25 June 2016

The decline of the west or: Brexit, stage right

The European Economic Community was meant to embody the ideal of a post-nationalist, post-warfare continent. If any entity embodied "the west" it was the EEC or, as it came to be known later, the European Union. But it was never quite a perfect fit. For years, Great Britain wanted to be part of it, but Charles de Gaulle blocked their admission while he ruled France; his was a vision of a "Europe" that excluded Britain (and by extension the U.S. -- de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO) rather than "the west." De Gaulle's departure from the scene ended French resistance to Britain, and the U.K. joined the EEC in 1973. Now Britain will leave the Community after a close referendum vote, but in many ways it's now a different community from the one Britain aspired to join. Since the Maastricht Treaty of 1994 it had more political power, and its taxes and regulations were increasingly resented by right-wingers in Britain, long before the refugee crisis that arguably put the "Brexit" over the top. The left wing had plenty of objections to the Union, most having to do with its imposition of austerity economics on certain member states, but the Brexit is seen widely as a triumph for a broader Anglo-American right, represented by a gloating Donald Trump, ironically romping in Scotland, where support for the EU remained high and now has reignited an independence movement whose own referendum failed last year. A second referendum may have a different outcome, which would be ironic given how Britain appealed to Scotland to remain in the U.K., and which perhaps would confirm that ours is a centrifugal age, the traumas of globalization having provoked tribalist reactions of all sorts as people look to those around them for support and resent any diversion of their attentions. If the left remains ambivalent about phenomena like the Brexit, it's probably because, whatever their reservations about the EU as it exists, they'd still like to try again, preferably from the ground up, or with the guidance of socialist principles, while the right presumably is through with the idea of Union for good. Whatever the EU's flaws, it's hard not to see the Brexit as a step back from progress to the extent that it means a permanent step back from regional or cultural amalgamation. It's unclear, however, to what extent the Brexit represents a repudiation of the European or western ideal in favor of some sort of Anglo-Saxon chauvinism. It certainly seems to repudiate the idea that Britain is answerable to the rest of Europe, and that repudiation clearly appeals to a certain Anglo-American chauvinism that sees "Atlantic" rather than "western" civilization, characterized by the obstinance of the Anglo-American right, as man's highest achievement. This civilization or quasi-civilization has a missionary quality; it would like to see the rest of Europe or the west adopt its ways and biases and abandon all vestiges of socialism in the process. This mentality saw the EU as socialistic even as critics from the left saw the same entity as an enforcer of capitalist hegemony. The debate over what the EU is or was will continue; the question now is what alternative to the EU might someday replace it, and whether something might yet be salvaged from the idea of continental union as the alternative to perpetual rivalry and war in Europe.

23 June 2016

Sit on it: the gun debate today

It's a bit silly to see Rep. John Lewis, an authentic hero of the civil-rights movement, treat the Democratic demonstration in the House of Representatives as a "sit-in." That's a dubious assertion of moral equivalence, considering that the original sit-ins involved an element of physical risk that was almost entirely absent in the Capitol building yesterday. The whole point of a sit-in, some would say, was to call attention to the immoral absurdity of segregation by making someone arrest you or beat you up to enforce it. So unless the House Democrats were expecting Republicans or National Rifle Association members to charge in and shoot them, their little Occupy moment doesn't rise to the gravitas of a true sit-in. The most they had to deal with was an idiot Texas Republican with a short attention span who seemed to believe that only the last two highly-publicized mass shootings were relevant to the current gun-control debate. Rep. Gomer, or whatever his name is, presumably ranks among the opponents of the proposal to forbid people on the "terrorist watch list," aka the Terrorist Screening Database, from purchasing assault weapons. Such a proposal would seem to be the no-brainer of all time, but instead we hear Republicans and NRA hacks whining that the list is too large and some people are on it unfairly, or by mistake. I take this to mean that there are too many white conservative Christians on the list for their comfort. Too bad: if there isn't a process for applying to be removed from the list, make sure there is one and go ahead with the legislation. Instead, it seems unlikely that even a compromise proposal that would limit the ban to those on the more stringent "no-fly" list will pass. In President Obama's final year in office there seems to be even more clinging to guns (and in some cases, religion) than ever. The NRA even found itself to the left of Donald Trump at one point this month, gently reminding the presumptive candidate that it might not be the best idea to let people drinking in nightclubs carry firearms. They are not far behind him, however, in their longing for a return to traditional values and the good old days -- true or not -- of the Wild West. It makes you wonder what a modern Wyatt Earp would actually do.

