12 January 2018

'The least racist person that you've ever met'

So the President of the United States once described himself, with characteristic hyperbole and, many now reiterate, with characteristic dishonesty. Donald Trump's self-assessment seems belied by his questioning yesterday, in words the White House hasn't bothered denying, why the U.S. should take in more people from "shithole" countries in Africa or like Haiti. No denial may seem necessary (though since I started writing, the radio has reportsd that Trump has tweeted a denial) because Trump assumes that his supporters get what he means, while the opinions of those who take his words to be racist don't matter. His real meeting, his stooges insist, is that the U.S. should only take in people prepared to make immediate contributions to the economy, as Norwegians, to use the President's example, presumably are. Of course, that he immediately cited a Scandinavian country after disparaging black-clad countries only damns Trump further in the eyes of those who have assumed all along that skin color (or 'culture') is his primary concern. Had he a quicker wit, he might have named some Asian country if he did not want to be thought of as racist. As it is, even now liberals are overreacting to Trumpian boorishness and most likely guaranteeing themselves more lulz from his supporters. It can be argued, after all, that many nations are shitholes. Many liberals might consider Russia a shithole, for instance, for a variety of reasons, though for them that would be reason to welcome Russians seeking to escape their national shittiness. There are two real questions raised by the President's own designation of shittiness. Does the state of any given country effectively disqualify its citizens, as Trump seems to imply, from even the potential of contributing to the American economy or culture? How much does any nation's shithole status have to do with its racial makeup? To deal with the latter question, Trump should try to identify African nation's that are not shitholes, and if he can't, he should try to explain what, if anything besides black rule, makes them shitholes. As for the question of usefulness, there's no getting around the fact that Trump applies a utilitarian standard that represents a departure from past policy and liberal tradition. The fact that Ireland was a shithole in the 1840s didn't stop the U.S. from accepting Irish immigrants, despite cultural objections from the Know-Nothings; nor did the fact that much of Europe remained a shithole later in the 19th century stop us from welcoming people from Eastern Europe and Italy, despite more cultural objections. In each case, the nation's best years were still to come despite the inclusion of people who seemed as alien to WASPS then as Africans may seem now. In all past cases, it was not required that immigrants immediately prove their ability to contribute. It should be possible to argue that circumstance here are sufficiently different to justify applying a different standard without the new standard reflecting on other countries. It just doesn't seem possible for this President to make that argument or articulate that standard in a diplomatic or even civilized way.

10 January 2018

Would you like to see my French postcards?

Unfortunately, I have none. Instead, I want to comment briefly on the remarkable letter that appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde this month and has now been translated into English. Attributed in the American press to the actress Catherine Deneuve, who is actually only a signatory but is the one best known here, the letter represents a perhaps distinctively European backlash against the perceived witch-hunt mentality toward alleged sexual harrassers in the U.S. More sweepingly, it's a critique of the "triggered" mentality that seeks to purge the public sphere of anything that might disturb it. The letter has attracted considerable attention here, and probably considerable sympathy from the American right, because it attacks what it describes as an anti-harrassment "puritanism," exemplified by the #MeToo meme, that unfairly seeks to suppress any expression of male sexual desire. It's not intended as a defense of Harvey Weinstein, whose fall from grace began the current reign of terror -- just this week, men ranging from James Franco to Stan Lee have joined the ranks of the accused -- but a warning against the blanket indictment of every man who's ever "bothered" a woman. For the authors, the right of men to "bother" women is as "indispensable to sexual freedom" as the right to "offend" is to artistic creation, not to mention political expression. They deplore a mentality unable "to tell the difference between an awkward attempt to pick someone up and what constitutes a sexual assault."Such a mentality reduces womanhood to victimhood and encourages "a hatred of men and sexuality." The authors argue for a more sophisticated feminism that recognizes that "sexual impulses are, by nature, offensive and primitive," but refuses to reduce sexuality to a perpetual power struggle.

A woman can, in the same day, lead a professional team and enjoy being a man’s sexual object, without being a "whore" or a vile accomplice of the patriarchy. She can make sure that her wages are equal to a man’s but not feel forever traumatized by a man who rubs himself against her in the subway, even if that is regarded as an offense. She can even consider this act as the expression of a great sexual deprivation, or even as a non-event.

The letter draws a distinction similar to the one I find increasingly definitive between left and right in the U.S., if not around the world. The right sees the world as tough while the left sees it as cruel.  For the right, the answer to toughness is toughness; one must adapt and discipline oneself to deal with the world as it is. For the left, the answer to cruelty is revolution or, on a smaller scale, litigation; the world (and its cruelest people) must be tamed so we can be what we want to be or were meant to be. In the French context, the authors, Deneuve and the other signatories are basically asking American women, and those influenced by them in Europe, to toughen up and deal with sexuality as it is, in all its offensive primitiveness, instead of trying to purge the primitive from the arts or the arts community.

