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Was the Frankfurt School On to Something?

In the thread that shows the Right would like to reanimate the corpse of Trotsky to be their endless punching bag, OTer LeeEsq noted that a lot of old academic theorists are coming back in the days of Trump. Most notably, the Frankfurt School received mentions in The New Yorker and Vox.

Who were the Frankfrut School? Roughly, they were a group of German-Jewish Marxist Intellectuals who first started writing during the Weimar Republic but who really took off when they needed to flee Nazi Germany in the 1930s. They had one basic question. Why did a Communist Revolution happen in a backwoods country like Russia instead of an advanced and civilized country like Germany like Marx predicted? This question became more important to them in the 1930s after the Nazis seized control. The most famous scholars like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse came to the United States and were largely horrified by what they saw especially in terms of mass/popular culture. The Frankfurt School developed a dichotomy between art, which elevates and causes someone to question authority and culture, a force that lulls people into a false sense of security.

The Frankfurt School never really took off beyond academia. Partially because they are dense and bad writers. I know this from personal experience as an undergrad especially with Adorno’s essay on Endgame. The other aspect that makes them so off putting is that they were total in their worldview and uncompromising. Stuart Jefferies phrases it this way in his Vox interview:

So Adorno and the other critical theorists saw culture as inherently totalitarian, and this was particularly true in America. This, of course, didn’t go over well with the public. You have these Germans coming to your country with their old attitudes and their defense of bourgeois art, and they’re critical of every aspect of American culture and regard it as an artistic wasteland.

Americans struggled with this idea that popular culture, their popular culture, could be subversive in this way. And, to be fair, many of the critical theorists didn’t get American culture, and so they undoubtedly overreached at times.

The other fact is that what is usually called high-culture does not appeal to most people and often never has. It isn’t hard to see why the Frankfurt School turns off a lot of people, but Jefferies is right: Adnorno and company had a lot of things going for them.

American culture seems to be divided into a lot of bubbles. There are songs that are popular in red states and songs popular in blue states. You can do this for almost every aspect of pop culture and we use pop culture to fool ourselves into believing our worldviews are on the rise and unquestionable.

There are also memes for reducing all political debate into cutsey snaps. Memes and gifs depress me. They are present on all political sides and to me it looks like a society that has given up on some of the foundations of liberal democracy like the idea that “reasonable people can disagree.” Memes and gifs represent a loss of faith in rhetoric and convincing anyone of anything. They are all very pat and seem to preach to the choir while digging trenches that will survive the Battle of the Somme.

Since I am a liberal and care about the goals of my side in advancing the welfare state and civil rights and liberties, I am especially concerned with how much fellow liberals seem to resort to snark, memes, and gifs as matters of communication for all things. A lot of pop culture over the last few years has been rather liberal in soft ways and I wonder if this gave a lot of liberals a false sense of security about always being on the winning team. We got excited about Will & Grace and Joss Whedon’s favorite actors making commercials for Hillary without thinking that it could be off-putting to the right number of people. We rested on the laurels of Modern Family instead of wondering whether a right-wing backlash was coming.

There are plenty of memes on the right-wing or libertarian-wing that show an equal amount of disdain if not more for the commonwealth and seek to “rah rah” the ingroup instead of finding true cross-ideological alliances on issues where agreement is possible.

And now we have Trump as our President. Our President is a washed-up reality star with a short temper, shorter attention span, thin skin, and his cabinet is prone to telling outright lies or “alternative facts” as they call them. Instead of realizing that this is potentially intentional tactic, liberals just surrender themselves to silly memes about “alternative facts” on social media. I admit that I did this as well but it struck me as an act of impotence. The Republicans control all three branches of government, they don’t care about any norms or the popular voice, and seem dead set on getting as much of their agenda done in a steam-roller fashion. Why not go to secure snark? Why not bubble myself off more?

Over the course of the last week, the left started resistance to Trump appeared strong and spontaneous. The question is whether this rebukes some of the Frankfurt School because memes and gifs and pop culture still reign on the Internet. I don’t think it has. People still use myriad examples of pop culture as security blankets for why their worldview is correct and dominant. We still have an authoritarian know-nothing in the White House trampling over Constitutional norms and he does not seem to be going away any time soon. I remember in college when we would all watch The West Wing and use it as wishthinking as opposed to Bushian reality. I wonder and am also horrified by the kind of wishthinking culture Trump will inspire. I worry that the left will forget whatever is learned from Trump and just go back into a lulling from pop culture.

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147 thoughts on “Was the Frankfurt School On to Something?

  1. “A lot of pop culture over the last few years has been rather liberal in soft ways and I wonder if this gave a lot of liberals a false sense of security about always being on the winning team. We got excited about Will & Grace and Joss Whedon’s favorite actors making commercials for Hillary without thinking that it could be off-putting to the right number of people. We rested on the laurels of Modern Family instead of wondering whether a right-wing backlash was coming.”

    This is excellent analysis Saul. I tend to agree. I think in general, there is a certain fascination on the Left with celebrity. It’s the Hollywood relationship. Hence the hyper-focus on the White House and forgetting about all those other races that have slowly given the GOP unprecedented power in 2017.

    Additionally (and I am going to show a lot of personal bias here) I think conservatives are generally better at understanding the other side than liberals are. Even though I may at times disagree strongly with liberals, I can usually see their point of view and even understand their motivations. I think it has to do with many of us on the Right spending our youths as idealistic liberals and then having a conversion at some point. To share one of my favorite quotes, “The best parents are the ones that never forget what it’s like to be a child.” Not to compare liberals to children, but the analogy would be that because Left-to-Right conversions are probably more common as people age, there are a whole lot of people on the Right that remember being liberals, and so we understand them better than they understand us. That’s a great strength when used properly.


