25 July 2016

A good old-fashioned amoklauf

It looks like a disgruntled former employee took a knife and ran amok at a facility for disabled people near Tokyo today. The latest reports put the casualty total at between 15 and 19 people dead and many more injured. This incident, following closely after the Munich mall shooting -- which despite the ethnicity of the shooter appears to have been a classic amoklauf-inspired amoklauf -- is a grim reminder that any old thing can turn some people into murderers. Just as gun-rights advocates will point to this crime as fresh proof that banning guns won't suppress murderous evil, it should also remind us that people don't need a book of any sort to tell them to kill. For all we know, some who kill in the name of a book now would find some other reason to kill without the book. Of course, whenever something like this happens anywhere on Earth these days -- even in Japan, as I saw on one comment thread -- the first question asked is usually, "Was it a Muslim?" People seem to be afraid of terrorism now when they never seemed afraid of an amoklauf before, back when that was the only game in town in many places. In a way the discrepancy makes sense, since during a terrorist wave people feel targeted in a way the randomness of amoklauf attacks can't (though perhaps they should) evoke. It's one thing to believe objectively that some nut could appear anywhere, at any time, to open fire on you, and another to know that there are organizations urging people to kill you. I suppose that some people sincerely fear an amoklauf breaking out in their town, but many more fear terrorism even though there's no basis for believing that one is more or less likely than the other. Fear is selective, more than it would be if it were just a general fear of violent death. If many fear terrorism more than an amoklauf, there are some who feel the reverse. Over the past week I've been thinking about the selectivity of fear in a political environment where many people seem to fear the election of Donald Trump as President more than either an amoklauf or a terrorist attack. I hope to share some of those thoughts with you once I've had the time to organize them more. I'm hoping that the Democratic National Convention, an event more certain than ever to be founded entirely on a fear that may be the one thing holding the party together after the Wikileaks revelations, will help those thought cohere.

20 July 2016

The People's Words

Since angry dark-skinned hordes have failed so far to show up at the Republican National Convention, we get stories like the Melania Trump plagiarism scandal. It would hardly be worth commenting on except that Trump fans have grown crazily defensive toward the presumptive nominee for First Lady, despite her foreign birth. They seem to deem her an asset to the Trump campaign because she's prettier and "classier" than either the current First Lady or the presumptive Democratic nominee for President -- not to mention her First Man. The prettiness is indisputable, while the "classiness" apparently consists of unconditional praise for the U.S. In any event, Mrs. Trump's honor is to be defended at all costs. One tactic is to raise the old bloody shirt of "Double Standards" and accuse the media of ignoring plagiarism scandals involving Democrats. This is a difficult tactic to pull off since the current Vice President, a Democrat, had his political career set back a generation by the first big plagiarism scandal of modern political history, while the current President was accused of plagiarism during his 2008 primary campaign. The "double standards" argument is pretty weak when a Google search of "Barack Obama plagiarism" calls up not only this week's Republican complaints against mainstream-media neglect of Obama's plagiarism  -- the candidate had borrowed lines from then-Governor Patrick of Massachusetts -- but also 2008 mainstream media reports of the plagiarism controversy. Of course, according to Republican logic the media must have downplayed it, since Obama did not withdraw from the campaign, just as Donald Trump's failure to divorce his wife (for now) will prove that the media downplayed her plagiarism as well. 

A more interesting response to the current plagiarism scandal is less partisan than populist, in keeping with the Trump movement. At this level there's a rebellion against the very concept of plagiarism. I'm hearing people argue that words belong to no one, that no one has a right to say that Melania Trump (or her speechwriters) were plagiarizing Michelle Obama's (or her speechwriters') words. I don't know if they feel the same way about phrases, but their main argument is twofold. First, "the people's words," as one person calls them, can't be claimed as intellectual property. Second -- and this may be the crucial argument for Trump supporters -- since there are only a limited number of words available to express ourselves, it's only inevitable that speeches expressing similar sentiments will sound alike, down to the phrasing, so what's the big deal? Donald Trump probably has the smallest vocabulary of any Presidential candidate in American history, and that's probably part of his appeal to many likely voters. What's the use of expanding your vocabulary, they may ask, when people can get in trouble like Mrs. Trump and her writers have? At least they can feel certain that Trump himself doesn't plagiarize, since his speeches sound like nothing professional writers would compose. Simplicity equals authenticity and honesty from this perspective, and with that in mind Trump fans really should blame the writers who forced the offending text upon Melania rather than letting her speak off the cuff as her husband prefers to.

