31 August 2015

Black rage matters

This morning I read that Kanye West, in a moment of altered consciousness during an awards show last night, announced his candidacy for the 2020 Presidential election. I don't think he meant that too seriously, but it was an intriguing coincidence, since I had just read Mychal Denzel Smith's article in the August 31 Nation tracing the "Rebirth of Black Rage" to West's notorious accusation, during a fundraising program for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, that George W. Bush didn't care about black people. Smith draws a line from that unscripted outburst to the Black Lives Matter movement, albeit with a significant interruption during Barack Obama's first Presidential campaign. Smith's article is a defense -- more than that, a vindication -- of black rage, defined as "a radical critique of the system of racism that has upheld all of our institutions and made living black in America a special form of hell." It "cuts through [the] bullshit" whenever anyone claims that "racism is a nonfactor" or unilaterally declares racial harmony in America.  It's "about holding America accountable," and Smith, anticipating critics, asserts that "If black rage has prevented alliances from forging, those are likely not alliances that would have yielded much in the way of progress anyway." President Obama is faulted for trying to suppress healthy, legitimate, black rage. He accuses the President (whose job, Smith understands, is "not to represent black America") of perpetrating, in several of his best-regarded speeches, an "invalidation of black rage." Obama too often goes out of his way to "make black anger seem unjustified or undignified." He does this, Smith argues, whenever he indulges in "false moral equivalencies" like discussing black-on-black crime during the Trayvon Martin controversy or observing that rage distracts blacks from addressing (in Obama's words) "our own complicity ... in our own condition." Such rhetoric from a President in Obama's unique historic position "provides further ammunition for those who believe that black people's anger at racism is unjustified."

I think Smith meant to write that such people believe that black people's perception of racism is unjustified. What Smith seems to mean by "black rage" is a permanent j'accuse directed at the American (and implicitly white) establishment, an insistence that racism remains the necessary and sufficient cause of racial inequality, black poverty, and black crime, independent of the behavior of black people. It rejects a perceived argument that, after a certain degree of progress culminating in Obama's elections, black behavior becomes, if not the necessary and sufficient cause of black poverty, than at least a significant cause independent of the country's racist heritage. In short, black rage doesn't want to hear "the added moralizing about sagging pants, missing fathers and 'acting white'" that Obama and other black leaders feel obliged to include in their speeches and writings. As defined by Smith, black rage presumes that, since "racism has built America," nothing short of radical change as yet unseen can take the blame off a racist society and culture. Black Lives Matter expresses this rage by demanding that politicians recognize a problem believed to impact blacks disproportionately if not exclusively and deal with that problem even if doing so is perceived by the opposition to benefit only black people. It's not surprising that Smith's own checklist for radical exchange barely extends past the criminal justice system. Giving Obama credit for once following a recent speech, Smith notes approvingly the President's call for "the end of mass incarceration, the reduction or elimination of mandatory-minimum sentencing, the restoration of voting rights for the formerly incarcerated, the end of rape in prisons, and more." It seems that Smith, if not Obama, could be more radical yet, but to be truly radical in social and political terms would be to go beyond what the most enraged blacks demand most urgently. Some of their demands are as legitimate as they are urgent, but just as black rage protests that the country hasn't changed enough, it may be that black rage itself doesn't demand enough change. This is the ground from which to critique black rage in general or Black Lives Matter in particular. It isn't the position of stubborn universalism (i.e. "All lives matter, stupid!") but it assumes that black lives won't be made that much better by policies that assume that only black people are wronged in this country, and that if blacks are satisfied by changes that soothe their particular sense of grievance only, then self-interested racial justice may fall tragically short of real social justice. To sum up, Black Lives Matter is a fine thing to say, but if that's all anyone has to say, if it ends the discussion, then too little has actually been said.

26 August 2015

Amoklauf on the air

It was only a matter of time before an amoklaufer filmed his fatal exploits, and this time the killer was a veteran of the TV news business. His phone made him a player in the ultimate first-person shooter game. So absorbed in their work were his targets -- to him, his tormentors, -- a TV reporter and her cameraman, not to mention the woman being interviewed, that the gunman could stand, from our perspective, right in front of them and level his gun more than once for the camera's benefit before finally opening fire. Then the victim's camera caught the reporter screaming and stumbling out of frame as the cameraman fell, and then this camera, with the new objectivity of death, captured the killer as he surveyed his handiwork. It's the ultimate "found footage" horror film when you put the two streams together, but for the murderer it was, as usual, revenge for a lifetime of slights. White people were mean to him because he was black. Black people were mean to him because he was gay. Gay people probably had some reason to be mean to him, and probably all these groups had good reasons. He didn't match the typical amoklauf profile of the angry white man, but he did take inspiration, so it's said, from the Columbine killers, just as he supposedly was galvanized to take up the gun by the Charleston massacre, and in the end he's just another disgruntled former employee taking things out on his former co-workers. We really ought to have a national employment database so we can track people who've been fired under particularly intense circumstances -- the TV station reportedly had to call 911 when they let this guy go -- and that should factor into whether you let such a person buy a gun, as this guy did without any known hitch earlier this year. I don't know whether this would be practical, but the idea hasn't got a chance in our political environment whether it's practical or not. Because too many people who refuse to trust government or almost any other institution demand that we trust them absolutely to be "good guys with guns," the bad guys with guns will keep on killing.

25 August 2015

A candidate kicks out a reporter; what will the media do?

