30 December 2015

An ambiguous poll on religious liberty

A poll conducted by the Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center is being interpreted to show growing intolerance of Muslims in light of its finding that only 61% of respondents agreed that "religious liberty protections" were important for Muslims, while 82% said they were important for Christians. These numbers are the extremes on a spread of opinion that shows Christianity well ahead of all other options. Somewhere in the middle, "about seven in ten" said "protections" were important for Jews, while 67% of respondents said the same for Mormons. What about those with no religion? Protecting them was important for a percentage of respondents "about even" with those willing to defend Muslims. What respondents actually were asked is unclear; the page I've linked to doesn't give us the actual poll questions. But while the low regard for Muslims and atheists (polytheist and animistic believers apparently didn't figure in the survey) are unsurprising, my feeling is that the numbers quoted aren't meant to be comparative. That is, I don't think any given respondent is saying that he or she personally is less interested in protecting the rights of non-Christians. Instead, this poll seems to reflect the feeling among conservative Christians that their faith and culture are under particular threat in a way that others aren't. A lot of these people think a "war" is being waged on Christians in the U.S., and they most likely perceive it as a multifront war. There are Muslims out there literally ready to shoot them, but there is also the perception that the U.S. government is out to suppress their freedom of "conscience" when it comes to rejecting gay marriage or reproductive freedom for women. For such people, the struggles of Kim Davis in Kentucky are just as much proof of a "war on Christians" as the shootings in San Bernardino by Muslims and those in Oregon by a guy who simply hated Christians.

In short, if more people say that "religious liberty protections" are important for Christians than say it's important for everyone else, that's because they believe that Christians are uniquely in danger in this country. That is as patently absurd as ever. They are no more in danger from Muslim terrorists than anyone who isn't a Muslim of the terrorists' particular school. They are only in danger from government because they see a government's choice to ignore their dictate on what should be legal or illegal as an attack. If I interpret it correctly, the poll reflects the chauvinistic narcissism of Christians more than anything else. Fortunately, that sentiment rarely expresses itself violently today, but you have to wonder how little it would take -- a too specifically targeted attack or an unacceptable election result -- to change that. A lot of these are the same people who talk about taking their country back, and if anything the numbers prioritizing protection for those of other faiths, or no faith, are inflated by a suspicion that the Christians will come after them all some day. Right now that's pretty close to patently absurd, too, but why should anyone constrain their fear these days?

29 December 2015

When the opposite of justice is not a crime

Tamir Rice, a husky 12 year old, was shot to death by police because he'd been brandishing a too-realistic toy gun in a park. While most (or at least many) Americans agree that this was wrong, our legal system limits what we can do about it. Once again a grand jury refrained from indicting a cop who killed an unarmed person, determining that he acted within constitutional boundaries, however deplorable the results. Once again, cop apologists rose to say that the victim deserved what he got, if only because this victim was stupid enough to wave that toy around or, once the police appeared, reach into his coat for the toy at a moment when the cop couldn't know it wasn't real. Look at the comment thread for this article if you doubt me. Once again the morale of the police matters more than what must still be called innocent life. Because cops may have to make hair-trigger decisions with their lives actually at stake, we cannot criminalize their mistakes or really do anything to discourage them from making the same hair-trigger decision every time. As long as a lawyer can convince people that the officer had understandable concerns -- the lawyers prefer to say "reasonable"-- for his safety, his badge gives him a Get Out of Jail Free card. And once again I'm going to write that the laws have to be changed and that there has to be democratic input in regulating police procedure, not just because black lives or others matter but because the people's right to demand and define proper policing trumps policemen's right to job security. If civilian life matters then it should be a matter of statutory law that a cop pays a penalty if it is proven that his bullet contributed to the death of an unarmed person. If this is a democracy then it's our prerogative to insist that killing unarmed people, even when they're resisting arrest, is unacceptable, and it's our prerogative to demand police who are capable of subduing unarmed people without killing them. And no, we don't need to walk in their shoes before we judge them, because we pay for those shoes and we can tell them how to walk in them. If people have no better reason to disagree with this than that they don't like the attitude or behavior of some of those protesting this state of affairs, then they really have nothing to contribute to the debate and should be ignored. That's wishful thinking in our risk-free democracy, of course, but if democracy really works and the majority thinks as I hope they do, eventually the law will ignore them.

28 December 2015

The least worst of all possible worlds

Back on Christmas George Will went against the grain of the holiday by publishing a hymn to spontaneous order. He had some fun with liberals and statists of all sorts by comparing them with religious creationists. Will may be a pious man in private life, but in print he didn't mean the comparison to be flattering. Playing the freethinker, he observed that religious creationism is "mistaken but inconsequential," while the cost of secular (i.e. political) creationism is steep. Just as religious creationists contend that there can be no moral order without a Creator, secular "theists" believe -- just as falsely, Will irreverently suggests -- that there can be no social order without acts of political will. From Will's perspective, this is undemocratic thinking; it is a call for "top-down" commands by "wise designers, a.k.a. them." But if some people find the notion of spontaneous order abhorrent or simply frightening because "no one is in charge," Will offers comfort with the argument that "everyone is in charge of social change." He's not so reckless as to argue that everyone is equally in charge, but he probably would find the question of equality irrelevant, if not irreverent. He mocks the critics of spontaneous order as theists, implicitly accusing them of wanting to play God, but he's really no less theistic. The idea of spontaneous order, identified in modern times with the Nobel-winning economist Friedrich Hayek, is really no more complex than vox populi, vox dei, on the understanding that vox populi isn't the same as majority rule. It is also, as I've noted in the past, pathetically panglossian. The argument for spontaneous order is a defensive argument against any tampering with the vox populi through individual or collective will. If the original Pangloss argued that the world we lived in was the best of all possible worlds, defenders of spontaneous order argue the same thing with a negative spin: the world of spontaneous order is the least worst of all possible worlds because any consciously willed alternative will only make things worse. This point is taken on as much faith as any argument against spontaneous order.

Since any alternative to spontaneous order is defined as "top-down," no matter how many people support it, -- it is inevitably "command" rather than "commerce" -- it disrupts the multidirectional flow of information upon which, according to Hayek, truly efficient if not beneficial social evolution depends. There's a lot of epistemological flimflam going on here over what is "spontaneous" and what is "willed," what is "command" or "top-down" and what is not. There's also too much indifference to who has power and who has not, or an indifference to inequalities of power so long as no one has power to command from the top down. That indifference shouldn't surprise anyone, since spontaneous order is a philosophy of indifference. That may not sound right if you think of libertarians defending spontaneous order desperately from every top-down (not to mention bottom-up) assault and insisting that it's better than any other imaginable arrangement. But spontaneous order considered in isolation from alternatives is, like much of classical liberalism,indifferent to results. Classical liberal political theory depends on it making no great difference what results from liberal political processes; if the political system works properly there can never be any real danger to the polity from any particular candidate or party winning an election, and there is no reason to suppress political ideas. Spontaneous order in the economic realm is indifferent to inequality or individual suffering so long as some people -- in abstract, anyone -- can succeed. In each case citizens are expected to recognize outcomes as "fair" and suppress any impulse to alter them, whether those impulses are based on raw self-interest or a misplaced and self-serving notion of "fairness" or a deduction that certain results are destructive of a common good that is not determined spontaneously. In politics, liberalism rules that once you decide that certain things can't happen, or that others must, you become a tyrant. In economics, the argument from spontaneous order is that once you care how things turn out, once you prefer or demand one result over others, once you value results over process, you can only do damage.

The problem with the spontaneous-order superstition is that it draws an arbitrary line separating spontaneous order from top-down command, as if it is not spontaneous to attempt to impose order on human commerce and other relations, and as if there can never be an attempt to impose order and law on society through commerce or other non-political means. Yet if the so-called thinkers who idolize Hayek would step back for a second, they might see that the philosophical attempt to exclude political thinking from any concept of spontaneous order is absurd. I can understand why people want to think that way, since political thinking itself is often absurd or worse, but political thinking is as natural and spontaneous a human activity as commerce, and to think that one activity is more spontaneous or natural than the other really sounds like special pleading along the lines of "don't tell me what to do" or "don't judge me." But if spontaneous order is good because it's democratic rather than top-down, as Will insists, then let's remember that democracy also means that everyone judges everyone else, and that democracy carries with it at least an implicit power of command. If none of that is part of democracy in a spontaneous order, if what people like Will want a democracy where no one actually rules, then politics may eventually evolve spontaneously in ways the Wills of the world won't like. Their dislike won't make it any less spontaneous, however, so I suppose they'll have no right to object to the outcome.