If there's anything really damning about the whole affair, it has less to do with either Trump than with the idea that speechwriters, presumably partisan, assumed nevertheless that the words of Melania Trump and Michelle Obama, already antithetical personalities in many minds for many reasons, effectively were interchangeable. To the extent that they are props for their husbands -- Mrs. Trump blatantly so and Mrs. Obama's pretensions notwithstanding -- the writers are probably right. The real question is why the convention organizers thought Melania Trump had anything to say to the American people, or else why they thought her the right ventriloquist's dummy for whatever they wanted to say. Of course, candidates' wives are a commonplace at national party conventions; they're meant to testify to their husbands' character above all. But these appearances now encourage the dangerous belief that a First Lady is an important person upon whom votes confer some sort of power by electing her husband. We probably wouldn't be talking about plagiarism this week if people didn't believe that. You'd think that Donald Trump would prefer a more traditionally modest role for the First Lady, but just as he thought it important that Melania was more attractive than Sen. Cruz's wife, so he'll go on flaunting her as if she were Hillary and Michelle's opponent in a beauty contest. If she's been humiliated by this week's scandal, Trump has only himself to blame.

19 July 2016

The 'privileged' anti-Clinton left

Tom Templeton of Delmar NY doesn't want to hear it any more from those he describes as the "Bernie or Bust" crowd. These are the people who voted for Sen. Sanders in the Democrat primaries and now refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election despite Sanders' endorsement. Templeton tells us he supported Sanders during the primaries but will unapologetically vote for Clinton. Those progressives who refuse to do so suffer from a "sanctimony," in Templeton's diagnosis, that makes them insufferable to him. He informs his readers that he actually blocked someone on Facebook because he couldn't stand her apparent indifference to the "harrowing consequences" of making Donald Trump's election more likely. People who dismiss those possible consequences are guilty of "privilege."

[T]hese folks are blinded by their privilege to accurately see what we as a nation would stand to lose if Trump fulfills his campaign promises. Anecdotally, I have observed that most on the "Bernie or Bust" bandwagon are both young and white. To date, their world includes legal protections they take for granted. Indeed, they are comfortable and therefore fortunate in their ability to wallow in self-righteousness. But what about those who rely on Obamacare? What about those who need Planned Parenthood to maintain their reproductive health? What about those whose love is finally legally permitted and protected by the federal government?

You see, Templeton is not "self-righteous" because he's concerned for others, while those who espouse "Bernie or Bust" are either preoccupied with their own principles or else indifferent to those, already worse of than they, who will be even worse off under Trump. There's no room for "self-righteousness" or even "righteousness" in the face of the eternal Republican threat; since Trump must not be President, progressives must vote for whatever the Democrats serve up. They must always settle for that because the Republican threat never goes away. Is it "self-righteous" to say this? Is it "self-righteous" to propose that so long as the Republican is always worse than the Democrat, there is no limit to how bad the Democrat can be? Templeton, I'm sure, would say: yes, Samuel Wilson, you're being self-righteous because you refuse to acknowledge that what is not Republican is a priori not bad but good, and just for that I won't follow your blog anymore, so there! And I suppose it's privileged of me to reject Templeton's hedonic calculus as an argument for Clinton, though for what it's worth I suspect that not only the poor and the historically disadvantaged but also I and the nation will be worse off under Trump than we are now. But the argument against Trump is not an argument for Clinton, much less the absolute mathematical formula Templeton takes it to be. I could believe that Trump is the worst option for the nation, but so long as there are more than two choices for President this fall my feelings about Trump would not oblige me to vote for Clinton. It's part of my franchise as a citizen to choose whomever I deem the best candidate without being blamed for the worst one winning, as Templeton intends to blame any progressive who doesn't vote for Clinton.

In effect, Templeton is saying that I have no moral right to choose the truly best candidate. My only obligation, as he sees it, is to prevent the suffering a Trump presidency will cause. Here again is all the proof Republicans need (may they choke on it) for their contention that Democrats exploit dependency to retain power. The poor and the historically disadvantaged are the Democrats' hostages and human shields; neither Republicans nor people on the left can hope to take the Democracy down without hurting the helpless, or so Democrats threaten. Does this mean that I'm indifferent to the plights of these groups? Absolutely not. I would expect any candidate I endorse to be the best candidate for all those groups in their particularity -- to the extent that their identities "matter" -- as well as for the nation as a whole. It's my right to propose a cure for their ills rather than the Democrats' palliative care or the Republicans' malpractice....and if anyone really thinks the Republicans have worse than malpractice in mind for the patient -- if the GOP is the existential threat to the disadvantaged that people like Templeton seem to think they are -- those people should ask themselves whether allowing Republicans to treat the patient really should be left to a vote at all instead of blaming the rest of us who don't plan on voting Republican. It seems privileged of Templeton himself, if you think about it, to let the Republican party continue existing, to let that threat hang over the poor and the minorities during every election, instead of exterminating it if it's as awful as he says. His beef shouldn't be with prospective independent voters but with the two-party system, if not the U.S. Constitution, for allowing such a state of affairs. To think voting Democrat actually solves this problem is a privileged position, indeed.