    • This is why debating with Chip can be a good bit of mental exercise, since he flipped the other way. If nothing else, he makes me take out my priors and hold them up to the light on a regular basis.


    • I think in general, there is a certain fascination on the Left with celebrity.

      And yet it is the Republicans who repeatedly elect celebrities to office. They have been doing this for over a half century, going back to George Murphy. The only example I can think of on the Democratic side is Al Franken..


      • The Democratic Party would deeply love it could mobilize celebrity power in the same way the Republican Party can. Both parties are deeply fascinated with Hollywood glitter and glam. Its just that the Democratic Party is less likely to look to celebrities as a source of candidates. I think this is partially because everybody assumes that most celebrities lean liberal so a there isn’t anything special about a Hollywood celebrity being a liberal Democratic candidate. Conservative Hollywood celebrities are relatively rare, especially now, and make for better surprise candidates. Hearing that a A-list celebrity is opposed to LGBTQ rights is going to be more uncommon than a A-list celebrity in favor of LGBT rights.


      • IIRC, the left in general thought Franken running was a bad idea because he was a celebrity and had no experience or useful background for the job and would, you know, be kinda pointless as a Senator.

        (They turned out to be wrong, but I won’t say their argument didn’t have some merit).


      • Electing celebrities is one thing…I’m talking about the Left thinking that lots of celebrities making well-produced videos and showing up at conventions will translate to voter turnout. Or worse, they think it means Democrats are cool.

        Also, the Left covets the WH so much because it’s the ultimate celebrity. Clinton played the saxophone. Obama did YouTube videos. They were cool too. That focus takes away from all those other important races.


        • I agree with this but I think it will make more sense if you use Democrat and Republican rather than Left or Right. The Further Left, people with actual radical beliefs do not like Hollywood glitter. Neither do the Far Right.


          • At some point someone around here should do a post on a taxonomy of political designations. It is hard not to refer to a shorthand of “left” or “right” in general, but to the people on that side it is confusing and possibly demeaning.


        • I would say that both the left and the right, or, if you prefer, Democrats and Republicans, are fascinated by celebrity. This fascination tends to manifest itself in different ways.


                • We seem to be talking past one another. You pointed out that the left is fascinated by celebrity. I pointed out that the right is also fascinated by celebrity, albeit with this fascination manifesting itself differently. Then the discussion seems to have gone off the rails. You claim that the right is more picky. I pointed out a Republican elected official with no obvious qualification being being a terrific purser on the Love Boat. Now you don’t want to include celebrities getting elected. I can understand that. We haven’t even gotten to Bedtime for Bonzo yet. But why is it that the way the right manifests its fascination with celebrity doesn’t count, while the way the left manifests its fascination does?


                  • I think the Left will generally take any celeb that is willing to generically talk about liberal ideas. The Right is also happy to have the celebs talking about conservative ideas, but maybe they have to prove their bona fides a bit more.

                    And I really don’t think Reagan’s celebrity had anything to do with his election. He was heavily involved in the party for decades.


                    • “The Right is also happy to have the celebs talking about conservative ideas, but maybe they have to prove their bona fides a bit more.”

                      That would’ve been a better argument about 18 months ago.


                        • This was already past its sell-by date before he fully clinched the nomination, but now that we’ve reached a point where he won election on the GOP’s ticket and is receiving close cooperation from the party’s Congressional majorities it’s just sad.


                          • I disagree on that. He’s a very interesting mix of conservative, liberal and Tea Party policies. He seems okay with LGBT rights, but he has Pence as his VP. He loves infrastructure spending, but he wants to be fiscally conservative. He’s basically a xenophobe, but he loves doing business overseas. Honestly, trying to lump him into any one bucket seems foolhardy. For better or for worse, he’s a one of a kind.


                            • I agree on the part about his policies. But he won the R nom and is governing as the elected prez with an R next to his name. He is taking the R’s in his direction, whatever the heck that may be. He is leading the R’s away from who they were. Now of course we don’t know where that will end. But it’s been noted many times by people far more conservative than i that many R’s have abandoned traditional R policies and thrown their lot in with Trump. He is steering the ship on a different course. He isn’t what R’s used to be, that is true. But the party is changing.


                              • I don’t know that he has has the power to change the party that much, but it remains to be seen. I know very smart people that think he will be impeached by the GOP within a year. Do I believe that? No. But eventually I do think he will overstep and Ryan and McConnell will be forced to act. That will be the interesting moment.

                                On the other side, people like Michael Moore (another celeb!) have thrown down the gauntlet and threatened Democrats with voting them out if they don’t filibuster the SCOTUS pick.


                                • I doubt he will be impeached. If he is it will be at least a couple years and after some unforeseen screw up that will take time to unwind. Ryan and McConnell have folded on things like free trade which used to be a big deal. I’m not really sure what Trump could do that would force some push back. If it comes it will be after months deteriorating popularity and continues chaos.


                                  • Ryan and McConnell have folded on things like free trade which used to be a big deal. I’m not really sure what Trump could do that would force some push back.

                                    Depending on how things pan out, I could see Trump’s trade policies being the very issue you’re looking for.


                                      • Here’s another way: Congressional fatigue. (I won’t link em all, from today alone)

                                        “Trump threatens [to send US troops to] Mexico over ‘bad hombres’ ”

                                        “White House vows response to Iran’s ballistic missile test”

                                        “At one point Trump informed [Australian Prime Minister] Turnbull … “This was the worst call by far.”

