14 December 2017

No Moore

Was this week's special U.S. Senate special election in Alabama the first truly post-partisan vote? It was, at minimum, a uniquely ad hominem verdict in one of the reddest of Republican states. The balance seemed to tip decisively against Judge Moore last weekend when Sen. Shelby repudiated him.  History will most likely show that Moore died of a thousand cuts, from lingering suspicion of his Christianist bent to disgust with his alleged preference for very young women. These outweighed appeals to partisan solidarity from the President, who had supported Moore's opponent in the Republican primary, and to tribal solidarity, for want of a better term, from Steve Bannon. There was a rush to judgment against Bannon after Tuesday's result, the feeling being that, as Moore's biggest booster, he had foisted a fatally flawed candidate upon Alabama Republicans. Partisans there have themselves to blame, however, for choosing Moore when the President was urging them to nominate someone else. His ambivalent stance probably minimizes the damage to his own prestige from the Alabama debacle, though Democrats will portray the election as part of a wave repudiating Trump  and Trumpism. Apologists for Bannon -- and we should be careful to distinguish him from  the "alt-right" despite  Democratic and antifa perceptions -- might note that their cause almost prevailed and would have if not for Moore's toxic persona, but the Republican establishment could answer that, compared to typical Alabama elections, Moore's defeat was not a near-miss but a catastrophic abandonment of the party. While Democrats credit black turnout for putting their candidate over the top, a more typical GOP voting pattern would have more than compensated for that, as it has in the recent past. If any lasting lesson is to be learned from Alabama, it'll be the same lesson the nation as a whole has been taught this year. While the sexual-harrassment craze endures, more intensive vetting will be necessary for both major parties, not only for aspirants to office lest they share Moore's fate, but for incumbents lest they share Sen. Frankenstein.   This could go on at least until 2020, when we can now expect Sen. Gillibrand to position herself as the people's scourge of male swinishness in general and a seemingly swinishness President in particular. But while that develops, the cultural wars waged by Moore and Bannon will continue to rage as if nothing really significant happened in Alabama this week, since on that battlefield, nothing really did.

10 December 2017

Press freedom and accountability

The President once more enraged most of the media establishment by issuing a tweet demanding that a Washington Post reporter be fired for issuing a tweet misrepresenting the attendance at a presidential rally in Florida. The tweet ironically described the event as "packed to the rafters," illustrating that with a picture of a far from full venue actually taken a few hours before the event began. The reporter claims he made an honest mistake because the picture shows Trump on stage, the President having arrived in advance of the event. The President sees this as another case of "fake news" intended to belittle him, and it's fair to ask whether he'd give a damn if any other politician or entertainer was treated the same way. One can't help wondering whether he thinks the reporter's real offense is lese-majeste or something tantamount to "slandering the state." Almost certainly, this President thinks he's entitled to more respect, if not more deference, than he's been getting in the media. But if his inferred attitude represents an extreme of intolerance of criticism or lampooning, there is, inevitably, an opposite extreme indulgent of almost any excess justifiable by suspicion of power, that would rather see reporters err, intentionally or not, with impunity than have them unwilling to take risks for fear of punishment. The idea here is that any prosecution or penalization of a journalist, justifiable or not, will have a chilling effect on all future scrutiny of leaders while giving those leaders a slippery-slope rationale for persecuting any reporter who doesn't see things the same way they do. But that would be like arguing that actually holding leaders accountable through impeachment and criminal trials would discourage anyone from seeking political office. In either case we would be better off viewing every case in objective isolation instead of treating them as episodes in perpetual campaigns effecting everybody. To be clear, I don't think the Post reporter should be sacked for a bit of Twitter snark that blew up in his face. But to argue that the media need answer to no one for its excesses, or that to demand some answerability is tyrannical, is itself potentially tyrannical, albeit in a different register, so long as you understand tyranny as that to which no one can say no.

06 December 2017

The Jerusalem Provocation

How bad is your Trumpophobia? One way to tell is what you make of the President's decision today to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocate the U.S. embassy there. I can imagine extreme cases seeing this as a deliberate provocation, designed to provoke a terrorist attack Trump could then use to justify some extreme measure of his own, whether that be a roundup of American Muslims, a punitive attack on Iran,or something similarly chilling to this mindset.  Objectively, his decision is a provocation that almost certainly will have a violent response somewhere. But I don't think that response is something Trump really wants, much less depends upon. At worst, he may see it as a way to show the world that he isn't afraid of any consequences to come, or of the Muslim world. But his very careful, repetitive prepared speech today suggests that he, or at least his diplomatic advisors see this as they call it, as a fait accompli that will settle the Jerusalem question irreversibly. For an occasion that gave him ample opportunity to say "Fuck you, Islam," he adopted an almost painfully conciliatory tone, reserving the smack talk for the unnamed past Presidents who couldn't solve this problem before he cut the Gordian knot. He sounds little different from them, however, in his stated desire for peace conditional upon Islamic reconciliation with the permanent existence of Israel.
What happens next depends on the extent to which those in a position to worry about the repercussions of the next terrorist attack are in a position to restrain those who have less reason than ever to give a damn. That's the short term. The long term may depend on powers outside the Middle East that might find just as much reason to keep Muslims riled up as they have to prop up Kim Jong Un. Donald Trump's Zionism is an inconsistency in his America First policy that makes him vulnerable to those who might turn the security of Israel into something for which Trump may have to make concessions elsewhere, e.g. Eastern Europe or the South China Sea. It is not inconsistent with his nationalistic view of the world for him to believe strongly that the Jewish people are entitled to a nation over which Islam or the Third World hold no anti-imperialist veto. But I'm not sure if he's calculated how much that should matter to the U.S., or what price Americans should pay to affirm that principle. He may well see only benefit to himself in the form of Jewish and End Times-obsessed Christian voters. But in less than a decade he won't be President anymore, while the rest of us continue to deal with whatever consequences follow from what he's done today.

