16 October 2017

The case for epistocracy?

It used to be the right- wing that believed most people too stupid to have a say in great political decisions. After the election of President Trump, more people on the left seem open to the idea. Jan-Werner Muller isn't one of them. Instead, he uses his review of Jason Brennan's new book Against Democracy in the October 9 Nation to warn against the temptation of what Brennan calls "epistocracy," the newest label for rule by the wisest. Brennan apparently believes that most Americans don't bother studying policy options closely because they assume that their individual votes make no difference, i.e. they have no real power as individuals. Worse, they tend to vote on the basis of "team" loyalty regardless of the team's merits. Worse still, the team-fan mentality encourages them to see the other "team" as the enemy; invoking European football, Brennan calls people with this mentality " hooligans." While Brennan sees these tendencies as tendencies of democracy itself, Muller (the author of a recent volume on populism) doesn't think the problem inherent in the form of government. A more committed egalitarian -- Brennan, by comparison, doesn't think epistocracy will reduce anyone to real second-class citizenship -- Muller cites the most obvious criticisms of Brendan's idea, which begs the question of who'll get to draft the tests that measure people's fitness for the franchise. In his view, epistocracy inevitably would turn authoritarian -- and in any event Muller doesn't think that ignorance and mindless partisanship are the people's fault. "Polarization is a project that confers great political and economic benefits," he writes,"unreasonableness can be big business." The blame for it all, Muller charges, lies with the right-wing media and the Republican party, and even if it's spread to the to the other party, it's important to know who started it.
On a more theoretical level, Muller disagrees with Brennan on what democracy is for. Democracy can't be judged by whether people make rational choices, Muller contends. Democracy "is a system that allows leaders to gain power on the basis of their claim to represent different ideas, interests and identities....Democratic representation is therefore neither about finding the one right policy answer nor about the mechanical reproduction of already existing interests and identities." Democracy creates new identities and thus, presumably, legitimizes the team mentality Brennan misguidedly deplores.  While I won't endorse Muller's jargon, I have to agree with him on the actual scope of democracy. In simpler terms, at the electoral level democracy will always be a decision on what we, the people want rather than a determination of what we might need. Once you've made the choice for democracy over epistocracy or any more Platonic alternative, you effectively concede that democracy will pursue something other than truth. Liberal democracy in particular is premised on the impossibility of discovering objectively correct answers to policy questions, and an assumption that a number of options, if not all optimum, all are acceptable. On the further assumption that very few possible choices are categorically unacceptable or self-evidently self-destructive, liberal democracy requires us to acquiesce in choices we don't agree with -- even those we find personally offensive.
If democracy seems to be failing now, that's largely because fewer Americans seem willing to abide by this crucial requirement. That refusal probably has less to do with levels of education or ignorance than Brennan apparently assumes, and less to do with anyone's conscious, conspiratorial manipulation -- the old word is demagoguery -- than Muller chooses to believe. Liberal democracy depends on an ultimate indifference to results, on the assumption that no result is fatal. Muller himself writes that democracy's supreme virtue is its provision for "throwing the bastards out." The problem with democracy right now is that many of us feel that we can't wait for the next designated opportunity to do that, that too much is at stake right now, and that the stakes may be higher than liberalism can stand. Constitutional reform is less likely to change that attitude than changes in society and culture. Whether those can take place by constitutional means is one of the great questions of our time.

