Pap Would Have Voted for Trump

Perlman as Pap

Friday

Thomas Edsall, the Columbia journalism professor who periodically writes well-researched articles for the New York Times, has an important piece exploring why poor white Americans often vote against their economic self-interest. Democrats are often frustrated when their efforts to expand healthcare and other social safety net programs generate a backlash amongst people who need and make use of them. The reason, Edsall explains, is “last place aversion.”

While I wouldn’t equate most of these Americans with Pap in Huckleberry Finn, he is a dramatic example of the process at work.

Edsall describes “last place aversion” as follows:

In a paper by that name, Ilyana Kuziemko, an economist at Princeton, Taly Reich, a professor of marketing at Yale, and Ryan W. Buell and Michael I. Norton, both at Harvard Business School, describe the phenomenon in which relatively low income individuals “oppose redistribution because they fear it might differentially help a ‘last-place’ group to whom they can currently feel superior.” Those thus positioned “exhibit a particular aversion to being in last place, such that a potential drop in rank creates the greatest disutility for those already near the bottom of the distribution.”

Among the findings of this group of researchers: people “making just above the minimum wage are the most likely to oppose its increase.”

This leads to the question of “deservingness,” a phrase that reminds me of Eliza Dolittle’s father proudly proclaiming himself a member of “the undeserving poor” in Pygmalion. For many Americans, poor people of color are undeserving by definition:

Even more important than “last place aversion,” though, is the issue of what we might call deservingness: white Americans, more than citizens of other nations, distinguish between those they view as the deserving and the undeserving poor and they are much more willing to support aid for those they see as deserving: themselves.

“Americans believe that the poor are lazy; Europeans believe the poor are unfortunate,” report Alesina and Glaeser.

Other academics note the  same phenomenon:

Lars Lefgren, a professor of economics at Brigham Young University and the lead author of The Other 1%: Class Leavening, Contamination and Voting for Redistribution, emailed me about his research:

Individuals are more willing to vote for redistribution when they perceive the recipients as being deserving. By this I mean that the recipients are willing to work hard but were experiencing bad luck that left them in need of assistance.

This distinction often translates into a differentiation between poor whites and poor minorities.

In the midst of one of his drinking sprees, Pap goes on and on about how the government, which should be favoring him, is instead protecting a black college professor who (in his mind) should be enslaved:

“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful.  Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio—a mulatter, most as white as a white man.  He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane—the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the State.  And what do you think?  They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything.  And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home.  Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to?  It was ’lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out.  I says I’ll never vote agin.  Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me—I’ll never vote agin as long as I live.  And to see the cool way of that nigger—why, he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way.  I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?—that’s what I want to know.  And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn’t be sold till he’d been in the State six months, and he hadn’t been there that long yet.  There, now—that’s a specimen.  They call that a govment that can’t sell a free nigger till he’s been in the State six months.  Here’s a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet’s got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger, and—”

Such sentiments help explain why Trump got so much mileage out of Obama’s supposedly false birth certificate and his supposedly preferential admissions treatment by Harvard Law School, not to mention all the teleprompter jokes. Many saw our 44th president as Pap sees the “p’fessor.” It also explains the outbreaks of anti-government sentiment whenever attempts are made to rectify past racial injustice.

Had Trump been running for office at the time Huckleberry Finn is set, I have no doubt that Pap would have broken his resolve to “never vote agin.”

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Putin’s Seduction of Donald Trump

Spencer, “Temptation of Eve”

Thursday

I’m seeing, in Vladimir Putin’s attack on American democracy, a modern version of Paradise Lost. Putin in this scenario is Satan, Trump is Eve, and the Republican Party is Adam. Hang on while I explain.

In Book II, the bad angels convene to figure out how they are going to respond to their crushing defeat. Modeled on Homer’s Greek leaders, they put forth three proposals.

Bombastic Moloch speaks first and councils “open war.” Hell should once again throw itself against Heaven, regardless of the consequences. Think of this option as a direct Russian attack against the United States.

