A New Confederacy of Dunces

Graduate school is absurd and graduate school in English doubly so, and concentrating on Early Eighteenth Century British Literature, specifically on the lesser-known works of Jonathan Swift, triply so – but it had its moments. Now and then a string of words hit a sort of sweet spot, saying it all. There was that line from Swift’s Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting – “When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” John Kennedy Toole spun that into one of the great picaresque novels of the American South, of seedy New Orleans – A Confederacy of Dunces – published eleven years after his suicide. The dunces got him down.

The South will do that to you. There’s something in the thick sweet air down there. Deep in their bones they know they lost that Civil War – that’s rather obvious – but they want to be seen as noble losers in a good but righteous cause, in a tragic but romantically heroic way. The American South is filled with such people, flying their Confederate flags and weeping at the gallant sacrifice of the Flower of the South, the true gentlemen of long ago. They haven’t the slightest idea why any local black person would be upset by any of that – gallantry is a wonderful thing.

It’s that Lost Cause of the Confederacy thing – Southern nobility fought bravely and fairly, and Northern generals were crude and vile and had no sense of fair play, as seen in Sherman’s March to the Sea – and Ulysses S. Grant was a damned alcoholic too. It just wasn’t fair, and they won’t let it go. They can’t let it go. It’s who they are, even if such thinking produces a lot of dunces, and it’s no coincidence that the Tea Party crowd is heavily white and Southern, even if they long for the white-bread world of Ozzie and Harriet America in the fifties. That’s just a slightly different lost cause, where the bad guys were Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and the hippies of the sixties, not Union soldiers. The Republican Party itself has become the Party of the South – that’s where almost all of their electoral votes are, and they’ve lost the last two presidential elections, badly, which is fine. It’s easy to slip into thinking of yourself as a loser, but a loser who should have won, if the world were as it should be. It’s self-pity as a defense mechanism.

It’s also dangerous. Michael Lind suggests that the South is holding America hostage with their “well-considered, coherent political and economic strategies of the conservative white South” of years ago, which he previously discussed herehere and here if you want to follow his full argument, but the essence is this:

The economic strategy is to maximize the attractiveness of the former Confederacy to external investors, by allowing Southern states to out-compete other states in the U.S., as well as other countries if possible, in a race to the bottom by means of low wages, stingy government welfare (which if generous increases the bargaining power of poor workers by decreasing their desperation) and low levels of environmental regulation.

The political strategy of the Southern elite is to prevent the Southern victims of these local economic policies from teaming up with allies in other parts of the U.S. to impose federal-level reforms on the Southern states. Voter suppression seeks to prevent voting by lower-income Southerners of all races who are hostile to the Southern power elite. Partisan gerrymandering of the U.S. House of Representatives by conservatives in Southern state legislatures weakens the votes of anti-conservative Southerners, if they are allowed to vote.

If voter suppression and vote dilution strategies fail, the Southern conservatives can still try to ward off unwelcome federally-imposed reforms that might weaken control of the Southern workforce by Southern employers and their political agents, by policies of devolving federal programs to the states, privatizing federal programs like Social Security and Medicare, blocking the implementation of new federal entitlements like Obamacare or a combination of these strategies.

Kim Messick makes a slightly different argument:

The Republican Party’s extremism can be traced to its increased dependence on an electorate that is largely rural, Southern and white. These voters, who figure prominently in the Tea Party, often decline to interpret political conflict as a struggle among interest groups or a good-faith clash of opinion. Instead, they tend to identify the country as a whole with an idealized version of themselves, and to equate any dissent from their values with disloyalty by alien, “un-American” forces. This paranoid vision of politics makes them seek out opportunities for dramatic conflict and to shun negotiation and compromise.

That’s a demographic argument, or a geographical one:

Persons who live in cities learn quickly that the world is full of different kinds of people; diversity – of race, religion, outlook, speech, etc. – is a fact of life. Because of this, they tend not to connect these personal attributes with one’s ability to be a trustworthy member of the community. If they think about the conditions of citizenship they are more likely to associate them with general qualities of character – honesty, integrity, loyalty – equally available to everyone, regardless of background.

Many rural areas, by contrast, lack this aboriginal experience of diversity; they may be characterized by high levels of uniformity in ideology, race and religion. Given this, it may be natural to assume that “everyone” believes what you believe, or worships as you worship, or looks and speaks as you look and speak.