No wonder Donald Trump is polling well. He seems to be the primary topic on CNN every evening, and while reporters may say they're paying attention because of the poll numbers I would add that his numbers probably remain high because of all the attention he gets from the media. I wonder if this will change following Trump's latest escapade. He kicked a news anchor for the Univision network, the most popular Spanish-language channel in the country, out of a news conference tonight. To be fair, the Univision reporter apparently tried to ask questions out of turn, and Trump did later allow him back in to ask his questions, but this couldn't look good to the rest of the media. There are ways to rebuke a reporter who speaks out of turn, and reasons to do so, above all his or her disrespect to fellow professionals, but throwing one out, especially one reputed to be the most influential Spanish-language reporter on TV, made it look, at least temporarily, as if Trump wasn't so much concerned with other reporters but simply didn't want to hear his questions. While this may be interpreted as part of Trump's grudge with Hispanics, could other reporters see this as a preview of how Nominee or President Trump might treat them if he decides he doesn't like them? Will they begin to treat him as something besides the ratings bonanza they apparently perceive him to be? After all, this is a man who intends to interpret the Fourteenth Amendment to suit himself, regardless of precedents. Why wouldn't he also interpret the First Amendment the same way, for the same reasons? Maybe he'd think differently if the media carried out a one-day-or-more boycott of his campaign to protest his treatment of a fellow journalist. But who am I kidding? His stunt today is just the sort of wild act reporters hope to see by following him so closely and thoroughly. Reporters are a competitive lot, and when they see one of their own treated a little roughly, you have to wonder whether they see a threat or they simply see news.

24 August 2015

The bull (in the China) market

Is Mao laughing? From all appearances it looks like the Chinese are making all the same mistakes in the stock market that capitalists make. Their markets are tanking despite government efforts to prop it up, and in our globalized economy that means markets everywhere suffer. If anyone had an idea that, as an authoritarian government, the Chinese Communists (should they be called CINOs?) would ignore hysteria and take wise steps to right a listing economy, recent developments make that idea look silly. In a desperate looking effort to get more money into the market, the Chinese are now allowing pension funds to buy into the market. They're also encouraging individuals to invest and speculate more. Americans could have told them these are not really the ways to stabilize a turbulent market. Nor has the advice of Marx, Lenin, Mao or Deng kept the Chinese from pumping up a bubble that now seems to have burst. I know that Deng set China on a path of creating wealth before creating socialism, but I would have thought that there'd be more caution on that path and a lot less recklessness. But the Chinese seem to have gone full capitalist on the assumption that greed is good during at least one necessary stage in history. They've gone to the opposite extreme from Mao's insistence on imposing collectivization and industrial production on an unprepared populace, and to be fair to the current generation we most likely won't see the sort of mass starvation that Mao's policies caused. But objective observers would have expected China to seek a middle ground, having experienced Mao's excesses yet remaining conscious, as Communists, of capitalist excesses. But despite what they may think of themselves as Communists or as Chinese, they are only human and some temptations, it seems, were too great for them. They also face the same problem as the rest of the world: they need consumers more than they need workers in an increasingly automated economy, but people need work, or else government subsidies, in order to consume. Developed nations everywhere have more people than their economies can use -- as their economies are now arranged -- and in persistently underdeveloped countries the situation is worse. Booms and bubbles inevitably fail because consumption has limits, some natural, some artificially imposed. Ideally an economy will neither boom nor bust when its first priority is providing for everyone's needs, not rewarding the greediest. You're not going to see such an economy under capitalism or under any kind of Communism we currently see on earth. But as progressives say, another world should be possible in which investments in real progress aren't crapshoots and success means everyone wins. Just don't depend on someone to give you that world. Ordinary people have to make it themselves.

21 August 2015

The Cruz-Page Debate

Back in 1959 Vice-President Nixon got into an impromptu discussion with Soviet Premier Khrushchev on the merits of capitalism during the opening of an American exhibition in Moscow. If that has gone down in history as the "Kitchen Debate," since it took place in a model American kitchen, then today may be remembered as the day of the Barbecue or Grill Debate between Senator Cruz of Texas, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and the actress Ellen Page, an open lesbian. Cruz reportedly didn't know he was being questioned by a celebrity, but after having to share a stage with Donald Trump the senator might be excused for feeling he was the star on this occasion. Perhaps taking a, ahem, page from the Black Lives Matter playbook, the actress was determined to, err, grill the candidate on the issue of gay rights. She sought specifically to challenge his narrative of gay-lobby persecution of Christians for their principled opposition to gay marriage. Page contends that homosexuals here and abroad remain more subject to "persecution" than Christian homophobes here, while Cruz insists that it's unfair for devout bakers to lose their livelihood for refusing to accommodate homosexuals. He challenged Page with a theoretical opposite case: what if openly gay bakers refused to prepare a cake for an openly Christian wedding because they deemed Christianity homophobic? Both disputants took consistent positions: Cruz argued that the gay bakers should have a right to refuse service on conscientious grounds, while Page implicitly denied such a right.

The modern progressive claim of a right to service that trumps any moral or quasi-moral objections is an interesting debate subject in its own right, but Cruz moved to another, more bizarre line of argument. He argued that compelling religious homophobes to provide service to gay weddings was morally equivalent to compelling rabbis or imams to perform Christian wedding ceremonies. Was he implicitly equating the gay-rights movement with a religious denomination? Was he equating service to homosexuals with apostasy or blasphemy? That's how many homophobes seem to see it, but I still think that's the weak point of their argument. Had Page been more limber-minded she might have asked Cruz the key question: do you think the bakers would go to hell if they had baked the damn cake? Does Christian salvation in the 21st century depend on resistance to gay marriage? If Cruz or any other homophobe answers with anything less than "yes" then they have no case -- but then again my notion of what the First Amendment protects is fairly narrow, not going beyond a believer's right to live without condemning himself to his religion's particular form of damnation. So if Cruz demands constitutional protection for homophobia he should get some pretty solid theological authority, for believers at least, to prove that his salvation depends on not baking a cake.

