Responding to Harper’s August 2020 – “The Art of Losing” by James Pogue

Hot Takes

James Pogue spent some time in the city of Kenosha, one of a few districts who turned to voting for Donald Trump after supporting Democrats for decades. The changeover, and what Democrats could do to win back those counties, was what Pogue went to discover.

What he learned was surprising on certain fronts. While Twitter is sending the political world of businessman, intellectuals, and journalists into a heat death, the truth is that many people inside the coasts do not really care as much about “politics” per se, as much as they care about the feeling of being autonomous (more on this later).

Second, the the relative economic stability of the place was not what he had expected when we consider the horror stories we’ve been told about the rust belt, with much of the manufacturing and unionized jobs, the pensions and plans that made the middle class, having been systematically removed by technological innovation and globalization. They may have two or three jobs to replace the one, but they still have them.

Third, that climate change is causing unnatural rise in the great lakes which threatens to push on crumbling infrastructure, like dams and coastlines, creating unprecedented flooding. It’s a small section of the piece that reads like prophecy for a decade from now.

Finally, the soft middle way approach that comes with Joe Biden might not be enough, according to Pogue, to get voters to change their mind.

My First Issue

This is my first paper copy of Harper’s, and I am already impressed. I have found myself lamenting the view of America from Thomas Chatterton Williams account while luxuriating in the pastoral countryside of France.

I have already purchased a book based on Hermione Hoby’s essay on the work of Sylvia Townsend Warner. Warner’s book, The Corner That Held Them will likely be the book I choose for a small book club I am in with some of my friends in the month of September. The whole idea of Warner’s relative obscurity, that she wrote largely for herself, did decidedly new things, and as a result lacked the coherence that comes with consistency, as Claire Harman wrote in the introduction to the 2019 edition, is a fascinating idea I am looking forward to exploring more.

And I already love the “Harper’s Index” which contained such gems in this issue as:

Portion of fathers assisting with remote learning who believe they are doing most of the instruction: 1/2

Of mothers assisting with remote learning who agree: 1/33

It really is an excellent resource sharing page with a spouse for troubling signs and plenty of laughs.

But it is in James Pogue’s article that I found an excellent example of what I hoped to stamp out in my own thinking. It was in the ideology that seemed to finish my sentences like a Google autocomplete. What is the point of being smart if you don’t think? And I was quite worried that as I got older I would be devoid of those thinking tools and I would simply let the world think for me.

It can be easy to cut corners in one’s own head. What I realized, especially in recent meditating, was that I could read and take in as much information as I wanted, but if I could not provide my full attention to the people in my life, to my wife and to my friends and to the students I taught, that intelligence did not really matter all that much. The same holds true for ideas and concepts. What is the point of reading widely if one is unwilling to put those ideas to the test?

(More and more I see I need to read Karl Popper)

Along a long enough timeline, induction fails, and it must continuously be renewed.

Thomas Jefferson believed that democracies must be renewed with the blood of tyrants, it being a natural manure. Is there some parallel in the realm of ideas?

BUT ANYWAY.

Yea so I found the article most closely addressed this idea I had in my own thinking with this paragraph:

Spending time in Kenosha led me to notice a lazy tic in American political writing, one that I was as guilty of as anyone: the tendency to assume that the driving force in our politics is rage. Trump voters, in this conception of things, are angry at elites and immigrants, Bernie diehards are angry at billionaires and landlords, MSNBC-watching liberals are outraged that Trump’s presidency is a Russian intelligence operation.

The hope for the “longform” in work and action is what Harper’s represents to me, and I was thrilled to get it in the first issue.

Alienation in Kenosha

So what is the takeaway from the front page issue? It seemed as though what the people in Kenosha county lamented was less stagnation and decay but rather alienation and dehumanization, a trend I have most certainly felt too in my time as a teacher.

Hannah Arendt | American political scientist | Britannica

This led me back to The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt. I read her work just after college in 2013, and I found it to be somewhat interesting. After reading The Age of the Crisis of Man by Mark Greif and seeing her name come up several times, I thought I would have a look. Rereading the first part recently, I feel as though she is one of the most necessary authors to take that second look at.

Whether it is the draconian policies of China, or in the soft pressures removing our autonomy from our communities here in the States, Arendt really nailed it with her ideas of “labor, work, and action.”

In her first chapter, the human condition of man is to be born similar as a species, but so differently in identity in “essence” and the “conditions” surrounding us as we age, that we are all of us marked with a signature of difference and plurality. The reason we speak at all may be to assuage these differences, and come to a consensus. All politics therefore begins with speech, and it is through language and communication that we can discover the best way to live.

We are mortal beings, but we sit down and write, or we create art, in the hope that what we do is immortal, in an eternal world.

For a group of people to be reduced to just their labor is to be nothing more than animals, according to Arendt. Totalitarianism is not just the boogie man that is the obvious Stalin, or Hitler, or Chairman Mao. It is the creep that erodes our ability to politically represent ourselves, and to perform actions in the workplace and in the home that gives us autonomy.

This is the connection to draw with Kenosha. Many cities in the United States are like Kenosha, drowned out by globalization and forced to tow themselves along without any ability to deviate either socially or politically. And we seem to have a harder time gathering. Nobody goes bowling anymore…

I’ll be interesting whether in the United States we can ever return to the sanctity of the local, and if we can form the communities we are lacking.

But I am thrilled so far with Harper’s for helping me renovate some old parts of my brain that accepted the news without scrutiny.

It is my hope that it’ll be the start of a rigorous friendship.

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