• Will Majority Rule Return to America, or is it too Late?

     

    America at present not only is a country whose governance is out of sync with its population, it’s a country whose governance meets the definition of tyranny by the minority over the majority, one of the founders greatest fears.

    Many safeguards and checks and balances were set in place in order to deter such an eventuality. But ultimately, the responsibility will always rest upon the majority itself, its enlightenment, attentiveness and constant vigilance. Sadly, whether Americans in recent years have retained those qualities sufficiently is a real question. But at the very least, the minority’s ability to continue its present hold over the majority is not yet a foregone conclusion.

    Keep in my mind that should Republicans successfully seat another Donald Trump-appointed Supreme Court justice, adding to the two appointed by George W. Bush, four of nine Supreme Court justices will have been appointed by presidents who did not receive a majority of Americans’ votes. As it now stands a third of the court has been appointed by minority presidents.

    To make it worse, in the case of George W. Bush’s election, not only did he lose the popular vote, but a Republican-dominated Supreme Court ordered the vote count to be terminated in the state of Florida, one which had it continued ultimately would have given the state, and the presidency to Al Gore (See: over votes).

    Again, in the case of Donald Trump, not only did a majority of the electorate oppose him, but the election itself was indisputably tainted by interference from a foreign power, whose express goal was to put him in the White House.

    One can’t excuse the shoddy voter participation of the majority, especially in post-2008 elections. But the result, in particular in the 2010 midterms, was to give Republicans domination of a great many state governments, leading to enactment of voter suppression laws that contributed significantly to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

    All of this comes on top of the systemic advantages currently working in the minority’s favor. The Senate drastically over represents smaller population states. California’s forty million citizens have the same number of senate seats as North Dakota. New York’s millions have the same representation as tiny South Dakota. Twenty-two states whose populations added together equal that of California’s retain 44 seats in the senate to California’s two. And so the priorities and preferences of these small, largely rural rightwing states predominate.

    In the House of Representatives, congressional seats have been gerrymandered in such a way that major population centers in numerous states retain a single congressional seat, while the rest of the state’s geography is divided into countless districts, guaranteeing smaller, more conservative areas have considerably more representation in the House of Representatives than the majority of the population.

    And then there’s the obsolescence of the Electoral College. Democrats have won the popular vote in six out of the last seven presidential elections. And yet, should Trump finish out his first term, Republicans will have controlled the presidency for 12 of those 26 years, nearly half. Does that seem like majority rule to you?

    Together, these are the factors that allow an extremist political minority opposed by the majority to dominate all three branches of government, and to lock their advantages in going forward.

    But the tension created between the governing and the governed long may simmer, but eventually it will boil. The temperature of the inevitable conflict between the tyrannized minority and the majority can only rise. Exactly how this conflict will play out in the United States, and how it will be resolved remain to be seen.

    It’s worth noting, and we can see it in front of our eyes, that as the rumbles from the majority grow in volume, so the absolutism and the autocratic tendencies of the majority spike in turn. From the point of view of the minority, a classic strongman, a natural autocrat is a useful convenience, and they’re lucky enough to have one at this very moment.

    The Republican, and now Trumpian dedication to ideology above country, to party over democratic principles is evident for all to see in the vicious and unprecedented attacks upon America’s traditions and institutions, including federal law enforcement and system of justice.

    And what are the goals of this ideology? An obliteration of capitalism’s balance between labor and capital in favor of the permanent domination of capital, the perpetual subservience of workers; a permanent disparity in wealth, tax burdens shifted to the middle and working classes, investments shifted from the working and middle classes to the wealthiest; corporate and business unaccountability, in service to an exotic brand of Ayn Rand, eugenics-based feudalism (the call it supply side, or Austrian School, pick your snake oil); the promulgation of anti-science propaganda; and theocratic and cultural regression on everything from gay rights, abortion rights, to civil rights in general.

    One can observe in the smug grin of Mitch McConnell the level of confidence in the right’s capacity for rigging the system, and engineering this minority rule in perpetuity.

    What it will take to depose this tyranny is difficult to estimate, but likely it will require the fight of our lives. Whatever it takes, we need to do it.

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  • Stefan Zweig, Grand Budapest Hotel, And The Writing on the Wall

    The World of Yesterday

    Stefan Zweig is not a household name, but not an obscure one either, though until the Zweig-inspired Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, his was a seldom remarked and sparsely praised literary-historical presence.

    The Vienna-born novelist, biographer, poet, essayist, story writer and memoirist was the most translated author of his time, and in the wake of the Nazi occupation of his homeland, his works and his legacy were all but expunged from history in his native tongue. Arguably his most lasting and influential work was his reminiscence of a time and place, the Central Europe, and in particular the Vienna of his youth and young adulthood during the first decades of the Twentieth Century, The World of Yesterday.

    Zweig presents a world that appears to reside in a kind of suspension from history, a golden era in many ways, well past the disruptive and destructive European wars of the Nineteenth Century and before the devastating ones to come in the Twentieth. It was a Vienna, according to Zweig, where intellect and artistic achievement were highly and widely prized, there was broad acceptance of nationalities and ethnicities, indeed tolerance in general, social progress was valued and manifest, Austrians the beneficiaries of what we now would identify as a generous safety net that provided every Austrian with relative, and much welcomed security.

