29 July 2016

The Siberian Candidate?

For what it's worth, I thought all along that Donald Trump was joking when he urged Russian hackers to find Hillary Clinton's missing e-mails, but many Americans fail to find Trump funny. Some of them found the Republican candidate's comments tantamount to treason. Added to suspicions of Russian involvement in the hack of the Democratic National Committee, this week has seen Trump's supposed affinity for Russia and its president come under greater scrutiny than ever. One writer suggests that, by the same standards that render the Clinton Foundation's ties to foreigners suspect, Trump's financial ties to Russia ought to raise concern, while another, more skeptical writer suggests that the Trump-Putin bromance may be somewhat one-sided. From the Russian perspective, a preference for Trump seems understandable, because the Obama administration (including erstwhile Secretary of State Clinton) has stubbornly opposed Russian hegemony in the country's "near abroad," while Trump is more likely disinterested in that part of the world. But any Russian preference for Trump is most likely tempered by questions, shared worldwide, about his stability and his capacity for consistency. Meanwhile, many Americans are less concerned about where Trump stands on Ukraine or the Balkans than about what his purported admiration for Putin says about his character and intentions as President. Since Putin is one of the world's leading "authoritarians," Trump must have an authoritarian streak if he admires Putin's leadership so much. I have no desire to see Trump become President, but I refuse to share the hysteria that portrays him as a nascent fascist. I don't dispute that he often comes across as a bully with his often-menacing language, e.g. his vaguely expressed impulse to "hit" certain speakers at the Democratic convention. But I think it more likely that politicians train themselves to eliminate that sort of common idiom from their rhetoric, while Trump simply echoes the millions of Americans who say they want to slap, smack, kick or even kill annoying people without ever doing so, simply to express their anger. His saltiness only enhances his insultingly paradoxical common-man appeal. If Trump admires Putin's strength, it's not because he has some ideology of strength, much less any intent to emulate Putin's treatment of opposition politicians and media. It's more obviously because he believes these times require a strength he finds lacking in conventional politicians, Democrat or Republican, but believes himself to possess without ever being tested by the requirements of statesmanship. Any invocation of strength, however, makes not only liberals but many American conservatives suspicious. Both groups, albeit at different times and under different circumstances, seem to fear the abuse of power more than they fear powerlessness, while many liberals also reject a world where strength can or should decide anything. Yet I think that if a President Trump tried any funny stuff with the Constitution these groups would show their strength readily enough, though I suspect with some sense of irony that the people usually most inclined to resist authority in this country would most likely end up as his enforcers, should the crisis come.

28 July 2016

Is there an alternative to Democratic 'materialism?'

David Brooks is one of the New York Times' house Republicans, and as might be expected of a New York Times Republican, he has for all intents and purposes endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Presidency. The alternative, to him, is the advent of "American Putinism." It thus becomes his job to advise the Democratic candidate, from the perspective of a sort of conservative, on how not to lose the election. He diagnoses a problem, if not a handicap, in the Democratic approach in his most recent column. The Democratic party, Brooks claims, suffers from "a materialistic mind-set" that reduces everything to economics while ignoring cultural health.

This is a crisis of national purpose. It’s about personal identity and the basic health of communal life. Americans’ anger and pessimism are more fundamental than anything that can be explained by G.D.P. statistics. Many Democrats have trouble thinking in these terms. When asked to explain any complex phenomenon, they instinctively reduce it to a materialist cause. If there’s terrorism there must be lack of economic opportunity. If marriage is declining it must be because of joblessness. This materialistic mind-set means that many Democrats are perpetually surprised by events that involve cultural threats and national identity. Why don’t working-class Kansans vote for us? We offer them more programs. Why did the Brits leave the E.U.? It’s against their economic interest.

What's interesting here is that Brooks is implicitly opposing "materialism" not to "spirituality" but to "culture." To be sure, he's been advocating a sort of spiritual revival recently, without being religiously specific, but this particular column doesn't seem to be about religion at all. Nevertheless, his dichotomy of materialism and culture begs the question of the difference between the two. From a post-religious or anti-religious perspective, shouldn't I want the culture itself to be materialist? If Islam is many people's alternative to materialism, shouldn't we be all for materialism insofar as it rejects theology and theocracy? The answer depends on what Brooks ultimately means by "materialism." Obviously he identifies the word with economic reductionism, and there's some truth to his perception that Democrats, not to mention many in the broader Left, tend to trace all the violence and irrationality of the poor, wherever they are found, to poverty; if they're depraved, it's on account of they're deprived, as the kids told Officer Krupke. But is that all Brooks means or implies? I think people on the Left can distinguish and criticize reductionism (or determinism) while remaining essentially materialist, but I'm not sure that would satisfy Brooks. I suspect that on some level he also identifies the "materialism" he criticizes with a kind of crass individualism of the "what's in it for me?" sort. His theoretical Democrat has a ready answer to that question: "We offer them more programs." Perhaps this "materialism" is a sort of social consumerism that sees the citizen (or the Democratic constituent) as a consumer of programs who need be nothing more. This materialism would share in the hedonism I perceive at the heart of 21st century liberalism, which is dedicated above all to an easier life for the working class and disadvantaged minorities. 

By comparison, then, what might "culture" require? Brooks suggests that it has something to do with a "civic religion" that Clinton should "talk bluntly" about, but what that entails remains mysterious. Then he adds, addressing the candidate, "You’re going to have to show you understand the way members of your class have slighted people who are less educated and less cosmopolitan." The implication here is that Democratic "materialism" itself slights these people and thus threatens "the basic health of communal life." I suppose what Brooks wants to say is that citizenship must have a dimension that is not "materialist" in the individualist or consumerist or hedonist sense, a dimension that answers to the description of  "civic religion," providing the nebulous "spiritual" quality Brooks deems necessary without necessarily being theological or mythic. He seems to want to say that the yearning for a civic religious experience among the "less educated and less cosmopolitan" should not be disdained by Democrats who may judge the nation more by the programs it offers and their material benefits than by any other standard. Of course, since what we're talking about now is love of country, the question of whether love of country should be as unconditional or uncritical as many of the less educated and less cosmopolitan seem to demand is inescapable, though we can defer it to another post for now. The question on which I'll close this post is whether the "basic health of communal life," whether it depends on any civic religion or not, requires some compromise of "materialism" in any sense of the word -- in short, whether it demands sacrifice of citizens, not just in war but in peace, not just by the rich but by the poor -- sacrifice of what, to what, for what? -- or whether this is all a false distinction. Despite Brooks's immediate concerns, it's not a question for Democrats or liberals alone, since it's debatable whether Republicans, Libertarians, Greens or anyone else is less materialist, in whatever sense of the word you like, than the party of Clinton, and some are clearly more materialist in certain respects. In fact, it's funny that Brooks is preaching against materialism to the Democrats when there is perhaps no one more materialist in the entire country than their antagonist, who nevertheless arouses feelings in his followers that seem to have a different quality.

