27 October 2016

The authoritarian question

When someone like the governor of Maine says that the U.S. could use a dose of authoritarian power, I'm tempted to demand that he swear fealty in advance to the first person to seize power by force, since to reserve fealty seems to go against the whole authoritarian idea. The challenge quickly seems too absurd to press, since not even the most rabid authoritarian wants someone to wield that sort of power as an end unto itself. Authoritarianism isn't an ideology like liberalism or communism, because authoritarianism is only a means to any number of ends. That makes it abhorrent to ideologies that seek to define both means and ends, and especially to liberalism, for which the means are the end. I was catching up with magazines recently and read an article by Pankraj Mishra about Asia's critical response to western liberalism, and it struck me that the appeal of liberalism depends on what you oppose it to. Asians question liberalism because it seems to value the individual over the group or the state, while their own philosophical traditions prioritize ethical conduct over individual liberty. While some in the west still see "collective" as a dirty word, western liberalism is really less about opposing the individual against the collective than it's about safeguarding individuals against leaders. You probably can trace this all the way back to ancient Greece and its fear of the demagogue who becomes a tyrant according to a pessimistic cyclical theory of politics. By comparison, I doubt whether Asian philosophers before Mao ever preached unconditional obedience to rulers. I also doubt whether they were so fearful of authoritarian power that they would handicap the state as extensively as Americans have. The problem,  it now seems, with liberalism is that it limits the state's ability to perform essential goods as much as it constrains leaders from doing evil, which makes it almost blindly evenhanded. That makes it sadly funny to hear people cry that democracy is at stake in the 2016 election --since to the extent that democracy is, in pure form, an authoritarian form of government in its ultimate disregard for objections, it was snuffed out in America long ago.

25 October 2016

Over the Empathy Wall

The New York Review of Books election issue (dated November 10) features a review by Nathaniel Rich of Arlie Russell Hochschild's book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. This book belongs to the genre Rich traces back to Thomas Frank's What's The Matter with Kansas: an inquiry into why many white Americans vote against their apparent economic self-interest in favor of Republicans. Hochschild herself believes that the genre has neglected a proper appreciation of the emotional factor in politics. She wants to climb over an "Empathy Wall" that surrounds academics like herself from conservative working-class whites, and thus understand why they continue to vote Republican, or may go beyond Republicanism by voting for Donald Trump, despite often being the victims of GOP-generated deregulation, as in her subject state of Louisiana. She meets oil rig engineer Mike Schiff, who becomes an environmental activist after the Texas Brine company devastated his bayou land, yet still voted as a Tea Party Republican and opposed the EPA for its attention to the "fictive" global warming issue. From examples cited by Rich in his review, you can make out that these people tend to be complacent about pollution because they've never had any utopian expectations. "You have to put up with things the way they are," one woman told Hochschild, because "Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism." In Rich's account, Hochschild seeks an emotional key, a "deep story" to explain these attitudes. Rich paraphrases that story:

It begins with an image of a long line of people marching across a vast landscape. The Tea Partiers -- white, older, Christian, predominantly male, many lacking college degrees -- are somewhere in the middle of the line. They trudge wearily, but with resolve, up a hill. Ahead, beyond the ridge, lies wealth, success, dignity. Far behind them, the line is composed of people of color, women, immigrants, refugees. As pensions are reduced and layoffs absorbed, the line slows, then stalls. An even greater indignity follows: people begin cutting them in line. Many are those who had long stood behind them ... all now aided by the federal government....

As even endangered animals appear to have a higher priority in government eyes, "the Tea Partiers are made to feel less than human." They are "reviled for the Christian morality and the 'traditional' values they have been taught to honor from birth," and obviously we can add their presumed attitudes toward racial religious and sexual minorities. Rich doesn't fully agree with Hochschild's reading of the story, bringing us back to the debate described yesterday between those, apparently like Hochschild, who believe that "economic despair is the central motivation behind the Tea Partiers' rage," and those, obviously like Rich, who find it "difficult not to consider racial fear the formative aspect of the story." Rich is no doubt encouraged in his view by one of Hochschild's subjects who laments that "People think we're not good people if we don't feel sorry for blacks and immigrants and Syrian refugees. But I am a good person and I don't feel sorry for them." Rich, at least, is not going to take this person's word for his or her goodness. Both he and Hochschild may question why these people imagine themselves at the front of that line of march, or why they think it unfair that others, thought by many to have been held back unfairly, are moved ahead. Hochschild may be more inclined to think of them as good people at some level, or at least praiseworthy for "their capacity for loyalty, sacrifice, and endurance." Yet their tendency to vote in what she describes as their "emotional self-interest," in defense of their self-image as good people in spite of the scolding of liberals, remains a problem author and reviewer alike find it imperative to solve. Rich, at least, feels that "we never get the sense that they know themselves," which seems to mean that they can't see themselves as he sees them, as people with a prejudice problem.