Still seeking stronger ground, Cruz suggested that Page, a typical liberal, was either practicing a double standard or was being a coward by focusing on such petty business as American homophobia when the evildoers in the Middle East were executing gays as a matter of policy. Page sought to remind Cruz that violent homophobia was not an exclusively Islamic phenomenon. She mentioned homophobic violence in Jamaica but could have mentioned all sorts of shenanigans in Africa, perhaps the most homophobic continent regardless of religion, as well as recent homophobic legislation in India. Cruz, not seeming to understand that Page was talking about violence, took the typical Republican scandalized tone at her "moral equation" of Jamaica, a country that simply had different values from hers ("They're not going to have a gay-pride parade"), with the evils perpetrated by Iran and its enemy, the self-styled Islamic State. I suppose Cruz wishes all us Americans could come together on delenda est Islamism and forget our selfish identity politics, but Page rejected the idea that her desire to talk to the President about homophobic persecution in Islamic lands meant that she agreed with Cruz on something. By this point Cruz had gone several minutes beyond the point at which he'd told Page that he didn't want to have a back-and-forth debate, but by this point, I suspect, he also realized that he would get an extra sliver of media time on a day when Trump was scheduled to hold his biggest campaign rally to date. A practiced politician, he would say he won -- as do his supporters online -- but to this admittedly biased observer he did not demonstrate why the homophobia of bakers or other businesspeople merited the respect of ordinary citizens, much less the protection of the arbiters of the U.S. Constitution. I'm tempted to say that he has little chance against his fellow candidates if he can't even win a debate with an actor, but for one thing that would make an unjustified assumption about the relative wits of actors and politicians, and for another -- though this merely amplifies my first point -- all his rivals are Republicans, too.

17 August 2015

Buckley, Mailer, Vidal ...

After thinking it over a while I've put these names in alphabetical order. I'd thought of putting them in some sort of ideological order, with Buckley on the right (of course), but what to do with the other two? Neither Normal Mailer nor Gore Vidal could be called a centrist, but you could argue for putting either man in the center of this trio, depending on whether Mailer or Vidal was further left. But that depends on how you define left, and that's part of the point of this exercise. In a way, however, Buckley is the center figure of this triptych. He co-stars with Vidal in a documentary currently playing the big cities that covers a feud that climaxed during the 1968 Democratic convention, and he co-stars with Mailer in Kevin M. Schultz's new book. I suspect that Schultz's book got subtitled by some publishing house PR person rather than by the author himself, for while that subtitle describes a "difficult friendship that shaped the Sixties," the book itself refutes that premise.

According to Schultz himself, Buckley and Mailer tried to shape the decade but were overwhelmed by events. Schultz convinced me that a great movie could me made with Buckley, Mailer and Vidal as protagonists and antagonists, with Vidal representing the other two's failure to shape the Sixties. Both Buckley and Mailer had explosive TV encounters with Vidal, and the great inexplicable omission of Schultz's book is his failure to describe the Mailer-Vidal debate on the Dick Cavett show after going into great detail on the Buckley-Vidal battle overlooking the Chicago police riot. Vidal was a nemesis for both men in instructive ways, and he wasn't the only one. Buckley and Mailer themselves were opposed nearly diametrically over ideology but had -- at least so Mailer perceived -- a common enemy in the "liberalism" that prevailed during the 1950s. We don't think of any sort of liberalism prevailing then, but as far as Buckley was concerned the failure of the first Republican President since FDR to reverse the New Deal meant liberalism still prevailed, while Mailer identified "liberalism" exactly with the repressive, conformist tendencies we usually identify with that decade. Buckley helped shape the second half of the twentieth century by using his National Review magazine to redefine conservatism in terms of resistance to encroaching statism and the dependence it inflicted on Americans. What Buckley didn't realize, or so Mailer thought, was that the bourgeois capitalism Buckley idealized in contrast to statism and socialism was complicit in what Mailer saw as a paradoxical liberal totalitarianism. In Mailer's view, public and private sectors alike ruled by fear -- specifically by creating and spreading fears to be alleviated by the national-security state and by consumer goods. Mailer preferred to be thought of as a radical than as a liberal -- and concocted labels for himself such as "libertarian socialist" and "left conservative" -- and hated it when he was said to represent liberalism in his various debates with Buckley. It's not clear how much of Mailer's argument Buckley comprehended, but he did appreciate that Mailer idealized some sort of self-reliance, in his eccentric way, that conservatives could admire.

Both men hoped to continue their debate across the years and in that way shape the debate they felt the nation should have, but the moral of Schultz's story is that, however expansive their interests and their egos, these two Ivy League intellectuals could not encompass the nation and its more self-consciously diverse populace. Vidal embodies this to an extent as a homosexual, though the man himself, open enough about his preferences, was oldschool enough that he disdained labeling himself with a capital H for political purposes. He also arguably represents a shallower leftism that defined itself nearly as much against what self-styled Radicals like Mailer stood for as against the obvious offenses of Buckley. Mailer was hit on a lot of fronts during the Sixties and Seventies, and Schultz offers us James Baldwin, gay like Vidal but also black, as a more intellectually serious nemesis for his protagonists who called Mailer out on his, euphemistically speaking, fetishized notions of black masculinity and cleaned Buckley's clock, metaphorically speaking, in an Oxford debate on American race relations. For other critics, including Vidal and increasingly assertive feminists, Mailer's perceived male chauvinism belied his radicalism. In broader terms, Mailer's sensuality was overtaken by a hedonism he (and, more obviously, Buckley) distrusted. The difference is importance. Mailer was often denounced as a degenerate because of some of the sex scenes he wrote, not to mention nearly murdering one of his wives. Buckley's first impression of the man was that Mailer wanted to reduce civilization to an orgy. But while Mailer's sensuality valued sensation as an end unto itself, the liberalism he despised and the counterculture that eventually repulsed him seemed more interested in avoiding pain or the risk of it -- for the counterculture this meant dropping out -- than in taking a chance in pursuit of unprecedented sensation. Mailer's sensuality was heroic in what could be caricatured as a Captain Kirk way, rejecting peace as an end unto itself and finding necessary stimulation in constant challenge. Vidal took an extreme position, perhaps only for the sake of provocation, in saying there was little difference between Mailer's attitude and that of Charles Manson, but many others found Mailer too turbulent, bombastic and domineering for their own utopia of tolerance and equal respect for all.

