14 March 2018

A snapshot referendum on Trump

If the Democratic candidate's very narrow victory in yesterday's special congressional election in Pennsylvania holds up after all the absentee ballots are counted, then to the extent that any vote for a House seat this year is a referendum on the President, Donald Trump may have only himself to blame for the verdict. With the margin so close -- less than 1,000 votes -- you have a right to wonder whether Trump's removal of Secretary of State Tillerson yesterday morning influenced any last-minute deciders. While I've seen some Trump apologists defend the seemingly constant White House upheaval as simply the sort of decisive management Trump was elected to practice, how many more people saw it as one proof too many, for that particular day, of presidential instability and a dangerously erratic foreign policy? By no means do I claim that Tillerson's dismissal was a "jump the shark" moment that seals Trump's fate for 2020 or the GOP majority's fate this November. People's attention spans are too short and too much can happen over the next months or years to make any such claim a safe one. All I'm suggesting is that if Trump sacked Tillerson today, or last weekend, or at any time when it wouldn't be the top news story as Pennsylvanians went to the polls, he might have one less opponent in Congress this spring. If I'm right about this, however, this election really should worry Republicans, since it appears to show that Donald Trump lacks that attribute his admirers would most likely ascribe to him: common sense.

13 March 2018

Moral Hazard

Here's an analysis of Anglo-American conservatism from an explicitly hedonist perspective, from William Davies in the current London Review of Books:

Since the 1960s, conservatism has been defined partly by a greater willingness to inflict harm, especially in the English-speaking world. The logic is that the augmentation of the postwar welfare state by the moral pluralism of the 196ps produced an acute problem of 'moral hazard', whereby benign policies ended up being taken for granted and abused. Once people believe things can be had for free and take pleasure in abundance, there is a risk of idleness and hedonism....As the theory behind had it, government services shrink everybody's incentives to produce, compete and invest. They reduce the motivation for businesses to deliver services, and ordinary people's desire to work. Toughness, even pain, performs an important function in pushing people to come up with solutions.

Davies writes in an attempt to deduce the motives of Tories who support the "Brexit" despite forecasts of disastrous consequences for the British economy. He speculates that they hope to motivate Britons into greater self-denying productivity through the austerity that the Brexit may impose. He bases his suspicion on a belief that "The productiveness of pain is a central conservative belief, whose expression might be economic, but whose logic is deeply moralistic." According to this logic, "Only pain forces people to adapt or innovate."

A conservative might agree with the gist of Davies' analysis but not the terms, since they certainly don't define themselves by a desire, principled or otherwise, to inflict harm or pain. They are more likely to believe that pain and adversity are constants in life and history to which people must accustom themselves in order to adapt more readily. In their analysis, if I understand them correctly, the real danger of a hedonist welfare state is that it leaves dependents unprepared to adapt constructively to adversity. Davies may not see himself as a hedonist, but his analysis is ideologically hedonist in its attribution of pain, in these cases at least, to the will of selfish or dogmatic men. The pain he describes is something preventable through political action,in keeping with the hedonist faith that pain, if not all adversity, can eventually be minimized or abolished that way. Beyond that, he clearly questions both the need and the right's right to impose "painful" tests of character on citizens. Anyone's motives can be questioned, of course, and to question hedonist premises is not to affirm conservative premises. But whatever the motives of conservatives, however selfish and domineering they may be, we might still question whether the last fifty years have prepared us to deal adequately with adversities that appear increasingly inevitable instead of finding people to blame for them, as both left and right too often prefer to do.