                                        Trump’s behavior suggests that he is capable of subjecting world leaders, including close allies, to a version of the vitriol he frequently employs against political adversaries and news organizations in speeches and on Twitter. “This is the worst deal ever,” Trump fumed… ”

                                        What day are we on?


                            • Where’s the evidence that he wants to be fiscally conservative? It looks to me like he’s promised all things to all people on taxes & spending: big tax cuts, more military spending, more infrastructure spending, better health care than the ACA, which costs money, etc etc etc.. That may well be the kind of fiscal policy favored in practice by many conservatives, but I don’t think you can fairly call it fiscal conservatism.


                        • Was he their candidate for President? Yes?

                          Then he’s the definition of “Republican” now. That’s what Republican is. He’s the standard bearer.

                          If they kick him out, I’ll revisit the issue. But until then? He’s not only a Republican, he and what he does is the literal symbol of the party.

                          Because he holds their highest, most powerful and visible office, after having been duly nominated for that position by party vote.


                          • Agreed.

                            Honestly, I’m getting pretty impatient with all the calls for liberals to “soul search” after the victory of Trump. Certainly I want a stronger, more effective liberal-left, but that’s rather different from saying our value are wrong. That’s hogwash. Our values were and remain correct.

                            Those who hew toward Trumpism — they are the ones who should be soul searching now. They elected a monster.

                            Of course, many will not, for a couple reasons. The first is plain ol’ cognitive dissonance. It is hard to admit your decisions were wildly misguided, that your behavior and values were out of whack, that you let ignorance and fear guide your actions, rather than decency and charity. Blah blah blah.

                            So far Trump has proven to be exactly what we said he was. I expect this to continue, unless and until he is somehow stopped. So it goes. For most people, cognitive dissonance has its limits. We’ll see.

                            The Republicans have also proven to be exactly what we said they were. This should bother them. We’ll see.

                            (Guilt is different from shame. Guilt is what you feel when your actions go against your values. Guilt is a healthy emotion. It teaches us to do better. Shame, on the other hand, is the sense that you are essentially a worthless person. Shame is an unhealthy emotion. Those who supported Trump should feel guilt, not shame. They should realize their error, account for it, and strive to do better. In concrete terms, they should join the protests.)

                            Another group of Trump supporters are, to speak bluntly, literal Nazis (and sorry folks, Godwin’s law is dead). There is not much we can do about them, but to oppose them completely.

                            Actually I’m down for punching them, except I won’t personally punch anyone because I don’t want to get arrested. Likewise, I don’t trust the radical left to actually make consistently good decisions regarding which Trumpists fall into which camp, and getting it wrong a lot will cause needless harm. But so it goes. I have no more ability to change the behavior of radical leftists than I do to change the behavior of dipshits on the right.

                            On the other hand, a few “black brigade” radical leftists are a rather different beast from federal law enforcement. We should all fear the latter much more.

                            There will be resistance within the ranks against Trumpism. Will there be enough? I certainly wish there was more. We’ll see.


                            • v,
                              your values may be right, but your priorities are off.
                              And if you expect me to favor people being led around by the nose… you got another thing coming.

                              The left let the drama queens take over, and that’s a mistake that needs fixing. (Unlike Acorn, which every single leftist organization turned out the knives for. We remember that decision too.)

                              I mean, it’s far from “benefit of the doubt” to ask you to personally fix the people who feel that it’s better to play video games and go to fancy resorts rather than answering the phone at the suicide hotline (and then using the subsequent deaths to fundraise).

                              But until shit like that gets changed, I’m more likely to fund work outside the “Liberal Left” than within it. (And, yes, it doesn’t help when the left decides that “death threats” are worse than actual deaths of innocent people.)


                            • As I mentioned yesterday, Trumpism isn’t a coherent set of policy preferences. In almost all matters its gibberish.

                              The only clear vision is a sort of revanchism, a return to a world where the white American male reigns supreme.

                              You see this confirmed in the various people who talk about taking Trump “seriously but not literally”, or how people glibly talk about “shaking things up” or “burning it all down” without any idea of what that means.

                              Trumps fans aren’t offended by the idea of Trump is a bully- its his most attractive feature.
                              Trump fans love the idea of the big American white male barking orders at a cowed and trembling world, at the Big Man on Horseback making the dusky urban hordes obey.

                              So they call on us to “soul search”?
                              For what end?
                              If you don’t have an idea of your own, demanding others search their soul is meaningless.


                    • It seems to me that conservatives are uniquely concerned with the fact that so many celebrities are liberals. I’ve worked in progressive politics for years and I’ve never had a conversation about who celebrity X endorsed with anyone in my political cohort. But I keep hearing from my conservative friends and family that they’re just so sick of Hollywood (and increasingly athletes) trying to tell them how to vote. Just saying Mike…


                        • Are they no longer full citizens? Did they give it up when becoming famous? Is it just liberal celebrities or all of them?

                          Because I’ve been asked my political opinion often enough in random conversations, and nobody’s ever told me I shouldn’t volunteer that opinion when it seemed appropriate to me.


                          • I don’t know. At my workplace it’s considered bad form to volunteer one’s political views in an interview, when being given an award, etc. Seems like decorum could provide some limits.

                            And yes, free speech is still alive and well. It doesn’t mean people should share everything that pops into their head.


                            • Do the celebrities work for you? Are you their employer? Or do you consider everything they do in public “at work”, even if unpaid or on their free time?

                              Do you also believe the Koch brothers should stop spending money on politics? Money is speech, after all — which means speech is money. So rich conservatives donating millions is at least as much an imposition on the public as A-list celebrities tossing in their two-cents in an interview.


