21 February 2017

The Misfortunes of Milo

It can happen that fast. Milo Yiannopoulos probably reached his high water mark of public acceptance last weekend when he appeared on Bill Maher's HBO talk show amid the free publicity of Jeremy Scahill refusing to appear with him.Within days it has all come crashing down in a manner that speaks volumes on the ambiguous role of homosexuals -- or, perhaps more specifically, white male homosexuals -- in the current American political landscape.

As noted last week, Yiannopolous is a provocateur, a scourge of "political correctness" who takes pride in refusing various minority groups (or women, some say) the respect they feel entitled to. He had become a hero of the right and/or "alt-right" for his defiance of violent leftist protesters who've tried to prevent him from speaking at various venues. While he was not the first openly homosexual man to espouse Republicanism, he appeared to give the alt-right a certain hipness, as well as armor against the argument that they were just the same old repressive Christianists and rednecks in new clothes. All the while, his status as a supposed spokesman for the "alt-right" and a star of Breitbart News made him a target for what they call opposition research. Just as Yiannopoulos was invited to speak at CPAC, the big annual conservative conference, the opposition research struck paydirt.

A podcast was found on which Yiannopoulos apparently questioned whether an adult's sexual attraction to a 13 year old was pedophilia, since someone of that age, in his opinion, was sexually mature. This was publicized by a nebulous entity called the Reagan Battalion, which consists of a Twitter account, on which the damning excerpt was posted, and a website consisting almost entirely of links to conservative sites critical toward President Trump. The Battalion endorsed Evan McMullin, the independent candidate who tried to snatch Utah away from Trump, in last year's presidential election. One investigation of the Reagan Battalion suggests that it, in turn, has ties to a Democratic PAC opposed to both Trump and Hillary Clinton. Whatever its motives, the Battalion started the dominoes tumbling. CPAC disinvited Yiannopoulos. The new scandal gave the Simon & Schuster publishing firm cover to terminate a contract for a Yiannopoulos book that had alienated some of their regular authors. Finally, after the inevitable "out of context" denials, Yiannopoulos fell on his sword this afternoon and resigned from Breitbart News. There were limits to his freedom of speech, after all.

Apart from possibly destroying his own career as an opinionator, Yiannopoulos probably has done real damage to the gay rights movement by reviving the suspicion that homosexuality is a gateway to pedophilia. I just happened to watch a Young Pope episode last weekend in which a homosexual priest tries to explain to the title character that homosexuality and pedophilia are two different things and not morally equivalent. The Milo scandal has most likely remuddied those waters, presuming of course that many people buy the argument in the first place. All that aside, it might be asked why exactly the damning quote makes Yiannopoulos less of a rallying-point for free-speech libertarians, since it is only yet another politically incorrect thing the man has said, if not the most. Whom, exactly, has he offended with these words more than he's offended anyone else, and why should the offense expressed now, which has cost him much of his livelihood, matter more than the offense felt by others over other statements?  My point isn't to defend pedophilia, but to remind people that the great thing about Milo Yiannopoulos supposedly was that he was free to speak his mind regardless of whom he offended -- or was it? Or was it that some people, in other people's opinion, deserved to be offended, and that Milo would be cheered while he offended them, so long as he did not offend people or beliefs that did not deserve to be offended? People are free to think that way, of course, and nearly everyone does so automatically, but does the principle behind the thought really count as "freedom of speech," or was it something else all along?

