25 April 2017

Artifacts: the Campaign to Play for Keeps

What do anarchists have to say in the Age of Trump? One answer can be seen stapled to telephone poles in parts of Albany NY.

It's not uncommon to see anarchists angrier with the left than with the right. That's probably because the uselessness of the right is taken for granted, while the left's errors, as anarchists see them, are frustrating because anarchists presumably expect better from people who supposedly share their desire for a world free from exploitation. It's easy to disappoint dreamers of impossible dreams. Anarchists long for a world without "power," "control" or "domination," perhaps believing in a non-capitalist version of the libertarians' spontaneous order, to the extent that they idealize "order" at all. I googled "Campaign to Play for Keeps" and found a transcription of an earlier document, possibly from the same author, that takes a pessimistic view of the future, insofar as the author anticipates that "Life becomes perpetual struggle, becomes perpetual war for perpetual freedom." In effect, the author argues that (individual) freedom is a state of perpetual conflict against all the forces that might curtail or compromise it, so that "civil war becomes the definition of a free society."

Here's another broadside from the Campaign, broken into two parts to make the text legible.

Since this looks more like a typical piece of anarchist art than a programmatic statement, I'll let it stand without comment.

24 April 2017

THINK 3 VIDEO NEWS: Armenian Martyrs Day

Armenians date the beginning of the Ottoman Empire's attempted genocide of their people from April 24, 1915. Armenians abroad commemorate the atrocity annually on April 24, which they designate as Armenian Martyrs Day or Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. In Troy NY the commemoration took place this afternoon in Riverfront Park, a couple of minutes by foot from my office. The Armenian Genocide monument is located behind a much larger Vietnam War memorial, the rear wall of which formed the backdrop for today's proceedings. Local politicians attended the event, finding it easier than it is for their counterparts at the national level, where good relations with the Republic or Turkey are widely desired, to use the g-word to describe the Turks' slaughter of Armenians. Here's the crowd singing the Armenian national anthem.

And here's an excerpt from the opening remarks by one of the organizers. The gentleman in the white "Armenia" jacket meant no harm but simply could not help getting in the way of my camera.

I was hoping for some stemwinding oratory against the Terrible Turk, but instead there was a lot of singing in Armenian, and a lot of politicians complimenting the feed the Armenians put on for them.

In case you can't make out what the monument says, here's a close up view:

Vive la France

In France, a candidate whose party didn't exist little more than a year ago was the top vote-getter in yesterday's first round of the republic's presidential election, and is now the favorite to win the runoff election next month. Regardless of what you think of Emmanuel Macron or his En Marche! party, if you think anything of them, it would seem that France is doing something right for that sort of result to be possible. It may be, however, that it's something the French don't do that makes a difference. The most obvious detail of yesterday's vote is that the French electorate is not polarized. Four candidates received between 19% and 24% apiece in the first round, while the party of the incumbent president, who is not running again, received a humiliating 6% of the vote. The top vote-getters are, in order: a progressive centrist, a populist nationalist, a center-rightist and a candidate to the left of the established socialist party. Six additional candidates appeared on the ballot; three of those got at least 1% of the vote. The runoff makes voters choose between the top two candidates, Macron and Marine Le Pen of the National Front, and many of the defeated contenders already have endorsed Macron.

Le Pen basically inherited her party from her father. She has steered it away from his old-timey anti-semitism toward 21st century populism opposed to Muslims, the European Union and so on -- the sort of candidate Vladimir Putin is supposed to like. Le Pen is more popular than her own party, which only has two seats in the French senate and none in its lower house, though it is better represented in the European Parliament that it presumably despises. Some may take it as a sign of the French electoral system's weakness that her 21% of the vote advances her to the final round, but them's the breaks when a diversity of candidates makes a first-round majority victory virtually impossible. In any event, it appears almost certain that she'll be clobbered in the runoff.

