20 September 2016

Terrorist lives matter, or: Take another knee, Kaepernick

This isn't the first blog to note the irony of the suspected Chelsea bomber being taken alive, despite exchanging fire with cops, while the news showed us footage of an unarmed Tulsa OK man being killed by police, apparently for touching his SUV the wrong way. But let's not overstate the irony. The suspected terrorist, after all, is a potential asset. Alive, he may tell the NYPD, FBI, etc. important things about jihadi networks and terror cells. By comparison, of what use was the "bad dude," as a helicopter cop called the Tulsa victim, to local law enforcement? Tulsa, it seems, is a bad place; one of their "finest" (a reserve deputy, actually) is already doing time for shooting an unarmed man with his revolver when he meant to taze the bro. Once again, of course, the latest Tulsa victim was condemned for failing to comply. In a possibly addled state, he seemed to think it okay not to obey instructions so long as he kept his hands in the air. He sealed his fate by moving as if to get something out of his car -- it wasn't a gun, we now know -- and was tazed and shot just about simultaneously. Someone did the right thing, at least, or at least relatively speaking.

So here we are again, just as a lot of Americans had convinced themselves that "privileged" football players had nothing to complain about. Of course, a lot of those Americans remain convinced even after the news from Tulsa. The nation arguably is more visibly divided between the "comply or die" party and those who refuse to accept such outcomes as the breaks of the game than it is along more conventional party lines. One side insists that you have to choose between maximum safety and discretion for police and the lives of self-evident troublemakers. They've already decided that "blue" lives matter more than others in this country. The rest of us believe that it's not for the cops on the street to decide whether any lives matter less than others, unless someone is indisputably threatening other lives. Shooting-involved officers are defended invariably in the name of their own self-preservation -- the idea being they should not be punished for making mistakes lest they err the opposite way before a real threat -- and not the protection of others. Yet if we accept that police risk their lives to protect the innocent, doesn't it follow that police must accept risk in order to avoid injuring or killing people who are neither real threats nor (it must be conceded) real bright? This should not be too much to ask in a purportedly civilized society, yet look what happens when people ask. They're condemned as if they're complicit in the next such incident or the death of any police officer -- and lately they're condemned as if they're traitors to their country. I suppose they might be traitors if we lived in a police state, but despite some people's wishes we're not there yet.  I will note that so far I haven't heard as much rabid defense of the police from some of the usual channels that I usually hear on such occasions. There may even be a consensus that the police really did botch this one. Why don't we ask our presidential candidates about it?...

19 September 2016

A dialectic of distrust

David Brooks is just one of many opinionators bemoaning a surge in mutual distrust among Americans this election year. He holds Clinton and Trump partly to blame for their suspicious secrecy about many aspects of their lives, but for Brooks their toxicity only exacerbates trends he's long bemoaned that seem to leave Americans increasingly isolated and alienated from each other. He worries about the possibility of a "death spiral" in which "the loss of intimacy makes society more isolated. Isolation leads to more fear. More fear leads to fear-mongering leaders." He finds that young people, the great hope of progressives, are often "the most distrustful of all." This in turn he blames partly on the replacement of society with social media and its "illusion of intimacy." Mutual trust has deteriorated rapidly over the last generation, Brooks claims. The polarization of politics since the 1980s may have something to do with that, while American individualism probably has deepened distrust at both poles. Brooks often bemoans the disappearance of a common culture without offering really credible suggestions on how it might be restored or renewed. It will be especially difficult for anyone to appeal to loyalty to something in common when people from all directions are likely to ask, "Who are you to say...?" Each party does it when its particular sense of individuality seems threatened. When we've reached a point when we can't see past individuality, and take anyone's appeal to patriotism or humanity as a self-serving ploy, then individualism as perhaps not just an ideology but a principle of perception has gone too far past the limit of healthy moderation.