14 October 2017

Say Anything

I don't really trust President Trump to respect the First Amendment much more than most people trust him -- especially not after his quasi-Christianist rant at the recent "Values Voters" convention. But the latest hysteria over his threatening remarks toward the media is fueled at least in part by a willful misinterpretation of what Trump is saying. Furious over an NBC story that he calls a lie, according to which he had asked for an immense increase in the nation's nuclear arsenal, the President said, "It's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write." Well, how dare he?  Again, Trump's rhetorical incompetence when not pandering to his equally simple-minded base contributed to the misunderstanding, but given the context his meaning should have been plain enough to everyone. Yet critics took this sentence as an attack on the very principle of freedom of speech, for what else is that, they asked, but the right to say or write "whatever they want?" It should have been obvious, however, that Trump was deploring the media's assumed license to write whatever they want without regard for the truth. That elaboration may not impress those who assume that the President is the liar on the point of what he said about the nuclear arsenal, but his real meaning was probably clear enough to those whose rhetorical grammar isn't sophisticated enough to infer a different meaning.
Just about everyone now believes that someone else is lying in our political discussions, but no one seems to know what to do about it,  and few dare suggest a solution from fear of being called fascists. That's because our political culture still gives dissent -- if only certain kinds -- the benefit of the doubt, on the assumption that dissent is the health of the state, that you can't tell whether you're actually free unless you can insult the leaders and get away with it. It's possible that Donald Trump doesn't share that mindset, and not so many of us may now as we used to. We seem to have entered a new era where affirmations of solidarity and shows of respect are valued more highly and considered  more imperative  by many of us. Of course, hardcore civil libertarians will say that that makes it only more imperative for them to defend their rights of conscience against a rising "authoritarian" tide, but we can still ask them whether that makes it all right to lie. I suspect that some will say it does, or that the danger from the sort of opening up of libel law that Trump once envisioned outweighs any damage lies, which presumably can be disproven easily enough, can do.
There are two dangers here. The President probably has an unhealthy craving for praise, if not a feeling of entitlement to it by virtue of his election. At a minimum, he is more thin-skinned than any President since Nixon. But at the same time his personality and the positions he is thought to represent have alarmed many people so far beyond reason that any propaganda trick that might hurt him now seems justified. The American assumption that dissent is practically an end unto itself only exacerbates the situation, even as  a long-simmering backlash against that mentality seems to be gaining strength. What this nation needs is more dispassionate objectivity, especially in the media -- but where's the money in that? Who knows, though? A real "plague on both your houses" attitude, backed by a plausible alternative, could pay these days. Until someone can test that theory, it can't hurt the rest of us to just step back every so often, take a breath and listen to the world instead of the media, left or right. We just might see that life isn't how either side describes it -- that both sides have been lying, or are just plain wrong.

11 October 2017

Is love of country blind?

A Delmar woman addresses the national anthem controversy in a letter published in today's Albany Times Union.  "Before we all go boycotting the NFL," she writes, "perhaps we should consider a broader definition of patriotism, one that moves beyond blind deference to the flag and military and embraces all the values our flag was created to represent." Her word choice exposes another of the conflicts of perception dividing the country. The crucial word, as you may have guessed already after reading the header, is "blind." This is another way of expressing the sentiment I've ascribed to those taking a knee, which sees any requirement to stand or otherwise "show respect" during the anthem as a requirement to ignore the pressing problems of the nation. To show respect unconditionally, as President Trump and his supporters appear to demand, is to say everything is okay when it is not okay. Put another way, the demand for an unconditional show of respect on certain occasions is seen by many as just another way of saying, "My country right or wrong," a sentiment abhorrent to those for whom the rights of conscience override every other consideration. Yet I'm fairly certain that no one demanding respect for the flag and the anthem understands himself to be demanding that anyone "blind" themselves to anything. For whatever reason, they feel that there are some times and places where the right of conscience should temporarily yield to other considerations.