We can guess that the National Front gets a lot of the same sort of hate that Trump voters get in the U.S., that they're probably seen as the "rednecks" of France if not neo-Nazis. In his novel Submission Michel Houellebecq imagined an Islamist candidate beating Le Pen in a runoff thanks to the widespread hate for her and whatever she's thought to represent. In reality it seems quite unlikely that supporters of the center-right "Republican" party or the leftist "France Unbowed" would turn to her after their hopefuls failed to make the cut. The only question is whether she gets beat as badly as her dad did when he made it to a runoff against Jacques Chirac in 2002. A runoff format inevitably results in many people voting against the "worst" candidate, but it also requires most voters to acquiesce actively in the election of someone other than their perfect ideological soulmate, when the only alternative is staying home to spite the system. It might be argued that most American voters acquiesce in a similar way after the party primaries, but it's probably more significant when a Socialist or "Republican" decides that he has to vote for Macron than when a Sanders supporter decides that he has to vote for Hillary, or when a Cruz fan feels obliged to vote for Trump. Even if it's ultimately more a vote against Le Pen than for Macron, it's still an act of civil responsibility that transcends partisanship in a way the comparable American scenario doesn't. The U.S. needs a Tocqueville in reverse: someone who'll go to France and explain to Americans how the French avoided bipolarchy politics and ended up with more freedom of choice in their elections than we have in our supposedly most free of nations.

21 April 2017

The Ex-Factor

I suppose I should say something about the fall of Bill O'Reilly from his perch at Fox News, but I'm not really worked up over it one way or the other. Apart from feeling that his "no spin" pretense was self-evidently false, unless he meant by it that he wouldn't try to hide his partisan and ideological biases, I never really got worked up about him and his ratings success the way many liberals did. It's always been my suspicion that the ratings for right-wing talk on TV and radio have been inflated by liberals and left-wingers tuning in in order to get outraged, while right-wingers are less likely to do the same thing by watching Rachel Maddow. I try not to watch, listen to or read anything simply to get outraged, and so I've ignored O'Reilly and his Fox News colleagues, as well as their radio counterparts, unless I see on Google News that they've said something worth commenting on. He doesn't loom large to me as an enemy like he does to the liberal mainstream, so I don't feel like his removal from Fox News is some kind of victory for somebody. What happened finally was that a fresh wave of sexual-harassment accusations drove more sponsors from O'Reilly's program, though none that I know of abandoned Fox News entirely. While The O'Reilly Factor remained the most popular program on cable news, someone at Fox -- in the absence of Roger Ailes, who was driven out by similar charges last year -- decided that the host was more trouble than he was worth. This proves that commercial media is not a democracy. I don't know whether all the accusations and scandals had cost O'Reilly viewers, but his standing in the ratings still appeared unassailable at the time of his fall. But the public can't will their favorites to stay where they are against corporate decision makers determined to end them. The best O'Reilly's fans can do is follow him to whatever subscription-based streaming-media platform he'll probably set up if he wants to stay in the game without worrying about advertisers worrying about boycotts. Given all the recent upheaval at Fox News and its overall ambivalence toward Donald Trump, the time might well be right for an alternative conservative news network even more opposed to political correctness or other concerns that made O'Reilly's position at Fox ultimately vulnerable. For instance, were some entrepreneur to plant his flag with a promise that no on-air personality would ever be removed for sexual harassment until the charges against him were tested in a court of law, I'd guess that Fox News would find itself facing an instantly powerful rival. On the other hand, it may be past time for conservative culture in the U.S. to get past the good-old-boy attitude that presumably deems it okay for men like O'Reilly, Ailes and Trump -- and Bill Clinton, to make a non-partisan point -- to deal with women the way they supposedly do, when so many people find it not okay. Unless there's something inherently and inextricably "male chauvinist" about American conservatism, the movement should be able to shed the chauvinist trappings that alienate people who might otherwise give its more substantive ideas the courtesy of a hearing.

19 April 2017

Ask an Expert: Is Trump fascist?

