20 November 2017

Beast Mode

For the President, it was probably the ultimate insult. In Mexico, Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch refused to stand for the U.S. national anthem before his team played -- appropriately enough? -- the Patriots, but stood for the Mexican anthem. Inevitably Trump took to Twitter demanding that Lynch be suspended by the NFL, as if the league has some obligation to listen to him. It was a response guaranteed to harden everyone's attitudes, but you could say that about Lynch's demonstration as well. What we have here, yet again, is a failure to communicate, because standing for the anthem is two different things for different groups of people. For the football players who continue to take a knee, and for those cheering them on, standing for the anthem, or not, is a political act determined by individual conscience. For the President and those cheering him on, it's more like a moral obligation. Just as Trump expects governments to act in their nation's interests, by which he means the interests of the people, or at least his constituents, rather than according to any abstract ideology, so he most likely expects citizens to act on the basis of a like fidelity to the nation and people. In his mind, I assume, showing allegiance on these ritual occasions is not a matter of discretion or conscience. He more likely assumes that anyone who withholds allegiance can't be trusted to have the people's backs. It doesn't matter if that's not the intention of any of these protesters. As far as Trump and his people are concerned, these spoiled celebrity racists -- let's not deny that race is a factor here, or that Trump scores extra points with his base by taking no crap from black people on this question -- are putting themselves and their issues before the common good. The anthem controversy no doubt still seems trivial to many people, if not disturbing who see Trump's interventions as authoritarian in character, but it's a flashpoint between Trumpian nationalism, which refuses to take for granted where Americans stand without some show of loyalty, and those who for a variety of reasons find that sort of nationalism antithetical to whatever they think the nation stands for. What we have here is a clash of nationalisms, with each constituency assuming that the other's nationalism excludes or debases them. The national anthem won't stop being an occasion for controversy, and no President can make it stop, until our house ceases to be divided, and the nation stands for one thing or the other.

19 November 2017

Better the guilty go free...

"One of the things that separates America from the dictatorships of the world is that we don't let our politicians lock up political opponents, nor for that matter hound, try, execute or simply disappear their rivals," an Albany Times Union editorial asserts. The editorial writer was moved to this expression by the latest threat to prosecute Hillary Clinton over her role, as Secretary of State, in a perceived quid pro quo in which a Russian donor to the Clinton Foundation was cleared to buy American uranium through the purchase of a Canadian company. The TU is satisfied with Clinton's innocence on the strength of a Fox News report debunking the criminal narrative, and my purpose here isn't to take any side in that debate. My point, as long time readers may have guessed, is to remind you that the same inhibition about prosecuting politicians that the editorial celebrates may not be as positive a good as the editorial writer asserts. I've long observed an implicit principle of partisan immunity in American politics that presumes would-be prosecutors guilty of partisan motives when they make charges against politicians from another party. A further presumption is that the partisan consequences of a criminal trial of a prominent politician -- presumably the discrediting of the accused politician's party and the greater likelihood of one-party government, are worse than any consequences of the alleged criminal activity -- though of course, many will assume that any charge made by one politician against another from another party is a gross exaggeration if not an outright lie. Either way, the ultimate consequence is to let politicians get away with much that they probably shouldn't get away with, rather than risk a disruption of the reigning party system that could result in a more 'authoritarian" government. This may seem like an ugly but necessary price to pay for truly "free" i.e. multiparty government, yet in recent times we've seen multiparty democracies in Brazil and South Korea bring leaders to account without constitutional crises on undermining party systems. It can be done, but it would require both major parties here to admit corruption in their ranks, and it might require voters not to tie their interests too closely to corruptible political parties. Americans need to get over the childish idea that to admit the corruption of one party's leader is to guarantee the election of the antithetical party. That will never happen so long as people vote their interests, and if the discrediting of a major party after a criminal trial leaves Americans unable to vote their interests, the problem won't be any "criminalization of politics" but with the American electoral system itself.

