24 August 2016

What the hell do they have to lose...?

There are glib answers at hand from left and right to Donald Trump's question to black voters, which to my knowledge he's not yet had guts enough to address to a predominantly black audience. To Trump, I suppose, something's the matter with blacks the way something's the matter with Kansas in Thomas Frank's eyes. Trump must believe it self-evident that blacks will be better off economically with him in the White House than they would be with Hillary Clinton there. It's not so self-evident, however, if you don't take for granted, as Republicans do, that reducing regulations and taxes will create more jobs, or if you simply don't know how Trump is going to compel people to build factories in this country. That aside, unless Trump agrees with what most of his supporters no doubt believe, which is that what blacks have to lose is their lazy ease, he must assume that some irrational intangible stops blacks from realizing how good he'd be for them. He may realize that many blacks think him a racist, while most know that most of his supporters are. He may also think that all it'd take to win blacks over would be to say "I repudiate racism." It can't be that simple, however. First would have to come some acknowledgment and denunciation of racism among his own supporters, but I'm not sure whether he believes that any of them are bigots. Beyond that, things get more subtle. It comes down to what Trump means about "taking our country back." Just as with the "Make America Great Again" slogan, there's a suspicion that white conservatives want to take the country back to a time when blacks (and not just President Obama), not to mention women (and not just Hillary Clinton) had less power and influence in society. The suspicion, rational or not, goes deeper than that. Many Americans believe strongly that white males long ago forfeited the right to unilaterally set the terms for what an American is, to think of themselves automatically as "average" or "normal" Americans, or to tell other Americans to go somewhere else if they don't want to live as straight white Christian males do. Those millions don't believe that they have to prove to straight white Christian males that they're "real Americans" as defined by straight white Christian males. They will not accept tutelage from straight white Christian males on how to be Americans, or how to make America great again. They demand recognition of their essential American-ness on their own terms, which may require some rethinking by straight white Christian males of what it means to be an American. For all the controversies over racist policing and other inequities in this country, most women and racial minorities in the U.S. probably now feel more indisputably American under President Obama than they had in the past. What they have to lose, then, is this feeling of unconditional belonging. This feeling can be excessive, since it does not follow that the election of a white male President will once more marginalize non-whites or further marginalize women. Nor should people rush to repudiate the whole intellectual tradition on which this republic is based by association with "dead white European [not to mention straight] males." But if women and nonwhites have that intellectual responsibility, then white men like Trump have their own responsibility to help dispel generations of suspicion that their ancestors earned for them through the ideology of whiteness and the whole world's sexism. I'm not sure how Trump is supposed to pull this off, but he might start by challenging his base's "I never got a break" self-pity and their belief that, so long as their lives have been miserable, everyone else's should be miserable in the exact same way, forevermore, or else they, the poor whites, will be shown up as fools. Why not take a chance on that approach. After all, Trump has these people in the bag, given how they hate Hillary Clinton. What the hell does he have to lose???...