24 December 2015

A real war on Christmas?

Is it just me, or has there been less of the now-customary right-wing rhetoric about a "war on Christmas" in the U.S. this year? Are people still flipping out when a cashier wishes them Happy Holidays? A few still are -- I hear some of them in my capacity as a sort of comment moderator for a call-in line -- but I'd like to think that widespread anger at Islam has at least given Americans a sense of the wider world that puts their petty past complaints in perspective. After all, there are countries in the world where the celebration of Christmas is banned outright. Somalia has just done that, and a few other places have been doing that for a few years now. While the Somalis may have public-safety reasons in mind as well -- the local Islamist terrorists attacked a foreign enclave last Christmas -- they've also made clear that they consider Christmas un-Islamic, understandably enough. To hardcore Muslims Christmas is unacceptable because of its implicit celebration of Jesus's divinity. But other non-Christian places, notably Japan, celebrate Christmas as a mostly secular gift-giving occasion. The Christ in Christmas presumably troubles these people very little, if at all. Nor should it. A secular or non-Christian person should be no more offended by "Merry Christmas" than a Christian should be if a stereotypical British person were suddenly to exclaim, "By Jove!" But if certain businesses prefer "Happy Holidays," it's less to exclude Christ or Christmas than to include Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus or whatever someone might prefer to celebrate. If a Christian employee resents having to use the alternate greeting that's his problem, but he shouldn't have a problem, because "Happy Holidays" is a fitting motto for a society and culture in which Christmas is included. To insist on "Christmas" is to force a Christian character on an occasion that has evolved beyond that, and to force the issue with people who reject Christ. I hope no one equates "Happy Holidays" with the suppression of Christmas by law, but the right wing's "war on Christmas" rhetoric implies just such an equation. Now, however, they know where they can go if they want to fight a real war.

21 December 2015

Dead Russian journalists and American foreign policy

We really are in a scary time when Donald Trump begins to sound like a foreign-policy realist. Scary or not, we should give him a little credit for forcing Russia into the 2016 presidential campaign. Vladimir Putin started this latest episode by appearing to speak approvingly of Trump during his year-end press conference. Trump's rivals promptly pressured him to repudiate Putin's praise; as yet, Trump has seen no reason to do so. On the Morning Joe program on MSNBC Joe Scarborough increased the pressure, urging Trump to recognize that Putin was a bad man. As a rule, it seems, Trump likes people who like him, but did he want the approval, and thus did he approve, of a leader who has, in Scarborough's words, killed journalists? Trump's answer was a Rorschach blot of laconic understatement: "Our country does plenty of killing, also." This was cold-blood cynicism, moral blindness, or something else. Was Trump saying that the U.S. also killed journalists? Was he equating the killing of enemies in war with the killing of journalists in one's own country? Over the last weekend Trump clarified, explaining that the killing of journalists is abhorrent, but that he's seen no evidence directly linking Putin to the several high-profile killings of Russian journalists. That put the ball back in Scarborough's court, where today he took his anger out on Katrina vanden Heuval, the editor of the Nation magazine, who chided him for turning a discussion about Russia into a discussion about Trump. Scarborough pressured her to affirm or deny that Putin was responsible for the murder of journalists. Even after she stated her position with apparent clarity -- there's no evidence that Putin ordered anyone killed, but his authoritarian policies have created a climate in which reporters can be killed with seeming impunity -- Scarborough badgered her to answer his question, his own position, perhaps modified on the spot, being that Putin was essentially responsible for those killings regardless of whether any smoking gun is ever found.

There are people who want to deal with Putin, it seems, and people who do not. If Trump is one of the former it's one of his few good points. Scarborough seems to believe that no good can come from working with Putin, and that the friendliness toward Putin that Trump expresses is ill becoming a Leader of the Free World. Scarborough speaks for many in both major parties when he lashes into Trump on this issue. That's because we have virtually a bipartisan consensus that, as an "authoritarian" leader, Putin cannot contribute to the stabilization, much less the democratization, of the Middle East. Part of this consensus is the premise that Syria's authoritarian government is a necessary if not sufficient cause of the Syrian civil war, which follows from a more general premise that authoritarian leadership is a destabilizing force everywhere on Earth. Why should this be if authoritarians are dedicated, presumably, to order above all else? The consensus answer is that authoritarians are bullies with limitless ambition, constantly pushing the limits of what they can get away with globally before someone smacks them. From this perspective, Bashar Assad is not a force for order in Syria but a disruptive force in the Middle East, as proven by his alliance with Iran and his hostility toward Israel, while Putin is less a force for order even in his own region than a disruptive threat to other nations' sovereignty and other people's freedom. This answer could be expanded upon, though I'm not sure whether anyone in the consensus would care to do so, by arguing that authoritarianism results in instability because it invites insurrections that are a human right of their oppressed perpetrators. In other words, authoritarians destabilize the world because anti-authoritarians are always fighting them. If this is a fallacy, the corrective cannot be to counsel unconditional obedience to rulers everywhere on Earth, since power always can be abused and people must be able to do something when it is abused. It would be more correct to say that other countries have no business waging war by proxy on authoritarian states, especially considering the consequences apparent in the Middle East. If that means propping up authoritarians against multinational terrorism, so be it, with nose held if necessary. Donald Trump might not even hold his nose, but in this case we shouldn't hold that against him.

20 December 2015

Film review: THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2015)

Over the weekend I finally caught up with the documentary The Best of Enemies, an account of the ABC-TV debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 national party conventions and the way they supposedly changed the face of TV journalism. This film is a coincidental companion piece to Kevin M. Schultz's book about Buckley and Norman Mailer, which I read last summer. All we need now is a chronicle of the literary and cultural feud between Mailer and Vidal, buy it's easy enough to read what the participants wrote on the subject. While the Buckley-Mailer was a lament for the quality of intellectual debate, including some capacity for convergence, that passed when Mailer and Buckley died, Best of Enemies ironically blames two supremely erudite men for the coarsening of political opinion in the mass media. While the film strikes a nearly neutral tone politically, it seems to place the majority of blame for what happened and what would come on Vidal, who was hired by ABC as Buckley's antagonist after Buckley had told them he didn't want to be in a room with the man. Vidal is presented as more determined to carry out a hatchet-job on Buckley than in debating the issues at play in the conventions. The loathing was mutual and seemed to coarsen both of them. We see clips of Vidal debating other people and his voice, always as affected as Buckley's, comes across as more natural and spontaneous than it did in 1968, when he adopted a more stentorian voice as if in parody of Buckley, if not in self-parody, and seemed determined to use pre-planned zingers than in actually engaging with anything Buckley said. His main objective was to get under Buckley's skin, and in an example of "propaganda of the deed," get Buckley to expose what Vidal assumed to be a conservative's true nature.

Of course, this is exactly what happened, to what the film claims was Buckley's lifelong mortification. What's interesting is what triggered it: challenged by moderator Howard K. Smith to compare the raising of a Vietcong flag by Chicago protesters to the flying of a Nazi flag in this country during World War II, Vidal answered that the closest thing to a "crypto-Nazi" he could see was Buckley. That provoked Buckley to call Vidal a "queer" and threaten to "knock him in the goddamn face." At the time, Buckley said this was an inexcusable insult because he had fought the Nazis as an infantry soldier, a detail Vidal denied. But the filmmakers told us earlier that conservatives of Buckley's generation fiercely resented the "Nazi" label that liberals and leftists applied to them, not least because, obviously enough, their ideal government was quite far from Nazi notions of the state and leadership. From our vantage, Buckley's resentment only dates him, since we've reached a point where no one takes this N-word seriously and it's actually a premise almost universally accepted that using it (of the H-word) disqualifies you from any internet debate. Did Vidal begin that dilution of the N-word or did time really do that damage? It matters little to the film, which probably resonates more months after its theatrical release now that we've seen a presidential campaign driven almost entirely by insults, though even Donald Trump has not yet threatened to punch his rivals in the face, despite Jeb Bush's increasing efforts in that direction.