20 February 2017

Trump's triangular diplomacy in Europe

While most opinionators pondered what the hell the President thought he was talking about regarding recent events in Sweden, the Vice-President was in Brussels playing an interesting game with NATO. Contrary to the Trump administration's alleged Russomania, Pence reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to holding Russia "accountable" in Eastern Europe, but in keeping with Trump campaign rhetoric, he hinted strongly that continued U.S. commitment was conditional on other member nations contributing more to mutual defense. If you paid attention you might have perceived the glimmerings of an actual strategy. That strategy might be a European version of the "triangular diplomacy" Richard Nixon practiced in his dealings with China and the Soviet Union. Nixon's now proverbial pivot to China was designed to give him greater leverage with both Communist nations. Recognizing the rivalry between the two giants, Nixon knew better than to threat them as a monolithic Communist conspiracy, and a period of detente. Trump can't really play NATO and Russia off each other so ruthlessly since the U.S. is bound by its NATO membership, but Pence's performance in Brussels gives an idea of what the President might do to manipulate both Russia and NATO to American advantage. The most obvious thing, and the most likely successful, is to raise the specter of U.S. reconciliation with Russia, not to mention acquiescence in some of its revanchist agenda, in order to force concessions from NATO nations in the form of larger contributions that presumably would ease the financial burden on the U.S. Such a strategy presumably would be designed to work in the other direction as well, in which case Trump's attitude toward NATO might be determined by Russia's good behavior according to whatever standard Trump imposes. How far Trump might go using NATO to extract concessions from Russia may be limited by a desire to turn Russia from its apparent anti-American accommodation with other "authoritarian" powers (e.g. China, Iran) to a firmer ally in what Trump's alt-right advisers see as a "Judeo-Christian" rather than "western" coalition. Trump may depend on supposed "populist" allies in Europe shifting more NATO countries from a "western" to "Judeo-Christian" orientation, but until that happens Russophobia will be as much a problem for him in Europe as it has proven to be at home. In such an environment it may well be to his advantage if his administration continues to send mixed signals to Russia and NATO. If each side becomes convinced that the U.S.'s ultimate loyalty is in play, both may move to win it in a way from which, ideally, all Americans will benefit. Of course, this depends on Diplomat Trump being someone very different from Twitter Trump, or else on the President having the business sense to delegate this delicate work to people who really know their job. The challenge there may be finding knowledgeable people and credible diplomats who aren't Russophobes, but it might well be a simpler matter of getting diplomats to realize that their first priority should never be thwarting another country, but promoting their own.

17 February 2017

Politics is bullying

Liza Featherstone writes a kind of political advice column for The Nation. In the February 20 issue, "Walking on Eggshells" writes Featherstone to complain about a woman "of public prominence" who "uses politics as a form of bullying." To be specific, the unnamed woman singles out people she hates, criticizes their every mistake, and encourages others in her organization to "pile on." Her bullying behavior "has thrown at least one political organization into disarray," or so Walking claims. This is a tantalizing glimpse at left-on-left bullying that inspires Featherstone to comment on "a huge problem in our movements right now." To begin with, "people on the left feel paralyzed and scared" amid right-wing ascendancy, and on top of that "progressives are blaming their political impotence on one another." This isn't new behavior, even on the left, Featherstone notes, but as many others have noted "social media rewards this behavior" in some new way because "its neoliberal incentives favor those who come up with the most attention-getting insults." On the left, bullies "use a variety of hot-button emotional issues, all genuinely important -- Syria, racism, sexism and the recent U.S. election -- to foment division and denounce others for not having exactly the right position." Such people should be shunned as much as possible, regardless of whatever power or prominence they enjoy. Addressing Walking's complaint, Featherstone advises, "This person would relish a public battle, and you must not give this satisfaction." If she's a leader, it may be time to form a new group. The key is to ignore the bully as much as possible. "Bullies thrive on getting a reaction, especially a negative one," Featherstone advises, "Block her on social media ... do your best to ignore her baiting, even in public.We simply don't have time for such people."