The obvious riposte from #MeToo types will be that the French women are, ironically misogynist in their implicit assumption that men can't be better, or can't be made better than they are. Whatever the truth on that point, the Americans certainly will reassert their right to demand better, as well as their contempt for anyone who questions their demand. The perception of world cruelty is linked to the belief that the world, or at least human nature, can be changed without limit; a cruel world would not seem so unacceptable if we didn't assume that it didn't have to be that way. In any event, I don't think the French women are saying it "has to be that way." Their argument is that #MeToo is forcing the sexual world into a rigid "that way" position in which men are always predators, women always prey, objectification is always evil, and the only remedy is a sexual police state, while their own perspective recognizes a wider range of give-and-take. The #MeToo view seems to the French writers too close to a truly anti-sexual attitude that #MeToo would consider antithetical to their own, but is, in the French view, the grim and more likely alternative to sexual freedom and its irreducible messiness.

This frenzy for sending the "pigs" to the slaughterhouse, far from helping women empower themselves, actually serves the interests of the enemies of sexual freedom, the religious extremists, the reactionaries and those who believe — in their righteousness and the Victorian moral outlook that goes with it — that women are a species "apart," children with adult faces who demand to be protected.

#MeToo certainly will protest this dystopian portrayal, if it hasn't done so already, if only because it exists to protest. That's only fair, though, since I don't think the French letter is the last word on the subject. It is, however, an intervention that should not be dismissed as readily or contemptuously as some would like.

Decline is relative

"Anti-Trump movement in decline" is how one local paper headlines David Brooks's latest column. That looks counterfactual given recent Democratic successes at the polls and the media frenzy over the Fire and Fury book, but Brooks is actually writing about what he perceives as the opposition's intellectual decline. "It seems to be settling into a smug, fairy-tale version of reality that filters out discordant information," he writes, "The movement also suffers from lowbrowism  [which] ignores normal journalistic or intellectual standards [that] makes you think and notice less." Brooks sees this as a regrettable but inevitable development, since "In ever war, nations come to resemble their enemies." That's a new one that our nonagenarian "Greatest Generation" survivors might be interested to hear, but the observation probably is more true for civil wars and milder levels of factional strife. My problem with Brooks's assertion of decline is that it makes him look very slow on the uptake. The anti-Trump movement on the street and social-media levels has been like this all along. It has done little other than demonize and caricature Trump and his movement in "fairy-tale" fashion. What Brooks seems to be missing now, to provoke his decline claim, is the moderating  presence of anti-Trump Republicans like himself, now that the GOP has gotten what they wanted from Trump: tax cuts and regulatory rollback. There's still a lot of anti-Trump opinion among conservative columnists, but with most of the leading anti-Trump elected officials preparing to leave office, a "deplorable" lowbrow left has come to define the opposition in Brooks's eyes. This is too "insular" an opposition for him, unfamiliar or simply unwilling to communicate reasonably with anyone who supports Trump. Brooks still holds out hope that a revival of civility resulting from some escape from insualrity on all sides can reverse the overall decline in political discourse, but I don't yet see what can bring that about, so long as all sides demand respect as the precondition of civility while each equates respect with surrender. Trumpism and its opposite continue to be driven by the perception that one group refuses to respect the other. Mutual respect will require some compromise, as civility always does, but few see so far what might make that worth their while. We probably have more decline to endure before that changes.

08 January 2018

Think 3 Video News: "Life is Good."

It's the morning of January 8 at the corner of Swan and Washington in Albany, across from the Alfred E. Smith building. The view is from inside a recently redecorated CDTA bus shelter.

The man across the street has been working that corner for months, at least since last summer. His little cardboard sign asserts that he's a drug-free military veteran. Sometimes a driver stopped at the light will call him over. Like most people, I assume he had the weekend off. I hope so, at least, because it was below zero Saturday, and his spot is one of the worst in town on a cold day, the way the wind whips around West Capitol Park. Sometime that weekend, I assume, an artist did his thing with that health-insurance ad. Who knows what his inspiration was.