26 July 2016

Bust: Why Sanders lost

The Wikileaks revelations about Democratic National Committee schemes to undermine Sen. Sanders' campaign against Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination are balm for the wounded pride of Bernie Bros and other Sanders supporters who want to believe that the fix was in for Clinton. But does anyone doubt that the Republican National Committee tried similar tricks to stop Donald Trump, given how abhorrent he remains to many in the GOP establishment and the official conservative movement? Yet Trump was nominated, though his case differs from Sanders' in that he faced a far more divided field than Sanders ever did. That granted, and DNC favoritism toward Clinton granted, we should resist the temptation to exempt Sanders from any share of blame in his own defeat. No matter what the DNC was up to, Sanders lost in part because he ran the wrong race, and his speech at the Democratic convention Monday night indicates that he still doesn't realize his mistake.

"Let me be as clear as I can be," Sanders said, "This election is not about and has never been about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders or any of the other candidates who sought the presidency. This election is not about political gossip..." Believing that has a lot to do with why he spoke on Monday rather than Thursday night. History may show soon that no Presidential election in American history has been more about personalities than the 2016 campaign. It will be decided entirely on ad hominem or ad feminam grounds, most Republicans (and many Democrats) believing that Clinton is irredeemably corrupt or incompetent while most Democrats (and many Republicans) believe that Trump is hopelessly incapable of constitutional statesmanship. Numerous Republicans tried to make the case against both Trump and Clinton on these grounds and failed, yet Sanders might have succeeded on those same grounds, had he not refused to run an ad feminam campaign against Clinton.

Remember that the anti-Trump Republicans were divided among themselves, while Sanders, once Gov. O'Malley dropped out of the race, was the only rallying point for anti-Clinton feeling among Democrats and independents voting in open-primary states. Of course, Clinton's fans felt that Sanders did run an ad feminam campaign merely by questioning their candidate's speaking fees and the donations she received from large corporations, if not simply by opposing her nomination in the first place. Yet Sanders effectively tied one hand behind his back when he asserted during an early debate that no one gave a damn about Clinton's emails, when it is self-evident that many Americans do give a damn, presumably including registered Democratic primary voters. Sanders was content to insinuate that Clinton was corrupt in a conventional and essentially impersonal way as a politician dependent on large donations, and did nothing to acknowledge the widespread (and still growing) feeling that she is corrupt in a more personal, venal and imperious fashion. Maybe this was because he was trying to be a good partisan, which meant avoiding as much as possible the argument that someone who might end up the party's nominee was unfit to be President. Maybe it was because, like so many Democrats and sympathizers, he believes that Hillary Clinton has been the victim of an protean yet baseless big lie for the last quarter-century, and that the Republican party has pulled off the biggest con and smear job in American history. It's more likely, however, that Sanders means what he said at the convention, and that his and Clinton's personalities are secondary to the liberal/progressive obligation to vote Democratic, no matter what, to prevent Republican oppression, no matter who their candidate is. What this would show is that Sanders, who is not quite the oldest non-incumbent ever to seek a major-party Presidential nomination, simply entered the lists too late, not realizing that a post-partisan moment may be upon us after all and that conventional partisan fearmongering may not be enough to save a Democratic nominee this time. Had he better sensed the mood of the country he might have realized the necessity of some politics of personal destruction during the primaries. Now it may be left to his erstwhile supporters to do that work for him, whether he wants them to or not.

There's another reason why Sanders might have had better luck with an ad feminam campaign than Trump's Republican rivals had with their ad hominem campaign. The difference between the two primary campaigns, and perhaps ultimately between the two nominees, is that compared to Clinton Trump is a blank slate. That may seem strange to say about Trump at this point, but my own point is that the ad hominem attack on Trump, whether waged by Republicans or Democrats, focuses on what he might do, while the ad feminam attack on Clinton is based on what she has done, or is believed to have done. To put it another way, the case against Trump is essentially speculative: because he sounds like an idiot and acts like a jerk, he'll be a terrible President. Against such attacks Trump's lack of political experience may be his best defense, not because it makes him more appealing as an "outsider," but because it leaves room for people to consider giving him a chance. Many people, and possibly a majority, will still vote for Clinton based on ideology, party loyalty and raw fear of Trump, but there won't be that same "give her a chance" quality to Clinton votes because she's far too much of a known quantity by now, both for detractors and admirers, and her Presidency would be all too predictable to either group. The question from now until November is whether the "Bernie or Bust" people, dismissed as "ridiculous" by a stand-up comedian at the convention, are willing to give Trump a chance, i.e. acquiesce in his election by withholding their votes from Clinton. On one level they are no more inclined to give Trump a chance than the Republican Congress was to give President Obama a chance. I'm sure some of the Bernie Bros (and sisters) are itching to spend four years on the streets protesting Trump's every act and utterance as President. At this point conventional Democrats would ask: what about the poor and the disadvantaged minorities who'll surely suffer under Trump? Those who sincerely intend to give Trump a chance might question whether those groups (apart from illegal immigrants and Muslim refugees) will suffer at all under Trump, but few on the left will doubt that the worst off now will be worse off as long as Trump signs Speaker Ryan's bills. In the absence of such doubt, the question becomes whether alienated progressives allow the Democratic party to continue using the poor and disadvantaged minorities as human shields or challenge the hedonic calculus (I'll get to this in a future post) that effectively compels acquiescence to Democratic party corruption and complacence. If a large group of American voters actually decides, actively or passively, that things need to get worse before they can get better, then the stage may be set for a real revolution in American politics in the years to follow this wretched election.