    • I think that statements of the form, “I know what the other side is really like” rarely start any conversations that are worth having. It’s a form of mind-reading.

      Now, it’s true that I have some ideas about what conservatives and Republicans are motivated by, but when I’m talking with them, I prefer for them to tell me what motivates them, rather than tell them what motivates them. The latter just doesn’t work. It’s an act of dominance. It’s a classic tactic in politics, of course, but it holds no value for me in the context of what I’m looking to get out of conversations on this site.

      I think the comments underneath this comment demonstrate my thesis.


    • I don’t know if it is true that Democrat are more celeb-obsessed then Republicans. We have had some famous politicians who were in sports (Bill Bradley) or Comedy (Al Franken) but the Republicans including their most favorite President. There are plenty of times when the GOP seems hurt that many of their favorite actors are liberal on a personal level.

      I’ve written that the liberal side of this concerns me more but that does not mean the same sensibility does not exist on the right-wing.


  2. If I’m understanding you correctly the Frankfurt school posited that communist revolutions happened in rural Russia rather than advanced Germany because popular culture in advanced Germany innured the masses against communism? And they saw that as a bad thing? I dunno it seems like a rather anodyne observation to me. Communism historically flourished most where the masses were immiserated. It struggled and struggles in places where they were not. in Germany Bismarck instituted Staatssozialismus specifically to reduce support for socialists and it worked. In Britain the Monarchy (under Elizabeth II’s Grandfather and Father) ceded practical power reluctantly to Parliament and repurposed itself into the public relations focused more inert constitutional monarchy that exists there today and it worked. In America the resources of an entire continent meant that everyone, even the poor, were comparatively well off and socialists found few finger holds to advance.


    • People like their creature comforts and always did. The best zinger I saw directed at Adorno and the Frankfurt School was from a recent book on the history of consumerism entitled “The Empire of Things.” As the author put it, “Adorno thought it was a small step from ‘We Don’t Have any Bananas’ to social fascism.” People aren’t ascetic though. Trying to turn them away from their creature comforts and pop culture is like trying to stop people from having recreational sex. Its not going to work.


    • I think it is more that pop culture allows someone like the Nazis for the Frankfurt School or Trump for the Americans to come in.

      My views is that the left was caught off guard because we think we are winning because pop culture is on our side but there was 65 million voice of hell no combined with our anachronisms of getting to Presidency.


      • Okay so it’s more like “Pop culture is bad because it lulls liberals into a false sense of complacency”? After 2000 and 2016 I’d say you’d be better off replacing pop culture with A Democratic President.


        • I know you have your issue with this and we have debated it in the past when you say people are abandoning high culture because of the abundance of pop culture items. Jefferies acknowledges that the totalness of the Frankfurt School makes them easy to reject out of hand.

          But something is going on here. Why is it that I saw all over the net “OMG! OMG! Look at this pro-HRC Will&Grace video” and it turned me off and I thought it would backfire? I was not even a Bernie guy for long. I decided to vote for HRC sometime in early 2016. The same with the Joss Whedon stuff. I see people post memes and these viral things and I have a hard time deciding whether it is merely rallying the base
          or trying to be an argument to convinced the other side or people on the fence. Most of them are not convincing to me and very few can doubt my liberal bonafides.

          Perhaps I am just old fashioned.


          • I gotta admit I’m pretty unmoved by pop cultural political opining myself. What I’m entirely scornful of, though, is the idea that high culture has any better political advocacy to make. I don’t think a pro-HRC (or Pro-Trump for that matter) interpretative ballet would do any better than a pro-whoever rap.

            And while I’m sure that it’s possible for those things to turn off more people than it attracts I suspect that the vast majority of them are a mild positive rather than a mild or dramatic negative. Better to have than not to have but certainly not definitive.


            • The Frankfurt school isn’t arguing that high culture makes more political advocacy. Their argument is that if people were really into high culture that makes them think more than easily accessible pop culture than they would be less to fall for authoritarian and totalitarian politicians.


              • Their argument is that if people were really into high culture that makes them think more than easily accessible pop culture than they would be less to fall for authoritarian and totalitarian politicians.

                This is, of course, completely idiotic for a number of reasons.

                For one thing, high culture does not make people think more. High culture merely has a higher *entrance cost*.

                Sometimes this requires people having knowledge outside what is presented, but ‘knowledge’ is not the same as thinking, and there is functionally no difference between ‘a narrator explains things’ vs ‘you have to read a summary in the program’.

                Seriously, someone walk me, step by step, through someone enjoying ballet, and explain where the ‘thinking’ is. They have to follow a plot that is almost certainly more simple than any random episode of a TV show, and is laid out step-by-step in the provided reading materials.

                But that’s not the only stupid here….we don’t really have any evidence that people ‘thinking more’ (As opposed to be smarter, or opposed to them being more educated…which, to be clear, we also don’t have much evidence for, I’m just pointing out those aren’t the same thing) will hinder authoritarian and totalitarian politicians, or that high culture *couldn’t enable those things*. Maybe someone should ask the Germans about *Wagner*.’

                You probably get *different* authoritarian and totalitarian politicians, of course.


            • North,
              So you disagree with the review posted here about the Polish rightwing movie? Or did you think that was rubbish simply because of the politics? (I personally hated the whitewashing).


    • I dunno it seems like a rather anodyne observation to me.

      I agree. What’s more, this whole theory hinges on the idea that the totalitarian communism of Lenin and Stalin is meaningfully different than the totalitarian fascism of Hitler. I understand why a Marxist academic wants to portray a communist revolution as a step forward and fascists taking power as backsliding, but I’m not sure why those of us who are not Marxists ought to buy into that logic.

