31 August 2016

'Who is Responcseible For the State of the World???'

Early this week you could find copies of the following blowing down State Street in Albany, near the New York state capitol:

Is it unfair of me to lament that the author put so much time into the layout of this two-page broadside but couldn't bother checking the spelling of certain words? Does that make me something like a "grammar Nazi" or an "elitist?" Let's not bother nitpicking, then, and instead take this all in as almost a textbook example of uninhibited, uncritical, indiscriminate autodidacticism with all its inevitable contradictions, a mystery-meat sandwich of sensible observations interlarded with lunacy, and almost antique in its failure to integrate Islam into its historical demonology. Apart from a reference to the overthrows of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Khadafy, you probably could have found the same text blowing around twenty or thirty years ago, if not further back still. That antiquarian flavor probably shouldn't surprise us, since this is the typical product of someone whose thinking struggles to keep up with rapidly changing times. This is how some people cope with a society of increasing complexity -- while some seek shelter with the simplicities of Donald Trump -- in the hope that society can be made less oppressively complex by simultaneously summoning into being a power capable of nationalizing economic resources (including corporations) and demanding a democratic decentralization resulting in "local community rule." Some will dismiss a document like this the moment they see the name Adam Weishaupt, or the moment the author blames the state of the world first on the Roman Empire, this being the "Age of Pisces," and later on "Political Zionism, which are Satanic fake Jews, not the Semitic Hebrews of the Torah." But artifacts like this are worth studying, somewhat, as symptoms of a sociocultural disease rather than as quack remedies. It's easy to insinuate that something's wrong with the author, but isn't it possible that something's also wrong with a society or culture that produces such things?

29 August 2016

Colin Kaepernick's protest: fumble or touchdown?

Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand for the national anthem during a pre-season game. He explained that he could not pledge allegiance to a flag he now identified with the oppression of black people, referring to the controversial shootings by police in recent years. Ever since the "black power" protest at the 1968 Olympic games, black athletes (and others, I presume) have used public moments where they are supposed to represent and/or show respect for their country to protest continued racial injustice. And ever since 1968, self-styled superpatriots have virtually accused them of treason and invited them out of the country. Inevitably, also, these complacent critics defend their "love it or leave it" attitude by claiming the same right of protest that the athletes claim. They thus try to claim the constitutional high ground while implicitly challenging critics of this country to stay out of the kitchen if they can't stand the heat. You hear the same sort of thing whenever anyone, black or white, rich or poor, famous or not, criticizes an American war. On those occasions it is claimed that Americans are risking their lives, or losing them, to protect the malcontents' right to protest. If so, then what's the problem? The problem, of course, is that Our Troops are invoked to implicitly deny our right to protest the war they're fighting, in a variation on the classic trope, "Because you have the right to complain, you have no right to complain." Kaepernick, too, is accused of slapping Our Troops in their metaphoric face by failing to do homage, while his right as a wealthy athlete to speak ill of the nation is challenged, as if NFL salaries were paid out of our taxes. On the simplest level, the right to criticize a critic is indisputable. But if you're going to assert that you and Kaepernick share the same right, doesn't it contradict your argument to deny him the right? Let's make an important distinction. Everyone's entitled to an opinion on what Kaepernick is doing. You can call him a jerk or a racist, or find some way to call him a hypocrite, or you can question whether the facts regarding officer-involved shootings justify his position. But if you call him a traitor or claim that he should leave "your" country, than you belie your own claim that you and he are exercising a common right of critical speech, since if that right exists Kaepernick should be able to say what he has and refuse the Pledge -- since refusing is no crime and the Pledge is no test of citizenship -- without having his moral citizenship questioned. If anyone should have to leave the country, shouldn't it be those who think others with unpopular and controversial opinions should leave the Land of the Free? But since this is the Land of the Free, none of them have to go, but if you think Kaepernick has no right to protest if you call him a traitor or tell him to leave the country, then you have no more (or no less) right to protest if someone calls you a fascist.

24 August 2016

What the hell do they have to lose...?