25 July 2016

A good old-fashioned amoklauf

It looks like a disgruntled former employee took a knife and ran amok at a facility for disabled people near Tokyo today. The latest reports put the casualty total at between 15 and 19 people dead and many more injured. This incident, following closely after the Munich mall shooting -- which despite the ethnicity of the shooter appears to have been a classic amoklauf-inspired amoklauf -- is a grim reminder that any old thing can turn some people into murderers. Just as gun-rights advocates will point to this crime as fresh proof that banning guns won't suppress murderous evil, it should also remind us that people don't need a book of any sort to tell them to kill. For all we know, some who kill in the name of a book now would find some other reason to kill without the book. Of course, whenever something like this happens anywhere on Earth these days -- even in Japan, as I saw on one comment thread -- the first question asked is usually, "Was it a Muslim?" People seem to be afraid of terrorism now when they never seemed afraid of an amoklauf before, back when that was the only game in town in many places. In a way the discrepancy makes sense, since during a terrorist wave people feel targeted in a way the randomness of amoklauf attacks can't (though perhaps they should) evoke. It's one thing to believe objectively that some nut could appear anywhere, at any time, to open fire on you, and another to know that there are organizations urging people to kill you. I suppose that some people sincerely fear an amoklauf breaking out in their town, but many more fear terrorism even though there's no basis for believing that one is more or less likely than the other. Fear is selective, more than it would be if it were just a general fear of violent death. If many fear terrorism more than an amoklauf, there are some who feel the reverse. Over the past week I've been thinking about the selectivity of fear in a political environment where many people seem to fear the election of Donald Trump as President more than either an amoklauf or a terrorist attack. I hope to share some of those thoughts with you once I've had the time to organize them more. I'm hoping that the Democratic National Convention, an event more certain than ever to be founded entirely on a fear that may be the one thing holding the party together after the Wikileaks revelations, will help those thought cohere.

20 July 2016

The People's Words

Since angry dark-skinned hordes have failed so far to show up at the Republican National Convention, we get stories like the Melania Trump plagiarism scandal. It would hardly be worth commenting on except that Trump fans have grown crazily defensive toward the presumptive nominee for First Lady, despite her foreign birth. They seem to deem her an asset to the Trump campaign because she's prettier and "classier" than either the current First Lady or the presumptive Democratic nominee for President -- not to mention her First Man. The prettiness is indisputable, while the "classiness" apparently consists of unconditional praise for the U.S. In any event, Mrs. Trump's honor is to be defended at all costs. One tactic is to raise the old bloody shirt of "Double Standards" and accuse the media of ignoring plagiarism scandals involving Democrats. This is a difficult tactic to pull off since the current Vice President, a Democrat, had his political career set back a generation by the first big plagiarism scandal of modern political history, while the current President was accused of plagiarism during his 2008 primary campaign. The "double standards" argument is pretty weak when a Google search of "Barack Obama plagiarism" calls up not only this week's Republican complaints against mainstream-media neglect of Obama's plagiarism  -- the candidate had borrowed lines from then-Governor Patrick of Massachusetts -- but also 2008 mainstream media reports of the plagiarism controversy. Of course, according to Republican logic the media must have downplayed it, since Obama did not withdraw from the campaign, just as Donald Trump's failure to divorce his wife (for now) will prove that the media downplayed her plagiarism as well. 

A more interesting response to the current plagiarism scandal is less partisan than populist, in keeping with the Trump movement. At this level there's a rebellion against the very concept of plagiarism. I'm hearing people argue that words belong to no one, that no one has a right to say that Melania Trump (or her speechwriters) were plagiarizing Michelle Obama's (or her speechwriters') words. I don't know if they feel the same way about phrases, but their main argument is twofold. First, "the people's words," as one person calls them, can't be claimed as intellectual property. Second -- and this may be the crucial argument for Trump supporters -- since there are only a limited number of words available to express ourselves, it's only inevitable that speeches expressing similar sentiments will sound alike, down to the phrasing, so what's the big deal? Donald Trump probably has the smallest vocabulary of any Presidential candidate in American history, and that's probably part of his appeal to many likely voters. What's the use of expanding your vocabulary, they may ask, when people can get in trouble like Mrs. Trump and her writers have? At least they can feel certain that Trump himself doesn't plagiarize, since his speeches sound like nothing professional writers would compose. Simplicity equals authenticity and honesty from this perspective, and with that in mind Trump fans really should blame the writers who forced the offending text upon Melania rather than letting her speak off the cuff as her husband prefers to.

If there's anything really damning about the whole affair, it has less to do with either Trump than with the idea that speechwriters, presumably partisan, assumed nevertheless that the words of Melania Trump and Michelle Obama, already antithetical personalities in many minds for many reasons, effectively were interchangeable. To the extent that they are props for their husbands -- Mrs. Trump blatantly so and Mrs. Obama's pretensions notwithstanding -- the writers are probably right. The real question is why the convention organizers thought Melania Trump had anything to say to the American people, or else why they thought her the right ventriloquist's dummy for whatever they wanted to say. Of course, candidates' wives are a commonplace at national party conventions; they're meant to testify to their husbands' character above all. But these appearances now encourage the dangerous belief that a First Lady is an important person upon whom votes confer some sort of power by electing her husband. We probably wouldn't be talking about plagiarism this week if people didn't believe that. You'd think that Donald Trump would prefer a more traditionally modest role for the First Lady, but just as he thought it important that Melania was more attractive than Sen. Cruz's wife, so he'll go on flaunting her as if she were Hillary and Michelle's opponent in a beauty contest. If she's been humiliated by this week's scandal, Trump has only himself to blame.