Here the devil's advocate must ask, "But do the bullies really have as much time for you as you assume?"What, exactly, is this particular bully trying to accomplish? Is she trying to accomplish anything other than trolling people in order to get a kick out of the negative reaction? Most likely she is. Attempting to describe political bullies in general, Featherstone says two potentially contradictory things. Bullies "feel everyone is wrong except them, and they're temperamentally disposed to thrive on pointless infighting." But is the infighting pointless to the bully? Couldn't perceived bullying be a reaction to a presumption of pointlessnes? Couldn't there be something more substantial behind supposed bullying than the trollish narcissism Featherstone implies? If bullying appears to express contempt for a person, could that contempt be merited? Bullying, if we must call it that, may be exacerbated by 21st century social media, but it may also be motivated a greater sense of urgency to things in our time. This is an anxious but also an impatient age, and as anxiety increases so will impatience with those who don't seem to share an appropriate sense of urgency. It begins not only with Tea Party anger at the Obama administration, but also with Democratic anger at Republican obstructionism. That anger has intensified now that Republicans appear hypocritically to protest Democratic obstructionism against the Trump administration, while Republicans in turn see hypocrisy in obstructive tactics that Democrats seemed recently to think were wrong on principle. In both cases, an essentially democratic sensibility rages against the entitled attitude of liberalism and its "conservative" cousin, their refusal to see election results ( i.e. the will of the people de jure or de facto) as reasons to rethink their positions or prejudices -- or in simpler terms, their refusal to let winners rule. The American system tends to privilege the sovereign conscience, while our postmodern culture probably hardens an "accept me as I am" stubbornness to which many cases of supposed bullying between or within parties probably are reactions. The fact that people perceive more pervasive bullying in political life -- liberals naturally play canaries in the mineshaft here -- should be a hint that this bullying isn't just a matter of unhealthy individual pathologies. They are more likely reminders that, howevermuch liberals have tried, with some success in more peaceful and prosperous times, to soften the blunt force of politics, coercion, crudely expressed or otherwise, is an inevitable element of politics, and a necessary one in any polity where decisions are made and carried out without unanimity of opinion. In recent times, however, our culture has grown more resentful of coercion, but more recently still conditions have provoked a sense of coercive urgency in many Americans that makes that resentment more resentful. If you can follow that, then you might understand why we seem to have more bullying, and why you might feel a bullying mood yourself sometimes. For those who only see themselves as victims of bullying, things probably won't get easier anytime soon.

16 February 2017

'There is no value in "debating" him'

With those words Jeremy Scahill broke his engagement to appear on Bill Maher's HBO talk show this weekend, after learning that Milo Yiannopoulos would be a fellow panelist. Regular readers will recall that Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking at the University of California Berkeley by violent protesters a few weeks ago. He's the man who was banned from Twitter after he instigated a mass flame war against the comedienne Leslie Jones. Scahill, a credible journalist who did much to expose Blackwater a decade ago, believes that Yiannopoulos can cause worse things than flame war, and worse violence than that employed to silence him. Putting "Milo" (I'll stick to this usage hereafter to save keystrokes) on the Maher show "could also be used to incite violence against immigrants, transgender people and others," Schahill fears, while Milo's public attacks on individuals "could lead to violence or even death." I have not heard of any Milo-inspired violence, unless you count the protests against his appearances, but for some people, I'm sure, his mere words are a form of violence.

So who is this monster, anyway? The self-styled "Dangerous Faggot" and "Supervillain of the Internet" is a homosexual British Catholic conservative. In a way he's Andrew Sullivan 2.0, and perhaps less likely than Sullivan to eventually renounce the political right. Less concerned with Milo's biography than with what he actually thinks, I went to that mouth of Hell, the Breitbart website looking for some of his controversial speeches. I found two of interest. One is a diatribe against abortion that left me understanding why some women might judge him a misogynist, though the charge isn't necessarily fair. There's something patronizing in his attitude toward women and his contempt for a feminism he dismisses as emotional compared to his own superior logic, which he credits to his Catholic heritage.The more interesting speech attempts to explain "Why the Democrats Lost the White Working Class." That class, Milo explains, wants jobs, security and freedom to feed, amuse and express themselves as they please, while the Democrats' constituency consists of "social justice warriors" who work in the service industry --a bad thing, apparently -- if they work at all and are obsessed with identity politics that inevitably denigrate the white working class. "They talk to you like you’re a stupid dog who just pissed the rug for the fifth time this week," he says of Democrats. He claims that the white working class rejects identity politics, while the other side most likely assumes that they are the practitioners par excellence, if not the inventors of identity politics. But that can't be so in Milo's mind, since he really does seem to see those people as the salt of the earth.