If all this is so, we’re in trouble. We may all end up as depressed as John Kennedy Toole was, and we’re certainly left with this:

Senate leaders neared the completion Monday night of a bipartisan deal to raise the debt ceiling and end the government shutdown while the rest of the world braced for the possibility of an American default that could set off a global financial disaster.

Negotiators talked into the evening as senators from both parties coalesced around a plan that would lift the debt limit through Feb. 7, pass a resolution to finance the government through Jan. 15 and conclude formal discussions on a long-term tax and spending plan no later than Dec. 13, according to one Senate aide briefed on the plan.

But while both Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, and Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, praised the progress that was made in the Senate, it was already clear that the most conservative members of the House were not going to go along quietly with a plan that does not accomplish their goal from the outset of this two-week-old crisis: dismantling the president’s health care law.

“We’ve got a name for it in the House: it’s called the Senate surrender caucus,” said Representative Tim Huelskamp, Republican of Kansas. “Anybody who would vote for that in the House as Republican would virtually guarantee a primary challenger.”

This will not end well. There’s a confederacy of dunces at work, and others are noticing:

Chinese leaders called on a “befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.” In a commentary on Sunday, the state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua blamed “cyclical stagnation in Washington” for leaving the dollar-based assets of many nations in jeopardy. It said the “international community is highly agonized.”

Perhaps the Chinese are seeing what Paul Krugman is seeing:

So you have this neighbor who has been making your life hell. First he tied you up with a spurious lawsuit; you’re both suffering from huge legal bills. Then he threatened bodily harm to your family. Now, however, he says he’s willing to compromise: He’ll call off the lawsuit, which is to his advantage as well as yours. But in return you must give him your car. Oh, and he’ll stop threatening your family – but only for a week, after which the threats will resume.

Not much of an offer, is it? But here’s the kicker: Your neighbor’s relatives, who have been egging him on, are furious that he didn’t also demand that you kill your dog.

And now you understand the current state of budget negotiations.

Krugman goes on the argue that it’s high time that the moderate Republicans – or at least the halfway sane ones, if there are any – take back their party from these dunces. He explicitly frames this as the Northerners tossing out the Flower of the South, as it were, and maybe forming their own party.

That’s a thought, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog doesn’t see that happening:

Mainstream business continues to think it can ride the crazified GOP tiger. Non-crazy GOP officeholders feel the same way – from Boehner on down, they think they can control the angry rabble. Also, I think they all sorta like the extremism of the crazy caucus – they’d be happy with the outcomes the crazies want, if these outcomes could be obtained without periods of utter chaos.

The dunces do want lower taxes, or none at all, and the deregulation of everything, so they’re useful to the business community. They just go a tad overboard now and then. They can be slapped down when necessary, maybe. That’s the hope, even if their hope is being sorely tested at the moment, as utter chaos seems to be the order of the day:

Angered by the closure of national landmarks due to the partial government shutdown, a crowd of conservatives removed barricades Sunday at the World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial as they rallied against President Barack Obama and Democrats for their role in the ongoing stalemate.

High-profile speakers with close ties to the tea party appeared at the event, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

This was the Million Vet March on the Memorials – a few thousand people, at best, not a million, but it was all Tea Party, with the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and all the rest, including this:

One speaker went as far as saying the president was a Muslim and separately urged the crowd of hundreds to initiate a peaceful uprising. “I call upon all of you to wage a second American nonviolent revolution, to use civil disobedience, and to demand that this president leave town, to get up, to put the Quran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up,” said Larry Klayman of Freedom Watch, a conservative political advocacy group.

The proximate cause of that was this:

On the first day of the government shutdown, October 1, a group of World War II veterans was barred from entering the open-air memorial. But with the help of a few Republican members of Congress, the veterans removed the barricades and streamed onto the site, as security guards stood aside.

The Department of Interior has since said that veterans with the Honor Flight program will be permitted to visit the memorial as part of their First Amendment rights, but otherwise the site is closed to the general public until the government reopens.

That’s the outrage. The response seems a bit unbalanced, and Palin and Cruz said nothing about the call for Obama to come out with his hands up.

Of course there’s obvious disagreement here:

Anti-Obama sentiments echoed throughout the crowd Sunday, with one protester yelling out “punk” to describe the president and one speaker saying Obama is not the president of “the” people but “his” people. Multiple signs read “Impeach Obama.”

Asked last week whether the White House had any say in the closure of the World War II Memorial, spokesman Jay Carney said Republicans were at fault.

“Every House Republican who has decried any impact from this shutdown, as if they were surprised that it would happen, clearly didn’t pay attention when every agency of the federal government posted on their websites … what would happen if the government were shut down, including the closing of national memorials and national parks,” he said at a press briefing.