22 August 2016

Trolls guard a bridge

The August 29 issue of Time has a cover story about internet trolls. Joel Stein identifies trolling with the "alt-right," which he defines as "an Internet-grown reactionary movement that works for men's rights and against immigration." After Donald Trump hired someone from Breitbart News to take over his campaign, I saw Breitbart described as "alt-right." In the context, "alt-right" seemed like a euphemism for just plain bigotry, and Stein argues that the alt-right "may have used the computer from Weird Science to fabricate Donald Trump." He traces the alt-right's roots to the infamous Gamergate controversy, which Stein says was fueled, if not by misogyny, then by anti-anti-misogyny, if not simply a rejection of anyone without a thick skin. He notes that ball-busting was a way of life in the circles where the alt-right was born before people started criticizing its misogyny and other bigotries. With that, presumably, comes a contempt for people who can't take it, and outright hostility toward those who won't take it. If they insist that ball-busting comes with the territory, or that you should stay out of the kitchen if you can't stand the heat, Stein claims that they're actually "arguing against self-expression, something antithetical to the original values of the Internet." The question really is where self-expression ends and trolling begins. Stein's implication is that people who argue that "if you can't handle opprobrium, you should just turn off your computer" are people who dish it out but can't take it, who don't want to be called out for their comments while reserving the right to comment on everyone else. The more specific implication is that these people are happy "viciously making fun of each other," but that it isn't fun anymore when they get called names like "racist," "sexist," "homophobe" or just plain "bigot." That may be because, as one self-styled troll hunter says, trolls don't really hate people, but "love the game of hating people." If so, what they really resent is when people don't recognize (or refuse to) that it's all just a game. To some extent, trolling may be a backlash against the way the stakes of everything have been raised in our more sensitive culture, so that lives seem to be at stake not just in politics (already a dubious notion) but in everyday discourse. As Stein notes, many trolls are in it for the "lulz," and you can recognize in trolling the same "everything is a joke" mentality I used to hear expressed when I listened to Howard Stern on free radio. In a strange way, that attitude is an unconscious defense of an old-fashioned kind of liberalism that was based on the idea that nothing in public life really was (or should have been) a life-or-death matter -- especially politics. But when identity becomes ideology, and when many people do feel that their lives are at stake in each election, and demand an ever larger "safe space" at the alleged cost of others' liberty, trolling -- or the perception of trolling -- becomes inevitable when others reject those ideas, and with them the idea that they're somehow responsible for your happiness or your sense of "safety," much less your life.

The big problem I had with Stein's article was the way he takes for granted that as a straight white male, his "vulnerabilities [to trolling are] less obvious." How he can study trolling as a phenomenon of the mostly white alt-right and not see it as an expression of a pretty obvious vulnerability is a mystery to me. To some extent trolling may be a "keep out of our man-cave" tactic in defense of ballbusters' rights, but it's also a defense mechanism, not solely against the intrusion of Others with unpredictable sensitivities and different rules of conduct into their realm, but more obviously against the argument that they are evil -- that their culture and even their attitude are to blame for inequality and suffering in the world. Donald Trump would not even come close to winning the upcoming election were he not boosted by people who no longer want to be told that they're wrong, that they must change while no one else has to. Stein closes his piece by writing that "in the information age, sound is as destructive as fury," but thinking so may blind him to the silent fury of millions who plan to do their trolling at the polls.

19 August 2016

'Barack Obama doesn't care about white people!'

It's ironic how the politics of double standards leads to people changing their standards. It happens when partisans feel entitled to criticize politicians of the other party of the same sins of omission or commission for which their politicians were criticized by the other party, even when they didn't see their politicians' action or inaction as deserving of criticism. Because George W. Bush was condemned for his perceived indifference to sufferers from the flooding after Hurricane Katrina, Republicans now condemn President Obama for remaining on vacation while Louisiana is once again devastated by floods. Because the floods weren't caused by a dramatic hurricane, the flooding in Louisiana hasn't really gotten the attention it deserves as a humanitarian crisis. For the past few days I've started to hear people complain about Obama "doing nothing" about it, and Donald Trump apparently heard those complaints. His big photo op today was going to Louisiana to meet with flood victims. I don't know how selective the pictures I've seen are, but USA Today had a good-sized montage and it looked like the big majority of people displaced, if not also at Trump's photo op, were white. To some extent a feeling among whites that they're being ignored because of their race may be fueling the fresh anger at Obama, but the criticism is self-evidently tit-for-tat partisanship in most cases. Lots of people have missed the flood story to this point simply because they didn't have a hurricane to focus on, while the newspaper websites observe that flood stories have gotten few hits compared to election and Olympics coverage. Whatever the cause for neglect, the fact of the moment is that we have a lot of Republicans clamoring for the President to do something about flood damage. I thought Republicans weren't supposed to cry for federal intervention when stuff like that happens. What would Calvin Coolidge say??? Dyed-in-the-wool Republicans may yet feel the same way, but populist Republicans, as we've learned this year, are a different breed. They do expect government to take care of them, often in an exclusive, jealous way, and so there's probably little reason to accuse those now demanding that Obama (or Hillary Clinton) do something of hypocrisy, apart from their using the Republican party as their platform.