By comparison, Buckley seemed more vindicated by posterity as the conservatism he fostered came into power, but Schultz suggests that Buckley grew increasingly uncomfortable with an irrepressibly anti-intellectual element of the movement as people turned conservative (or at least Republican) not because of a philosophical conversion but because they hated certain groups of people. The Chicago convention is Schultz's climax, with both Buckley and Mailer horrified by what they see, Buckley by what he privately called "fascist" police excesses, Mailer by a rebellion that looked self-indulgent and ultimately aimless. In my theoretical movie the true climax would be the moment when Buckley, goaded by Vidal, threatens to turn into Mailer, threatening to "sock you in the goddam face" over the "crypto-Nazi" jibe, while Mailer, who has detached himself from the protests, watches the carnage in the streets from his hotel room. It's the moment when their quest to shape the Sixties ended once and for all. Buckley reportedly was deeply embarrassed by his own outburst, though he never forgave Vidal for provoking it, and for all his approval of future Republican victories he may have seen too much of his own anger in those victories. For what it's worth all three men opposed the occupation of Iraq, converging on that point if on nothing else. If all three men seem to be in fresh vogue, it may be because however much their arguments grew thuggish, they still seem like intellectual giants, on the strength of their published work, not to mention charismatic superstars compared to what passes for public intellectuals or political opinionators today. None of them, not even Vidal, would be politically correct today, but while they were as unapologetic as some of today's blowhards, history may argue that they had less to apologize for.

13 August 2015

A Buckleyan Moment?

You read and hear a lot about William F. Buckley lately. You read some of it here, where I invoked the late National Review mastermind in attempting to explain Fox News's seemingly shocking toughness toward Donald Trump. George Will invokes Buckley more forcefully in a column urging Republicans to read Trump out of their party. For Will, Trump's coarseness and his apparent inconsistency of principles make him unfit to be a Republican, let alone the party's presidential nominee. By invoking Buckley, Will dubs Trump and his most passionate supporters the moral (or maybe just the aesthetic) equivalent of the John Birch Society. Something everyone seems to know about Buckley, if they know him at all, is that he somehow marginalized the Birchers, discouraging Republicans from pandering to them, if not from seeking their support entirely, at a moment when they seemed to be a rising force in American life. To many Americans in his day Buckley himself was an irrational extremist, but while he was indisputably an ideologue he felt his ideology was founded in reason, not to mention faith, in a way the Birchers' conspiracy-mongering (e.g. President Eisenhower was a Commie agent) demonstrably wasn't. Now, Will lashes out at Trump's purported populism, warning the other Republican candidates that Trump's base is unworthy of their attention. The argument that Trump must be taken seriously, or handled with kid gloves, because he "taps into something" that other Republicans could exploit, Will dismisses with contempt. Third parties and fringe candidates are always "tapping into something," he admits, but it never amounts to much. He cites the 1948 election, which Harry Truman won despite his Democratic party being split in three by bolters left and right, to calm any worries that Trump might ruin Republicans' chances should he run as an independent. For Will, if Trump has a virtue it's that he makes Tea Partiers ("those earnest, issue-oriented, book-club organizing activists who are passionate about policy") look rational and serious. Just as religious homophobes condemned Fred Phelps' excesses in order to appear less excessive themselves, so Will condemns Trump on behalf of the Tea Party, telling us that one really is the yahoo we assume the others to be. I still agree that Trump will prove evanescent again, but I'm not as sure as Will seems to be that the appeal and impact of his scathing style won't survive him. Meanwhile, to prove that this is a Buckleyan moment, I will have more to say about the man once I've finished a fascinating book about his ambivalent relationship with Normal Mailer -- and by then I may have seen the new documentary about his feud with Gore Vidal. See what I mean?

12 August 2015

Who opposes peace in Syria?

Talks between Iran and Turkey have resulted in a temporary truce between their proxies fighting in Syria, for and against the Assad regime respectively. Talks between Russia and Saudi Arabia earlier this week didn't go as well. It seems now that the Saudis, perhaps more than the Americans, are the main obstacle to a resolution of the Syrian conflict that would result in a united effort to crush the self-styled Islamic State. The sticking point, as it has been for some time, remains whether Assad should participate in peace negotiations. Since he is the leader of the country, whether people like that or not -- and a lot of Syrians clearly don't -- his participation makes sense. The Saudis, however, are taking an American-style "Assad Must Go" stance, going so far as to blame him, rather than the people fighting him, for the rise of the dread Daesh. As far as they're concerned, Assad had no right to defend himself against the original uprising. As far as the rest of us are concerned, while an early Assad capitulation might well have prevented the Daesh from gaining strength in the best of all possible worlds, a mutual refusal of reconciliation leaves all Syrian forces, as well as the outsiders supporting them, with shares of blame for the current crisis. Blaming Assad alone for it is like Republican neocons blaming President Obama for not giving enough support to the alleged moderates in the country -- some of whom proved their relative prowess anew recently by getting captured by Islamist militias -- when the President bears blame for supporting anyone in the first place.

