17 September 2019

The Bolt(on) Cutter

I'd applaud the President's dismissal of National Security Advisor Bolton more enthusiastically if I weren't still questioning his hiring of the man in the first place. To be honest, I think I know what Trump was thinking. Having a notorious neocon hawk like Bolton on his team was no doubt meant to signal to hostile powers that neocon options like regime change were still on the table in the Trump administration. It should have been clear to Trump early, however, that Bolton was unlikely to see his preferred course of action merely as one option among many. The problem with Bolton was that he didn't represent simply one option for action but a worldview most likely radically different from Donald Trump's. While Trump seems to see competition among nations as inevitable, especially in the economic realm, he seems less inclined to see relations between the U.S. and any other country, with the possible exception of Iran, as inherently or existentially adversarial. The President most likely doesn't see regime change as the ideal goal in his dealings with any other nation. He's probably too convinced of his own ability to make deals with anyone to think it necessary to replace anyone. His acceptance of competition as the norm and his willingness to criticize allies close him off from the idealistic neocon vision of harmony (and free trade?) among democracies. Meanwhile, while he may have hoped that hiring Bolton might frighten hostile governments, Trump probably realizes by now that his counterparts around the world don't scare so easily. Bolton more likely inspires loathing rather than fear among foreign leaders and diplomats. If anyone in the White House inspires anything like fear abroad, it's most likely Trump himself on the Nixonian "madman" principle. And then the fear is not so much that he might change a country's government, but that he might destroy that country outright in a fit of pique. He probably inspires less fear by now than he thinks he does -- among foreign leaders, at least, -- but he's still more suited to the "bad cop" role in his own foreign policy than Bolton ever could have been.

11 September 2019

Are all fanatics the same?

Inspired by Dostoevsky, David Brooks imagines in his latest column that extremists on the American "alt-right" and their equivalents on the far left are fundamentally, or at least temperamentally, the same. Both are -- or both see themselves as -- "sick," "spiteful" and "unattractive." Their "rage is intertwined with psychological fragility" and their "anger at real wrongs is corrupted [by narcissistic] existential panic." Those "who fill the air with hate" were alike "raised without coherent moral frameworks" and "in that coddling way that protects you from every risk except real life." Always uncertain of their place in the world or the social order, yet assured that "you can be anything you want to be," they yearn for order based on "blunt simplicities" and "Manichean binaries." Inevitably drawn to politics, they "make everything political." The column goes on and on in the first person, aping the narration of Dostoevsky's underground man. Brooks's own narrative is centrist and shallow. It's also a conservative temperament of an old type, distrustful of all other "isms" and inclined to see "fanaticism" as a type unto itself that defines fanatics of all kinds more than their individual beliefs. It's also distrustful of "the political" or the tendency to politicize things presumably outside the realm of elections or legislation. From a perspective self-consciously distant from that politicizing tendency -- even though declaring anything outside politics is arguably an ultimate political act -- political fanaticism tends to blur into a spectral singularity, especially when you're trapped in a bipolarchy in which both major parties seem increasingly controlled by fanatics. From a different perspective, neither partisan nor centrist, the two factions Brooks abhors don't look so alike. You needn't believe that one is better than the other to recognize differences that remain arguably more important than the traits shared by "fanatics." Without underestimating anger on the alt-right, it still seems to me that those people are less angry than their counterparts in antifa or elsewhere on the far left. That may be for the simple reason that alt-right types now feel secure in a group identity while leftists as individuals remain in relative existential crisis. Whether that's so or not, I still work under the assumption that the 21st century American right takes a more amusedly fatalistic attitude toward life (i.e. "everything's a joke") than the perpetually-outraged part of the left. Maybe I simply see more trollishness than pure rage on the right based on what I look at, but whatever a rightist's mood there most likely remains a definitive difference in expectations between right and left grounded in the proverbial assumption, on the right, that the world doesn't owe you a living, and the left's insistence that a civilized (or "just") world actually does.  The right-wing opinions I encounter seem less driven by fear of the Other then by contempt for certain personality types regardless of ethnic or cultural origin. I don't want to suggest that there's no fear on the right -- economic and social insecurity fuels extremism across the board -- but I do think that fear is stronger, for whatever reason, on the left. There probably are ways to test these hypotheses, but my main point here is to suggest that it remains more useful to probe the differences between right and left, or between the  "alt" versions of each, than to dismiss them as a single psychological type, as Brooks does. Such thinking could lead people to think that both extremes can be purged from American life more easily than is probably the case.

02 September 2019

The end of the democratic mission?