Buckley said after the debates -- I don't know whether Vidal ever confirmed or denied it -- that after their most contentious encounter Vidal whispered to him that they'd given ABC its money's worth. The best thing Best of Enemies does -- the worst is to reduce the debates to sound-bites; it would have been more illuminating to show at least one complete -- is restore the Buckley-Vidal feud to its part in ABC News's controversial and initially reviled plan to minimize its convention coverage -- the other major networks will still going gavel-to-gavel -- and replace reporting to a great extent with commentary. ABC offered "unconventional convention coverage" and, so the film argues, Buckley and Vidal delivered the goods, goosing up the third network's ratings as their feud and the protests in Chicago heated up. This led to other news programs adopting point-counterpoint features, and from there the film draws a line straight to Crossfire and all the arguments we hear on TV today. While the film's own commentators see the environment today as a reflection of increased political and ideological self-segregation, leaving people unable to truly talk to each other in the sense of seeking common ground, Buckley and Vidal were of the same social class and sounded equally like stereotypical snobs, so it can't be argued that theirs were two different worlds, unless you believe sexual preference crucial. I can imagine modern audiences thinking both men fake, unable to imagine that theirs were anyone's natural speaking voices, and some of the documentary's talking heads argue that neither man could have become a celebrity today talking the way they did. Norman Mailer talked somewhat similarly, reflecting an Ivy League education in spite of a more modest background, and it probably tells us more about this moment in American history than it does about any of these three men that they could be so eloquent yet so crude in many ways. Vidal drove Buckley to threaten violence and Mailer to actual violence, and boasted of his own capacity for hatred, while Mailer was quite capable of violence on his own and Buckley was in many ways a vicious reactionary. I concede that all three were far smarter than today's opinionators -- any one of them might have been smarter than this generation combined -- but they all succumbed to some malign spirit of the age instead of transcending it. They can't be blamed for that cultural change, but I suppose they can be blamed for making that new partisan coarseness sound intellectually respectable, and for encouraging others with more spite than wit that they could do likewise. If anything, they pointed the way toward the uselessness of political eloquence and the equation of insult and truth that threatens to prevail today.

17 December 2015

God and Allah are the same

Wheaton College, an evangelical school, suspended one of its professors, herself a Christian of course, for asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The professor, the only black woman on the faculty, called attention to herself by wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslims whom she saw as actual or potential victims of  prejudice in America and violence around the world, but it was her heresy in speech, not dress, that got her in trouble. This controversy, magnified somewhat in an apparent attempt to remind people of Christianity's capacity for intolerance, is just a reminder of a debate that has gone on since Islam emerged from the Arabian desert. From the beginning, Muslims have claimed that "Allah"-- Arabic for "the god" -- is the god of Abraham, and that they worship that god as Abraham himself was told to, before subsequent generations distorted or forgot the original teaching. God provided these reminders every few generations or centuries, the message always getting distorted until Muhammad's successors managed to make it stick for nearly 1,400 years. Against this assertion, Christians have taken two approaches. One is to dismiss "Allah" as a Meccan idol that Muhammad tried to elevate to supreme-god status by claiming it was the god of Abraham. The other is to argue that Muslims can't claim to worship the god of Abraham if they deny Christ. As is well known, Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet, i.e. one who received genuine revelations but, like his predecessors, couldn't stop the true message from being distorted, this time by Christians who preferred to worship Jesus as a god. Muslims still regard Christians as "people of the book," acknowledging that they worship the same god Muslims do, albeit to such a wrong degree that they should have to pay a poll tax to continue doing so. By contrast, many Christians believe that Jesus is so essential a component of God's complex nature that to deny Christ is to deny God. When Muslims scoff at the idea of the One God having a "son," and insist that he wouldn't, Christians scoff back that they're missing the point to a catastrophic extent. While Muslims praise Allah as "compassionate" and "merciful," Christians see a god incapable of "love" that therefore can't be their own. Wheaton College apparently works on these assumptions and can't accept a faculty member arguing to the contrary. Their action against the professor is drawing predictable protests, but if there must be freedom of religion in this country a religious college should be able to take administrative action on theological grounds. They are under no obligation to accept or even tolerate the premise that Muslims and Christians worship the same god.  The title of this post appears to contradict Wheaton's position, but I'm actually saying something slightly different. It matters less whether Christians and Muslims worship the same god than that they worship the same kind of god -- one that, like all the others, almost certainly does not exist. As far as I'm concerned they may as well worship the same god because 0 = 0. To bend a phrase, to argue over whether God and Jesus and Allah are all the same is like debating how many angels can dance on a pinhead. Even Republican presidential debates are more substantial. When you can say that, there's really nothing more to say.

16 December 2015

Safe spaces for whom?

Part of the case against the latest generation of "political correctness" is that its purveyors on college campuses want an unnatural shelter from opposing point of view that will ill-prepare them for a pluralistic and competitive adult world. This shelter takes the form of so-called "safe spaces" where, presumably, people won't be exposed to bigotry, condescension or, as the opposition adds, disagreement. Otherwise apolitical observers were disturbed when student protesters at the University of Missouri threatened journalists covering their protest earlier this year. Is a "safe space" to be safe even from scrutiny? In These Times magazine gathered some student activists to discuss the implications of safe spaces for the January 2016 issue. Yamiesha Bell of the University of Connecticut was asked "Why are safe spaces important for movements?" She answered:

Safe spaces allow you to be happy and be free, and not to have to apologize for all that. The first time I was in a safe space was an all-Black space that was intentional. I just cried, because I've never felt so much love and so appreciated just for being me. It's so important for Black folks to see what a safe space looks like and feels like in order to be able to say, "I deserve this every single day of my life."

Lest my citation be inferred as a comment on black people, I can imagine any number of minority groups, not to mention women, feeling and speaking the same way. With that disclaimer out of the way, there is something childish-seeming about Bell's yearning for unconditional and presumably unanimous acceptance. This isn't white privilege talking, by the way. While there is arguably such a thing, let me assure you that when white people, or even white men, go out in the wider world where their presumed dominance seems unsafe to others, they feel nothing close to the love and unconditional appreciation Bell considers her right. Non-whites might well observe that the reason the white world seems unsafe to them by the "safe space" standard is that it's unsafe, by that same standard, for everyone, whites included. That doesn't mean whites haven't dreamed of safe spaces, either for themselves or for all humanity. That's what utopias are, and here is where some would caution that while utopia is the theory, totalitarianism is the practice. Is Yamiesha Bell a totalitarian? How should I know? I tend to doubt it, but the sort of yearning she expresses in that quote is the sort totalitarians have tapped into. It's important to remember, however, that she's describing only her first time in a safe space. If safe spaces are where political movements are organized, I'll bet that she's felt less love in them as time goes on, however safe she felt.

Does a safe space have to be safe from journalists? Bell defends the Missouri students; they were right to tell reporters that the protest area wasn't their space because "that really wasn't their space." But since when is a public space not a space for journalists? Asha Rosa, a Columbia student, explains that "Part of protest is taking over spaces and setting the terms of how the space is going to be used....if they're going to set certain rules, they don't necessarily need to explain to people why." Bell in particular is up front about her revolutionary intentions; she wants to "get rid of the higher education system as it is and create a new one [because] this is not a safe space for people of color." Implicit in such revolutionary rhetoric is a denial of accountability to a news media seen as part of an oppressive establishment, whose judgments are neither objective nor appropriately sensitive to the revolutionaries. Rosa seems to expect more deference from the media, complaining that "I don't see journalists coming to organizers for quotes for context about the movement in the way they should." Of course if reporters aren't seeking organizers out that's bad, but there's a hint here that Rosa wants the story reported on the organizers' terms to an extent a free press is never obliged to respect.

The Missouri protests were provoked in part by reports of racist insults used by whites against black students. The protesters have an understandable desire to purge that sort of racism from civil society once and for all, but as they maintain their confrontational stance and continue to insist on safe spaces, the rest of us have to wonder where the line will be drawn separating respectful criticism from perceived bigotry. It's even possible to wonder whether students like Bell and Rosa acknowledge such a thing as respectful criticism of their tactics, much less their goals.  Whether they do or not, we'll have to live with that uncertainty as we continue the constant negotiation that democracy is in pluralistic societies -- and so will they. If they expect not to be criticized, not to be judged, not to be confronted, not to be contradicted, they're bound to be disappointed. If they assume any or all of that to be prejudiced, then they're prejudiced themselves. Democracy means everyone is accountable to everyone else. If our generation's protesters forget that, then intrusive cameras or people with notebooks will be the least of their problems.