The problem with such an approach, of course, is that both Heaven and America have superior fire power. As slothful Belial puts it in his counterargument,

What if the breath that kindled those grim fires
Awaked should blow them into sevenfold rage
And plunge us in the flames? or from above
Should intermitted vengeance arm again
His red right hand to plague us? what if all
Her stores were opened, and this firmament
Of Hell should spout her cataracts of fire,
Impendent horrors, threatening hideous fall
One day upon our heads…

Mammon, seconding Belial’s concerns, advocates for making the best of a bad situation. Instead of being vassals of Heaven, Hell’s angels should

                                                                    rather seek
Our own good from ourselves, and from our own
Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess,
Free, and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easy yoke
Of servile pomp.

Think of this option as Russia establishing itself as a great nation on its own, without meddling with its neighbors.

Such an option does not appeal to Satan’s resentment and injured pride, however. He must make God pay for his fall in stature (the break-up of the Soviet Union), but to do so takes cunning. Rather than confronting Heaven directly, he will instead corrupt the Garden of Eden. Or in our terms, undermine open democracies. He will interrupt God’s joy and satisfy his resentment by seducing the inhabitants

                                to our Party, that their God
May prove their foe, and with repenting hand
Abolish his own works. This would surpass 
Common revenge, and interrupt his joy
In our confusion, and our joy upraise
In his disturbance…

The other angels sign on and Satan takes off for Eden.

We don’t yet have the entire explanation for Putin’s power over Trump, but it undoubtedly includes an appeal to vanity, which is how Satan seduces Eve. Casting himself as a serpent (Trump is fond of the poem, “You knew I was a snake before you took me in”), Satan tells Eve that she isn’t receiving enough respect:

Why then was this [the fruit] forbid? Why but to awe,
Why but to keep ye low and ignorant,
His worshippers; he knows that in the day
Ye eat thereof, your eyes that seem so clear,
Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then
Opened and cleared, and ye shall be as gods…

Like Putin, Satan has considerable rhetorical powers, even though his reasoning is as slippery and coiled as a snake. Eve, impressed, talks herself into taking the fruit.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story. Eve needs Adam to join her in her crime, just as Trump needs GOP complicity. Although Adam is at first horrified, he becomes a fully consenting participant in the new reality. After all, breaking the rules seems to offer amazing new possibilities (Supreme Court appointments, debt-financed tax cuts for the wealthy, regulation rollbacks). Here’s Adam:

[S]o well this day thou hast purveyed.
Much pleasure we have lost, while we abstained
From this delightful fruit, nor known till now
True relish, tasting; if such pleasure be
In things to us forbidden, it might be wished,
For this one tree had been forbidden ten.

Why did we ever think we had to abide by Senate norms and 60-vote confirmations and conflict of interest laws and consensus governing and actual facts? Is there any more forbidden fruit we can eat?

This particular scene involves lustful sex, but think of it as the intoxicating pleasure of breaking all the established rules. In the heady days of the Trump presidency, everything seems possible. No wonder that Trump had 90% Republican approval, according to the latest Gallup poll.

Now, should things ever go south, Republicans may start sounding like Adam the morning after:

O Eve, in evil hour thou didst give ear
To that false worm, of whomsoever taught
To counterfeit man’s voice, true in our fall,
False in our promised rising; since our eyes
Opened we find indeed, and find we know
Both good and evil, good lost, and evil got,
Bad fruit of knowledge, if this be to know,
Which leaves us naked thus, of honor void,
Of innocence, of faith, of purity,
Our wonted ornaments now soiled and stained…

Some day, Trump’s counterfeit will be heard for what it is. Until then, however, don’t worry about Russia, our allies, North Korea, the environment, Puerto Rico, immigrant children, tolerance for difference, and the fabric of our democracy. Party on!

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Tolstoy’s Love Affair with Mosquitoes

Mosquito swarms in Belarus

Wednesday

We will be attending our triennial “Bates Bash” next week in our Maine cottage, built by my great grandmother over 100 years ago atop the Ricker Hill apple orchards, which my cousins still operate. We will renew connections, walk among the trees, eat a lobster dinner, and generally make merry. We will also battle mosquitoes.

