31 January 2016

How far left?

The current Harper's has a scathing article by Garret Keizer on a relic of oldschool leftism, the Revolutionary Communist Party USA, led from French exile by Bob Avakian. Keizer introduces us to Avakian by describing a rare American appearance of his at an advertised "public dialogue" on Revolution and Religion, at which Avakian outraged most of the audience by launching into a two-hour diatribe against religion, in an implicit attack on his interlocutor, self-described "revolutionary Christian" Cornel West. There might have been a point to the attack, which Keizer, showing his own hand somewhat, describes as "nasty bits of Eurocentric arrogance," were Avakian not the object of a carefully cultivated, utterly obscure cult of personality. Avakian is a Marxist-Leninist on the Maoist model, the RCP's line being that the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, a period the Chinese themselves prefer to pass over with a silent shudder, was "the furthest advance of human emancipation" to date. Interestingly, Avakian fled the U.S. after leading a protest against the 1979 visit of Deng Xiaoping, the man who made China's superpower possible but whom hard-core Maoists regard as a treacherous capitalist-roader.

I took a look at the RCP website, which was recently updated with "Six Resolutions of the Central Committee," most of which are dedicated to the indispensable revolutionary genius of "BA," a world-historical figure who, though "subordinate to the collectivity of the Party overall," is "greater than the Party" by virtue of his "new synthesis of communism." Avakian takes the position that no real revolution is possible without a correct, scientifically determined "line" as synthesized by himself. All of this makes me wonder why the organizers of the Revolution and Religion dialogue thought it was worth having Avakian in their midst. Cornel West at least has some sort of celebrity, while Avakian seems only to have a cult. Perhaps the organizers were entranced by the "Revolutionary Communist" label, though many were disillusioned by Avakian in the flesh. I don't doubt that many of his observations on religion were on the mark, but as far as Keizer's concerned, the issue isn't really religion vs. atheism but grass-roots vs. vanguardism. Keizer himself clearly rejects the Leninist premise that a vanguard party is necessary for any real revolution, though he concedes that "if I'm truly serious in my anticapitalism, I need to affiliate myself with some group."

The real question for the left is what it means to affiliate yourself to a group. Inescapably it must mean submitting to some sort of discipline, but ideally, at least as far as Keizer's concerned, it shouldn't be the top-down great-leader discipline of someone like Avakian. Keizer would probably say that revolution is not a science, but even if I know what he'd mean by that, I'd answer that it should be, to the extent that it proceeds by the scientific method. The problem with "scientific" socialism, as I see it, is that it predicts a result that itself dictates how we should reach that result, while encouraging adherents to attribute failures to deviations from the correct line, if not outright sabotage. Marxist-Leninists are too confident in their knowledge of what revolutions should look like and too hostile to alternate approaches. If you instead see revolution primarily as a moral or species imperative, instead of something that can be predicted like the movements of stars in the sky, you should be more willing to take a trial-and-error approach and more ready to adapt to error. Because Marxist-Leninists have an ironbound notion of what revolution looks like, they become inflexibly defensive in the face of failure, since any failure threatens to discredit the revolutionary structure that is their primary concern. But if revolution is something you're doing rather than something you're building, it shouldn't follow that any revolutionary mistake discredits the revolution itself. Vanguardism only makes things worse because self-appointed vanguards bring with them a preconceived "scientific" notion of what the poor or the working class should be doing. Avakian, for instance, once dallied with the labor movement but ultimately repudiated it because unions were more concerned with improving working conditions for their members than in taking over. Such an attitude tempts one to infer that someone like Avakian probably doesn't really care about anyone's working conditions, so long as they're doing the work he considers necessary. To reject the Avakians of the left shouldn't mean abandoning all efforts to persuade the grass roots of the necessity of certain measures and policies, but it does mean listening to what the grass roots deem necessary as well, instead of sneering at their unscientific consciousness. For whose sake is revolution undertaken, after all? For the good of the people, everyone will say. But who gets to say what the good of the people is? There has to be a middle ground between "it's whatever the people say it is" and "it's exactly what Marx/Lenin/Stalin/Mao/Avakian says it is." But no middle ground is even apparent, arguably, unless both sides, or all sides, make themselves heard, so I guess we have to tolerate the Avakians of the world on the off chance that one of them may be right about something, even if their pretensions of epochal genius deserve only laughter.

28 January 2016

Redefining the right

Ryan Lizza analyzes the Trump vs. Cruz race in this week's New Yorker. He emphasizes that Trump "doesn't use the traditional language of the right," while his supporters are "uninterested in how conservative the G.O.P. should or shouldn't be." Standard conservative litmus tests don't apply to The Donald; his supporters prefer to choose a la carte from the ideological menu. Ann Coulter, for instance, likes Trump's position on immigration so much that she wouldn't care if he "wants to perform abortions in the White House." A non-celebrity fan, who also claims to be a fan of Kim Davis, the homophobic county clerk from Kentucky, says that Trump's apparent lack of religion doesn't faze her, since "strength" and "forthrightness" determine her political preferences. Lizza notes that Trump's strongest supporters are "less educated and less well off" while his fiercest opponents (among Republicans, that is) have "advanced degrees and high incomes." In effect, Lizza claims, "Trump has turned what is traditionally an ideological fight into a class war." Quoting another observer, Lizza writes that Trump is forcing Republicans to ask and answer a new question for them: "To what extent should the G.O.P. be the advocates for those struggling in the modern economy?" No Republican can stop Trump, Lizza warns, unless that candidate "can realistically address the economic anxieties of its base without succumbing to Trump-style bigotry."

Given all this information you might ask why Trump is still considered a candidate of the "right," except that Lizza answered the question in that last sentence. However I may define the term "populist," it often means "working class bigot" when used to describe Trump's fans, if not Trump himself. When a Trump supporter says "We're tired of being run over," Lizza makes sure you understand the person means they've been run over by welfare cheats and their political patrons. This particular person says her husband works two jobs for seventeen hours a day with one leg -- and there's the hubby to confirm this -- but while a liberal progressive or democratic socialist might say that a person in his condition shouldn't have to work any job, he's more interested in seeing Trump put those other people to work. Of course, there's also the anger vented at protesters and journalists at Trump rallies, while Trump's own attitude toward the press -- expressed most recently in his boycott of tonight's Fox News debate -- is rightly disquieting to the media. The left wants Trump's base to be angry, but they have to be careful of whom they're angry at to avoid being relegated to the "right." But what is "the right" now? Trump and Cruz are fighting to determine that, whether Trump is aware of the stakes or not. He may well think of himself as a man of "the right," if only because he perceives a "left" that he despises, however he defines it. To any left, I suppose, "the right" means privilege. Cruz obviously upholds the "privileges" of wealth and business, but to the left Trump and his people uphold some sort of privilege, also, whether it's "white skin privilege" or something else along those lines. In this case it might be best to oppose "privilege" to "inclusion," a supreme value of the 21st century American left. Whole groups of people don't feel welcome in the Trump movement, probably including many Trump hasn't actually attacked or criticized. That's most likely because the left assumes that to exclude one is to exclude all, that hostility to Mexicans or Muslims is only an aspect of that universal white (or white male, or straight white) hatred of any Other that, to some, virtually defines western civilization.

But while the left perceives any sort of exclusionary populism as "the right," that populism actually occupies the center of at least one continuum of thought. At one end, the "right" of capital and free enterprise, anyone can succeed and the successful are welcome everywhere, but nothing is promised, much less guaranteed, to anyone. For them it's survival of the fittest, albeit within certain self-justifying rules, and the losers can rot. At the other end, which in this case means liberalism rather than an often less-forgiving hard left, everyone must make it, with no questions asked, or else the world is unjust. In the middle are those who believe that their membership in a particular group entitles them to something more than the right would grant, but believe that entitlement to be a birthright rather than a human right to be shared unconditionally with everyone else. Populists often think of themselves as "the people," but at the same time they effectively affirm that they are a people who are distinct from others and like it that way. Let's say they see themselves as the people who define a people as a distinctive thing. This becomes problematic if they're not the only ones who form a particular people, but it shouldn't be as problematic when they demand that a people, in the national sense of the word, ought to be considered by their nation before the nation looks abroad for monsters to destroy (today's populists oppose neoconservatism and liberal interventionism, seeing them as two sides of the same coin) or strangers to embrace. It needn't be a matter of hate or ethnocentrism or any sort of prejudice. It can be as simple as what I hear every day: why do we spend so much money on foreign countries when there's such crying need in this country? Democrats hear that and say: no problem, we'll tax the rich more to help you out without changing anything else; while most Republicans won't listen unless someone can profit by addressing those crying needs. The middle ground between those positions doesn't have to be "the right" unless the people occupying that ground are pushed there. That doesn't mean those people have no obligation to think straight about who all the people are who make this a people, but it does mean that the rest of this people have to think hard about their priorities, too.