It's important to understand the backlash against athletes taking a knee is not just a demand for respect but also a demand for solidarity. The present populist moment in our history is driven by an anxiety that Americans don't have each other's backs. It's a reaction to as many as three generations of escalating mutual distrust and disrespect, and what it requires of everyone is some act of affirmation. The sort of affirmation demanded depends on the people making the demand. As this controversy continues, with an ultimate showdown possible during this Sunday's NFL schedule, I grow more convinced that the demand for shows of allegiance/respect from pro athletes is the "Black Lives Matter" movement of white populists, absolutely equivalent in its insistence upon an explicit affirmation that others would rather be taken for granted. In the case of "Black Lives Matter," the refusal of activists to be satisfied with "All Lives Matter" baffles and infuriates many people. In the case of the anthem, the refusal of Trumpists and older superpatriots to be satisfied with anything along the lines of "Of course I love my country..." is equally infuriating and baffling to those who feel obliged to perform perhaps the mildest act of civil disobedience possible. The offense in both disputes is basically the same. BLM activists don't trust that their lives matter implicitly to those who say "All Lives Matter," on the assumption that if their specific lives really did matter people wouldn't have a problem making the more specific statement." Angry superpatriots don't trust people unwilling to "honor America" for one measly minute to have their backs, keep faith with the troops, etc.

If anything makes the anthem controversy  more controversial it's the athletes' understanding that they have no more public or dramatic way to publicize their dissent than what they've been doing, though by now it's probably become unclear to many people what exactly Colin Kaepernick's successors are protesting. The point remains that for all the other opportunities they presumably have as celebrities to promote their sociopolitical agendas, nothing gets in people's faces more effectively, if only to rile them up, as taking a knee on national television, and since just about everyone in the U.S. reserves a right to dissent on their own terms when they please, the athletes will surrender the field only reluctantly, if not after a fight.  Their obdurance must leave others wondering whether there is any occasion left when Americans can forget their partisan or parochial differences and affirm their common citizenship and national solidarity.  The answer to that question is yes, but lots of people have to be killed before those moments happen. For the situation to improve, many Americans will have to convince themselves that they can (and should) express allegiance to the republic -- not "the troops" -- that guarantees their freedom on appropriate occasions, while reserving and using their right to dissent every other time. As long as people remain confident of their rights -- and that may be another underlying problem right now -- a minimal show of allegiance like standing for a flag that does not stand for Donald Trump need not be seen as blind loyalty, or even as the blink of an eye.

09 October 2017

Discovering Trump's America on Columbus Day

Today is Columbus Day, the quasi-holiday (I'm working) honoring the discoverer of the western hemisphere as the man who made the U.S. possible, as well as the secular patron saint of Italian Americans. Many Americans prefer to observe the day as "Indigenous People's Day" in remembrance of the native population for whom Columbus's appearance marked the beginning of a centuries-long invasion and dispossession of their land. USA Today points out that, in keeping with the previous Republican president, and in contrast with Presidents Clinton and Obama, President Trump made no mention of Native Americans in his mandatory Columbus Day proclamation. Instead, he hailed Columbus unambiguously as a "skilled navigator and man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions -- even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity." What matters to the President is that Columbus's voyages "set the stage for the development of our great Nation." He nods to the nation's "diverse history" elsewhere in the proclamation, but nowhere in the document does he acknowledge that anyone might have any reason to see Columbus's arrival as a bad thing, or the start of one. By now this should surprise no one, though it will certainly annoy many.

Does Donald Trump hate Native Americans?  I doubt it. Does he think it was their inescapable destiny to give way to a superior civilization? I doubt he's ever thought about it that deeply, and in any event such questions most likely would strike him as irrelevant if not antithetical to his obligation to proclaim the holiday. For him and his supporters Columbus Day takes place in the same sphere as the raising of the American flag and the playing of the national anthem. That sphere is neither "private" nor "public" in the usual sense of either word, but national. The continuing controversy over whether athletes should salute the flag when the anthem is played, freshly escalated by the Vice-President's angry departure from one of yesterday's games after more athletes took the knee and a threat by the owner of the Dallas Cowboys to bench players who refuse to stand, shows the existence in the Trumpist mindscape of certain spaces that are public in the most basic sense, yet not really the same as the seemingly synonymous "civil society" where everyone's right to make personal or political statements is largely unquestioned. In this national sphere, the right to principled self-expression guaranteed by the First Amendment still holds, but is overridden informally by a patriotic obligation to affirm allegiance to the country, the flag, the troops, etc. In other words, it may not be illegal to withhold allegiance, but forms of sanction short of criminal prosecution -- getting fired by an employer, for instance, are considered appropriate and encouraged by Trumpist patriots.