16 November 2017

He Don't Need Another Hero

Stephen Seitz's op-ed in the Nov. 16 Albany Times Union is a reductio ad absurdam of the anti-gun mentality. An "author and journalist based in Vermont," Seitz writes to denounce Stephen Willeford, the man who traded fire with the Sutherland Springs church shooter and may have stopped him with resuming his slaughter of the congregation. In other words, Willeford comes pretty close to the NRA archetype of the "good guy with a gun" on whom we ought to depend,or whom we should aspire to be, when crises arise. Seitz will have none of that. Instead, to him, Willeford and the pickup driver who joined him in chasing the shooter "exemplify everything that's wrong with American gun culture." How So? Simply because Seitz refuses to trust in either man's competence. What if Willeford shot a bystander? What if they chased the wrong vehicle, or wiped out themselves, or ran an innocent over? By Seitz's standards, theirs was supremely irresponsible behavior, and they harmed no one themselves only because they were lucky.
One can support greater gun regulation and still have problems with Seitz's attitude. It's one thing to prefer that we not need people like Willeford to play hero, and another to deny so vehemently that he actually might be a hero under the circumstances. It might please some people more if Willeford had simply tackled the shooter while he was reloading, as some heroes have done, but should we prefer, under the actual circumstances, that he did nothing? I myself am concerned with people getting caught in a cowboy crossfire, but that's an argument for legislation, not for victims or bystanders to be absolutely passive during an amoklauf. What we see with Seitz, I suspect, is a variation on the cultural divide separating those who see the world as tough and those who see it as cruel. Willeford is most obviously a hero for those who feel that the world requires us to be tough, but the other side tends to see the requirement for toughness as itself cruel. Seitz's skepticism toward Willeford's heroism echoes a skepticism toward the very idea (or ideal) of toughness, which many liberals probably see as a mere rationalization of or acquiescence in cruelty. Toughness requires a competence that Seitz doesn't seem to believe in, thinking perhaps that there's no such thing as disciplined cruelty, except perhaps in the ranks of our duly constituted and professionally trained guardians -- though I can't help wondering where Seitz stands on the police brutality question. Most likely he'd prefer that force never be needed to resolve any crisis, but history suggests that he can't get there from here -- at least by the route he'd rather take. A cherry picked history of recent times encourages some to think that cruelty can be overthrown without cruelty or even toughness, but the more you read the more you doubt that -- and the more you doubt whether people like Seitz have any constructive critiques to make.

10 November 2017

'I don't blame China'

The usual voices are criticizing the President for saying, while China's guest this week, that he didn't blame China for its huge trade surplus with the U.S. To critics, this sounded like a reversal of his angry campaign rhetoric, which described China's trade practices in violent terms. Some no doubt suspect that, in typical fashion, Donald Trump had succumbed to the flattering attention shown him by the canny Chinese and was flattering them back. Trump's rhetoric today, when he vowed that the U.S. would not be taken advantage of anymore, should refute that suspicion. But it was apparent already yesterday that a protectionist and nationalist like Trump would not blame China for pursuing its national interest by taking advantage of American weakness. A free-trade would blame China for failing to play by proper free-trade rules;a protectionist would blame his own country for naively abiding by free-trade policies for ideological reasons. On trade policy, at least, as noted before, Trump is not a departure from but a return to the historic Republican position, from which Reaganite free-trade policy was a major deviation. Reaganite Republicans justified free trade by appealing to the American as a consumer, entitled to the widest range of choices and the lowest prices that the market would bear. Trumpian Republicanism has a different notion of both the American's essential identity -- he is someone who needs to keep or get a job above all -- and his government's primary obligation to him. This difference alarms many who've long defined Americans by their freedom of choice, since Trump may want to limit their freedom on multiple fronts, but on this particular front his materialist conservatism could be the right idea -- if it has the material results he hopes for. If he wants more Americans to buy American, who can blame him?

06 November 2017

Am I going to kill somebody?