20 June 2016

How much is Trump's life worth?

Reluctant as I am to echo Republican talking points, I can't help wondering whether liberal bias of some sort is limiting coverage and discussion of an admittedly feeble attempt to kill Donald Trump over the weekend. According to the latest information, a 20 year old white British guy tried to snatch a gun from a cop working security at a Trump rally. The suspect says he's been planning to kill the presumptive Republican presidential nominee since Trump first began to be taken seriously last summer, though his particular motivation for doing so remains unclear. These Brits take politics very seriously; they not only kill their own legislators but now they scheme to kill our people. It may be that reporters and opinionators are withholding judgment until they find out more about the kid's motivation, but again, I can't help thinking that there'd be no withholding had a similar scene played out at a Clinton or Sanders rally. The reason for the difference, I suspect, is that any attempt on Clinton's life would be fit quickly and neatly into a narrative of "hate" that somehow wouldn't apply to an attempt on Trump, especially one like the present case, in which the perpetrator at first glance doesn't seem to belong to the expected categories, Muslim or Mexican. Yet it's obvious that many on the left hate Trump, but their hatred isn't seen as "hate," if you know what I mean. If you don't, what I'm trying to say is that hatred of Trump isn't seen as prejudicial, that being the worst kind of hate as far as many people are concerned, so that if someone hates Trump enough to try to kill him that's his problem and not ours, so it's not as much worth talking about as would be the misogyny that would automatically be blamed for any shots fired at Clinton. At least that has to be part of why this story seems to be underplayed in the media. The other part is probably that, because the would-be shooter isn't a Muslim or Mexican, the right wing is caught with nothing to say.

17 June 2016

It's someone else's turn to have no choice in November

Joe Scarborough was a Contract With America vintage Republican congressman who resigned early in his fourth term and later turned against the George W. Bush administration in opposition to the war in Iraq. He now hosts the Morning Joe talk show on MSNBC, where he serves as the nearest thing to a house conservative. A couple of days ago he lamented that with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton the apparent nominees of the major parties, there was no one for him to support in the general election campaign. What he means, of course, is that the only two candidates likely to win are distasteful to him. A lot of Americans have felt that way every four years for a long time. It's shocking to see someone best described as a center-right Republican say it, however. How could people like him have grown so suddenly alienated from the rank-and-file who've anointed Trump? You still wonder what it is, exactly, that they hate about the presumptive nominee. Specifically, is it a matter of form or content? Do they worry about specific things Trump may do, or about the manner in which he may do anything? More profound, perhaps, than their alienation from Trump is their alienation with the people they considered their base. They seem to have so completely misread the base, so completely misunderstood the people they presumably appeal to during every election, that you might wonder in retrospect whether the infamous "southern strategy" that restored the Republican party to national power was a conscious thing, after all. Mainstream Republicans -- or should I say the Republican establishment? -- fatally underestimated the communal element in the base's thinking, the quality called "solidarity" when viewed positively or labeled "tribalism" or "nativism" when viewed negatively. They failed to recognize that patriotism is a two-way street -- that it means not just loyalty to an abstract concept of the nation and the ideas for which it's said to stand, but also loyalty to the people who form the nation and an unshirkable concern for their material interests. These Republicans' epitaph might read that they loved the country but not its people. It's been interesting reading David Brooks' recent columns on the need for a new moral politics founded on love, because there's an electorate out there that's very clearly looking for love. While Trump's followers are perhaps more jealous about it than Bernie Sanders' followers,  more angry over having seemingly been rejected in favor of others, you arguably can see a common yearning for a polity that has the people's back, that doesn't prioritize abstract principles (right or left) over people. I think Brooks underestimates how much the love he recommends can be a jealous love, while he may not even recognize that the different hatreds associated with the Trump and Sanders movements actually express a demand for love from the nation. But political Republicans have suddenly been shown to be utterly blind to that demand, offensive as it is to their sink-or-swim individualist ethos, while Democrats arguably have been promising love to everyone without appearing to love everyone as equally as they claim. In part, this now self-evident emotional neediness on the part of voters may repel mainstream Republicans, while the emotional neediness of the white working class in particular, their desire not to be seen as the bad guys all the time, seems to confuse and frighten Democrats. This election will be decided by emotions more than ideology in a more obvious way than previous elections, and while I also wish for better candidates and will start actively looking for them, I have to say that if this alienates the "establishment" to the point that they can't support anybody they have only themselves to blame.