Where this relates to Columbus Day is the presidential position, implicit by omission in his proclamation and explicit in his railing against football players, that minority grievances are ultimately irrelevant in the national sphere, where citizens ought to be Americans first and exclusively. To my knowledge, despite his constant whining against the media's insults, Donald Trump doesn't intend to curtail our First Amendment right to protest  his policies or alleged injustices in American society. He appears to insist, however, that there are times and places where the First Amendment is not properly our first consideration, where citizen obligations trump the rights of conscience, and where others are entitled to question your loyalty to the nation when you withhold allegiance. The President's aggressive expression of this attitude comes as a shock to a culture that has revered the 1968 Olympic athletes who gave the Black Power salute during their medals ceremony as heroes of civil liberty, and it probably disturbs some ideological conservatives in his own party who might see something suspiciously "statist" about his demands. But it probably comes as a welcome relief to those Americans who feel, justly or not, that something had gone terribly wrong in the country over the last half-century that could be characterized as neglect of duty, embodied by the refusal of allegiance or the refusal to keep faith with the dead during the Vietnam era. Their feeling will be written off by many principled protesters as the sort of authoritarian nationalism that leads to fascism if it isn't there already, and it will be resented by those who feel that compulsory shows of allegiance mean having to say everything's okay with the country when they feel obliged to tell the country the opposite. But whether a line can be drawn anywhere, whether there's a point beyond which people can fairly question whether protesters will have their backs when it counts without being called fascists, seems like an appropriate question for a national debate -- if either side considered the question debatable, that is. Columbus, this is your fault!

06 October 2017

Staring into the abyss

Nearly a week after the Las Vegas massacre, investigators haven't released any evidence of ideas that might have motivated the apparent killer, an accountant turned gambler, to accumulate an arsenal of weapons toward the end of opening fire on a mass gathering of people. We have cause to believe that he considered other venues for his attack, which would seem to refute the assumption that he targeted country-music fans specifically. We know more definitely that he sent his girlfriend away the week before the attack, and then wired a sizable sum of money to her. We -- or at least I -- have heard nothing about his opinion on any subject. This is the most troubling aspect of the investigation so far, since we've grown accustomed to seeing mass killings, whether the amoklaufs of alienated nihilists or the terrorists' propaganda of the deed, as statements of some sort, usually of some sort of grievance. There is as yet, to general knowledge, no evidence of grievance here. Into this absence of motive, some will most likely project conspiracy theories portraying the man found dead in the hotel room as a patsy for others more sophisticated and sinister, whose motives would be more familiar to us. Thomas Friedman opens a column this week by writing, sarcastically, that it'd be easier if the shooter were a Muslim, because then no one would tell us not to "politicize" his crime. His column is about gun control, as you might have guessed, but regardless of context it would be easier for everyone if the shooter were a Muslim, or a white nationalist, or antifa -- anything external to most of us. It's not so easy to judge what he might represent when there's no evidence of "radicalization" or any indication -- apart from the gun purchases and custom work -- that he'd "snapped." For the Holocaust survival Primo Levi, the definitive statement of Nazi evil was a camp guard's remark that "there is no why here." For now, it looks like there was no why in Las Vegas, and there's a chilling possibility that we'll never have any why. We're used to killers telling us why they kill, but where are we at as a society when people no longer care to tell us why, or when the implicit answer to the question is "Why not?" If no evidence of motive emerges, we could infer -- we might have to -- that it simply occurred to this man one day, maybe just by looking out a window, that he could shoot hundreds of people at once from the right place at the right time, and the idea, or the image of it he imagined, simply appealed to him. Think what you will of terrorists and amoklaufers, but there might be no more evil scenario than this one. That seems to be understood, as even the NRA seems willing to play ball on restricting the use of the sort of  "bump stocks" used in Vegas, perhaps out of an understanding that for such a man, unless we find out something else about him, the accumulation and modification of weapons may be our only warning sign. The Vegas massacre itself may be a warning sign, but of what, not to mention how we should respond to it, remains maddeningly unclear.

