29 June 2016

'Republican orthodoxy' on trade is neither grand nor old

The Washington Post headlined its report on Donald Trump's speech on trade yesterday by stating that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee was "Defying Republican orthodoxy" by promoting a protectionist "America first" trade policy. Trump has objected to Post headlines recently for misrepresenting him, but I'm not sure whether this one bothered him, since it's hard to tell whether he or the Post reporter knew that "Republican orthodoxy" on this particular subject is really a fairly recent thing. From the time of its founding in the 1850s until the middle of the 20th century, the GOP was the party of protectionism in an era when trade policy was often the defining issue in national elections, if not the issue that defined the parties themselves. Until the advent of the federal income tax, tariffs were the federal government's primary source of revenue. Democrats, then the party of fiscal conservatism and limited government, believed that tariffs should be imposed for revenue only, and then only to meet the most self-evident needs of government. Republicans, competing with Democrats to be recognized as the party of the working man, equated protective tariffs with more and better paying jobs, while the Democrats, appealing to underpaid workers, questioned whether anyone but the bosses and their financial backers benefited from higher prices for everything.

Something changed after the Great Depression and World War II. Pat Buchanan traces the Republican turn toward free trade on three phenomena: a historical narrative that blames protectionist measures like the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff for turning the stock market panic of 1929 into a great depression; a nebulous bipartisan "one-worldism;" and a libertarian ideology Buchanan traces back to John Stuart Mill and identifies currently with Speaker Ryan, whom the columnist advises to "read more history and less Ayn Rand." I'd add a fourth factor: a consumerist ethos that asserts that Americans' right as consumers to the lowest possible prices trump any right of American workers to their jobs. We could argue for a fifth element: Republicans' increasing identification of protectionism with labor unions whose power they wanted to break. Part of the right-wing argument for free trade assumes that protected, privileged businesses and their workers, immunized by tariffs from accountability to the market, are licensed to overcharge consumers for increasingly shoddy goods. Free trade theoretically benefited the consumer -- an abstract figure whose sources of income are irrelevant to the discussion -- while undermining union workers' job security by undermining their employers' market security.  Whatever its sources, in the 21st century this modern orthodoxy is being challenged from the right, dating back to Buchanan's own quixotic presidential campaign and continuing with Trump's, and from the left, through Sen. Sanders' failed crusade against Hillary Clinton. Trump apparently hopes that by emphasizing the trade issue he can win over Sanders supporters who may otherwise be repulsed by his personality or overall worldview. Like his Republican predecessors of old, Trump promotes protectionism as a champion of capitalism. It doesn't seem contradictory to him for the state to be an actor in the capitalist market, using its influence to favor its citizen workers and entrepreneurs. It's open to question, however, whether any 21st century capitalist can argue for giving producers priority over consumers, since the entire global capitalist economy seems to depend on impulsive consumer spending in a market of limitless choices. It will be a challenge for a candidate of either right or left to tell American consumers in particular that they perhaps should do without some choices and pay more for things for the sake of fellow citizens. It might be a particularly hard sell for someone like Trump who presumably knows no limit on his own consumer choices. You know what probably could have helped him sell the idea? A strong, mass labor movement like we used to have before Republicans had their way with the country. Perhaps Trump will mention this to the party when he consummates his hostile takeover in Cleveland.

27 June 2016

No cameras, no peace?

The Traditionalist Workers' Party tried to hold a rally in Sacramento CA yesterday. It's opposed to "economic exploitation, federal tyranny, and anti-Christian degeneracy," and is described by critics as white-supremacist. Not long after the TWP made its plans known, self-styled "anti-fascists" announced a counter-demonstration, and really something more than that. Some on the far left hold that groups like the TWP have no moral right to be heard, whatever the First Amendment says, and are in fact liable to violent suppression, presumably by "the masses," wherever they show themselves. Thus the TWP people found themselves outnumbered by approximately ten-to-one and got clobbered. In the end, ten people were hospitalized, including victims on both sides. More alarming than the "anti-fascist" attack on the TWP was their apparent desire to suppress media coverage of the action. At least one black-clad gang -- perhaps a typical anarchist "black bloc" demanded "no fucking cameras" while hassling some journalists. Whether this was to protect themselves from reprisal -- unlikely considering many of them were masked -- or because they felt that the TWP deserved no attention whatsoever is unclear. In footage at the local newspaper's website, one protester barks about "White supremacy in the media!" in possible rationalization of their tactics. While few tears need be shed for the TWP, or for the sake of their specific beliefs, their antagonists through such tactics surrender most if not all of the sympathy they might demand when cops clobber them. If we're supposed to worry about whatever threat Donald Trump might present to the media, we ought to be at least equally worried about spectacles like the scene in Sacramento.

