25 July 2017

Vestigial Russophobia

The other day I read in the paper that the President was expected to sign legislation imposing new economic sanctions on Russia. In the same paper I read a Michael Gerson column accusing the President of "subservience to Russia" and a "policy of preemptive concession." For those arriving late, Gerson is no Democratic spoilsport but a Republican neocon and onetime advisor to George W. Bush. He accuses Donald Trump of abandoning the Republican party's "heroic foreign policy tradition"of resistance to Russian aggression, and taking Republicans with him. He laments the finding of a recent poll that 49% of Republicans think of Russia as a friend or ally of the United States. Those people are forgetting the legacy of Ronald Reagan, Gerson believes, but he seems to forget that Russia and the Soviet Union can be seen reasonably as two very different things, apparently convinced that there's not a kopeck's worth of difference between Soviet totalitarianism and Putin-style authoritarianism and national assertiveness. 

Gerson looks far into the past to equate Trump with Henry Wallace, the anti-Cold War Democrat who ran against Harry Truman as an independent presidential candidate in 1948. Back then, Wallace argued that Americans "have no more business in the political affairs of Eastern Europe than Russia has in the political affairs of Latin America, Western Europe and the United States.” For Gerson, that quote exemplifies an unprincipled indifference to the terror of Stalinism that he hears echoed in Trump's presumed indifference to the burdens of subservience to Russia today. Now as then, aggression emanating from the Russian landmass presumably makes Eastern European politics our business. If anything, Gerson makes more of an effort to argue that it's our business now, because Russia "has made the political affairs of the United States very much its business." This analysis almost certainly puts the cart before the horse. If Russia has meddled in American politics, it's because Americans have stuck their noses where Russian leaders think we don't belong. As a neocon, however, Gerson believes we belong everywhere. Solidarity with liberal democrats wherever they exist is a moral if not existential imperative for him. While Trump most likely thinks of Russia simply as Russia, a nation that's going to pursue it's interests regardless of what we think of them, Gerson can't help seeing the Eurasian giant as the vanguard of an "anti-democratic" movement inherently antithetical to American interests. In his mind, Russia and the U.S. are engaged in a zero-sum contest for global influence. Russian success anywhere, but particularly in Syria, where self-interest in the form of a Mediterranean naval base combines with a realist focus on suppressing terrorism, is unacceptably harmful or simply shameful to the U.S.

It's telling, though, that Gerson seems at a loss to explain why Trump should so appease Russia ("Does it come from Trump’s bad case of authoritarianism envy? A fundamental sympathy with European right-wing, anti-democratic populism? An exposure to pressure from his checkered financial history?") when there probably isn't as much appeasement going on as he thinks. It should hardly count as appeasement to put a brake on the destabilization of Syria, for instance, when instability only fuels terrorism. Even in Eastern Europe, those who paid attention when Trump went there know to expect continued conflict with Russia so long as the President hopes to open the regional energy market to American providers. A conflict that doesn't rise to the level of a crusade might well be beneath Gerson's notice. It clearly infuriates him that Trump fails or refuses to see (or name) "evil" where Gerson himself sees it. But who's to say which man's perceptions more closely match reality? It probably would stink for someone of a critical and liberal mindset to live in Russia or under Russian hegemony today, but a lot about life stinks without being evil, and treating those things as evil may not be the best way to deal with them. Unfortunately, Americans seem increasingly to treat anything that inconveniences them, as individuals or as a nation, as an evil to be abolished rather than a reality to be dealt with differently. If Trump doesn't see U.S.-Russia relations as an eternal struggle of good against evil, that only proves him evil in many eyes. That attitude is all too typical of our time.