15 December 2015

The front-runner vs. the chosen one

Throughout the fall, campaign watchers have noticed how Senator Cruz has refrained from criticizing Donald Trump. They've attributed this to some combination of cowardice and opportunism, the presumption being that Cruz wants Trump's supporters should Trump finally flop, and so doesn't want to alienate them by criticizing their current idol, even as other self-styled conservatives chide Trump for inappropriate proposals or rhetoric. The one fissure in Cruz's cool facade has been the emergence of a recording from a private meeting in which Cruz, still in modest terms, questioned Trump's judgment. Once this became public, and once the front-runner noticed Cruz rising in the Iowa polls, Trump began to respond in kind and in character. What's more interesting is the reaction to Trump's reaction. Three popular and influential radio talkers -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin -- chastised Trump for speaking ill of Cruz. To criticize Cruz, all insinuated, was to throw one's conservative credentials into question. To me, these outbursts made clear that Cruz is the opinionators's chosen one for the 2016 primary campaign. The uncompromising manner in the Senate that caused Trump to call him "kind of a maniac" is exactly what the radio talkers and their fans admire about Cruz. To their minds, probably, it is a more principled version of exactly what Trump has done on the campaign trail. So long as Cruz was thought not to have criticized Trump, Trump had largely left Cruz alone, and during that time, as far as I know, these talkers had little to say against Trump, either.

What message does their sudden, sharp defense of Cruz send to Trump and the Republicans in general? I don't think they're ready yet to endorse Cruz over Trump in the primaries, in part because they remain unsure about how popular Trump is among their own listeners and whether criticizing Trump too much might cost them in the ratings. Instead, I suspect that they need to assert themselves now to put a little scare into Trump to keep their own endgame viable, and I suspect that their endgame is a Trump-Cruz ticket this summer. Nothing else explains Cruz's own reticence so perfectly. The Texan hasn't exactly observed Reagan's Eleventh Commandment in his dealings with fellow Republicans in Congress, so his handling of Trump with kid gloves, up to this point -- the next primary debate is tonight -- requires a different explanation.  A Trump-Cruz ticket would seem the ideal reconciliation of the party's populist and ideological factions after a long campaign that has differentiated if not polarized them to an extent that throws their ultimate compatibility into question. We've reached a point where some conservatives are starting to resent Trump becoming their symbol. Jonah Goldberg, for instance, hates that Trump's faults are seen as conservative failings, and makes the point that self-described conservative Republicans favor Cruz over Trump, while Trump's supporters supposedly are more likely to describe themselves as "moderate" or "liberal." Whatever happens in the Republican party, the conservative movement wants some proof of fealty from Trump, while he probably prefers to think of himself as unbeholden to anyone in the party or opinion establishment. Accepting Cruz as his running mate is probably the most they can hope for from Trump, but they may see it as an or-else proposition. Obviously it isn't one they can force on Trump now, but rallying behind Cruz now may strengthen their hand later, if it doesn't succeed beyond their wildest dreams by provoking Trump to self-destruct by alienating the conservative base. The crucial question is whether the conservative base and Trump's base are one and the same or whether Trump's base as some observers believe or fear, is a new thing whose strength has not yet been truly measured by Republicans or anyone else.

14 December 2015

Rhetorical blowback: a good theory taken to extremes

The editors of The Nation didn't know what was coming when they put their December 21/28 print issue to bed sometime before the 2nd and the San Bernardino terror shootings. Unlike a publication like Time, which can include news within two days of the publication date, The Nation presumably won't have anything to say in print about San Bernardino until next year. But Paris was still fresh enough in their minds that their commentaries on the war on terror would have been little different had the magazine been more up to date. Their advice is twofold. When dealing with the self-styled Islamic State, publisher Katrina vanden Heuval and husband Stephen F. Cohen write in the lead editorial, be sure to play nice with Syria and Russia. Whether we should deal harshly with the IS at all is questioned in Gary Younge's column. Younge's main argument is that we shouldn't bomb IS territory because a) it hasn't worked yet so it's unlikely ever to work; and b)it will "inevitably produce blowback in the form of terrorist reprisals." On the first point, he may have a point, and he's probably right that the most concerned countries outside the region "don't have the stomach" for a possibly more effective ground war. He's also right in principle when he argues that "any military intervention that does take place needs to be truly global -- as opposed to western -- in its authorization and execution," though by his own blowback logic this will only give the Daesh and its sympathizers more targets around the world. By now, however, the concept of "blowback" has grown beyond its original conceptual bounds. Back when the term was first popular at the turn of the millennium, after the 2001 terror attacks on the U.S. blowback meant more than alienating foreign people. As I understood it, it meant arming or otherwise empowering, for short-term strategic reasons, unreliable or unstable forces who would turn against you eventually. Islamic terrorism against the U.S. was blowback not just, or perhaps not even primarily, because we offended Islam, but because we subsidized Islamist dissidents against secular (but pro-Soviet or anti-Israel) Arab governments; because we armed the Afghan mujaheddin to resist the Soviet occupation of their country; because we supported Saddam Hussein's war against Iran. I don't know whether the original theorists of blowback believed that offending Islam was the necessary or sufficient cause of terrorism or other radical threats, but some people seem to think so now.

If Younge believes that violence against terrorist enclaves, where civilians inevitably will take collateral damage, inevitably generates more terrorism, then he's inviting blowback himself when he writes that "some kind of military intervention might be necessary" against the IS, unless he thinks it can all be done with ninjas. But he probably doesn't think of himself as as simplistic (or bigoted?) a thinker as the "apologists for Western foreign policy" he opposes. Is he right to think so?

These apologists, he argues, wrongly "insist these jihadis are part of a murderous death cult determined to sow fear and terror in the West. This, it seems, recasts the enemy as simply psychologically deficient." What he means, clearly, is that the apologists are not taking into account their responsiblity, as apologists for Western foreign policy, for jihadi hostility. But isn't it just as simplistic, if not more so, to portray jihad as purely reactionary, as entirely a reaction to oppression by the west? Isn't Younge portraying them as "psychologically deficient" if he won't give them credit for imagination and creativity, if he can't imagine a point at which they are mentally on the offensive in a way that's no longer entirely the responsibility of the sometime oppressor? The truth of the matter is somewhere between the extreme view Younge describes and the extreme view he holds. The west hasn't behaved well toward others in the Middle East, if not in the Muslim world generally, but after a certain point the reaction, resistance or "blowback" develops a mind and logic of its own against which its opponents need not have their hands tied by a record of past offenses. Yonge, a black Briton, no doubt thinks of himself as staunchly anti-racist as well as anti-imperialist. But it seems as if he's condescending more than a little toward Muslims when he assumes that their only reaction to extreme warfare can be more extreme terrorism. After all, the west today isn't fighting Nazi hordes in Europe, nor are fanatic Emperor worshippers attacking American interests in Asia, and even Vietnam can be imagined taking the American sometimes in disputes in China, and we bombed the bejeezus out of all of them. Are Muslims that different, somehow? I can see a lot of Americans, a lot of Christians and a lot of right-wingers thinking so, but Gary Younge is a man of the cosmopolitan left, so if he thinks so he has a lot of explaining to do.

13 December 2015

Please don't think I'm weak/I didn't turn the other cheek

The Albany newspaper published a point-counterpoint piece on its Saturday religion page on December 12, inspired by a recommendation by the president of Liberty University, the fundamentalist Christian college, that his students acquire open-carry handgun permits and take a free gun course now offered on campus. Christians feel more besieged than ever lately, due both to Muslim terror attacks and incidents like the recent Oregon amoklauf in which a secular shooter taunted Christians before killing them. Needless to say, this news horrified many professed Christians, represented in the newspaper by Shane Claiborne. To him, Christianity is self-evidently a non-violent religion. His antagonist, Daniel Howell, strives to refute his faith's pacifist reputation. His unusual position is that Christian pacifism is based on a selective, inaccurate reading of Scripture. He seems particularly annoyed that this reading of Christianity is used to "lambast self-defense in general and gun ownership in particular." Howell is determined to correct any misperception that "Christianity must be a wimpy, defenseless teaching." Jesus is going to kick ass at the Second Coming, he reminds us, and Christians should emulate this badass future Christ as much as the "meek and mild" First Coming Christ. "In a world littered with violence, the Prince of Peace knows that real tranquility is only obtained through strength," Howell argues, while Claiborne worships the merciful Jesus who "encouraged responding to evil not with more evil, but with love."

