26 June 2017

The church-state playground

While most observers cared only to learn what the Supreme Court would do about the President's proposed restrictions on travel to the U.S., the high-court announced a historic decision today on an unrelated topic. In Trinity Lutheran v. Comer a 7-2 majority ruled that state governments could not discriminate against churches, but are required under certain circumstances to give money directly to them. The state of Missouri started the trouble by refusing Trinity Lutheran's request for public funding to resurface its playground. the Missouri constitution forbade the disbursement of public money to any house of worship. According to the majority on the court, Missouri unfairly denied Trinity Lutheran a government benefit to which it was entitled. According to the Chief Justice, that was "odious to our Constitution." The decision endangers similar laws in other states, collectively known as "Blaine Amendments," enacted during the 19th century and attributed in retrospect to anti-Catholic bigotry. The majority gave several opinions to make the implications of their decision uncertain. Some justices emphasize that states are not now required to subsidize religious activities, arguing only that churches can't be denied access to a state-funded playground repair program. Rookie justice Gorsuch, however, isn't so sure a clear line can be drawn separating a church's religious activities from  ostensibly non-religious activities like maintaining a playground. That he expressed this caveat while voting with the majority suggests that Gorsuch will have more to say on the separation of church and state down the line. The two dissenting justices, Ginsburg and Sotomayor, make no distinctions between religious and non-religious activities; if a church receives money from Missouri's playground fund, that state is supporting religion, period.

Writing the dissent, Sotomayor hints at another future battle by affirming that under the First Amendment, "the government cannot, or at the very least need not, tax its citizens and turn that money over to houses of worship." This is an argument that could easily cross conventional liberal-conservative or secular-religious lines: the Supreme Court has entitled Missouri churches unfairly to a benefit toward which they don't contribute. If people are going to complain about their precious taxpayer dollars going to other categories of deadbeats, shouldn't they protest now against their dollars going to churches? I imagine that even devout Americans would agree that churches should pay in for whatever they get out of government -- and if taxing churches became commonplace no one would worry about endangering their tax-exempt status by speaking from the pulpit on political questions. If discrimination due to religion is wrong, it should be no less wrong for state and federal governments to discriminate in favor of churches by exempting them from taxes than it is to discriminate against them by denying them taxpayer-funded benefits. If that line of argument doesn't persuade people to have churches taxes, maybe it'll persuade them to dissuade churches like Trinity Lutheran from stirring up trouble by asking for government handouts. Time will tell.

22 June 2017

'Disruption is never restful'

George Will greets the impending battle between Walmart and Amazon to become what the New York Times calls "the predominant seller of pretty much everything you buy" with something like glee. For him, it'll be the climax of a dramatic cycle of creative destruction, the sort of thing that made America great. If you don't like the idea, Will likely sees you as part of the problem with America, just like most of the politicians, including the President. None of you get what's cool about this, but once again Will tries to explain it to us:

In the accelerated churning of today’s capitalism, changing tastes and expanding choices destroy some jobs and create others, with net gains in price and quality. But disruption is never restful, and the United States now faces a decision unique in its history: Is it tired — tired of the turmoil of creative destruction? If so, it had better be ready to do without creativity.

Notice how the "net gains" are taken for granted as a historical constant. Notice, too, that they are net gains by a consumerist standard, presuming that by "gains in price" Will means lower prices. And notice, while you're at it, the columnist's fatalistic assumption that all creativity is destructive, that steps can't be taken by a protectionist President or anyone else to preserve jobs without utterly extinguishing creativity. For Will, creativity is inherently competitive, and to question the pervasiveness and mercilessness of competition it to lobotomize the nation. "Americans just now are being plied with promises that the political class can, and is eager to, protect them from the need to make strenuous exertions to provide for themselves in an increasingly competitive world," he writes. To question the necessity of strenuous exertions dictated by economic competition is to question the natural -- that is, the spontaneous order, the "fecundity" of which is undermined by politicians or professors pretending to be "clever and farsighted enough to forecast the outcomes of complex systems." High up on his Hayekian hobby horse, Will writes that "The interacting processes that propel the world produce outcomes that no one intends." In effect, Will is telling us not to hold creatively destructive entrepreneurs, or competitors whose "creativity" consists entirely of cost-cutting, personally responsible for the human consequences of "disruption." All that activity is simply nature at work, while any attempt to regulate that activity for humane or patriotic purposes is just plain destructive -- and boring.