24 July 2017

The wrong kind of pride

There was something like a scandal in my neighborhood a few weeks ago when two employees of a local tattoo parlor were effectively hounded into quitting their jobs after they were outed as members or affiliates of the Proud Boys, a self-styled "western supremacist" group. The Alt, a relatively new weekly paper following in the footsteps of the late Metroland, decided to look deeper into what the Proud Boys (and their female auxiliaries) are about. The surprising thing about Jaya Sundaresh's report is that the Southern Poverty Law Center, the leading watchdog of supremacist groups, isn't too concerned about the Proud Boys, at least for now. An SLPC representative told Sundaresh that Proud Boys founder Gavin MacInnes disavows racism and anti-semitism, opening the group to anyone who, in another writer's words, "recognize[s] that white men are not the problem." People closer to home are more concerned, mainly with the Proud Boys' reputation as street fighters. A Proud Boy reportedly attains the fourth and highest degree of membership for "enduring a major conflict related to the crowd." This is understood to mean that Proud Boys are prepared to do battle with their counterparts on the left, the "antifa" movement, though MacInnes insists that his Boys are to fight defensively -- presumably in defense of the targets of antifa demonstrations. Of course, street fighting + "western supremacism" = "storm troopers" in the leftist imagination, as confirmed by an Oregon professor who tells Sundaresh that the Proud Boys look like "a deliberate effort to reproduce the conditions that led to the emergence of fascism." From this perspective, MacInnes becomes a more sinister figure, "trying to insert authoritarianism and totalitarianism into the mainstream." Other critics point to the more eccentric rituals of Proud Boy membership -- to attain the second degree, reportedly, one must run a gauntlet while shouting as many breakfast cereal brand names as one can recall -- as reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan. Elsewhere in the July 19 issue, columnist Miriam Axel-Lute argues that boycott threats against the tattoo parlor were justified. She sneers at "self-professed liberals clutching their pearls over the fact that this became an issue at all." Such liberals are "more concerned with avoiding conflict than actually protecting anybody," Axel-Lute writes. Two people losing their jobs are trivial, she contends, compared to the hate crimes that have become routine in America. I can't help wondering whether she'd be as indifferent to people getting pressured into quitting their jobs because they were found to sympathize with antifa, but had not actually participated in any demonstrations to anyone's knowledge. As far as Axel-Lute is concerned, the customer is always right, or at least those customers are who "have every right to be actually scared for their safety around people " like the Proud Boys.

Ideologues are entitled to double standards, of course, since they really believe that some groups deserve to be treated differently from others.  The rest of us may wonder what the difference is, especially when it seems that the antifa people usually are the aggressors in public confrontations. I'm not thrilled by the emergence of street fighters on either side of the ideological divide, but beyond that I'd like to withhold judgment on the Proud Boys until I learn what they think "the problem" is. Judgment is rarely withheld for movements like this, and MacInnes probably asked for it by describing the Boys as "supremacists" rather than as a mere "pride" movement. But the difference in terminology probably wouldn't have made much difference. You always hear white people asking why they can't have a White Pride week or month, or a Western Civilization celebration. The glib answer to their complaint is that every day is White Pride Day in the U.S.A., but such a comeback shouldn't obscure the existence of an actual double standard on the subject of pride. In the 21st century U.S., it seems, only appeals to "white" or "western" or "European" pride are seen as inherently supremacist. Despite the existence of actual black supremacist groups like the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters, only among whites is "pride" assumed to be implicitly derogatory toward everyone else. For any other group, asserting "pride" is understood to mean, "We're great, too!" while an assertion of "white pride" is understood to mean, "We're the greatest, and the rest of you suck!" It would be stupid to deny that non-whites  have some historic reasons to be suspicious of assertions of white male or even "western" pride, but their suspicions should not absolutely preclude the possibility of white (or at least western) pride that is not exclusionary or derogatory. After all, for many 20th century liberals it was the supreme point of pride in western civilization that it welcomed all who approached it with open minds, and many liberals today no doubt have great pride in an idealized western civilization that theoretically encompasses all other civilizations instead of subjugating or exterminating them. The Proud Boys probably aren't so idealistic as that, but everything else being equal -- for this is America, ain't it? -- is that reason enough for them to lose their jobs? I understand that a lot of people already perceive them as the enemy, but their own treatment of them is most likely the quickest way to turn perception into reality.