There are signs, however, of a reaction against different facets of dogmatic individualism. You see it in the divide between ideological Republicans, who cling to a utopian ideal of "may the best man win" economic competition, and the Donald Trump movement, whose "America first" sentiment rejects the idea that who wins such competition should be a matter of indifference to the individual consumer. There was a weaker expression of a similar sentiment in Sen. Sanders' campaign against Clinton. At the same time, a heightened awareness of inescapable global competition -- both the existential competition to which Islamism has challenged the world and the sort of oldschool eternal jostling for advantage practiced by Russia -- may reawaken a sense of common interest and purpose among Americans, should it be acknowledged that neither form of competition can be wished away and that we as a nation are in it together whether we as individuals like it or not. By this point in history any transition back toward solidarity and common culture will be a rough one, since Brooks wishes for a restoration of mutual trust at a time when many Americans see very specific limits to such trust. As well, the nature of any new common culture -- and it must be new to an irreducible extent no matter how it hearkens to the past -- will be contested so long as one person says "America First" and another hears it as "White People (or White Men) First." Neither Clinton nor Trump has what it takes, at first glance, to ease any such transition, unless Trump proves so profoundly different a President than he has been a campaigner that his own base may feel betrayed. Nor is there any guarantee that change can come without at least the perception of coercion. Brooks's admittedly "paradoxical" remedy -- that "somebody’s got to greet distrust with vulnerability, skepticism with innocence, cynicism with faith and hostility with affection" -- might well be wrong in every particular. But distrust, skepticism, cynicism and hostility as a package must be answered, and there will be many answers offered. Whose is the correct answer remains to be seen.

16 September 2016

Teflon Don or Teflon Dick?

While some liberals lament Hillary Clinton's inability to open up a consistent lead over Donald Trump and rightly blame it on her own deficiencies, others -- and, really, some of the same people -- can't comprehend why Trump hasn't cratered in the polls. It seems unreasonable, if not hypocritical, of people to lambaste "Lyin' Hillary" when Trump, depending on who interprets him, lies practically every time he opens his mouth. It's hard to dispute that Trump lies frequently, and I haven't really seen or heard his grass-roots defenders deny that he does. They may believe that his lies are of a different order than Clinton's. They may feel, whether any would dare admit it or not, that the sort of fibs Trump may indulge in are just part of competitive life, or even, as the mafiosi say, "just business." It's more likely that they just don't give a damn. While it's tempting to think of Trump supporters worshiping a whitewashed idol of a wise businessman -- you'd like to believe they're naive, delusional or just plain dumb -- they probably take a more warts-and-all approach. It wouldn't surprise me if many of them conceded that Donald Trump is, or can be at times, a dick. They might then go on to say that that's his virtue, or it's what we need right now. Our best analysis of this election may come from a twelve year old movie with puppets:

The only question is whether Trump really can get it up at his age and keep it up for four years. That's the medical report we need to see!

14 September 2016

Burkini Blowback II: Laicity and the American Left

Katha Pollitt, The Nation's resident feminist, is opposed to France's ban on the burkini, that throwback to 19th century beach fashion adopted by devout Muslim women. She takes her stand while deploring Islam's sexist modesty code. "If covering is just about faith, why don’t men do it too?" she asks. She recognizes the ban as consistent with France's longstanding policy of laïcité, which she defines with reasonable accuracy as "the rigorous denial of a public role for religion." Such a policy, she recognizes also, can be a good thing, compared with the apparent porousness of the First Amendment.

In France, for example, the Catholic Church doesn’t control one-sixth of all hospital beds and use government funds to deny women modern reproductive-health care. Public schools do not bring in religious zealots to lecture the students on the evils of birth control. You won’t find creationist propaganda in the bookstore at a national park.

Banning the burkini, however, strikes Pollitt as laïcité in overreach. It becomes apparent upon reading her column on the topic that she doesn't like the premise on which the ban is founded, that women wearing the burkini -- or other conservative forms of Islamic dress -- are victims who have no will or agency of their own. She rejects the idea that Muslim women would only wear such things because their fathers and brothers force them to. She finds it telling that, to her knowledge, there are no regulations in France against Islamic male fashions like long beards or cloth skullcaps. That makes her suspect that regulations against Islamic female fashions are less about stigmatizing Islam than they are about stigmatizing (or fetishizing) Muslim women. From her perspective, the burkini debate pits two forms of sexism against each other, both denying women the right to dress as they please.