People who live in glass theocracies ....

A quick comment is in order about the scandal in Italy over the Prime Minister's decision to hide various nude statues behind screens to spare the quaint puritanical sensibilities of the President of Iran during his visit to Rome. It was a silly gesture on its own terms but diplomacy often looks silly to those not engaged in it. Islamic contempt for nude sculpture is itself contemptible -- though presumably a Shiite like President Rouhani is less iconophobic than his Sunni counterparts around the Muslim world -- but those who question the Italian government's decision should also question why female dignitaries, or the wives of dignitaries, are obliged to follow a dress code when meeting with the Pope. If modesty is contemptible it becomes no less so when Roman Catholics rather than Muslims insist upon it. If self-expression is to be upheld against all opposition let's not be selective in our criticism. The point of opposing Islamism in all its forms isn't simply not to bow to it, but to bow to no such thing.

26 January 2016

Putin vs. Lenin

President Putin of Russia felt inspired the other day to differentiate himself from Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. Often suspected of totalitarian tendencies because of his KGB past, Putin admitted that he still believes in some of the ideals behind the Soviet Union, but also admitted that "the practical embodiment of these wonderful ideas in our country was very far from what the Utopian socialists had proclaimed." Putin has several problems with Lenin, if not with Leninism. He thinks Lenin went too far in ordering the slaughter of not only the Russian royal family, but many of their servants who,ought to have been recognized as proletarians. His real beef with Lenin, it turns out, is that Lenin was a federalist, a believer in national autonomy on some level whose policies implied a right of secession that Putin describes as an "atom bomb" waiting to blow the country apart, as it did, in his view, in 1991. He further faults Lenin for having to give up a huge swath of territory to the Germans in 1918. In general, Putin seems to take a more favorable view of Stalin, but the standard by which he judges the two leaders is essentially nationalist, since for him the USSR was just another name for Russia. In his recent talk Putin notes that Stalin preferred a "unitary state" from the onset, but was overruled by Lenin. If the question was whether the socialist republics within the Soviet Union could secede or not, an American might ask what was wrong with Stalin's (and Putin's) position, since most Americans, apart from those unreconstructed Rebs, reject the idea that any state can break up our Union. You would have to turn to the Poles, the Latvians, the Lithuanians, the Estonians and, yes, the Ukrainians, as well as unlisted others, for the answer. As far as these peoples are concerned, they were subjects of the Russian Empire, not partners in it. They'd be justified in finding Putin's apparent nostalgia for the pre-1917 empire alarming, though they shouldn't go overboard in their alarm as long as Putin doesn't go overboard in his nostalgia and turn it into imperialist irredentism. Putin may be a hero of sorts to the anti-imperialist left because he defies the U.S. and sticks up for others who do so, but "anti-imperialist" hardly describes Putin himself.
"the practical embodiment of these wonderful ideas in our country was very far from what the Utopian socialists had proclaimed."

"the practical embodiment of these wonderful ideas in our country was very far from what the Utopian socialists had proclaimed."

"the practical embodiment of these wonderful ideas in our country was very far from what the Utopian socialists had proclaimed."


25 January 2016

How the Democrats can beat Trump, by a Republican

Ross Douthout, one of the New York Times's house Republicans, thinks Donald Trump is a fake. Not a fake Republican or a fake conservative, though Douthout may think so in both cases. The most important thing, and Trump's biggest potential weakness, he argues, is that he's a fake success. Douthout believes that Trump remains popular in the Republican polls because his supporters are convinced that he's an "incredible self-made genius" with the "business chops," as well as the "middle-finger-first attitude," that the nation needs at this time. To stop Trump, Douthout argues, Republicans have to "flip his brand." His rivals shouldn't waste time disputing credentials that neither Trump nor his supporters really care about, but should challenge his supposed primary attribute: his success.

So don’t tell people that he doesn’t know the difference between Kurds and the Quds Force. (They don’t either!) Tell people that he isn’t the incredible self-made genius that he plays on TV. Tell them about all the money he inherited from his daddy. Tell them about the bailouts that saved him from ruin. Tell them about all his cratered companies. Then find people who suffered from those fiascos — workers laid off following his bankruptcies, homeowners who bought through Trump Mortgage, people who ponied up for sham degrees from Trump University. Or just take a camera crew around Atlantic City, and slap Trump’s name on what you find. Likewise, don’t get mired in philosophical arguments about big government and crony capitalism. Find the people hurt by Trump’s attempts to exploit eminent domain: The widow whose boarding house he wanted to demolish to make room for a limo parking lot, the small businessmen whose livelihoods he wanted to redevelop out of existence [links in original].

If the Republicans don't do this, Douthout warns -- while noting that Senator Cruz has just begun attacking Trump on the eminent domain issue - the Democrats eventually will when only they can benefit. He expects the Democratic nominee, especially if it's Senator Sanders,to make Trump "radioactive" with working-class voters -- supposedly the bulk of Trump's current base -- the same way they made Mitt Romney radioactive, by highlighting his apparent indifference to or contempt for the little guy.

Douthout may have a point, but he seems strangely clueless in his dismay over Republicans' failure to exploit this apparent weak spot. To do as he suggests, wouldn't Republicans themselves have to care about the little guys? It seems more likely that their attitude would be the same toward Trump's supposed victims had the perpetrator been anyone but Trump: those are the breaks of the game; life's not fair; get over it; adapt to the Market's demands or die. As for Trump's base, while they may mostly be little guys themselves, they may not care much more than the Republican establishment does. Remember that right-wing populists in the U.S. are often very limited in solidarity or even compassion for their fellow people. While they're presumed bigots, I suspect they're really quite indiscriminate in their indictment of American loserdom, from which they trust Trump to rescue them. Douthout wants them to conclude that Trump screwed over a lot of innocent people, but how does he know that they won't find Trump's supposed victims to be whiny losers while continuing to admire Trump for what could appear to them as superior resilience and adaptability? If they see ruthlessness in Trump's record, maybe that's what they want in a President.

Those who support Trump probably are with him all the way now. Despite Glenn Beck's outrage, has anyone seen Trump's poll numbers slip after his joke about shooting a random person and not losing support? It's time for pundits like Douthout to face up to the likelihood that Trump's people really don't care about anything (or anyone) right now other than giving their man a chance to do what he has to do.  Trump won't be stopped simply by changing those people's minds -- if you can change them. If Trump is going to lose, it'll be because, whether or not his supporters believe themselves to be the great Hidden Majority -- the authentic American people -- they're not.

22 January 2016

Who is the Establishment? Part Two

Somehow the two most popular candidates for the Republican presidential nomination are the two most hated by people we usually think of as Republicans. The big stories going into this weekend are that National Review, in an attempt to reclaim its historic role as gatekeeper for the conservative movement, has published a special issue dedicated to the destruction of Donald Trump, and that simultaneously many GOP leaders, including elected officials and especially U.S. Senators, are urging Republicans to rally around Trump in order to defeat Senator Cruz. It seems that many of Cruz's colleagues in the Republican Senate caucus hate his guts; one has been quoted saying he'd rather vote for Bernie Sanders than Cruz in a general election. Throughout 2015, since Trump declared his candidacy, I predicted that once it came down to Trump vs. the "establishment" candidate, Trump would lose, but now it looks like Trump himself could be the "establishment" candidate battling a more radical and possibly more unelectable rival in Cruz. What we're really seeing is the Republican establishment turning against itself, like Dr. Strangelove's artificial hand choking him with a will of its own.

As with the Democrats, there's a battle over exactly what the establishment is. National Review represents the ideologues who would define the establishment, understandably, in ideological terms. If liberals see Trump as the ultimate conservative Republican, many actual conservative Republicans see him as just the opposite: an unprincipled egoist as likely to rule by executive order, and to as unwelcome ends, as President Obama. From what I understand, not having read the issue yet, their beef isn't with his stance on immigration -- they appear to suspect that he won't live up to his promises -- but with his overall demagoguery. Above all, it's easy to guess that the ideologues resent Trump having risen without first receiving their seals of approval. They simply don't trust him in any respect. For their trouble National Review has been dismissed from its share of future debate-moderating duties by the Republican National Committee for its show of bias. In other words, none of their people will be allowed to ask Trump questions on TV. That move seems well timed with reports that "establishment" Republicans are moving to favor Trump over Cruz.

It's all very strange, given that Trump's appeal is supposedly purely "anti-establishment" in nature, despite his wealth and celebrity -- or because of them -- while Cruz is a sitting U.S. Senator. How much of a threat to the establishment can Cruz be? Much of the hostility toward him right now is based on the belief that he's become less electable than Trump, but is that because Trump remains phenomenally popular or because something is really wrong with Cruz, the only candidate close to Trump in the polls? Now, of course, is the moment for Cruz to crow that he is, and has always, been the true anti-establishment candidate, and to cry that Trump will be co-opted by the establishment. It's possibly true that Cruz has always been the most radical of the Republican candidates, but if his kind of ideological radicalism puts him at odds with an "establishment" which now rallies to Trump in its own defense, what does that tell us about the Republican establishment? If the problem with Cruz is that he really wants to do what they all talk about doing, doesn't that indicate that their ideology has to some extent been bullshit all along? If that's the case, what does it mean to be the Republican establishment? Not much, I suspect, other than rich folks keeping their money and possibly making some more on the side. Radical reform could only mess with a good thing from this point of view.