18 July 2017

THINK 3 VIDEO NEWS: A neighborhood gutted

By the time I got back to Albany from work last night a torrential rainstorm had made the State Street hill below the Capitol look like a waterfall. By the time I got home to Dana Avenue I had no thought of going back out, and with the AC running and the TV on I never heard any sirens that night. But just a stone's throw away part of the 400 block of Madison Avenue, just east of the busy Lark Street intersection, was burning. To give regular readers a sense of location, the house with all the anti-Trump posters in its windows that I showcased a while back is a few doors further up the street and apparently was undamaged by the fire.

I only found out about the fire the old-fashioned way, by reading about it in this morning's paper. On my way to work I took a very slight detour to inspect the damage.


Approximately twelve hours later I was back in Albany, and this was the same block after four 19th century row houses had been torn down.


For now, investigators don't consider the fire suspicious, but still have no real idea how it started. About a dozen people were displaced by the blaze, and the Center Square neighborhood will be scarred for some time, perhaps for years to come.

17 July 2017

'Lenin is more alive than all the living'

This year sees the centennial of the Russian Revolution, a two-stage event in which the abdication of Nicholas II led to the creation of a republic which was in turn overthrown by the Bolshevik "October Revolution" that created the Soviet Union. I'm not sure how Russia plans to observe the occasion, for while Vladimir Putin has said the the collapse of the USSR in 1991 was a tragedy of world history, he's reportedly not that big a fan of the man who created that entity, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The current Russian leader is more of a Stalin fan, not because Lenin's successor was more totalitarian or more vicious but because he was a patriotic hero who defeated Hitler and made his nation a superpower. Whatever Putin's attitude, Lenin's on the minds of many people and bookstores are full of new books on the Revolution. Several of them have been covered in recent review articles in The Nation and Harper's. While those publications are left of center, many of the new books are, if not conservative in theme, still definitely unsympathetic or unforgiving toward Lenin as the founder of a dictatorship that ruled through terror. Some of the authors describe the Bolshevik uprising as a coup d'etat rather than a revolution, while the critics think that the authors go too far in describing the event as Lenin's opportunistic conspiracy, rather than a moment made possible, if not forced, by special historical circumstances that would not have changed much in Lenin's absence. In short, despite the fall of the Soviet Union the debate over Lenin's legacy goes on, and no doubt will go on as long as people remain unreconciled to the rule of capitalism. This is a debate within the left, of course, since the right and much of the center have been convinced since 1917 that Lenin was the devil. It's also in large part a debate about Stalin, the question being whether Stalinism follows inevitably or inherently from Leninism, or whether Stalin's excesses and atrocities were aberrations born of his own wickedness.

Even if you leave Stalin out of it, Leninism raises grave issues about revolutionary entitlement. Lenin, after all, is the man who decided that a revolutionary vanguard did not have to wait for the proletariat to develop sufficient class consciousness in the inevitable but protracted manner Marx predicted, but was entitled to seize any opportunity to push history forward. Most importantly and provocatively, he felt entitled to seize power and keep it by silencing dissenters and killing them if necessary. From a liberal perspective, there's little solace in the fact that Lenin had no desire to be worshiped, as Stalin apparently did, and was not murderously paranoid about his own comrades, as Stalin definitely was. Lenin claimed to act in the name of the people, but he did so on the assumption that he knew better on objective grounds what the people's interest was than the people themselves. Lenin will always be with us, probably, because democracy is constantly challenged by the idea that the people's (or the planet's) interest is not simply whatever the people (or any given electorate) say it is. Liberal democracy is always beset on two sides by those convinced that the people's interest has already been defined beyond dispute by divine revelation and those convinced that they can reason it out for themselves and act accordingly in defiance of all disagreement. In more specific terms Lenin still represents an alternative to capitalism to those convinced that some alternative must exist. They may recoil from Lenin's own extreme measures, but they may worry that to repudiate and vilify Lenin entirely is of necessity to endorse capitalism. They may also be the audience for Slavoj Zizek's oft-repeated advice, recycled anew for a volume exploiting the centennial, to recognize Lenin as a failure while endeavoring to "fail better," in Samuel Beckett's words, at the general goal of emancipating humanity from capitalist alienation through revolutionary mobilization. You may not want to go that far, but so long as it remains theoretically possible to reason out a common good that isn't subject to a vote, Lenin is unlikely to stay on the ash heap of history.