19 July 2016

The 'privileged' anti-Clinton left

Tom Templeton of Delmar NY doesn't want to hear it any more from those he describes as the "Bernie or Bust" crowd. These are the people who voted for Sen. Sanders in the Democrat primaries and now refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election despite Sanders' endorsement. Templeton tells us he supported Sanders during the primaries but will unapologetically vote for Clinton. Those progressives who refuse to do so suffer from a "sanctimony," in Templeton's diagnosis, that makes them insufferable to him. He informs his readers that he actually blocked someone on Facebook because he couldn't stand her apparent indifference to the "harrowing consequences" of making Donald Trump's election more likely. People who dismiss those possible consequences are guilty of "privilege."

[T]hese folks are blinded by their privilege to accurately see what we as a nation would stand to lose if Trump fulfills his campaign promises. Anecdotally, I have observed that most on the "Bernie or Bust" bandwagon are both young and white. To date, their world includes legal protections they take for granted. Indeed, they are comfortable and therefore fortunate in their ability to wallow in self-righteousness. But what about those who rely on Obamacare? What about those who need Planned Parenthood to maintain their reproductive health? What about those whose love is finally legally permitted and protected by the federal government?

You see, Templeton is not "self-righteous" because he's concerned for others, while those who espouse "Bernie or Bust" are either preoccupied with their own principles or else indifferent to those, already worse of than they, who will be even worse off under Trump. There's no room for "self-righteousness" or even "righteousness" in the face of the eternal Republican threat; since Trump must not be President, progressives must vote for whatever the Democrats serve up. They must always settle for that because the Republican threat never goes away. Is it "self-righteous" to say this? Is it "self-righteous" to propose that so long as the Republican is always worse than the Democrat, there is no limit to how bad the Democrat can be? Templeton, I'm sure, would say: yes, Samuel Wilson, you're being self-righteous because you refuse to acknowledge that what is not Republican is a priori not bad but good, and just for that I won't follow your blog anymore, so there! And I suppose it's privileged of me to reject Templeton's hedonic calculus as an argument for Clinton, though for what it's worth I suspect that not only the poor and the historically disadvantaged but also I and the nation will be worse off under Trump than we are now. But the argument against Trump is not an argument for Clinton, much less the absolute mathematical formula Templeton takes it to be. I could believe that Trump is the worst option for the nation, but so long as there are more than two choices for President this fall my feelings about Trump would not oblige me to vote for Clinton. It's part of my franchise as a citizen to choose whomever I deem the best candidate without being blamed for the worst one winning, as Templeton intends to blame any progressive who doesn't vote for Clinton.

In effect, Templeton is saying that I have no moral right to choose the truly best candidate. My only obligation, as he sees it, is to prevent the suffering a Trump presidency will cause. Here again is all the proof Republicans need (may they choke on it) for their contention that Democrats exploit dependency to retain power. The poor and the historically disadvantaged are the Democrats' hostages and human shields; neither Republicans nor people on the left can hope to take the Democracy down without hurting the helpless, or so Democrats threaten. Does this mean that I'm indifferent to the plights of these groups? Absolutely not. I would expect any candidate I endorse to be the best candidate for all those groups in their particularity -- to the extent that their identities "matter" -- as well as for the nation as a whole. It's my right to propose a cure for their ills rather than the Democrats' palliative care or the Republicans' malpractice....and if anyone really thinks the Republicans have worse than malpractice in mind for the patient -- if the GOP is the existential threat to the disadvantaged that people like Templeton seem to think they are -- those people should ask themselves whether allowing Republicans to treat the patient really should be left to a vote at all instead of blaming the rest of us who don't plan on voting Republican. It seems privileged of Templeton himself, if you think about it, to let the Republican party continue existing, to let that threat hang over the poor and the minorities during every election, instead of exterminating it if it's as awful as he says. His beef shouldn't be with prospective independent voters but with the two-party system, if not the U.S. Constitution, for allowing such a state of affairs. To think voting Democrat actually solves this problem is a privileged position, indeed.

18 July 2016

A cop-killer profile?

This month's two mass shootings of police were carried out by black veterans with an interest in "black nationalist" or "Afrocentric" schools of thought. The Baton Rouge killer -- actually a visitor from Missouri -- recently applied for a name change that reflects an intellectual if not institutional affiliation with a group known as the Ausar Auset Society. Founded in the 1970s, the Society seeks to revive a form of worship of the gods of ancient Egypt, considered by the Society's founder to be African-Americans' authentic cultural heritage. At first glance there's no evidence that the Society encourages violence of any sort, and it should be noted that the shooter appears to be an autodidact who took bits and pieces from many places to construct his own "Cosmo Way." It's interesting that people like the two cop-killers don't turn to one of the orthodox forms of Islam, considering that Islam offers the readiest legitimization of violence on Earth today, but it may be that each man was too close to fighting Muslims during his military service to feel real sympathy for the religion. It may also be that Islam's propaganda of racial equality is insufficient for men as alienated by American racism as these two. Nothing sort of a compensatory fantasy of African supremacy may do for such characters. Perhaps we should be surprised that "Islamic State" sympathizers haven't yet joined the fray against the police, but perhaps embracing Islam at that level dulls one's sense of solidarity with a particular race, your first loyalty being to the umma instead. In any event, how long will we have to wait before someone calls for new or heightened surveillance of "nationalist," "separatist" or "Afrocentric" groups or the dissemination of such ideas in social media? If someone doesn't raise the subject at the Republican convention in Cleveland this week I'd be surprised, given how the prevailing feeling on that side of the party line seems to be that black people have only themselves to blame for any feelings of alienation from American culture they experience. On a contrasting note, here's what a Christian writer had to say on the subject back in February:

Since much of the mistreatment of Blacks [in American history] was done in the name of Christianity, and because many Christian leaders who disagreed with such teachings and treatments were silent during these eras, space was provided for anti-gospel movements to rise up and proselytize people away from the church. Movements such as the Ausar Auset Society, Black Hebrew Israelites, Moorish Science Temple, Nation of Islam, and others gained prominence by juxtaposing the way White Christians treated Blacks and how the pathway to freedom from oppression started with the abandonment of the White Christian God, Jesus and Religion the slave maters imposed upon them.With the current revival of racial tensions in our nation birthing a movement such as #BlackLivesMatter, the aforementioned movements are surfacing once again on our cultural landscape.