The TWP's platform may be abhorrent, but as long as it's legal it ought to be protected better than it was in Sacramento. And while I suppose it can't be said often enough that racism is abhorrent, I can't help thinking that the protesters are trapped in an obsolete paradigm. How else could they think that white racism, abhorrent as it is, is the main thing they need to fight, and by implication the biggest threat to the country or society? Militant Muslims are perhaps less likely to hold public demonstrations -- and probably less likely to receive permits for such events -- but who actually believes that these "anti-fascists" would be as quick to attack such a gathering as they were the TWP rally? If I don't believe that, it's not because I think they're afraid of Muslims, but because too many 21st century "anti-fascists" haven't been able to wrap the menace of Islamic militancy around their traditional "anti-imperialist" narrative, according to which European or "white" imperialism, founded on a form of racism somehow unique to the West, is the necessary and sufficient cause of any atrocities in the developing world or any attacks on the developed world. Yet I should think that anyone so passionately opposed to "hate" would see something hateful in Islamism, or something hateful in Islam itself, presuming that our masked protesters are leftists in the old Marxist sense of the word. That issue aside, the Sacramento incident keeps alive the ironic narrative of 2016, in which everyone freaks out over the presumed latent violence of Donald Trump's supporters, while for the most part it's those supporters (apparently including the TWP) who are getting beat up. It seems to me that if the left wants to play this game, they'd better be wrong about that latent violence on the other side. If they're not, that violence will be blatant sooner or later, and when that happens leftists might not find numbers on their side.

25 June 2016

The decline of the west or: Brexit, stage right

The European Economic Community was meant to embody the ideal of a post-nationalist, post-warfare continent. If any entity embodied "the west" it was the EEC or, as it came to be known later, the European Union. But it was never quite a perfect fit. For years, Great Britain wanted to be part of it, but Charles de Gaulle blocked their admission while he ruled France; his was a vision of a "Europe" that excluded Britain (and by extension the U.S. -- de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO) rather than "the west." De Gaulle's departure from the scene ended French resistance to Britain, and the U.K. joined the EEC in 1973. Now Britain will leave the Community after a close referendum vote, but in many ways it's now a different community from the one Britain aspired to join. Since the Maastricht Treaty of 1994 it had more political power, and its taxes and regulations were increasingly resented by right-wingers in Britain, long before the refugee crisis that arguably put the "Brexit" over the top. The left wing had plenty of objections to the Union, most having to do with its imposition of austerity economics on certain member states, but the Brexit is seen widely as a triumph for a broader Anglo-American right, represented by a gloating Donald Trump, ironically romping in Scotland, where support for the EU remained high and now has reignited an independence movement whose own referendum failed last year. A second referendum may have a different outcome, which would be ironic given how Britain appealed to Scotland to remain in the U.K., and which perhaps would confirm that ours is a centrifugal age, the traumas of globalization having provoked tribalist reactions of all sorts as people look to those around them for support and resent any diversion of their attentions. If the left remains ambivalent about phenomena like the Brexit, it's probably because, whatever their reservations about the EU as it exists, they'd still like to try again, preferably from the ground up, or with the guidance of socialist principles, while the right presumably is through with the idea of Union for good. Whatever the EU's flaws, it's hard not to see the Brexit as a step back from progress to the extent that it means a permanent step back from regional or cultural amalgamation. It's unclear, however, to what extent the Brexit represents a repudiation of the European or western ideal in favor of some sort of Anglo-Saxon chauvinism. It certainly seems to repudiate the idea that Britain is answerable to the rest of Europe, and that repudiation clearly appeals to a certain Anglo-American chauvinism that sees "Atlantic" rather than "western" civilization, characterized by the obstinance of the Anglo-American right, as man's highest achievement. This civilization or quasi-civilization has a missionary quality; it would like to see the rest of Europe or the west adopt its ways and biases and abandon all vestiges of socialism in the process. This mentality saw the EU as socialistic even as critics from the left saw the same entity as an enforcer of capitalist hegemony. The debate over what the EU is or was will continue; the question now is what alternative to the EU might someday replace it, and whether something might yet be salvaged from the idea of continental union as the alternative to perpetual rivalry and war in Europe.

23 June 2016

Sit on it: the gun debate today

It's a bit silly to see Rep. John Lewis, an authentic hero of the civil-rights movement, treat the Democratic demonstration in the House of Representatives as a "sit-in." That's a dubious assertion of moral equivalence, considering that the original sit-ins involved an element of physical risk that was almost entirely absent in the Capitol building yesterday. The whole point of a sit-in, some would say, was to call attention to the immoral absurdity of segregation by making someone arrest you or beat you up to enforce it. So unless the House Democrats were expecting Republicans or National Rifle Association members to charge in and shoot them, their little Occupy moment doesn't rise to the gravitas of a true sit-in. The most they had to deal with was an idiot Texas Republican with a short attention span who seemed to believe that only the last two highly-publicized mass shootings were relevant to the current gun-control debate. Rep. Gomer, or whatever his name is, presumably ranks among the opponents of the proposal to forbid people on the "terrorist watch list," aka the Terrorist Screening Database, from purchasing assault weapons. Such a proposal would seem to be the no-brainer of all time, but instead we hear Republicans and NRA hacks whining that the list is too large and some people are on it unfairly, or by mistake. I take this to mean that there are too many white conservative Christians on the list for their comfort. Too bad: if there isn't a process for applying to be removed from the list, make sure there is one and go ahead with the legislation. Instead, it seems unlikely that even a compromise proposal that would limit the ban to those on the more stringent "no-fly" list will pass. In President Obama's final year in office there seems to be even more clinging to guns (and in some cases, religion) than ever. The NRA even found itself to the left of Donald Trump at one point this month, gently reminding the presumptive candidate that it might not be the best idea to let people drinking in nightclubs carry firearms. They are not far behind him, however, in their longing for a return to traditional values and the good old days -- true or not -- of the Wild West. It makes you wonder what a modern Wyatt Earp would actually do.