The solution remains obvious: if they feel insulted, don't insult them. If liberals and progressives would not spend so much time and bandwidth trying to reeducate these people, perhaps their resentment and emotional self-interest might not obscure their rational self-interest so completely. After all, does anyone believe that white people are the only bigots or haters in the United States? Go ahead and tell me that only those with power can be racists, but what power do these people have? Have they any more power than the many black Americans who believe in the white-devil mythology of the Nation of Islam or related phenomena, but are not, to my knowledge, exhorted to renounce it? If the idea in such cases is that their bigotry is harmless if they don't act on it -- which may not be as consistently the case as it was a generation or two ago -- then why not let white bigots think what they like as long as they have no power to violate other people's civil rights? To repeat, that doesn't stop anyone from advancing policies to minimize discrimination or mitigate its long-term consequences, but don't you suppose that if you keep at that necessary work without constantly harping on white people's heritage of wickedness, they might reconcile with change sooner and more peaceably? With that in mind, one of the few reasonable arguments for a Hillary Clinton presidency is that with one more great "glass ceiling" broken, perhaps progressives won't need to rail against prejudice so much in the future, and will concentrate instead on real progress for everybody.

24 October 2016

The Cheated

The New York Review of Books' election issue arrived in my mailbox this weekend. It includes thirteen short essays from frequent contributors, all predictably horrified by Donald Trump and whatever he represents. The only dissonant note sounded comes from David Bromwich, a Yale professor, who departs from the consensus by being almost equally horrified by Hillary Clinton. He definitely has no love for Trump, who "panders to wishful ignorance" and whose "vagueness, bloat and feckless reiteration of [his] promises ... go against the grain of a representative government based on checks and balances." But while few of the other contributors can find a bad word for Clinton, Bromwich notes that while "everyone admits that the Clinton Foundation has done good works....anyone with a nose can tell that it uneasily mixes philanthropy and aggrandizement." Long a critic of President Obama's foreign policy, Bromwich is appalled by Clinton's.

In brutal vulgarity of sentiment, her statement on the mutilation and murder of Muammar Qaddafi, 'We came, we saw, he died,' and the cackle that followed the proclamation are barely matched by Trump's saying of his failure to pay taxes: 'That makes me smart.'

Bromwich also goes against the liberal grain by identifying and criticizing Clinton and Democrats' perceived attitude toward the working-class whites who lean toward Trump. There's a debate in the media over how to address these people, some arguing reasonably that, regardless of Trump's faults, his campaign has empowered working-class whites to articulate concerns that liberals and progressives ought to take seriously and address compassionately, while others (here's an example) pretty much dismiss all white Trump supporters as haters jealous of their endangered status as the demographic majority of the country and resentful of the ascendancy of anyone other than white men. "Taking Trump supporters seriously means not pretending their concerns are about the economy," Dylan Matthews writes at Vox. He feels justified in saying that because polls and statistics reveal that Trump's fans are not the poorest whites, and because support for Trump correlates in some polls with critical attitudes toward nonwhites. Matthews' own attitude may be what Bromwich is groping toward when he describes Clintonian/Democratic contempt ("not a shred of feeling") for "people who played by the rules and haven't been crowned with success.

The exceptions [to that rule] are the needy and minorities; but that only reinforces the sense that Democrats treat with contempt those whom they cannot patronize. How many non-elite white voters can now be drawn by Trump to vote with their resentment of the selective compassion of liberals? Trump, of all people, with his trademark saying, 'You're fired,' has turned into the candidate of people who feel they have lost out but don't know why -- the people Nathaniel West called 'the cheated.'