Speaking of history, here's a funny story. One of the things Putin doesn't like about Lenin, reportedly, is that he allowed a right to secession that was taken advantage of in 1991, killing the USSR. It makes you wonder why Stalin didn't do something about that. The answer probably is that Stalin's own 1936 constitution was full of civil liberties that no one took seriously, so what did he care about any one of those rights? Make of that what you will, but what do you make of the apparent fact that the Soviet Union, the epitome of totalitarianism, permitted exactly that thing which Abraham Lincoln claimed that the U.S. Constitution, the epitome of liberal democracy, did not, and that when Americans asserted that right in spite of Lincoln hundreds of thousands of people died, but when Soviet republics asserted their right, the "evil empire" went down without a fight?

13 July 2017

Corrupt politician freed on technicality

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, Sheldon Silver's conviction for corruption in office has been overturned by a federal appeals court. Not so long ago, Silver arguably was the most powerful politician in New York State as speaker of the state assembly and leader of its Democratic majority. Like his Republican counterpart in the state senate, Dean Skelos, Silver exemplified pay-for-play politics in the Empire State until federal prosecutor Preet Bharara brought both men down. Today's decision doesn't reflect on Bharara's legacy from what I can tell, for the appeals court doesn't dispute that Silver did what he was accused of doing. Apparently, what you call whatever he was doing is the problem. The appeals court was guided by a unanimous ruling issued last year by our notoriously divided Supreme Court. That ruling overturned the conviction of a former governor of Virginia and in doing so narrowed the range of activities that count as "corruption" in criminal cases, excluding what the New York Times paraphrased as "routine political courtesies" like arranging meetings or securing contacts for "constituents" (i.e. donors) In the Silver case, the appeals court holds that the instructions to the jury should have reflected this new standard for corruption. Silver's conviction is held to be unfair since, despite the appeal judges' own doubts, a jury properly instructed may have seen wiggle room for an acquittal. Unsurprisingly, Bharara's successor as federal prosecutor vows to get Silver convicted again, but the highest court in the land may have made that result less likely. Just as opponents of limits on campaign donations argue that no corruption results from them unless you can read a politician's mind and prove that money changed it, so the courts now claim that there is no "official" corruption in most of the favors politicians may do for their most favored constituents. This is the sort of subject I'd like to see the President tweet about. As a mighty businessman, Donald Trump may well find the Silver ruling a just one. As the self-styled champion of ordinary Americans against a corrupt political class, might he think or at least tweet differently?  I wonder if we'll ever find out....

12 July 2017

Are Republicans mourning Joe?

Joe Scarborough was a "Contract With America" Republican who was elected to Congress in the anti-Clinton wave of 1994. He served four terms before dropping out. Since then, he's been best known as the co-host and namesake of Morning Joe and the main representative of conservative opinion on MSNBC. Scarborough announced last night that while he still considered himself conservative on many issues, mostly economic, he no longer considered himself a Republican. His switch to "independent" status is intended as a personal repudiation of President Trump and a Republican majority too cowardly, in Scarborough's eyes, to criticize Trump's excesses. The TV host has in mind not just the insults Trump lobbed at his co-host and fiancee Mika Brzezinki via twitter, but a stench of bigotry he senses in the Trump movement. Perhaps now Eric Alterman will stop complaining in his Nation column about Scarborough's supposed sycophancy toward Trump, but I'm not sure this news will make anyone else change their minds about Trump or Scarborough. It may count as a milestone, however, in a Trumpification of the Republican party that may in return revise the terms of political discourse in this country. On Fox News, Sean Hannity calls Scarborough "Liberal Joe" for no better reason that I'm aware of than that Scarborough opposes Trump. I suspect many rank and file Republicans, or Trump voters at least, feel the same way: you're either for Trump or you're with the enemy, i.e. "liberalism." But as many ideological or self-styled "principled" conservatives continue to oppose the President of grounds of policy and/or temperament, will they all become "liberal" too? What does "liberal" mean at that point? If we still think of anti-Trump Republicans as "conservatives," since that's how they still think of themselves, can "liberal" still mean the opposite of "conservative?" Of course, these terms only became antonymical when Democrats identified with one term and Republicans with the other. Historically, the "conservatism" identified with the late 20th century Republican party was an outgrowth of "classical" (i.e. 19th century) liberalism, and probably wouldn't be recognized by the "conservatives" of earlier times as much like their own beliefs. Does that mean that Trump represents a "real conservatism" re-emerging as old debates over the role of the state in the economy lose their defining force? It's probably too early to say. For now, and should the Republicans crack up further, keep in mind that "liberal" can be the opposite not only of "conservative" but of "radical," by virtue of liberalism's reluctance to undertake reforms, much less revolutionary action, that may provoke or require violence in getting to the root of problems in the original sense of the word. The question of our time may not be whether Trump or Scarborough is the "real conservative," but whether the Trump movement is alienating Scarborough-style conservatives because it's something else entirely.

