21 September 2018

The Kavanaugh nomination: nobody wins

The timing is too dramatic, the charge too resonant with today's craze for me to believe Christine Blaney Ford's charge against Brett Kavanaugh. Something probably did happen between the two long ago, but only now would anyone think that whatever happened disqualifies Kavanaugh from public life, and only now that Kavanaugh stands at the brink of confirmation as the next associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court does Ford take the one action that might stop him. I could go on about the alleged excesses of the #MeToo movement that has weaponized grievances like Ford's, but on this occasion my only thought is that the Republican party, and Republican senators in particular, deserve whatever they get in this process.  They thwarted the nomination of Merrick Garland by legal but profoundly unfairly means, so until it's shown that Ford or whoever recruited her has committed a crime all is fair in the effort to thwart Kavanaugh. For what it's worth, this isn't about Donald Trump, who most likely was here merely fulfilling his pact with the GOP to nominate ideologically sound judges. I don't think the President is looking for a personal loyalist or robed consigliere, since even he must understand that Kavanaugh will remain on the court long after Trump has left the scene. The Republican senators, inconvenienced by Justice Scalia's sudden death, decided in their partisan and ideological arrogance that they didn't even have to debate his replacement by the nominee of a Democratic President. Some may feel that the Democrats should be bigger than that, or that it's their responsibility to restore bipartisan comity by offering no unreasonable resistance to Kavanaugh. These premises can be debated rationally, but for now all I have to say is that none of the Republicans whining and crying over the latest twist in the story get any sympathy from me.

18 September 2018

Making the perfect the enemy of the great

In today's Albany Times Union a professor chides Governor Cuomo from backing down from his assertion, challenging President Trump's "Make America Great Again" nostalgia, that the nation was "never that great." In the professor's opinion, Cuomo was "condemned for speaking the truth." He proceeds to demonstrate, at least to his own satisfaction, the truth of the governor's original observation, presenting a litany of atrocities and insults directed at non-white or non-WASP people over the American centuries. Whatever we think of MAGAts,  I suspect that none of them will deny that any of the offenses cited in the op-ed actually took place, yet they would most likely still affirm that the U.S. was great while most of these things happened. The professor might assume that such a conclusion only proves their indifference to the oppression of minorities, but all it would show is that, for some Americans, greatness can be shown with a balance sheet on which inequality is outweighed by other factors, while for the professor, the governor and others, nothing imperfect can be great. Like Cuomo, the professor believes that the U.S. will only be indisputably great when, for starters and in the governor's words, "discrimination and stereotyping against women ... is gone." They appear to be guilty of the same fallacy that mainstream Democrats like Cuomo ascribe routinely to critics on their left: they're making the perfect the enemy of the good. Philosophically speaking, it may be arguable that equality is, or should be, the sole criterion of national greatness, but politicians aren't seeking votes from a nation of philosophers. Like people of all nations, most Americans find more obvious proof of greatness in wealth and military might, while Americans in particular will often cite our right to complain about everything as proof that people shouldn't complain about anything, much less dispute American greatness. Under such conditions, progressive politicians might take advice from Minister Louis Farrakhan, who defended his controversial claim that Adolf Hitler was a great man by amending his assessment to "wickedly great." If they can keep such qualifications in mind, and preferably to themselves, progressives may not get into self-destructive debates over semantics so often.

06 September 2018

Their hearts were hardened

The Los Angeles Times reported recently on an experiment that appeared to disprove the hopeful premise that Americans would become less vehemently partisan if we would only take time to listen to opposite points of view. For the experiment, conducted by the National Academy of Science, subjects of confirmed partisan views were paid to follow a Twitter bot that would retweet comments from the opposite party or ideology. At the end of the experiment, liberal subjects, taking a survey for the second time, had become "slightly more liberal" while conservatives had grown "substantially more" conservative. Those results should have surprised no one, but maybe it shouldn't surprise us that people who thought that the sort of listening some feel is needed could be done on social media were shocked by the results. Platforms like Twitter are not where people are going to seriously or sincerely consider other people's opinions. They're not where the sort of conversations we may well need are going to take place. They are places for people to vent their anger or flaunt their contempt for the opposition, so of course partisanship will harden if all you see from the opposite party is their hatred for you and all you stand for. A different venue is necessary for those hoped-for conversations in which people can demonstrate that disagreement is not the same as hate or show that saying you can't have everything you want isn't the same as wishing you dead. Whether such conversations are possible anywhere anymore is the looming question of our time.

