite is the case. 

But on the whole the idea that the United States can be construed as the good guys depending on whether the party you want in power has power seems like a myth that needs to crumble.  I don't think we'd be better to the world had Clinton won and, if anything, Trump's election lets the world know more nakedly where the U.S. stands.  Given the cumulative Clinton track record 2016 was a choice between someone who was a perpetrator of sexual assault and someone who enabled it.  Hardly an inspiring set of options.

It makes sense if right wing people and reactionaries want to make America great again but the "America already is great" rejoinder still stunk of what some people might call privilege.  America was already great for ... people who were with her, perhaps, but not for a ot of people. 

If we spent decades off-shoring our industrial and manufacturing base overseas we shouldn't be that surprised if the places we off-loaded our former production infrastructure and labor to might have begu to prosper.  I can't help recalling with some usual gloom that I'd hear over the decades that the future of the job market was in the service economy and the information economy.  Well ... okay ... but that seemed like a recipe for burgeoning income inequality in which college graduates would disproportionately benefit and I am not sure now any more than "then" that that's an equitable way to go.

But it seems the red and blue have more fun blaming each other for American decline than considering the possibility that they both gave the farm awayand that trading on the future so that you can scapegoat the other team each election cycle while the two parties do weirdly similar things has been the norm for a while, it seems.