16 June 2016

Assassination in Britain first?

For the first time in 26 years, since the troubles with the Irish, a member of the British Parliament has been assassinated. Jo Cox of the Labour party was shot and stabbed at what they call a "constituent surgery" by a man who reportedly yelled "Britain First!" during the attack. This connects the murder tentatively with the country's contentious campaign over the "Brexit," a referendum on the U.K.'s withdrawal from the European Union, and with the refugee question, as Cox was an advocate of intervention in Syria and the settlement of Syrian war victims in Britain. Awful as any such story is on its own terms, I couldn't help wondering about it happening in Britain. After all, the way many Americans think about Donald Trump's constituents -- angry, intolerant, tribalistic, imminently violent -- you might have expected something like this to have happened here. It has not. In fact, the last time a U.S. congressman was murdered was at Jonestown, back in 1978, while the shooter who wounded Rep. Giffords during the Tucson amoklauf was just about a pure nut with an ideology entirely his own. This is one of the reasons why I can't take the panic over Trump too seriously. His supporters may be morons, but not murderously so. Assassination has fallen far out of fashion in the U.S. Not event the Islamists try it, as far as we can tell. In one respect that's no great reflection on us, since you can just as easily say that killing one person, no matter how powerful, just doesn't do it for the killers among us anymore. But it remains a valid observation that, despite the seemingly bottomless hate expressed for politicians across the American spectrum, we've gone a fairly long time without an obviously politically motivated attack on American politicians. For all that the Trump movement seems new and scary, they haven't changed that stat, and for all that Americans as a whole are supposed to shoot first and think later, here's an assassination in Britain, presumably one of the more civilized countries, and most of us across the Atlantic are still asking, "What was that guy angry about?"

15 June 2016

A pact with the devil -- but who's the devil?

It seems as if Speaker of the House Ryan has done nothing but criticize Donald Trump since giving the presumptive Republican presidential nominee a tepid endorsement. Most notably, Ryan slammed Trump for outright racism for the candidate's criticism of the "Mexican" judge in the Trump University case. While the Orlando massacre would appear to strengthen  Trump's position with voters, his response to it seems to have weakened his position with the Republican party. Some of his ideas apparently violate their appreciation of individual liberty and the rule of law just as much as they offend sensibilities on the other side of the aisle. You still hear Republicans wishing for an "open convention" where Trump could be deposed, apparently forgetting Trump's threats of undefined reprisal from his faithful should that happen. Other observers have assured themselves that a Republican Congress will be as capable of obstructing President Trump, should it come to that, as they've been capable of obstructing President Obama. But would it be as easy as that? Remember the terms of Ryan's endorsement. He's going to vote for Trump, he said, because "I'm confident that he'll help turn the House GOP's agenda into laws." In other words, Ryan has been willing to tolerate a lot from Trump on the expectation that he, unlike Obama, will sign radical Tea-Party style legislation. Partisanship is a two-way street, however. Doesn't Trump have an equal right to expect that a Republican Congress will ratify his agenda? This expectation matters if it proves, as seems likely, that Trump's agenda and Ryan's are two separate things. If the condition of Ryan's endorsement is that Trump sign Ryan's bills, hasn't Trump an equal right to set conditions, given how Ryan and his caucus expect to ride the billionaire's coattails? Does anyone doubt that the self-styled master of "the deal" would demand a quid-pro-quo from congressional Republicans, demanding that they enact his agenda through legislation in return for signing off on their agenda? What would Ryan and the GOP do then? What if they're told they get no budget bill, no regulatory reform, no entitlement reform, unless they pass a bill to build the Mexican Wall, curtail immigration, etc.? Would they sacrifice their agenda to block Trump? It would depend on his ability to arrange for Republican opponents to be primaried for their sins against him. So far I see little sign of Trump arranging to have candidates run for Congress who are loyal to him first, the party second. That's the typical failing of the insurgent presidential candidate, but if he wins his election this year and the conflict between him and the congressional GOP proves irrepressible, the 2018 elections should prove very interesting before the Democrats even get involved. I wouldn't put it past today's Republicans to opt for gridlock, since they're always ready to opt on ideological principles against getting things done, but the x factor they may need to consider before starting that game again is the mood of the country, which Trump, like all modern Presidents, will claim to represent more faithfully than anyone in Congress or Congress as a whole. On the other hand, congressional Republicans have never been impressed by presidential mandates. All of this means that the Republican party could be in big trouble even if Trump wins the November election. It might be very entertaining to watch -- except for the chance of collateral damage, that is.