04 September 2018

Department of Justice

Only someone like President Trump could make someone like Jeff Sessions a sympathetic figure. Whatever his own odious ideological or partisan agenda, Sessions can't help looking like a champion of the rule of law compared to the man who made him Attorney General and seemingly has used him as a punching bag ever since. Most recently, Trump has lambasted Sessions for allowing two Republican congressmen to be indicted during an election year, as if it were the Attorney General's job to prevent that. The President's persecution complex only spotlights his dubious assumption that the Department of Justice exists primarily to protect his own personal and partisan interests. On the assumption that Trump would only replace Sessions with someone who actually agrees with Trump's view, it may seem heroic of Sessions to stay on despite the constant humiliation and the more recent threat of a post-midterm sacking. But his persistence only reminds us of what many Republicans have seen all along as their bargain with the Trump movement. Despite the objections of many ideologues mainly concerned with the potential for mischief in the Executive Branch, more cynical Republicans, mindful of Trump's popularity among the yahoos, resolved to endure any executive idiocies of his so long as his popularity gave them cover to carry out their own reactionary agenda. Jeff Sessions is the embodiment of Republican shamelessness, yet his mere failure to comply with Trump's impossible demands may leave him looking like a man of principle on his inevitable exit and most likely guarantees him a big payday from some publisher. Only the dreaded Trump Derangement Syndrome could make Sessions seem like a martyr, but such are the diseased times we live in.

30 August 2018

The illusion of balance

The President thinks it unfair that a Google search of his name results in a preponderance of "bad" news about him and hints that search engines should be regulated to assure more balanced results. While he may think he's being targeted by the same old elite-media cabal, it was reported that a similar search for "Hillary Clinton" produced similarly "bad" results. Inevitably, Trump's complaint has caused alarm among civil libertarians and progressives, as it echoes generations of conservative demands for "balance"  that, as critics see it, have actually skewed political discourse. The critics think that conservatives have "worked the refs" by demanding a minimum of recognition for views that critics consider objectively unworthy of consideration. Such demands are inevitable in multiparty democracies, but are driven less by an objective commitment to representation for all sides of all questions than by demands for recognition of power. Conservatives want equal representation for their views not because they're simply the other side of important debates but because they're a mass political movement representing millions of people and billions in wealth. Were the demand for balance driven simply by solicitude for all sides of any question, than Marxists would be equally entitled to balanced coverage of economic issues, and white racists equally entitled to balanced coverage of cultural issues. No one would take their entitlement seriously, however, because they lack the conservatives' numbers -- but most would agree that they're not entitled because their views can be dismissed objectively without counting heads or dollars. The progressive argument now is that numbers do not entitle Trumpism to balanced representation in the media because it's self-evidently beyond the pale morally and intellectually. If there's an authoritarian  (or authoritarian democratic) aspect to Trumpism, however, it would include a claim that numbers and the raw fact that Trump won an election entitle him, in fact, to more than balanced coverage, just as the entire nation owes him some deference until the next election. Whether balance is Trumpists' true ideal, or anyone's, is open to debate, and that would be a debate where all sides would deserve to be heard.