Investigators as yet haven't isolated any specific motivation for yesterday's massacre of 26 people in a Texas church, but we're learning more about the man identified as the shooter. He was a former Air Force airman who received a "bad conduct" discharge for, among other things, beating his wife and stepson. More provocatively, given his choice of target, acquaintances of his have told the New York Times that he'd recently become a militant atheist and so "vocally anti-Christian" that many people unfriended him for saying that believers were stupid. So now, I suppose, just as some people want increased surveillance of Muslims after each act of Islamic terrorism, and others want increased surveillance of the alt-right after each act of racist violence, somebody's bound to ask just how "militant" some atheists are becoming, and to demand increased surveillance of atheists in order to find out. The Sutherland Springs shooter could become the poster boy proving to anti-atheists' satisfaction that, just as they always feared, those that deny God have no morals. Of course, there's little proof today that those who affirm God, whether in the form of Allah or Jesus, have much in the way of morals, but believers who haven't killed will tell you that those who do kill innocents in the name of God are hypocrites or misfits who just don't get their faith's essentially nonviolent message, while atheists who murder are simply fulfilling the potential of their "belief" system.

Many theists believe that a truly compelling moral code can't be invented by means of human reason, since we mortals can always change our minds, but must be accepted unconditionally from a source exterior to humanity, i.e. divine revelation. Never mind that, in the Christian tradition alone, multitudes have changed their minds about the divine admonition to turn the other cheek; the point is that the admonition itself, being divine, is unchanging and unchangeable, and the good Christian understands that he has no choice in the matter, while the atheist is never without choice and never without danger. Yet there must be incalculable numbers of atheists who have proven no less moral, at least in the legalistic sense, than believers are. I consider myself one of that group. I work from an assumption that there is no god as described in the Abrahamic scriptures, though I concede that it is impossible to disprove conclusively the existence of as capriciously omnipotent a being as the god of Abraham. One can only hope to show that such a being's existence is not necessary in order for the universe and its natural laws to exist. What follows from such a showing? Not the Dostoevskian assumption that in God's absence, everything is permitted, since it doesn't follow from God's nonexistence that every principle attributed to God is wrong, unless you believe, as many Abrahamites do, that God's existence alone gives validity and authority to those principles. That belief assumes, ultimately, that someone's "say so" is the only real underpinning for moral or ethical principles, and that categorical imperatives are impossible in the absence of the absolute authority of a divine creator. Yet relatively few atheists turn nihilist or criminal, and the abominable violence of  Leninist atheists probably has less to do with their denial of divine restraints than with their sense of superhuman entitlement as the vanguard of history. For most of us, the golden rule doesn't depend on the will of a god, and the possibility that we might abandon that rule on a whim or a rationalization wouldn't exempt us from the just judgment of those who remain true to that most eminently reasonable principle.

What theists miss in their concern that any individual atheist may change his mind about morality is that in a society no individual has the last word on moral questions. Some atheist may decide that he's no longer bound by "superstition" or "bourgeois morality," but so long as he is answerable to other people those people have no obligation to defer to his opinion on the matter. As long as groups of people can reason out rules and hold those who deviate from them accountable, the possibility that any given atheist can change his mind about morals should be no more troubling than the possibility that any given believer can "backslide," as many do. Most if not all atheists believe that reason can discover laws of nature that are not merely our inventions, and while the existence of natural laws of human society is still a subject for debate, such laws would likely be as much discoveries as inventions. Ideally, they would provide a groundwork for judging individuals who go against those laws, no matter what right they claim to change their minds. They would not have authority simply or solely because someone "says so, and so should have a sounder basis than any alleged divine revelation, the mere authorship of which will always be subject to debate. And yet atheists commit crimes, just as theists do -- but while their atheism may determine what crimes they commit, or whom they they target, their essential motivations probably differ little from those of religious criminals. There's probably more moral divergence among atheists, or among Christians, than there is between atheists as a group and Christians as a group. Should the Sutherland Springs shooter prove to be decisively motivated by atheist animus, the only thing that would prove about atheists is that they're no less susceptible to murderous temptations than any other group, however disappointing that may be to some observers. But when has human nature failed to disappoint its more sensitive observers? Yet even atheists have faith that it can be improved.