Neighborly naivete

The other day I saw a blog post arguing that the left doesn't owe the right a debate on anything; that a leftist would be justified in telling a right-wing er to "go eat a dick" no matter how eager he was to debate the issues. While there was a perhaps legitimate complaint about right-wingers "shifting the goalposts" in their sophisticated enthusiasm, I was inclined to dismiss the post as typical antifa arrogance, until the latest David Brooks column reminded me that some things really shouldn't be subject to debate. Brooks is unhappy over the Supreme Court having to deliberate whether the state can sanction a baker for refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding on religious grounds. He's quick to remind us that he supports gay rights, but he also claims that the beleaguered baker wasn't disputing them, either. Rather,"He's simply asking not to take part," and in the end, "It's just a cake." Rather than take this matter to court, Brooks believes that the Baker and the betrothed could have dealt with their dispute in a "neighborly" manner. This would entail the gay couple inviting the Baker home for dinner  "so you can see our marital love, and so we can understand your values. You still may not agree with us, after all this, but at least we'll understand each other better and we can live more fully in our community." Well, wouldn't that be special? We may scoff, but Brooks warns that the litigiousness exemplified by the current case contributes to social polarization and  anger, when "the holy messiness of actual pluralistic community ... could be addressed in conversation and community." In this case, however, is conversation really possible when one side is guided by an absolute rule of divine authority? Does Brooks's pluralistic ideal really require one group of people to "understand" another's belief that their way of life is "sin?" I suppose Brooks would say it must, so long as no group can impose its belief in another's sin on the community as a whole. Ironically, of course, it is the more intolerant community that complains against acceptance of the "sinful" community being shoved down their throats. If Brooks sees a moral equivalence between this too-familiar complaint and gay people's demand not to be treated as implicit second-class citizens for any reason, than his pluralism is as naive and hopeless as his Frank Capra fantasy of homosexuals and religious homophobes having a happy dinner together.

05 December 2017

Conservatives vs. Conservation

The President has used his executive authority to shrink two large tracts of Utah national park land created in recent years, outraging environmentalists and Native American activists who see his action as a blatant move to open land seen as sacred or simply pretty to ruthless economic exploitation. Republicans in Utah are hailing the President's action as a necessary correction of federal overreach, while Trump himself invokes the principles of states' rights and local control. The main idea in his mind, most likely is "Jobs!" He seems convinced that resource extraction is the quickest way to achieve the job growth he's promised Americans. He probably also agrees with the Republican ideology of "responsible stewardship," which sees no necessary incompatibility between job creation and environmental protection. The opposition considers "responsible stewardship" a bad joke, and more Republicans used to agree with them. The national park system is what it is, arguably, because Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt -- whom, for all I know, Trump admires as a tough guy but Tea Party conservatives despise as an original "progressive"-- didn't entirely trust the robber barons of his day to be responsible stewards of anything. TR saw himself as a moderate steering clear of the extremes of oligarchy and populism, and a moderate might well make the case that even though limits on economic exloitation of the landscape remain necessary, past Presidents went too far in seizing Utah land, or that maximizing park land isn't necessarily the best course for everyone. The problem, of course, is finding a true moderate today, when even centrists are getting fewer and further between.

01 December 2017

Republicans, Tories and 21st century conservatism.