David Brooks lamented in a column last week that Americans seemed uninterested in the Hong Kong protest movement. Neither major political party "any longer sees America as a vanguard nation whose mission is to advance universal democracy and human dignity," he writes, though he hopes that the Hong Kong protesters will "rekindle the sense of democratic mission that used to burn so forcefully in American hearts." Brooks has an explanation for the apparent indifference of the American left; their unforgiving emphasis on "slavery and oppression" keeps them from seeing the U.S. as "a beacon or an example." He offers not even that brief an explanation for why "the American right no longer believes in spreading democracy to foreigners." If pressed, his explanation most likely would have something to do with Donald Trump, but it's more likely that whatever explains the attitude of the right, if Brooks perceives it correctly, also explains Trump. The right's objections to pro-democracy interventionism are more likely cynical than ideological. American adventurism in the Middle East since the turn of the century probably has disabused many of Trump's constituents of the idea that the mere existence of dictators is an existential threat to the American homeland. The "Arab Spring" in particular put into question whether greater democratization in some places was beneficial to the U.S. Taking a wider view, to the extent that the democratization narrative was tied to narratives of globalization and economic liberalization, it shouldn't surprise us to see Americans grow different to foreign struggles for democracy. 21st century Trumpian nationalism is more concerned with economic than ideological threats to the nation. These nationalists see Hong Kong's Chinese overlords as antagonists, but they don't necessarily believe that unfair Chinese trade practices follow necessarily from China's form of government. Dictators don't threaten us in our pocketbooks, where many Americans feel threatened today. The Chinese threat would seem little different to many Americans, probably, were China a de facto democracy like Japan. If anything, if Americans remember the neoliberal/neoconservative argument that economic liberalization would lead to greater democracy and a stronger economy for former tyrannies, they might well welcome any relapse into tyrannical practices by a major economic competitor like China. Whether Trumpets or others are right to see China primarily if not exclusively as an economic threat is a debate for another time, but while they see China that way what happens in Hong Kong won't make much difference to them -- unless they see it as an opportunity to hurt China's economy with sanctions. If that happens Brooks may see things that look like a rekindling of the old democratic mission, but he shouldn't be fooled by them -- though he probably will be.

05 August 2019

Tragedy reenacted as farce

Just to set up a little story, let me explain that I lost my old newspaper job this spring (no hard feelings) but have landed a new position elsewhere after coasting on severance pay awhile. There was an orientation session for new hires today, and part of the program covered what was to be done in the event of an active shooter in the workplace. The instructional video pulled few punches, showing what a live instructor aptly called a "Vin Diesel type" clad in militant black marching into a building, producing a shotgun and blowing away several people. The surviving workers demonstrated recommended methods of escaping, hiding or, if necessary, fighting the attacker. Unfortunately, the video's budget didn't allow for the use of master thespians, as became clear when characters attempted to emote. So maybe bad acting can ruin any mood or disrupt any purpose, or maybe there was a certain mood in the room two days after the incidents in El Paso and Dayton. All I can say definitely is that whenever one of the fictional employees was shown panicking, there was a lot of laughter in our orientation room.  I've long noticed that lots of people look for any excuse to laugh at something seemingly serious onscreen, and not only because that something has turned out unintentionally funny. For some, that impulse expresses a preference to treat everything in life, if not life itself, as a joke, in order to not look weak or like a whiner. Others may have other reasons for laughing and needing to laugh. And if people, for whatever reason, can laugh at a sincerely-intended instructional film about surviving a mass shooting within 48 hours of the real thing twice over, that impulse must be irrepressible. Whether that's a good or bad thing, I'm not quite sure.

03 August 2019

Amoklauf at Walmart

Investigators in El Paso are hoping to learn the motive behind today's slaughter of 20 people in a local Walmart, and the wounding of many others, from both alleged online writings of the shooter and interviews with the shooter himself, who reportedly surrendered to police without a fight. Words are merely rationalizations, however; all that really matters is that this person felt entitled to mass murder. You can believe any garbage you please without feeling such an entitlement. Not everyone learns the desire to kill from books or sermons or online ravings. Some no doubt turn to ideology or religion simply to find an excuse that fits their mood. It remains all too easy for people like this, whatever their beliefs, to kill others. Neither left nor right has the answer for this murderous sense of entitlement. The actual ideologues on both sides no doubt sincerely deplore the senseless sort of violence we've seen today; some actually may believe that specific people or sorts of people should die, but randomly motivated violence, as this most likely was, serves no purpose for them. There is, of course, an ideological predisposition on one side against limiting the ability of degenerates like the latest shooter to kill by limiting the availability of many firearms, just as there's an unjustified optimism on the other that greater gun control will end mass murder. There are also persistent assumptions that old forms of mental or emotional discipline will overcome this murderous sense of entitlement, as well as theories that eliminating certain "dehumanizing" stimuli will abort the murderous impulse. But the impulse to commit mass murder probably predates all philosophies and religions and pop culture. Yet the impulse seems stronger in our time, and not just in the gun-happy U.S. as various bladed rampages in Asia attest. City and state officials in El Paso are calling on the people to unite after today's atrocity, though they were predictably reticent about addressing the problems of gun violence and mass murder specifically. If people are to unite for a solution, however, they must be willing to address all possible solutions, or else the coming together will be merely a show. It's hard, after all -- or it should be -- to imagine a solution worse than this problem. The suspicion that some solutions might be worse may be as much a problem, if not as great a danger, as the entitlement to kill.