Of course, just as there are multiple "establishments" it can mean more than one thing to be "anti-establishment." While Trump rails against conventional politicians, he's given no indication, to my knowledge, that he plans drastic changes in the way government works. He's anti-establishment to the extent that he articulates grassroots anger, but more essentially in his indifference to the establishment. He's expressed his willingness to work with everybody, and boasts of his ability to cajole anyone, but he depends on nothing or no one in this establishment for his current popularity. Cruz, meanwhile, seems to want to destroy an establishment he abhors, though presumably by constitutional means. To whatever actual establishment exists Trump may be a threat by virtue of his independence, but compared to Cruz he may not be an enemy, unless the ideologues declare him one.

In any complex society there is bound to be an "establishment" of some sort, and there's bound to be resentment of it on the part of people who feel excluded from or oppressed by it. Whether that resentment is justified depends in particular on what the establishment does and in general on how it's constituted. If an establishment comes into being and perpetuates itself in a way that usurps the people's authority, then anti-establishment feeling is justified. But if an establishment exists by virtue of the people's will, and is accountable to the people through normal channels, anti-establishment feeling may be no more than the carping of self-interested malcontents. You can only complain so much about elected officials forming an establishment, for instance, since that's what they're meant to be. But you could complain if the establishment seems to go out of its way to exclude certain groups from its ranks, or to oppress others. For some, the opposite of an establishment is "democracy," but in practice it may more likely be anarchy. What really counts isn't who you're for or against, but what you're for or against. The point of political activism isn't to be "anti-establishment" as if that alone meant something, but to determine what kind of establishment we'll have, since we have to have one.

Who is the Establishment? Part One

Watching the Rachel Maddow show for a moment last night, I learned that there was some disagreement among the Democratic candidates for President and their supporters over who the "establishment" is. It seems that Senator Sanders, in an attempt to dismiss the endorsement of Hillary Clinton by several gay-rights and reproductive-rights groups, described the leaders of those groups as part of the "establishment." Clinton quickly took offense on their behalf. How could Sanders believe that these groups representing women and gays in struggle against those who would deny them their rights were part of any "establishment," when it was self-evident that the true establishment was what they all were struggling against? Sanders responded by clarifying his distinction between the groups, all of whom had worthy agendas in his view, and many of whose grass-roots members supported him, and their leaders.

The easy answer to the question is what Sanders probably meant in the first place, which is that anyone who supports Hillary Clinton is part of an establishment. Yet I feel certain that his opponents and critics, from Clinton herself on down, are sincere in their denials. While others have the power or the potential to deny women full reproductive rights, or deny homosexuals full civil equality, it's understandable that activists see those others as the establishment and themselves as insurgents. At the same time, Clinton and her feminist fans see themselves on the outside looking in at the establishment that has excluded them from the highest levels of power and honor. For them, so long as there is resistance to the idea of a woman President -- and many see this resistance as inseparable from all specific resistance to Clinton -- it's absurd to consider even Clinton herself as part of the establishment. To them, the establishment is self-evidently male, just as for other Clinton supporters it is self-evidently straight or Christian. As long as someone else is in a position to judge them, without equal accountability to them, those others are the establishment, and those opposing them cannot be. That perception reveals the parochial limits of their worldview. Outside of these circles, who really thinks that the establishment, if one truly exists, is defined today by attitudes toward women's rights, gay rights or reproductive rights? To think that is to fall for the Democratic scare campaign that claims that the Religious Right really rules this country, or is on the brink of taking over, when few of the really meaningful decisions -- those that matter to Americans regardless of gender or sexual preference -- have any input from that hateful entity. Not to see Hillary Clinton as part of the establishment is to wear a certain set of ideological blinders while disdaining others. At the very least, even if you deny the premise, it should be clear that Clinton wants to be part of the establishment, and it should also be clear that aspiration, in this case, amounts to virtual membership. Sanders, on the other hand, talks as if he has no interest in being part of the establishment in the way that Clinton is or wants to be. One can be of it, as Sanders arguably is as a U.S. Senator, and still want to do away with it, but it's unclear whether that's what Clinton wants.

I'll save further thoughts on the meaning and function of an establishment until my Part Two post, which will address the early endgame for the Republican party, in which, depending on whom you read or listen to, the "anti-establishment" candidate may suddenly become the establishment candidate to stave off a worse-feared fate for the GOP.

20 January 2016

Julio Pino and the anti-imperialist left

Dr. Julio Pino, a professor of history at Kent State University, is under investigation by the FBI for alleged ties to and recruitment for the self-styled Islamic State organization. Pino is a Cuban-American whose family left the island when he was seven years old. Unlike most Cubans in the U.S., Pino is a supporter of the Revolution and the Castro brothers' regime. In an interview today for the Kent State news page, Pino explains that he converted to Islam around the turn of the century. He has been noticed previously by the Zionist right in the U.S. for extreme statements of hostility toward Israel. He has also been accused in the past of running pro-jihad or pro-terror websites, while Pino himself claims that he has done nothing contrary to U.S. law. This page at the Kent State news site traces Pino's newsworthy history back several years.

Why does a Cuban-American, raised Christian but turned agnostic, become any sort of Muslim, leaving aside whether he's actually a jihadi sympathizer? In the interview Pino explains that he was won over by the combined appeal of Islam's code of personal ethics and its vision of social justice. I suspect the latter mattered more, and may explain more still if the charges against Pino are proven true. The professor looks like a classic specimen of the anti-imperialist left. Since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, the anti-imperialist left has turned toxic in many cases. In the absence of the USSR there's no real embodiment of "international communism" for them to rally around. Before, in opposing imperialism they were for communism, often the Marxist-Leninist sort the Soviets practiced. Without the Soviet Bloc to champion, they can be against imperialism just as unconditionally, but what can they be for? The answer is "the poor." Much of the anti-imperialist left takes the Maoist line that the poor of the Third World are the global proletariat, the future mass army of a worldwide revolution. However, the movement seems also to have taken up some postmodern ideas, above all a skepticism about the "scientific" objectivity and progressive imperatives of Marxism and Leninism. Too much of the Marxist-Leninist tradition, I suspect, strikes today's anti-imperialist left as angry white men imposing their cultural values on other cultures. Somewhere along the way indigenous cultures and premodern values came to be valued as ends unto themselves, to be preserved, while to challenge old customs and superstitions, as the old communists did, came to be seen as oppressive if not simply bigoted. Who had a right to tell the poor what to think or what to do? Why pick on the oppressed by questioning or insulting the only things that hold their cultures together or give them solace in misery?

Pino was probably a sympathizer in solidarity with the Palestinians long before he converted to Islam. As the Palestinian resistance devolved from the secularists of the first generations to the Islamists of today, Pino probably saw no reason to temper his support for a cause that remained, to him, self-evidently just. You can see a sort of logic here: if to criticize Islamic fanaticism, or Islam itself, somehow discredits the Palestinian case against Israel, or any Muslim resistance to imperialism or western hegemony, then Islam should not be criticized. I don't mean to suggest that such thinking explains why Pino converted, since many if not most on the anti-imperialist left have most likely remained secular. But his feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, along with any discrimination or dislike he encountered as a Hispanic in the U.S., may well have increased the allure of a religion that boasts often of its absolute rejection of racial inequality. Of course, however sincerely Islam repudiates racism, it finds other ways to discriminate -- but to whatever extent that Pino may be a Marxist, or a Leninist, he probably isn't as bothered by discrimination based on people's beliefs as others are. Islam's provisions for the distribution of wealth, from the sharing out of plunder to the giving of alms as a pillar of religion, have obvious appeal for the anti-imperialist left. Some of them may think cynically that Islam can serve as a shortcut to a truly communist revolution, but I suspect their true sentiments are more plainly emotional. I wonder whether the anti-imperialist left is traveling in the opposite direction of that Malcolm X traveled. When Malcolm went to Mecca and saw that there were white Muslims and believers of all races, he rejected the racist pseudo-Islam of Elijah Muhammad and planned greater involvement with Third World struggles against imperialism before his murder -- at a time when many of the Middle East's leaders were quite secular in attitude. Today's anti-imperialist left are probably inspired in part by Malcolm's vision, but while they start from a position of solidarity with the Third World, they seem increasingly willing to tolerate if not embrace ancient superstitions and bigotries that would have disgusted the old Marxists and Leninists, out of simple hatred for the same sort of "white devil" that Elijah Muhammad railed against. There are a good number of lily-white members of the anti-imperialist left who feel that same hatred -- that same resentment of the team that always wins while the others wallow in the basement. These people may still call themselves progressives, but if their only idea of progress is "bottom rung on top," and if any form of superstitious custom is preferable to "imperialism," however defined, and if any level of violence is justified to fight it, then how progressive are they, really?