14 June 2016

Take it from a Muslim ....

Earlier today the President was griping about some people's insistence that acts of terrorism like the Orlando massacre be attributed to "radical Islam." He mocked the idea that giving the enemy a particular name would help defeat them, and he seemed to resent more than usual the implication of Donald Trump that he was soft on Islam. "There’s no magic to the phrase, 'radical Islam.': he said, "It’s a political talking point; it’s not a strategy." The Washington Post helpfully explains that "the president has refused to use ["radical Islam'] because he believes it unfairly implicates an entire religious group for the acts of militant extremists. If that's his reason it's pretty silly. He seems to assume that no one appreciates the presence of a modifier in the epithet. His assumption seems to be that if you say "radical Islam," dumb Americans will instantly assume that all Muslims are radicals. On this occasion it looks like the President, not his critics, is playing word games, and it's just such games that frustrate Maajid Nawaz, a British Muslim who renounced extremism and for his trouble has been accused of being a "native informant" and neocon toady. He posted an op-ed at the Daily Beast today lambasting American liberals for refusing to talk about Islam when talking about terrorism."The killer of Orlando was a homophobic Muslim extremist, inspired by an ideological take on my own religion, Islam." Nawaz writes. Reminding readers that jihadists have still killed more Muslims than non-Muslims worldwide, he lashes out at "Liberals who claim that this has nothing to do with Islam" when "The problem so obviously has something to do with Islam. That something is Islamism, or the desire to impose any version of Islam over any society. Jihadism is the attempt to do so by force....It is a theocratic ideology, and theocracy should no longer have any place in the world today." To deny that Islamism has anything to do with Islam -- to argue that Islamism is motivated entirely be secular phenomena and thus can be dealt with without talking about Islam -- is a betrayal, so Nawaz claims, of the multitudes of Muslims that are fighting Islamists with words and/or weapons. Worse still, from his perspective, liberal refusal to engage critically with Islam in order to show how it doesn't have to be theocratic surrenders the rhetorical field to those Islamophobes who assume (on a fundamentalist reading of the Qur'an) that Islam is irredeemably theocratic. In short, if liberals won't talk about radical Islam or Islam itself, only Donald Trump will.

So what's the matter with liberals? Trump may have his vague suspicions about the President, but in most cases he'd attribute this reticence to "political correctness." That's often understood as an unwillingness to offend -- or an obsession with being offended -- but the sort of liberals who flinch at "radical Islam" probably are less worried about American Muslims getting offended than about worse happening to them. In any case, they're individualists on this front (if not on the economic front) and above all don't want many to suffer for the crimes and plots of a few. The easiest way to prevent that is to dissociate whatever jihadists are up to from whatever the essence of Islam is. The problem with that approach is that the jihadis themselves have a very clear idea of what the essence of Islam is, and that idea inspires whatever they're up to. Therefore you can't seriously argue that terrorism committed by Muslims has nothing to do with Islam unless you define Islam and do so in a way that shows the Islamists are wrong. Liberals probably would define Islam according to the "five pillars" they learned in school while rejecting the takfiri claim that jihad is a sixth pillar, equal in importance to the others. I suspect that liberals are less interested in such a project than in defending innocent Muslims against an Islamophobia that itself probably has little to do with Islam in the liberal imagination. From a "politically correct" standpoint jihadi terrorism has only provided the eternal white bigot with an excuse to indulge in his irrepressible hatred of the Other. Whether the subject is Trump's temporary ban on Muslim immigration -- which he's modified to focus on countries with terrorist activity -- or any suggestion of surveillance of mosques, madrasas or community centers, some liberals can't see any motivation for such measures but bigotry. Never mind that Islamists are bigots by any standard -- and the Orlando shooter seems to have been a hypocritical bigot on top of that -- some Americans can't help seeing white bigotry as the greater, permanent threat to the U.S. For such people Maajid Nawaz has some advice:

Just as we Muslims expect solidarity from wider society against anti-Muslim bigotry and racism, likewise we must reciprocate solidarity toward victims of Islamist extremism. Just as we encourage others to actively denounce racism wherever they see it, so too must we actively denounce Islamist theocratic views wherever we find them. Enough with the special pleading. Enough with the denial. Enough with the obfuscation.

Nawaz is talking to fellow Muslims but others should heed his message.