Recalling the poet Philip Larkin's line, "Most things are never meant," Will asks, "Who really wants to live in a society where outcomes are 'meant,' meaning planned and unsurprising?" He has a psychopath's enjoyment of "surprise," apparently, responding to the spectacle of creative destruction like lower-order moviegoers thrilling to Transformers wrecking cities. The desire for stability or security is not as contemptible as Will makes it out to be, so long as it isn't constrained by short-term thinking. Nor should either stability or security be confused with stasis, as Will would have us do. It would be wrong for politicians to tell us that we'll never need to make "strenuous exertions," but should we need to exert ourselves so, it should be for some better reason than that millions of people want to make more money. There is no law that I know of that says we have to adapt or die because The Market says so, yet Will regards the audacity of people saying no to The Market as akin to Stalin launching a Five-Year Plan, even though Stalinism itself could be described as a form of creative destruction. Whatever Friedrich Hayek actually thought, George Will is less interested in preventing a planned economy than in preempting protests against the economy. Like God, The Market for Will cannot be wrong, and it is heresy in his eyes for anyone to say otherwise. An aging prophet of The Market, Will stands ready to damn America for failing to heed his god.


21 June 2017

Nothing special about these elections

The Democratic party is now 0-4 in special congressional elections since the inauguration of President Trump. Desperate to look like winners, the Dems invaded four Republican districts from which Trump elevated the incumbents into Cabinet positions or other federal posts, in the hope that a quickly unpopular president's coattails would drag the GOP nominees down to defeat. While all of these elections were closer than normal, in none were there enough Republicans willing to renounce their party to spite Trump. More to the point, in none were there enough Republicans willing to vote Democratic to spite Trump. They may be more confident that a Republican Congress can check Trump should he really go overboard, or they may just hate Democrats more. This losing streak actually makes the Democrats' situation look worse than it did in November. They've wasted incredible resources, including unprecedented millions in donors' money, on a set of Stalingrad like battles, obsessed with the prestige of turning a red district blue, in the hope that victory would prove that everyone sees Trump the way they do. As a result, they allow Trump to say that these elections were referenda on him, and that he won every time, when my suspicion is that they had relatively little to do with him. In some of these districts he ran well behind the congressional candidate last fall, and I doubt that many voters considered their choices in the special elections acts of loyalty to the President. The fact is that Trump with all his flaws does not give Republicans reason enough to repudiate everything they stand for by voting for a party still perceived to represent everything they oppose. All these races were longshots for the Democrats, and while I can understand their desire for a win, their faith that Trumpophobia was strong enough to win for them borders on the delusional. It seems as if they'd rather flip a red district than wait 'til next year and do the hard work necessary to win back their regular Rust Belt voters without alienating the rest of their base. There's still plenty of time to get to work on that, but an extra round or two of soul-searching may now be necessary. The opposition party in this country -- whether the Democrats or whatever might follow their crack-up -- has to mean more than opposition to Trump or opposition to "hate." This country needs a "left" to check a capitalist society's tendency toward plutocracy -- the Democrats have been sleeping on that job for some time now -- but it needs the right kind of left, and I don't know if anyone on the left has figured out what that looks like. I especially doubt if they'll find what it looks like in Republican congressional districts.

20 June 2017

The violence of rising expectations

Jonah Goldberg isn't quite joining the Republican rush to judge left-wing media in the wake of the Alexandria shootings. While the columnist is as happy as any of his fellow partisans to highlight liberal hypocrisy, whether actual or alleged, he hints gently in his latest column that "if your position is that political speech should never be indicted when a right-winger commits a crime, you probably shouldn’t let your understandable desire for payback seduce you into insisting that left-wing rhetoric is to blame when the shooter is a left-winger." Anyway, Goldberg has an theory of his own to explain the increasingly violent tone of political argument in the U.S.