No matter how many times people answer, other people will ask whether President Trump is a fascist for at least the next four years. Some won't take no for an answer, since a reactionary blowhard with a large lower-class following presumably can be nothing else. Perhaps in the hope of a definitive answer the editors of Le Monde, a leading French newspaper, asked the American scholar Robert O. Paxton, whose The Anatomy of Fascism is widely respected as an authoritative work on the subject. His essay was published in March and appears, presumably updated, in the May issue of Harper's. Paxton concedes that given Trump's blustery manner, revanchist spirit and obvious egomania, "it is powerfully tempting to call the new president of the United States a fascist." But in the next paragraph he warns that the F word is "justified only if it enlarges or clarifies understanding." In the case of Trump, Paxton clearly doesn't think it justified. He emphasizes that the "regimentation" craved by fascists continues to go against the American conservative grain, as does the "corporatist" economics practiced by Mussolini and Hitler. Trump himself may have an "authoritarian personality," but he has no desire to expand the American empire. Paxton leaves open the possibility that Trump might declare martial law in the event of a major terrorist attack on American soil, but people here have worried about every recent American president possibly declaring martial law. Trump would differ from them, Paxton implies, because he'd act "emotionally and without expert advice." He seems to think that some of Trump's advisers, most notably Steve Bannon, might lean more toward fascism, but the emphasis on Bannon only shows that Paxton's article could use more updating than the deadline for a monthly magazine allows.

Interestingly, while doubting whether Trump is fascist, Paxton's diagnosis doesn't seem designed to put people at ease. If not a fascist, Trump may end up practicing "generic dictatorship" in a worst-case scenario but to Paxton he's more obviously a plain old plutocrat. While I agree that Trump is nothing like a fascist, I did see a hole in Paxton's argument that alarmists might exploit. He sees the plutocratic strain in the Trump movement as essentially libertarian in its hostility to regulations, noting also that the historic fascist regimes practiced progressive taxation. Paxton seems unaware that the more libertarian Republicans, not to mention capital-L Libertarians, are among the President's strongest critics, not just because they, like people to their left, see a fascist potential in his demagogy, but because they specifically oppose protectionist policies that they deem antithetical to the free market. The Trump they hate claimed the spotlight again this week as the President signed an executive order designed to  pressure American businesses to hire American workers rather than foreigners using H1B visas. Trump's emphasis on retaining or regaining jobs for American workers isn't fascist by any standard I'm aware of -- it's arguably the most admirable aspect of his presidency, so long as he places a similar priority on educating Americans for the jobs he wants them to have -- but to the extent that Paxton's argument against Trump as a fascist depends on him being a libertarian instead, Trump's protectionism undermines the argument. Clearly Trump himself doesn't see protectionism as incompatible with the rest of the Republican economic agenda, and he may think that protectionism is a price Republicans should willingly pay (as they gladly paid in the grand old days) in return for lower taxes and fewer regulations. He may well be going further on those other fronts than he otherwise might in the hope of getting Republicans to accept protectionist policies, but he does also seem to think, in supply-side fashion, that cutting taxes and regulations will create jobs. Would he be more fascist if he came out for higher taxes or tighter regulations? The idea sounds absurd, but I'd expect more Republicans to entertain it if Trump did go that way. It should not make someone fascist to argue that national interests, understood (as Trump sometimes seems to understand it) as the well-being of average Americans, should sometimes override the moral imperatives of economic libertarianism. But this is still America, where some people who make exactly that argument are called "liberal fascists" or worse, so the best thing to do when Americans debate whether Donald Trump or anyone else is a fascist is simply not pay attention.

18 April 2017

Hate Crime or Terrorism?