Not only is everyone fighting everyone in Syria, but there also, more so now than anyplace else on Earth, the perfect is the enemy of the good. The good at this point is defeating the would-be caliphate, but there are too many perfects jostling for attention. The Saudis, presumably, want a perfectly Sunni-friendly regime, i.e. one free of Iranian influence, while the Americans, presumably, want a perfect liberal democracy, but will settle for a government free of Iranian influence, and the Iranians, presumably, think things were perfect in Syria under a hereditary non-Sunni dictator before people got uppity. But if Iran is to be chided for its complacent attitude toward an unsavory ally, let's keep the main idea of the moment in mind: A Daesh takeover of Syria would be worse than an indefinite continuation of Assad or Baathist government. It should also be self-evident that continued chaos in the country would be worse than Assad or his party staying in power. Is it such a betrayal of principles or presumed long-term interests to concede these points? If not, then let's move on to the next steps. What assurances can Assad give the Saudis in order to reconcile them to his remaining in power, or sharing it with responsible rebel factions? Can he give the assurances the Saudis (and Americans) presumably want without alienating his best friends, the Iranians? Can the Iranians give assurances that will placate the Saudis? Presuming that Russia is really more concerned with Syria, where they have a naval base, than with Iran, might the Russians not put pressure Iran to give the Saudis whatever assurances are necessary to reconcile them to Assad? As for the U.S., I suspect that Obama's insistence on the nuclear treaty is based on a hope that it will make a comprehensive coalition against the Daesh, but the last I heard, even he was taking the hard "Assad Must Go" line. Politics may compel him to do so, but he ought to realize that that position is strategically unsustainable and, with the privilege of a lame duck, act on that realization. After all, could Israel and its American idolaters really get more offended at him for "appeasing" Assad than they are now over the Iran deal?

Yet Obama himself, however un-American many Americans think him to be, may still entertain the liberal delusion that the best, and thus the necessary and only possible solution, must do without dictators. I don't buy the "the perfect is the enemy of the good" argument in domestic politics, but it definitely applies to Syria, especially when insisting on the "perfect" actually strengthens the worst. In the U.S. and probably elsewhere, so-called statesmen spend too much time promoting the perfect when their first priority ought to be preventing the worst. When the worst option is as self-evident as the Daesh seems to be, everyone needs to swallow some pride and put aside their perfect dreams for awhile -- and if that means Assad wins, tough. Winston Churchill, explaining his rapprochement with Stalin's USSR during Operation Barbarossa, said that he'd make an alliance with the Devil if Hitler invaded Hell. However bad Assad may be, he is neither the Devil nor Stalin -- so how hard can this be, everybody?

10 August 2015

If black lives matter, build a party

Yesterday's commemorative violence in Ferguson MO, which if anything has only alienated whites further from the "Black Lives Matter" movement from the evidence I've seen, overshadowed another alienating incident earlier that weekend: another attempt to shout down Sen. Sanders by black protesters for his perceived failure to forefront their issue in his presidential campaign. Sanders bounced back with a big rally and promises a more proactive stance on black issues with the hiring of Symone Sanders (no relation) as his "national press secretary" and the de facto black face of his campaign. But his struggles continue to illustrate both the shifting limits of an intellectual progressive's outreach to the ethnic poor who are crucial to the election of any leftish candidate in this country and the limits of a protest campaign that seeks to intimidate existing candidates into adopting its agenda. The urgent relevance of the "Black Lives Matter" movement by now ought to be self-evident to all but those for whom indifference to black perceptions is a matter of alleged principle, and a self-styled progressive like Sanders should not seem to accept this grudgingly. But to act as if nothing else matters but the vulnerability of blacks to excessive police force is inevitably isolating and alienating, if not ignorant of the inevitable truth that the crisis blacks perceive will be resolved only as part of a package of broader reforms in which everyone should be interested. To act like you want to hear about nothing but police brutality will only encourage politicians to recalculate the necessity of your support -- unless activists and protesters turn their demand for attention into a positive threat. We can tell by now that there are some black people who won't vote for Sanders unless he addresses the police issue to their satisfaction. Those voters can take themselves off the board, in the event that Hillary Clinton or Martin O'Malley prove unsatisfactory, and then the candidates will turn their attention to the people more likely to vote. If "Black Lives Matter" hopes to force its agenda into the campaign, its exponents would be better off making clear as soon as possible that in the last resort there's someone they will vote for, so that they remain on the board as an inescapable factor in all candidates' calculations. Instead of disrupting other people's parties, they need to build their own. It needn't be a "black" party, since there are plenty of people of other races for whom black lives (and votes!) matter, and in any event it'll be an uphill struggle for acceptance among blacks for whom the Democratic party, with all its faults, is the only defense against the barbarians. It's easier, of course, to try to pressure Democrats into taking up the cause, but they won't be seriously pressured unless they believe refusal will lead to votes being cast against them instead of merely going uncast. If protesters do nothing but shout down the likes of Sanders and O'Malley, they will only seem to confirm the stereotype that they only know how to tear things down. Let them build something, and politicians will probably come to them, if only to beg them to stop -- and then terms can be dictated. The one thing that can't be done is even threaten to stay home on Election Day. If anyone does that, then black lives don't matter to them as much as they say.

07 August 2015

A populist revolt against Fox News?