12 March 2018

Selective denunciation

Somehow Louis Farrakhan got back into the news, though it probably was inevitable that whites tired of the presumption of their bigotry would use a black bigot to score rhetorical points. The point this time is that an organizer of last year's women's marches protesting the Trump inauguration was seen at a recent Founder's Day event at which Farrakhan went on about the Jews again. Pressured to condemn Farrakhan, Tamiya Mallory affirmed her own opposition to antisemitism but refused to dissociate herself from Farrakhan or the Nation of Islam, citing the good works they do in the black community and the need to build as large and diverse a coalition as necessary against Trump. That won't do, of course,for the "double standards" crowd for whom Farrakhan's idiocies evenly balance out the whole history of American negrophobia. Nor, I suspect, does it satisfy many liberals whose calculations of moral equivalence are more sophisticated yet still find all manifestations of hate equally unacceptable. It's easy to condemn Farrakhan and the Nation's quasi-Islam for the crackpottery it has always been, but I can't help wondering whether those liberals demanding that black activists purge themselves of any antipathy toward other groups of people are the same liberals warning the anti-Trump opposition not to challenge the presumed prejudices of white people so aggressively, lest they refuse to vote Democrat due to hurt feelings. I'd really like to know whether the people who don't want the opposition talking so much about racism, sexism, homophobia, nativism, etc., also think that for the sake of the big tent we shouldn't blow a gasket over black anti-semitism. Which would be more consistent? To ignore all prejudices and resentments in the interest of class solidarity or ideological priority, or to always follow the path that offends whites the least? How many will say the former but mean the latter? Speaking for myself, I'd love to go on about the revanchist stupidity of the NOI mythos, but I  consider the prejudices and supremacist fantasies of every other demographic group fair game as well, so if I'm told not to talk about the bigotries of the racial plurality but to have at the Jew-hating black man, I wouldn't necessarily blame anyone who thinks that isn't a fair game.

07 March 2018

"An election is not about self-expression"

Food for thought fom a fall 2017 exchange between New Yorker editor David Remick and Mark Lilla,a liberal academic recently controversial for his critique of identity politics:

Remnick: Unless I misread your book, you seem to say that, in the interest of winning -- and politics is about power, ultimately --  the Democratic side ought to think about abandoning certain issues, certain kinds of rhetoric, in order to win. But abandoning certain things like full-throated opposition to bathroom bills will mean that certain people -- transgender people, some of the most vulnerable people in our society -- will get hurt. How does a party go about sacrificing people on the altar of the general good?

Lilla: Well, my main point is this, and I want to get this across: we cannot do anything for these groups we care about if we do not hold power. It is just talk. Therefore, our rhetoric in campaigning must be focused on winning, so then we can help these people. An election is not about self-expression. It's not a time to display everything we believe about everything. It's a contest. And once you hold power, then you can do the things you want to do.

05 March 2018

Democratic protectionism

President Trump has abandoned current Republican orthodoxy in favor of GOP traditionalism in his protectionist trade policy. He does so with the support of a fair number of Democrats, in a deviation from their own ancient tradition.  For most of U.S. history the Democracy was a free-trade party on the zero-sum assumption that tariffs burdened all Americans for the benefit of only a few. Their position reflected the interests of their early constituents: southern planters who imported finished goods and feared that tariffs would harm their personal balance of trade, and coastal workers who handled imported goods and feared that tariffs would reduce their workloads and finally put them out of work. The party's position didn't really change until the 1960s, when its Rust Belt base began to feel threatened by imports from  Europe and Japan. The change was never complete, however, and was vigorously resisted by neoliberals who saw trade agreements rather than tariffs as the key to full employment. Despite the neoliberals' dominance since the 1990s, a populist streak -- in this context a belief that American consumers, or at least the U.S. government, owe solidarity to American workers -- has persisted with a vehemence that resists even a Democrat's instinctive antipathy toward Donald Trump.  If this doesn't seem as drastic a reversal as the Republican shift from protectionism to free trade, that's probably because the Democrats' old free-trade position never was as ideological as the Republicans' current position. In the old days, Democrats didn't oppose protectionism because they thought the Market knew best, but because they thought tariffs unfair to most Americans. Protectionist Democrats today believe that globalization is unfair to most Americans, and they assume that Republican free traders care more for the sacred Market than they do for their fellow citizens. Democrats still have a profoundly different notion of the national interest from Donald Trump's, but just as they can concede that a broken clock is right twice a day, some of them see that on trade their notions and his intersect. Whether that will inspire any further search for common ground remains to be seen.

