We’re Doing Climate—Next the Court

Schumer and Manchin seem finally to have reached agreement on meaningful climate action. If we can do that, the next step has got to be reforming the Supreme Court.

This Court is responsible for even more than it gets blamed for.  Roe v Wade is the tip of the iceberg.  This court is dedicated to the project of overturning democracy by enforcing and maintaining minority rule.

That starts with the defense of gerrymandering.  This is the single most important factor in the polarization of the political environment—a political minority is given vastly exaggerated and untouchable power.  Punting to Congress is a joke, since that asks the beneficiaries to give up power. To that gets added Citizens United and the provocatively-announced ruling on “replacement electors.”

As both Alito and Thomas have made clear, this court has decided to use its unchallenged power to rule—and the proper response of the population should be obedience. Democracy has no place is this vision.

Changing the Court’s size is a matter that requires majorities in both houses of Congress and the President.  Democrats have that.  Taking that action is not radical.   What is radical is a rogue Supreme Court that is using it’s unchallengable powers to rule—certainly not the intention of the founding fathers.  It should of course be noted who is actually rulling—the Koch organization that created and managed the  Federlist Society, to which all conservative justices have dedicated their careers.

This is a chance to save democracy in this country.  Second only to saving the planet.

The Mid-Terms are It

There’s nothing particularly novel about this conclusion, but it still needs to be said over and over again. There is only one objective now: the midterm elections. With the current activist Supreme Court there’s no telling how much damage will be done in two years or what elections will look like in 2024.

This Supreme Court has asserted it’s right to impose a belligerent, unpopular theocracy. And that’s just the beginning. The conservative justices all come from the Koch organization’s Federalist Society, whose end goal is business control of government and elimination of all regulation and social services. That may sound far-fetched, but so did the complete elimination of Roe v Wade.

The Court has pointedly said it would review state plans for “alternative electors.” That would potentially allow gerrymandered legislatures to override electoral results. Such proposals are crafted to give all electoral power to those gerrymandered legislatures–even governors (some are Democrats) have no say. This Court is controlled by Republicans in the mold of Mitch McConnell. They have no qualms about doing what’s best for them, and they can hide (as usual) behind calling it states’ rights. With enough states tied up in this way, it may well become impossible to elect anyone but a Koch-approved President.

The Supreme Court has to be reformed before it completes its takeover of the country. That requires workable majorities in both the House and Senate, which sounds like a heroic task. However the point is not that it’s easy; the point is that there is an actual path to saving the country from the Koch coup. There are enough seats up for grabs in the Senate. Retaining the House will be harder.

For the House people have just got to realize what’s at stake. Roe v Wade is bad enough as it is, but it’s also a sign of what’s coming. No labor protections, no help for the environment, no government role for healthcare or Social Security. The USA as Brazil, with all but a few of us living in the slums of Rio and ready to be undone by climate change.

We have an opportunity to preserve our country before it’s turned into something unrecognizeable. And that’s not just for Democrats. This is a new bout of Prohibition with religious vigilantes telling everyone how to live their lives. And the powers pushing hardest for gun rights really want those guns in the hands of private Pinkerton militias, just like in the good old days of the nineteenth century. The Koch people are nobody’s friends.

This year is it. Forget everything else. It’s amazing we have a chance.

Women in Mozart’s Operas

It’s hard to think about anything other than politics these days, but sometimes it helps to think about something completely innocuous.

For what it’s worth, I’m going to talk about Mozart operas.  There are reasons to do that.

First of all, the four big Mozart operas (Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte, Magic Flute) represent an incredible level of artistic achievement.  They are part of everyone’s cultural patrimony, and anyone who hasn’t had the experience is missing out.   (This version of the Marriage of Figaro is free on YouTube, and this DVD is both good and cheap.)

Next is the fact that opera is an unusual discipline in that different composers have had such different ideas about it, that the results are simply not the same thing.  Opera goes way back as a formalized way to combine music and drama, but the modern notion of a fully-formed musical drama was created by Mozart with the Marriage of Figaro in 1786.  The nineteenth century took that form and ran with it, but in quite a different direction.  While Mozart operas are about people, the nineteenth century went mythic.  With Wagner and even Verdi the characters and spectacle become larger than life.  In that sense the four big Mozart operas represent an unsurpassed peak of form.

Those four big operas are about—respectively—rape, murder, love, and religion.  That covers a lot of territory, but there are certain common threads.  The primary one that I want to talk about here is the presentation of the woman’s point of view.   The reason to do this is that generations of male opera producers have frequently lost track of this thread, to the detriment of their productions.   It is an odd fact of the opera business that the fixation on spectacle is such that people don’t seem to look for common threads.  So there can be whole traditions of wrong-headedness!