The Conservative party of Great Britain is angry at the President of the United States, a fellow conservative by virtue of his membership in the Republican party, over his uncritical retweeting of videos posted by the "Britain First" group and described as scenes of Muslim migrants randomly attacking people. The Tories thought this irresponsible, while the President characteristically riposted that the British government should focus its attention  on radical Islamic terrorism. The Tory position seems to be that there's a difference between that and the allegedly indiscriminate Islamophobia spread by groups like Britain First. The subtext of this little flame war is a struggle to define conservatism for the 21st century. In Britain, the Tories have been "Conservative" since long before there was a "conservative movement" in the U.S., but the sort of conservatism they preach now is mainly a version of 20th century U.S. movement conservatism, at least when it comes to individual  rights. Evolving in opposition to Bolshevism, this sort of conservatism -- history may need to assign it a more accurate label -- focused on individual liberty based on supposed natural rights above and beyond the positive law of any nation. Shaped as well by the imperatives of globalized capitalism, this conservatism prioritizes the free movement of people and products as necessary to the operation of the free market and civil society upon which civilization depends. Across the Atlantic, many Republicans who see themselves as principled conservatism still advocate free trade and, to varying degrees, the free movement of people seeking to improve their lives wherever the Market creates opportunities. President Trump's conservatism differs to such a degree that many Republicans question whether he's conservative at all. That's because his more nationalist conservatism seems detached from any idea of "natural" or "human" rights, concerned only, it seems, with the interests of "our kind." From Trump's perspective, abstract notions of individual liberty take second place, at best, to the interests of actually existing Americans. To many more individualist conservatives, as to their estranged liberal kin, to deny all Muslims entry into the U.S. because some might commit terrorism automatically violates the human rights of the presumed vast majority of Muslims. Trump or his supporters might concede this point in the abstract, but would rather not take chances with the lives of those citizens who are their actual responsibility. In short, 20th century conservatism disapproves of any attempt, for any reason, to assign one group of people more or less rights than another, since the natural-rights assumption is that rights aren't ours to confer or deny. President Trump represents those who distrust the older generation of conservatives' refusal to make necessary distinctions, their seeming refusal to take "their own" side on questions of security or survival. This strikes me as a debate unlikely to be resolved through conventional debate. Instead, it may be resolved democratically,depending on how public opinion on either side of the Atlantic is shaped by the history to come.

29 November 2017

Another round with populism

Frank S. Robinson, the author of a book called The Case for Rational Optimism, takes a stab at the slippery concept of populism in an Albany Times Union op-ed. He traces the word all the way back to the Roman Republic, when the populates vied for power with the elitist optimates. He passes briefly over the People's Party of the 1890s U.S., noting that while their demand for "free silver" may sound arcane today, it was at least, by his lights, a "coherent and basically rational program." That's should tip you off that a comparison unfavorable to today's so-called populist is coming up. If that didn't, the invocation of Sigmund Freud to open the next paragraph should do the trick.  Robinson has determined that 21st-century populism is "id-based politics -- the politics of the gut." These populist aren't hungry, however; they are xenophobic in an apparently pathological way -- just as many 19th century populist were, if one bothers to take a closer look at them. So far, so predictable; populism is bound to seem bigoted to many observers because it refuses to treat "the people" as an abstract concept and is often tempted to see it as a mirror for "my kind." What's interesting about Robinson, however, is that he so hates the idea of populists "punching  down" that he starts chiding them for punching up as well. He notes that "until recently, at least, the elites were seen to have a certain moral authority" that he implicitly identifies with the nation's "sense of common purpose." He then writes that "all that has been eroded by a populist ethos of egalitarianism and individualism" -- which might sound like a good thing until it leads to "Joe Sixpack" sneering at politicians who support "anti-populist policies like liberal immigration and free trade." Our problem, it seems, is that we no longer allow "true leaders" to summon us to our "highest values, ideals and aspirations. " Instead Trumpian populism "panders to and inflames our baser nature until our good old "city on the hill" becomes "a squalid slum in a swamp." In other words, there are, or should be, moral optimates in a republic to whom "a certain deference" is owed. But when you have to insist on that, as Robinson does, it's probably too late to get that deference back, if it's even desirable, without more comprehensive change. My closing advice to Robinson is that writing as if bigotry is this nation's only problem today most likely isn't the best way to restore the deference he apparently expects from the masses.

28 November 2017


The President raised questions once more about his commitment to freedom of the press last weekend when he complained on Twitter that CNN, particularly its international channel, did a poor job representing the U.S. to the rest of the world compared to the more pro-Trump Fox News. His tweet quickly provoked angry and contemptuous responses, particularly from a CNN staffed who noted that it was the President's job, not the news network's, to represent the nation abroad. It certainly wasn't any news network's job, the critics agreed, to represent the country in the way that Trump presumably wanted, as a propaganda arm of the state and the party or person in power. Leaving  aside the persistent question of "fake news," since the critics assume that Trump is lying when he accuses them of lying, what we have here is a conflict between journalists' critical imperative, rooted in the American belief that dissent is the health of the state, and Donald Trump's Chamber-of-Commerce mentality, which prefers, if it doesn't require, that everyone be a booster rather than a kicker. Airing any of a community's dirty laundry is always bad for business from this perspective, though Trump himself had no problem crying "carnage" during his campaign and all the way to his inauguration. In any event, his preoccupation with the media remains troubling, even if we concede that certain media outlets are genuinely hysterical over his presidency. His expectation that everyone, including the media, rally around him unquestioningly is, like it or not, un-American, no matter how many Americans, incapable of thinking of themselves as un-American, cheer him on.