    The world had advanced, as Zweig himself believed, the worst inclinations of human nature and politics if not surpassed, largely, and perhaps permanently set aside, managed, or out of favor. History had reached a moment, rested upon a plateau that an American observer might describe as Jeffersonian, where there was sufficient time and sufficient leisure for, and more importantly, pervasive interest in devoting oneself to higher pursuits, learning, beauty, art, ideas. The prevailing sense was that it would always be so. Austria, Europe surely, and even the world beyond would continue on this path of steady improvement. Obviously it did not, catastrophically so.

    Grand Budapest Hotel, like other of Anderson’s films (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom) has no recognizable counterpart or even familial resemblance to any movie that I can think of, at least not in American film, and certainly not in Hollywood. That he would draw inspiration from The World of Yesterday, which, though it conveys Zweig’s optimistic and congenial nature, also is permeated, naturally, with an abiding feeling of loss, and create such a wickedly funny and clever, and flamboyantly vivid movie, for me at least, affirms again an awe-inspiring knack for creative legerdemain.

    Indeed, the story takes place in a fictional hotel, in a fictional country, peopled with wholly invented characters, and yet, sometimes down to the smallest detail, perfectly recalls a specific time and place. Anderson has said he likewise took inspiration from several of Zweig’s novels, but whatever he put into the pot and stirred, the result is a dazzle of rococo visual style, absurdist plotting and slapstick presentation, all of which still manages to compellingly evoke the Central Europe of the early Twentieth Century.

    Old enough now no longer to be classified still as a wunderkind, like any highly idiosyncratic artist, audiences tend to find Anderson’s work either refreshing, sui generis, touching, thoughtful and invigorating, or else unbearably annoying, gratingly pretentious, gratuitously juvenile and utterly detestable. I will say having read numerous interviews with Anderson, and listened to several discussions, Anderson at the very least isn’t what one might call a literary tourist, and in fact strikes one rather as a literary person as most of us would conceive of one, and remains as far as he possibly could be, from the Hollywood sensibility raiding literary works for the purpose of transforming them into ghastly products, or with good, but misguided intentions, clumsily bringing highly regarded books to the screen.

    What can’t be forgotten, and isn’t by Anderson, is that this world so colorfully recreated in the movie, and lovingly recalled by Zweig, is doomed. In the movie there are both signs and real events to convey that everything is about to change, and in a not very pleasant way. Zweig’s recounting of what transpired is of course detailed and quite specific.

    This is where the import of the book insinuates itself uncomfortably, yet presciently in my view, into the present. Anderson has said nothing in anything I have read or heard that could remotely be construed as revealing any intent for the film to be cautionary, nor is any such quality evident in the film itself. That said, and especially discernible during repeated viewings, there nevertheless is an elegiac undercurrent if not overt aspect in the film.

    Zweig’s own world and the world itself at the time he was completing The World of Yesterday were in such a shambles, it was difficult to know if there would even be a future, much less speculate what it might look like. Yet to the extent all books are written as much for the future as for the present, only a dolt would fail to see the universal warnings in what he recalls.

    Zweig was a traveller and letter-writer, and he had friends spread across Europe. During a visit to Italy in the 1920’s, he witnessed the Blackshirts in the streets of the Italian towns and villages as fascism in Italy was coming to power. In Salzburg, near the border with Germany, where he took up residence after the first of the world wars he became aware of the Brownshirts who regularly crossed the border into Austria to propagandize and organize Austrian sympathizers.

    As sunny as Zweig seems to be temperamentally, his memoir is permeated, quite naturally by despair and disbelief at what has happened to him, and happened to the world. He describes a sense among the Viennese of the time, and among Europeans even more generally, that life will always continue as it is today, always will be more or less, as it is at present. What seemed preposterous then, and for that fact seems even more powerful and tragic now, is the idea that a civilization can indeed collapse, even the most seemingly stable one, even one transformed and demonstrably enlightened.

    What’s more chilling, and even more pertinent to the present I would suggest, is Zweig’s descriptions of his fellow Austrians, the Viennese especially as they encounter the signs, the augurs, the indications of the materialization of the darkness to come, with an almost resolute denial, and later, a blithe fatalism, the two mixing together to render a strange sort of intoxication. Zweig regards it all, when it becomes entirely too concrete, as akin to a waking dream, life taking place around you, but in your dream-state helpless to act yourself.

    To reduce The World of Yesterday to the cautionary would be to unforgivably trivialize it. Zweig had lost everything, his home, his lifetime collections of books, manuscripts and musical scores, witnessed his books banned and burned, friends and family brutalized, the civilized world of yesterday delivered to barbarism. Having fled to England, and eventually all the way to Brazil, the day after completing The World of Yesterday he, together with his wife committed suicide.

    Our own present is unlikely to be mistaken by anyone for an idyllic era. No one really talks about underestimating the forces of reaction or regression, the allure of philistinism, the power of nationalism and xenophobia, fanaticism and the ideologically extreme. I sometimes have that sense of living in a waking dream myself, when I observe the political world unfolding everyday around me, wondering if I am the only one to notice.

    That I see those signs in the present of something dark to come, signs visible, even in plain sight, and the all but the same infuriating complacency surrounding me, it may only be my own neurosis, or my own political imagination unacceptably out of kilter.

    In any case, extrapolate from Zweig, and even from The Grand Budapest Hotel, what you will.

     

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