20 June 2016

How much is Trump's life worth?

Reluctant as I am to echo Republican talking points, I can't help wondering whether liberal bias of some sort is limiting coverage and discussion of an admittedly feeble attempt to kill Donald Trump over the weekend. According to the latest information, a 20 year old white British guy tried to snatch a gun from a cop working security at a Trump rally. The suspect says he's been planning to kill the presumptive Republican presidential nominee since Trump first began to be taken seriously last summer, though his particular motivation for doing so remains unclear. These Brits take politics very seriously; they not only kill their own legislators but now they scheme to kill our people. It may be that reporters and opinionators are withholding judgment until they find out more about the kid's motivation, but again, I can't help thinking that there'd be no withholding had a similar scene played out at a Clinton or Sanders rally. The reason for the difference, I suspect, is that any attempt on Clinton's life would be fit quickly and neatly into a narrative of "hate" that somehow wouldn't apply to an attempt on Trump, especially one like the present case, in which the perpetrator at first glance doesn't seem to belong to the expected categories, Muslim or Mexican. Yet it's obvious that many on the left hate Trump, but their hatred isn't seen as "hate," if you know what I mean. If you don't, what I'm trying to say is that hatred of Trump isn't seen as prejudicial, that being the worst kind of hate as far as many people are concerned, so that if someone hates Trump enough to try to kill him that's his problem and not ours, so it's not as much worth talking about as would be the misogyny that would automatically be blamed for any shots fired at Clinton. At least that has to be part of why this story seems to be underplayed in the media. The other part is probably that, because the would-be shooter isn't a Muslim or Mexican, the right wing is caught with nothing to say.

17 June 2016

It's someone else's turn to have no choice in November

Joe Scarborough was a Contract With America vintage Republican congressman who resigned early in his fourth term and later turned against the George W. Bush administration in opposition to the war in Iraq. He now hosts the Morning Joe talk show on MSNBC, where he serves as the nearest thing to a house conservative. A couple of days ago he lamented that with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton the apparent nominees of the major parties, there was no one for him to support in the general election campaign. What he means, of course, is that the only two candidates likely to win are distasteful to him. A lot of Americans have felt that way every four years for a long time. It's shocking to see someone best described as a center-right Republican say it, however. How could people like him have grown so suddenly alienated from the rank-and-file who've anointed Trump? You still wonder what it is, exactly, that they hate about the presumptive nominee. Specifically, is it a matter of form or content? Do they worry about specific things Trump may do, or about the manner in which he may do anything? More profound, perhaps, than their alienation from Trump is their alienation with the people they considered their base. They seem to have so completely misread the base, so completely misunderstood the people they presumably appeal to during every election, that you might wonder in retrospect whether the infamous "southern strategy" that restored the Republican party to national power was a conscious thing, after all. Mainstream Republicans -- or should I say the Republican establishment? -- fatally underestimated the communal element in the base's thinking, the quality called "solidarity" when viewed positively or labeled "tribalism" or "nativism" when viewed negatively. They failed to recognize that patriotism is a two-way street -- that it means not just loyalty to an abstract concept of the nation and the ideas for which it's said to stand, but also loyalty to the people who form the nation and an unshirkable concern for their material interests. These Republicans' epitaph might read that they loved the country but not its people. It's been interesting reading David Brooks' recent columns on the need for a new moral politics founded on love, because there's an electorate out there that's very clearly looking for love. While Trump's followers are perhaps more jealous about it than Bernie Sanders' followers,  more angry over having seemingly been rejected in favor of others, you arguably can see a common yearning for a polity that has the people's back, that doesn't prioritize abstract principles (right or left) over people. I think Brooks underestimates how much the love he recommends can be a jealous love, while he may not even recognize that the different hatreds associated with the Trump and Sanders movements actually express a demand for love from the nation. But political Republicans have suddenly been shown to be utterly blind to that demand, offensive as it is to their sink-or-swim individualist ethos, while Democrats arguably have been promising love to everyone without appearing to love everyone as equally as they claim. In part, this now self-evident emotional neediness on the part of voters may repel mainstream Republicans, while the emotional neediness of the white working class in particular, their desire not to be seen as the bad guys all the time, seems to confuse and frighten Democrats. This election will be decided by emotions more than ideology in a more obvious way than previous elections, and while I also wish for better candidates and will start actively looking for them, I have to say that if this alienates the "establishment" to the point that they can't support anybody they have only themselves to blame.

16 June 2016

Assassination in Britain first?

For the first time in 26 years, since the troubles with the Irish, a member of the British Parliament has been assassinated. Jo Cox of the Labour party was shot and stabbed at what they call a "constituent surgery" by a man who reportedly yelled "Britain First!" during the attack. This connects the murder tentatively with the country's contentious campaign over the "Brexit," a referendum on the U.K.'s withdrawal from the European Union, and with the refugee question, as Cox was an advocate of intervention in Syria and the settlement of Syrian war victims in Britain. Awful as any such story is on its own terms, I couldn't help wondering about it happening in Britain. After all, the way many Americans think about Donald Trump's constituents -- angry, intolerant, tribalistic, imminently violent -- you might have expected something like this to have happened here. It has not. In fact, the last time a U.S. congressman was murdered was at Jonestown, back in 1978, while the shooter who wounded Rep. Giffords during the Tucson amoklauf was just about a pure nut with an ideology entirely his own. This is one of the reasons why I can't take the panic over Trump too seriously. His supporters may be morons, but not murderously so. Assassination has fallen far out of fashion in the U.S. Not event the Islamists try it, as far as we can tell. In one respect that's no great reflection on us, since you can just as easily say that killing one person, no matter how powerful, just doesn't do it for the killers among us anymore. But it remains a valid observation that, despite the seemingly bottomless hate expressed for politicians across the American spectrum, we've gone a fairly long time without an obviously politically motivated attack on American politicians. For all that the Trump movement seems new and scary, they haven't changed that stat, and for all that Americans as a whole are supposed to shoot first and think later, here's an assassination in Britain, presumably one of the more civilized countries, and most of us across the Atlantic are still asking, "What was that guy angry about?"