04 October 2017

When did the U.S. lose its 'innocence?'

Continuing to discuss the Las Vegas massacre, a panel on the Scarborough show this morning took up the old refrain about America's loss of innocence, which at least one panel member dated back to the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, the idea being that the ability of a loser like Lee Harvey Oswald to take down the most powerful man in the world made the killing an unprecedentedly demoralizing event. That didn't sound right to me, since you could just as easily describe the assassin who murdered President Garfield in 1881 as a loser or angry little nut, yet the nation endured that trauma with none of the consequences attributed to the murder of Kennedy. I leave the killers of Lincoln and McKinley out of the discussion since they could more accurately be described as terrorists in the interests of the Confederacy and anarchy respectively. Then it struck me that the whole exercise was both futile and unjustly flattering to Americans. Does any other nation have a "loss of innocence" narrative? Any nation born from revolution arguably is entitled to one, to the extent that it defines itself in idealistic terms doomed to be betrayed. On the other hand, nations born from revolution can hardly claim to be innocent because they are, by definition, born by violence. Of course, many Americans, mostly belonging to the political left or self-conscious minorities, will tell you that the U.S. was never innocent, and I see no reason to fight with them over that point. I still think, however, that "loss of innocence" is used to describe, however awkwardly, an actual epochal event in national history, even if people disagree over what specific event it was. What people have been trying to describe since the Seventies is probably better described as a loss of complacency, after which certain things once taken for granted, or ignored, can't be anymore. The Ken Burns Vietnam miniseries that played PBS last month makes (it really reiterates) a strong case for that war and the backlash against it on the home front, as the crucial moments. As "innocence" or "complacency" arguably was a privilege of white Americans, so the disillusioning, demoralizing moment came in two parts: first the spectacle of white youth protesting against their government, in apparent betrayal of the troops on the battlefield, and then the killing of white youth by the government at Kent State. It was sadly quaint -- I DVR'd the series and am still working my way through it -- to see, after watching the news from Vegas, how the deaths of only four people in 1970 traumatized the nation. And it was simply sad to see that some of the wounds of that era are still open, or barely scabbed over, even if the controversy over the proper attitude during the national anthem is just a trivial echo of the more intense controversies of half a century ago. The protests of those who feel that their nation's ideals have been betrayed, or were lies all along, still look like betrayal itself to much of the country. It should be recalled, however, that not even the Weather Underground adopted a strategy of mass murder of random victims in those days. The "loss of innocence" that accounts for the amoklaufs of our time will most likely be found closer to our time than to the Sixties or Seventies. Whether or not the search is worthwhile, at least it fills air time until someone learns something about why the Vegas killer did what he did.

03 October 2017

The Martyrs of Las Vegas?

A few minutes ago I saw something on the Fox News morning program that was so pathetic it was almost funny. They'd acquired video footage of the crowd at the country music festival singing God Bless America about an hour before the October 1 massacre. The hosts found the sight heartwarming in some way, even though it was self-evident that, by their own standard, God had not blessed the concert goers. One of the people in the studio described the video as a "gift" from the victims in Vegas, as if by performing the Irving Berlin standard they'd assured survivors that they'd gone straight to heaven. Then one of the hosts began speculating, in the persistent vacuum where the killer's motive should be, about whether the song had triggered him. According to his brother, the shooter had no religion, so perhaps the spectacle of piety playing out across the Strip put him over the edge into a killing rage. Just speculating!, the host disclaimed, but the show's correspondent in Las Vegas was left speechless by her comment, as any sane person would be.