18 July 2016

A cop-killer profile?

This month's two mass shootings of police were carried out by black veterans with an interest in "black nationalist" or "Afrocentric" schools of thought. The Baton Rouge killer -- actually a visitor from Missouri -- recently applied for a name change that reflects an intellectual if not institutional affiliation with a group known as the Ausar Auset Society. Founded in the 1970s, the Society seeks to revive a form of worship of the gods of ancient Egypt, considered by the Society's founder to be African-Americans' authentic cultural heritage. At first glance there's no evidence that the Society encourages violence of any sort, and it should be noted that the shooter appears to be an autodidact who took bits and pieces from many places to construct his own "Cosmo Way." It's interesting that people like the two cop-killers don't turn to one of the orthodox forms of Islam, considering that Islam offers the readiest legitimization of violence on Earth today, but it may be that each man was too close to fighting Muslims during his military service to feel real sympathy for the religion. It may also be that Islam's propaganda of racial equality is insufficient for men as alienated by American racism as these two. Nothing sort of a compensatory fantasy of African supremacy may do for such characters. Perhaps we should be surprised that "Islamic State" sympathizers haven't yet joined the fray against the police, but perhaps embracing Islam at that level dulls one's sense of solidarity with a particular race, your first loyalty being to the umma instead. In any event, how long will we have to wait before someone calls for new or heightened surveillance of "nationalist," "separatist" or "Afrocentric" groups or the dissemination of such ideas in social media? If someone doesn't raise the subject at the Republican convention in Cleveland this week I'd be surprised, given how the prevailing feeling on that side of the party line seems to be that black people have only themselves to blame for any feelings of alienation from American culture they experience. On a contrasting note, here's what a Christian writer had to say on the subject back in February:

Since much of the mistreatment of Blacks [in American history] was done in the name of Christianity, and because many Christian leaders who disagreed with such teachings and treatments were silent during these eras, space was provided for anti-gospel movements to rise up and proselytize people away from the church. Movements such as the Ausar Auset Society, Black Hebrew Israelites, Moorish Science Temple, Nation of Islam, and others gained prominence by juxtaposing the way White Christians treated Blacks and how the pathway to freedom from oppression started with the abandonment of the White Christian God, Jesus and Religion the slave maters imposed upon them.With the current revival of racial tensions in our nation birthing a movement such as #BlackLivesMatter, the aforementioned movements are surfacing once again on our cultural landscape.

The writer, of course, seeks a Christian way out of the problem, but we needn't and shouldn't be so particular. The problem, after all, has less to do with religion than it does with the way society is policed and the way perceptions of black men, as well as a feeling of entitlement among police, influence that. We shouldn't need God, Allah or Auset to straighten that out; if anything they are all counterproductive in a way that requires increased critical attention today.

17 July 2016

Excessive force

A Missouri man celebrated his birthday today by going to Baton Rouge LA to kill cops. He killed three from ambush and wounded three more before being killed himself. The killer "speaks for no one," says the President, but we all know better by now. Everyone "represents" whether they intend to or not or are delegated or not. The killer will be presumed to speak for his skin color and for critics of the police. He will "speak" for those he most likely opposed, since they will say that he proves again, after the Dallas shootings, that criticizing the police leads to killing the police, as if police actions didn't "speak" for themselves to aggrieved, angry people. Whether the killer meant to accomplish anything beyond killing cops (and perhaps dying himself; the birthday angle makes me wonder...) may be impossible to know, but for anyone to expect that crimes like these will soften police behavior is foolish. It's more likely that this exploit, following so soon after Dallas, will only harden people's attitudes further. We'll know soon enough, since the Republican National Convention takes place this coming week, in an Ohio city where the police are urging a suspension of the state's open-carry law. Donald Trump has declared himself the "law and order" candidate. For some people that's what they now call a "dog whistle," but it's up to Trump and his party to clarify whether "law and order" means "the police are always right." Through the afternoon I've heard people calling for the country to unify, but every such expression of noble sentiment begs a question: what does unity require? Does it require one group to drop its attitude and forget every grievance in unilateral submission? Or does it require an acknowledgment of grievance before limits are set on its expression? One way or the other, it requires a discussion, and while today's atrocity may hurry that discussion the perpetrator deserves no credit. If this was, as it seems, a premeditated mass killing of police, it seems reasonable to label it an act of terrorism, no matter what the man's religion was, if he had any. While it may hasten necessary discussion in order to prevent further incidents like those of this July, we should be able to do this without giving the apparent murderer the dignity of "listening" to him -- and we have to do it without anyone refusing to listen to others simply in order to spite this corpse.

13 July 2016

The Supreme Court is politicized! Who knew???