Although I find mosquitoes intolerable, Tolstoy offers another perspective on them in his novel The Cossacks, which I’m currently reading. I share it here in case there are any readers out there interested in adopting this perspective. I know that my farmer cousins are far less bothered by mosquitoes that I am, so perhaps Olenin, a young Russian soldier who has become enchanted with the Caucuses, is on to something:

The day was perfectly clear, calm, and hot. The morning moisture had dried up even in the forest, and myriads of mosquitoes literally covered his face, his back, and his arms. His dog had turned from black to grey, its back being covered with mosquitoes, and so had Olenin’s coat through which the insects thrust their stings. Olenin was ready to run away from them and it seemed to him that it was impossible to live in this country in the summer. He was about to go home,  but remembering that other people managed to endure such pain he resolved to bear it and gave himself up to be devoured. And strange to say, by noontime the feeling became actually pleasant. He even felt that without this mosquito-filled atmosphere around him, and that mosquito-paste mingled with perspiration which his hand smeared over his face, and that unceasing irritation all over his body, the forest would lose for him some of its character and charm. These myriads of insects were so well suited to that monstrously lavish wild vegetation, these multitudes of birds and beasts which filled the forest, this dark foliage, this hot scented air, these runlets filled with turbid water which everywhere soaked through from the Terek and gurgled here and there under the overhanging leaves, that the very thing which had at first seemed to him dreadful and intolerable now seemed pleasant.

Olenin even finds a way of turning mosquitoes into an occasion for philosophical reflection. Each mosquito is an individual and he, in turn, is part of a larger whole:

He felt cool and comfortable and did not think of or wish for anything. And suddenly he was overcome by such a strange feeling of causeless joy and of love for everything, that from an old habit of his childhood he began crossing himself and thanking someone. Suddenly, with extraordinary clearness, he thought: ‘Here am I, Dmitri Olenin, a being quite distinct from every other being, now lying all alone Heaven only knows where—where a stag used to live—an old stag, a beautiful stag who perhaps had never seen a man, and in a place where no human being has ever sat or thought these thoughts. Here I sit, and around me stand old and young trees, one of them festooned with wild grape vines, and pheasants are fluttering, driving one another about and perhaps scenting their murdered brothers.’ He felt his pheasants, examined them, and wiped the warm blood off his hand onto his coat. ‘Perhaps the jackals scent them and with dissatisfied faces go off in another direction: above me, flying in among the leaves which to them seem enormous islands, mosquitoes hang in the air and buzz: one, two, three, four, a hundred, a thousand, a million mosquitoes, and all of them buzz something or other and each one of them is separate from all else and is just such a separate Dmitri Olenin as I am myself.’ He vividly imagined what the mosquitoes buzzed: ‘This way, this way, lads! Here’s some one we can eat!’ They buzzed and stuck to him. And it was clear to him that he was not a Russian nobleman, a member of Moscow society, the friend and relation of so-and-so and so-and-so, but just such a mosquito, or pheasant, or deer, as those that were now living all around him.

Still not convinced to live and let live? Still not ready to embrace mosquito-paste? Me neither.

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Thieving Raccoons

Tuesday

Sunday night, before going to bed, I filled our hummingbird feeders, which are located outside our breakfast nook. When I got up the following morning, the entire feeder was missing, even though it hung from an overhanging eave and required a step stool to refill. It was a mystery.

I immediately suspected racoons since they had invaded our home once before. Years ago, when my parents kept bird seed in a large garbage bin on the screened-in back porch, raccoons cut through the screen, worked their way through the thick bungee cord holding the lid down, and dived in. Because the theft opened up a second front in a war on my parents’ attempt to feed the birds—flying squirrels were already cleaning out our offerings—my parents gave up.

My suspicions about the recent theft proved correct as we finally found the stolen feeder on the porch roof. The raccoons had come down from above, reaching over the eave and unhooking the feeder before absconding with it. Then they bit out the bee guards and drank the sugared water.

I found a wonderful Kathryn Nuernberger poem about racoons working their way into our dark imaginations. The speaker recalls witnessing a night time coon hunt that traumatized her as a child. If a parent must abandon you in the dark to grapple with raccoon enemies, then a child can only conclude the worst. “Now you are ours,” her fears tell her.