      There are taxonomic differences. For instance, communism is centered around class solidarity, while fascism around ethnic/nationalistic lines. However, spend a bit of time studying totalitarian regimes and you notice certain similarities. The all employ some form of mythology that valorizes a certain group and scapegoats another. They all come to power by selectively working with competing factions and within existing institutions and then betraying those factions and institutions. And they all make use of redundant, competing lines of power to keep any other institution from developing enough power to challenge the center.

      Most importantly for this discussion, both the Bolsheviks and the Nazis came to power for similar reasons: they filled a vacuum. Either in the wake of Wiemar Germany or Tsarist Russia, they were the faction that outfought, outmanuevered, and outmurdered all the other factions. I’m not sure how much further than that we need to go.


      • There’s also a pretty important point that neither could have been what they were without the incredible stress their societies went through with fighting the first world war.


  3. Great piece Saul. I agree with your overall argument.

    Since we are only a week into the Trump presidency and I am already legit meetly angry about a slew of things this man has put into place, I am giving my liberal/left wing friends leeway in some of the hyperbolic venting I am seeing in social media.

    What I fear is that we will not move beyond this in actually steering the country in a new direction in elections coming in 2/4 years. We can retreat to culture we control to receive some solace from this right-wing government (lord knows I have these last few weeks), and protests can be cathartic, but I don’t think it will stop Trump or win government back for the Democrats.

    Having said that, I plan to protest with them, even if I know it matters very little that I join in with other liberals in the Bay Area. I just hope we work at engaging the other side better than we have.


    • Yeah, if the left is not telling their politicians to get busy finding ways to claw power back from the presidency, or ways to inspire the judiciary to be less deferential to the executive, all the protests will be for naught. I get that removing Trump and his posse from office sounds like a good idea, but the reality is that unseating a president is a big lift, even more so given how opaque a lot of government is.

      My fear is that the organs of the executive will begin to wholesale ignore the judiciary, and then we will be in a very bad place.


        • They have the Federal Marshalls, assuming the Marshalls remember who they actually work for.

          But that isn’t much if the rest of the executive LEOs aren’t interested in cooperating. This is the danger of letting every single agency with even a sliver of LE authority have guns and tac teams.


          • QFT

            Thinks back to all those RFPs that were put out in the last decade for various agencies buying loads of ammo on IDIQ contracts…..

            “now which administration did that happen on?” My brain forgets…..


            • If (and I admit it is still a big if) the federal LE agencies decide to ignore the judiciary, then the only avenue left is to cut their funding, which would require the GOP to grow a pair and get their house in order.

              Although (and perhaps I’ve got this wrong), the Treasury answers to the president, so if they decide to not cut off the funding if congress orders them to…


      • I think a big issue here is that Federalism is not a good fit for the left. I also agree with Francis that the number of sincere Federalists can probably fit into a Manhattan studio apartment comfortably.

        A true Federalist would allow for the Socialist People’s Republic of Vermont and The Christian Republic of Alabama. In truth, very few people will allow for both.


            • I should qualify my support of federalism a bit in that if your fictional Alabama or Vermont did anything to deny the vote, or deny freedom of exit, then federalism can’t work. There are probably a handful of other freedoms are important for federalism to work, as well as a degree of federal policy that has to exist to keep states as good neighbors (e.g. air & water pollution, since rivers and air currents don’t respect political boundaries).

              What federalism is important for is the ability to experiment with social structures and policy, which is where everyone loses it, because suddenly Alabama having prayer in school is a threat to the nation just as much as the strong welfare system of Vermont is.


              • This is a central facet of Federalism, along with the specifics of the Bill of Rights and the Amendments. And those are where the Federal gov’t would step in. Freedom of the Press, Search and Seizure, etc. would still be important, but this would be open to interpretation by the individual states. And if the states stepped too far out of line, then and only then does the Fed come down on them.

                This is really common thinking in every Libertarian circle that I know.


    • I think the protests are working because they are helping or making sure that elected Democratic politicians grow spines and fight against Trump even if they fail at stopping anything. The old “We lost. Please kick us” stance is out.


      • Anecdata point:

        There was a street fair here in Downtown LA over the weekend, and a candidate for Xaviar Becerra’s vacant seat was there pressing the flesh.

        She and her campaign aids wore anti-Trump stickers, and wasted no time in telling everyone how committed they were to total war against him.

        It appears to be a selling point for our candidates, compared to past years when they downplayed liberalism in favor of “pragmatic solutions” which was code for privatization and Republican-Lite.


  4. Most entertainment have soft liberal or soft conservative tendencies because they sell easier than hard liberal or hard conservative tendencies. Nearly every show or movie with a pregnant teenage girl has her give birth to the baby rather than get an abortion, a soft conservative rather than a hard liberal option, but that’s how you get a show or movie in the first place that will appeal to most people. Liberals could live with it if the girl choose to do so on her own will and pro-life people like that because no abortion. Likewise the, soft girl power feminism and small world multiculturalism of Disney movies and TV is going to have a broader appeal than hard feminism because it allows for women to be active but get their prince and hard conservatism’s strict gender roles, which will not sell well to most women and girls. Soft liberalism and soft conservatism are just as much marketing decisions as they are political decisions. People who want hard liberalism or hard conservatism need to venture outside main stream entertainment.


  5. I think that there’s a much simpler understanding of why Germany went right and Russia went left. The National Socialists employed mass media to a great extent with film and radio. Russia didn’t, as far as I know. Mass media is typically controlled by monied interests. They are going to act as a filter to art that tends to endorse or promote opposition to monied interests. It has nothing to do with highbrow/lowbrow stuff.