I don't know whether West (a 1930s novelist best known for The Day of the Locust) thought his "cheated" actually had been cheated or merely felt that they had, but liberals today clearly believe that Trumpists only believe themselves cheated -- or believe the system "rigged," if you please -- because of "racial resentment." Perhaps they think that Trump's Trash have no business complaining if their once unfairly-large share of the pie has shrunk to a more appropriate size, but one might as readily argue that women and racial minorities are fools to celebrate their larger slices of a shrinking pie. But to listen to most Democrats, once Sen. Sanders was beaten in the primaries, the pie isn't shrinking at all, and only bigots think otherwise. If liberal Democrats' compassion appears selective, it's probably because many think that working-class whites disqualify themselves from compassion for thinking badly of blacks, immigrants or certain women. I've been here before this year but I may as well repeat myself: if Democrats did not spend so much time trying to change working-class white people's minds about nonwhites, and concentrated on improving their economic position while continuing to combat discrimination at the policy level, they might find those people's attitudes softening gradually toward both nonwhites and Democrats. You don't have to say they're right about blacks, immigrants, etc., but you do have to stop reminding them of how wrong they are about everything when you're supposed to be soliciting their votes. "Racial resentment" is inevitable when one group of people is told incessantly that they're the bad guys of history. Trump probably will get at least 40% of the vote simply by telling them they're not. Does that mean we have to tolerate their belief that other groups are the bad guys? I'd prefer "ignore" to "tolerate," just as I'd prefer a campaign that really looks toward the future to those concerned with settling scores from the past.

20 October 2016

Human rights and populist foreign policy

The Obama administration is drawing to a close with another foreign-policy disaster, apparently finalized today when the president of the Philippines announced his intention to cut ties with the U.S. and align himself with China and Russia. This appears to be entirely the consequence of American self-righteousness. Rodrigo Duterte won his election earlier this year as a kind of populist -- some have called him a Filipino Donald Trump, though there's little resemblance in terms of wealth -- and has governed, in at least one respect, as an authoritarian. He has become notorious for his extreme drug-war policies, which reportedly include the sanctioning of vigilante killing of both drug dealers and drug users. Naturally Americans object to this, and Duterte resents that. He has told the President and his diplomats to go to hell, and has told an interviewer that he doesn't give a damn about "human rights" because he has a responsibility to save this and the next generation of Filipinos from the drug scourge, even if he racks up a Hitleresque body count. He sounds like a violent boor, but my right to express a superficial opinion is different from the American diplomatic corps' responsibility to maintain our strategic position in the South Pacific. Yet it seems as if Obama/Kerry State Department is incapable of restraining itself from moralistic lecturing, and incapable of not being surprised when other countries resent the lecturing. Practically the one selling point Donald Trump has with me is the possibility, despite Democratic fearmongering over his impulsive temper, that he and his diplomats would behave differently. It's that quality, of course, that gets Trump accused of being a "puppet" of Vladimir Putin -- his "You're a puppet!" retort probably was his most pathetic moment during the third debate -- the liberal fear being that Trump will prove as indifferent to human rights as Putin or Duterte seems to be. The idea that civil liberties in other countries may not be our business horrifies liberals. They fear that a lack of commitment to human rights everywhere makes your commitment to human rights here questionable. The contrast between their anxiety over any manifestation of "authoritarianism" and Trump's desire to get along with most countries may reveal a distinction between what we could call Trump's populist foreign policy and the approach of the diplomatic mainstream.

Both liberals and many Republicans (particularly the neocons) believe American foreign policy should be dedicated to the defense and advancement of human rights. The neocons are more likely to talk about "natural rights," and to attribute them to God, but both groups believe that a moral law of human rights applies to every nation on Earth. They envision a constant struggle between human/natural rights and authoritarianism, and Duterte's pivot to China may only convince them that the authoritarian tide is advancing to America's peril. For the sake of comparison, let me suggest that populist foreign policy is influenced by a positivist notion of rights. What that means is that rights do not precede politics, that rights are created and local rather than eternal and universal. For example, the rights of American citizens are based on the Constitution and nothing else. The idea that authoritarian tendencies in other countries undermine American rights must appear absurd from that perspective. That would make it easier to maintain a pragmatic, diplomatic indifference toward authoritarianism among allies, as we probably ought to have done regarding Duterte. I don't know how well he and Trump could get along -- Duterte reportedly challenged Trump to a fight after some perceived slight earlier this year -- but do you doubt that Trump would let him do whatever he thinks he's got to do, as long as he remained useful in a part of the world Trump considered important? It would be helpful if someone had thought to ask him and Clinton about the Philippines at the debates, but I suppose everyone thought there were lots of more important questions to ask about the candidates' comparative depravity. That's too bad, because debating how much we should care about the Philippines might clarify how much the candidates really care about their own country.