15 June 2016

A pact with the devil -- but who's the devil?

It seems as if Speaker of the House Ryan has done nothing but criticize Donald Trump since giving the presumptive Republican presidential nominee a tepid endorsement. Most notably, Ryan slammed Trump for outright racism for the candidate's criticism of the "Mexican" judge in the Trump University case. While the Orlando massacre would appear to strengthen  Trump's position with voters, his response to it seems to have weakened his position with the Republican party. Some of his ideas apparently violate their appreciation of individual liberty and the rule of law just as much as they offend sensibilities on the other side of the aisle. You still hear Republicans wishing for an "open convention" where Trump could be deposed, apparently forgetting Trump's threats of undefined reprisal from his faithful should that happen. Other observers have assured themselves that a Republican Congress will be as capable of obstructing President Trump, should it come to that, as they've been capable of obstructing President Obama. But would it be as easy as that? Remember the terms of Ryan's endorsement. He's going to vote for Trump, he said, because "I'm confident that he'll help turn the House GOP's agenda into laws." In other words, Ryan has been willing to tolerate a lot from Trump on the expectation that he, unlike Obama, will sign radical Tea-Party style legislation. Partisanship is a two-way street, however. Doesn't Trump have an equal right to expect that a Republican Congress will ratify his agenda? This expectation matters if it proves, as seems likely, that Trump's agenda and Ryan's are two separate things. If the condition of Ryan's endorsement is that Trump sign Ryan's bills, hasn't Trump an equal right to set conditions, given how Ryan and his caucus expect to ride the billionaire's coattails? Does anyone doubt that the self-styled master of "the deal" would demand a quid-pro-quo from congressional Republicans, demanding that they enact his agenda through legislation in return for signing off on their agenda? What would Ryan and the GOP do then? What if they're told they get no budget bill, no regulatory reform, no entitlement reform, unless they pass a bill to build the Mexican Wall, curtail immigration, etc.? Would they sacrifice their agenda to block Trump? It would depend on his ability to arrange for Republican opponents to be primaried for their sins against him. So far I see little sign of Trump arranging to have candidates run for Congress who are loyal to him first, the party second. That's the typical failing of the insurgent presidential candidate, but if he wins his election this year and the conflict between him and the congressional GOP proves irrepressible, the 2018 elections should prove very interesting before the Democrats even get involved. I wouldn't put it past today's Republicans to opt for gridlock, since they're always ready to opt on ideological principles against getting things done, but the x factor they may need to consider before starting that game again is the mood of the country, which Trump, like all modern Presidents, will claim to represent more faithfully than anyone in Congress or Congress as a whole. On the other hand, congressional Republicans have never been impressed by presidential mandates. All of this means that the Republican party could be in big trouble even if Trump wins the November election. It might be very entertaining to watch -- except for the chance of collateral damage, that is.

14 June 2016

Take it from a Muslim ....

Earlier today the President was griping about some people's insistence that acts of terrorism like the Orlando massacre be attributed to "radical Islam." He mocked the idea that giving the enemy a particular name would help defeat them, and he seemed to resent more than usual the implication of Donald Trump that he was soft on Islam. "There’s no magic to the phrase, 'radical Islam.': he said, "It’s a political talking point; it’s not a strategy." The Washington Post helpfully explains that "the president has refused to use ["radical Islam'] because he believes it unfairly implicates an entire religious group for the acts of militant extremists. If that's his reason it's pretty silly. He seems to assume that no one appreciates the presence of a modifier in the epithet. His assumption seems to be that if you say "radical Islam," dumb Americans will instantly assume that all Muslims are radicals. On this occasion it looks like the President, not his critics, is playing word games, and it's just such games that frustrate Maajid Nawaz, a British Muslim who renounced extremism and for his trouble has been accused of being a "native informant" and neocon toady. He posted an op-ed at the Daily Beast today lambasting American liberals for refusing to talk about Islam when talking about terrorism."The killer of Orlando was a homophobic Muslim extremist, inspired by an ideological take on my own religion, Islam." Nawaz writes. Reminding readers that jihadists have still killed more Muslims than non-Muslims worldwide, he lashes out at "Liberals who claim that this has nothing to do with Islam" when "The problem so obviously has something to do with Islam. That something is Islamism, or the desire to impose any version of Islam over any society. Jihadism is the attempt to do so by force....It is a theocratic ideology, and theocracy should no longer have any place in the world today." To deny that Islamism has anything to do with Islam -- to argue that Islamism is motivated entirely be secular phenomena and thus can be dealt with without talking about Islam -- is a betrayal, so Nawaz claims, of the multitudes of Muslims that are fighting Islamists with words and/or weapons. Worse still, from his perspective, liberal refusal to engage critically with Islam in order to show how it doesn't have to be theocratic surrenders the rhetorical field to those Islamophobes who assume (on a fundamentalist reading of the Qur'an) that Islam is irredeemably theocratic. In short, if liberals won't talk about radical Islam or Islam itself, only Donald Trump will.