19 January 2016

Fiat Hillary ruat caelum

Suzanna Danuta Walters offers perhaps the most audacious argument yet for why progressives should support Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Walters, an editor and sociality professor, was invited by The Nation to explain why she, as a "red diaper baby" and avowed socialist feminist, supports Clinton, while Liza Featherstone, a Nation columnist, explains why a socialist feminist should not support her. Reduced to its bare minimum, Walter's argument is: since Sen. Sanders is unlikely to accomplish anything radical as President due to Republican dominance of Congress, we may as well go for the historic symbolism of electing the first woman President. She argues further, and with eyes wide open, that a second Clinton presidency will do for gender issues what the Obama presidency has done for race issues. Her explanation pre-empts any snarky comments without necessarily refuting them. Here's Walters on Obama's legacy:

Shattering glass ceilings can have broad and rippling consequences. The election of Obama did not usher in an era of “post-racial” accord. However, it did something else, something that couldn’t happen without having a black president in the Oval Office: It brought to the surface the enduring power of racial animus in the United States—an animus that Obama himself commented on increasingly often throughout his presidency—and the equally enduring struggles against it. His presence brought race to the forefront of American politics and raised the bar for “doing enough” for African Americans significantly higher, even as he wrestled with the trap of respectability politics and the Catch-22 of giving voice to black anger. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, may have come into being without his presidency, but surely the very fact of this man, with this history, with this skin, in the White House forced critically important questions about the unfinished fight for racial equality into public view. 

In other words, the racially-charged debate over Obama served to remind the left that the U.S. was still a long way from racial equality where it really mattered and galvanized many on the left to push for further reform in the face of an inferred racist backlash. In Walters's analysis, Obama may have more value as a galvanizing symbol than as an actual leader. So she hopes it will be with Clinton. Walters puts a positive spin on this expectation, arguing that a Clinton presidency "may help animate conversation, instill fierce female pride, and inspire young girls the world over." But in essence she expects (and apparently wants) a Clinton presidency to be as divisive as Obama's, so long as it's clear that in neither case the President is to blame.

[T]he idea that Hillary’s victory would be “merely” symbolic underestimates the profound import of symbolism and obscures her explicit alliance with (some version of) feminism and her clear qualifications for the job. As with Obama and racism, her candidacy is bringing sexism out into the open—not that it’s ever far from the surface!—both the Trump-like horror of the female body, and a curiously visceral and over-the-top cottage industry on the left of “anti-Hillary” haters (as if she were the enemy and not… right-wing Republicans?). But like the racist fervor that greeted Obama, the misogyny bubbling over will make plain the deep gender inequities that persist despite decades of feminist work, and finally put to rest the lie that this revolution is largely won.

I'm not sure Walters is describing accurately what's going on right now.  She comes close to the Zionistic position that any criticism of Clinton is misogynistic, and that in particular the argument against a symbolic vote for Clinton is a misogynist attack on her feminist supporters. The argument that Clinton is a tool of Wall Street at the end of the day, regardless of this or that reform or regulation she's supported, is no reflection on her gender. Nor does criticism of her scare tactics against Sanders's plan for a single-payer health insurance system reflect on her or her daughter as women. Yes, there are haters who mock her age and appearance, but is that misogyny or just the same ad hominem impulse that substitutes personal attacks on any disliked candidate (e.g. on Sanders's own age, Trump's hair, Christie's weight) for substantive ones? I think it's especially dishonest to impute any sexism to the Sanders camp, since who doubts that if Senator Warren had entered the race, Sanders would have a lot less support right now? All that being said, I don't doubt that a Clinton presidency would be divisive. I only doubt that it would be divisive in the clarifying way Walters hopes for. And it may be unfair to Clinton or her feminist supporters to say this, but do we really need a symbolic President for the next four or eight years? When you consider that if anyone in the running is a symbolic candidate, one in whom people see a reflection of themselves, that candidate is  Donald Trump, you may want to rethink the profound import of symbolism and consider different priorities this year.

18 January 2016

Trump, Defender of the Faith

From the candidate's speech today at Liberty University, the school founded by Jerry Falwell, in Lynchburg, VA (as reported here):

"We're going to protect Christianity.... Somehow we have to unify. We have to band together. We have to do really, in a really large version, what they’ve done at Liberty. Because Liberty University has done that. You’ve banned together. You’ve created one of the great universities, colleges, anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world. And our country has to do that around Christianity. So get together folks. And let’s do it. Because we can do it."

Sometimes, I suspect, not trusting Trump will be a matter of faith.

A black life that mattered

Today is the day each year when ideologues argue over Martin Luther King's legacy. You're bound to hear a lot about content of character, since King in his 1963 March on Washington speech dreamed of a time when all people would be judged on that basis, and Republicans today believe it can be done right now, and claim to be doing it themselves, without enduring prejudice and without bothering with affirmative action or any other compensatory policies. You'll probably see speculation about what King would think or say about today's issues. In some cases, at least, the world has changed so profoundly since 1968 that it's impossible to predict what an 87 year old King would think now from what he wrote and said then. You can jump to conclusions on tolerance, but you don't know how he would have reacted to terrorism, among other things. Moreover, were King alive today his merely having lived probably would have changed him regardless of what else happened in the world. Had he remained a public figure and a progressive gadfly, and especially if he traveled the path his self-styled heir Jesse Jackson took and ran for public office, his extramarital affairs and collegiate plagiarism would have been exposed in his lifetime to his probable ruin. Such ruin may have marginalized, embittered and further radicalized King, and he may well have been one of the elder statesmen like Jackson who resented the rapid rise of Barack Obama, coloring his attitudes and beliefs in ways his written record can't anticipate.

In any event, King's holiday is as much an occasion for national self-congratulation as it is an idolization of a fallible man. As certain historians and politicians insist on reminding us, King himself did not personally end segregation or secure black people's voting rights. These reforms required political action by elected officials, and King is beloved today for inspiring (or provoking) these necessary measures. He is credited with awakening America to its better self, for stirring the collective conscience so we would do the right thing. Those who regard King's methods as an infallible technique for achieving further reform forget that it takes two (or more, in this case) to tango. With King as with Gandhi, nonviolent resistance flourished within cultures that were at once repressive and uniquely liberal, the U.S. as a whole and the British Empire, when the movements and men would have been short-lived in most other places. While the two cases aren't identical, the American civil rights legend tells us that King's tactics exposed the self-evident wrongness of Southern racist practices, so that the national majority put them to an end. But what happens when the wrongs protested later by similar means are not as self-evident to the majority?

It's one thing to be reminded through nonviolent resistance that certain laws and practices betray the nation's principles as you yourself understand them. But if someone proposes revolutionary changes to make the nation (or the world) something radically new, challenging your very frame of moral or ethical reference, then no amount of suffering protesters subject themselves to may persuade you that they're right and you're wrong. In other words, you can't let yourself get jailed or beaten or worse for just anything and expect to have the same impact the Civil Rights movement did. And if the moral of the King story is that his is the correct and only way (other than voting) to push for change from below, radicals may find themselves more S.O.L. than King himself often was in his last years when they try to persuade majorities grown more complacent or conservative. If one hears a more coercive or intimidating tone in black protest today, whether in the trivial pursuit of "safe zones" on college campuses or in more obviously urgent demands for police procedure reform, it's probably because today's protesters realize that King's way took them to a certain point but could not take them much farther, while they deny that the limits of King's strategies represent the limits of what they can rightly demand. King's strategy, and the nonviolent principle in general, is an appeal to voluntarism. It depends on the will of others, whether it's the will of a democratic majority or the will of an enlightened, compassionate ruler. But political philosophy can't rule out the possibility of  imperatives that exist independent of individual or collective will -- of things that may be right or necessary whether people want them or not. In such situations, King leaves only the option of martyrdom, and not the effective Muslim kind. If certain ends really do justify more means than King could countenance, our annual celebration of him and ourselves may prove a handicap in the long run.

15 January 2016

New York Values

I'd like to think that Senator Cruz committed campaign suicide last night when he doubled down on his criticism of Donald Trump's "New York values" at the latest Republican presidential debate. At the very least Cruz showed his true colors, or at least the color of his neck. I suggested yesterday that Cruz and Trump represent rival forms or potentials for 21st century populism. Many won't like either option because populism is exclusive by nature, but Cruz, as the creature of the Religious Right and the radio talkers, is more exclusive, or at least more divisive, than Trump seems to be. Both may feed distrust of foreigners but Cruz seems to go beyond that. While Trump's base remains something of a mystery, Cruz's seems to be pretty familiar. They're the people of the self-styled heartland who imagine themselves despised as "flyover America" by the hated cultural or countercultural elites of either coast. Apparently in Cruz's populism, if we can even call it that, there's no room for "people who are socially liberal [as opposed to, say, Muslims?] or pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage....Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan." Are we that far already from when Rudy Giuliani, admittedly no prize otherwise, was "America's Mayor" and a potential Republican nominee himself? Perhaps he was a victim in his ambitions of the same prejudice Cruz pitches now.

