22 May 2018

But aren't we all animals?

Criticism of the President's recent remarks about the MS-13 gang sometimes sounds like an exercise in deliberate misinterpretation. Contextually, it was obvious that Trump had the Salvadoran gang and others like it in mind when he said that some people entering the country illegally were "animals." Yet I've just read Cynthia Tucker's column condemning the "animals" comment and MS-13 is never mentioned. Instead, Tucker describes Trump as pandering to his reactionary white base with unwarranted generalizations intended to dehumanize Latin immigrants as a whole. Could Trump have spared himself these attacks by speaking more carefully, e.g. by stating specifically that gang members were animals?  I doubt it, since his real offense, as a white man, was to describe any non-white person as an animal. Hillary Clinton faced similar criticism, and has never been forgiven in some quarters, for describing some black men as "superpredators." I doubt either person would be condemned as strongly for saying that the Sicilian or Russian mafia were animals, or even that some Sicilians or Russians were animals. I suppose that some people will object to the supposed dehumanization of anyone, regardless of race, especially if it's phrased as a generalization that violates the presumption of abstract people's innocence, and I suppose it might be taboo among some ethnic groups even to describe each other as animals, but the hubbub over Trump's remarks pretty much boils down  to his being white and the President. I hope those details don't disqualify him from condemning criminal gangs, foreign and domestic -- and perhaps he should turn his attention to the latter more often -- and I definitely hope that people in general don't feel inhibited from describing criminal gangs as they deserve out of an empathetic humanity the gangs do not reciprocate.

17 May 2018

Real Americans

Eugene Robinson writes: "The most offensive and corrosive idea in our politics today is that some Americans are more 'real' than others." He condemns the canard that coastal urbanites are "out of touch" or otherwise alienated from  the heart of the country, or that a coal miner is automatically a more "real" American, especially if he votes for Donald Trump, than a "goateed Brooklyn barista." What Robinson describes is nothing new. It predates any "populist" movement and goes back at least as far as Jeffersonian times, when farmers were seen by Jefferson himself as the "real" Americans while city dwellers were suspect because cities were inevitably decadent. In Jacksonian times the concept was broadened to admit "producers," including manufacturers, to the ranks of the "real," but the suspicion of metropolitan decadence has persisted, not just in spite but because of the perception that "coastal elites" are more intelligent and cosmopolitan. Of course, Robinson is entirely right to insist that the opinion (if not the vote, thanks to the Electoral College) of the batista is entitled to the same consideration as that of the coal miner, but the miner might fairly question whether Democrats like Robinson have practised what they preach. Haven't they challenged the legitimacy and even the authentic Americanism of opinions from "flyover" America on the assumption that they're grounded in bigotry, and isn't the bigotry charge, which Robinson renews implicitly in this column, just another way of calling uncomfortable opinions "out of touch" with authentic reality? I don't raise this question to engage in much-despised "what-aboutism," but to remind everyone that this is an almost inevitable strategy in a democratic republic where who the "real" Americans are is more or less decided by popular vote every few years and the losers are by definition "out of touch." Robinson's view will be proven right when the Democrats regain power, but only for as long as they retain it, and that goes for Republicans and Trump fans as well.

16 May 2018

Modern Whiggery

David Brooks declares himself a Whig in his latest column, contrasting himself with both progressives -- even though the "Whig theory of history" is the epitome of progressive thought -- and libertarians. Unlike progressives, whose goal (Brooks claims) is equality, and libertarians, whose goal is freedom, the Whigs' ideal is social mobility. As Brooks defines it, "Whigs seek to use limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility" by investing in infrastructure, public education, "public-private investments" and "character-building programs." Make what you will of it, but he doesn't include protectionism among the Whig virtues. Historically, he traces American Whiggery back to Alexander Hamilton and sees its influence persisting at least as late as the early career of Theodore Roosevelt before it "disappeared from American life" until showing signs of fresh life in our time. Where did Whiggery go? It receded, we can infer, when the American left rejected entrepreneurial standards of living and the American right, freshly fearful of the state, preferred to have families and churches build character. Again, if you acknowledge protectionism as a hallmark of Whiggery, you could see the Trump movement as the real revival, but Brooks, a diehard NeverTrumper, prefers to look elsewhere for signs of life. He finds them in small towns visited by the author James Fellows where communities have come back from industrial decline through the leadership of "business leaders who were both entrepreneurial and civically minded." I suspect that Brooks finds President Trump and his kind insufficiently civic-minded to qualify as Whigs, but I also suspect that Brooks will find modern Whiggery a tougher sell on the left, where people are perhaps more likely to see "character building" and entrepreneurial values as contradictions in terms. Trumpism threatens to provoke a doubling-down, at least, on leftist rejection of whiggish premises, while Brooks doesn't indicate what a Whig-left dialogue would sound like, if he anticipates such dialogue at all. But unless his neo-Whigs reach out to the left in some way, their replacing the Trump movement is unlikely to resolve our political impasse. Maybe Brooks thinks the Whigs can take over without the left or its constituents, but Trump has already won without them, and look where we are.

