Wednesday, February 08, 2017

ON THE AVENUES 2013 THROWBACK: "Anachronisms and intellectuals, here and there," or the local Democratic Party's prospects for rejuvenation, then as now.

Throwback photo, too.
ON THE AVENUES 2013 THROWBACK: "Anachronisms and intellectuals, here and there," or the local Democratic Party's prospects for rejuvenation, then as now.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

Way back on March 3, 2013, the Floyd County Democratic Party's central committee issued a press release celebrating its new officers, as chosen and installed during the party's "quadrennial" reorganization.

Three weeks later (March 28, 2013), I asked whether we should care. If anything, my conclusion was too optimistic.

With another quadrennial party milestone (millstone?) looming, just look how matters have digressed. In three election cycles since the leadership change, the party has managed only the re-election of Jeff Gahan, who has proceeded to act in defiance of the party's stated core values.

Floyd County government has been completely lost, and city council Democrats are reduced to tenderly massaging Dan Coffey's serial bigotry to maintain a semblance of control.

In Floyd County, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton 60% - 40%, and currently Gahan has enthusiastically adapted Trumpian techniques to wage war on the city's poor. The increasingly undemocratic Democratic party is absolutely silent, preferring to look past the accumulating rubble to a template-driven, sanitized, Disney-fried future, one apparently able to be implemented only by means of rampant corruption and fiscal irresponsibility, as enacted by appointed boards to the exclusion of elected officials -- because obviously, Democrats in Floyd County no longer trust the electorate.

Through it all, the central committee keeps issuing cheery memes. As such, the party isn't just being hypocritical. It's disemboweling itself, and while that's fine with me, I'd prefer to at least see evidence of a pulse before the crackup.

Now let's return to March, 2013, and see how I did.

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ON THE AVENUES: Anachronisms and intellectuals, here and there (March 28, 2013)

Francis Spufford’s novel is Red Plenty. The story takes place in the Soviet Union during the Khrushchev era, a time when ever so briefly, it appeared as though the USSR’s planned economy would make good on its promise of economic paradise. In fact, Khrushchev himself provided a firm date for the fruition: 1980.

(It didn’t happen, but you already knew that)

A narrator appears at the beginning of each of the novel’s main sections, providing a non-fictionalized background of historical events. The passages combine to serve as a concise Soviet era refresher course for those unfamiliar, and this is good, because nowadays, the USSR is fading from view everywhere in the world save for the deeper recesses of Vladimir Putin’s subconscious.

In the following excerpt, it is explained what occurred in Russia when the Bolsheviks were victorious in the Civil War, but found themselves still at odds with a distinctly Russian intellectual tradition, one actively opposing the Tsar, yet not necessarily welcoming the Bolshevik triumph.

The Bolsheviks had been having trouble with the old kind of intellectual ever since the revolution. The tiny professoriat they inherited – a fraction of an educated class which was itself a small fraction of Russia’s literate minority – was shaped by an ethical tradition more than a century old. Pre-revolutionary Russian intellectuals felt a sense of public obligation not shared by their equivalents abroad. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, it had been obvious to anyone educated that the tsarist regime was an embarrassing, oppressive anachronism. To be one of the lucky few who could read about the world outside therefore gave you a responsibility to try and do something about Russia; usually not in a directly political way, unless you were one of those with a very pronounced bump of idealism, but by building up an alternate Russia in culture, in novels and poetry and art where stupidity was not enthroned. Above all, to be an intellectual was to feel that you were, at least potentially, one of those who spoke truth to power. By teaching and learning at all, you were implicitly acting as a witness, as a prophet of a larger life.

Before going any further, exactly what is an intellectual?

An intellectual is a person who primarily uses intelligence in either a professional or an individual capacity. As a substantive or adjective, it refers to the work product of such persons, to the so-called "life of the mind" generally, or to an aspect of something where learning, erudition, and informed and critical thinking are the focus …

The real question is this: What happens when the life of the mind meets the daily reality of politics, which has been defined as “who gets what, when, and how”?