01 March 2018

Man of steel

For much of American history, Republicans were the protectionist party of high tariffs while Democrats, representing those whose businesses and jobs depended on imports, espoused free trade. In 2018 it looks like Republicans will take the lead in opposing tariffs on imported aluminum and steel proposed by a Republican president. While Senator Rubio was howlingly wrong some time back when  he said that the GOP had always been a free trade party, he was true to recent trends in the party. Republicans represent salesmen rather than producers these day, and the salesmen complain that the tariffs will make many products more expensive and difficult to sell. That is just about the gravest sin imaginable to the Republicans' consumerist ideology, according to which consumer choice trumps (pun intended) every other concern. Accordingly, many observers scoff at the national-security justification for the tariffs offered by the Trump administration, arguing that defense industries' dependence on imported steel should be no cause for concern in a world crisis, since we get most of our steel from friendly nations. This blithe dismissal seems to overlook the possibility of hostile nations interdicting trade, for one thing, but in any event, to the extent that there already has been a trade war of sorts over steel, the free traders appear satisfied that America has lost and that revanchism is futile. Among the more libertarian critics a fatalistic attitude prevails according to which Americans should concentrate on making and exporting the stuff we don't need government action to help sell, regardless of whether there might be an objective national benefit to self-sufficiency in any field of production. The predictable cost-benefit analyses that see tariffs benefiting few while burdening many more simply don't allow for considerations of national interest, failing to acknowledge that a nation and the Market are two different things. While no one should take it for granted that the Trump tariffs will benefit the nation -- they probably won't accomplish much without simultaneous government support for increased domestic production --  too many people are reacting to them as if the debate was over before it even began, because tariffs are always bad.  Because trade policy has for so long been determined by ideology, it's hard to know where to find an objective opinion. You probably won't find one in the op-ed columns or from businesspeople with too intimate a stake in the game, but I wonder what Lin-Manuel Miranda thinks....

The insult of leadership

The announcement from China that the Communist government intends to abolish term limits from the nation's highest offices inevitably provoked warnings that current top man Xi Jinping was now determined to rule for life. That "Xi Jinping" thought was to be incorporated into the Chinese constitution provoked warnings against a Mao-style personality cult. Chinese media went on the defensive, taking their usual line that western liberal values do not provide a universal basis for condemning the latest refinements of the "people's democratic dictatorship," and that it bordered on bigotry to describe modern China as a tyranny. Their contention that western democracies, increasingly mired in factionalism, didn't necessarily serve the common good as well as the Chinese system might strike closer to home were it circulated more widely here. Nevertheless, to say that some cultures are better served by dictatorship than liberal democracy will always be a hard sell in the U.S. especially. How can culture make it okay for a leader to forbid you from  saying he's wrong? While the Chinese may deny that that's how their dictatorship works, they might more honestly question the apparently unconditional prerogative westerners claim to denounce their leaders whenever they disagree. A Chinese might ask whether the dissident really has the common good in mind, but in the west that suspicion falls on the leader instead.

Liberalism has no place for philosopher kings. It cannot accept the possibility of anyone having such a perfectly objective, disinterested idea of the common good that no one would have good reason to challenge him. Because modern liberalism accepts the premise of multiple goods that aren't necessarily compatible, it distrusts any pretense to objectivity that appears to disqualify other options. Liberalism as it exists now is an ad hominem political philosophy that assumes that every possible leader will be "in it for himself" to enough of a degree to disqualify any claim he might make to indisputable objectivity. The leader or would-be leader may be out to enrich himself, or he may have a lust for power that is an end unto itself for him. That's how we think of people like Mao Zedong and that's why we worry about Xi Jinping -- or Donald Trump.