10 July 2017

The state of exception in the exceptional nation

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist and one of the harshest critics of Vladimir Putin. "Over the years many Russians, including me, have come to believe that the [1999] apartment-building bombings in Moscow and elsewhere were organized and carried out by the FSB, the [Russian] intelligence agency, in order to shore up Putin's power grab," she writes in the July Harper's. She admits that "we do not know enough" about these incidents, but insists that "it is certainly too early to exonerate Putin and the FSB," observing that "this paucity of information, too, is one of the signs of autocracy." Gessen is not dismissed out of hand as a Russian "truther," I presume, because Americans simply assume that Putin, if not Russians in general, are more ethically or culturally capable of such things than their American counterparts. Gessen is here to warn us, however, that something similar may be in store for America under Donald Trump. To be clear, she isn't predicting a "false flag" terrorist attack and is not claiming that the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. were anything like that. More precisely, Gessen warns that Trump could use any large-scale terrorist attack as a "Reichstag fire," an opportunity or excuse to impose authoritarian rule on the United States.

Following the political philosophers Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben, Gessen warns Harper's readers about the potential for a "state of exception" during the War on Terror. Created as a concept and promoted by the pro-Nazi Schmitt and repackaged as menace by Agamben in our time, the idea of the "state of exception" is that during an emergency (real or fake) the "sovereign" has the power to declare that old rules no longer apply and make new rules. In Gessen's summary,  it is less a slippery slope than a cartoon snowball deliberately sent rolling down the mountain. "The emergency enables a quantum leap: The sovereign has to have enough power to declare a state of exception, and then by the declaration he acquires far greater, unchecked power. That is what makes the change irreversible, and the state of exception permanent." In practice, Gessen implies, the state of exception is the rationale for a dictatorship that is the sovereign's real goal, while the emergency only provides the pretext. For Hitler, the Reichstag fire, whether the work of Nazi arsonists or the lone nut actually convicted, justified a state of exception under which he consolidated his dictatorship. For Putin, as far as Gessen is concerned, the 1999 bombings provided a similar pretext. In the 21st century U.S., she claims, the pretext already exists thanks to 9/11. The state of exception was already called into being by George W. Bush, and was perpetuated by Barack Obama, both violating a 1976 law requiring Congress to confirm a state of emergency within six months of a presidential declaration. Gessen is compelled to compliment the last two presidents on their "restraint" for "not utiliz[ing] some of the more extreme possibilities of the state of emergency,' but worries that the current President will show no such restraint.

What, then, is exceptional about Donald Trump? Gessen claims that "he has already shown that he can deftly use the coercive power of the state being at war." Her evidence for this hardly seems to justify her dire warning. "During his first address to a joint session of Congress, Trump orchestrated more than two minutes of applause for the widow of a fallen Navy SEAL," she writes. Perhaps she has spent too much time covering Russia, if she doesn't know that presidents since Reagan have practiced this sort of  "naked cynicism that left no one in the audience any choice but to stand and applaud" by suing soldiers or their survivors as props for applause lines. She sees something extra and sinister, however, in the fact that the Breitbart web site "falsely claimed that several top Democrats had refused to" applaud. To Gessen, "This was a preview of the coercion by national unity that we talk about when we talk about the Reichstag fire." My hunch, however, is that you probably can find evidence of Fox News or radio talkers making similar charges against "unpatriotic" Democrats during the Bush administration.