14 May 2018

No offense, but you're going to Hell

While dozens of people in Gaza sacrificed themselves on the altar of Palestinian revanchism, the new U.S. embassy opened in  Jerusalem, and some Americans took offense at the appearance of a Baptist preacher who, for all his Christian Zionism, believes that Jews are doomed to Hell if they don't recognize Jesus as savior and son of God. Particularly offended was Mitt Romney, who recalled that the same minister said that Mormons would also go to Hell. Need we add that Muslims are also bound for Hell in the pastor's learned opinion? In Romney's opinion this was nothing but bigotry, but the minister and his supporters retorted, on Twitter and elsewhere, that it isn't bigotry but a matter of faith to believe that those who reject Jesus, whatever their good deeds, condemn themselves to perdition. They also reminded Romney that it was their First Amendment right to believe this, and that if anyone was a bigot, it was Romney himself, to the extent that he would not let Christians speak according to their consciences. In the meantime, the Prime Minister of Israel was too busy sucking up to President Trump to take offense. Like it or not, the Baptists are right on this one. It isn't bigotry to say that someone of a different faith will go to Hell. The word Mitt Romney was looking for was "superstition," but I can understand why it didn't occur to him. 

The disrespected

The Washington Post reports the results of several surveys of regions loyal to President Trump and finds that support for the President is fueled to a great extent by the perception that "mainstream" liberal culture doesn't respect either the President or those who support him. You can read more here, but this shouldn't really be news to anyone. If anything, this report only revives the chicken-egg question of who's to blame, if blame is necessary, for the mutual disrespect that characterizes lay political discourse today. For all the unhappy Trumpets howl about how people call them bigots, it 's indisputable that the disrespect they perceive is driven by an enduring feeling that they disrespect those whose respect they now demand as a right. There may be a real cultural divide here, if it proves that respect means or requires different things for different groups, be they defined by ethnicity, geography or social class. But before we draw such a dire conclusion all sides need to join in a conversation in which all get a chance to explain why they feel disrespected. If either side feels a unilateral entitlement to respect, however, it'll be little more of a conversation than we already have. No one is innocent at this point, the poor oppressed Trump supporters least of all.

09 May 2018

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Trumpism

Christians on both the right and left politically have been asking for some years now how devout co-religionists, and evangelical Protestants in particular, can support a seemingly unrepentant profligate like Donald Trump. The May 14 Nation promised that Michael Massing would explain it by going all the way back to the Reformation, illustrating the point with a cover showing Martin Luther in a MAGA hat. Massing reports that Luther was a bigot, intolerant of disagreement with his own interpretation of scripture, and a social reactionary who cheered on the extermination of a large-scale peasant uprising. Massing also makes the commonplace observation that Protestantism, concerned primarily with individual salvation, is often indifferent to social-justice questions. What's unusual here is that Massing never mentions the long debate within American Protestantism between the "social gospel" movement and the more pessimistic and conservative premillennial tradition, represented in the article by Billy Graham's prediction that racial integration would come only after Christ's return. In general, Massing describes a Protestant populism best described, perhaps paradoxically, as anti-elitist conservatism. His may be a valid observation, but it does little to explain the core paradox of Trumpism. Why do self-described traditionalist moralists support such an obviously debauched figure as Trump? Luther doesn't explain it, though his heritage may explain  why his followers agree with the debauchee's political or social views. Why choose such a flawed vessel to defend the faith?  Again, Massing doesn't really explain that, despite an ample field for exploration in the attitude of Baptists in particular toward forgiveness of sin. He simply notes that people who see Trump as un-Christian are usually "championing their own particular definiton of Christianity," and while he refers specifically to liberals' more compassionate and tolerant faith he could just as easily mean any definition that excludes Trump for his presumed personal sins while other Christians, for reasons possibly having nothing to do with faith or doctrine, are not so judgmental, for once.