Cruz may be right about the absurdity of Trump's questioning his eligibility for the Presidency -- while Trump was typically and cynically candid about his self-interested motivation for doing so -- but he seems to be right about little else, yet Right about everything else. He's been surging lately because the Republican primary base is pretty much the same as it ever was, but he seems to have forgotten that the old base isn't the only force out there anymore. If he thinks he's fighting Trump for the old base, I suspect he's mistaken. Trump may well still collapse if he continues to neglect retail politics, but my guess is that he's inspired new people to get interested in an election rather than winning over GOP dead-enders. His "trust me, I'm great" argument still seems pretty pathetic to someone not infatuated with Trump's TV persona, but for all the talk of how divisive his campaign has been, I think his supporters see it differently. While establishment critics have focused on his exclusionary attitude toward immigrants, his fans probably see him as a unifier, which is probably the key to his populist appeal. If I'm right about this -- whether his fans are right is another story -- then the worst thing Cruz could have done, if he still hopes to inherit Trump's supporters, is to go divisive on geographic lines. Worse still, Cruz is an idiot if he didn't see how Trump could use 9/11 to hit the Texan's pathetic attack on New York like a slow, straight pitch out of the park. There are many Republicans out there, not to mention many others, who want to see the party nominate anyone but Trump, but Cruz should make people rethink that stand. It may be hard to believe, but from the country's perspective the GOP could do worse than Trump -- and right now it still has a good chance of doing so.

14 January 2016

Cruz vs. Trump: a clash of populisms?

The gloves are just about off for the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination. Donald Trump has gone birther, in a modest way, against Senator Cruz, implausibly questioning the eligibility of a man born in Canada to an American citizen mother. Cruz, possibly reeling from revelations about undisclosed loans from Goldman Sachs, has been quoted commenting with implicit disapproval on Trump's "New York values." The next Republican debate may further a differentiation process that Cruz has delayed as long as possible, hoping to win Trump's supporters should the billionaire's candidacy suddenly falter. The "New York values" remark may be the first signal that Cruz plans to wage culture war on Trump. If he does, it will be a clarifying moment that could help us understand exactly what the supporters of each man are all about.

It's already clear that Cruz is the favorite of the most ideological Republicans, the radio talkers and the Christian right. These groups don't trust Trump much, mainly because they doubt his ideological soundness. They recognize that "populist," whatever it really means to anyone, is not the same as "conservative." Yet Cruz is also described as a populist candidate, mostly by critics for whom "populist" is synonymous with "xenophobic" or "bigoted." In my own usage, "populist" always has an exclusivist tendency that distinguishes it from cosmopolitanism or multiculturalism. Populism is never about "humanity" but is always about a geographically and culturally specific "people." The big question is how specific populists get about their exclusiveness, and the Cruz-Trump contest may help decide that, even if neither man ends up with the GOP nomination. Cruz, I suspect, is more likely to force the issue, and by doing so may dig his own grave as a national figure. "New York values" may be the first hint of this. I don't think he means anything bigoted about this, but I'd guess he does mean to label Trump as something alien to the heartland and its values, as Cruz perceives them. As noted, Cruz right now is clearly the candidate of the religious right, and it's in his interest, the devout being his base, to charge that Trump isn't one of them, even as Cruz still hopes to convince Trump's supporters that he, Cruz, is one of them. Meanwhile, Trump is going to Liberty University next week, but Bernie Sanders has been there already so I wouldn't make too much of that. Trump's smart play here would be to play it cool and not get into a holier-than-thou competition with Cruz. Doing so has a better chance of increasing his base rather than alienating anyone in it.

What is the culture that the populists of 2016 want to defend? We can infer some of its contours from comments posted on this very blog. But there's a big either/or question looming for populists, and Cruz is poised to call the question. The question, as you've probably guessed already, is: Is the culture we want to defend essentially, inextricably Christian (or Judeo-Christian) in nature? Cruz's base wants to say yes. Simply by not agreeing, rather than explicitly denying the premise, Trump can draw to him those people who believe in a specific, exclusive American culture incompatible with certain foreigners, but see no reason to define that culture as essentially Christian. The other side presumably sees American culture as no culture without Christianity; they're the "Christian nation" crowd, and to win their support Trump would have to prove something to them. With Cruz his most serious threat right now -- the landscape could change rapidly over the next couple of months, pitting him against a different sort of Republican -- Trump has to ask himself a question and stake much on the answer. Does he need those people's support? If he thinks so, he may be making a mistake. If he thinks so and he's right, it could be a poor reflection on the culture they all want to defend.

13 January 2016

Al Jazeera's big mistake

The news that Al Jazeera, the cable news operation based in Qatar, was shutting down its American news channel this spring disappointed me. I've watched the channel quite a bit -- on my cable service it's right next door to BBC News -- and found it occasionally left of center but not in a partisan way. It was in no way religious propaganda, but Al Jazeera America failed to do the simplest thing possible to dispel any suspicion. The fatal flaw in their plan -- unless you attribute the channel's sudden demise to the likelihood of professional athletes winning defamation lawsuits over recent allegations of PED use -- was that Al Jazeera was too infatuated with its own brand. What we know now as Al Jazeera America was once Current TV, the alternative news and documentary channel created by Al Gore. Since Current had been a ratings failure, it was understandable that Al Jazeera didn't want to stick with the original name. But the Qatari network obviously assumed that U.S. news junkies would be impressed by the reputation the original Arabic Al Jazeera -- the name only means "the peninsula" -- had earned for objective and often critical coverage of Middle East politics. The emir of Qatar envisioned a BBC-like operation with considerable independence, though criticism of his majesty is forbidden, and that freed Al Jazeera to go after Arab politicians in an unprecedented way, given the channel's unprecedented reach. So the thinking in America obviously was that people would identify the Al Jazeera brand with "objective world news reporting." Instead, Americans heard the name and assumed that Al Jazeera America was simply an Arab or Muslim propaganda channel. In my area, the big cable carrier wouldn't pick the channel up at first for that very reason. Time Warner finally added it only after dumping RT, the Russian English-language news channel, which was more blatantly anti-American than Al Jazeera ever was. Few other cable providers ever added it, even though at any given moment Al Jazeera America looks "more like America" than BBC News does. It would be simplistic to blame the channel's failure on American prejudice, but from a business standpoint Al Jazeera was simply stupid not to anticipate prejudice and create a new brand for its American operation. RT doesn't call itself Novosti Amerikanski or anything that marks it as foreign, and while that hasn't helped the Russian channel much Al Jazeera America may well have had much more success. Meanwhile, we still get an English language news channel from the People's Republic of China, but that channel is so boring that nobody takes offense or gives a damn. It wouldn't be missed, but for some, Al Jazeera America will be, but it only has itself to blame.

America under the gun

The blood shed in Penn Township PA last Monday forms a Rorschach blot that people will interpret according to their bias, but there is no good interpretation to make of it. Here's what happened: a state police constable came to an apartment to carry out an eviction order against the tenant. The tenant decided to defend his rights, such as they were, by pointing a rifle at the constable. Naturally, the constable defended himself by drawing and firing his handgun. The good news, depending on your perspective, is that he only hit the tenant in the arm. The bad news, from any perspective is that the bullet passed through the tenant and killed his 12 year old daughter, who was standing behind him. For what it's worth to you, the tenant and his daughter are white. Make of this what you will. You can say that the tenant got his daughter killed by turning the eviction into an armed showdown, perhaps without considering the risk to the girl. You can blame the constable for knowing no other way out of the situation than to shoot, perhaps without realizing that other people were at risk. Follow the comment thread on the linked story and you'll see some skepticism toward the official story. We can debate or quibble about personal responsibility, but who can really dispute that guns killed that girl? But that's life -- or death -- in the National Rifle Association's utopia. A man defended his rights as he saw them, and as he saw fit, and now his daughter is dead. A good guy with a gun, if only by virtue of his badge, stopped a bad guy with a gun, at least in the eyes of the law, and the girl is still dead. In a civilized country an eviction doesn't end with someone dead, even if the tenant resists. What actually happened is just another of the tragedies we'll apparently have to accept as the price of some people's idea of freedom.