05 November 2017

Gun-country Fatalism

The sheriff of Wilson County, Texas, spoke to reporters a few minutes ago, hours after a black-clad white guy shot up a Baptist Church in the town of Sutherland Springs, mortally wounding 26 people and wounding many more. The sheriff said, "Media, don't go saying this shouldn't have happened, because it does." He could have meant a number of things, but none of them seem good. Of course we can and should say that incidents like this, however common, shouldn't happen, and if he meant to say that American politics, American culture, or human nature make these things inevitable, that would be more sad, if not more scandalous, than the actual massacre. We cannot reconcile ourselves to this state of affairs; to do so is effectively to write off our potential for civilization. Human potential and American potential are two different things, of course, but we shouldn't be ready to give up on either yet.

31 October 2017

Terror on wheels

Gun-rights advocates used to joke that automobiles should be banned on the same principles justifying gun bans, since cars kill more people each year than guns. As if inspired by those jokes, terrorists have adopted the automobile, or more specifically the truck, as their weapon of choice, a blunt object that can be acquired without potentially intrusive background checks. In New York City today, someone used a rented truck to run over a few dozen people on a bike path, killing eight of them according to the latest count. After crashing into a school bus, he emerged from his vehicle apparently intending to commit suicide-by-cop, brandishing a paint gun and a pellet gun in order to draw fire. He was wounded and taken alive, but the latest update didn't make clear whether or not his wound was life-threatening. Witnesses claim to have heard him shout, "Allahu akbar," to no one's surprise, though I suppose there's a tiny chance that that was just another way to get the cops to shoot him. We know only that he's 29 years old; whether he's a "lone wolf," insofar as that term is applicable to someone killing for a cause, or part of some cell remains to be learned. We're far enough along now that this attack is unlikely to change anyone's position, though the fact that it would be even more difficult to deny cars than guns to people on any discriminatory basis may strengthen the argument that the only practical safeguard against future attacks is more sweeping discrimination against Islam. What happened in Charlottesville this summer may prove that vehicular attacks can be carried out by anyone on the spur of the moment, but many will feel justified in arguing that regulations targeting Muslims will reduce the immediate probability of such attacks. The terms of the larger debate remain the same. One side refuses to compromise the nation's character or their own principles to thwart threats that remain essentially theoretical through actions that, to their minds, declare people guilty before the fact, while the other is unwilling to risk actual lives on principles that don't define their own more materialist sense of citizenship. Each side finds the other too willing to sacrifice something real to something less so, and I'm sure it's only a matter of hours, if not minutes, before someone tries to change the subject by declaring today's incident a "false flag" attack designed to distract us from the Manafort case, or with some other ulterior motive. Meanwhile, the world grows more violent and intolerant as cosmopolitanism falls further behind globalization. The spread of truck attacks is particularly terrifying because each new attack shows how easy it can be for not just a Muslim but anyone to take weaponize transportation. It seems like fewer and fewer people think that their problems, personal or global, can be solved without a bloodbath. With that in mind, Happy Halloween!

Does the Alt-Right make sense?

In Making Sense of the Alt-Right University of Alabama assistant professor George Hawley attempts an objective survey of the movement or movements behind the most conspicuous new brand in American politics. A student of ideological conflicts within American conservatism, Hawley interviewed some alt-right pioneers, most importantly Richard Spencer, in an effort to get at the essence of the movement and distinguish it from the associated phenomena with which it often gets lumped together. As far as he's concerned, for instance, President Trump and the bulk of his supporters can't be considered part of the alt-right. There's also an important distinction between what Hawley sees as the authentic alt-right and the so-called "alt-lite," which agrees with the former on only certain issues, e.g. hostility toward Islam, opposition to political correctness, etc. The authentic alt-right, as defined largely but not exclusively by Spencer, is committed to white nationalism.