08 May 2018

Double lives

The attorney general of New York State has resigned following the publication yesterday of a magazine story accusing him of physically abusing women. Eric Schneiderman denies the charges but concedes that they make it impossible for him to carry out his duties effectively. It seems to come down to rough sex that he says was consensual and spiced with role play, while I'll wait until my New Yorker comes in the mail to see how the other side describes it. In any event, it looks like another case of liberal "hypocrisy," given how prominent a crusader Schneiderman has been, but what's really going on here? Ironically, the newspaper in which I read the story also had an op-ed by Cynthia Tucker recalling her shock at discovering that Bill Cosby, a crusader in his own right, apparently lived a vile double life of his own. Such stories continue to surprise, shock and disappoint because we take for granted that respect for women is part of the liberal value package, despite generations of disappointment by liberal politicians and celebrities. There's always a greater feeling of disappointment than when conservatives are discovered in arguably greater hypocrisy, however. While that may just show that our feelings differ when "our side" is damaged by scandal, it may also show that sexual morality of any sort, whether the biblical morality espoused by conservative hypocrites or the egalitarian feminist morality espoused by liberal hypocrites, simply doesn't matter that much for the left, compared to "social justice" issues where people like Schneiderman presumably would remain reliable regardless of what went on in his bedroom. Schneiderman may seem especially hypocritical given his role in the fall of Harvey Weinstein, but he clearly doesn't see his own indulgences as the same sort of abuse of power the movie mogul reputedly practiced. That may be part of the perception problem, too. The left doesn't see "power" on its own side, and so leftists presume their own innocence when they behave similarly to powerful people or conservative hypocrites. That probably won't change even when, as many feminists and some liberals probably wish more strongly now, we let women run everything.

30 April 2018

'Genuine conservatism'

Michael Gerson distinguished between the Trump movement and "genuine conservatism" in his latest column. Trumpism, in his view, is a movement of cultural nostalgia (and international revanchism following a perceived loss of status under President Obama) that "will eventually lose in a nation growing more diverse and progressive." Genuine conservatism, meanwhile, strives to "accommodate inevitable change in a way that honors the best of the past." Its purpose is "not to undo change, but to humanize it, and to root our shifting way of life in ultimate things." When he writes of "the best of the past" and "ultimate things," Gerson makes a implicit distinction between culture and values. He wants values preserved, e.g. "individual responsibility,family commitment, patriotism and a concern for social order," but doesn't believe them to be inextricably dependent upon a particular culture or religion. I presume that he believes these values can be arrived at and agreed upon through reason, but each of his values is arguably subject to reasonable debate over its definition. In particular, "social order" is probably seen as something desirable by everyone, but other everyone will agree on what social order looks like. Gerson himself has nothing to say about that here beyond appealing for a pluralism that accommodates traditionalism. He most likely takes for granted that right and left will continue to disagree about the meaning of these things, but he wants the right to agree that their values aren't dependent on specific religious, linguistic or racial traditions. Above all, I think, he doesn't want conservative values to be identified as "white" values. It may be too late to prevent that, given first how nearly exclusively white the Trump movement is, and secondly how, to all appearances, that movement does embrace the values Gerson values along with all the stuff he abhors. At the same time, the more the left opposes the entire Trumpist package and reduces all of it to white Christian chauvinism , the more Trumpists themselves are likely to see the whole package as  a culture rather than an idea.  Perhaps it could not turn out otherwise because of American history, but the outcome is still to be regretted. You may not care much for American conservatism, but we all should agree that it should be possible to debate policies and values without it all coming down to conflicting or irreconcilable cultures. On the other hand, as our debates appear increasingly irreconcilable, maybe we're learning something about not just the persistence of cultures, but where cultures come from.