The night of the dull knives

Can anyone still believe that President Trump is a fascist, or that his is a fascist movement, after the controversy over the Fire and Fury book? People may still feel that Trump has authoritarian tendencies, and they may be disturbed by the way Steve Bannon is groveling to get back in the movement's good graces, but howevermuch he and other sources now claim to have been misrepresented in the book, it seems clear that Donald Trump simply isn't and never will be the sort of leader historical fascism has produced. Mussolini and Hitler were know-it-all, at least in their own minds, fond of bloviating on a wide range of topics, while Trump seems to be a literal know-nothing outside his specialized business realm, but is no more modest for that. More significantly, the World War II dictators impressed their followers as visionaries rather than reactionaries, while Trump has little more vision than "Make America Great Again" and far less ability to articulate or dramatize what vision he has. For all that he demands praise, he clearly lacks the awful charisma that made even insiders worshipful toward the authentic fascist leaders; he lacks the stuff from which a fuhrerprinzip can be made. Of course, people can still remind me that someone said that American fascism will look different from the European originals, but that would only start a debate over the meaning of fascism that they most likely wouldn't win. Suffice it to say that Trump and his movement are bad enough as they are, while his voters were "fascist" only insofar as they were hoping for a punitive presidency on the model of The Apprentice. There is danger enough, depending on your perspective, in many Americans' desire to see many other Americans "fired" without accusing them of wanting something that very few, if any, actually do. And if more really want a more authoritarian or even totalitarian nation, it should be clear by now that Donald Trump isn't going to be the one to bring it.

03 January 2018

What's the matter with Iran?

The American and Iranian republics may be irreconcilable  antagonists right now, but they have at least one noteworthy thing in common. Each sees hotly contested elections among a limited range of candidates over a limited range of issues. In the U.S. no candidate is credible outside the two-party system; Donald Trump probably would have fared little better than Ross Perot had he not committed himself to seizing a major-party nomination. In Iran no candidate can even run without the sanction of the Supreme Leader. In either case, critics from outside the mainstream can complain that there isn't a dime's worth of difference between or among mainstream candidates, but things look different from within the mainstream. In Iran the ayatollahs presumably could limit the field exclusively to rubber-stamp candidates congenial to the clerical elite, but the bitterness with which elections are contested and issues debated suggest that this isn't the case -- unless you believe that the continuance or necessary abolition of the Islamic Republic and the vilayet-e-faqih principle are the only issues worth debating. American politics is open to similar criticism from those who believe that the most important issues facing our country are not only ignored but actively excluded from national debates. Americans can claim that the people, not the fringes, decide what the real issues are, but only the most complacent apologists for bipolarchy really believe that. Regarding Iran, Americans tell the world that the Iranian  people have no say in what the issues are so long as the Supreme Leader retains his power and the basijis enforce it, but that isn't quite right, either. 2018 has begun with mass protests in many Iranian cities in an echo of the American anti-Trump protests  of January 2017. The Iranian demos seem to have started in protest against President Rouhani economic policies, the economy being the major issue in Iranian elections, but have evolved, in some instances, into protests against clerical rule itself. Some accounts suggest that this is instant blowback insofar as the original protests were orchestrated by the Supreme Leader's men to embarrass Rouhani, who has never been Ayatollah Khamenei's favorite. Some Iranians apparently blame the overall system for their economic woes, citing systemic mismanagement and corruption or, as American observers would have it, the squandering of national wealth on international adventurism in Syria, Yemen or elsewhere. In response, Rouhani has affirmed the right to assemble while warning against violence, while the Supreme Leader's men blame the escalation of protests on foreign enemies,no doubt citing President Trump's cheerleading tweets as sufficient proof. Americans inevitably are tempted to see the 2018 demonstrations as the beginning of an "Iranian Spring," a new "color revolution" or a "people power" moment. Such perceptions assume that the Iranian regime is systematically repressive, undemocratic and illegitimate. The Islamic Republic is often more blatantly and violently repressive than the U.S. has been in a long time, but if Americans accept the premise that Iran surrenders legitimacy by denying real choices and thus real power to the people, they should be prepared to judge their own government by the same standard. Most will no doubt give their own country a passing grade because they see real differences between the major parties. They would not agree that any number of protesters in the streets can override the presumed majority verdict. With that in mind they might withhold judgment on Iran as a republic, if not as a geopolitical antagonist, for the time being.

02 January 2018

Is there a cure for outrage?