For decades we’ve invested in the federal government ever-greater powers while at the same time raising the expectations for what government can do even higher. The rhetoric of the last three presidents has been wildly outlandish about what can be accomplished if we just elect the right political savior. George W. Bush insisted that “when somebody hurts, government has to move.” Barack Obama promised the total transformation of America in palpably messianic terms. Donald Trump vowed that electing him would solve all of our problems and usher in an era of never-ending greatness and winning. 
When you believe — as [the Alexandria shooter] clearly did — that all of our problems can be solved by flicking a few switches in the Oval Office, it’s a short trip to believing that those who stand in the way are willfully evil enemies bent on barring the way to salvation. That belief won’t turn everyone into a murderer, but it shouldn’t be that shocking that it would turn someone into one.

I don't exactly disagree with this. Clearly, the personal stakes involved in elections and policy seem much higher to many Americans than they did in the past. Conservatives are right to suspect that a greater sense of dependence on government has a lot to do with that feeling, though as Goldberg himself notes by invoking Trump, messianic expectations are also held by people who presumably don't think (or prefer not to) of themselves as dependent on government. Uncritical defensiveness toward Trump -- as opposed to rational skepticism toward Democratic hysteria -- probably reflects an older sense of dependence upon leadership that has less to do with theories of the "size and scope of government." In either case, however, this sort of dependent faith only becomes weaponized under certain circumstances. Rising expectations -- whether regarding the government's ability and obligation to meet our perceived needs or a leader's ability to achieve what he promises -- become dangerous when the economy or the leadership or the political order itself can't keep up with them. For an ideologue like Goldberg the real problem is that such expectations are inappropriate in the first place, rather than that a declining economy increasingly disappoints expectations, both by inherently limiting the ability of not only government but society to meet our expectations and by exacerbating political polarization and gridlock as every segment of society scrambles to get or keep its share of the national bounty. With that understood, Goldberg's analysis looks even more pessimistic to the extent that it predicts Trump supporters lashing out more often and violently at whomever they blame instead of the economy for their hero's failure to meet their expectations. Unlike what I infer to be Goldberg's own belief, I don't think the solution is for everyone to be more self-reliant. In a sociopolitical environment like ours, adopting self-reliance most likely will mean people taking anything they can by any means necessary. I also doubt whether people can be taught to reduce their expectations of a civilized world or a democratic polity by any other teacher than experience, and specifically an experience few of us would look forward to.

19 June 2017

What trash is Rome ...

The Public Theater's controversial production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar reached its scheduled close yesterday, just as its most vehement critics had learned to adopt the tactics that they, as avowed champions of free expression against political correctness, had affected to despise. Two of the last performances, including one yesterday, were disrupted by hecklers running onto the stage to denounce the production and the audience for envisioning the assassination of President Trump. Had the play's run gone on longer, things may have escalated to a scale not seen since the Astor Place riots of long ago. As is now well known, the old play was made freshly controversial and popular by dressing its Caesar and giving him stage business in the manner of Donald Trump. More provocative than this creative license, no doubt, was the fact that audiences, thus prompted, cheered the assassination scene. The Alexandria shootings last week made this sort of playacting more intolerable to partisans of Trump, to whom the Caesar production typified the American left's hypocritical claim of artistic license to vent its partisan hatreds, while the shootings themselves belied the condescending assumption that their venting should never be taken literally.