I get to hear first-hand opinion from right-wingers at my job and what I've heard since last night echoes reports like this one about dissatisfaction with the Republican presidential debate on Fox News. The general complaint seems to be that the Fox panel asked too many "gotcha" questions of the candidates. While some assume that Donald Trump was the principal target, disgust seems widespread among followers of many candidates. The prevailing feeling is that events like this debate are the candidates' main opportunity to make their positions known to the wider public while differentiating themselves from their rivals. Seen that way, moderators and panelists only seem to get in the way. They're assumed to be self-serving or biased for or against particular candidates. Some take it for granted, for instance, that the Republican "establishment" (whatever that is at this point) was using Fox to try to break Trump or at least blunt his momentum. Especially with ten people on the podium, it's understandable if audiences feel that the candidates were denied the fullest opportunity to define themselves rather than be defined, presumably, by panelists' questions. If this feeling persists, it will represent a dramatic reversal in the status of Fox News within the Republican/conservative movement, or else it will show that many of us, including the people at Fox, misunderstood its status. To me it seemed that Fox aspired to represent "conservatism" rather than the Republican party. Its virtue, for those who found it virtuous, seemed to be that its popular prime-time commentators could hold Republicans accountable to the conservative movement. In the minds of Roger Ailes and the other leading figures at Fox, the news channel probably was meant to serve the same role for today's conservative movement that National Review magazine played sixty years ago. It would insist on ideological soundness while guarding against crazy extremes. National Review and its founder William F. Buckley were credited for Republican repudiation of conspiracy mongers like the John Birch Society, while Fox News presumably made a similar statement when it did away with Glenn Beck's program. The Republican party is having a "populist" moment, however, as indicated by the fresh surge of interest in Donald Trump, and populism abhors gatekeepers. Trump supporters in particular seem to think that Fox is part of an "establishment" whose inferred hostility to their man makes Fox part of the problem -- perhaps because even there some civility is expected -- rather than part of the solution. The Birchers of the 1960s probably felt the same way about Buckley and National Review, but gatekeeping was more effective back then, while it's more difficult now to relegate anyone to a harmless fringe. But there's more than one way to look at the debate over the debate. The positive, populist interpretation is that supporters of Trump and other insurgents simply resent a perceived effort to suppress voices that need to be heard. The other side of the story is that some people feel that no one, not even so supposedly trusted an institution as Fox News, has a right to question their idol's worthiness to lead. If the debate proved anything, it's that on some level Fox remains committed to journalism as opposed to exclusive partisan cheerleading, as it was back on Election Night 2012 when reporters humiliated Karl Rove for denying their statistical projections of an Obama victory. It may also hint now, if not prove in retrospect, that more than Fox News itself, the Fox News audience is a Frankenstein monster destined to turn on its creator.

Freedom of Machetes and Freedom of Speech

The problem with honor, however much we may lament its absence in some quarters, is that it often compels to irrational extremes in its defense. On some level, honor may be the irrational extreme of the universal human demand for respect. As I wrote yesterday, militant Islamists who kill to defend the "honor" of their religion or its prophet stand at the far extreme of the politics of honor and respect. Another proof of that made the news today: Islamists in Bangladesh murdered a reputed "secularist" blogger in the latest such attack in that country. Taking credit for the murder, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent hurls defiance at defenders of freedom of speech and civil liberty. As quoted in a Bangladeshi news site, the Islamists say: "O Enemies of Allah...If your 'Freedom of Speech' knows no limits, then widen your chests for 'Freedom of our Machetes.'"

This is a primitive assertion of accountability for offensive speech, beyond any right of informal reprisal we might envision for slanderous or bigoted speech. Just as we shouldn't want to bring back duelling -- at least in lethal form -- we shouldn't accept this as merely the predictable consequence of provoking savages. It's also a case of an unreasonable demand for respect. Islamists can't forbid the world from questioning Muhammad and his legacy, except in their dream world where they're the rightful rulers over everyone. While liberals may be criticized for wanting too many guarantees of their safety or rights at the expense of effective government, we should all agree that your life should never be forfeit for words you've uttered. At the same time, it remains arguable that a polity in which we can say anything we please about people, without any consequences, formal or informal, has weaknesses of its own that seem increasingly apparent in the U.S. today, where too many people make their indifference to others' opinions or feelings a point of pride. There's a particularly bourgeois (rather than aristocratic) attitude at work here that refuses automatic respect to anyone, richer or poorer, much less to whole groups of people. Of course we can't hope to change people's hearts, but it may be necessary to compel some sort of superficial respect, at the least, if the civil society so lauded as the foundation of liberal democracy is actually to remain civil. But we can't embark on such a project without begging the question: what exactly about us is entitled to automatic respect? If we refuse to grant automatic respect to Islam -- meaning that we won't refrain from insulting Muslims' delicate sensibilities with atheism and blasphemy -- where else can we rightly draw a line and say this is not entitled to respect? The key is the definition of respect. A truly civil society will respect Islam, but not on the terms demanded by Islamists. In the end, society must be able to tell disgruntled people that, as far as we are concerned, you are not so disrespected that you have any right to demand redress or silence opinion -- but the process by which we arrive at that point had better be as inclusive as possible. That's when we all demand satisfaction, but when it's over we all have to be satisfied. Something like this is arguably happening informally already amid all the controversies over political correctness and hate speech, but it's too haphazard for anyone's comfort and the old admonitions to "grow up" or "get over it" aren't working like they used to. Whether some sort of spontaneous order will develop out of this mess remains to be seen, but it's not looking good right now.
must be as inclusive as possible. In a truly democratic society, neither the individual nor any constituent group is the first nor the final judge of what he or they are due from the rest of us.
“O! Enemies of Allah (swt) and His Messenger (pbuh), Wait for us! For we are coming towards you. If your 'Freedom of Speech' maintains no limits, then widen your chests for 'Freedom of our Machetes.' - See more at: http://www.dhakatribune.com/crime/2015/aug/07/aqis-says-its-members-killed-niloy-neel#sthash.YiF9jiTd.dpuf
“O! Enemies of Allah (swt) and His Messenger (pbuh), Wait for us! For we are coming towards you. If your 'Freedom of Speech' maintains no limits, then widen your chests for 'Freedom of our Machetes.' - See more at: http://www.dhakatribune.com/crime/2015/aug/07/aqis-says-its-members-killed-niloy-neel#sthash.YiF9jiTd.dpuf
“O! Enemies of Allah (swt) and His Messenger (pbuh), Wait for us! For we are coming towards you. If your 'Freedom of Speech' maintains no limits, then widen your chests for 'Freedom of our Machetes.' - See more at: http://www.dhakatribune.com/crime/2015/aug/07/aqis-says-its-members-killed-niloy-neel#sthash.YiF9jiTd.dpuf