An individual already suspected of murder went on a shooting franchise at a bus stop in Fresno CA today, killing three people before police took him into custody. Whether he committed the earlier murder or not, he was open about his motive for today's crimes, telling the police that he hated white people. He was heard to shout "Allahu Akbar" as he fired, but if he is the author of the Twitter account under the name reported by police he was more likely motivated by some form of black nationalism than by any form of Islam most Islamists would recognize. The Twitter feed, which only began in February, is full of promos for hip-hop music, anti-Trump graphics, and warnings of divine wrath in the form of natural disasters if "our demand for reparation and separation" was not met by progressive deadlines. While the Twitter feed may belong to someone else of the same name, it and today's shootings appear to be the work of lunatics. Expect to hear some debate over whether the killings were primarily acts of terrorism, by virtue of "Allahu Akbar," or hate crimes, by virtue of the suspect's own statements. What exactly is the distinction? A person could argue reasonably that there is none, but the question is still worth asking in the context of a comparison with Dylann Roof, the perpetrator of the Charleston massacre. It was self-evident that Roof had committed a "hate crime," but how many people went further to call it "terrorism?" Why wouldn't you? It might be argued that neither Roof nor the Fresno killer belonged to an organization, and that "terrorism" presumes an organization with an agenda -- the end to which terror is a means -- beyond the personal hatreds and rationalizations of lone-wolf shooters. From another angle, it might be argued that a "hate crime" ultimately is a matter of personal responsibility, while "terrorism" requires further steps. The Charleston massacre provoked little in the way of demands for a crackdown on the racist media that influenced Roof. The Fresno killings may prove more provocative, if only because the shooter said the A-word, and also because white fears of violence by blacks may grow more compelling, but a case could be made against making distinctions based on the identity of the perpetrator or his targets. Why not treat Dylann Roof, the Fresno shooter and your generic Muslim attacker the same, as terrorists, hate criminals or whatever? Why not try in each case to get to the roots of their hate and, so far as the Constitution permits, root them out? If "all lives matter," as some are wont to say, then all killers are equal, qualitatively if not quantitatively, and if we seek to hold ideas or media responsible in one case, we should do likewise in all cases, and to do otherwise is merely partisan.

What's the difference between 'patriotism' and 'nationalism?'

Common sense might suggest that "patriotism" and "nationalism" are synonymous, but the idea that they are two different things, the latter worse than the former, goes at least as far back as George Orwell. There's a fresh impulse in the U.S. to distinguish between good "patriotism" and bad "nationalism" given the perception of President Trump, or some of his advisers who appear to be losing influence, as "nationalists." As the invocation of Orwell in E. J. Dionne's recent column suggests, a debate over the 21st century direction of the U.S. is being shaped by the terminology of the 1940s. Dionne writes that "nationalism rankles," meaning that the word "nationalism" rankles, "partly because of the evils of Nazism and Fascism." Just as some people try to tie the modern left to Nazism because the Nazis were the "National Socialist" party, so nationalism becomes suspect in some eyes for the same superficial reasons. Nazism seems to have shaped Orwell's understanding of what "nationalist" meant. Dionne quotes from "Notes on Nationalism," an essay Orwell wrote in 1945. "Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism," the great man writes, with the emphasis in the original. The distinction he makes between the two boils down to this: patriots and nationalists alike believe that theirs is the best country or culture in the world, but the nationalist, apparently unlike the plain old patriot, adopts an amoral "my country right or wrong" attitude committing him to ruthless advancement of his country's interests in a zero-sum competition of nations. Nationalism, for Orwell, is a violently aggressive mutation of patriotism "inseparable from the desire for power." By comparison, while Orwell can imagine a "purely negative" nationalism defined entirely by hostility to some entity, "patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally." This patriotism may be just as chauvinistic in essence as nationalism, but it doesn't seek to impose itself on other nations or cultures. Dionne doesn't mention this distinction, perhaps because he realizes that it might confuse his Orwellian analysis of contemporary American politics.  The so-called "nationalists" in Trump's circle seem to be the ones taking a more defensive than aggressive stance, concerned mainly with defending the nation from threats from without (free trade, immigration, Islam) while disclaiming any intention of imposing American values elsewhere. They seem to be the ones who sought better relations with Russia and Syria, a desire critics attributed to some sinister "nationalist" ideology they shared with Russia's leadership. But to the extent that the "nationalists" are the "isolationists" in Trump's camp, they seem more like Orwell's "patriots" than his malevolent "nationalists."