12 January 2016

Bomb bomb bomb, bomb Oregon -- or something like that

As the local community grows increasingly hostile towards the self-styled patriots and militiamen occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, and as the news reports that the occupiers are stealing government documents in an attempt to expose allegedly unfair government practices, I find myself increasingly impatient for something to be done about those people. As a rule, I'm not a violent person or an advocate of violence, but the federal government's dismissive attitude toward the spectacle in Oregon annoys me. I understand the reticence, as I've said before. The government is less afraid of this handful of gun-nuts than it is of a backlash should it kill any of them taking back the building. Sure, there should be negotiations before an assault is ordered, but there should be no negotiating the requirement that everyone in the building now has to go to jail. If that sounds like unconditional surrender to the yahoos inside, let them understand that the alternative is death. The decision makers probably know full well that if they have to take decisive action, someone is going to say the big mean old government and its jackbooted thugs will have suppressed dissent -- and the sad part is that some of the decision makers probably believe that themselves at some level. Yet it should be self evident that armed dissent ceases to be dissent in the sacrosanct liberal sense of the word. Dissent armed becomes either revolution or crime, depending on success or failure. The limits of dissent in a liberal society can only be drawn with some show of force against the occupiers. We shouldn't have to wait until this criminal gang fires their guns before the government takes action, or at least shows its force. The government's reticence is especially tone-deaf given the open speculation about how it would behave differently had the occupiers been other than angry white men. I'm not sure this particular government would have acted much differently, though I'm more certain that more ordinary Americans would demand more decisive action under such circumstances. Regardless of anyone's inconsistencies, there's clearly a demand for stronger leadership that will hold more people to account for more things in the years to come. Any failure on the part of an allegedly liberal and progressive regime to show such leadership on this occasion will ironically strengthen the position of those on the other side who project strength and promise decisiveness, yet most likely agree with the Malheur occupiers on the principles motivating their uprising, i.e. knee-jerk uncomprehending hatred of all government regulation. At the very least, Clinton, Sanders and O'Malley should be asked what they would do with the men in Oregon, and potential voters should listen closely to how they answer. What Sanders has said so far isn't very encouraging, but it shouldn't be the last word. Meanwhile, wouldn't it be droll if the locals settled this matter, decisively, for the feds? That is, wouldn't it be best if these thugs were brought down by a real militia?

11 January 2016

Seceding from the Party of Lincoln?

For much of last year, Donald Trump was under pressure to pledge that, should he fail in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, he would endorse and support the actual nominee. Trump has made the pledge, but some Republicans don't trust him to keep it. The other candidates have made similar pledges, presumably assuming with egoistic confidence that they won't have to support Trump, but what of Republican voters? One of them, the columnist Michael Gerson, raises the specter of a conservative anti-Trump third party should the billionaire win the nomination. Even while conceding that such a move probably would throw the election to the Democratic candidate, most likely the hated Hillary Clinton, Gerson argues that a third party may be necessary to "preserve something of conservatism ... in the hopes of better days." Trump is unacceptable to Gerson as a Republican presidential candidate because Trump "would make the GOP the party of racial and religious exclusion." Trump's opportunistic "ethno-nationalism" is contrary to the Republican tradition going all the way back to Abraham Lincoln, he argues. Gerson is right and wrong about this. The Republican party became one of the country's two major parties by defeating a more explicitly "ethno-nationalist" movement, but has also courted that movement's constituency for much of its history.

The collapse of the Whig Party ended what historians call the Second American party system. The Republicans, dedicated mainly to keeping slavery out of the territory conquered from Mexico, hoped to take the Whigs' place in a new party system. They were challenged by the American or "Know-Nothing" party, which argued that the real threat to America came from Catholic immigrants. The Republicans prevailed, of course, but it looked like a near thing for a few years. Lincoln himself despised the Know-Nothings, but so long as Democrats remained the party of immigrants, Republicans were tempted to pander to anti-immigrant (and particularly anti-Catholic) feeling. While "nativist" sentiment had other causes, including inter-ethnic competition for jobs, the long-enduring political argument was that Catholics were subservient by upbringing in a way Protestants were not, and thus were handicapped when it came to democratic-republican citizenship. The great fear was that Catholics would be told whom to vote for in elections by their priests, and would vote en bloc to advance a Catholic political agenda, presumably including an eventual overturning of the First Amendment so that Catholicism could become a state church, taxing the other denominations for its support and possibly handicapping the others in the public sector. While there was no reason not to believe that Protestant pastors were as eager to instruct their congregations on voting, that temptation was neatly projected onto Catholics. Leaving conspiracy theories aside, Republicans were bound to resent Democratic success among immigrants and probably were as susceptible then as they are now to the secular conspiracy theory according to which Democrats encourage mass immigration, legal and illegal, in order to win elections by fair means or foul. As late as 1928, anti-Catholic sentiment could be credited with defeating the first Catholic presidential candidate, Al Smith of New York. Smith lost several states in the "Solid" Democratic south, in part due to his faith and his related opposition to Protestant-driven Prohibition. I suspect there was less breast-beating back then than we see today from Republicans like Gerson.

It's also strange to see Gerson emphasize Republican inclusiveness when the story of the last fifty years has been the Grand Old Party's repudiation of its historic defense of blacks in favor of a "Southern strategy" that veiled race prejudice behind a law-and-order facade. Gerson himself may not be guilty of such strategizing, however. I'd guess that many ideological Republicans really believe that anyone -- any individual -- has the potential to become a useful part of the economy and a responsible citizen, no matter where he or she comes from. Such a faith goes with their notions of human nature -- of what people want, how they value themselves, and how a society of such people should work. Republican repudiation of the "nativism" or "populism" or "ethno-nationalism" -- we could as easily say "tribalism" -- to which Trump seems to appeal is in keeping with, though not equivalent to, their disdain for any sort of solidarity. It should be remembered that in Lincoln's free-labor utopia, if people were unable to advance up the economic ladder, if they could never transition from employee to employer or self-employed, it was probably their own fault. Trump and his more populist Republican rivals appeal to a sense of "us" that may be deplorably exclusive but also comes with a sense, howevermuch Trump might betray it in practice, of all of "us" looking out for and having our first loyalty to each other. Mainstream Republican patriotism isn't quite the same thing; their sense of loyalty to "us" often seems tenuous, as their eagerness to bring in immigrants seems to prove to the dissidents favoring Trump. Democrats, of course, try to have it both ways by arguing that "us" is really limitless in scope and thus limitlessly inclusive. That's an admirable ideal, but history is proving a little more complicated, as both major parties are starting to learn to their alarm.

08 January 2016

A one-man jihad

Here's a perfect storm: a West Philadelphia policeman has been wounded in an ambush attack by a man who professed allegiance to the so-called Islamic State after he was taken into custody. Lest anyone blame the Black Lives Matter movement for this crime, the suspect reportedly said he did it because his target, as a policeman, enforced laws contrary to Islam. The suspect's family acknowledges that he's been a devout Muslim for some time, but adds that he seemed to be going crazy lately, a change they attributed to sports injuries. If you haven't done so already, you can add Islam to the lengthy list of things that motivate people to go violently crazy. This guy is right up there with the devout Christians who drown their babies or cook them in ovens because they're convinced the kids have the devil in them. While there's a growing temptation now to treat Islam-inspired attacks as a separate category, Islam is probably at most a superficial detail distinguishing nuts like this one and the other nuts who go shooting crazy. There isn't much more to say when we don't have solid facts about this shooter's mental state, but it can't be denied that there is something increasingly suggestive in the global rhetoric of jihad, and that Muslims around the world seem increasingly responsive to it after a couple of centuries of quiescence. It may simply be their special way of saying they're not going to take the crap life serves them anymore -- as people or as Muslims -- a feeling that finds many different cultural expressions among different subcultures and seeks many different justifications or rationalizations for murder.  The problem for Muslims is that, unlike otherwise similar murderers or mass shooters, they're assumed to be for something rather than merely against everything like the average white nihilist. That makes them more threatening to many people, and it can't help implicating non-violent co-religionists in the threat, since they must be for the same thing.It's hard not to make the assumption when idiots like this one tell you why they're shooting cops, but when you have a lone wolf like this running around my guess is that he's more against than for anything, since he's not exactly going to build anything running around by himself with a gun. Nevertheless, every such incident will increase the pressure on American Muslims to clarify what they're for and against. Already some Muslims resent the pressure. The irony there is that Muslims probably are no more truly American than when they take a "screw you" attitude and refuse to apologize or be held accountable for what others like them do. Unfortunately for them, we seem to be in a period right now when Americans are demanding personal accountability from each other with increasing vehemence, whether it's the increasingly strident political correctness of the left or the increasingly strident opposition to political correctness from the right, which asserts a right to judge those who supposedly refuse to be judged. We're in an uncomfortably democratic moment right now because democracy puts everyone in judgment on everyone else, without always making the liberal distinction between groups and individuals. If Muslims don't like this growing demand for a reckoning, the most I can say is that they won't be the only ones -- especially when judgment comes, for them or for others, in the form of angry or crazy men with guns.