So what's the matter with liberals? Trump may have his vague suspicions about the President, but in most cases he'd attribute this reticence to "political correctness." That's often understood as an unwillingness to offend -- or an obsession with being offended -- but the sort of liberals who flinch at "radical Islam" probably are less worried about American Muslims getting offended than about worse happening to them. In any case, they're individualists on this front (if not on the economic front) and above all don't want many to suffer for the crimes and plots of a few. The easiest way to prevent that is to dissociate whatever jihadists are up to from whatever the essence of Islam is. The problem with that approach is that the jihadis themselves have a very clear idea of what the essence of Islam is, and that idea inspires whatever they're up to. Therefore you can't seriously argue that terrorism committed by Muslims has nothing to do with Islam unless you define Islam and do so in a way that shows the Islamists are wrong. Liberals probably would define Islam according to the "five pillars" they learned in school while rejecting the takfiri claim that jihad is a sixth pillar, equal in importance to the others. I suspect that liberals are less interested in such a project than in defending innocent Muslims against an Islamophobia that itself probably has little to do with Islam in the liberal imagination. From a "politically correct" standpoint jihadi terrorism has only provided the eternal white bigot with an excuse to indulge in his irrepressible hatred of the Other. Whether the subject is Trump's temporary ban on Muslim immigration -- which he's modified to focus on countries with terrorist activity -- or any suggestion of surveillance of mosques, madrasas or community centers, some liberals can't see any motivation for such measures but bigotry. Never mind that Islamists are bigots by any standard -- and the Orlando shooter seems to have been a hypocritical bigot on top of that -- some Americans can't help seeing white bigotry as the greater, permanent threat to the U.S. For such people Maajid Nawaz has some advice:

Just as we Muslims expect solidarity from wider society against anti-Muslim bigotry and racism, likewise we must reciprocate solidarity toward victims of Islamist extremism. Just as we encourage others to actively denounce racism wherever they see it, so too must we actively denounce Islamist theocratic views wherever we find them. Enough with the special pleading. Enough with the denial. Enough with the obfuscation.

Nawaz is talking to fellow Muslims but others should heed his message. 

13 June 2016

Can jihadi literature be banned?

Radicalized Muslims claim that fighting the infidel is a religious duty. They can cite verses of the Qur'an as their authorization, but how many have found and interpreted those verses for themselves? More often, radicals are told by some imam, whether in print, in person or online, that certain verses oblige them to fight. Muslims make a distinction between collective and individual (or voluntary and compulsory) duties. Modern jihadists are distinguished by their assertion that violent jihad is an compulsory individual duty. It's not enough for them that someone else does it -- the essence of collective or voluntary duty is that it doesn't matter who does a thing as long as it's done. Their claim is that every single Muslim has a duty to fight the infidel who allegedly oppresses the umma, or to impose the sharia where ostensibly Muslim rulers have neglected or violated it. This assertion that jihad is compulsory may be the key to banning jihadi propaganda in the United States.

Americans have long been uncomfortable with banning ideas. During World War II allegedly pro-Axis publications were banned, but you could still find copies of Mein Kampf anywhere in the country. Even at the height of the anti-communist hysteria of the Cold War the works of Marx and Lenin remained readily available. The current Supreme Court precedent dates back to 1969, when a majority overturned the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan organizer for advocating violence against blacks and Jews. In Brandenburg v. Ohio the Court ruled that advocacy of violence enjoyed constitutional protection unless it is intended to incite "imminent lawless action." Without that extra factor, what looks like incitement is only a suggestion. In practical terms, when a Klansman talks his big talk he's only really discussing what his fellow Kluxers could do, or might do. It should be possible to argue persuasively that when a radicalized Muslim calls for jihad there is a different, more actionable order of threat because he isn't just making a suggestion, but is really asserting a duty that must be fulfilled if his audience wants to be good Muslims. By comparison, you could read Marxist-Leninist advocacy of violent revolution regularly without acquiring an obligation to start the revolution in your lifetime. Radical jihadism demands action as immediately as possible and could only save itself from prosecution by renouncing the idea that jihad is a compulsory individual duty.

The Brandenburg standard, if I understand it correctly, would seem to allow action against the entire tradition of jihadist or takfiri literature dating back the the infamous Ibn Taymiyyah, the medieval scholar who rejected the idea of submission to rulers who tolerated Islam without implementing the sharia. The Qur'an itself is probably immune from action on First Amendment grounds, but governments should make it clear informally to mosques and Muslim organizations that interpretations of the scripture that discourage jihad are expected of them. Such interpretations were prevalent during the age of imperialism, particularly in India where the British tended to favor Muslims over Hindus. The consensus then was that governments that allowed Islamic worship (summed up by the "five pillars" you may have learned in school, and not including the sharia or jihad) were entitled to the loyalty of Muslims, whether the rulers were Muslim or not. If American Muslim leaders aren't willing to say this we have a right to ask why. More importantly, it looks like we have a right to take action against jihadist propaganda so long as it's understood as the incitement of imminent violence. If we could only deal with all the other ideas that inspire Americans to kill as easily....