The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart noticed something else:

If you want to curdle the blood of an African-American and send a message of menace without resorting to burning a cross on the lawn or marching around in white sheets all one need do is wave the Confederate flag. So imagine my revulsion at the sight of one outside the front gates of the White House.

Michael Ashmore of Hooks, Tex., was among the many who converged on Washington for the “Million Vet March on the Memorials” to protest the government shutdown. This was the event where former half-term governor reality television star and best-selling author turned conservative gadfly Sarah Palin said, “Our vets have proven that they have not been timid, so we will not be timid in calling out any who would use our military, our vets, as pawns in a political game.” Applauding her self-awareness would be the height of irony – and sarcasm.

The protest and some of the barricades placed at the World War II Memorial then moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And it was there that Ashmore waved his Confederate flag. A symbol of Southern resistance and white supremacy unfurled in front of the home of the first black president of the United States. As Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg View and the Atlantic correctly said on Twitter yesterday, “In many parts of America, waving a Confederate flag outside the home of a black family would be considered a very hostile act.”

Capehart is an African-American, and someone hasn’t the slightest idea why any black person would be upset by that flag, or maybe Michael Ashmore knew exactly what he was doing. Waving a giant confederate flag in front of a house where a black family lives does send a message, rather definitively, and that was part of this Palin-Cruz rally this weekend, and the house was the White House. The Secret Service makes it hard to burn a cross on the front lawn of course, which deprived them of the ultimate Christian message. And you remember Samuel Wurzelbacher – “Joe the Plumber” – John McCain’s presidential campaign mascot in 2008 – the regular guy, the bookend to Sarah Palin. Over the weekend, Wurzelbacher posted a manifesto on his blog – “America Needs a White Republican President.” It was simple – “Admit it. You want a white Republican president again. Wanting a white Republican president doesn’t make you racist, it just makes you American.”

It should be noted that a lot of conservatives tweeted about the Confederate flag incident – half of them said Michael Ashmore was an Obama plant trying to make them all look bad and the other half said Michael Ashmore was an asshole and didn’t represent their views at all – but there were Confederate flags all over the place that day. Now, today, new polling shows that the Real Americans™ among us are down to twenty-six percent of the population, as seventy-four percent of us think the Republican shutdown is beyond stupid. But they do want their country back. The South will rise again, or something.

Conor Friedersdorf wonders about the original point here:

What I think, when I see that memorial closures are the thing that gets conservatives in the streets, is that movement leaders and rank-and-file activists alike cannot be counted on to identify and take on the most serious issues facing veterans, or the most serious threats to liberty. Instead they spend their time seizing on symbolic issues that promise to result in the best optics for a given news cycle – World War II veterans traveled to Washington and can’t visit the memorial dedicated to them!

Think what victory would mean in this instance: the barricades would come down, which will happen anyway as soon as the government reopens. In other words, there’s no substantive upside for this particular rally, whether you’re concerned about benefiting veterans or safeguarding liberty. It was held so that Cruz and Palin could aggrandize themselves, so that conservatives could revel in their self-image as liberty-loving patriots who honor veterans, and so that the Obama Administration would look bad. Protests are nothing more than political theater for these people. Or if they actually intend to effect change, their strategy verges on nonsensical.

Friedersdorf is not familiar with confederacies of dunces, this one led by the Klayman fellow, but Andrew Sullivan is:

They do not believe this president is a legitimate president. It is beyond their understanding that he was re-elected handily, or that he commands, even during this assault on our system of government, far more support than the Tea Party. Let’s not be mealy-mouthed. This speaker, Larry Klayman of Freedom Watch, accuses the president of treason in his speech, of deliberately pursuing policies to kill members of the armed services, because he is an Islamist, and allegedly “bows to Allah”. What he is saying is the president is a deliberate mole of foreign agents determined to destroy the American way of life. And there is no pushback from the crowd and no pushback from GOP leaders.

This is what we’re dealing with. This is not an alternative budget; it is not another way of insuring millions and cutting healthcare costs; it is not a contribution to anything but to the logic of nullification of an election. It is yet another declaration of cold civil war – a call for a nonviolent refusal to be governed by a re-elected president, because he is pursuing policies with which an electorally-defeated minority disagrees. Simply pursuing those policies has rendered Obama a “monarch” who is arguing “his way or the highway.”