Both writers describe a crucial Gospel episode presumed definitive of Christian attitudes toward violence and self-defense. Bible readers will recall that Peter fought with the Romans who arrested Jesus and cut one's ear off, only to be rebuked by Jesus, who healed the ear. Here's how Claiborne interprets the story:

Early Christians understood that act as the final deathblow to weapons, believing Jesus' words to Peter were meant to disarm every Christian. No longer could any Christian justify violence toward anyone — even enemies. Early Christians insisted that for Christ we can die, but we cannot kill. We can die on behalf of others, but we cannot kill for them. Why? Because Christ has abolished the sword once and for all.

This common interpretation makes no sense to Howell, since Jesus himself told Peter and the other disciples to buy swords in  Luke 22:36. While Claiborne implies that Jesus's subsequent behavior abrogates the earlier episode, here's how Howell sees it:

Jesus rebuked Peter, and this is offered as proof that Christians should not use weapons. (despite the fact that Jesus just told them to acquire them). However, Peter was rebuked not for using a sword in self-defense but for interfering with God's plan of redemption. We know this because Jesus said it plainly: "Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?" (John 18:11).
Going further, Howell repeats an argument I've heard before that makes a convenient distinction between retribution and self-defense. Basically, any quote that can be interpreted as arguing against violent or lethal self-defense is, according to Howell, actually only an argument against retaliation or revenge."God is not urging his followers to put themselves or others in harm's way or to be bullied or mistreated at the hands of evil men," he writes, completely contradicting what Claiborne writes. The most Christianity recommends, in this reading, is that you don't go after your attacker after you've chased him off or gotten away.

Howell's attitude (he teaches at Liberty, by the way) must seem counterfactual to many Christians and outside observers, especially at a time when contrasting attitudes toward violence are often used to establish Christianity's moral superiority to Islam. As the conventional formula goes, Christians martyrs die for their faith while Muslim martyrs kill for theirs. As far as we know, Christians did not form a militia to protect themselves from persecution by the Roman Empire; we are told often that they welcomed opportunities to die as witnesses for their religion. Christian martyrs have long been models for passive resistance, but Howell ignores that heritage and implicitly urges Christians to forget it.

It's none of my business to say what Christianity or any religion really is, but it does seem like those who urge Christians to take up the gun are changing how Christians see themselves in the world and in history. The traditional ideal of martyrdom allowed Christians to think that they'd won whether they lived in peace or died by violence, since their faith counted more than their lives. Faith, after all, would be cashed in later for a bigger reward than this world could offer. It was easy for Christians to believe that they were winning even as they were persecuted, even when they were in danger of getting wiped out. I suppose Christians can still tell themselves they're winning when they're outgunned or gunned down, but it looks as if they're giving up a certain certainty that came with passive martyrdom while taking their chances in trials by combat. As for the rest of us, another militant faith convinced of its need to defend itself with armed force from both other faiths and secular enemies is all we need....

11 December 2015

Party Discipline in the U.S., or the lack thereof

The Chicago Tribune has an op-ed today in which Patrick Reardon, a scholar and adviser to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, calls on the Republican Party to "expel" Donald Trump. Reardon must think that American political parties are like Communist parties, in which that sort of thing can happen. He's pathetically vague about how it could happen in the Republican party, saying only, "Karl Rove will know how to do it." Unless Reardon's been talking to Rove, I doubt he knows what he's writing about. As Time magazine pointed out earlier this year, in describing a GOP effort to rid itself of an undesirable national committeeman, the Republicans don't have "specific provisions" for removing members from the party. Democrats do have such a process, but it's elaborate and time-consuming. It shouldn't surprise us that it's so hard to throw someone out of the major American parties, because it's so easy to join them. No ideological tests are imposed; no one merely applies to be a Republican or Democrat. All you do is register and the actual party leaders have nothing to say about it. How can either party expect to expel people whose words or opinions are suddenly inconvenient or contradictory to the last platform when they never promised explicitly to abide by any platform or statement of principles in the first place? What this means is that people can decide who the Republican party runs for President merely by signing up for whatever reason they please, without having to state the reason. This hollowness of ideology helps explain the major parties' resiliency over the last 150 years, but it becomes inconvenient when it looks like primary voters may choose a candidate who isn't viable for the general election, as many Republicans fear Trump will prove.

If the GOP can't expel Trump, could they keep him off the primary ballots? From a cursory survey of states, it looks unlikely, especially since you have to deal with state election boards whose concern for a fair choice isn't automatically compatible with party interests. In some states all you have to do to make the primary ballot is be recognized as a credible candidate, as Trump must be recognized for now. In other states, ballot access depends on signatures, which Trump presumably has had no trouble getting, or payment of a fee, with which Trump should have even less of a problem. There seems to be no room for discretion on the part of party leaders. No one can step in and say Trump or anyone else can't be in the primary unfit or not ideologically sound. The most the RNC, if it so chooses, can do if it wants to stop Trump is what party organizations used to do all the time in the old days. It can endorse one of the other candidates as what used to be called the "regular" candidate, which guarantees no automatic advantage but would at least test the party loyalty and discipline of primary voters, who of course have no automatic obligation to the RNC.

Calls for Trump's expulsion are both puerile and premature. I still expect him to fade next year as the establishment rallies around one candidate, especially if other far-right candidates stay in the race to draw votes from Trump. But the problem Trump seemingly poses for the GOP makes you wonder whether their resilience has limits. If they do, we haven't seen them yet the way we saw the Whigs break under pressure in the 1850s. As long as the American people keep thinking in terms of two options, "left" or "right," and as long as independent parties labor under inertial handicaps, people and factions will keep fighting to take over one party or another, but will remain loyal in defeat lest the other party win. Trump himself may not remain loyal to the Republicans despite his promise, but that would be the storm of one season, unlikely to be repeated except by the man himself. Some predict that we'll see more Trumps but without similar pre-sold celebrity few are likely to match his quasi-success of the moment. Until something really transcends the left-right divide -- and both "left" and "right" are as resilient and adaptive as the parties that represent them -- the American Bipolarchy is bound to endure, and we'll be bound to it.

Two-and-a-half Men in a Room; bipartisan corruption in New York State

The other shoe dropped this afternoon when Dean Skelos, the former Majority Leader of the Republican controlled New York State Senate, was convicted, along with his son, of abusing his power by intimidating businesses with business before the legislature into giving favors -- in one case specifically giving Skelos the Younger a do-nothing job -- in return for favorable treatment. This verdict follows closely the conviction of Sheldon Silver, the former Speaker of the Democratic controlled New York State Assembly, for similar abuses of power. Had federal prosecutor Preet Bharara, who built the case against both men, not been born in India, people would probably run him for President. He has give us the truth as plain as possible: both major political parties in the United States are capable of corruption. No ideology immunizes either party from the temptations of power, though Tea Partiers may argue, probably with some truth, that Skelos was not their kind of Republican. Their turn will come just the same. You'd think these trials would convince New Yorkers to rally around a third party or create one, but there's really no guarantee that independents won't exploit their power the same way. To some extent power, the specific power of those who wield the legislative gavel, is the real problem. Speakers and Leaders have the power to advance or delay consideration of bills on no more than whim. Legislative bodies may need some kind of traffic cop to establish a schedule of hearings, debates and votes, but just as the Speaker of the House of Representatives often lets others literally wield the gavel while he has other things to do, so perhaps no one person should play that traffic-cop role for an entire legislative term. If parties really control legislatures, let them delegate a new person on a monthly or weekly basis to be Speaker or Leader. That way, at least, legislators are less likely to shakedown businesses or lobbyists, or the latter would be less inclined to bribe the former, since no one legislator could make a promise and assume that the person playing traffic-cop next week would abide by it. Maybe that would only shift the focus of corruption to the halls of party leadership, but it might teach people a further lesson to see a party chairman taken on the perp walk. Whatever happens, the answer definitely isn't to hope for good men to take office. Much of American government, for long-term good or ill, is designed to thwart corruptible or ambitious officeholders, so a radical revamp of the legislative process, leaving us without The Speaker or The Leader, would only be consistent with our founding ideas.