17 August 2016

Trump vs. the Johnson Amendment

The Johnson Amendment is a rule that sounds like it ought to have been part of American law from the beginning, but it only dates back to 1954. That it took effect then, in the era when the government required American currency to carry the motto "In God We Trust." I guess it just shows what a master legislator Lyndon B. Johnson was. Supposedly introduced by him in order to undercut his rivals in an upcoming Texas election, his Amendment to the tax code is the rule that allows churches to be stripped of their tax-exempt status if they engage in electioneering for specific political candidates. The Republican party platform and presidential candidate Donald Trump are committed to repealing it. That's pretty ironic. Trump is often perceived as an heir to the Know-Nothing tradition of nativism in American politics, but if there was anything the original Know-Nothings of the 1850s dreaded, it was the idea of clergymen telling congregations how to vote from the pulpit. Their distrust of Catholic immigrants was based on the idea that, once naturalized, they'd vote as their priests instructed them to, rather than think for themselves. Now the Republican party wants clergy, presumably of all sects and denominations, to do that very thing in the name of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. According to this analysis, they also want churches to do more fundraising for the GOP and right-wing causes, or else they want church funds to front for right-wing fundraising. This is ironic even without dragging history into it. These are strange things for Republicans to ask for, and a strange time to ask, when Americans, and presumably Trump's Republicans in particular, presumably are more wary than ever about religion intervening in politics and religion's role in making law. Obviously, though, I've forgotten that that wariness applies only to bad religions, while the good ones should have no limit on their self-evidently benevolent influence on American life. The bad religion is bad because it treats this world as its kingdom, while the good religion says its kingdom is not of this world. But if that's so, then the good religion has nothing to say about how this world or any of its countries are governed, does it? Yet according to research cited in this editorial, lots of clergy are getting away with electioneering already, most likely because the government is afraid of stirring a hornet's nest by cracking down. Which is funny, because these Christians aren't even threatening violence -- yet.

16 August 2016

The beef that made Milwaukee famous

While the balance of terror has been tipping in Hillary Clinton's favor lately, and no amount of scandal can dissuade millions of America from voting for her, incidents like last weekend's riots in Milwaukee may do more than any Clinton scandal to tip the scales back in Donald Trump's favor somewhat. Milwaukee might be remembered someday as the place where Black Lives Matter jumped the shark -- whether you blame that movement for the riots or only for the protests. The latest "officer-involved shooting" to go national looks a lot more defensible, based on what we know so far, than the other provocative incidents of recent years. This time, the suspect was armed, and while he was fleeing a car stop, he reportedly turned and faced the cop -- also black -- while failing/refusing to drop his weapon. It's hard to know what else the cop could be expected to do, except perhaps to hide. That's no solace to the dead man's family, of course, but the implicit message of the protests and riots is that under no circumstances whatsoever is a cop to kill a black man, except perhaps if the man has fired first. But I imagine that even then a more tribalistic mentality will protest the result so long as nothing can justify the death of one of "our men." Milwaukee may be an exceptional case, so far as protests go, due to the alleged intervention of the Revolutionary Communist Party, also known as the Bob Avakian personality cult. Avakian apparently sees blacks as the proletariat of the moment, ripe for recruitment into his Lenin-style RCP. His people deny responsibility for the rioting, of course, and there's probably some truth to accounts that describe Milwaukee as a powder keg that required but a small spark to ignite. At the same time there's probably little reason to believe that following some new Great Leader and his "line" will solve Milwaukee's problems. On the other hand, that would still be preferable to the alternative implied by one protester who described the desperation in his community to reporters and said, "And you wonder why there's ISIS in America." But no matter how toxic conditions are, I don't think many Americans will find the Milwaukee incident as sufficient a cause for protest, violent or nonviolent, as other shootings have been. There are many justified critics of police brutality and overindulgent rules of engagement who will not agree that every officer-involved shooting is a crime. If a line is to be drawn somewhere limiting police discretion, there also has to be a line drawn limiting our sympathy with career criminals behaving recklessly. We can still wish that police not act as judges and executioners while granting that circumstances can exist that require them to shoot. If some people loudly or violently reject that notion, they only guarantee a backlash that can only benefit Trump. For all I know, that's what people like Avakian really want, on the assumption that a Trump presidency will speed the day of revolution by exacerbating the oppression of the poor. If that's what they want, they'll deserve what they get, but I doubt it'll be the sort of revolution they hope for.