Keeping things honest

I was down in the city the other day walking along 42nd Street,and there seemed to be more panhandlers than I remembered from recent visits. New York City panhandlers are a more sedentary lot than those I see regularly upstate. Of course, if you set up at the crossroads of the world it's easy to let people come to you; up here they have to hustle to find prospects. Metropolitan panhandlers also seem to be encumbered with more stuff, so it makes more sense to pick one spot and stick to it. Still, I'm surprised more effort isn't made to keep them off one of the main tourist thoroughfares. Maybe that's a DiBlasio thing, to let them stay. Anyway,  when you have a number of panhandlers working the same street you get some creative competition for the attention of passers-by. One fellow takes the always-welcome tongue-in-cheek approach. His sign says his family was killed by pigeons and he needs your money fot BB ammo. Head a few steps east and a man sits ensconced in the niche of a building with a cash box in front of him bearing the legend, "Give me a dollar or I'm voting for Trump." His box appeared to be empty. I think I understand why. After all, this man claims that his vote will be determined by financial donations. He is soliciting a bribe in return for an active or passive vote against Trump. Giving him money would be rigging the election. And no wants to prove Trump right, do they?

17 October 2016

Pressing Trump

The Committee to Protect Journalists has taken the "unprecedented step" of denouncing a U.S. presidential candidate, Donald Trump, as a threat to freedom of the press. The CPJ statement accuses the Republican nominee of having "consistently betrayed First Amendment values." It cites many of his well-known tirades and threats against the media to show that Trump "has consistently demonstrated a contempt for the role of the press beyond offering publicity to him and advancing his interests." For a while I've wanted to ask the people who condemn media bias against Trump why exactly the media should be so hostile to someone who's bound to provide them with plenty of hot copy and clickbait should he be elected. Here, presumably, is a reason, but I imagine that for Trumpists this is a chicken and egg question. If the media is afraid of Trump, they might say, it's because they're afraid of getting what they deserve, whatever that might be. They may resent the lack of accountability the mass media appear to enjoy, and that Trump may intend to remedy, based on his threat to "open up our libel laws." The "mainstream" media is complicit, as far as they're concerned, in the great lie that Trump is something other than the good if not great man his acolytes believe him to be. They remain convinced that Trump is owed something by the media, though the legal basis of that obligation is unclear. Republicans long ago rejected the "equal time" principle or the Fairness Doctrine as threats to the integrity of talk radio and Fox News, so for them to say now that not merely Republicanism but Trumpism is entitled to a voice in the media, or even respect, is hypocritical, just as it would be hypocritical now for advocates of the Fairness Doctrine to say that Trump should expect nothing from the media. What, then, does Trump owe the media? Apart from respecting the First Amendment, who can say? He's within his rights to snub and insult them, I suppose, though that won't win him more favorable coverage. Leaving aside whatever he might do, it's not wrong to ask whether the media should be more accountable when they seem to be one of the great entrenched interests of the country. Since "the media" is a collection of private entities, the first recourse of an angry public is to punish them in the marketplace, though the most that can be done in this regard would be to listen only to the media entity Trump is widely expected to create, should he lose, to exploit his popularity and his fans' anger, and if anything the example of Fox News shows that biased media will only spawn more biased media. If Trump's people want the media to stop "lying," or stop being biased -- that is, stop being biased against them -- nothing short of the "authoritarian power" some want Trump to exercise may do the trick.  I would take these people's objections more seriously if I wasn't convinced that they simply want to silence criticism of Trump, but they do raise questions that ought to be asked without partisanship, and in an ideal world can be answered the same way.

16 October 2016

Does the U.S. need a religious right?

Ross Douthat thinks so. One of the New York Times' house conservatives -- which means that many self-described conservatives probably won't recognize him as one of their own -- Douthat thinks that liberals are gloating too soon at an apparent crack-up of the established religious right over the issue of Donald Trump. The crack-up has split religious conservatives into pro and anti-Trump camps, the latter unable to endorse him after repeated revelations and accusations of sexual thuggery, the former willing to forgive too much, in the eyes of the latter, for no better reason than anti-Clinton partisanship. Douthat doesn't support Trump but wants readers to understand why some devout, apparently moral people might. The main reason is that they think Clinton will be worse for them -- they fear some sort of persecution -- while another is that her condoning of abortion is more immoral than Trump's alleged deeds or recorded fantasies. Douthat also reminds us that many on the religious right opposed Trump during the Republican primaries, preferring Sen. Cruz, Sen. Rubio or Dr. Carson. Overall, however, Douthat is looking beyond 2016. Taking Trump out of the equation, the columnist argues that the country needs a religious right, albeit a really religious one. The Trump movement, he argues, is what you get when you secularize American conservatism. It becomes more divisive than anyone imagined the Moral Majority-era religious right to be. A truly religious right, Douthat hopes, would restore "the pull of transcendance" to conservatism; without it conservatism becomes mere tribalism -- "tribal, cruel and very dark indeed." On an intellectual level I understand what he's trying to say, or at least I understand that he identifies "transcendence" with religion. But there's a certain abstract naivete in his recommendation, since to have a civil society in our time, religion itself, whatever its commitment to transcendence, is one of the things to be transcended. If there's an axis of opinion with "tribalism" at one pole and "transcendence" at the other, it should be obvious to any observer that religion, in any society of many faiths, will always gravitate closer to tribe than to transcendence. The truly transcendent ideal has to be secular in nature because we want citizens' first loyalty to be to the nation and its people as a whole, rather than to the idols or dogma of a particular faith. If anything, Trump's supporters who identify as "religious right" are transcending their dogmas not out of rank partisanship, as Douthat suspects, but out of a sincere if misguided belief that the nation's secular salvation depends on Trump's alleged leadership qualities. But if they're thinking essentially in secular terms, they still remain a sort of religious right. Their religion just happens to be Trump, and that may be what really bothers Douthat. A cult of personality has come into being, increasingly as intolerant of irreverence toward its idol as many Muslims are in their defense of Muhammad. The growing ugliness of this cult may make Douthat idealize the old religion and the old religious right, but those truly committed to secular civilization should reject the idea that the only alternative to some sort of Trump cult is a religious right that did little good for the nation in its heyday and is unlikely to help in the future.