The writer, of course, seeks a Christian way out of the problem, but we needn't and shouldn't be so particular. The problem, after all, has less to do with religion than it does with the way society is policed and the way perceptions of black men, as well as a feeling of entitlement among police, influence that. We shouldn't need God, Allah or Auset to straighten that out; if anything they are all counterproductive in a way that requires increased critical attention today.

17 July 2016

Excessive force

A Missouri man celebrated his birthday today by going to Baton Rouge LA to kill cops. He killed three from ambush and wounded three more before being killed himself. The killer "speaks for no one," says the President, but we all know better by now. Everyone "represents" whether they intend to or not or are delegated or not. The killer will be presumed to speak for his skin color and for critics of the police. He will "speak" for those he most likely opposed, since they will say that he proves again, after the Dallas shootings, that criticizing the police leads to killing the police, as if police actions didn't "speak" for themselves to aggrieved, angry people. Whether the killer meant to accomplish anything beyond killing cops (and perhaps dying himself; the birthday angle makes me wonder...) may be impossible to know, but for anyone to expect that crimes like these will soften police behavior is foolish. It's more likely that this exploit, following so soon after Dallas, will only harden people's attitudes further. We'll know soon enough, since the Republican National Convention takes place this coming week, in an Ohio city where the police are urging a suspension of the state's open-carry law. Donald Trump has declared himself the "law and order" candidate. For some people that's what they now call a "dog whistle," but it's up to Trump and his party to clarify whether "law and order" means "the police are always right." Through the afternoon I've heard people calling for the country to unify, but every such expression of noble sentiment begs a question: what does unity require? Does it require one group to drop its attitude and forget every grievance in unilateral submission? Or does it require an acknowledgment of grievance before limits are set on its expression? One way or the other, it requires a discussion, and while today's atrocity may hurry that discussion the perpetrator deserves no credit. If this was, as it seems, a premeditated mass killing of police, it seems reasonable to label it an act of terrorism, no matter what the man's religion was, if he had any. While it may hasten necessary discussion in order to prevent further incidents like those of this July, we should be able to do this without giving the apparent murderer the dignity of "listening" to him -- and we have to do it without anyone refusing to listen to others simply in order to spite this corpse.

13 July 2016

The Supreme Court is politicized! Who knew???

I have to laugh at all the discussion of Justice Ginsburg's denunciations of Donald Trump. Before I get started, let me agree with those who say it was inappropriate for a Supreme Court justice not merely to express an opinion about a political candidate but to insult Trump by calling him a "faker." I also don't doubt that if the shoe on the other foot was gored and Justice Alito or Justice Thomas expressed similar feelings toward Hillary Clinton that some Democrats would be demanding that the offender resign, as Trump himself is calling on Ginsburg to resign. Let's note, however, that it's probably unprecedented, if not just as inappropriate, for a presidential candidate to make such a demand of a Supreme Court justice. There are plenty of Democrats who had called on Justice Scalia to resign for various obnoxious things he said, though none of those remarks were personal insults and none of the people demanding his resignation were candidates for high office. And who doubts that Scalia felt toward Obama and the Clintons what Ginsburg feels about Trump? It was implicit in everything he said and wrote; Scalia may have been the most partisan justice in the Court's history. That's why I laugh specifically at pundits wringing their hands and lamenting that Ginsburg, just now, has politicized the Supreme Court of the United States. Every four years (for how long, now?) American voters are urged to pick a President on the understanding that the future of the Supreme Court is at stake. Republicans are urging their disgruntled or disgusted brethren to rally around Trump in the hope that he'll appoint conservatives to the court, while Democrats are telling their disgruntled siblings that Hillary Clinton is our only bulwark against the overturning of Roe v. Wade and who knows what else by barbarian justices. The presidential power to appoint Supreme Court justices may be one of the most powerful factors keeping the American Bipolarchy alive. So here's a new idea for today: if both major parties are desperately trying to herd their people together for the sake of the Supreme Court, maybe it's time to amend the Constitution by taking the power of appointment away from the President and giving the power of election to the people. It might be a good idea to retain life tenure, or set a mandatory retirement age, rather than elect justices to set terms, if only because I'd like Americans to be stuck with the consequences of their actions over time. But Supreme Court elections (one at a time, upon the death or retirement of a justice) would acknowledge the self-evident ideological polarization of constitutional jurisprudence while possibly de-escalating partisanship by stripping the major parties of one of their most compelling arguments for party loyalty. If we don't have to worry about the future of the Supreme Court during every presidential election, maybe more people will vote according to conscience rather than fear. If today's justices themselves had any wisdom and concern for country rather than party, they might suggest this themselves.

12 July 2016

Third parties in the U.S. Now or never?

In the media, at least, political observers seem to agree that the U.S. faces one of its worst choices ever in the upcoming Presidential election, with both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump carrying high unfavorable ratings into the general campaign. Surely, this is the moment for an independent party to get the American people's attention. Shouldn't that be more the case this year than even in 1992, when Ross Perot got 19% of the popular vote? So far, it seems not to be the case. The most generous estimates of early support for the two strongest alternate candidates, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green nominee Jill Stein, give them a combined 15% of people surveyed, most of that going to Johnson. Johnson's support is likely to grow significantly from the 1% of the popular vote he got in the 2012 election, but despite his credentials as a former governor and former Republican his support seems likely to max out at about 10%, despite a seemingly quixotic effort launched today to win over fans of Bernie Sanders who are disappointed over his inescapable endorsement of Clinton. At the National Public Radio website, Danielle Kurtzleben attempts to explain (in advance) why neither Johnson nor Stein is likely to top Perot's turnout in 1992. She observes that Americans seemed as dissatisfied with the choice between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton 24 years ago as they are now with Hillary Clinton vs. Trump. The difference, she claims, is that more people in 1992 were equally dissatisfied with Bush and Clinton and thus ready to listen to an independent appeal. In 2016, while Trump and Hillary Clinton's unfavorable ratings are both high, comparatively few people view both with equal disfavor. The Age of Clinton, beginning after the 1992 vote, has seen a hyperpolarization of the electorate, Kurtzleben claims, that leaves little room for the plague-on-both-your-houses mentality that benefits third parties. Voters are more partisan and take politics more personally than ever, and many will vote for Trump to stop Hillary, or vote for Hillary to stop Trump. When election discussions are dominated by how unacceptable one candidate or another is, there's little room for experimental voting outside the standard party boxes. Johnson is growing somewhat stronger, it seems, mainly because so many Republicans despise Trump, but his support will be limited inevitably by the imperative to stop Hillary. Despite the Sanders campaign, fewer Democrats feel as alienated from their nominee, and so Stein's support remains very small. Kurtzleben's analysis makes sense, but there's arguably an even simpler explanation for independents' failure to gain much traction, and that's the enduring American feeling that a vote cast for a candidate assumed unlikely to win, no matter if he or she comes closest to your own views, is a vote wasted. Elections are a sort of team sport, after all, and Americans want to be on the winning team. The problem with that line of thinking is that the nation is everybody's team, and with a choice limited to Trump and Clinton our team is likely to lose badly, if not in November than over the next four years.