15 August 2016

The Queens Whodunit

Local news media may have jumped the gun by reporting that the killer of Imam Maulama Akonjee had been captured Sunday night, a day after the imam and an aide had been shot in broad daylight. But information from a local report already complicates the knee-jerk narrative of Islamophobia run amok. Everyone's first assumption since the news broke Saturday, it seemed, was that here, at last, was a self-evidently Islamophobic murder, something that could be blamed by politicians (and many Muslims) on Donald Trump as if Americans hadn't hated Muslims before Trump came along. I'd held out the possibility that Akonjee -- a Bangladeshi who doesn't seem to have been on anti-Islamic media radar -- had actually been the victim of Islamic extremism. Perhaps he'd been killed by some radical because he wasn't radical enough in some way. However, a New York Daily News report on a suspect in a hit-and-run near the shooting scene, who may have been the shooter fleeing the scene, raises the possibility of something more along the lines of gang violence. Investigators believe the killer at least looks Hispanic, and the News's sources are talking about "an ongoing feud between Muslims and Hispanics in the neighborhood, saying the shooting may have been payback after a group of Muslims allegedly attacked some Hispanics a few weeks earlier." I wonder what that was about. It's clearly too early in any investigation to know who started whatever beef existed or what role the imam may have played in it. But it seems safe to say that any Hispanic man who kills a Muslim is unlikely to have been motivated by Donald Trump's rhetoric. In fact, it looks like Trump can sit this one out, unless it proves that the shooter was an illegal immigrant. Then we'll probably see him show sympathy with a Muslim who can't talk back at him. But blaming Trump as the necessary and sufficient cause of the nation's hatreds in 2016 is as stupid as blaming President Obama for an economy and war on terror inherited from George W. Bush. Of course, just as one is still done so the other will be, at least until November. There's certainly plenty of stupidity yet to come.

12 August 2016

Rage against the media

As someone who works, however humbly, in the news media, I'm getting pretty sick and tired of hearing Donald Trump's fans complain about how the news media highlights everything bad about Trump while covering up for Hillary Clinton. At my level I can testify that this complaint is fundamentally dishonest. I take calls for a readers'-comments column in a daily paper. That is, I listen to the calls once they're recorded, since no one wants to listen to callers live. I'd say that on any given day the column is more anti-Clinton than anti-Trump, and yet pro-Trump people are constantly complaining that we don't run anything, or else run hardly anything, against Clinton. In some cases, people are complaining because they want every call they make put in print, but there's no way we're going to let someone call a dozen times a day and have us print every word as if it were a groundswell of public opinion. In some cases, I think people are simply lying because they take the liberal media bias narrative for granted. But I've begun to suspect that their anger represents something else that won't be assuaged by running more anti-Clinton comments. Their real problem, I think, isn't that we (or the media as a whole) don't criticize Clinton or the Democratic party enough. I think they simply don't want to see and don't want to hear any criticism of Donald Trump. Their anger tells me that they take criticism of Trump, whether grounded in fact or founded on fear, as a personal insult, if not an insult to their country, their values, etc. When Trump is belittled, they feel disrespected. Their victory, I fear, would be forcing people to show Trump respect, if not forbidding people from criticizing him. Just as you might assume that the wildest, darkest conspiracy theories reflect what some conspiracy theorists would like to do if they had power, so I suspect that all the railing about media bias against Trump or the suppression of damaging stories about Clinton reflect no real desire for fairness or balance, but an envious wish for the power to suppress liberal or leftist opinion and force their reactionary opinions down everyone else's throats. In short, while I still see no reason to believe that Donald Trump himself is any sort of fascist, however trollish his temperament, I think a lot of his supporters this year have fascism in them, in the simplest, most thuggish sense of the word.

But for what it's worth, I think there could be more questions asked about the Clinton Foundation in light of recent email leaks, and I see no reason no to follow up on Juilan Assange's dark hints that a DNC staffer may have been murdered for leaking stuff to him. Always remember that arguments against Trump (or his fans) are not arguments for Hillary Clinton or the Democratic party. To believe that, or to believe that arguments against Clinton are arguments for Trump, is simply to be a tool of the two-party system.