But all Obama is doing is implementing a campaign promise and settled law, while governing under a continuing resolution that reflects the sequester’s level of spending, a level agreed to by the Republicans. He wants a budget agreement between the House and Senate in a conference that the Republican House has long resisted entering. He has said that he is happy to negotiate with anyone on anything as long as the blackmail of a government shut-down and of a threatened global depression are ended. And his record shows that he has compromised again and again – as his own most fervent supporters look on in dismay.

Something is very foul here:

I’d love a much more expansive Grand Bargain on taxes and entitlements that could ease our long-term debt (but it would have to be a bargain, not merely a set of Republican demands). But the rank threats of unimaginably radical consequences if a re-elected president doesn’t junk what he was re-elected to do are so foul in their lack of concern about the common good, so poisonous in their slander of a president, and so contemptuous of our orderly system of government, that it is vital the threats do not work and are not accommodated. No president of any party has any right to legitimize such an attack on the American system of government and the way it conducts business – by elections, debates, compromises and budgets, not threats of total government shut-down and the collapse of the dollar if our global credit rating is effectively destroyed overnight.

There’s also that other matter:

It is no accident that among those addressing this rally to blackmail the country and the world were Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz. I can see a very powerful populist electoral ticket with both of those on it – either of a third Tea Party or of an even more radicalized GOP. And perhaps that is the only way to expunge this nihilist extremism from our system. Except that it may succeed in expunging the system and the economy before we can test it where in a democracy we are accustomed to test it: in elections, not in the chaos of economic blackmail.

Sullivan also adds a video clip:

Yelling at police doing their job maintaining security at the White House, calling them “brownshirts,” “Stasi” and saying that one unit “looks like something out of Kenya” – can we dispense with any illusions that these are patriotic political actors, respecting those who serve our country in the military or police force? They are delusional, racist fanatics.

And I should add that the composure and restraint of these public servants in the face of these yahoos and morons is remarkable.

There’s a reason John Kennedy Toole was so depressed. The South has produced a confederacy of dunces, although this is amusing:

Remember Rick Perry and secession? That’s so yesterday. Ever-quotable lieutenant governor candidate Jerry Patterson says he has a better idea. Texas shouldn’t secede – it should just make the U.S. better by throwing liberal states out. California, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut! “I get lots of questions all the time, ‘Well, we should secede.’ I say, ‘No, I’ve got a better idea. Instead of secession, I’m a proponent of expulsion,'” he told the AP. “I want to kick about four states out of this union.”

That works too, if it’s us against them and “everyone” believes what you believe, and worships as you worship, and looks and speaks as you look and speak. It isn’t. These people should get out more. They’d probably find that the Civil War is over and everyone else moved on, and find we have a big country with lots of different kinds of people, and that, curiously, they’re all Americans too. Who knew? That’s pretty exciting, unless you’re a dunce, forming conspiracies.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to A New Confederacy of Dunces

  1. Rick says:

    I saw on Facebook one of my “friends” (sort-of) from high school, under a picture of him in his Army uniform, was announcing that he was going to a million-vet something or other in Washington. I just can’t get over the fact that someone I thought was a good guy can be joining this group. I have no idea what he’s thinking.

    Or any of them, for that matter:

    First, the Republicans close down the whole government, which includes the Vietnam Vet memorial in DC, so then thousands (or was it hundreds?) of vets put on their old uniforms and travel to the capital to angrily stream past the barricades.

    Does this mean all these guys are protesting the Republicans’ closing down the monuments? Probably not. More likely, their brains got a little scrambled and they think they’re protesting Obama. No, you’re right, that doesn’t make any sense, but they seem to siding with a whole lot of other people who aren’t making any sense either, so at least there seems to be some consistency here.

    And as for Sam the Plumber saying this:

    “America Needs a White Republican President. … Admit it. You want a white Republican president again. Wanting a white Republican president doesn’t make you racist, it just makes you American.”

    I suppose we should give him credit for saying the unspeakable out loud — or else we should take note of his stupidity for saying that out loud, and for being too stupid to even realize that it’s racist. All the rest of his fellow racists at least know not to do that, lest people notice that they are racists. In fact, they may even suspect that Sam was one of those people hired by Obama to say something that makes the Tea Party look bad.

    As for Texas’s lieutenant governor candidate Jerry Patterson suggesting that, instead of seceding, Texas should throw four liberal states out of the union: Does he realize that they outnumber Texas in population? And, in fact, just one of those, California, does?

    Ironically, I myself have lately thought that, instead of allowing Texas to secede, the rest of us should just give the state back to Mexico.


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