07 January 2016

Trump vs. the militia?

As noted a couple of days ago, if it was the intent of the self-described militiamen who took over an Oregon wildlife preserve to force their concerns upon the Republican presidential candidates, their plan has backfired on them. As far as I know, all those who've spoken on the subject have denounced the armed group's takeover of a federal building. Now comes Donald Trump, who as the most unorthodox of Republicans might have been expected to break the consensus. His response to the incident sounds strong at first but ends up weak. Trump joins the other candidates in urging the gunmen to leave the building. He expresses the demand perhaps more forcefully than his rivals, and in terms they might be uncomfortable with, saying "at a certain point you have to do something and you have to be firm and you have to be strong, you have to be a government."While the Obama administration is playing things cool, most likely not wanting to stir up the rabble or be accused of perpetrating another Waco, Trump argues that if you let people take over federal property, "you don't have a government anymore." So far, so good. What Obama may miss about this is that his cautious stand plays into Trump's portrayal of him as a weak leader, while Trump tells tales about how he'd resolve things more quickly and decisively. Then Trump blows it. He blows it when he tells the interviewer how he'd talk to Ammon Bundy or whoever he thinks "the leader" is. He says, "I would talk to him and I would say, 'You gotta get out — come see me, but you gotta get out,'"

What in Hell is this "come see me" business? It's plain and simple appeasement. There is only one place the Bundy brothers and their people can go from that building, and that's straight to jail -- and some readers will say I'm being generous. If Trump thinks the way to end the takeover is to promise the leader of this unlawful act to meet him at the White House for a chat, then if anything his position is weaker than Obama's. If Republicans have spent years sneering at Obama's White House beer party for Henry Louis Gates and the cop who arrested him by mistake outside his own home, what should they think of Trump inviting Ammon Bundy there after he led an armed seizure of a federal building? Bundy and his people have surrendered any right they had to express their grievance personally to higher authorities, especially when you recall that the convicted ranchers on whose behalf the gunmen took the building don't want these idiots' help. To be fair to Trump, he did not mean his offer of a talk to cover entirely his range of "firm" and "strong" options. But the fact that he even offers a talk as an option, without requiring a surrender as well as a departure from the building, should leave people asking exactly how strong a leader this self-acclaimed dealmaker really would be.

06 January 2016

The Libertarian race ... to the bottom?

There will now be a contest for the Libertarian party's 2016 presidential nomination. The 2012 candidate, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson -- he was a Republican, then -- has decided to give it another try after getting 1% of the popular vote last time. He faces antivirus software entrepreneur John McAfee, whose history of legal troubles ought to be a handicap but may endear him to people harboring ambivalent feelings toward many laws. McAfee is an unorthodox Libertarian in that he calls for, among other things, a large government public works program if that's the only alternative to leaving people to starve on the street. Understandably given his business, he wants to build up the nation's defenses against cyberwarfare, and that's probably a field where libertarians would welcome government help. Meanwhile, Johnson is pro-immigration but anti-Muslim -- or, more accurately, anti-sharia. He takes the novel position that the government can ban certain Muslim practices mandated by sharia law, like wearing burqas, without violating the First Amendment, on the premise that sharia is essentially political rather than religious. While respecting Muslims' right to worship -- and making an implicit distinction between worship and practice that Muslims are unlikely to accept -- as well as their free-speech right to advocate sharia, Johnson would encourage an anti-sharia "cultural campaign" at home while moving towards a hands-off policy in the Middle East. But if his stand on Islam wins him supporters outside normal libertarian circles, those new supporters might be repelled by his pro-immigration position, which is implicit in his criticisms of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Many of the people concerned about Islam today are across-the-board xenophobes no more interested in having more Hispanics here than in having more Muslims. But you probably can't be a Libertarian and support the border wall that some Republicans endorse. What point is there in being Libertarian, though? There's been talk over the past few years of libertarianism finally becoming a mass movement due to mass disgust with the two major parties. When I look at the political environment this year, I suspect that if that moment of opportunity for libertarians was ever real, it is now past. Look at the anger and suspicion everywhere and you'd be hard pressed to find a constituency for the Libertarians' "let's let each other alone" philosophy. To the contrary, we're in a moment when everyone is demanding accountability from everyone else more vehemently than in a long time. There seems to be a realization on right and left alike that we can't just let everyone do his or her own thing anymore. On the right, Trump expresses that feeling, his followers hoping he'll give liberals and other losers the rude awakening the deserve and need. On the left, Sanders appeals to a desire to hold the corporations and the wealthy to account. Who actually thinks that what we need now is more liberty? We'll find out when we see the Libertarian vote this November, but if the party actually improves on 2012 I'll be surprised.

05 January 2016


The big surprise about Michel Houellebecq's controversial novel, which hit French stores shortly before the attack on Charlie Hebdo and earned him the magazine's cover,  is that it isn't Islamophobic at all. In fact, his speculative fiction about an Islamic takeover of France is hardly about Islam at all. In the novel, a Muslim Brotherhood party wins a run-off presidential election a few years from now because the mainstream political parties can't stomach the only other option, the xenophobic National Front of the Le Pen family. The new Muslim president makes the necessary deals with the other parties -- there's no indication that France ceases to be a republic -- but insists unconditionally that his party must have the ministry of education. You can imagine what results from that, but Submission only goes a short time past the initial victory. By that point there have already been profound changes in French culture, but the French seem to take it in stride -- or at least the French men do. The main story of the novel is the protagonist's gradual acquiescence in the new regime. He's a typical Houellebecq protagonist, maybe more intellectual than others -- he's a professor of literature and an expert on the 19th century novelist J. K. Huysmans -- but above all he's a sexual loser who blames age and the culture for his dissatisfaction. The consistent argument in Houellebecq's fiction is that modern secular capitalist culture is mercilessly competitive at every level, but particularly at the level of sex and love, leaving hardly anyone feeling satisfied with his or her life. What he perceives to be missing is a culture of unconditional acceptance, which his unreliable male narrators -- unreliable less because that they might be lying than that their biases are obvious --  tend to identify with unconditional sex. The protagonist of Submission finally converts to Islam, partly to secure a prestigious academic appointment, but also because he likes the idea of having multiple wives who'll be subservient to him. At the same time, he recognizes that, whether or not Islam can fill the spiritual or emotional void he's long felt, French culture had long since failed to fill it, and the country's secular republican heritage arguably created that void. It never gave French people that sense of loving belonging, for want of any better term, that their ancestors presumably enjoyed back in the Middle Ages. Modern culture's nihilistic tendencies on both the political and economic front have left the French with little sense that they have anything to defend against an Islamic takeover, as compared to the Paris Chinatown the narrator observes favorably at several points. He's confident that that neighborhood will never be Islamified because even expatriate Chinese identify so strongly with their culture, feel such a strong sense of belonging to it, that they can't imagine giving it up. You may have thought that French people have had a strong sense of having a culture for the last 225 years or so, but Submission's message is that, at least as practiced in the 21st century, a culture founded on "humanity" or "reason" wasn't cutting it.

Houellebecq is a pessimist about human nature. It's never been clear to me how much he agrees with his characters' self-pitying diatribes against modernity or their longing for the carnal comfort of women as sex objects. In Submission the men submit voluntarily, at least as far as we see, though we may question how voluntarily the women submit to new rules limiting their participation and self-expression in public. The most I can say is that, not having read all his novels -- Submission is the fourth I've finished -- I don't recall anyone representing or articulating more radical alternatives to the hypercompetitive modernity decried by so many of his characters. In passing this time, his characters dismiss the left as nihilistic. Leftism is a hopeless cause at a time when people seem to be longing for a haven in a heartless world, as Marx might have said. In this environment, Islam has two advantages. First, Muslims have as supposedly unbreakable a cultural solidarity as the Chinese. Second, and crucially for French converts, it promises happiness through submission, a concept readers of that popular French novel Story of O can appreciate. Here's a French convert making a pitch to our narrator.

...for me, there's a connection between woman's submission to man, as it's described in Story of O, and the Islamic idea of man's submission to God. You see, Islam accepts the world, and accepts it whole. It accepts the world as such, Nietzsche might say. For Buddhism, the world is dukkha - unsatisfactoriness, suffering. Christianity has serious reservations of its own. Isn't Satan called 'the prince of the world?' For Islam, though, the divine creation is perfect, it's an absolute masterpiece. What is the Koran, really, but one long mystical poem of praise? Of praise for the Creator, and of submission to his laws.

Again, you can guess that Houellebecq (as opposed to his character) sees a point to this without agreeing with much else in the argument. The author, after all, once called Islam the stupidest of religions and was tried for it in a French court. He more recently conceded that he could fairly be called an Islamophobe, while emphasizing that, for him, that really meant fear rather than hatred. My hunch is that Houellebecq feels the temptation to submit -- to surrender autonomy or responsibility in return for assurance and comfort -- but resists it by writing about it with often pornographic honesty and ugliness, while applying the same satiric touch to the culture that provokes the temptation. In his own way Houellebecq is as much a prophet as Muhammad was, if not more so. I don't mean that he claims clairvoyance for his novel, but that like many a prophet, if not like Muhammad, he comes to warn and denounce. In Submission the warning is only indirectly about Islam; the real target is a culture that was destroying itself long before Muslims joined in.