In reality, Orwell's distinction between defensive patriotism and aggressive nationalism isn't very relevant to the current debates over "nationalism." We get nearer the heart of the matter when Dionne, a liberal, approvingly cites Republican writers who call contemporary nationalism "a demagogue's patriotism" and "ultimately the fire of tribalism." They aren't really criticizing "nationalism" as such -- I was taught in school that the idea went back to the 19th century resistance to Napoleon and his revolutionary ways -- but something that usually gets a modifer like "ethno-nationalist" or, in the worst case, "white nationalism." In other words, "nationalism" in today's politics denotes a presumably bigoted patriotism dedicated less to nation than to that segment of the people that sees itself as the exclusive embodiment of nation. By comparison, Dionne prefers a propositional patriotism. "Ours is not a loyalty to blood or soil," he writes, "It is an embrace of a series of powerful propositions" that no one on earth is innately incapable of adopting. For him, then, nationalism is the idea that those propositions are the exclusive birthright of a specific group of people, either unavailable or fundamentally incomprehensible to others. Take that as you will, but I don't really find it useful to make the distinction Dionne and others insist upon between "nationalism" and "patriotism" because "patriotism" should not be equated even implicitly with any ideology.

This debate over "nationalism" looks like just another way to talk about "populism." Orwell himself wrote that he used "nationalism" for want of a better term to describe attitudes held by groups other than nations, and Americans may use it now because "populism" doesn't seem to be the better term. But "nationalism" as contemporary Americans describe it in discussions of the Trump movement bears a lot of resemblance to "populism" as I understand it. Both terms refer to what academics might call an embodied patriotism, not necessarily "blood and soil" but definitely "flesh and blood." Establishment liberals and conservatives alike are having trouble addressing a fresh expression of patriotism or nationalism that insists that the national interests are not abstract concepts but the material interests of actual people. Liberals mistrust this insistence because it seems inseparable from those actual people's prejudices, while conservatives worry that it's unconstrained by constitutional or ideological scruples. Portrayed as extreme, this movement occupies a conceptual middle ground between libertarian individualists who feel no special solidarity with anyone and those universalists who don't see national borders as reason enough to show more solidarity with people within those borders than with people outside. In the long run, the really noteworthy thing about this phenomenon is its departure, in some ways, from the dogmatic individualism that defined American conservatism in the Cold War era, most notably in its preference for protectionist trade policy, on the assumption that no loss of American jobs is acceptable, over free trade principles. Establishment conservatives probably see this "nationalism" as collectivist in some obnoxious way, while establishment liberals see this renascent collectivism as "nationalist" in a pejorative and even more obnoxious way. What seems indisputable is that the very word "nationalism" makes a wide range of ideologues deeply uncomfortable. Whatever you think of the "nationalists" themselves, this discomfort is probably a good thing.

15 April 2017

THINK 3 VIDEO NEWS: 'Show us your taxes, you big orange Cheeto!'

April 15 is the traditional tax deadline day and so seemed an appropriate time for another wave of anti-Trump protests. The idea this time was that the President should feel fresh pressure to make his tax returns public. In Albany, at least, that idea didn't draw anything like the crowd that thronged West Capitol Park back in January, immediately after Trump's inauguration. My own eyeball estimate was that there was no more than a tenth of that mob out today, several hundred instead of several thousand. It's possible that there was some confusion over the nature of today's demonstrations. Hearing about "tax day" protests, some people may have thought that marchers would be protesting against taxes, which would make them the wrong type of crowd. In any event, this was the scene as I arrived at approximately 3:30 p.m. After some preliminaries, the demonstrators were hitting the sidewalk to march around the capitol block. As you'll see, the vanguard went in the wrong direction and had to be herded the other way. Ironically, they turned right when they should have gone left.