Working class Americans are fundamentally decent people. They are work hard, play hard people.  They are very different than me, and frankly very different from most of you [Milo is addressing college students]. No matter what background you come from, you shouldn’t look down on the working class, because they are what America is really about.The difference between conservatives and the new breed of Democrats is that we don’t think the working class is evil, or that they need to be controlled and taught how to think.

Since I didn't really see any hatemongering in Milo's talk (his comments on Islam are fair hits and he makes no policy recommendations) I'll content myself with using the quote above to elaborate on a crucial divide of the moment. Some readers probably will resent his warning against "looking down" on the [white] working class because they believe that class looks down on them. Milo never actually denies that premise in his talk, probably because the charge, to him, is too ludicrous to require refuting. Nevertheless, that is the charge that divides the American left from the white working class right now, and the feeling is certainly mutual. They feel the left (for this purpose, the Democratic party) doesn't respect them, while the left's constituencies feel disrespected by them perpetually. More dangerously, they infer disrespect from every critical statement made about the left or its constituencies, and not just disrespect for their opinions but disrespect for their persons. "We fight outrage culture by being outrageous," says Milo, referring to what's usually called political correctness, but his mocking manner only reinforces, or so I presume, the perception of disrespect. That, more than any real-world consequences of his antics, fuels the anger people like Scahill feel toward him.

Milo stands at the front line of two competing, probably incompatible notions of democracy. One side considers unconditional mutual respect a precondition of democracy. That means, above all, accepting people as they are and letting them be themselves without requiring them to conform to someone else's notion of citizenship or humanity. Milo's insulting style explicitly refuses this respect, while the history of race relations in the U.S. leaves white people, and now the white working class in particular, under suspicion of implicit disrespect, with no real way to prove those suspicions wrong. On the other side, democracy depends on a kind of mutual accountability that makes it absolutely essential to call out people when they screw up, even if they're just being themselves by their own lights. While the left idealizes "speaking truth to power" but denies that it can ever be the "power," the other side insists that accountability and judgment are always two way streets, that the rich can judge the poor, whites can judge blacks, men can judge women, and so on. While these judgments often are harsh and ad hominem, they do not amount, in the minds of the people making the judgments, to the kind of categorical disrespect the left perceives and resents. Think of the difference this way. Someone may judge you by your politics as an idiot and a loser, but that doesn't mean he thinks you incapable of smartening up. In fact, people like this almost invariably punctuate their criticisms by telling the targets to "wake up" or "wise up" in a way they wouldn't if they thought you permanently irredeemable or incapable of doing better. Yet people on the left hear this as "You'll always be a loser because the kind of person you are is inferior to me and my kind." That's because, in stark contrast to an earlier left that celebrated the malleability of man and the right of revolutionaries to mold men, the current left seems stuck in an "accept me as I am" staredown with its critics, while of course it doesn't really accept the white working class as it is because they're the exception that proves the left's rule, the people who can't be accepted as they are because they're presumed guilty of accepting no one else as they are. In reality, unconditional respect shouldn't be incompatible with mutual accountability, so long as respectful accountability is the rule and "accept me as I am" doesn't mean "I never have to change." But because some have been too unconditional in their demand for respect, the likes of Milo rise up to resist them, no doubt believing that accountability must take priority over respect in our urgent times. He should just be careful not to underestimate the vehemence with which people will insist on respect when it seemed within their grasp after a history of oppressive disrespect, but now seems to slip away. This has departed somewhat from the substance of Milo's own views, but we can save the subject of whether he's just another corporate bootlicker for another time.

15 February 2017

The limits of humanism?