The prime minister of France justifies the burkini ban by observing that “The burkini is not a new swimwear fashion; it’s the transmission of a political project, against society, founded notably upon the subjection of women. Some people try to portray those who wear them as victims, as though we were calling liberty into question." Pollitt is one of those people, despite her apparent belief that Islam often does subjugate women. She criticizes the burkini ban from what I'd call a unique (if not exceptional!) American perspective that would reject French-style laïcité despite its sometime favorable features.There's a coercive element to French secularism that Americans are unlikely to consider either desirable or necessary. That's because the typical American assumption is that people have the right to be whatever they want to be -- a further assumption being that what we want to be is what we're meant to be. These assumptions are implicitly conditional upon your right to be not interfering with others' rights, but liberal Americans, at least, will assume further still that for every cultural choice there is a way to be that choice that is certain not to interfere with others' right to be themselves. American conservatives, by comparison, are more concerned with the right to do than the right to be, but they're another story. By a more relevant comparison, France's divergent revolutionary heritage is less likely to take this right to be (on one's own terms, that is) for granted. From the Jacobins forward, in a tradition extending beyond France and beyond Europe, there has been an assumption that a citizen is something you must become, not something you can just be. Citizenship requires conscious shaping of the citizen through educational and cultural institutions, in a manner at odds with American notions of individual autonomy and "self-made" people, that can be perceived by Americans as on the slippery slope to totalitarianism. American liberals (or progressives) want a world in which any woman who wears a burkini is given the benefit of the doubt on questions of independence, agency and loyalty, just as other forms of personal expression are. Whether such a world is possible remains subject to debate, but it can't be denied that it has seemed less possible in recent years. The yearning for such a world is typically American. Many Americans, whether they think of themselves as left or right, imagine that Utopia will become real if we're all just allowed to be ourselves and do our own thing. Both the American left and the American right differ from their counterparts around the world in their individualist biases, despite the left's alleged collectivism. But there are small signs, or perhaps only hints, that Americans are growing less divergent, so that the demands France makes of its people may seem progressively less strange and unacceptable in the years to come, despite the protests of individualists on both right and left.

11 September 2016

Clinton's health: a no-lose crisis?

Republican rumormongering appeared to be vindicated today when Hillary Clinton had to be treated for dehydration at a 9/11 commemoration and was revealed to be suffering from pneumonia. For weeks Donald Trump's supporters have manipulated every least bit of evidence that could be spun into portraying Clinton as an ill woman, the idea being that someone might thus be convinced to vote for a man one year her elder who nevertheless projects machismo, or something like it, by flaunting trophy wives and acting in a manner often described, with little basis, as "tough." The Trump strategy depends on some voters being willing to vote for the Republican candidate for no other reason than his relative state of health. How many people actually are likely to make such a decision for such a reason? Who that is even tempted to vote for Hillary Clinton is going to be scared off by her questionable physical fitness and then say, "I guess I'd better vote for Trump because he's healthy?" Anyone who presumably would vote for Clinton except for concerns about her health probably has long ago rejected any possibility of voting for Trump. A real Clinton health crisis might still help Trump get elected, but it would be because anti-Trump voters might decide to vote for Gary Johnson, Jill Stein or "Other." However, such a crisis might actually help the Democratic party if the Democrats are smart enough to make the last stages of the race about party more than personality. Might not more people be willing to vote Democratic at the top of the ballot this November if they had some confidence that Clinton might drop dead just past the historic finish line, delivering them to the presumed safety of a Kaine Administration? Who knows but that having Hillary go the way of William Henry Harrison might be the best-case scenario, allowing her to make history without doing too much damage to the country? It would be a sublime irony to have Republican rumormongering backfire that way, but if the polls begin to indicate such a reversal, watch for Trump to start playing sick at his rallies. I'm sure a lot of people would rather see a Pence Administration as well....