I have to laugh at all the discussion of Justice Ginsburg's denunciations of Donald Trump. Before I get started, let me agree with those who say it was inappropriate for a Supreme Court justice not merely to express an opinion about a political candidate but to insult Trump by calling him a "faker." I also don't doubt that if the shoe on the other foot was gored and Justice Alito or Justice Thomas expressed similar feelings toward Hillary Clinton that some Democrats would be demanding that the offender resign, as Trump himself is calling on Ginsburg to resign. Let's note, however, that it's probably unprecedented, if not just as inappropriate, for a presidential candidate to make such a demand of a Supreme Court justice. There are plenty of Democrats who had called on Justice Scalia to resign for various obnoxious things he said, though none of those remarks were personal insults and none of the people demanding his resignation were candidates for high office. And who doubts that Scalia felt toward Obama and the Clintons what Ginsburg feels about Trump? It was implicit in everything he said and wrote; Scalia may have been the most partisan justice in the Court's history. That's why I laugh specifically at pundits wringing their hands and lamenting that Ginsburg, just now, has politicized the Supreme Court of the United States. Every four years (for how long, now?) American voters are urged to pick a President on the understanding that the future of the Supreme Court is at stake. Republicans are urging their disgruntled or disgusted brethren to rally around Trump in the hope that he'll appoint conservatives to the court, while Democrats are telling their disgruntled siblings that Hillary Clinton is our only bulwark against the overturning of Roe v. Wade and who knows what else by barbarian justices. The presidential power to appoint Supreme Court justices may be one of the most powerful factors keeping the American Bipolarchy alive. So here's a new idea for today: if both major parties are desperately trying to herd their people together for the sake of the Supreme Court, maybe it's time to amend the Constitution by taking the power of appointment away from the President and giving the power of election to the people. It might be a good idea to retain life tenure, or set a mandatory retirement age, rather than elect justices to set terms, if only because I'd like Americans to be stuck with the consequences of their actions over time. But Supreme Court elections (one at a time, upon the death or retirement of a justice) would acknowledge the self-evident ideological polarization of constitutional jurisprudence while possibly de-escalating partisanship by stripping the major parties of one of their most compelling arguments for party loyalty. If we don't have to worry about the future of the Supreme Court during every presidential election, maybe more people will vote according to conscience rather than fear. If today's justices themselves had any wisdom and concern for country rather than party, they might suggest this themselves.

12 July 2016

Third parties in the U.S. Now or never?

In the media, at least, political observers seem to agree that the U.S. faces one of its worst choices ever in the upcoming Presidential election, with both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump carrying high unfavorable ratings into the general campaign. Surely, this is the moment for an independent party to get the American people's attention. Shouldn't that be more the case this year than even in 1992, when Ross Perot got 19% of the popular vote? So far, it seems not to be the case. The most generous estimates of early support for the two strongest alternate candidates, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green nominee Jill Stein, give them a combined 15% of people surveyed, most of that going to Johnson. Johnson's support is likely to grow significantly from the 1% of the popular vote he got in the 2012 election, but despite his credentials as a former governor and former Republican his support seems likely to max out at about 10%, despite a seemingly quixotic effort launched today to win over fans of Bernie Sanders who are disappointed over his inescapable endorsement of Clinton. At the National Public Radio website, Danielle Kurtzleben attempts to explain (in advance) why neither Johnson nor Stein is likely to top Perot's turnout in 1992. She observes that Americans seemed as dissatisfied with the choice between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton 24 years ago as they are now with Hillary Clinton vs. Trump. The difference, she claims, is that more people in 1992 were equally dissatisfied with Bush and Clinton and thus ready to listen to an independent appeal. In 2016, while Trump and Hillary Clinton's unfavorable ratings are both high, comparatively few people view both with equal disfavor. The Age of Clinton, beginning after the 1992 vote, has seen a hyperpolarization of the electorate, Kurtzleben claims, that leaves little room for the plague-on-both-your-houses mentality that benefits third parties. Voters are more partisan and take politics more personally than ever, and many will vote for Trump to stop Hillary, or vote for Hillary to stop Trump. When election discussions are dominated by how unacceptable one candidate or another is, there's little room for experimental voting outside the standard party boxes. Johnson is growing somewhat stronger, it seems, mainly because so many Republicans despise Trump, but his support will be limited inevitably by the imperative to stop Hillary. Despite the Sanders campaign, fewer Democrats feel as alienated from their nominee, and so Stein's support remains very small. Kurtzleben's analysis makes sense, but there's arguably an even simpler explanation for independents' failure to gain much traction, and that's the enduring American feeling that a vote cast for a candidate assumed unlikely to win, no matter if he or she comes closest to your own views, is a vote wasted. Elections are a sort of team sport, after all, and Americans want to be on the winning team. The problem with that line of thinking is that the nation is everybody's team, and with a choice limited to Trump and Clinton our team is likely to lose badly, if not in November than over the next four years.