06 August 2015

Freedom, honor and political correctness

Kalefa Sanneh has an interesting piece in the current New Yorker about the "new battles over freedom of speech." These battles aren't really fought by or against the state, he notes, but within civil society or social media. We hear people crying "censorship" and "political correctness" all the time, but Sanneh asks who's really censoring whom? He gives an example: a DJ lost a gig at a Chapel Hill NC pub because a female patron felt the song "Blurred Lines" was suggestive of rape. The DJ presumably moved on to other gigs, but as Sanneh notes, the student who complained about the song has been identified and targeted for attack all over the Internet. It may seem bad to some people that the DJ lost a gig, but if there's something wrong in a world where that can happen, what about "a world where an undergraduate who protests at her local bar can find herself vilified around the world, achieving the sort of Internet infamy that will eventually fade but never entirely dissipate." Sanneh invites us to ask who's suffered more. He observes that "Mostly what prohibits speech is the fear of being spoken about." He clearly believes that those who rock the boat, those who raise issues about respect, are more vulnerable to "being spoken about" than those they purportedly persecute.

Sanneh isn't a First-Amendment absolutist, but as a good liberal he isn't really an absolutist of any sort."Just as good-faith gun-rights advocates need not pretend that every gun owner is a third-generation hunter," he writes, "free-speech advocates need not pretend that every provocative utterance is a valuable contribution to robust debate, or that it is impossible to make any distinctions between various kinds of speech." He finds the U.S. exceptional -- and, implicitly, deplorably so -- in its constitutional resistance to laws against the dissemination of racist opinion, and he sympathizes with the school of thought that finds certain kinds of speech actionably "exclusive" toward women and minorities. But while the First Amendment inhibits government from addressing these perceived injustices, Sanneh observes that "we are outsourcing some of our most important free-speech decisions" to the leaders of social media. He envisions a time when losing your Twitter account might be a more intimidating prospect than going to jail as social media becomes still more pervasive and your place in it more important for all your prospects. He also fears that the social-media sector may grow too heavy-handed in efforts to purge any controversial content.

These are the dilemmas of a world without honor. However we feel about the Constitution in relation to speech, we should recall that one of the principal authors of our founding charter -- though not of the First Amendment itself -- was killed in a duel by the Vice President of the United States, who had taken offense at comments on his character attributed to his antagonist, who refused to apologize. Neither man, nor many of their contemporaries, would have tolerated the kind of vituperation common today. Yet it probably would be impossible for an Aaron Burr of today to demand satisfaction of everyone who'd insult him online. Even in his own time dueling was frowned upon formally, even if the establishment often looked the other way, and we should neither be able nor have to kill people to get the sort of satisfaction Burr sought. Yet codes of honor reject the idea of impunity for speech, just as a sense of honor prevalent among many Muslims today requires reprisal against alleged slanderers of their religion. At one extreme we find the bloodstained office of Charlie Hebdo; at another, the free-for-all idealized by many civil and ideological libertarians, in which speech is risk-free and the level of discourse is not noticeably elevated. There ought to be a middle ground that isn't necessarily defined by the state but may be maintained by it in the old manner. We can't look the other way at killing any more, but perhaps there are things still to be done while the state does look the other way. What's happening now is a kind of democratization of honor in the insistence upon respect and reticence by people once assumed unentitled to such deference. This mass (and sometimes collective) honor can't be enforced by the old code duello without the country becoming even more the Wild West of the NRA's fantasies. The old honor code was aristocratic; a democratic honor code must be something else --  and as we see reactionaries apparently more determined than ever to insult their anatagonists, we shall probably see that something else very soon. We can hope it won't be violent, but it depends on what it takes to satisfy the honor of multitudes.

04 August 2015

Select your outrage

It's become a right-wing talking point over the last couple of weeks that liberals seem more concerned and outraged over the fate of Cecil the Zimbabwean lion than they are over the revelations, confessed in clandestinely filmed videos, about Planned Parenthood's sales of fetal body parts. The Republican assumption is that Democrats, liberals and self-styled progressives care more about whether some lion was shot illegally or not than they do about babies being harvested for commercial purposes. Republican outrage over the Planned Parenthood videos has fueled an effort, temporarily thwarted, to end all federal funding for the organization, despite the seemingly clueless objection that no federal money actually subsidizes abortions. It's what's done after abortions that bugs people right now, just as the scientific use of cadavers has always made some people queasy and others violent. That the same people on the other side can get worked up -- if it's not just the news media -- over the lion but not over this further dehumanization of incipient humans appears to prove to the "pro-life" crowd that the "pro-choice" crowd has grown willfully ignorant of fetal humanity in their fanatic commitment to extremist feminism. Of course, the pro-choicers have accused pro-lifers of selective outrage for a long time. Their argument is that opponents of abortion care about preserving life only until birth, and then don't give a damn whether the child lives or dies. Whether that's a better argument, or whether either argument is any good, is open to question.