Hawley makes a distinction between white nationalism and white supremacy early in his book, claiming that the alt-right is less interested in establishing a hierarchy of superior and inferior races than in asserting the fundamental incompatibility of races as a rationale for turning some or all of the United States into a white "ethnostate." Alt-rightists think of themselves as "race realists," convinced that race is not merely a social construct, as leftists and anti-racists in general have long claimed, but an irrepressible fact that, presumably, imposes obligations from birth on those born into any particular race.  In his interview, Spencer allows that everyone has multiple identities that can pull you in different directions, but "race is the foundation of identity." Race, it would seem, is something you belong to whether you want to, or like it, or not. Borrowing some phraseology from Leon Trotsky, he tells Hawley, "Whether you want to identify with race [or not], race identifies with you. You are part of something bigger than yourself." Spencer and other alt-rightists are dedicated to bringing white "normies" to this crucial realization, but if anything Hawley downplays how difficult a sell this will be to individualist whites, though he does emphasize the extent to which the alt-right could be seen as un-American, not because of its racism but because of an intellectual allegiance among many of its intellectual leaders to a "European" tradition from which the American experiment deviates. Spencer himself seems influenced by a genealogy of German thinkers toward a Romantic or "Faustian" ideal of human progress, while some of his pre-alt-right associates view the American Revolution as a historical mistake. In any event, the alt-right's "identitarian" element goes against the now-established American grain of self-definition. Spencer says that an identitarian asks "Who am I?" or "Who are we?" before anything else, but many Americans never get to the "who are we?" part and answer "Who am I?" in a purely individualist manner and I don't like the alt-right's chances of getting many of them to think differently.

Hawley may convince you that the alt-right will have a more lasting impact on the way politics is practiced in this country as master-manipulators of memes and irreverent trollers. While Hawley himself never makes the argument, you could infer that for many young men coming of age politically today, the alt-right is their form of irreverent rebellion against a seemingly stodgy cultural establishment, just as some sort of Marxist leftism was the form preferred by their grandparents in the 1960s. The alt-right's appeal to the funnybone may be as important as its appeal to race loyalty, though it ironically panders to an irreverent spirit that remains essentially individualist and could just as easily be turned on the alt-right itself should they seem too pious toward their particular idols. To the alt-right's critics the racism and the irreverence probably are all of a piece, the essence of it being the withholding of respect for difference. To counter the alt-right's appeal, the left might try to relearn its own irreverent tradition, but it will have to overcome that same obsession with respect that leaves them so vulnerable to trolling.

The alt-right seems more appealing comprehensive in its irreverence because it's committed, as Hawley notes, to overthrowing not only the left and the multicultural establishment but the Republican party establishment as well. Their goal, he concludes, is to lose the "alt" tag and become the right in this country by crushing the GOP as we know it. In return, the alt-right is under fire not only from the Republican establishment but by some of its near-relations in the paleoconservative movement who clearly distrust both its obvious collectivist tendencies and its apparent disinterest in most of the orthodoxy of Cold War conservatism. Howevermuch the alt-right may be enabling the Republican conservative agenda by electing GOP congressmen, Hawley believes that they don't really care about supply-side economics, limited government, "Judeo-Christian" values and other hallmarks of Reaganite conservatism. They are "right" only insofar as racism has come to be identified with the ideological right since the southern turn to Republicanism in the 1960s.  Hawley believes that the alt-right has a better chance in its fight with the Republicans than earlier far-right movements had, simply because no one today can act, as William F. Buckley did for so long, as a kind of conservative pope, marginalizing what he found disreputable by excluding it from his movement-defining media. The internet and social media have made the sort of heresies Buckley persecuted virtually impossible to suppress because they can always find a home somewhere, unless the rules of online speech change drastically, and more people have the power to seek out ideas that intrigue them, regardless of where they appear.  The real battle for the future of the right, I suspect, will have less to do with ideology or what to do about other races than with what it means to be white in the U.S. For all intents and purposes, the alt-right needs to create a unitary white culture as its constituency where none -- despite the assumptions of minorities and the left -- has really existed before, with only continuing economic insecurity to give that culture ground to take root in. While Hawley makes his own distaste for the alt-right clear early, he scrupulously avoids hysteria in his reporting, concluding that the movement as yet has very little real power for all its new visibility. He also notes, correctly, that it hasn't been a violent movement to date, though that could change on very short notice. His main concern is not that the alt-right may take over the country, but that it's contributed to a permanent unleashing of racial resentment that threatens the ideal, presumably shared by Republican conservatives, of a color-blind society. For anyone who wants a better idea of what the alt-right is rather than jumping to conclusions about a bunch of other things, Making Sense of the Alt-Right may be as good a starting point in its dispassionate compactness as any you'll find today.