02 August 2019

Bullying at the Democratic debates?

Senator Warren of Massachusetts showed herself "an effective bully" during the latest round of Democratic debates, according to New York Daily News columnist S. E. Cupp. Warren's bullying, Cupp writes, consisted of questioning the courage of more moderate candidates who refuse to endorse the "Medicare for all" idea. In her own words, "We're not going to solve the urgent problems we face with small ideas and spinelessness." Cupp equates this with questioning the manhood of those contenders -- all male from Cupp's account, who don't share Warren's vision. To call them spineless is insulting, certainly, but is it bullying? Hardly. For the progressives to call the moderates spineless is no more bullying than for the moderates to claim that the progressives effectively are handing the 2020 election to President Trump. Perhaps personal factors account for Cupp's reading of the debate -- she writes as if her own honor as a moderate Democrat has been besmirched by Warren -- but as far as I know the debates will continue with the moderates unbowed. Cupp's real complaint seems to be that Warren is unwilling to meet the moderates on the ground they prefer. They argue that "Medicare for all" is impractical and impolitic and claim, in Cupp's words, to be "strategic and realistic" about that. Whether they are right hasn't been shown yet. Unfortunately for them, they're up against a mindset that treats assertions of limits with angry skepticism. Progressives seem too ready to believe that all limits -- except those of the planet's resources -- are man-made. If someone tells them some pet project of theirs can't be done, they assume the skeptic means simply that he doesn't want it done for some selfish reason or another. At their most reckless, they assume, as did generations of tragic fools during the 20th century, that all obstacles can be overcome by political will. To their minds, it's the moderate belief that "Medicare for all" won't work, not any inherent flaw to the idea, that keeps it from becoming a reality. Again, I'm not learned enough on the subject to say whether it can be done, although it is clear that in any nearly evenly divided legislature passing the thing will be supremely difficult. But that's why we need more than assertion and counterassertion in the debates, though there probably isn't time for much more than that given the bloated field of candidates. Moderate observers like Cupp may feel that progressives like Warren are trying to cut off debate in a bullying way by questioning the courage of skeptics, but moderates should be careful not to use "it can't be done" as yet another method of cutting off debate. And for what it's worth, I would have expected the moderate Democrats to be less likely to accuse opponents of bullying than the presumably more sensitive or p.c. progressives. But when moderates are accused of spinelessness from both left and right in our time, I suppose Cupp's lament is sadly unsurprising.

31 July 2019

The appeal of "socialism"

This week's Democratic debates may refocus the President's mind on the threat of socialism, since they put Bernie Sanders back in the spotlight. Until someone finds a way to say that denouncing socialism is inherently racist, Donald Trump should be on safer ground targeting Sanders, though my feeling back in 2016 was that, had Sanders won the Democratic nomination, Trump's likely ranting against socialism during the general-election debates would have left him looking like the archetypal old man yelling at the cloud. It would have made Trump look irrelevant, since he would have seemed to be fighting Cold War battles that no longer mattered much to many people. I'm not sure that approach would strike people the same way in 2020, if only because, for good or ill, the socialism issue fuels the Trump narrative that opposition to himself and his causes is essentially un- or anti-American. "Socialism" may be what you trot out when you can't tell an old white guy to go back where he came from. How such a line of attack will play with younger voters remains unclear. There's been a lot of hand-wringing in recent years about young people's openness to socialist ideas. They're too young to see "socialism" in practice, some say, identifying "socialism" with the worst of the Soviet Union. That may be looking at the problem from the wrong angle. How much of the enthusiasm shown for Sanders and his rivals on the left wing of the Democratic party results from naivete about the history of Marxism, and how much is fueled by increased disdain for capitalism? For all intents and purposes the liberal Democratic ideal of capitalism -- the belief that if you worked hard, you would do well -- is dead. Fewer people are reconciled to the contingency of modern work. Many no doubt ask: why should my life depend on being useful to someone who doesn't have to give a damn about me? To the extent that they saw capitalism as a kind of social contract that delivered security in return for work, they want to make a similar deal, but preferably with the state or "the people" and with no profit motive involved. Refute Marx or any socialist thinker as thoroughly as you can and there'll still be a demand for an alternative to capitalism. Rail against socialism all you want, yet you won't get to the bottom of this widespread discontent. For that reason, an anti-socialist campaign can only have limited appeal, especially if the campaigner stakes everything on identifying socialism completely with Marxism and Leninism. A deeper argument will be necessary to reconcile people to the current economic order -- if that's your goal, that is -- whether by persuading them that no alternative is possible or telling them that their objections are immoral. I don't know if capitalism's most vocal defenders today are capable of that sort of deeper argument -- but then again, I don't know if that'll be necessary next year....