Home > Uncategorized > How The West Was Won? Threats To Democratic Liberal Traditions Explored At The Tucson Book Festival

How The West Was Won? Threats To Democratic Liberal Traditions Explored At The Tucson Book Festival

Liberal Engagement and Liberal Denial

The Epitome of The Death Of The Liberal Class 

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I spent the weekend at a surprisingly wonderful event: the Tucson Festival of Books. Don’t you just love that Coyote logo? (ignore the pink background!)

There was a huge turnout at the University of Arizona campus, with many good writers, great panel topics, and even national outlets like NPR and CSPAN book TV.

They did a great job of attracting serious writers, many readers, panelist pundits, and science exhibits, with plenty of food, dance, music and fun interactive stuff for the kids. Bravo!

But, aside from the fact that there were only a handful of people at the panels I attended that were under 60 years old, at an intellectual level, all was not so well (and I won’t even get into the discussion during the panel “Art, Resistance, and Survival” – I left after the acceptance of the need for “trigger warnings”.)

I went to the first panel discussion, Saturday morning at 10 am in a place called Science City, titled, “Storm & Stress: Our Changing Climate and the Human Ecology

Authors and panelists spoke about the implications of climate change, Colorado basin water resources, and immigration issues.

I’ve been experiencing all of these issue daily and writing EXACTLY about them here recently, including

At that first panel, I enjoyed and had similar experiences and perspectives as author Franciso Cantu’s wonderful presentation of his first book “The Line Becomes a River” (highly recommended).

But, I found more established fellow panelist David Owen’s work weak and derivative:  “Where the Water Goes: Life and Death along the Colorado River“.

Owen did not even come close to the story.

The real story emerged clearly in my mind after re-reading the 1986 classic on the Colorado river and western water, “Cadillac Desert. After reading that book, and “Water and the West” by Norris Hundley Jr. back in May 2017, I wrote this (see: Rio Grande – Off The Wall):

Also, I am reading and writing less. Just finished re-reading Roderick Nash’s classic “Wilderness and the American Mind”. Visited an excellent local bookstore here in Flagstaff and picked up a copy of another classic I never read: “Water and the West” by Norris Hundley Jr. about the history of the Colorado River Compact. I’m only on Chapter 4, but there are echoes and huge ironic historic parallels between early 20th century advocacy for an “All American Canal” and the current debate over Trump’s Wall.

So, I was not impressed with Owens’ tepid effort to rewrite the classics – which were far more analytically sophisticated and policy savvy – and his failure to mention the Colorado compact and its history.

After listening to that and another panel, on my walk back for lunch, I was asked take part an NPR interview, where they asked me about my favorite book and how it related to the Tucson festival and my daily life.

I had just left a panel on “The future of western liberalism”. There was an excellent discussion of the threats to liberal democracy, rule of law, and science, but I came away frustrated by the lack of any criticism of Democratic and liberal betrayals and little focus on corporate power, capitalism and the US’s gross and increasing wealth/income/power disparity.

After that talk, I was unable to engage a conversation with panelist and writer John Nicholswho was too busy responding to elderly sycophants. During his presentation, he seemed unwilling to link finance capitalism to globalization and the Democrats’ (starting with Bill Clinton) embrace of the Wall Street finance, global capitalist Neoliberal project. Surely these play a role in the current xenophobic reaction, bordering on a rise of Fascism.

[I would have loved to ask him to respond to Hedges’ arguments about the role of the liberals to serve as a “reform” relieve valve from pressure created below from Communist, Socialist, and organized labor – and the betrayals by the liberal class, democrats and institutions Hedges savages. The entire panel’s self-righteous discussion was the epitome of that. Nichols did make one good point though, that Trump’s cabinet was not stupid and had accomplished more of a right wing agenda than other Republicans.]

So, after that shutout by Nichols, in response to the NPR interview question, I said my favorite was Chris Hedges’  book “Death of the Liberal Class”. (I wonder if the local NPR affiliate will broadcast it? They made me sign a release form allowing them to do so).

I related Hedges to some of the political resentments driving the rise of the reactionary “populist right” mentioned at the panel as a threat to democratic institutions and science, rationality, rule of law, Constitutional democracy, and the cosmopolitan liberal tradition.

The interview went well.

During the Festival, there were a few similarly focused panel, e.g. see this excellent presentation: Backlash against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy.

After that presentation (I highly recommend the book!), I managed to ask the author the first audience questions (see the author’s CSPAN interview). I asked:

1) I want to follow up on your comments about “electoral success” in Europe. Steve Bannon has been in Europe, both before and after the recent elections. That is not random.  Are you familiar with Josh Green’s book where he provides in depth material about Bannon’s work in the US with billionaire Robert Mercer and the electoral tactics, Big Data algorithms, and the social media propaganda campaign they deployed in the 2016 election? Has something similar been done in Europe?

2) How much of the European reaction and xenophobia is organic and how much is manufactured by the likes of Bannon et al? Is there evidence of a European Bannon propaganda machine? (I failed to mention he US media’s obsession with the Russian electoral manipulation scandal. What Bannon and the billionaire Mercer pulled off in 2016 in swing states was far more sophisticated, had far more resources, and was very likely far more effective than the Russian campaign.)

I wanted to mention, but was unable to weave it into my question these points: a) the US media is obsessed with Russian meddling in the 2016 election via social media. In contrast, they have completely failed to report the Bannon-Mercer very similar project to manipulate US public opinion and elections. b) the media has failed to report on the key disclosure in the Steele Dossier: that Putin’s strategic objective was “Putin desires a return to 19th C. “Great Power” politics anchored on countries’ interests rather than the ideals based International order established after WW2″. 

That Putin goal is totally consistent with – and could help explain – the rise of European xenophobic nationalism, Brexit, and fractures in NATO and the western liberal alliance.

I didn’t get a satisfactory answer. But the author was family with Bannon’s work – but not the billionaire Mercer’s and social media PR campaign – manipulation of of public opinion and electoral tactics.

There were other panels on climate, as I noted above, the first was on Colorado river water policy, and border wall stuff – all of which I am experiencing and thinking about daily.

Finally, being the obnoxious asshole that I am, I managed to engage more than 4 debates among the literati who had set up tents at the Festival:

1. I came upon the the folks in the “western literature” tent and said that I had just read a Wallace Stegner essay in “The Sound of Mountain Water“, regretting that there was no western literary tradition, and that it was all nostalgia and myth. Their reply? They never heard of Stegner!

2. At closing I came across “C-SPAN book TV”. I complimented host Peter Slen and praised their courage to give Chris Hedges a platform. The producer, standing by side, replied: “how about our broadcast of Milo Yanopolis (Nazi). Slen then interjected: “Do you think he should be treated differently than Hedges?”. I told them – being a supporter of ANTIFA’s “No platform” –  that it was their responsibility to establish a context and to warn viewers of the different moral universes of Hedges and Yanoplis. An extended debate followed, with CSPAN host Slen dismissing me to “Go to CNN for that”. Unreal. No senses of intellectual responsibility. None. Would they have given Hitler a platform in 1930?

3. I came across a tent for The Nature Conservancy.

So I took the opportunity to blast their conservation model. Huge debate ensued.

4. I visited a “Tucson Historic Preservation” tent (hit their link and wait for the “magic Carpet” page, its the second one).

Seeing an Art Deco book about historic Arizona billboard displays, I asked them if they had any photos of billboard remnants that had been cut down by Ed Abbey and his monkeywrenching crew.

Contrary to the western literature tent, at least they knew what I was driving at – but they did not appreciate the humor!

Can’t make this stuff up.

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