    Gay marriage doesn’t threaten monied interests. Higher taxes to support universal health care does.


    • Mass media and popular culture were in their infancy globally when the Bolsheviks took over Russia. It was before radio. They were certainly irrelevant in the low literacy of the Russian Empire. Mass media also had very little to do with the Nazi seizure of power. Nazis gained control of Germany by winning a plurality in the elections and regular coalition forming politics. They than took advantage of a terrorist act to seize complete control. The Bolsheviks came to power in Russia by taking advantage of the weakness of the Provisional Government and the unpopularity of World War I. The October Revolution was based on a promise the Bolsheviks would negotiate a peace treaty with Germany and end Russian involvement in World War I. They did so.

      Both the Communists and the Nazis did use mass media as a means to maintain control though.


      • Without mass media, I don’t think there’s any such thing as ‘popular culture’. So you also disagree with the Frankfurt School, but on a different axis. Do I have that right?


        • There is popular culture without mass media and we have plenty of historical examples of this. The Roman Empire had a popular culture in the form of theater, poetry, chariot racing, gladiatorial games, and religious festivities. These were Empire wide entertainment but there wasn’t anything close to a mass media because there was no printing. The Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan had a mass popular culture in the form of kabuki, sumo, no theater, and puppet plays along with a consumer culture but there was no mass media.

          Before the invention of cinema, the only mass media were newspapers but you still had a popular culture based around sport, popular theater, saloons/pubs, circuses, dance halls, and popular music via Tin Pan Alley and Music Hall.


          • Just a note- I’d agree with the distinction between popular culture and mass media. The Frankfurters were really talking about mass culture in the sense of mass media and using it as an explanation for why there wasn’t a class revolution in places like America. Supposedly, the movies and radio conditioned working class people to accept the system. It gets extreme when they’re talking about, say, Mike Mouse and the violence of capitalism, so it can be easy to parody.


            • Ah okay, so the Vox article says what I just did. They might be overstating the thing about that school never catching on. There was a vogue in the 60s on college campuses for some of it, but it’s not what it used to be.


            • Its kind of naive that some Marxists believe in their faith with such sincerity that they can’t believe the masses decided they were better under capitalism. One of the reasons why Anarchists thought Marxists were wrong was that they knew capitalism could and would turn workers into middle class people to save itself and your going to have to force leftism down their throat to an extent.


      • By the way, Hitler was appointed Chancellor because his party got a lot of votes. They didn’t get those votes by passing around flyers, I think. Goebbels was important to the effort, it seems to me.


  6. Germany and Hungry also had communist revolutions after the First World War but the governments of Germany and Hungary were strong enough to them down, in Hungary aided by the general ineptitude of the Communist leader Bela Kun. The bad blood between the SPD and KPD was caused in part by the SPD deciding to work against the Communists. The former didn’t even want Germany to become a republic. They wanted another German royal family to assume the Imperial throne and office of the German Emperor. The SPD only declared a republic because they thought it was necessary to prevent to many people from going over to the KPD.


  7. Brief Aside: There are few things I’m, less of an expert about than Russian history. But having recently (as in: in the past 24 months) read Bloodlands, Dr. Zhivago, Gulag, and The Master & The Margarita, it seems like pop culture is an attempt to dodge Occum’s razor. From what I can tell, Russia went the way it did because there were huge tribes of people within Russia whose primary motivation was to entirely wipe one another out. (As opposed to Germany, who scapegoated small minorities to bring a fairly homogenous society together under a single cause.)

    As I said, not an expert, so people here might decide to set me right.


    • Or we could say Russia had a long history of being brutally ruled by a small authoritarian ruling clique. Before 1917 that was based on royal lineage. The only real thing that changed after the revolution was they got rid of the royal crap.

      Germany had a long history, dating far before there was a German state, of highly organized, prosperous, modern, stratified societies with occasional outbreaks of horrendous religious cleansing. 20th century history is a lot like the preceding centuries in those countries but cleaner and with better food.


    • It’s difficult to understand Russia’s history 1860-1917 because most of what we we know about Russia comes from a relatively tiny portion of society (the middle and upper classes of Saint Petersburg and Moscow).

      Under Petrine Russian law, you had to be noble to be a public employee. Even a provincial middle manager, like Lenin’s father, had somehow to trace his blood to some noble or other, because otherwise his father would not have been able to educate him so he could enter the bureaucracy. And you couldn’t be educated except in St. Petersbourgh or Moscow.

      The vast, vast majority of the vast, vast, country was unknown to the cultured people living then and there, and even more unknown to us.


      • This isn’t correct. What Petrine law did, in the form of the Table of Ranks, stated that once you reach a certain rank in the civil, army, or navy than you became a hereditary nobleman of the Russian Empire. Lenin was born into a noble family because his father achieved the requisite rank in the civil service as a school inspector. Everybody knew that the Ulyanov family was of serf origins before Lenin’s father achieved noble status via the Table of Ranks.

        What made Russian society unique was that it was divided into estates long after they were abolished in other European countries. Class identity was corporate in Imperial Russia. There were noble estates, merchant estates, townsmen (petty business men and artisan) estates, and peasant estates. Its just that the estate system didn’t really work well in a modern industrial society that Russia was evolving into. There wasn’t an estate for the growing industrial workforce or the professional classes or white collar workers.