26 August 2018

The shadow president

John McCain always looked good next to his major political antagonists, from George W. Bush to Donald Trump, perhaps especially in retrospect, but he never looked good enough to become President. Against Bush and later against Mitt Romney, McCain was the great opponent of money in politics. Against Barack Obama he was the voice of experience and the champion of American global leadership. Against Donald Trump, in a purely rhetorical struggle, he reiterated the nation's commitment to American-style democracy as a global good and spoke truth to foreign power when the President preferred not to. Against Trump's alleged bigotries stood the memory of McCain's great moment from the 2008 campaign when he rebuked one of his own supporters for calling Obama an "Arab." He and Romney may be looked on in retrospect as the last truly ideological Republicans, champions of a Cold War worldview before the GOP declined into a tribal party. Before Trump came along, McCain was distrusted by the populists who would embrace Trump. They distrusted McCain's neocon warmongering, uninterested in democratizing any other part of the world. More than any other group, including the anti-imperialist left, they perpetuated the legend of "Songbird" McCain, the willing collaborator with his North Vietnamese captors. By comparison, Trump's seeming contempt for a soldier who got captured was mere schoolyard taunting. But even if I see him as an ideological conservative, many more ideological conservatives hated McCain as well, mostly for his efforts to regulate campaign donations, which pundits like George Will saw as a self-interested incumbent's interference with the free market of political opinion. And even observers with no dogs in his intraparty feuds saw a sometimes unpleasant streak of self-righteousness in McCain, not to mention a contempt for Romney even more than for Obama, and a tendency  to see his own motives as more pure than those of other politicians. Even in comparison to Trump, whose flattery of authoritarians seems contemptible to many, McCain's relatively knee-jerk kicking at people like Vladimir Putin was not self-evidently the correct approach to foreign leaders. Now that he is gone, McCain will be honored as an anti-Trump, and perhaps remembered by some Republicans as an anti-Obama. His good qualities will be magnified in death, and if they were never enough to earn him the highest accolade in life, people may say that was the fault of the time, not the man. It seems unlikely, however, that the U.S. and the world today would have been much different had McCain beaten Bush and then Gore in 2000; his instincts in reaction to the September 2001 terror attacks were, if anything, more hair-trigger than Dubya's, and we might have invaded Iraq sooner rather than later, with all the same consequences if not more, with President McCain in charge. Of course, people are more likely to remember Dubya fondly when he goes, simply for not being Donald Trump. It doesn't take much nowadays for a politician from the past to be remembered fondly, but let's not begrudge anyone any fondness they feel toward McCain this weekend. The historians will have their turn in time.

22 August 2018

Will Trump take us back 100 years?

NFL football season is approaching and with it, in all likelihood, fresh controversy over the proper reception of the national anthem. New league rules are meant to discourage players from making a public show of their refusal to stand for the song, but some players have already made their dissident intentions clear during the pre-season, while the President continues to agitate for harsher measures against the recalcitrant. I wonder whether, for all his nostalgia, Donald Trump knows that there was a time when refusing to stand for the anthem was at least theoretically illegal. In 1918, during World War I, the Sedition Act of 1918 made it a federal crime to treat the flag in a disrespectful manner. For that reason, in August of that year the Bullis brothers of Amsterdam NY were brought before a federal court. Workers at the Watervliet Arsenal, they had refused to stand when the anthem was played at a theater in nearby Troy. They were nearly mobbed by an angry audience until they were marched to the nearest police station. While they had to face a federal commissioner, ultimately they were sentenced in a local court for disorderly conduct. It was clear, however, that the brothers, who lost their jobs before they were sentenced, could have been tried under the Sedition Act. That statute was repealed in 1920 but has never, to my knowledge, been found unconstitutional. It was part and product of an unprecedented mass-media propaganda campaign to keep Americans in a war frenzy, and without a state of war existing it's unlikely that Trump or like-thinking superpatriots could enact a 21st century version of the measure. But from that quarter comes a similar demand for unconditional solidarity, whether with the troops or with themselves, and for an unconditional love of country. It's naive for anyone to take standing and holding your hand over your heart as conclusive proof of unconditional love, but I suppose it's also naive to think that refusing to do that for whatever explicit or implicit reason won't insult some people. Should people pay for the insult? The issue is complicated by the President's interventions, which only harden the hearts, so to speak, of those who claim the right to use the playing of the anthem to protest current conditions. Trump's insistence on "respect" will only make standing and saluting look more like a personal loyalty oath to Trump himself to those who loathe him, but I don't think Trump himself sees it that way. I think he sincerely believes that occasions like the playing of the anthem should transcend partisan politics, and that Americans should show that they love their country regardless of who's in charge or what you think of his policies. If he seems to admire authoritarian nations, it may be because he sees in those places the sort of unconditional, unanimous love of country he wants to see here, however artifical and compulsory it may actually be over there. But as long as unconditional love of country is equated by anyone with acquiescence in the way things are now, so long as the Trumpist message to the rest of the country is, "You can't change us, but you have to love us," he will not see that sort of unconditional unanimity here, and he will most likely remain enraged by the willful refusal of it by many people. History shows that, in theory, a Trumpist majority could attempt to force unanimity by criminalizing acts of passive dissent. The question for our time is whether they're actually tempted to use that historical power, and whether they can resist the temptation.