11 July 2016

To whom do white lives matter?

There are two ways of looking at excessive use of force by police. One way, the best known, is to accuse the police of selectivity in the excessive use of force, or to assume that they are "targeting" certain groups of people. Incidents in which the victim doesn't fit the "profile" should force us to look at the problem another way. The Washington Post calls readers' attention to the killing by police last month of Dylan Noble, a white 19 year old in Fresno CA. Law enforcement calls Noble's death "suicide by cop," claiming that he said suicidal things while approaching police with one hand behind his back. Video footage shows that cops continued to shoot Noble after he was down, apparently because he would not -- and perhaps could not -- keep his hands raised. Noble's family doesn't buy the "suicide by cop" narrative, and his friends held a rally and started up a "white lives matter" chant. Incidents like this one should get as much attention in the media as the recent questionable police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota. So why don't they? You could argue that it doesn't fit the "targeting" narrative, but while that may be inconvenient (if not embarrassing) for the Black Lives Matter movement, the news media's apparent indifference isn't so easily explained.

Can it be that the media would rather sell a race-war narrative than a police-brutality narrative? There's more likely a less conspiratorial explanation. The apparent indifference to the fate of Dylan Noble shouldn't be blamed on Black Lives Matter -- though the movement's self-appointed leaders ought to be asked how such killings fit into their narrative -- but on the fact that most white lives don't really matter to white people. For all that whites in the U.S. supposedly feel more beleaguered than ever, that hasn't yet translated into a solidarity that actually values each individual life. How likely is it that a white person will learn of Noble's death and lament that "our men" are being slaughtered? It's not just that saying such a thing might get the mourner accused of being a white supremacist. Such things simply aren't part of their culture. Whites -- the descendants of Europeans who identify themselves primarily by skin color as a substitute for culture -- seem more likely to write off people who come to such bad ends than blacks are. That seems to follow from their every-man-for-himself "personal responsibility"ethos, something that finds mocking expression in such things as the Darwin Awards. When someone like Dylan Noble gets killed, whites outside the victim's immediate family and social circle are less likely at first glance to question police procedure than they are to observe, sadly or satirically, that the victim had it coming in some way. They see the killings of non-whites the same way, of course, and grow defensive when anyone questions their reflexive interpretation of events. Yet all theories about blacks supposedly sealing their own fate by behaving badly in some racially characteristic way toward police have to be tested against the stories of Dylan Noble and the equal numbers of unarmed white and black people (according to the Post) who have been killed by police so far this year. The problem today isn't that some lives matter to some people but not others, but that no lives matter to many people, or else don't matter more, for whatever reason, than the rights of the police. Donald Trump, the candidate of common sense in many people's eyes, called last week's "officer-involved shootings" of black men "senseless" and got criticized by some of his normally faithful supporters because they saw his word choice as a betrayal of law enforcement. The same people probably would react the same way if Trump had been tweeting about Dylan Noble. That's what anyone elected this year is up against.

08 July 2016

'Don't shoot!'

Something terrible has happened in Dallas, where someone opened fire on police during a peaceful demonstration protesting this week's "officer-involved shootings" of black men in Baton Rouge LA and St. Paul MN. As I write, at least three officers are reported dead out of eleven shot, possibly by two people. The news networks are receiving phone videos from people who were in the demonstration. I've just seen one that sums up the moment. A group of people are walking, doing the "Hands up, don't shoot!" chant. The audio is poor enough that you really only hear "Don't shoot!... don't shoot!... don't shoot!..." They don't realize that they're imploring an actual person in vain until the shots ring out and the procession becomes panic. At that moment no one in the streets knows whether anyone in particular is being targeted; they're all in danger as far as they know. Terror unites people in the immediate moment, but recriminations are sure to follow. Depending on what sort of person did the shooting, we'll be told that everyone from the President on down is to blame for criticizing police tactics, and the constituency for an American police state is likely to grow. Because someone was obviously wrong to shoot at cops, that will make all cops right in everything they do, while everyone they kill is wrong. "Blue lives matter" will be the cry from many who had insisted stubbornly on "All lives matter" before. But if tonight's murders provoke an unfair backlash, they might also chasten people who portray police as the enemy rather than as public servants who need serious retraining. Dallas sadly proves yet again that it's too easy for any American to kill people. If our police need retraining to prevent needless killing, they're not the only ones.

07 July 2016

Trump and the Christianists

In late June Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, a Christian pressure group, announced that Donald Trump was now "a baby Christian," having recently entered into "a relationship with Christ" through an intermediary Dobson has not identified. Cal Thomas, the syndicated columnist, was skeptical. Thomas has been opposed to Trump's presidential campaign and was one of the authors in the anti-Trump issue of National Review. He finally spoke with the presumptive Republican nominee on June 6. 

"Who do you say Jesus is?" Thomas asked.

"Jesus to me is somebody I an think about for security and confidence," Trump replied, "Somebody I can revere in terms of bravery and in terms of courage and, because I consider the Christian religion so important, somebody I can totally rely on in my own mind."