10 September 2016

The Deplorables

The "double standards" crowd is condemning Hillary Clinton for saying at a recent fundraiser that half of Donald Trump's supporters belong in a "basket of deplorables" consisting mainly of bigots of different sorts. For Republicans, this is the Democratic equivalent of Mitt Romney's infamous 2012 remarks about 47% of Americans (not merely of Obama supporters) were basically freeloaders. As the Washington Post reports, at that time Trump said Romney had no reason to apologize, but what else would you expect of Trump? Of course, his people insist that Clinton must apologize to all Trump's supporters, apparently on the assumption that none of them can be certain that they weren't included in Clinton's calumny. If there's a lesson to all of this, it's that candidates should never attempt to quantify such things as dependence or deplorable bigotry. Trump probably would have whined had Clinton suggested that any percentage of his support was bigoted, but it should be self-evident to all observers, including Trump's erstwhile rivals for the Republican nomination, that some of his supporters are bigots in anyone's sense of the word. Anyone who claims that the real number is zero percent is simply lying. I've heard too much from an admittedly small sample -- and I'm not talking about what they think of Muslims -- to let any blanket claim of innocence stand. Yes, some if not many of Trump's supporters are motivated by a positive belief in his expertise and his promises to restore American greatness, and there is some tone-deafness in Democratic denunciations of what they insist is Trump's exaggerated negativity about current conditions. But even these sincerely disgruntled and possibly unprejudiced people are as naive in their faith in Trump's boastful promises as others are in their hope that Clinton will govern as a progressive in any meaningful sense. What I'm saying is that while I'm not so scared of Trump that I'll waste my vote to stop him, I still can't see any good reason for anyone to vote for him. From my perspective, merely to vote for someone who sounds tough because he fires people on TV, or because you think his celebrity proves him a successful businessman and leader, is just as deplorable as voting for Clinton out of mindless fear of Trump or Republicans in general. In 2016 a large majority of the entire electorate is deplorable, and no one should have to apologize for recognizing that fact.

08 September 2016

Trump, Putin and leadership

Liberals, along with a fair number of Republicans, think that Donald Trump damns himself every time he praises President Putin of Russia. We've had another round of damning Trump since he talked about Putin at a televised forum on military issues last night. What did he say specifically? It's worth noting that Trump noted that Russia has "a very different system, and I don't happen to like the system." It would be interesting to learn what Trump doesn't like about the Russian system, and it'd be in his interest to elaborate, though he wasn't pressed to do so this time, since he might calm critics who fear that he sees Putin as a model for governing the United States. Trump went on to say that "in that system, he's been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader." His next sentence was "We have a divided country," the twofold implication being that Russia under Putin's leadership is a less divided country, and that divisions in America reflect Obama's lack of leadership. A moment earlier, Trump seemed to mock liberal criticism of Putin by saying, "I mean, you can say, 'Oh, isn't that a terrible thing' -- the man has very strong control over a country." The problem with that statement is that many Americans do think it a terrible thing for a man to have "very strong control over a country" if that means using the means often attributed to Putin, i.e. the intimidation or persecution of dissidents. How terrible it sounds depends on what you're hearing. Many Americans hear that a "man has very strong control" and their dictator-alert goes off; from that perspective the problem is the man who is suspected of using that "very strong control" for his own selfish ends. By comparison, Trump is arguably a real old-school conservative, to whatever extent a real old-school capitalist can be that, because the significant part of the statement for him is probably "control" as a synonym for "order" or "stability." The opposite of Putin's "very strong control" is Obama's "divided country," howevermuch Trump's chosen political party is to blame for that condition. Trump may believe, however, that it's the leader's responsibility to resolve the divisions that exist in his country, whether he's the immediate cause of them or not.

Does that mean that Obama, or a Democratic successor, should treat the Republican party like Putin treats his opposition, or that they should treat Fox News as Putin treats opposition media, or as Trump might treat MSNBC, in order to end division and take very strong control? Not to Trump, probably, since ours is a "very different system." Yet I suspect that his notion of order or good governance is essentially non-ideological to an extent that might make his own distinction between systems less relevant than we might want or hope. I'm more certain that his idea of leadership is non-ideological, which is why he can praise Putin unreservedly by conventional American standards, and that's exactly what bugs people on both left and right. For neither group is order really an end unto itself; each has a set of freedoms that must be accommodated for order to be just and society free, and insofar as Putin's Russia appears unfree in many respects, his order is not worth having, much less praising. Trump's ultimate retort to that sentiment might be that what matters to him as a potential President is whether Putin's order is good for, or compatible with, American interests, not whether it's good for Russian intellectuals or compatible with American values. Many Americans, at least in public life, find Putin's power neither compatible with nor good for American interests -- much less the interests of people in Russia's "near abroad" whom they want to protect from Putin -- but what American interests (if not values) actually are is arguably more subject to debate this year than in recent election cycles. That's why I think Trump should be probed more about his feelings about Putin and Russia; not to goad him into a gaffe, but to find out whether he actually offers an alternative to the establishment consensus that can't help seeing Russia as not merely a competitor on the world stage -- which it is indisputably -- but also an existential enemy. I don't know if Trump has the vocabulary to elaborate his views the way I'd like, but I think he could give us enough to figure out the rest ourselves.