10 December 2015


It's come to this. An acquaintance says to me: "I think of myself as a liberal, non-violent person. But I'm starting to think that I wouldn't mind if someone assassinated Donald Trump." And so we've come to crazy time in the 2016 Presidential campaign. People are growing more worried about Trump winning the Republican presidential nomination, if not the election. His comments about Muslims only fed a fire that was already burning. If this was all about Muslims it could easily be dismissed. While readers know by now that I'm not as hysterical about the terrorist threat as some people, I can say pretty confidently that Islamic terrorism is a bigger threat to the country than Donald Trump. But while many feel queasy about Trump's plans for Muslims, which are only inconsistent with precedent in their explicit focus on religion, most of those same people have felt queasy about Trump for a while. For some it's as simple as this: Trump is an ignorant, hateful, egomaniacal demagogue unfit to have his finger near The Button. Some fear that he may do something reckless in foreign affairs at dire cost to all of us. Others worry about what he might do domestically. Years ago, when Trump first contemplated a candidacy, I wrote that the problem with him and his supporters is that you can't fire the American people. But the people who deeply fear Trump probably think he can find a way. They weren't thinking about Muslims until a week ago. They were thinking about Hispanics, or maybe the poor in general. Trump embodies the plutocratic dystopia in which corporate American kicks millions to the curb and then runs them over. Except, of course, that he isn't running as the plutocratic candidate or the agent of Wall Street.If that's what he was, he wouldn't be where he is now. He claims to be the candidate of the common man, and the real fuel for Trumpophobia is the suspicion that he actually is. I saw some of the Morning Joe program on MSNBC the other day, and Montel Williams was disparaging those who still won't take Trump seriously, who assume that he still can't win the nomination. What worried Williams was his belief that Trump was drawing on a largely untapped if not unmeasured electorate. In effect, the great fear right now is that the Hidden Majority of reactionary white Christians, the "real Americans" whom Republicans have tried in vain to draw to the polls in the last two Presidential elections, is about to show itself in all its hateful, ignorant majesty, with dire consequences for anyone that is Not Of The Body, so to speak.

I still have my doubts. Trump is running his campaign on free publicity, but from what I read he's also depending on self-motivated fans to vote for him. Not needing to spend money because of all the media attention, he doesn't seem to have the kind of "retail politics" organization on the ground that his rivals will. Retail politics is what beats all insurgent candidates in major-party primaries, be it Pat Buchanan on the Republican side or Howard Dean on the Democratic side. It's what will probably beat Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side next year, and I wouldn't underestimate its chances against Trump. I still say that once it comes down to Trump and the establishment's chosen champion -- who right now looks like Marco Rubio rather than Jeb Bush -- Trump loses. Then the question becomes whether he'll break his pledge and run as an independent, but if it comes to that he may as well not bother. All Ross Perot's money never got him a single electoral vote; I don't see how Trump's money will get him more results as an independent candidate.  

Montel Williams said something more interesting that day. He said that Trump was only the beginning of something, the first candidate for a culture shaped by the cut-throat ethos of reality television. Williams dislikes that reality TV is founded almost entirely on conflict; he thinks it fosters even more of an us-vs.-them mentality than prevailed before, and which we need, he claims, even less than ever. I think Williams is close to the mark, but to me its the judgmental attitude of reality TV, whether it's Trump himself firing losers or studio jurists insulting their litigants, that shapes the Trump phenomenon, if not Trump himself. The core of Trump's appeal remains his willingness to speak truth to both power and the powerless, without apology. If there is a Hidden Majority out there, they may not match the Tea Party Republican profile, but they more likely share Trump's apparent contempt for multitudes of people. They even more likely reject the core premise of liberal progressivism that people are generally good and that we should all be able to get along without hassling or judging each other. If Trump appeals to them, it's because they think a lot of people -- a lot of American people, to be clear -- need to be "fired," or at least told off as if they were going to be fired, in order to scare them straight. If President Obama's message has been that we're all doing our best but that the system (or the Republican party) is failing us, Trump's fans say no, we're not good enough -- or, more accurately, you're not good enough. As typical populists, they're most likely quite satisfied with their own performance, but can't trust other people to hold up their end. That makes the big question a simple one: do they trust Trump enough to bother voting for him? It would seem that they do now, or at least they like what they hear from him, but the Republican establishment still has not yet begun to fight. We're about to see the politics of personal destruction on an epic scale, I suspect, and for once a Democrat won't be the target. If Trump weathers that storm, then maybe more people should worry. Until then, relax.

09 December 2015

The provocation-repression fallacy or: what ISIS wants

A common line of argument against Donald Trump's repressive proposals for Muslims is that Trump is the best thing that could happen to the self-styled Islamic State, or that the IS or Daesh couldn't ask for a better American ally than Trump. This is really the same argument you hear whenever repressive measures are proposed against a violent or merely radical organization, and in this case it strikes me as lazy thinking. It forces the current terrorist movement into an old, arguably irrelevant mold.

In the late 19th century, violent anarchists developed the idea of "propaganda of the deed" that appeared to justify terrorist action, whether it was effective or not. A terrorist deed's propaganda effect was supposed to be twofold. If successful in its original objective, by blowing up a building or killing a politician, it exposed some weakness of the oppressive state. The second effect is known as the provocation-repression theory. According to this theory, a terrorist attack was successful if it provoked new repressive measures by the government. Anarchists hoped that these new repressive measures, by in some way curtailing the liberties of people in general, would expose the essentially repressive, tyrannical nature of the state to more people in a radicalizing way. This strategy never worked; in most countries it fell to a minority of civil-libertarians to defend anarchists as a whole, including the non-violent ones, from majoritarian demands for violent repression by the government or, as many Americans wanted after the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, a ban on admitting immigrants who espoused anarchist views.

I'm no student of anarchist movements, but I doubt that repressive measures anywhere actually inspired growth in anarchist ranks. Despite this failure, some academics, and more laymen, seem to think that the provocation-repression process actually can work the way the anarchists hoped. This assumption explains the puerile argument that Trump is doing the IS's work in America. The argument itself assumes that the measures proposed by Trump, if not Trump's mere proposal of them, are sufficient to radicalize more Muslims here and abroad. For some it may go further, their idea being that the IS or supporters like the San Bernardino shooters carry out their attacks in order to provoke the repressive response  that will truly radicalize Muslims. Here, for once, the old reactionary argument that certain people wrongly "blame America first" for everything bad in the world has merit. By now, with the rise of the IS, we're past the stage at which the terror war could be described as a "defensive jihad" to which the correct response would be some change in American behavior, be it more equitable treatment of Muslim countries or total disengagement from the Middle East. With the proclamation of a caliphate it's more correct to speak now of an Islamist offensive with a momentum and motivating logic of its own. I doubt greatly whether the IS requires or even wants Trump to do his thing, although they'll probably try to milk it for something. My hunch right now is that the IS in particular is driven not by a continued narrative of infidel oppression but by a perceived winning streak. If they can keep pulling off attacks, or inspiring them, and if they can hold out in Syria and Iraq under the chaotic assault of neighbors and superpowers, that's what will inspire people to swear allegiance, not some beef with Donald Trump. If anything, the IS might use Trump as proof of how scared Americans are of them right now, with the emphasis not on any threat Trump may represent to Muslims but on how powerful the Daesh must be to inspire such fear. That's no more an argument against Trump's stand than the provocation-repression theory. There are real arguments to be made against Trump, but his seeming hysteria and simplistic thinking shouldn't provoke hysteria and simplistic thinking among his critics. Trump's antics are unlikely to help the IS in any measurable way, but it's even less likely that stopping Trump will stop the jihad, or even slow it down.

08 December 2015

Trump and the F-word

Donald Trump is a lot of possibly bad things, but despite widespread sloppy usage the word "fascist" is not a synonym for "bad" or even "mean." Inevitably, a right-wing populist like Trump will get called a fascist, but in our time even people who are neither right-wing nor populist, not to mention not fascist, are bound to be called "fascist" by people who disagree with their agendas. If "fascism" means anything in America politics today, it means "someone who wants to use the power of government for purposes I don't approve of." Trump is getting hit with a new round of f-bombs because of his proposal to forbid Muslims from entering the U.S. Whatever the plan's pros or cons, what exactly is fascist about it? The proposal is discriminatory, but Congress has passed discriminatory immigration legislation in the past. There was a time when most Asians weren't considered eligible for citizenship. On that understanding, in the early 20th century laws were passed forbidding nationalities that weren't eligible for citizenship from even settling in the country. These laws are considered black marks on our national record, but at the time they weren't considered fascist. That's because it happened in the early 1920s, when fascism in Italy was just getting started and hadn't acquired much of a rep yet. The only thing novel about Trump's proposal, to my knowledge, is the idea of discriminating by religion, and I'm not sure that would be as unconstitutional, since we're talking about the rights of foreigners, as some have been quick to assume. Call those past laws xenophobic or racist (though immigration from Africa was allowed) if you like, but despite the identification of fascism with the subgroup of Nazism (and, yes, Trump is getting called the N-word, too) neither xenophobia nor racism is an essential component of fascism, which remains a theory of the relationship of individuals and classes to the nation and its government in which Donald Trump is most likely completely uninterested.