At the end of the year Hugh Hewitt, an anti-Trump conservative, diagnosed a nationwide addiction to outrage. He describes it as "the state of being perpetually offended, ... the need not only to be angry at someone or something, or many people and issues, but also to always and everywhere be, well, hating." Addicts, Hewitt writes, see their outrage as a sign of life. He blames social media for the condition he identifies across the political spectrum, but social media and the smartphones that allow us to take part in it everywhere at most facilitate, or at worst accelerate a decadence arguably latent in the American character.  The American ideal of personal liberty became decadent once a critical mass of Americans decided that their ability to dissent, protest or simply bitch was the only proof available that this was still a free society. The Founders may have regarded the right to dissent as a necessary safeguard against tyranny, but I'm less sure that they saw it as the essence of liberty itself. That it has become that probably proves the death of the American Dream in which the ability to do whatever you dreamed of, as long as it was profitable, was the essence of liberty. Now that opportunity seems stagnant and few see tax cuts or other supply-side measures as a liberating force, the right to outrage -- to express it and to provoke it in others -- is the only freedom, thanks to social media, that almost everyone can exercise. The last meaningful vestige of egalitarianism is the ability to "speak truth to power" or tell power, and its constituents, to fuck themselves. When this freedom is all we have, or the one thing that distinguishes us or elevates us above other powers, many of us inevitably will seek out things to be outraged over, to remind ourselves that we are still free after all. Having a President who, his reasonable complaints about media bias notwithstanding, has a bad habit of demanding praise from everyone for everything, only makes things worse lately. If the alternative to outrage is to think positive or look on the bright side, many will find the cure worse than the disease, or perhaps as a North Korean import. Fortunately, there is another alternative. The happy medium between compulsive outrage and dutiful affirmation would be a kind of enlightened cynicism grounded not in misanthropy but in modest expectations for the world and the people in it and, perhaps most importantly, a modesty about one's own feelings and opinions. Such an attitude would replace hate with a milder mockery ideally nonpartisan in its scope, based on a recognition that, just as my utopia is never going to happen, neither is my worst dystopian nightmare. This will be a tough sell, of course, since imagining the worst delivers the same kick as partisan outrage, but persistence may reward modest mockery by making it cool the way H. L. Mencken's cynicism became improbably cool in the 1920s. Promoting mockery may seem to fly into the teeth of the storm given the rage for respect that unites antifa, the alt-right and much in between. Even at this late hour, however, many of us still want to be cool, however problematic coolness itself is,and the compulsive outrage Hewitt decries will simply never be cool. If that were our ultimate safeguard against  outrage as a way of life, how cool would that be?

28 December 2017

Whose News?

My clock radio is set to a public radio station that plays National Public Radio news briefs. On the morning after Christmas I woke up to the news that the Chinese had sentenced a dissident to a stiff prison term. The following morning, the top story was that Myanmar was detaining two Reuters news service reporters. These are events worth knowing about, but I found myself wondering whether they really were the top stories of their respective days. It's most likely a matter of perspective, and NPR's perspective is global. Its choice of top stories sustains a narrative of civil liberty and press freedom under attack around the world, implicitly including in President Trump's America. Not merely the right to dissent but the right to tell truths inconvenient to power is in danger everywhere, according to this narrative, which hints strongly that the suppression of dissent and free inquiry anywhere is a threat to the same things everywhere.  If I seem to object to this, it's not because I think repression in other countries is none of our business as individuals. I simply wonder about the priorities of a bastion of the reputedly liberal media when NPR can find nothing domestic worthy of headlining their morning news brief. One of the arguments against America's human rights-oriented foreign policy from the left was that our country had injustices of its own to deal with before it could claim the right to judge other countries. Under Trump, surely, that should be more true than ever, but NPR is more liberal than left and apparently more concerned with a perceived global threat to civil liberty than with actual conditions at home. For them, perhaps, dissent isn't just the health of the state but the health of the world. I could agree that every nation would be better off if rulers were more accountable to responsible criticism, but to see the world primarily as the battleground of a vast struggle for liberty is sometimes to come slightly too close to a neocon stance for comfort.

22 December 2017

The new war on Christmas

The Washington Post reports today that right-wing ranting about a "war on Christmas " may prove a self-fulfilling prophecy. The war, you will recall, consists of bank and store clerks wishing customers "Happy Holidays" in order not to slight implicitly those who observe Chanukah or Kwanzaa. The objection to this has always been absurd, since Christmas is implicit in "Holidays," but some Christianists and traditionalists insist that there is no cause for complaint should they prefer to explicitly (and exclusively) wish people "Merry Christmas." Donald Trump pandered to these people during his election campaign and continues to do so, boasting of how unafraid he is to honor Christmas. To my knowledge, he has not demanded that anyone be fired for saying "Happy Holidays," but his intervention in this one-sided  kuturkampf seems to have had the same effect as his criticisms of athletes who refuse to stand for the national anthem. The Post reports that some people are more reluctant than before to say "Merry Christmas," out of fear of offending opponents of Trump, while others are more likely to say "Happy Holidays" in order to offend Trump's fans. As in the anthem controversy, the President's involvement has made the issue, intentionally or not, all about him. Just as there may be more resistance to standing for the anthem if doing so is seen as paying homage or submitting to Trump, so "Merry Christmas " may become a partisan slogan, if not a kind of loyalty oath to Donald Trump, while "Happy Holidays" loses its original neutral tone to become a declaration of hostility to Trump's particular form of Christianist. It's sad either way. While "Happy Holidays " has always seemed perfectly sensible to me, I as an atheist have never inferred a demand  that I worship Jesus from "Merry Christmas. " Non-Christians could have interpreted those words as a sharing of happiness across cultural borders on a festive occasion, not an assertion that Jesus is Lord, but this seems less possible now that the Trump, in some eyes, has stolen Christmas. May December 25 be a merry holiday for everyone just the same.