12 June 2016

Terror in Orlando

It remains to be discovered whether the primary motive behind the worst mass shooting in American history -- not counting the battles fought on American soil -- was personal or religious, but the shooter's choice of target, an Orlando gay bar, makes his amoklauf an act of terrorism that makes the "hate crime" label seem redundant. What seems indisputable is that whether the shooter's motive was religious or personal -- he was a native-born American citizen of Afghan descent, his parents coming here at a time when Afghans were seen as anti-communist freedom fighters -- his crime was a homophobic act. His father has cited homophobic statements from the son, but investigators are pursuing hints at a broader radicalization. And yet while I expect to hear the usual calls for cracking down on guns and the currently popular calls for rounding up the Muslims, I doubt whether we'll hear many calls for cracking down on or rounding up the homophobes. That idea just doesn't fit into most people's compartments, because a lot of us still consider homophobia to be legitimate on some level. Few may deem gays worthy of death here and now, but many still believe they will have to pay for their sins somewhere. Many -- and obviously not only Muslims -- consider homophobia a constitutional right as a religious imperative. The moral revolution of our time is an assertion that there is no good reason to disapprove of homosexuality and no right to act on that disapproval or base public policy on it. Islamic objections to this idea are only a small part of the counterrevolution, though they may prove the most violent objectors. So go for the Muslims if you want, go for the guns if you must, but don't let homophobia as a whole off the hook.

Update: The shooter reportedly called 911 to pledge allegiance to the self-styled Islamic State just before opening fire at the niteclub, and an IS news service acknowledged him as one of their fighters. During the afternoon we've seen a parade of American Muslim spokesmen repudiating the shooting, denouncing the IS and trying to keep alive a common opposition to homophobia and Islamophobia. It is odd to note that the gay-rights movement still sees Christians as their main enemy. It's true that Christian activism drives efforts to limit equal rights and equal access to services, but for all that gays anticipate physical attacks from Christians the more immediate threat of violence clearly comes from radicalized Muslims, given their feeling of entitlement to violence. The gay-rights community shouldn't fall for the idea that the struggle in this country pits all the Others as allies against straight-white-male-Christian aggression. Homophobia is no more justified among other religions, and no more to be defended on multicultural grounds, than it is among Christians. There's no denying that the gay-rights revolution must inevitably conflict with all traditional religions and cultures, and no dodging an accounting with Islam along the way. It is not Islamophobia to call out the religion and its believers when they are self-evidently wrong. Some may want to say gays and Muslims have a common struggle against a tyranny of the majority but today reminds us that that's not necessarily so.

09 June 2016

Worst election ever?

Many mediocrities have run for President of the United States and some have won. It's tempting to declare the impending contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump the worst presidential election ever -- though you're likely to be branded a sexist if you don't blame that on Trump alone -- but that may only tell us that our memories are short. Are Trump and Clinton really worse than our choices in 1852, when Franklin Pierce, who proved one of the worst Presidents, defeated Winfield Scott, whose only credential was being a general in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War? What about 1876, when Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden proved their character by sacrificing Reconstruction to resolve their deadlock? Or 1872, when Ulysses S. Grant, whose administration was riddled with corruption, defeated newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, a candidate so moribund that he was dead within a month of Election Day? The American past was not so meritocratic then as nostalgics today may believe. After all, in those days Clinton would not have been allowed to run -- a fact that may recommend the past to some people today but has nothing to do with Clinton's record -- while Trump most likely would have been killed in a duel long before politics called him -- a probability that may recommend the past to others. Historical perspective can be a calming thing, but there's no denying that our major-party choices stink pretty ripely. Trump remains what he's always been, a moron's ideal of a businessman, while Clinton remains what she's been ever since she betrayed whatever authentic feminism she espoused at Wellesley to be a politician's wife. Nevertheless, now is not the time to panic. Neither candidate is a sufficient argument for voting for the other. No one needs to vote for Hillary Clinton to stop Donald Trump; a Republican Congress will probably stop him as well as it's stopped President Obama. Nor does anyone need to vote for Donald Trump to stop Hillary Clinton, however emotionally satisfying doing so may be to some people. Really, there's no reason for anyone to vote for Trump except for spite; voting for him just to stick it to other Americans would be like detonating a suicide vest, only without any hope of virgins greeting you in paradise -- more likely, Trump himself will kiss you on the lips. On the other hand, there is little reason to vote for Clinton other than to spite Trump and the idiots who idolize him, and electing her will accomplish little more than that. Those who argue that it's imperative to make history have to explain why they did not draft Senator Warren, who with less baggage probably would have routed Senator Sanders in the Democratic primaries and annihilated Trump in the general election. History will want to know why the first woman President, if it comes to that, had to be Hillary Clinton, and there had better be a better answer than "the only alternative was Trump." Warren herself will have a lot to answer for if there was any thought or instinct on her part of deference to Clinton's seniority or celebrity when history called. But it's not up to us to keep the window of opportunity open for Warren by voting for Trump. Anyone who votes negatively this November is just another victim of the American Bipolarchy, which sustains itself by offering one head as the sole alternative to the unacceptable other. A negative vote for Trump or Clinton is a betrayal of our right and duty to vote for the best candidate, who this year can be neither person. Voting for an independent might be seen as a negative vote cast against both Clinton and Trump, but since there are many independents to choose from, inevitably by choosing one you are voting for somebody and making a positive statement in a year when there will be all too few of those.