13 October 2016

The real multicultural America

As accusations and anger escalate in the last month of the 2016 presidential campaign, the nation seems divided as never before, or at least more deeply divided than we've seen it in a very long time. It's this division that sustains two of the most miserable excuses for major-party candidates the country has ever seen. It's easy to say that only hatred for Clinton keeps Trump alive as a candidate, and vice versa, but this apparent loop of codependency may not entirely explain the invulnerability of each candidate with his or her base. That is, it doesn't account for what each camp sees as a lack of appropriate moral outrage in the other over the other candidate's failings. What amounts to a cultural divide is most apparent in the controversy over Trump's macho banter captured on a 2005 recording. I don't think that it's just because they hate Hillary Clinton that Trump's real fans have failed to show the outrage the Clinton camp seems to consider obligatory following the revelation. There is, instead, a rejection of the premise that Trump's banter disqualifies him from public office, not just because Bill Clinton is assumed to have said or done the same or worse, but because the Trump people, or many of them, are simply indifferent to it. Media people have been scratching their heads over this phenomenon because that indifference seems utterly alien to them. Only two different cultural mindsets  -- products of age and perhaps education more than anything else --could hear the same things and respond so differently.

The outraged response is what might be expected from a culture identified with "political correctness" and concerned with a social etiquette based on unconditional respect for fellow citizens. According to that etiquette Trump is irredeemably disrespectful, and while consistency might require a retroactive disqualification of Bill Clinton, liberals will remind you that he's not running this year and that his wife is not responsible for his libido. While the other side is happy to call the Clintons and Clintonites out for hypocrisy, by their own standards Trump's utterances or inferred deeds are not a big deal. The consistent line of defense I've heard from female Trump supporters is that all men talk that way in private, or that all people do so, and that such talk is irrelevant to public life. That's just part of what we can call a ballbusting culture to accentuate the contrast with p.c. culture. These people do not spare each other in their banter, confident in the assumption that those in their own culture can take it and disturbed when p.c. outsiders refuse to accept it. While p.c. culture seeks to carve out ever more "safe space" where people's self-esteem isn't threatened by perceived insults or suspicious gazes, the ballbusters have never sought a society founded on unconditional respect, much less unconditional love -- there's not a lot of tribal solidarity among white people, after all -- and pride themselves on their thick skins and overall toughness. To them, to take offense as easily as p.c. does is an admission of weakness that should be cured -- by shock therapy of some sort if necessary -- rather than catered to. Unfortunately, liberals' defense of Clinton can't be explained in terms of their p.c. culture. Something else explains their indifference to the email scandals that have so horrified and nauseated the Trump camp -- perhaps an assumption that, contrary to the Trumpist belief, some ordinary person doing the same things would not be fired or arrested but ignored. Maybe it does come back to p.c. if Clintonites assume that something is being made up of nothing only because their candidate is a woman. In any event, it does seem obvious that p.c. Clintonites feel that ballbusting Trumpists have blown the email issue out of all proportion, just as the Clintonites appear to the Trumpists to have blown Trump's sex talk out of all proportion. We're left with perceptions, possibly culturally determined, that Clinton either gets away with stuff because she's a privileged elitist -- and it may be that ballbusting culture limits what people can "get away with" -- or else is singled out unfairly for special abuse because of who or what she is or represents. Consider these speculations just the beginning of an idea that can stand more work. For now, let me note in closing that the exception that may prove the rule for ballbusters is how whiny they get when their whole culture is challenged, as it seems to be now.