The American Humanist Association sent me a letter the other day in the hope that I would become a dues-paying member. This mailing seems to be tied to President Trump's recent renewal of his vow to abrogate the Johnson Amendment. Doing this, says AHA executive director Roy Speckhardt, would "essentially turn churches in to super PACS, funneling millions of dollars to elect Religious Right candidates." That alarmist tone carries on into the main letter. "Are you tired of the Religious Right's monopoly on values?" Speckhardt asks, "Do you feel like a second-class citizen when politicians voice the need to believe in God in order to be a good person?" This goes on for several pages, and it becomes clear over those pages that the AHA is primarily if not exclusively concerned with a Christianist menace to the nation. Speckhardt is troubled by Trump's vow to "protect Christianity," and by "a resurgence of attempts to insert Bible study and creationism in public school classrooms." Yet throughout his warnings against religious chauvinism and religious monopolization of the public square, the word "Islam" never appears. You don't have to be an alarmist on the subject of Islam to find that a significant and actually troubling omission. The nearest Speckhardt comes to it is a purposefully vague reference to "the destructive nature of extremist religion." Overall, Speckhardt and the AHA clearly are more troubled by the prospect of Christianist power than the actuality of Islamist violence. I suspect that's mainly because the AHA, as described in the letter, is primarily a lobby dedicated to arguing against the Christian Right in the courts and propagandizing against its legislative agenda in Washington D.C. By its nature it's more concerned with preventing a seizure of political power through political channels by religious extremists than with protecting people against religiously motivated violence. If the AHA is doing anything to address terrorist threats, it isn't mentioned in the letter I received. You'd get the impression from reading it that to be humanist it suffices to be anti-Christianist, if not anti-Christian, even though the AHA boasts of its collaboration with "progressive faith groups" and its welcoming of members "who may not identify as humanists."

What is a humanist, exactly? A separate brochure explains that, according to the AHA, "Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity." On another page we learn that "Humanists affirm the dignity of every human being and assert that humanity is responsible for its own destiny, having within itself all that is needed to improve the conditions of life." They "see reason and science as the best tools for the discovery of knowledge and the achievement of goals." The AHA's specific goals include "separation of religion from government, preservation and restoration of the environment, protection of civil rights and liberties, and promotion of personal choice regarding introduction of new life, family structure, and death with dignity." They "will not tolerate legally imposed sectarian judgments, human rights violations, or discrimination in any form."

As long as there has been self-conscious humanism, there has been anti-humanism. If there has been any consistency in the opposition, whether from Christian critics of "secular humanism" or Marxists who advocate a kind of "anti-humanism," it is in the rejection of the premise that man, understood as the individual or the individual consciousness, is the measure of all things. Religious believers reject that idea for obvious reasons, while some Marxists claim that individual consciousness is socially constructed and thus can't enjoy the moral subjectivity or autonomy claimed for it. Marxists in particular developed this line of argument against the charge that radical social revolution, including terror against counterrevolutionaries, violated supposedly universal norms of human rights. Some paradoxically argue that they remain the true humanists while challenging "bourgeois" humanism because only their communist revolution can emancipate the true human self, which would flourish in communion rather than curdle in isolation.

For its part, the AHA believes that "happiness is attained by harmoniously combining personal development with work that contributes to the welfare of the community." A Marxist might point out the omission of "struggle" as a precondition for this ideal state, while religious believers would insist on the necessity of orthodoxy and/or orthopraxy, faith and adherence to revealed law, before harmony is possible. The AHA can safely be labeled a form of liberal humanism dedicated to resisting repression but unwilling to see itself as practicing repression, much less advocating it in any form. It prefers to defend liberties rather than appear to deny them to anyone. It sees "personal development" as effortlessly compatible with "the welfare of the community," and the two, implicitly, as equal priorities. When confronting its chosen Christianist enemy, it will say, "You cannot do that," but it probably won't go as far as saying, "You cannot think that." At this point, its reluctance to address Islam may make more sense, on their own terms if not ours. Because no one is lobbying for shari'a law in legislatures today, the AHA may see nothing to confront, or they may see no way to confront Islam or Islamism without appearing to be repressive in a way that would betray their mandate.