And yet, however inexcusable it may have been for audiences to cheer a symbolic assassination, a case probably can be made for a Trumpian portrayal of Caesar. The case would have nothing to do with any supposed parallels between the two men, nor should the point of any experiment be to get the crowd to cheer an act of murder. Julius Caesar, after all, is quite ambivalent about the assassination and the motives behind it, to the point where defenders of Trump could well find a useful moral in it. In the play, Brutus is goaded into joining a conspiracy that would gain credibility from his honorable reputation. He claims to act disinterestedly, proclaiming that "I know no personal cause to spurn at him/But for the general," i.e. Caesar's apparent desire to become a king. Cassius, the head conspirator who brings Brutus into the plot, is quite obviously motivated by envy. As far as he's concerned, Caesar is no better than anyone else in the senatorial class. He remembers having to rescue Caesar from drowning, or seeing him wretchedly ill, and wonders aloud why this guy bestrides the world like a colossus. His answer makes him sound like one of our modern paranoid misanthropes: "I know he would not be a wolf/But that he sees the Romans are but sheep." Today Cassius would be the guy telling everyone on the internet to "wake up!" And for all that Brutus may see himself defending the people of Rome, Cassius says, "What trash is Rome,/What rubbish and what offal, when it serves/For the base matter to illuminate/So vile a thing as Caesar!"

What makes Julius Caesar a tragedy, I think, is that Brutus's noble motives can't be separated from Cassius's base motives; the conspiracy is hopelessly tainted. If anything, Cassius's conspiracy of rage only hastens the final fall of the republic Brutus would protect, by opening the door to Octavian, the future Augustus. It might be argued that Shakespeare himself saw that Rome's problems were bigger than any one man's ambition. Brutus is doubly naive when he refuses to have Marc Antony (played by a woman in what had originally been the Public Theater's most controversial move) killed along with Caesar, not just because Antony will be the ruin of the conspirators by teaming up with Octavian, but also because Brutus's belief that he can save the republic with a decapitation strike misses the point of the moment. That's why it would make sense to turn Caesar into Trump; to show audiences -- as one hopes the Public Theater did show after the hype died down -- that simple solutions of that sort will most likely make matters worse for everyone. Shakespeare's been dead for 400 years, but he may have a better grasp of today's political culture than most of our politicians and pundits. I hope people won't hold the Public Theater against him.

15 June 2017

Patriotism, populism and partisanship

After the Alexandria VA shootings, in which a disgruntled leftist tried to assassinate Republican congressmen and seriously wounded the House Majority Whip, the political culture from the President to the punditocracy and the TV talking heads is sharing a "Can't we all get along?" moment. The President sounded the main theme for the occasion, striving to remind Americans that politicians on both sides of the partisan or ideological divide still love their country. I understand what he and others are saying, but I don't think they understand the state the country is in. To affirm that all politicians love the country is an almost meaningless statement in this populist moment of the country's history. For ideologues, it begs the question of what kind of country each party or person wants us to be, but for populists on both the left and the right, the real question, not so easily answered by presidential reassurances, is whether politicians love us. White populists on the right have come to hate the left because they're convinced that the Democratic party, academia and the nebulous "mainstream media" no longer love them as the true American people or care whether they have jobs, secure retirement, safe neighborhoods, etc. Populists on the left, including white people like the Alexandria shooter, have come to hate the right because they're convinced that the Republican party, the Trump/Tea Party movement and corporate America don't love all Americans equally and don't really care whether any American of any creed or color lives or dies. Populists may think of themselves as patriots but populism and patriotism are not the same thing. For a patriot is should be enough that all politicians love the country, so long as all abide by democratic, deliberated decisions determining its course. To love the country in this sense is to place its interests above your own, which obviously requires you to see your interest and the country's as at least potentially different things. Populists don't make that distinction as readily. To their minds, they are the state; America looks like them, whether as a matter of idealized heritage or as a mosaic of diversity from which no one is automatically or implicitly excluded. In a way, this is no more than saying, "What's in it for me?" though populism usually is more expansive than that, asking instead, "What's in it for my people?" -- whoever they are. Today's populism is a cycle of mutual disrespect, every faction feeling that the others don't give a damn about them, won't let them alone, won't let them be, or, in the worst case, won't even let them live. It's a decadent populism because it exposes how desperate most people are for recognition and validation from social media and popular culture. And it's an increasingly violent and potentially lethal populism as more people seem to demand respect, or deny it, by any means necessary. It may also be an inevitable populism as different groups scramble for bits of a shrinking pie or a dwindling number of musical chairs. We probably shouldn't hope for the next round of prosperity to make it go away, however. We need to see now whether anyone can transcend populism with patriotism, and, whether anyone who tries will be believed or trusted after passing the "Who are you to say?" test. If no one can pass that test, than the American people also will have failed their test.