    • I’m no expert either, but I’ve read/watched a few interesting things about the Russian Revolution(s). A couple of years ago I read a very good history of the revolution (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Concise-History-Russian-Revolution/dp/0679745440), granted from a perspective largely critical of the Bolsheviks. The thing that struck me was how many different factions were still in play after the February Revolution. There were the conservatives who went on to lead the White Army against the Reds; there were liberals who wanted some form of local self-government. And even when the socialists took power after the October Revolution, the Marxist-Leninist Bolsheviks were only one faction among several.

      There was nothing inevitable about Lenin rising to power. He just outfought all the other players.


  8. More to the point of the post…

    People still use myriad examples of pop culture as security blankets for why their worldview is correct and dominant.

    I agree that this is true. But cannot the same thing be said about people’s use of high art, higher academics, and the sciences to do this exact same? Stout refusal to engage in self-reflection/criticism is not a thing limited to people who watch superhero movies.


    • If you read the Vox article, you learn that the Frankfurt school believed that both the left and the right could be totalitarian and end debate. They didn’t like what was happening in the Soviet Union or Eastern Bloc countries to.

      High art, high academics, and sciences can be used as security blankets but less so than popular culture. High culture and sciences need to be grappled with. Its possible but unlikely to set through something dense, long, and complicated and read it like a Tom Clancy thriller or 50 Shades of Grey. Very few people even among the most intelligent could read through these things fast. You either go through them thinking and analyzing or you give up or in rare cases read superficially. Therefore, your more likely to analyze and debate with your own beliefs with high culture than with popular culture.


      • Sorry, but I’m still not buying. This whole argument has all the earmarks of a narrative in search of a thesis. (That narrative being, as it so often is, “if only everyone agreed with my opinions about everything the world would be a better place.”)


        • Agreed.

          Especially with throwing ‘science’ in there. What does that have to do with high culture?

          This theory really seems to be wishing that everyone was *intelligent*, then we wouldn’t get authoritarian governments. That *if we were the sort of people that liked high culture*, we’d be smart, and thus not get them.

          First, I don’t believe that it is *definitionally possible* to be ‘a society that enjoys high culture’, because high culture is just whatever culture is harder to access than normal culture, so talking about everyone liking high culture is like talking about everyone being taller than average. Doesn’t work that way, guys.

          Second, I don’t think high culture relates to intelligence, I think it relates to *free time*.

          And third, I’m not even sure that everyone being intelligent would stop authoritarianism!


    • I concede that it can be and that it can be used as such. I was exposed to a bit of NYC radio/pop culture yesterday that I never heard in my 28 year living in NY and/or the other 8 I have gone back and forth between CA and NY.

      It was on a top 40 radio station. The sketch was called “War of the Roses.” It deals with marital problems. The caller on my sketch was allegedly an out of work construction guy/stay at home dad. Some of his cop buddies told him that his wife might be a sex worker. The radio DJs then did a sting operation and called the wife and she confessed to being a call girl lite. She went on paid dates but had no sex. They revealed themselves and OMGs etc. The follow-up was that the husband took over managing for his wife for two years before she quit the business and they are still happily married. I guess the story unfolded over a few years before playing it or it is completely fake.

      I concede that such things could happen in reality. I concede that the entire sketch could be fake and done with actors. But I still found it kind of debased and vulgar. I don’t wish for government censorship but I am perplexed about an joy that can come from listening to the sketch and was vaguely horrified by it. Do I use high culture to hide myself from this and pretend it doesn’t exist? Almost certainly.

      I said that I can see why a lot of people reject the Frankfurt School thought process. The left is filled with pop culture lovers and meme lovers and gif lovers who are very anti-Trump. But there is a spark of truth in the Frankfurt School’s thought even if it is massively unpopular.


  9. I’m in the camp that sees Stalinist Communism and Nazi Fascism as twins rather than opposites.
    Their similarities outweigh their differences.

    Its also worth noting that the most famous Leninist in America sits in the White House whispering in the ear of the President.


    • C.f. Hayek, who noted that the communists and fascists recruited promiscuously from each other, but neither put nearly that kind of effort into recruiting (classical) liberals, i.e. capitalists.


  10. “They are present on all political sides and to me it looks like a society that has given up on some of the foundations of liberal democracy like the idea that “reasonable people can disagree.” Memes and gifs represent a loss of faith in rhetoric and convincing anyone of anything.”

    Indeed. Agreed. Why? I can’t say from the right side since I don’t live where there are many of them, but from the left, I can tell you that some people are tired of reading/hearing/being told that if you disagree with them, you’re a racist, homophone, sexist, etc. And since the MSM is left, that’s pretty much the majority of the communication. When someone starts calling me names I ignore them even more. No, more than that. I’ll look to when and where I can plunge the knife to have most effect.


  11. So I read the article. Thought?

    First, no doubt mass culture has huge social and political implications. Like, duh.

    Second, I’m not convinced “high art” would make a difference. Case not made.

    Third, yes the broad culture is “middle ground liberal-ish,” and maybe that gave us complacency. But on the other hand, these articles do not address fake news and the right wing echo chamber. Which, I’m kind of weary of the left-wing circular firing squad. Sure, there are many things we could have done better in the face of Trumpism, but this began with Limbaugh-Fox-Internet-echo-chambers-etc. Blaming me because I like Jessica Jones seems facile.

    It is possible that nothing I could do would have prevented the rise of the crazed authoritarian right.

    Forth, these guys blamed mass culture for hindering the rise of communism. Likewise, they criticized it for supporting lukewarm capitalism. But I don’t want communism. I do want lukewarm capitalism (with a healthy dose of technocratic liberal oversight). So… yeah. I kinda like our mass culture. I do not like at all the paranoid right-wing dipshits who thought Obama was a Muslim.