Guns, trust and democracy

The President is testing the limits of his executive authority in another attempt to regulate gun sales and vet gun purchasers. Predictably, the opposition accuses him of usurpation and hostility to fundamental liberties. As predictably, gun sales are reportedly booming. Public opinion seems irreconcilably polarized. Many don't trust the President's intentions, and many others don't trust most, if not any, of their fellow citizens to carry guns. One side doesn't trust the government not to turn authoritarian; the other doesn't trust people not to turn murderously crazy. This mutual distrust is mutually reinforcing. Belligerent expressions of distrust for government fuel suspicions of gun-nut violence, and the more those fears are expressed, the more the gun culture fears a crackdown. Last year, in a conversation with the President, the novelist Marilynne Robinson said, "I think the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people." If so, then it appears, for these and other reasons, that the basis for democracy in America is breaking down. It's often said of Russia and other countries that their people prefer authoritarian government because they don't, to use Robinson's terminology, "assume well" about each other. The gun culture may see the U.S. similarly now; because some people in this country don't trust them, we're on the way to authoritarian rule, possibly by presidential fiat. But do these people ever ask why they're not trusted? Why are so many of us reluctant to trust the "good guys with guns" supposedly in our midst, those upon whom our immediate safety, if not our longterm liberty, supposedly depend? The gun culture probably tells itself that its critics are simply moral cowards who seem perversely more afraid of the only people who might effectively protect them than of those from whom they should want to be protected. There most likely is a pacifistic element in the opposition to the gun culture, but that most likely doesn't account for all the opposition. The real answer, in part, is that it grows harder for many Americans to perceive the line dividing the "good guy with a gun" from the amoklaufer or self-proclaimed militiaman, while it grows easier to assume that the line, wherever it is, is often crossed. The gun lobby wants mass-shooting phenomena treated as a mental health issue, as if to say the line can be drawn most firmly on that front and that you can trust people who aren't crazy. The problem with that is that a lot of us don't trust people not to go crazy, while we believe people capable of kinds of madness that aren't necessarily clinically defined. Nor does it help when each side perceives the other side's politics as increasingly mad, in the clinical sense or otherwise. What follows from this? How can trust be restored when the gun question is only one expression of deeper mutual distrust on the political and cultural level? For that matter, is trust the sine qua non for democracy that Robinson believes it to be? It may go the other way around, a healthy democracy being the cause of mutual trust and declining democracy the cause of distrust. Restoring healthy democracy, however you define it, may require different virtues, whether we trust those virtues or not.

04 January 2016

Islam divided

Relations between the Sunni and Shiite blocs in the Middle East appear to have hit a new low with the new (Christian) year after Saudi Arabia, a Sunni state, executed a Shiite cleric who had led protests demanding better treatment for the kingdom's Shiite minority. Despite what Wikileaks reports about Nimr al-Nimr's antipathy toward Iran, the Saudis apparently decided that anyone agitating their Shiites was doing the Islamic Republic's work, and the official opinion is that al-Nimr was no mere dissident but an "extremist preacher" illegally inciting violence. And in Iran, the leading Shiite many people took it like one of their own had been murdered. Apparently spontaneous street-level anger was directed at the Saudi embassy in Iran, the government's subsequent angry crackdown indicating that the violent demonstration wasn't something they'd orchestrated. Nevertheless, the boss ayatollah warned that the Saudis would face a "divine revenge" for executing al-Nimr. In reprisal for the embassy attack -- and as my mother used to say, Americans feel for the Saudis, but can't reach -- Saudi Arabia has cut off diplomatic relations with Iran and is encouraging other Sunni states in the Gulf to do likewise. The funny thing is that both Sunnis and Shiites will probably tell you that Islam is the most egalitarian of religions, in that it doesn't discriminate by race. Yet Islam's history from the beginning belies any claim that the religions has any inherently anti-discriminatory quality. Never mind how they treat other religions; Muslims habitually discriminate amongst themselves. That's what al-Nimr was protesting against: in Sunni Saudi Arabia, Shiites reportedly are second-class citizens. In predominantly Shiite Iraq, where a secular Sunni minority under Saddam Hussein lorded undemocratically over the majority, resurgent Shiite arrogance under the U.S.-imposed regime reportedly drove many disgruntled Sunnis into the arms of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

All this over the dead-letter issue of who should rule dar al-Islam in Muhammad's absence, in the absence of indisputable guidance from Muhammad or God on that question. You would think that Sunnis would be the more liberal of the two factions, at least by Islamic standards, because they're the ones whose ancestors believed that Muhammad's successor should be elected, yet the most despotic Muslims today appear to be Sunnis. But that may only prove that Sunnism's more-democratic option never amounted to more than the Leninist notion of democratic centralism, according to which certain people get to debate policy freely and vote on it, but for everyone else obedience is compulsory and unconditional. Meanwhile, Shiism, which asserted a monarchical principle of succession in behalf of Muhammad's cousin Ali, is represented in the Middle East today by an Islamic Republic where elections, if not entirely fair, are at least obviously and often bitterly contested. But as is well known, Islamic republicanism is subject to various vetoes wielded by the top ayatollahs, following Khomeini's theory that the leading religious scholar is the rightful head of state in the absence of the authentic caliphal (or imamic) line of succession. If Iranians take their Shiism seriously, does that mean that they believe that the current grand poobah, Khamenei, is the rightful ruler of the entire Muslim world? Sunnis sometimes act as if that's exactly what all Shiites think, and for all we know that's one reason why the IS has proclaimed a Sunni caliphate for itself, but behind all that, most likely, is pure and simple tribalism of the sort that Islam should have abolished long ago if all Muslims are supposed to be equal. This inability to overcome tribalism on its home ground points to a fundamental weakness of Islam that belies its religion-of-peace claim and limits its appeal worldwide to the completely alienated and disgruntled, and probably self-limits this vaunted missionary religion's own outreach efforts. How can these idiots hope to conquer the world if they can't even conquer each other? Instead, at least at the geopolitical level, if any Muslims do try to conquer the world, the world can probably rely on the other Muslims as allies. They may hate us, but it often seems as if they hate each other even more.

Insurrection in Oregon

A group of self-appointed militamen, including two sons of the infamous Cliven Bundy, have taken over a federal building on an Oregon wildlife preserve in an alleged attempt to prevent the imprisonment of two ranchers who'd been convicted of arson for setting fires on public land. These ranchers have a history of treating the public land like it's theirs, claiming use rights dating back before the land's designation as a wildlife preserve. So once again we have armed men defying the federal government's prerogative to regulate federal land. The interesting part this time is that the convicted ranchers, groups such as the Oathkeepers and even Cliven Bundy have distanced themselves from the younger Bundys' militia action, the ranchers having resolved to serve their time after having paid fines already.  Under those circumstances, this uprising appears to be less about protecting anyone's supposedly violated rights than it is about asserting the younger Bundys' leadership of a more aggressive militia movement. Another possibility is that the Bundys and their comrades are attempting some sort of "propaganda of the deed," possibly desiring an armed showdown with the government in the hope of revealing what they see as the federal government's true nature, as it was shown in Waco, Ruby Ridge, etc. At a minimum, I'd guess it's no accident that they've tried to make their action the first significant political event of a presidential election year. Their most realistic goal may be to force their complaint onto the agenda of the Republican presidential candidates. So far Cruz, Rubio and Kasich have condemned the action, drawing the proper line between protest and crime, while Trump and the others have yet to be heard from. These occupiers most likely never expected any of the contenders to endorse them, but their endgame may still be to galvanize the Republican/conservative/libertarian base, through their martyrdom if necessary, in a way the party candidates won't be able to ignore. At the same time, the Clinton camp probably wishes this had never happened. The last thing the former Senator and Secretary of State needs is the sort of violent resolution to this that would remind people of the role of her husband's administration in the aforementioned atrocities of the 1990s. Of course, her electoral calculations shouldn't determine the course of a government in which she currently has no role, and which has no obligation to make her campaign easier. The minute these men entered that building armed, they gave up any claim to leave it as free men. While negotiators probably should strive to end the occupation without violence, they should also make clear that there is no alternative now to the occupiers' unconditional surrender, and that should they refuse to give up themselves and their arms, whatever happens afterward will be their fault, not the government's. The occupiers may be counting on electoral calculations to give them breathing space, but as many paranoids note, President Obama has nothing to lose at this point in his administration, and he should not feel more obliged to the Democratic party in resolving this little crisis than he is to the supreme law of the land.