We’ll start with the Marriage of Figaro.  Why is a “marriage” opera about rape?  Because the plot turns on the so-called “droit de seigneur”, the right of a noble master to get a first night with any female subject who gets married.  That’s one good definition of rape, and the opera is concerned with the efforts of master’s wife and the coming bride to avoid it.  For this opera it’s their game and the several men in the picture mostly just get in the way.  There’s no way to misinterpret this one.  There’s even a minor aria (Act 4 Scene 4) on unequal justice in male-female relations.

However things already get confused with the second opera Don Giovanni.  Don Giovanni is Don Juan, a brave and powerful nobleman who accepts no constraints on his behavior and is infinitely successful in seductions of women.   In the opera he kills the father of one of them and is eventually dragged down to Hell as a result. 

Opera productions and criticism tend to focus on the power and heroic amorality of the title role, and you can argue that position by noting the contrasting weakness of the other male characters.  But that’s ignoring most of the opera.   What’s remarkable about this retelling of the Don Juan story is that it spends much more time with the women than the men.  

The Don Juan character is here with all his personal strengths, but at the same time this is also a retelling of the Marriage of Figaro story (exchanging the “droit du seigneur” for power- and class-based seduction), and it’s the women in this opera who have to pick up the pieces.  To see Mozart’s intent you just have to follow the music.  The women are the ones onstage trying with difficulty to live in the world that the male characters have created.   The power relationships are made clear in both words and music for the seduction scenes.   And all of the women have stature; Donna Elvira’s second aria is a particularly remarkable example. She starts as a comic character, and grows until she gets a kind of credo aria. Don Giovanni may be dragged down to hell for murder, but the women have to go on.

It is wrong to view this opera as Don Giovanni’s story exclusively.  Despite many productions and much music criticism to the contrary, the women’s stories are equally important.  As examples of the opposite, I’ve seen productions where all three female characters were undercut:  It was not Mozart’s idea that Donna Anna was merely another conquest making a fuss, or that Zerlina was a slut, or that Donna Elvira was flat out ridiculous.  There’s a Metropolitan Opera DVD version where the women’s second arias are treated as about their men! We’ve had centuries of eager male egos producing the opera they wanted instead of the opera as it is.  I’ve read many comments that the point of Don Giovanni is how boring the world is without him.  Sound familiar?

Things get even more complicated with the next opera, Cosi Fan Tutte.  The core of the story is a joke, possibly from an event that really happened.  Two men swear to an older cynic that their girlfriends will be loyal forever, and he bets them he can break them down.   He sends the men off to an imaginary war and then has them return disguised to woo each other’s girlfriend.  At the end the women succumb, the men unmask, and the cynic proclaims his triumph.   It’s a very dark joke, since the 18th century consequences for the women would be disastrous and the manipulated wooing of the women involves increasingly horrifying violations of ethics and trust.  Unsurprisingly the story is difficult to end, and you can find half a dozen variations of the ending on Amazon. 

However for Mozart’s intent one again only needs to follow the music. In that there is no question. The women are much more carefully drawn and sympathetic than the men—who are only fitfully in the spotlight.  With the elaborate violations of trust the opera turns the joke upside down—the primary betrayal is of the women by the men.  Such stories are not unique—there’s a lengthy Cosi Fan Tutte story in Don Quixote for example with even more dire consequences. What is unusual here, though, is presenting the story from the women’s point of view. In a manner analogous to what happens in Don Giovanni, Mozart made his opera out of the consequences to the women.

Nonetheless many productions buy the joke.  A recent Boston Lyric Opera production, for example, was most interested in which possible lovers the girlfriends would choose! By contrast the most coherent production I’ve even seen was done by the New England Conservatory a few years ago.  The action took place on a resort set named for the cynic: “Hotel Don Alfonso”.  The women did what no one in the eighteenth century could even imagine—get up and leave Hotel Don Alfonzo.

Finally there is Mozart’s last opera “The Magic Flute”.  The plot here is complicated and functions as a kind of initiation story for a society modeled on the 18th century Masonic movement.   Mozart was a Mason and believed in its goal of a rationally-ordered enlightenment society.  However, there were no women Masons, so the Masonic movement itself doesn’t fit with what we’ve been talking about.

However the opera both is and isn’t Masonic.  There are plenty of statements of Enlightenment goals.  And the libretto has quite a lot of organizational mumbo-jumbo, including comments from speakers about “being a man” and not listening to “jabbering women.”  But when you follow the music, the mumbo-jumbo gets parodied, and by far the strongest character is a woman (Pamina).  The initial male lead is almost forgotten in the second act and has to be guided through his trials by her. We’re even told at the end that she should be among the ruling elite. It’s hard to find much else in the 18th century to match that.  Mozart couldn’t change the Masons but he did change his opera.