In Spufford’s novel, a flowering of youthful idealism in the USSR after the tyrant Stalin’s death shows signs of evolving into a skilled, influential – yes, even intellectual – force for change, one not seen since in the country since before the famine, purges and World War II, but ultimately the Communist Party’s domineering inertia proves far too entrenched to be dislodged. Intellectuals prove no match for bureaucratic time-servers whose governing habits are fixed, and self-interests pre-eminent.

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So, what happens in New Albany when the life of the mind meets the daily reality of “politics as usual” … specifically, more years than not, of Democratic Party politics as usual?

Now, I’m not about to suggest a Soviet scenario from the age of Khrushchev is a perfect analogy with the decades-long political stalemate in New Albany.

At the same time, there are distinct similarities as they pertain to those of us hereabouts seeking to speak truth to power and prophesying a larger life – in short, those commonly finding themselves marginalized by the local Party’s fixed governing habits and traditionally insular self-interests.

Perhaps the common thread linking Russian Tsarism, Soviet Communism and our locally dysfunctional two-party political duopoly (Democrats as hegemonic in New Albany, Republicans in Floyd County) is that each one of them operated, or in our case continues to operate, in such a manner as to make it absolutely necessary for anyone capable of independent thought to reject their non-creative bureaucratic tendencies, and to seek instead alternate cultures where Spufford’s “stupidity” is not perpetually enthroned.

And, just as many Russian intellectuals regarded Communism as scant improvement on Tsarist rule, educated and progressive New Albanians understand that while the Democratic Party is largely inert and unresponsive, with year after year of underachieving gridlock in spite of 8-1 Democratic council majorities with sitting Democratic mayors, Republican Party rule would be Philistinism of an even more mind-numbing and pervasive variety.

Hence, the tendency of New Albanian intellectuals to seek refuge in the cool embrace of Progressive Pints.

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Paraphrasing Spufford, “New Albany’s local Democrats have been having trouble with the intellectuals ever since LBJ lost the South.”

Given the Dixiecratic, ward-heeling tendencies of a local Democratic Party so long ensconced – so firmly enamored of right-wing Heavrinist twaddle that when Doug England anointed a longtime Republican named Irv Stumler to succeed him as Democratic mayor, it took weeks for anyone on the inside of the machine to get the joke, and they still didn’t – I find myself annually tolerating the Democratic Party’s municipal stranglehold as the only alternative to future Republican jihad, while not exactly popping corks at the sclerotic inability of Democrats to innovate during times that have fairly demanded agile improvisation.

Indeed, England’s colossal (and hilarious) Stumler miscalculation in 2011 provided a rallying point for the candidacy and eventual electoral success of Jeff Gahan, but significantly, the argument then was not about platforms and policies. Rather, it concerned who was a member of which club, and who was not. The minuscule differential in substance between the two intra-party camps was inconsequential, and moot still ruled.

My point: Forget the –isms. In the USSR, an entrenched and elephantine Communist Party could not make reform possible until it collapsed of its own weight, a quarter-century after Khrushchev’s sloppy ouster.

In New Albany, are we fated to endure the parallel track, remembering that Gorbachev’s “reforms” in the USSR (glasnost, perestroika) were far too little, way too late?

Accordingly, should our native intelligentsia celebrate the local Democratic Party’s recent turn toward new leadership?

To be sure, they’re younger and brighter than before. Some of them might actually have voted for Barack Obama, and are willing to defy the odds by openly admitting to it. Verily, one cannot entirely dismiss hope, however na├»ve, that the local Democratic Party will cease being a Tsarist-style anachronism, especially in the absence of any semblance of coherent Republican counterweight – itself, as always, a far less savory specter of dim-witted theocratic fascism than Democratic stasis.

But I will tell you this, and with considerable pride: I have no apologies whatsoever for harboring progressive inclinations and intellectual leanings … no regrets for witnessing, reading, thinking, dreaming, speaking truth to what passes for power and pointing to the possibility of a larger civic life in New Albany. After all, there is a noble progressive political and ethical tradition to uphold, even here in battered New Albania, and we remain hard at work “building up” the alternate culture. If we don’t, who will?

The local Democratic Party may or may not have noticed any of this, and if it has, comprehension may as yet be lacking.

But does that really matter?

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