I must seem like a nag on this issue, but it's a pet peeve of mine and it seems like I've written a post once a year or so on how stupid it is to call some irrelevant thing or person fascist. But if political discourse is to be meaningful political terms have to have firm, clear meanings. Fascism is not merely a style of government (thuggery, demagoguery, etc.) as many apparently assume, but a conscious alternative to socialism, liberalism and earlier forms of conservatism. To the extent that its formulators like Benito Mussolini were even pseudo-intellectuals, it's practically an insult to fascism to use the word for the seemingly anti-intellectual Trump. The only arguable point of convergence of these phenomena is a sort of cult of the charismatic leader that has formed around Trump, though real fascists probably wouldn't boast of their ability to make deals with everybody. But charismatic leaders inspired cult followings long before fascism was even imagined, just as demagogues have long exploited both rational and irrational fears to get power through history. Those who oppose Trump have plenty of plain American political words they can use on him. But everybody thinks they know what fascism is, just as they think they know what Trump is all about, and all the f-bombs thrown about, and not just at Trump, only leave the political field as clear as mud.

07 December 2015

The dumbest analogy I've ever heard?

Everyone has to have an opinion, it seems, because Donald Trump proposed stopping all Muslims from entering the U.S. "until we figure this out." Apparently Dick Cheney now belongs to the ranks of the "politically correct" because he reportedly criticized Trump's proposal for going against American values, and at least some of the front-runner's Republican rivals have said similar things. Trump is enough of a thing now that CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 show has a designated Trump spokesman, Jeffrey Lord, available to talk whenever the man makes news. Inevitably he was on tonight, sparring with Van Jones, who took the liberal line that Trump's proposal, if implemented, would only further enrage Muslims, since it would prove, or so Jones claimed, that the U.S. was as hostile to Islam as groups like al-Qaeda and the self-styled Islamic State claimed. To this Jeffrey Lord responded with the dumbest analogy I've heard in at least a very long time. What he said to Jones was, in effect: by that standard you should have opposed the Civil Rights movement (Jones is a black man) because it only angered white supremacists. I'm sure a lot of liberal bloggers will have the exact quote up shortly, but I feel confident that I didn't misrepresent Lord. I think we can all see what he means, which is that the possibility that bad people will get angry shouldn't stop us from doing the right thing. But to make that point, Jeffrey Lord equated banning Muslims from entering the United States with the Civil Rights Movement. Think what you like of Trump's proposal, but you have to agree that these are two profoundly different concepts, while Lord's focus on one of Jones's arguments misses that Jones had other arguments to make against the Trump idea -- it may be one of the few things on which he and Cheney are in agreement -- that are not refuted by Lord's silly syllogism. We're definitely in a silly season now. If Lord hadn't claimed this stupidity prize preemptively, it probably would have gone to a retired general of an opposite point of view, who in a later segment of the same 360 show said that Trump's proposal, if implemented, would be "Abu Ghraib on steroids." That is, this guy compared the mere denial of entry into the U.S. with the physical torture of Muslims. Not many people are thinking straight right now, which means, I suppose, that the terrorists are winning something. To be fair, let me offer a possibly dubious analogy of my own. It may be sometimes that public safety, if not your own survival, depends on taking decisive actions on limited information that you may regret later for harm done to the innocent or undeserving. You may want to take your chances with that argument, but isn't it the same one police use when they've killed unarmed people?

How do you fight an idea?

Many viewers seemed dissatisfied with the President's Sunday night talk about Islamic extremism. By now, it seems, few take him seriously when he promises, and even as he is carrying out, military action against the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. His critics, especially on the right, take him even less seriously when he talks about dealing with Islamic radicalization in the U.S. While many of those critics have stupid reasons for their skepticism (e.g., Obama is secretly a Muslim), that doesn't mean there's no reason for criticism. After reading a transcript of the speech, I was struck by a seeming evasion of responsibility at home even as Obama claims to take responsibility abroad. He promises to destroy the Daesh's military power on its home turf and eliminate its ability to carry out international terrorism. But when it comes to dealing with "ISIL" (the government prefers the "Islamic State in the Levant" acronym) and its fans and followers in the U.S. itself, the President seems to say that, apart from making sure that proven suspicious people can't buy assault weapons, it's up to Muslims to defeat Daesh in the war of ideas. But isn't that what everyone wants: for Muslims to denounce and refute IS propaganda and jihadism in general? Sure, but it doesn't follow that the rest of us, be we secular or differently religious, have no role in that struggle. Leaving it to Muslims to refute the IS would be like leaving it to Germans, in German, to refute Nazism 75 years ago. The problem with the IS, or with any "extremist ideology" within Islam, isn't only that it's a perversion of Islam. You don't have to be a Muslim to argue against the proposition that Muslims have a right to spread the sharia by the sword, or to argue that the sharia as interpreted by many Muslims is an unacceptable tyranny for non-Muslims -- if not for many Muslims as well. Obama seems to see Islamic radicalism as a problem with two potential top-down solutions: destroy ISIL and radicalism will go away, or else leave it to religious authorities to prove ISIL wrong to their congregations. But the President's own words suggest that jihadism had become decentralized to a point where they may be no head to strike to kill the snake.

As we've become better at preventing complex, multifaceted attacks like 9/11, terrorists turned to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society. It is this type of attack that we saw at Fort Hood in 2009; in Chattanooga earlier this year; and now in San Bernardino. And as groups like ISIL grew stronger amidst the chaos of war in Iraq and then Syria, and as the Internet erases the distance between countries, we see growing efforts by terrorists to poison the minds of people like the Boston Marathon bombers and the San Bernardino killers. 

What this suggests to me, if not to the man who said the words, is that the situation requires an American propaganda war of comparable intensity to the air war being waged in the Levant, to reach people who may not care what happens to ISIL, or who have no imam to steer them from jihad. Since we don't necessarily know who they are, we need a campaign to reach everybody. Obviously it can't be an "Islam is bullshit" campaign, much less a "Islam is bullshit because you deny Christ" campaign, however much some people would like one or the other. But it should be a campaign that combines the positive message of generations of peaceful Muslim settlement in the U.S. (as against those yahoos who ask, "Where did they all come from, anyway?") with stern reminders of the First Amendment's meaning. Those previous generations of Muslims weren't clamoring for the sharia, so it shouldn't be that hard to walk this generation back from that demand. If their real beef is with American foreign policy, we can talk about that, on the understanding that Muslims can no more dictate that policy than any other religious group, though it would be more helpful if we actually acted on that principle more often. We should get the numerous successful Muslims in the U.S., preferably observant ones to drive the point home, simply to show off their success and emphasize that it doesn't depend on the sharia. Muslim scholars can step in to ask the American umma what they've really done to proselytize for Islam peacefully here before taking up the sword. And we should be able, without compromising the anti-discriminatory principles Obama values above all, to state plainly that if Muslims don't feel secure, or lack self-esteem, in the absence of sharia law in America, they're probably living in the wrong country. Whether these steps appeal to readers or not, it should be clear that there are options short of the extreme remedies proposed by Republicans, just as it should be clear that there is more that should be done about jihadism, short of the Republican options, than Obama has yet considered.