It seems that the Masons weren’t too happy about that.  There is a trio late in the second act (where Sarastro drags Tamino away from Pamina and off to war) which makes no sense in its current context.  The only place where it does make sense is near the beginning of the act, where it sets up the rest of the act as Pamina’s story.  Many current productions actually do the opera that way.  It’s clear something happened, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Mozart’s plan for the female lead went beyond what the Masons could take, so they toned it down at the last minute.

What does all of this come down to?  Mozart was certainly not producing feminist propaganda, but he was very systematic about respecting the feminine roles in his operas.  And it is fundamentally wrong not to recognize that consistent thread.  Mozart went to great pains to make you respect his women and understand their problems.

We can only speculate why.  Mozart had lived his life from childhood on the wrong side of the ruling nobility’s class divide, which may or may not have to do with sensitivity to the position of women.  Further the opera world was different—women were of prime importance, and he was satisfying the sopranos who were his stars.  Finally we know that Mozart was influenced by the rediscovery of Shakespeare (in translation) during his time in Vienna, and that was certainly art that respected its characters. 

Perhaps none of that is relevant.  But the thread of concern for women’s issues is undeniable and should be recognized in any conscientious theatrical performance.

On Climate, to fight back we just need to think wider

The Supreme Court, Manchin, and the Senate Republicans have now made it much harder for the United States to do anything substantial about domestic usage of fossil fuels.  It’s hard not to get worked up about this, as the perpetrators are self-serving traitors to both our country and the rest of the world.  But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to be done.

The thing we keep forgetting is that there is only one world atmosphere.   There are other ways—beyond our own consumption—that we can use to affect the world’s climate.  It was never the case that climate was just a matter of doing our own thing.  We rich countries were always going to have to do what it takes to reduce CO2 from anywhere.   We just have to step up the effort to make sure climate is a big part of everything we do. 

I’m in no position to put numbers on this, but my guess is that we can achieve a sizeable chunk of what we say we’re losing.  The Ukraine war has already delivered given a big boost to the demand for electric cars.  We need to upgrade our electrical infrastructure to deal with the consequences—the car manufacturers are going catch up with demand.   Even if we can no longer require renewable power generation, there is a lot that needs to be done with transmission and distribution regardless. Infrastructure is necessary climate work (just like EV’s themselves or even heat pumps) though it doesn’t deliver results until the power generation change is complete.

Beyond that I’d start by focusing on our military and the Ukraine war.  Climate is after all a national security issue.   There is a lot of money authorized for both, and we need to start climate actions—foreign and domestic—associated with it.  Many people have spoken about climate backsliding from the Ukraine war, so we need to spend some of that money on compensating projects.   All of our foreign aid money—especially military (since that’s largest piece)—should be reorganized around climate.  That includes project financing and what we do about the third-world fallout from the Ukraine war.

We also need to be spending real research and development money on ways to reduce carbon dioxide production from industrial processes–not just here but in other countries such as India.

Biden has lost power to specifically address domestic usage, but it’s very important to recognize that we have other ways for the Executive to address climate issues.  We just have to start thinking more widely now.

We’re Wrong About Divisions

The most important division in American society is not between Republicans and Democrats.  It’s within the Democratic Party itself.

As an indication of what I’m talking about, I think about an episode of the program Peaky Blinders.  In that episode the hero Thomas Shelby’s sister’s boyfriend is a communist, and the hero has to figure out how to keep him alive.  When the subject comes up with the police, the answer is “Normally we don’t have to worry about those people.  They’re so busy killing each other that they’re just not a problem.”

The Republicans can say amen to that for our tamer version of the left:

  • We’re still living down “defund the police”
  • We’ve had an endless supply of articles about how privileged, racist whites just have to get used to taking a well-deserved hit, including for education.
  • Virtually any statement made about “neo-liberals” is a whitewashing of Republican failures so that chosen Democrats can be blamed instead. One hopes George W. Bush is duly grateful.
  • We had a chance to pass a Biden agenda, but the Democratic Party spent so much time posturing and pretending that Manchin and Sinema didn’t exist that when they finally got around to voting it was too late–inflation was THE issue and it was easy for Manchin to hide. The left wing of the party is gleefully blaming Biden, without any alternative policy or blame for Republicans.
  • Democrats are actually fighting over whether Biden will be the nominee in 2024—when the real issue is the 2022 midterm election.  The only result of this fight is weaking the remaining days of the Biden administration and undermining the Democrats’ message for 2022.

With friends like this who needs enemies.  As in the Peaky Blinders quote, they hate each other so much that it trumps any desire to do anything good for anybody. It’s hard even to count the self-inflicted wounds.

Just think about it.  That Democrats can do anything good at all—given this nonsense—means that they could perhaps do something really big if they could get organized and stop the knife stabbing. If they stopped providing amunition to Republicans, they might just be able bridge the other divisions we hear so much about.