07 June 2016

Authoritarian libertarianism and Trump

The Atlantic's website recently ran a fascinating interview with a 22 year -old, college-educated, mid-income Donald Trump supporter from San Francisco. His youth and bachelor's degree belie the stereotype of the Trump fan as ignorant, nostalgic white trash. The fact that he's engaged to an Asian woman might surprise some observers, but only those who overrate pure race hatred as a factor in Trump's appeal. Predictably, this anonymous fan rails against political correctness, believing that it's no longer possible to debate any political question with certain people without being branded a bigot, as long as you're a white man. That protest is a subject for another time, and really one of the big stories of the political year, but the real eyebrow-raiser here is the Trump fan's characterization of himself as a paradoxical (if not oxymoronic) authoritarian libertarian. He'd already admitted to a mix of "left" and "right" political positions, supporting LGBT rights, universal healthcare and separation of church and state, as well as lower taxes, meritocracy in place of affirmative action and assimilationist cultural policy. No two of these positions is automatically contradictory outside of a partisan context, but what can it mean to be an authoritarian libertarian when most "libertarians" would consider "authoritarianism" antithetical to their worldview? We had better let the young man explain it himself:

I have supported the Libertarian party specifically for the policies (military non-intervention, ending war on drugs, low taxes, etc.), and the fact that, if successful, it would significantly undermine the Democrat-Republican duopoly.That said, I do not identify with the libertarian preference for a weak federal government. My ideal government would be strong enough to take on massive projects (such as the illegal immigration question) only when necessary, would prevent mass exploitation by the elites ( conservationist efforts to protect the environment, for example,) but would try not to regulate people's personal and economic lives. The authoritarian aspect comes from the fact that I think we have a lot of issues that need to be fixed. An authoritarian president needs to be able to initiate major policies that may go against party and elite orthodoxies, and I don't want some senator speaking for hours to prevent needed policies. If something needs to be done, it cannot be stalled by senators whose only interest is serving the elites.

The typical libertarian is skeptical when anyone asserts that something "needs to be fixed" or "needs to be done." That's because they rarely want to look beyond "people's personal and economic lives," preferring to see commerce as the essence if not the sum of life. They will judge whether anything needs to be done or fixed by its potential impact on commerce. From this Trump supporter's comments I infer a recognition of a collective life beyond commerce, which might be ironic given Trump's supposed qualification as a successful businessman. He seems to believe that free enterprise is compatible with strong government, while most libertarians doubt that. His authoritarianism is understandably vague. At first glance he underrates the potential for mass (rather than "elite") resistance to getting things fixed, though if he's a true authoritarian he should be prepared to answer or override both mass and elite objections. In his contrast between the normalcy of personal and economic lives and the sphere of authoritarian activity I see a glimmering of the authoritarian theory of the "state of exception," according to which the sovereign -- the state if not its ruler -- necessarily has the power to make exceptions to the conventions we identify with "rule of law" if that gets in the way of what needs to be done. This sort of authoritarianism is at odds with the entire classical liberal tradition as it survives today as liberalism, conservatism and libertarianism, all of which distrust different kinds of "needs to be done" arguments for different reasons, most of which boil down to slippery-slope assumptions that exceptions will stop being exceptions as sovereignty becomes essentially lawless. You can hear that thinking in hysterical arguments from both left and right about Trump's potential for dictatorship. We might still ask how President Trump, in his supporters' scenario, would stop a filibuster, but we should note the supporter's implicit assumption that something can be done without threatening the essential character (i.e. our personal and economic lives) of the polity -- that doing what needs to be done or fixing what needs to be fixed won't automatically make a tyranny out of the country. The proof of that will probably depend on whether we can agree that things need to be done and on how to do them, though an unspoken premise of the whole argument is that certain things need to be done no matter how many or how few of us agree or not. Donald Trump isn't the ideal person to test any of these premises. If elected, his failures could set back the cause of "authoritarian libertarianism" for a generation or more. But if he loses the election and things continue as they are, the case will most likely be made again, perhaps more convincingly or perhaps more threateningly -- and people like the man who spoke with the Atlantic are still very young.

05 June 2016

"Worthy of Praise"

