Monday, February 4, 2008

Ian Buruma & "The Politics of Resentment"

In today's L.A. Times, this veteran Dutch observer takes on the threat he perceives from a right-wing demagogue who inveighs against radical Islamist incursions into the Netherlands. It's a fair-minded essay by Buruma, who's reliably even-handed in what I've read of his journalism. Perhaps his opinion's nothing earth-shattering, but Buruma does take a moment to articulate what too few in the mainstream press do: the pain felt by the little man about the global, multicultural, and capitalist forces that overwhelm our sense of being rooted in the local, the familiar, and the communal.

Certainly with my own predilections towards decentralization and grass-roots economies I concur with Buruma's notion that these frustrations often find vent in talk-show invective, small-minded polities, and catch-phrase bumper-sticker ignorance. But, Buruma perhaps as so many among the chattering classes fails to capture the uncertainty that permeates so many of our lives today, in nations far less able to count on unions, job protection, fair working conditions, or health care. Buruma also glosses over outsourcing's erosion of middle-class jobs at the same time immigration fuels lower-paid labor that big business loves and that liberal constituencies idolize. Both parties, in America, collude in our broken borders policy. One side widens their voting bloc. The other fattens their wallets.

Buruma may argue that a populist view plays into this only from the pilloried right-wing stereotype, but I counter that the left-wing environmentally responsible faction has also been ignored on this issue-- consider the Sierra Club's refusal to support restrictions on immigration despite the ecological and demographic costs. Unlike many European nations today even in their reduced committment to benign state assistance, the U.S. appears content, on the left and right, to hack away at the worker's stability. "Let them shop at Wal-Mart" --on our suitably lowered paycheck.

I also add that for those if not like Buruma than me in the cosmopolitan mix far from any bucolic Brigadoon, a Marxian sense of surviving where "all that is solid melts into air" fits Joseph Schumpeter's definition of our capitalist behemoth as "creative destruction." Not all of us in my Left Coast megapolis welcome unchecked population growth, relentless construction of lofts and offices, and eager destruction of open spaces and soul-comforting vistas in the name of an almighty Market. Yet, my employer plans on expanding localized centers to teach students who increasingly refuse to make the commutes to our "campuses." At the same time, our campuses must attract more students even as we compete against ourselves at these smaller, more convenient locations. I asked our president, if he considers a class at 6 p.m. next to an exit off the perpetually gridlocked 405 a selling point for the admissions and recruiting staff. Seems a tautological catch-22 to me. (Given our commitment to reaching out to the "underserved" communities that fill our cities, I advised, quixotically, that any such center at least be close to Metro Rail. I told him that if we're planning for the long run, that traffic will not get any better.)

Meanwhile, as I ask a class of 25 or 30 here in L.A., how many of you have had a parent born in our region? Maybe a fifth or a quarter of the class. Grandparent? Usually one or two, the other 98 or so from that cohort born Somewhere Else that keeps our cities soaring high and our villages increasingly the havens of either a struggling set of natives, a lucky contingent of those who migrated from the cities and bought in bargain times, or a pampered pack of speculative second-home owners. Whether in the Celtic Fringe or the more favored beauty spots left in the great frontiers, we seem to be profiting off the few remaining sanctuaries left away from the same cities that fill with the "urban rich and the highly educated." As we face tomorrow a primary fixated on "change" and devoted to race and gender despite claims to the contrary, here's reflections on the disruption along with the dreams we share for our better selves, which so many Americans of every complexion face today.

So, a few paragraphs from Buruma's essay, "The Politics of Resentment":
The common man, more in touch with the real world, supposedly knows better. Uncompromising toughness, the hard line, is the only way to get results. In the United States, the word "liberal," in the mouths of populist radio jockeys and right-wing politicians, has become almost synonymous with effete urban snobs of both coasts. Liberals, in this view, are not only soft but have about them something distinctly un-American.

The association of elites with foreignness, with tolerance and with metropolitan cities, is old. Elites can often speak foreign languages, and big cities are traditionally more open to mixed populations. Modern populism -- American politicians running, or pretending to be running, "against Washington," French populists speaking for "deep France" -- is invariably hostile to capital cities. Brussels, capital of the European Union, stands for everything that populists, left or right, hate. And big cities are where most immigrants live, not in the kind of small towns where right-wing populists find most of their support.

Still, the politics of resentment does best when it can tap into real fears. There are reasons for people to feel anxious about economic globalization, pan-European bureaucracy, the huge and not always effectively controlled influx of immigrants and the aggression of radical political Islam. These anxieties have too often been ignored. There is a sense among many Europeans, not just in the Netherlands, that they have been abandoned in a fast-changing world, that multinational corporations are more powerful than nation-states, that the urban rich and highly educated do fine while ordinary folks in the provinces languish, and that democratically elected politicians are not only powerless but have abjectly given in to these larger forces that threaten the common man. Tolerance is seen not just as weak but as a betrayal.,0,785332.story

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