For Thomas, this was an incorrect or at best incomplete answer. "This is not the language most evangelicals would consider as evidence of a religious conversion," he claimed. Like a prosecutor demanding a yes or no answer from his witness, Thomas expects Trump to, well, witness. The question, "Who do you say Jesus is?" has one correct answer, at least for Thomas. That answer is, "The son of God." To say anything else means you don't get it. Thomas sees things the way C. S. Lewis did, demanding that you accept all of Jesus's claims or none. He has no patience for those who talk of Jesus as a great moral teacher or philosopher. For Thomas, as for Lewis, all the morals or philosophy that Jesus taught followed from the premise that he was the son of God. "You must take your choice," Lewis wrote, "Either this was, or is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse....let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great moral teacher. He has not left that open to us."

Does Thomas suspect that Trump thinks Jesus is a madman? I'd guess not, but I would guess that he considers Trump, as yet, doctrinally unsound, or enough of a naif or neophyte not to realize the stakes involved in who you say Jesus is. It's more obvious that Thomas is disappointed with those evangelicals who are willing to make excuses for Trump because they see him as a strongman who will protect Christians from all their enemies at home and abroad. "It is a strange thing when evangelicals divide their loyalty, hoping for an earthly 'deliverer,' as if any politician, or businessman, could save the country from its collective sins," the columnist scoffs. Thomas once was deeply involved in the Moral Majority movement but walked away convinced that politics could not achieve the national spiritual salvation that really matters to him. To him, Trump seems to further prove his point. It must seem ironic to him that so many evangelicals who want to reimpose traditional Christian values -- those I call "Christianists" -- seem eager to rally around a worldly figure like Trump simply because he projects toughness and longs for an idealized American past that isn't necessarily the same past Thomas or the other Christianists idealize. "They project their faith on many who do not share it," Thomas notes, "and approve of that faith only in Republicans, never in Democrats, some of whom demonstrate more knowledge of Scripture and practice its teachings better than some Republicans."

Rest assured that Thomas isn't voting for Hillary Clinton this year, and he probably won't vote for Trump, either. Like many Americans, he finds himself isolated now by the terrible choice facing us in November, and his dismay reveals some contradictions in his character. On one hand, it's absolutely admirable for him to close by writing, "If you are about to have surgery, wouldn't you want the most competent doctor you can find regardless of his faith? That should also be the standard for electing a president." On the other, there's something ominous in his inquisitorial tone toward Trump and his readiness to judge any part of the man by his answer to one dumb question. You can imagine Christianists someday asking the same question and demanding the same answer of all of us if they get riled up enough by the world evolving out of their control in a way that feels like persecution to them. I don't think it's a good thing or a bad thing that Trump didn't give the right answer, but it will be interesting to see, now that he's been told the right answer, how he answers the question the next time someone asks it.

06 July 2016

Trump, Saddam and terrorism

Many Democrats and a lot of Republicans are again condemning Donald Trump for his alleged praise of Saddam Hussein. Speaking in North Carolina last night, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate told his fans that "we shouldn't have gone in" to overthrow Saddam in 2003 because doing so destabilized Iraq. Trump affirmed that Saddam was "a bad guy," but insisted that one thing he was good at was killing terrorists. The "bad guy" bit did nothing to change the minds of people convinced that Trump has a dangerous admiration for "authoritarian" rulers, while the part about Saddam killing terrorists outraged neocons and others who stand by their old opinion that the Iraqi dictator was a "state sponsor of terrorism." These latter critics also claimed that any "terrorists" crushed by Saddam were really -- did you guess? -- liberal freedom fighters against tyranny. Here is a representative critique along these lines from a typical source. But who can deny that Trump, in perhaps clumsy fashion, is describing something real -- that under Saddam's tyranny, for it was that, no one was killing Baghdadi civilians by the hundreds in the name of an Islamic caliphate. More importantly, under Saddam's tyranny, no one was murdering Americans in the name of an organization dedicated to overthrowing the government of Iraq. But didn't Saddam himself encourage or abet terror against the U.S.? Didn't he destabilize the region by invading Kuwait and waging war on Iran before that? In the short term, yes, but Trump seems to be trying to take a longer view to determine whether the U.S., rather than anyone else, is better off or not without Saddam.

What Trump has yet to show is whether he understands why we invaded Iraq. Does he think it was anything more than a case of bad intelligence? From what Trump says we can infer that he wouldn't take "Saddam is a murderous dictator" as reason enough to take him down, and while that might have been reason enough for some invasion cheerleaders it certainly doesn't tell the whole story. Trump should ask himself why Iraq became an enemy of the U.S. after acting as our proxy against Iran throughout the 1980s. Kuwait obviously is a big part of the answer, but Saddam wasn't threatening that kingdom again in 2003. Trump's critics are right, meanwhile, about Saddam sponsoring or subsidizing terrorism against Israel, but Trump may want to think about the price of unconditional support for Israel against its neighbors, since that certainly contributed to American undermining of largely secular "anti-imperialist" regimes in the Middle East, and still factors into our insistence that Bashar al-Assad give up power in Syria. When last heard from on the subject, however, on April 27, Trump sounded as unconditional in his Zionism as most Republicans. Could a President Trump remain unconditional in his Zionism while eschewing a regime-change strategy against Israel's antagonists, including Syria? So far he's taken a relatively realistic position on the Assad regime, rejecting regime change, but would he be able to reconcile that position with Assad's continued hostility toward the Jewish state and the dictator's friendship with Iran, the one country with which Trump seems unwilling to deal? For all we know, Trump may be the man to cut the ultimate deal that would stabilize the Middle East, but he needs to show us more before we trust him to do that.