04 December 2015

An immodest woman

The latest revelation about the husband-wife team who shot up San Bernardino on December 2 raises the question of who wore the pants in the family. The wife reportedly made a video in which she swore allegiance to the self-styled Islamic State, while no similar evidence has yet emerged for the husband, and since the husband, an American citizen, met her in Saudi Arabia, the current speculation is that she radicalized him. One of the most peculiar things about the latest fashion in jihad, at least to outside observers, is the attraction the IS or Daesh has for young women. We're used to thinking of Islam in general as demeaning to women because of the dress code strict observers insist upon and the underlying assumption that women in public inevitably tempt men sexually. Western or secular women who see difference as implicitly hierarchical tend to assume that an observant Muslim woman is a second-class citizen of the umma. There's evidence to the contrary throughout the Muslim world, from women in the Iranian legislature to Kurdish female militia fighting ISIS to mass murderers like the San Bernardino shooter. The dress code appeals to some women who hope it will keep them from being objectified sexually, judged by appearance, etc. To a Muslim, also, religiously mandated dress is often less the livery of subjection and servitude, as outsiders assume, than a uniform conferring identity and power. In a horrific way Islam in its extreme (and presumably misogynist) form empowered this woman. This should make clear that Islamic extremism in the 21st century is not about "going back to the seventh century," as many still assume.It has also gone beyond the point where we could say it's all about legitimate grievances that need to be addressed to quiet Muslim rage. It is all about power now, and if Muslims look to the first century after the Hegira for inspiration, it's because faith inspired the successors of Muhammad to conquer the Middle East and much of the world beyond. The problem with women like the shooter is that they think Islam is their only route to power or their only way to share in it. Worse, as the Shiite-Sunni struggles in the Muslim heartland show, the struggle for power among Muslims remains a zero-sum, win-or-die, rule-or-ruin game, and the Muslim struggle against the west and the rest is seen by many Muslims in similar terms. Meanwhile, this week's news that American women are now eligible for all combat units in the U.S. military, after the first women passed the Army Ranger tests earlier this year, suggests that those women who do see Islam as subjugation and second-class citizenship are acting on their beliefs and finding empowerment in uniform as well. Some of us like the idea of women warriors, be they Kurds, Americans or other, taking the fight to the slave-taking, slave-raping men of Daesh, but when they fight women as well everyone will have a better idea of what this struggle is really about.

03 December 2015

Terrorism in San Bernardino?

In America jihad is just another kind of amoklauf, Islam just another set of ideas, among many, that inspire people with grievances to kill. The more we learn about the shootings in San Bernardino, the more it looks like some sick hybrid of terrorism and amoklauf. The choice of target seems determined by the logic of amoklauf more than anything else. The male shooter, apparently a radicalized Muslim American citizen who was a county health inspector, went after his peers at a holiday gathering after making a brief appearance at the party as if to establish an alibi. The plan after the slaughter -- during which, from what we know so far, there were no characteristic "Allahu Akbar" cries or any other sloganeering, as if the shooters hoped to hide their true identities -- seems to have been to go out in a blaze of glory, though in fact they died more like Bonnie and Clyde than your typical martyrs, caught in crossfire as they were driving to Allah knows where. You'd think jihadis would seek some more significant target, though the idea for some seems to be to kill anyone they have a chance to, to repay Americans in particular quantitatively for the suffering the U.S. has inflicted on the Muslim world. This is a strange war in which no one has the guts to attack the Macy's parade in New York City, not even with a knife that alone might have caused a stampede, yet this happens. I don't think "heightened security" in Manhattan explains the discrepancy, since Muslims know how to make themselves inconspicuous; Mohammed Atta and his crew shaved their beards before 9/11, for instance. There's no more conspiracy here, I suspect, than there is a conspiracy of any other amoklaufers. That doesn't mean radical Islam isn't a problem that has to be addressed. But there are clearly more problems to be addressed, as Colorado Springs, Charlestown and other stricken cities can testify. Islam may be a particularly violent religion, but humanity is a particularly violent species and America is a particularly violent culture. That violence finds an empowering outlet in Islam, as it has done in other religions in the past, and it will find other outlets in Islam's absence, just as in the alleged absence of religion altogether it found an outlet in Marxism. For that matter, in the absence of Marxism as a viable rallying idea for the disadvantaged and disgruntled of the Muslim world, Islam has flourished since the waning of the Cold War. People will always find excuses to kill, and of course, one person's excuse to kill is another's excuse to kill that person, or people thought to be like him. Islam is just a head of a hydra; kill the head without killing the body and another will grow in its place. If the heads bite each other, others may grow in its place. But is there any way out of the quandry without further killing? That seems as unlikely as the possibility that those who would solve the problem by mass slaughter are much better than what they oppose.

02 December 2015

Amoklauf in San Bernardino?

As I write a question mark is warranted because certain details are unusual this time. The media seem fairly certain, based on witness statements, that this was a group attack by up to three masked men. The most unusual detail is that the shooters have made a getaway and are at large with few clues to their whereabouts. It's too soon to tell whether they meant to make any sort of statement by shooting up the Inland Regional Center, a social-service facility for disabled people. The latest word from investigators is that fourteen people are dead, fourteen more wounded. Most of us are waiting to narrow down the list of whom to blame, possibly to the level of individuals, perhaps to the level of groups. But why wait? Unless these killers prove to be foreigners, we can take care of this by analogy. If Islam is to blame when Islamic terrorists kill, then when American gunmen kill, America is to blame. Watch this space for updates.

Update: Two of three suspects, one female, were shot down on the road, and the third apparently has been taken alive. Bad news for civil libertarians: at least one of the suspects is a Muslim, though the exact motive for the attack remains unclear. But even if the attackers had no specific Islamic agenda this incident will only reinforce a stereotype of Muslim violence for which a nonviolent majority of American Muslims will be held to account. It would have seemed more fair to hold an entire category of "gun nut" to account, had the killers been generic Americans, than it would be to hold all Muslims to account for Muslim violence, if only because gun nuttery is even more implicitly violent than people assume Islam to be. But why split hairs? Were these people any less gun nuts because one or more of them were Muslim? Is Islam somehow a worse motive for gun violence than anything our Christians or atheists come up with? Focusing on Islam would be taking our eyes off the ball even if the San Bernardino shooters were full-fledged ISIS acolytes. After all, Americans have done quite well at mass murder without Islam to inspire or provoke them. The solution to American gun violence will be the solution to American Muslim gun violence as well.

01 December 2015

Woodrow Wilson: Enemy of the people?

Apparently the far right in America and many of the country's black radicals can agree on at least one thing: Woodrow Wilson was a bad man. Yet I doubt that the right will join the radicals' campaign to purge Wilson's name from Princeton University, where he served as president before launching his political career. Tea Partiers dislike Wilson because he was a progressive and a father of Big Government. The Federal Reserve and the modern income tax came into being under his watch, and he was the first to try entangling us in World Government as an advocate for the League of Nations. Just last week, George Will sneered at Wilson in passing, while praising Clarence Thomas, because Wilson, "the first President to criticize America's founding," (heresy!!!) believed that a complex society required government by experts. None of this, of course, has to do with the Princeton radicals' case against Wilson. They would more likely be points in his favor had Wilson not been an indisputable racist under whom racial segregation in the government grew worse. While right-wingers will most likely condemn the Princeton campaign as more "political correctness" run amok, they'll probably accept the radicals' complaints as further proof of their own case against Wilson, his racism being just another manifestation of the elitism they claim to deplore. More liberal critics of the Princeton campaign object to the "presentism" that seems to hold a President from 100 years ago to an impossible standard, though the heart of the objection is a belief that Wilson's racism neither defines the man or his place in history nor outweighs what many still consider positive achievements of his Presidency. A popular overreaction to the controversy jumps to the conclusion that the radicals want to write Wilson out of history books altogether. I don't think anything of the kind is intended, though some Princeton protesters might want the books rewritten with new emphases. The object of the campaign, as I understand it, is not to make Wilson an unperson, Stalinist style, but to repudiate racism wherever it is found, in the past as well as the present, in dramatic, institutional fashion. What's radical about the campaign is its insistence that racism is something that disqualifies public figures from honor, regardless of any or all achievements. This isn't about anyone's feelings, as the popular ad hominem argument against political correctness assumes, except insofar as the campaign deliberately irritates the feelings of those who object to its premise by arguing, implicitly if not explicitly, that they have no right to revere people like Wilson, and that any reverence correlates with an unacceptable indifference to racism. If that's "presentist," so are all revolutions. If it's not democratic, insofar as it pressures us to bow to an aggrieved minority, neither are revolutions. I don't make these comparisons to label the Princeton campaign a revolutionary event, since from a larger perspective the controversy looks pretty petty. Instead, consider these reminders that this is what revolutions feel like for those who aren't wholly with the program. Some people must have felt the same way in Wilson's own time, given all that happened during his Presidency. If some feel that way on Wilson's behalf now, maybe that's progress. But if the Princeton campaign inspires people to attempt a more objective appraisal of Wilson's career and its consequences, or to attain a more objective perspective from which to appraise him, then it will have proven educational after all.