Once Muhammad Ali got sick, Joe Frazier liked to tell people: look at him and look at me and tell me who won our fights. In the end, Ali outlived him by four and a half years. Frazier was quite the character while he was still around. He also said, upon seeing a palsied Ali light the Olympic flame at the Atlanta games, that he wished he were there to shove Ali into the cauldron. By then it was refreshing to have that glaring exception to the reverence Ali enjoyed. Frazier had reason to resent him; he was probably as "street" as Ali was, if not more so, but got tarred as an Uncle Tom because he held the title that had been stripped from Ali and thus was seen as the establishment's pet. Also, a black person probably enjoys being called a gorilla no more when another black person does it than when a white person does. On some level, I suspect Ali enjoyed Frazier's hate, despite the occasional tales you heard of reconciliation. For much of his career, the former Cassius Clay enjoyed playing the heel. He was a pro wrestling fan (and even did some angles in the squared circle) and claimed to take some of his style from Gorgeous George, the paradigmatic arrogant heel of the early TV age. But Ali arguably created an archetype that looms large in pop culture today: the heel who turns babyface, to stick to wrestling lingo, because fans like him for being a badass. He was a heel early in his career, more or less, because his poetic boasting was conduct unbecoming a professional athlete. He turned face for his fight with Sonny Liston because Liston was a natural heel, white America's nightmare of a big, violent black man. You could almost believe that Clay changed his name and embraced the Nation of Islam in part because he wanted to stay a heel. The NOI seemed threatening fifty years ago and adopting such a foreign-sounding name must have seemed a form of treason, but in retrospect we should note that, for all the self-evident idiocy of Elijah Muhammad's theology, neither he nor his spiritual successor Louis Farrakhan has ever preached a jihad against the United States. If changing your name while repudiating the old one as a "slave name" seemed like treason, refusing to report for duty when drafted for the Vietnam War was the actual article as far as many Americans were concerned, but as things turned out Ali was just a little bit ahead of the curve of public opinion, and history has judged his resistance heroic, if only because it has also judged the war an error. He was the hero of a multiracial counterculture by the time he was reinstated as a boxer, but in dealing with Frazier he was determined to draw heat heel style, and it proved easy with someone who didn't seem to take ribbing well. For his trouble Ali was dropped on his ass in the fifteenth round and spent another three years in the wilderness before finding a different kind of perfect foil in George Foreman. It's difficult to see from our perspective, when Foreman is nearly as beloved as Ali himself, how frightening he seemed back in 1974, when he was just another big black man who just happened to annihilate Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, Ali's recent conquerors. Even then, though, there was something -- dare I say -- "whitebread" about Foreman, more benignly oafish than the authentically menacing Liston, that makes his type a perfect foil for the badass antihero. Ali's victory against the most impossible-seeming odds of his career kept him a babyface for the rest of his days, especially since Americans love nothing much more than a valiant battler against debilitating disease. In the final analysis, he really was a kind of epic hero, complete with his own Homer in Howard Cosell, whom technology enabled to spellbind audiences with tales of Ali's battles as they actually happened. And if you like your chroniclers more literary, I recommend to you Norman Mailer's brilliant accounts of Ali-Frazier I and the Foreman fight. In any event, Muhammad Ali was a hero of his time, and that tells us as much about his time as it does about the man. His death this weekend has been treated virtually as an apotheosis, with even Donald Trump praising him, but I wonder whether an Ali in his twenties today, behaving now as he did then and taking the kind of political stands he did, would be treated as a hero by today's media. Whether one is treated as a hero and whether one is a hero, after all, are two different things. Speaking for myself as a fight fan, I mourn him as one of the great athletes of my childhood, the best of a mighty generation of heavyweight boxers compared to whom today's fighters look sad. There's something decadent about his boasting that might be deplored, but at least he pulled it off with a panache beyond the reach of all his stylistic descendants today. Without disputing the reality of his achievements, we can call him the greatest sports entertainer of the 20th century.

03 June 2016

The hate that hate produced?

I still don't think that Donald Trump is a racist in any meaningful sense of the word, but it's harder than ever to avoid the conclusion that he's bigoted against Mexicans. Either that explains Trump's railing against Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel, who is hearing a case against the notorious Trump University, or else the candidate's instinct is always to go for the ad hominem attack. Either way, Trump asserts that Curiel is biased against him because the judge's parents were (legal) immigrants from Mexico. His tantrum might have been a "Have you no decency?" moment if such moments still were possible in the U.S. If Joe McCarthy and Joe Welch had been around today, and McCarthy had pulled his usual stunt, Welch probably would have hit McCarthy with a law book. That's where we're at, or that's where we're heading, to judge from the scenes outside the Trump rally in San Jose yesterday, where the candidate's fans were chased, punched and pelted by protesters. Way to surrender the moral high ground, whoever you are. Now the logic seems to be that if you're even interested in Trump, you're a racist. The Nation claimed in an editorial last week that, given all of Trump's deviations from ideological orthodoxy, the only thing holding the Republican party together, or the principal force animating the Trump movement, is hate. But hate may be the only thing holding the Democratic party together right now, albeit hate of one man rather than an entire group of people. Now that hatred of Trump extends to his supporters, which only confirms the implicit narrative among many of those supporters that the American left is defined by hatred of whites. Of course, leftist haters will say they only hate haters, but they, just as much as Republicans, are guilty of a defining fallacy of our time: to oppose is to hate. Few of us seem willing to concede any sincere basis, let alone any reasoned basis, for disagreement with our beliefs, our pet projects, our desires. If Trump wants to control immigration, he must hate foreigners; if Mexicans or other immigrants oppose his policy, they must hate America. As Americans grow more intolerant of contradiction, Trump provokes hatred by unapologetically contradicting people, yet seems intolerant of contradiction himself. So what's next? We started with Trump supporters attacking hecklers inside the rallies, and now we have Trump haters attacking the supporters outside. The next step could be still more provocative if police don't take control of the space outside political rallies. I can easily see self-appointed bodyguards forming to protect Trump and his followers, and I can just as easily see people calling them Trump's brownshirts or stormtroopers or something just as inflammatory. It would be all the more reason for many to fear Trump and some to escalate the confrontations further still. My hope is that law enforcement will make such an escalation by the Trump movement unnecessary, but even if they do so it's unlikely to alter our toxic dialectic of hate. That might take someone willing to risk everyone's hatred by telling them they're all wrong and acting accordingly.