You Are Afraid of the Dark

By Kathryn Nuernberger

You are afraid of the dark,
for which you blame the raccoons,
or more to the point, your father,
who took you and your mother
into the night with a flashlight
and shotgun, then left
with both, while you held
her shaking hand. You
would follow your father
to the end of the world,
those distant birch woods
where raccoons rustle
and flash their green eyes.
His gun was firing
into the persimmon trees
and the rain of leaves and ripe fruit
fell farther and farther,
until only the crackle
of his shots and the distant baying
of the hounds could be heard.
The raccoons came then
to hiss all around:
he left you, he left you,
and now you are ours.

Think of the children whom ICE is separating from their immigrant parents. What nightmares will hiss around them?

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A Poem To Console the Losers

Croatia’s Modric won the Golden Ball but his team lost

Monday

Having seen my team win the World Cup, I can afford to be magnanimous and compliment Croatia for their remarkable courage. Time after time they threw themselves at the superior French team, leaving open huge swathes of space behind them. In the end, it cost them.

To cushion myself against defeat—I was prepared for France to lose as it had lost to Italy in the 2006 finals—I already had a French consolation poem picked out. I offer it to Croatia.

As if it weren’t bad enough to lose, the Croats had to receive their medals in the rain, which makes Jules Laforgue’s “Triste, Triste” (“Sad, Sad”) apropos. Let’s just say that it is very French in its existential ennui.

Sad, Sad

By Jules Laforgue

I contemplate my fire. I stifle a yawn.
The wind weeps. The rain streams against my window.
Next door a piano plays a ritornello.
How sad is life and how slowly it flows.

I sing to our earth, atom of a moment,
In the infinite screen of eternal stars,
To the few that have deciphered our feeble eyes,
To all that is inexorably closed to us.

And our type! Always the same comedy,
Vices, griefs, melancholy, sickness,
And then we make lovely golden dandelions blossom.

The universe reclaims us, nothing of ours endures,
Nevertheless let everything down here continue again.
How alone we are! How sad is life!

Not that life flowed slowly in yesterday’s contest, which was remarkable for its scoring and its high energy.

When we win, everything feels infused with meaning, at least for a while. When we lose, “how sad is life!”

Here’s the poem in French:

Je contemple mon feu. J’étouffe un bâillement. 
Le vent pleure. La pluie à ma vitre ruisselle. 
Un piano voisin joue une ritournelle. 
Comme la vie est triste et coule lentement.

Je songe à notre Terre, atome d’un moment, 
Dans l’infini criblé d’étoiles éternelles, 
Au peu qu’ont déchiffré nos débiles prunelles, 
Au Tout qui nous est clos inexorablement.

Et notre sort! toujours la même comédie, 
Des vices, des chagrins, le spleen, la maladie, 
Puis nous allons fleurir les beaux pissenlits d’or.

L’Univers nous reprend, rien de nous ne subsiste, 
Cependant qu’ici-bas tout continue encor. 
Comme nous sommes seuls! Comme la vie est triste!

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Salomé, a Female Revenge Fantasy?

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, “Salome Receiving the Head of John the Baptist”

Spiritual Sunday

 The salacious story of Salomé (a.k.a. Herod and Herodias’s daughter) is today’s Gospel reading so here’s a strange and unsettling poem written by Anne Killigrew in the late 17th century. I can’t decide whether it is a feminist revenge fantasy or a drama of  sexual frustration. If John the Baptist has been admonishing Salomé, maybe Killigrew is letting men know women can push back. Maybe the poet is fantasizing the way that Bronte does in Jane Eyre, playing out a revenge fantasy against Rochester and then, when he has been brought low by alter ego Bertha Mason, nursing him in her arms .

Here’s Mark’s account:

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

And now for Killigrew:

Behold, dear Mother, who was late our dear,
Disarmed and harmless, I present you here;
The tongue tied up, that made all Jury [Jewry] quake,
And which so often did our greatness shake;
No terror sits upon his awful brow,
Where fierceness reigned, there calmness triumphs now;
As lovers use, he gazes on my face,
With eyes that languish, as they sued for grace;
Wholly subdued by my victorious charms,
See how his head reposes in my arms.
Come, join then with me in my just transport,
Who thus have brought the hermit to the Court.

Interpreted religiously, the poem shifts from inner turmoil to the peace that Jesus promised, and it even ends with an apparent reference to the pieta (Mary cradling the body of Jesus). It just does so through sadistic imagery. The poem is a puzzle.

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