05 July 2016

Russian Roulette: the Republican veepstakes

Donald Trump's best option for the general election probably would be to make his running-mate irrelevant, but neither the Republican party nor the media is going to let that happen. The significance of Trump's choice for a vice-presidential candidate inevitably will be inflated by weeks of media speculation before his decision, and weeks of second-guessing afterward. The process may be as near to a no-win situation for Trump as he's encountered so far in his political career. If he opts for a veteran politician, that risks alienating fans who fetishize Trump's outsider status. If he chooses another outsider he'll probably further alienate Republicans who find Trump himself dubious on many levels. His own apparent short list is full of danger. Tapping Newt Gingrich, as may now believe he will do, would be just about as good as firing a bullet into his brain. The former Speaker is not a veteran politician but a has-been politician, and one who is not, so far as I'm aware, remembered fondly by the Republican base or the general electorate. Gingrich is the man who actually made people tired of the Clinton family's legal troubles, while emerging as a hypocritical persecutor of the adulterous President. He emerged as a quitter when a backlash against the Clinton impeachment reduced his majority in the House of Representatives. What Trump sees in him I can't say, unless the presumptive nominee sees the 1994 "Contract With America" campaign as a model of political entrepreneurship. Gingrich is supposedly one of Trump's favorites despite his support, as Speaker, for NAFTA, the Munich of protectionist history -- but conveniently enough, he's repudiating his former free-trade stance, arguing that we're in a different era now without scrutinizing his role in making the era different. Fairly or not -- since people should be able to say they were wrong in the past -- Gingrich will be portrayed as an opportunistic trimmer if he lands the second spot on the GOP ticket, and Democrats probably could not pray for a better running-mate for Trump, for their purposes. Trump simply can't be that stupid .... or can he? For all we know, the gun he has to put to his head may be fully loaded. But to be fair, he didn't make the bullets.

04 July 2016

'Great Again'

Every utterance of the Donald Trump presidential campaign -- down to its tweets and retweets -- is scrutinized eagerly for fresh proof of the presumptive candidate's essential bigotry. The latest scandal involves the campaign's careless borrowing of an anti-Clinton graphic in which the text "Most Corrupt Candidate Ever" appears inside a six-pointed star. This is now widely described as an anti-semitic image, and it may have been intended that way by its original creators, who apparently meant to emphasize the amount of donations Clinton has received from Jewish people. I doubt greatly that this was the point the Trump campaign meant to make, but critics are drawing the damning conclusion that Trump's people are looking at some unsavory stuff. But even Trump's most innocuous sounding statements and slogans are thought fraught with similar "dog whistles," starting with his main motto, "Make America Great Again." I've personally seen the spread of a smear claiming that Trump borrowed the "Make -- Great Again" slogan from Adolf Hitler, which is refuted at the debunking snopes website.Many who don't see it as crypto-Nazi still regard the slogan with suspicion. The reason is plain enough; any invocation of a "great" American past is seen by many Americans as an appeal to white-male revanchism.

For a Republican or right-winger to want to make America great again is to want to put the white males back in charge, or the straight white Christian males, depending on how specific your suspicions are. Is this what Trump really wants? Taking the slogan at face value, I assume that he wants to restore American prosperity, if not also American world dominance, and possibly some set of cultural/moral values upon which he presumes American greatness to depend. "Make America Great Again" is not implicitly bigoted, but bigotry is inferred by people who take the slogan as both a threat and an insult. The threat is that the white men will take over again in some exclusionary fashion. The insult is the idea that America was great at a time that millions today identify with discrimination and worse forms of bigoted oppression. At the most, critics might concede, as Louis Farrakhan had to clarify about Hitler once upon a time, that the U.S. was wickedly great, but the nation could not be worthy of the unmodified adjective until the curse of white male (etc.) oppression was lifted. It should be possible to say the U.S. was great despite blatant and inexcusable bigotries, and it should be possible for Trump to say he wants to restore economic greatness without restoring the white male to unjust hegemony. In effect, those who hear bigotry in "Make America Great Again" are saying that American history before, say, 1965 is an inseparable package defined essentially by racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. It could also be inferred that they don't believe that prosperity can be restored to the levels of whatever golden age Trump refers to without reverting to a discriminatory distribution of wealth that denied large groups of Americans their proper share of prosperity, unless they make the unsustainable assumption that Trump isn't talking about economic prosperity at all when he utters his slogan. What we need, I suppose, is a debate in which one side explains once and for all what it means and what it doesn't by "Make America Great Again," while the other explains what it distrusts about those words. Whether Trump really would make America great again is a question for a separate debate, of course.

01 July 2016

R. U. Syrious?

On Morning Joe today the host and his panel were bemoaning the situation in Syria and the global refugee crisis that has resulted from it. The sad part about their moaning is that they still think that the right thing for the U.S. to have done was, and the right thing to do now still is, to throw an overwhelming amount of American resources behind some moderate rebel group, enabling it to topple Assad, defeat the self-styled Islamic State, and stabilize the country if not the region. No matter how small or feeble (or deceptive) the moderate forces are in Syria, some Americans still believe that we could have made, and could yet make, all the difference. American hubris has not yet learned its lesson, nor has American ideology been revised. The first cause of the refugee crisis is the uprising against Assad, not Assad himself. The ultimate cause of the crisis is continued international support for the uprising. No amount of American support would have deterred Russia and Iran from shoring up their ally, Assad. President Obama may be weak in foreign policy, but no Republican would have intimidated President Putin or Ayatollah Khamenei into leaving Assad to his fate. Such a theoretical figure might have embroiled us in a far more dangerous war instead. Too few people in recent years have considered objectively whether the U.S. really would benefit from the fall of Assad. Too many take it for granted that he must always be an enemy so long as he remains a dictator and an enemy of Israel -- many still assume that dictators opposed Israel and whipped up hatred for the Jewish State only to prop up their own positions --  when the rise of the IS and similar groups ought to have sparked an American diplomatic revolution long ago. In retrospect, American opposition to two generations of largely secular strongmen in the Middle East looks like an epochal miscalculation, founded on little more than resentment of their anti-imperialist stance and economic nationalism, and a bias in favor of the Israeli over the Arab. In our ideological commitment to democracy Americans failed to ask whether democracy in the Middle East benefited them. Too many took it for granted that it did, whether because they assumed, as Obama does, that tyranny is the primary cause of regional instability or because they assumed, as neocons do, that liberalization -- political and economic -- civilizes and harmonizes all cultures. In either case, policy makers convinced themselves that the American people were always better off when a tyrant fell -- so long as socialists didn't overthrow him.In Syria, Assad hasn't even fallen, and the world is already self-evidently worse off for our efforts to bring him down. I don't think the reason for that is that we didn't try hard enough. Obama himself, despite his detractors, tried too hard, just as his predecessors tried too hard to intimidate or overthrow all the secular modernizing dictators who might have changed history for the better had we not swallowed our ideological pride and let them.