    Echo chambers are bad. Sure. Fine. Whatever. But I’ve been to tractor pulls. They’re pretty fun. I dunno. I’m not sure how spending more time listening to the bigots at Brietbart would have helped.


  12. “Clinton got the most votes”+ “Trump is more unpopular than any President at his election & inauguration” are incompatible with any theory that popular and/or mass culture lead to the rise of Trump.


    • Not if you include the magic of the Electoral College. It seems ludicrous to see Trump’s reality TV career and all his previous media/pop culture exposure as an important part of both his success and why he is so widly disliked. Pop culture/media is a big part of why Trump is Trump. But the vote counts are also a fact. Did i mention the EC?

      Also something can be a massive pop culture hit with just a few million viewers or consumers. That is far less the vote totals for an election. Just being a media hit doesn’t imply widespread affection or popularity.


      • That’s kinda my point. *Only* through the magic of the EC (well, and the world historic incompetence of the Clinton campaign) is how Trump is now President.

        So, I’m entirely unconvinced that some Germans from almost a hundred years ago were able to say “This is how you’ll get Trump” – and that’s putting aside any analysis of why we didn’t get Trump earlier, if this hypothesis is true.


        • Oh i’m not all that convinced by the frankfurt idea myself. It is just completely possible for pop culture to have fueled Trump and for him to be unpopular and lost the vote. Those can easily co-habitat.


    • “Clinton got the most votes”+ “Trump is more unpopular than any President at his election & inauguration” are incompatible with any theory that popular and/or mass culture lead to the rise of Trump.

      Seems to me they are, just so long as “popular and/or mass culture” includes rejectionism and cynicism as potentially governing motivations.

      Ie., Clinton voters weren’t part of pop/mass culture we’re talking about, but Trump voters were.


  13. Perhaps rowing well and living works better than an academic cargo cult.
    Only those that can build and operate a tractor understand the nuts and bolts of not outrading or outracing an angry bee.

    One can tell more by the real world than the scalable cognition of the mistakes of the proud.

    Of course, that is just eugenics being discussed by those that were not exactly there.

    What passes for intelligence these days is kind of like observing a bunch of goofy bastards self selecting for sadistic proof of life. Been that way for a long long time, including ghosts.


    • I have much respect for hand-on knowledge, and I’ve worked on a shop floor. That said, those shop floors have fewer people on them these days, as machines built by “smart people” do much of the work.

      That said, it’s still nice to have some skilled machinists around, but we just don’t need as many. Instead, we have nerds with clean hands who are good at math building robots. (I’m now one of those nerds, ‘cept I don’t actually build robots). In any case, yeah, “plain folks” can be really smart about certain things, but they can be dumb as a rock about others.

      Which is to say, I ain’t young. I’ve in a lot of places, done a lot of jobs, learned to talk to different kinds of people. I’ve met plenty of smart carpenters, when it comes to carpentry. Often, however, when you start talking about the broader world, they don’t know the first thing. Plus, too often, they’re stubborn as fuck.

      But anyway


    • Maybe. In my litigation career, I’ve worked on cases where the mechanics complain that what the engineers want done is hard, too time consuming, etc. The end result has been a third party getting injured when the equipment breaks because of short-comings in how maintenance was performed.

      So I put high value on academic expertise vs. the mechanics variant sometimes or often. Mechanics and their short cuts can be very good but also very lazy and careless and lead to injury.

      The Frankfurt School could be an academic cargo cult that overstates their case but there is some there to me in their views.


  14. I’m not quite sure you’ve captured what’s going on with memes. Some of them seem to me like the post-rationalists have figured out how to hack the thoughts of the pre-post-rationalists.

    Sure. Some of them are just Sudden Clarity Clarence and Good Guy Greg or whatever and those suck or are funny or whatever and immediately forgotten.

    Some of them do end-runs, I think. And that’s not a loss of faith in rhetoric and convincing anyone of anything. It’s a discovery that you don’t need rhetoric to convince anyone of something. The convincing them is found elsewhere.

    I think that might be terrifying, but I don’t know for sure yet.


  15. I think that might be terrifying, but I don’t know for sure yet.

    “If there was even a 1 percent chance of being terrified about an outcome, you must now act as if it were a certainty.”


  16. Since I am a liberal and care about the goals of my side in advancing the welfare state and civil rights and liberties …
    I hate to be the one to point this out, but these two are not the same, primarily in that one is an end in itself, and the other is a means to an end. The meta makes for a better narrative.

    Our President is a washed-up reality star with a short temper, shorter attention span, thin skin, and his cabinet is prone to telling outright lies or “alternative facts” … The Republicans control all three branches of government, they don’t care about any norms or the popular voice, and seem dead set on getting as much of their agenda done in a steam-roller fashion….
    What pisses me off about this is that the Dems were never serious about fielding a candidate that the electorate would find less loathsome than this fellow.
    I understand why the Dems would be upset that the Reps. act like a coordinated political party. Sour grapes, that is.

    Over the course of the last week, the left started resistance to Trump appeared strong and spontaneous.
    No, it didn’t. It appeared staged, half-assed, and behind the curve.
    But it appears to have achieved the desired effect on its target audience.

    We still have an authoritarian know-nothing in the White House trampling over Constitutional norms …
    There are very few Constitutional norms anymore.


  17. I haven’t read the comments yet (but will), but I wanted to first say, thanks for writing this. I too am very critical of meme’ism even though I’ve also contributed to it. Not so much on Facebook (because I don’t really do Facebook), but in my comments, especially my comments at OT.


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