The appearance of selective outrage depends on assumptions about moral or philosophical consistency. The critique of pro-life conservatives depends on an assumption that if the state has an interest in children being born, it should have an equal interest in keeping them alive, which would require more comprehensive state guarantees of proper health care, that few pro-life conservatives express. The critique of pro-choice liberals, with regard to Cecil the lion, is that people who feel such compassion or moral concern for a dumb animal ought to feel at least as much for human beings in the womb, and should be equally outraged by abortion as they appear to be by the shooting of a lion. In each case, assumptions about moral consistency are arguably wrong. The "sink or swim" conservative (or pro-life libertarian like Rand Paul) can argue that a state obligation to keep everyone alive no more follows from preventing abortion than it does from preventing murder. If someone out there really is more outraged over poor Cecil than over poor fetuses, that person can argue that there really are two different things, or two different principles, at stake. However outrageous it might sound to someone else, this theoretical person could argue that there are fewer lions than human fetuses in the world and that each lion is thus more indispensable. They would more likely argue that there is a fundamental human-rights issue at stake in abortion, or a fundamental public-health issue at stake in the federal funding of Planned Parenthood, that's clearly absent in the case of an illegal lion hunt. Likewise, the pro-life Republican can argue that preventing abortion, or defunding Planned Parenthood, is not so much about a commitment to keep each human life alive indefinitely than it is about giving each human being the chance or opportunity to which they believe it is entitled. They could also argue that there's a difference between the state protecting the helpless (i.e. the fetus) and the state perpetuating presuming helplessness, as the left supposedly does in wanting cradle-to-grave welfare. If it's presumed that people want something done about the death of the lion because the lion is morally helpless -- it's asked why supposedly compassionate people don't respond similarly to the more obvious helplessness of the fetus. At least one writer I've seen on the subject notes approvingly that more conservative young people are adopting a vegan lifestyle, as if to prove the superior moral consistency of their compassion. Yet the other side could argue, however outrageously, that its defense of women's reproductive liberty rightly has nothing to do with the sort of compassion conservatives insist on.

In the end, if the argument against "selective outrage" is a fallacy regardless of which side uses it, that only supports a position I've held for a long time, which is that abortion is a singularly unanalogous issue. The ethics or it simply can't be compared to anything else because the conditions are so unique. That doesn't mean that we can't reach a decision about it and stick to it, but it does mean we should not try to reach that decision by making analogies that are bound to fail with other ethical dilemmas, or by trying to predict (or dictate) how people who take one side on the abortion question should think about separate issues. Whether women should have the right to terminate pregnancies is a moral question. Whether they will, and what the rest of us will do about it, are political questions to be settled by political will -- and that renders selective-outrage arguments irrelevant. If we think about it some more, that kind of argument is really irrelevant to any issue involving politics and ethics, but that will never stop anyone from making such arguments. The only thing a selective-outrage argument proves, from right or left, is that the person making the argument suffers from selective outrage, as do we all.

03 August 2015

Misreading Trumpism

Today I read that the Governor of New Jersey had expressed a wish to punch the American Federation of Teachers in its collective face. This is widely seen as Gov. Christie's attempt to connect with Donald Trump's audience, if not also a new rhetorical low in the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Earlier today I read Michael Gerson's column from the Washington Post about Trump and his alleged imitators in the Republican field. Gerson sees Trump, and anyone who tries to talk like Trump, and anyone who likes Trump, as some sort of populist. It's a sort of populism that has little to do with limited government, given Trump's past opinions on many matters -- though I don't know why Gerson would have expected any sort of populism to be conservative in that way -- but is all about "style," "spontaneity," "authenticity" and "anger." Above all, it's about "incivility," and this is probably the closest Gerson gets to getting it. Nobody I've heard or read likes Donald Trump because they perceive that Trump is angry. People may like him because they're angry, but what they claim to like about him is that he talks straight and doesn't back down when people cry foul. As Gerson puts it, "Apologies are for wimps." Gerson doesn't note this with approval. "Incivility is immoral and dangerous to democracy," he writes. We can have "vigorous disagreement" without Trump's (or Christie's) brand of incivility, Gerson claims, but no one disputes this. No one is embracing Trump because he or she perceives a lack of vigorous disagreement in American politics. Instead, they applaud him because they think he's diagnosed why vigorous disagreement persists without hope of resolution: because stupid people refuse to listen to reason because it hurts their feelings or insults their self-esteem.

There is no place in politics for the "cultivation of contempt," Gerson warns, attributing that to Trump, but the columnist mistakes effect for cause. Contempt was rampant in our public discussions, especially at the grass-roots level of comment threads and call-in lines, long before Trump grew interested in the Presidency again. We've been at an impasse too long for either of the two main sides to believe very strongly that it's still a matter of honest or principled disagreement. Democrats have long been convinced that Republicans are stupid, but their party leaders have refrained from using the rhetoric of the rank-and-file. Republican leaders have done likewise, for the most part, until Trump has seemed to change the rules of the game, but their constituents are as likely to see Democrats as willfully ignorant to the realities that matter to the GOP, while Democrats are more likely to think Republicans congenitally ignorant. What mainstream Republicans may be afraid of is simply that two (or more) can play Trump's game. If Trump appeals to those who want to punch people in the face to make them listen, or else slap them and tell them their opinions no longer matter, does anyone doubt that there are at least as many Democrats, not to mention people further to the left, itching to treat Republicans, or even Hillary Clinton, the same way? One way or another, the Trump fad may represent a turning point in American politics, with effects outlasting his own probably chimerical candidacy. Trump and his rival imitators sound like an affront to our liberal tradition of civil discourse and "vigorous disagreement," but they've struck a nerve with people who feel, rightly or not, that sooner or later, and in one way or another, a lot of this vigorous disagreement has got to stop, and one side has to win decisively. The one way to lose this endgame, whether you're an establishment Republican or someone on the left, is to refuse to play.