Baskets of deplorables

What's in a name?

The New York Times ran a piece today about Biden's smart approach to avoiding fractious culture war issues that have torn Americans asunder, whilst depriving the culture wars of the fuel that sits at the heart of American unrest, oh-so poised for the mere whiff of a Zippo's flame, and another storming of the Capitol.

It coincides and connects with the annual report by the chief of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), regarding a shift in the nomenclature that denotes perpetrators of, or adherents to, violent radicalism. No longer will ASIO refer to Islamic radicalism or right-wing radicalism, but rather to religiously motivated violent extremism and ideologically motivated violent extremism. This is an important shift, because it brings us closer to the grievances of violent actors, and away from mere prejudice. That means it brings us closer to solution-oriented thinking, and away from simplistic characterisations that blind us to what's actually going on.

Similarly, I am always struck by my memory of George Bush referring to the 9/11 attackers who plowed those planes into the glories of American architecture and symbolic potency, as "cowards." I believe that that reaction set the U.S. on a course for 20 years from which it may never recover. As China stirred, the U.S. bludgeoned and cudgelled its way into the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan with Goya-esque spectacle. Bush's damnation was simply flawed, because surely these men were courageous, however ugly, misguided, and murderous, and surely that courage was derived from beliefs that drove them forward to their own oblivion? Surely, those beliefs could be understood, analysed and, and ultimately contained, if not undermined?

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Francisco Goya, from his Black paintings, two men fight with cudgels to the death.

When I worked for UNICEF, I aroused the ire of some of my colleagues (and arched eyebrows of disgust and immediate suspicion) when I argued that it was useless to denote pedophiles as monsters. That simplistic abuse merely shrouded all that we didn't know about pedophiles at the time, and the few things that we did know, such as the fact that it is clearly a consistent feature of human behaviour, however perverse, and however much it revolts those of us in the vast majority of non-perpetrators. Now, serious research has revealed a great deal that will probably help us to limit pedophilia, to treat it, to quarantine it, and to punish it with greater deterrent success.


[Pedophilia seems to be present in a small percentage of men and women; it seems to be related to an identifiable pre-natal condition; most people who commit crimes against children are not pedophiles, but are sexual predators committing crimes of opportunity; and most pedophiles never act on their impulses, whilst many seek pre-emptive treatment. For a brilliant exploration of this vital subject, I urge you to listen to the Hunting Warhead podcast.]

I have friends – too many –, who have told me, – too often –, that they do not understand why anybody would vote for Trump. Too often, my liberal friends rant at their mystification at how anybody could possibly vote for such a monstrous, over-indulged, child-man who wears his Las Vegas-sized, neon-lit narcissistic personality disorder as bright and big and proudly flaunted as a rapper's gold-plated chompers. But don't they remember Hillary?

Hillary virtually bequeathed us Trump, and all the disorder he sowed for four very long years, with a phrase that correctly represented the Democrat's deafness to a profound sickness at the centre of American society – the famous "basket of deplorables." Hillary missed the fact that while the U.S. was fundamentally changing due to the death of black, white, Hispanic, and Asian working-class certitudes (a decent living wage, a predictable future, the promise that their children would have better lives, pride in their role in society as their jobs were sold off to China), nobody was providing a political answer.

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"Deplorable" simply didn't cut it. Very ordinary Americans turned on the Democrats as a bunch of silver-tailed gadflys, blind to ailing American workers while preening themselves with an elevated discourse while the body politic ailed, and sneering at the help whilst nary giving them a second thought beyond wondering if their boots had scuffed the polished floors on the way out (fortunately, they live in Alabama, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Yuck.)

The door was wide open for the lying huckster Trump to saunter through. Nobody was more surprised than him that he won the election. After all, he simply lied, an impulse so second nature that he cannot identify his facts from fictions. His promise that he would re-start U.S. car manufacturing, open coal mines, and build a wall to keep an over-abundance of plantation workers fenced out, just tripped off the tongue as lightly as "yes, I'll respect you afterwards dear."

Still, they might have been lies, and completely separated from any serious attempt to understand the reality of the evolving world and lead his people out of the desert, but they were one up from the Democrat offering. At least they were an answer to profound social anxiety, and people listened and believed because they desperately wanted an answer to uncertainty. Marvelling at it all, the messianic Trump told the world that he could shoot somebody on 5th Avenue, and lose no voters. The people loved him, and as often as the people get it right, they get it wrong. Go left or go right?

Now, an astonishing 70 percent of Americans approve of Big Government, Big Spending, Big Federal Intervention, and Big Rollout, in the guise of the $1.9 trillion rescue package pushed through Congress and into law – and that's without the thousands of dollars having yet hit their bank accounts under the American Rescue Plan Act.

With one swipe, the bill cuts U.S. child poverty in half. In one fell swoop, Biden has taken the huff and the puff out of the culture wars (and has remained very schtum, refusing all Republican invitations to mud wrestle in the sludge of personal division, and the restless-feet urging of left-wing Democrats to set the world on fire) because it was really not so much about amorphous and indefinable culture, but much more about genuine social and existential anxiety.

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Good ol' Cincinnatus. The Return of Cincinnatus, attributed to Angelica Kauffman, ca. 1775.

Cincinnatus is the namesake of the Society of the Cincinnati, founded in 1783 by

Revolutionary War veterans who committed themselves to the characteristics Cincinnatus

demonstrated: humility, unselfish personal sacrifice, commitment to the public

welfare and the subordination of the military to civilian rule.

Which leads me back to what things are actually about. The dispensing by ASIO of rather crude analytical terms signifies what we are increasingly seeing in the modern world: the splitting of formerly easily identifiable social groups into narrower and more fragmented interest and identity pockets, stitched conveniently together by social media algorithms, that bear little resemblance to the comfortable left and right-wing denominators we've come to know, love, and brawl over for a century. "Instead," according to ASIO's chief Mike Burgess, "they're motivated by a fear of societal collapse or a specific social or economic grievance or conspiracy. For example, the violent misogynists who adhere to the involuntary celibate or 'incel' ideology fit into this category."

Biden's inauguration speech was one of the only political speeches I recall in my lifetime sending the chills of history down my spine. The beauty of Biden in his first less-than-100 days in office is that he brings all the empathy, wisdom, Cincinnatus-like temperance at power, blooded experience, and instinctive feel for the tectonic shifts in American (and global) life required to get to tackle things as they actually are. That, surely, is the first step in resolving anything.