To be fair to the Chinese, I don't know whether they actually claim that Xi or the Communist Party possess the sort of unimpeachable objectivity that liberalism denies. Xi himself is probably too concerned with battling endemic corruption within the party to believe that even of himself, and the Chinese seem to prefer to argue that since all political systems, including liberal democracy, are vulnerable to abuse of power, communism's concentration and monopolization of power is in itself not tyrannical. Nevertheless, China makes a greater appeal to faith in leadership than the west does, despite the acknowledged cautionary tales of Mao's later years. That may be because they're more honest about the necessity of wielding power than western liberals who still hope that civil society can get on without it. The Chinese most likely think it wiser to accept the risk of abuse of power than to run the risk of making government powerless. Much of the west isn't ready to agree with that yet, still convinced that tyranny is worse than anarchy. If that changes in this century, it won't be because of any Chinese or generic "authoritarian" example. It will more likely be because of the negative examples in our own experience.

26 February 2018

An authoritarian fantasy?

For the second week in a row the most popular movie in the land is Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, the latest expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe of superhero films. The film has been lauded in many places, and sneered at in others, for its presentation of an African utopia in the form of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced nation on Marvel Earth, and its larger questioning of the obligation of the rich and powerful to intervene against injustice outside their borders. The more I think of it, the less some aspects of the film make sense. To preserve its independence, Wakanda keeps its advanced culture, all dependent on the miracle element vibranium, secret from the outside world, and it refuses to intervene in world affairs. According to the film's backstory, this starts to change only in the 1990s, when a Wakandan spy stationed in Oakland CA is radicalized by police brutality against black Americans. In other words, since we're told that Wakanda has had spies everywhere for centuries, when Wakandan spies presumably saw plantation slavery develop in the American colonies centuries earlier,  they were not radicalized. When European imperialists overran Africa during the 19th century, they were not radicalized. When they saw the strange fruit of lynch law in the Jim Crow south, Wakandans did nothing. But Rodney King, presumably, finally was more than one Wakandan could stand. That seems a bit like tunnel vision, according to which police brutality is the worst thing ever to happen to black people, to judge by Wakanda's still-slow response, because that's what's happening to black people today.  It's unlikely that Coogler or his co-writer thought seriously about how this might looks to anyone with a sense of history, just as, while writing a comic book movie, they most likely didn't think of the implicit politics of their Afro-futurist utopia.

Wakanda, as most Americans know by now, is a monarchy, "Black Panther" being one of the ruler's titles. The ruler consults with the elders of the nation's constituent tribes, but the film gives no indication that ordinary Wakandans have any voice in their government. We see no legislature or prime minister, and for that matter we see no news media commenting on the recent transition of power, which involved a trial by combat at a sacred waterfall. One might answer that Wakanda is as much a fantasy land as Asgard, to restrict ourselves to the Marvel universe, and no one expects to see representative government in the latter place. Yet it is strange that at a time when the American media and the liberal culture in general appears hypersensitive to any manifestation of authoritarianism, there's little questioning of how relevant the monarchic principle is to the Wakandan utopia and pop culture's celebration of it. Is there a longing for Wakanda that is also a longing for kingship? Does the movie's uncritical attitude toward monarchy reflect a black (if not a wider) dissatisfaction with a democracy that succumbs too easily to majoritarian prejudice for the comfort of any minority?   Something like that is there, I think, but we probably shouldn't overestimate it. To begin with, the superhero fantasy in general has a problematic relationship with the idea of the rule of law, which is why Christopher Nolan's Batman films were dubbed "fascist" by some who took them too seriously, so there's nothing necessarily essentially racial about Black Panther's inferred authoritarianism. Secondly, Wakanda's monarchy and its adherence to sometimes barbaric traditions can be seen simply as ways to establish its fantastical otherness. For the purposes of genre fiction, to be a Wakandan can't be the same as being the archetypal self-defining individual of liberal culture, or else what's the point of Wakanda? That's the ultimate question: is there a point to Wakanda apart from having a film full of black people that will be seen mostly by whites because to them it's a superhero movie first and foremost? The fact that pop culture has made such a big deal about it suggests that there are more points than that, and if our culture teaches us anything, it's that anyone today can find or make a point about anything. Time will tell how sharp any point becomes and whether any of us prick our thin and sensitive skins on it.