Apparently, the peril of states of exception depends on the people in power, since Gessen notes that "Not all the periods of exception are remembered as repressive." She cites several occasions in American history when a formal or informal state of exception appeared to justify repressive measures that were soon rolled back, from the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams to the excesses of Joe McCarthy. The difference now, again, seems to be something about Trump. That difference, believe it or not, seems to be that Donald Trump is not merely authoritarian in his temperament, as many claim him to be, but all-out totalitarian. I'd better let Gessen try to explain this.

A key characteristic of the most frightening regimes of the past hundred years is mobilization. This is what distinguishes the merely authoritarian regimes from the totalitarian ones. Authoritarians prefer their subjects passive, tending to their private lives while the authoritarian and his cronies amass wealth and power. The totalitarian wants people out in the square; he craves their adulation and devotion, their willingness to fight and die for him....To totalitarianism watchers, Trump's campaign rallies, which segued into his victory rallies, including his 'America First' inauguration,have looked familiar and perhaps more worrisome than an imaginary future [Reichstag] fire. To historians of the twenty-first century, however, they will likely look like logical steps from the years of war rhetoric that preceded them, not quantum leaps. A nation can be mobilized only if it knows its enemy and believes in its own peril.

In other words, because Donald Trump is a demagogue, he is a potential totalitarian dictator. By this standard, we dodged a deadly bullet during the Clinton years, given how notoriously Bill was said to crave the love of the people. Had he served a third term and led us through 9/11, perhaps things would be different! But no. Judging from those aspects of Trump's agenda Gessen most wants us to oppose, Trump is dangerous not because he craves applause -- though he clearly does -- but because he's a bigot, and bigots are the most dangerous potential authoritarians or totalitarians of all despite the fact that the most bigoted of Americans have formed a key part of the base for the party of "limited government" for the past fifty years. Let's grant that bigotry in wartime could well be worse than bigotry in general -- ask Japanese-Americans about that -- but that still doesn't prove that bigotry itself or even a fondness for the sound of one's own voice accurately predicts a desire for dictatorship. So is it that Trump is just an egomaniac, or just a greedy businessman, or has bad hair and an unnatural complexion -- or is it the other way around?

Actually, it's a trick question, since Gessen closes her article by warning readers against "the assumption that things were fine until Americans inexplicably elected Trump." The problem isn't really Trump at all, or else he's only part of the real problem that dates back to the turn of the century, for which Bush and Obama share much of the responsibility. The problem, Gessen concludes, is the War on Terror itself.  In her eyes, the 95 Americans killed in "attacks ostensibly driven by jihadist ideology" since September 2001 pale in comparison to the hundreds of Americans killed by police in "killings [that are] extrajudicial by definition" in only the first quarter of 2017. She finds it sufficient to tabulate that "an American has a lesser chance of dying in a terrorist attack carried out by a refugee than of being struck by lightning." No fear that you feel justifies what the state has done since 9/11, Gessen argues, and "to be worthy of the lofty name 'resistance,' the opposition to Trump must aim to break the country's post-9/11 trajectory. It must question the very premise of the war on terror, challenge the very fact of a perpetual state of emergency." In the end, Gessen is somewhat grateful to Trump, since his already-obnoxious presidency has made American civil society "far stronger, paradoxically, than it was before the election." That leaves me wondering what she takes as evidence of a resurgent civil society, though I suspect it may look highly and ironically "mobilized." Her odd mix of alarmism and optimism leaves one wondering again about the resiliency of liberal democratic political order in the face of emergencies that liberal democrats would prefer never to happen. My worry is that the 21st century will see more emergencies, not all of which can be dismissed as irrational fear of strangers or necessarily met by exclusively liberal measures. Liberalism distrusts emergencies because it assumes that political decisions are never matters of life and death. In treating the last election as a matter of life and death, liberalism arguably has betrayed itself without effectively addressing any of the emergencies facing the nation or the world.