On the AHA website, a revised statement on "A Humanist Approach to Islam" at least states that "Governing modern societies by literal application of Shari’a law is a backward reversion and should be recognized as such," but is satisfied that "while there is a continuing threat of terrorist attack from Islamic terrorist groups, extremist Islam as a political force does not exist in this country." The association sees "no contradiction, on the one hand, between their longstanding adherence to principles that run contrary to religious beliefs and, on the other, their strong distaste for efforts to propagate a crusade mentality against Islam or any other religion." Of course, many Christians, if they've heard of the AHA, may assume that it is, in fact, waging a "crusade" against them exclusively, and failure to acknowledge this perception of inconsistency may be as significant a blind spot as the AHA's apparent belief that religion is a threat only in courts and legislatures.

The slogan on the AHA brochure reads "Good Without A God," but in practice that seems to be a personal motto rather than an imperative for everyone. The AHA member presumably says, "I can be good without a god, and the rest of you probably can as well, but we won't require it of you." They come short of the "militant atheist" position that people can't be good with a god, or that when they're good it's in spite of God. Like all forms of liberalism, this sort of liberal humanism faces new tests of its tenability in the 21st century that weren't expected just a short time ago, when the end of the Cold War seemed to mean the happy ending of history and the beginning of progress without struggle. Whether humanism itself remains tenable as something distinct from liberalism is a separate question, but it's unclear whether the AHA has an answer for it.

14 February 2017

Out like Flynn

When Russian politicians complain about the apparently forced resignation of President Trump's National Security Adviser, that will only confirm to some American observers that General Flynn was too chummy with Russia for Trump's good. Flynn stepped down after mere weeks on the job after the media learned that recordings of his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. from before his confirmation contradicted his own account, made directly to the Vice President-elect, that he had not discussed Trump's intentions regarding the last round of sanctions against Russia imposed by the Obama administration to protest alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. Flynn's offense ultimately was threefold. He may have violated the Logan Act by discussing U.S. foreign policy with a foreign diplomat while still a private citizen; he apparently lied to Vice President Pence about the content of the conversation; and as the Russians would know that he lied, he made himself theoretically vulnerable to blackmail that could compromise U.S. policy. Flynn may have been the leading Russophile on Trump's national-security team, and it would make sense for the President to replace him with someone of similar sympathies, albeit with less suspect ties to Russia, in order to counterbalance relative Russophobes like the new Secretary of Defense, who regards Russia as a "principal threat" to U.S. interests. Despite the suspicions of hard-core Russophobes here, it should be possible to favor friendlier relations with Russia, warts and all, without coming under criminal suspicion. I know it's part of internet folklore now that anyone who says anything in Russia's favor online is in Russia's employ, but for all Vladimir Putin's alleged ill-gotten gains I doubt he's that rich. Trump's security and foreign-policy appointments so far suggest that he has a healthy interest in hearing multiple points of view, if not necessarily as many as he should hear, and it might be at least as big a mistake as appointing Flynn apparently was to feel obliged to replace him with someone of the opposite viewpoint.

13 February 2017

Thoughts on a dead Klansman

As of now, investigators seem to suspect that the murder of a self-proclaimed Imperial Wizard of the (equally self-proclaimed?) Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was a result of family disputes. That wasn't my first thought, however, when I'd heard that a Klansman's korpse had been found with a bullet in his head. For all that some people seem to think that the KKK has more influence today than it's had in ages, I imagine that it's probably not very safe to be as open a Klansman in the news media and social media as this victim had been. I suppose his death could just as easily be a meth deal gone wrong, but I couldn't help asking whether, were his killers black or any sort of nonwhite, the murder of a Klansman would be considered a hate crime. Going further, were the man killed for being a Klansman -- and a powerful Wizard, mind you! -- would the political motivation of such an act make the killing of a Klansman an act of terrorism? If either of these categories of crime has objective rather than partisan meaning, the answer would have to be yes, even if that goes against our assumption that terrorism and hate crime are bad things that happen to good people. If the investigators in Missouri are on the right track this will be only idle speculation for now, but it's not hard to imagine Klansmen being targeted for violence if the national mood continues to deteriorate, and it definitely would be interesting, and probably telling, to see how a Klansman's killer from outside his family tree would be treated in the courts of law and public opinion.