Once everyone was headed in the right (I mean left) direction, I crossed the park to catch the crowd as it came back to the park, and to watch them as they marched past the historic capitol steps. A wedding party picked this day to take their picture on the steps; despite the interruption they happy couple and friends got into the spirit of the occasion, joining in some of the chants.

Here's one of those chants.

And here's the battle cry that gives this post its title.

Here's an excerpt from a speech by one of the organizers, representing a new political entity called Bethlehem Indivisible.

While much of the talk today was relevantly progressive, a lot of the poster art seemed obsolete in light of recent events, still accusing Trump of being a Russian stooge in some way or another. Nothing short of a shooting war will get that taint off him as far as some people are concerned. Despite their fears, the President seems headed toward the center on many fronts, for good or ill, in a way that has alienated some of his base supporters while possibly calming the anxiety many opponents have felt since the election. I'm not sure we'll see the kind of numbers anymore that turned out against Trump in January -- unless there is a shooting war, that is. Then a lot of these same people may wish we were friendlier toward Russia. But for what it's worth, we probably should see those tax returns, or else we should hear a more convincing case from the President's lawyers for why we can't see them yet.

14 April 2017

Thomas L. Friedman's virtual reality

For a New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has written a lot of inane stuff, along with the occasional valid insight, but he hit some sort of low with his April 12 column, in which he argues against making a strategic priority out of defeating the self-styled Islamic State forces in Syria. "Why should our goal right now be to defeat the Islamic State in Syria?" he asks. Before you offer what you think is your ready answer, Friedman preempts you by making a distinction between ISIS in Syria and the ISIS that's out to kill you. The latter, you see, is "Virtual ISIS," a malevolent social-media entity that inspires lone wolves to go out and kill all over the world. The Islamic State fighting in Syria in Iraq is "Territorial ISIS," and Friedman actually has a valid point when he argues that destroying Territorial ISIS won't make Virtual ISIS go away. Forevermore, the propaganda of jihad is going to attract alienated people the world over, but you can also argue that not having a rallying point like the self-styled Caliphate might make ISIS less cool or compelling for a lot of these losers. Friedman, to the contrary, suspects that Virtual ISIS will grow still more violent to make up for any defeat Territorial ISIS suffers. That reads a lot like rationalization to me, however. As far as Friedman is concerned, focusing on ISIS takes our eyes off the prize, which is the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad and the weakening of the Syrian-Iranian-Russian axis in the Middle East. He actually proposes doing nothing about ISIS in Syria until the Russians and Iranians are ready to pay the price for our cooperation, presumably Assad's head. Why should eliminating Assad be the higher priority? Friedman, I fear, disingenuously argues something like what I've called the Obama Doctrine, which holds that tyranny is the necessary and sufficient cause of unrest because people inevitably will rise up to fight tyrants. In the Syrian context, Friedman sees ISIS primarily as a Sunni nationalist movement and blames the oppression of Sunnis by the Iran-backed Shiite majority in Iraq and the Alawite ruling clique in Syria for the rise of the caliphate movement. I call this a disingenuous argument because it willfully ignores all history before the 21st century, particularly the fact that, he except for the participation of Assad's father in the 1991 coalition against Iraq, Baathist Syria has been treated as an enemy of the U.S. for reasons having nothing to do with the regime's treatment of Sunnis. Syria's sin was, and is, that it is an "anti-imperialist" and especially anti-Zionist state. Syria can never be more of a threat to the U.S. than it is to Israel, and it is not more of a threat to us now than the I.S. is online or on the ground. But Friedman persists, without really admitting it, in fighting the old fight even when a new one should be more compelling. In his column, he tries to appeal to President Trump's devious, hard-bargaining nature in recommending his extortionate policy. It's clear by now that the President has a lot of bad advisers, but Friedman, should Trump heed him, might prove the worst of all.