14 June 2017

Et tu, brute? Or: Is Imagination Advocacy?

It was already my plan this week to write something about the controversy over the Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar in New York City, in which the assassinated dictator is dressed and made up to look like President Trump. Amid outcry from Republicans, some sponsors have withdrawn support from the company that staged the play. That outcry echoed the outcry against Kathy Griffin's photoshoot, in which the comic struck a Judith of Bethulia pose with a bloody effigy of Trump's head. In both cases, Republicans -- and, presumably, some centrists -- made the plausible argument that the outcry from the left would be even louder and more unforgiving had anyone staged a play or photoshoot in which President Obama was treated the same way. Republicans have perceived a double standard in artistic representations or invocations of living politicians at least since the 2006 mockumentary Death of a President, which imagined the murder of George W. Bush. My feeling at that time was that Republicans took that particular project too literally, that it could not be argued that the filmmakers, in imagining the killing of the President, had advocated it. It is, however, fair to ask whether most observers would regard a fictional assassination of Obama or Hillary Clinton with the same objectivity. If there is a double standard at play, it's based on an assumption by liberals and progressives that they never, ever would raise a hand in anger against an elected politician, regardless of what they imagine under artistic license. That is, they believe themselves more capable of detachment from the anger they express or sublimate through art. Apologists for Griffin or the Julius Caesar director most likely would argue that these people don't even wish Trump dead, much less wish to kill him themselves. But were Republicans to imagine the murder of any Democratic or progressive hero as a work of art or entertainment, they certainly would be accused of personally wishing Democrats dead, or at least of irresponsibly provoking someone willing to act on that wish. Why care what Ted Nugent says about politics otherwise?

Into this debate this morning burst a man tentatively identified as a white senior citizen from Illinois, whose Facebook page indicates support for Bernie Sanders and skepticism toward Trump's entitlement to or fitness for office. This man apparently learned that a team of Republican congressmen would converge on an Alexandria VA baseball diamond to practice for a game against their Democratic counterparts. He opened fire on them with an assault weapon, wounding the House Majority Whip and three other people before a security detail mortally wounded him. That, presumably, will put an end to all "liberals don't do that sort of thing" arguments, unless someone wants to dismiss the would-be assassin as a mentally ill loner or more extreme than that Facebook page suggests. Those arguments may have been more nearly true a generation ago, but "liberal" attitudes seem to have degenerated along with political discourse in general, to the point where many people believe with hysterical certainty that the Republican party actually wants them to suffer or die, or that the republic stands today at the actual brink of dictatorship. Despite all that, I'd still argue that a Shakespeare play or a celebrity photo stunt have relatively little to do with this escalating violence of spirit. They are symptoms rather than causes and can't seriously be considered causes of violence unto themselves. Nevertheless, liberal culture now has no excuse not to extend the same license or courtesy to anyone whose artistic vision encompasses violence against liberal heroes. They can't claim that imagining violence against the right is inherently less dangerous than imagining violence against the left. True liberals, I suspect, would hold out hope that art can channel the anger of the time, as felt on left, right, and points both outside and in between, by providing a relatively harmless release. Unfortunately, we more likely live in a time when people see no art anywhere, but propaganda everywhere they go. Everything is with us or against us, and there is little tolerance for enmity (or ambivalence) with the stakes so high for everyone. In Julius Caesar Cinna the Poet is lynched because a mob mistakes him for another Cinna, one of the conspirators against Caesar. The old play about the ancient world may yet prove a prophecy of where the relationship of art and life is headed now.