Low Dishonest Decades
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Low Dishonest Decades by George Scialabba
Low Dishonest Decades
Copyright © 2016 by George Scialabba
375 Parkside Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11226
I hope Low Dishonest Decades, with its demonstration that sane political discourse is still possible, will improve your morale as it has mine in these weeks following Trump’s election. Cambridge’s George Scialabba is a writer who has mastered that discourse and, now that he has retired from his position as a building manager for Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies, he should have more time to help us think of ways out of our predicament.
Low Dishonest Decades is a collection of 20 book reviews and a few essays; they examine our political, international, economic and ethical plight in lucid prose, and appeared over the last three decades in some 11 periodicals from our Boston Phoenix to the Village Voice and the Nation. His ability to make the arguments of his subjects compact and portable meant that by reading Low Dishonest Decades I gained familiarity with a literature I would otherwise miss, given my preference for fiction and poetry.
The collection opens with a short section containing four reviews called "The Long View." The first “Democracy Proof” is a review of How Democratic Is the American Constitution by Robert Dahl, which makes Trump’s election seem an inevitable result of the anti-democratic biases of this document that we have been taught to worship. The concluding review of this section is of three books by Morris Berman (The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire and Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline) ends with this praise:
There is something immensely refreshing, even cathartic, about Berman’s refusal to hold out any hope of avoiding our civilization's demise. And our reaction goes some way toward proving his point: we are so sick of hucksters, of authors trying – like everyone else on all sides at all times in this pervasively hustling culture – to sell us something, that it is a relief to encounter someone who isn't, who has no designs on our money or votes or hopes, who simply has looked into the depths, into our bleak future, and is compelled to describe it, as Cassandra was. No doubt his efforts will meet with as much success as hers.
While this grim ending to Scialabba's opening section does pose the question “Why continue?” we may take comfort from the fact that, for all of its individual terror, death is the engine that drives all evolution. Our democracy may be failing us but that does not mean that democracy has failed. And in the reviews of the middle section, "Politics," Scialabba makes clear we have a responsibility to learn the lessons of those failings to guide the modes of our governance so that democracy will continue to evolve. And that is one, if not the most important, function of Low Dishonest Decades.
The reviews of this second section, which have titles such as "Do Ideas Matter?" "Where Did Our Wealth Go?" and "The Sorry State of the Union," are divided between critiques of domestic and foreign policies. In “What Is American Foreign Policy About?" he summarizes those critiques:
Business is not a monolith, of course; sometimes businesses have competing interests. But there is a large area of shared interests, of all things businesses favor. They all want week labor unions or none; they all want lower taxes, especially on the rich; they all want weak or no environmental or consumer safety or occupational safety regulations; they all want no restrictions on foreign investment or resource ownership or capital flows; they all want a minimum of social spending, so that the population will be as insecure as possible; and they all want a political system that can be controlled by money, which is to say controlled by them. This is what they want for the United States, and for most of American history, they'd gotten it, except when they bankrupted the country with the Great Depression and there were a few reforms, called the New Deal. But business never accepted the New Deal. They fought back, in the 1980 they won and now they have all the above once again.
And that's what they want for the rest of the world: no organized labor, low taxes, weak regulation, no restrictions on investment or lending, no social safety net, and no popular sovereignty, that is, no real democracy. To make the world as much like this as possible: that’s the purpose of American foreign policy.
And in "What Is to Be Done?" a review of eight books I think he answers the question of that title well:
To put it non-metaphorically: if we want a durably decent society, we have to improve the quality of political discussion. Yes, we will always need to address people's hearts and imaginations. But in the long run, their ability to think, to see through right-wing (and left-wing) bullshit, is even more important. If voters had even a slightly enhanced tolerance for position papers and policy proposals, the influence of Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove, Jerry Falwell, and other right-wing liars, morons, and demagogues would be vastly diminished. Isn't that a worthwhile goal?
In 2007, when he continued with this question, “How to accomplish [that worthwhile goal]?” Scialabba answered, “I don’t know.” And then he put his tongue in his cheek with this proposal: “Perhaps population exchanges between blue and red states. …Perhaps secular liberals should go to church and distribute copies of the Nation to their fellow church goers.” Then he took his tongue out to conclude the review: "But what's possible is up to us. The main lesson of the right-wing ascendancy is simply: never give up. As Yeats pointed out: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/are full of passionate intensity.’ The best had better get – and stay – off their asses." If that was true eight years ago how much more so today, and fortunately Low Dishonest Decades provides some of the mental exercise we need to rehabilitate the quads and hamstrings of our convictions so we might get off our asses and back on our feet. And Scialabba almost always manages to provide that exercise without ad hominem comments; “other right-wing liars, morons, and demagogues” is the only time in the volume that I recall him weakening an argument by yielding to that temptation.
By the third section “Intellectuals” I was enjoying some satisfaction of my need of food for thought and one essay "A Rake among Radicals" made me feel I would like to read some Alexander Cockburn for desert, because Scialabba’s essay praising him made Cockburn’s writing and personality seem as attractive as his ideas. This extended quote from the beginning of that essay demonstrates Scialabba’s lucidity and range of thought and his ability to comprehend and summarize the thought of others.
On Christmas Eve 2010, Alexander Cockburn began a short column for his newsletter Counterpunch in this fashion: "The prime constant factor in American politics across the last six decades has been …" Let us pause for a moment to conjecture how commentators of diverse political complexion might have completed that sentence. The exercise might give us some sense of Cockburn's place in the culture of late-twentieth-/early-twenty-first-century journalism.
A Tea Partier might say: "… the ever-increasing tyranny of Federal bureaucracies." A paleoconservative might say: "… the expulsion of God from the public square." A neoconservative might say: "… the weakening of American resolve in the global decline of American power." A neoliberal might say: "… increasing recognition that markets work better than government intervention." A feminist or gay activist might say: "…the gradual extension of equal rights." A civil libertarian might say: "… the gradual erosion of civil liberties." An environmentalist might say: "…a blind emphasis on economic growth at all costs." A social Democrat might say: "…the dwindling of social solidarity from its high point just after World War II."
All these perspectives have at least a grain of truth. But Cockburn's answer cuts deepest: "…a counterattack by the rich against the social reforms of the 1930s." Class warfare is not the only kind of social conflict, or always and everywhere the most important kind. But it is the most intractable and invisible kind, and Cockburn was one of the few American journalists who never lost sight of it or failed to rub it in.
When Scialabba retired from his day job at Harvard, John Summers, the editor of the Baffler, organized a Festschrift where George was celebrated by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Thomas Frank and others because he is also an American writer who has never lost sight of it or failed to rub it in. If you want more details about his reputation you might check out this profile from the New Yorker:
or this one from the Nation: https://www.thenation.com/article/hear-hear-george-scialabba/. And you might also want to check out the other three collections of his work,
that have been published by Pressed Wafer. (What Are Intellectuals Good For? – 2009, The Modern Predicament – 2011, and For the Republic – 2013)
– by Wendell Smith.