There are glib answers at hand from left and right to Donald Trump's question to black voters, which to my knowledge he's not yet had guts enough to address to a predominantly black audience. To Trump, I suppose, something's the matter with blacks the way something's the matter with Kansas in Thomas Frank's eyes. Trump must believe it self-evident that blacks will be better off economically with him in the White House than they would be with Hillary Clinton there. It's not so self-evident, however, if you don't take for granted, as Republicans do, that reducing regulations and taxes will create more jobs, or if you simply don't know how Trump is going to compel people to build factories in this country. That aside, unless Trump agrees with what most of his supporters no doubt believe, which is that what blacks have to lose is their lazy ease, he must assume that some irrational intangible stops blacks from realizing how good he'd be for them. He may realize that many blacks think him a racist, while most know that most of his supporters are. He may also think that all it'd take to win blacks over would be to say "I repudiate racism." It can't be that simple, however. First would have to come some acknowledgment and denunciation of racism among his own supporters, but I'm not sure whether he believes that any of them are bigots. Beyond that, things get more subtle. It comes down to what Trump means about "taking our country back." Just as with the "Make America Great Again" slogan, there's a suspicion that white conservatives want to take the country back to a time when blacks (and not just President Obama), not to mention women (and not just Hillary Clinton) had less power and influence in society. The suspicion, rational or not, goes deeper than that. Many Americans believe strongly that white males long ago forfeited the right to unilaterally set the terms for what an American is, to think of themselves automatically as "average" or "normal" Americans, or to tell other Americans to go somewhere else if they don't want to live as straight white Christian males do. Those millions don't believe that they have to prove to straight white Christian males that they're "real Americans" as defined by straight white Christian males. They will not accept tutelage from straight white Christian males on how to be Americans, or how to make America great again. They demand recognition of their essential American-ness on their own terms, which may require some rethinking by straight white Christian males of what it means to be an American. For all the controversies over racist policing and other inequities in this country, most women and racial minorities in the U.S. probably now feel more indisputably American under President Obama than they had in the past. What they have to lose, then, is this feeling of unconditional belonging. This feeling can be excessive, since it does not follow that the election of a white male President will once more marginalize non-whites or further marginalize women. Nor should people rush to repudiate the whole intellectual tradition on which this republic is based by association with "dead white European [not to mention straight] males." But if women and nonwhites have that intellectual responsibility, then white men like Trump have their own responsibility to help dispel generations of suspicion that their ancestors earned for them through the ideology of whiteness and the whole world's sexism. I'm not sure how Trump is supposed to pull this off, but he might start by challenging his base's "I never got a break" self-pity and their belief that, so long as their lives have been miserable, everyone else's should be miserable in the exact same way, forevermore, or else they, the poor whites, will be shown up as fools. Why not take a chance on that approach. After all, Trump has these people in the bag, given how they hate Hillary Clinton. What the hell does he have to lose???...

22 August 2016

Trolls guard a bridge

The August 29 issue of Time has a cover story about internet trolls. Joel Stein identifies trolling with the "alt-right," which he defines as "an Internet-grown reactionary movement that works for men's rights and against immigration." After Donald Trump hired someone from Breitbart News to take over his campaign, I saw Breitbart described as "alt-right." In the context, "alt-right" seemed like a euphemism for just plain bigotry, and Stein argues that the alt-right "may have used the computer from Weird Science to fabricate Donald Trump." He traces the alt-right's roots to the infamous Gamergate controversy, which Stein says was fueled, if not by misogyny, then by anti-anti-misogyny, if not simply a rejection of anyone without a thick skin. He notes that ball-busting was a way of life in the circles where the alt-right was born before people started criticizing its misogyny and other bigotries. With that, presumably, comes a contempt for people who can't take it, and outright hostility toward those who won't take it. If they insist that ball-busting comes with the territory, or that you should stay out of the kitchen if you can't stand the heat, Stein claims that they're actually "arguing against self-expression, something antithetical to the original values of the Internet." The question really is where self-expression ends and trolling begins. Stein's implication is that people who argue that "if you can't handle opprobrium, you should just turn off your computer" are people who dish it out but can't take it, who don't want to be called out for their comments while reserving the right to comment on everyone else. The more specific implication is that these people are happy "viciously making fun of each other," but that it isn't fun anymore when they get called names like "racist," "sexist," "homophobe" or just plain "bigot." That may be because, as one self-styled troll hunter says, trolls don't really hate people, but "love the game of hating people." If so, what they really resent is when people don't recognize (or refuse to) that it's all just a game. To some extent, trolling may be a backlash against the way the stakes of everything have been raised in our more sensitive culture, so that lives seem to be at stake not just in politics (already a dubious notion) but in everyday discourse. As Stein notes, many trolls are in it for the "lulz," and you can recognize in trolling the same "everything is a joke" mentality I used to hear expressed when I listened to Howard Stern on free radio. In a strange way, that attitude is an unconscious defense of an old-fashioned kind of liberalism that was based on the idea that nothing in public life really was (or should have been) a life-or-death matter -- especially politics. But when identity becomes ideology, and when many people do feel that their lives are at stake in each election, and demand an ever larger "safe space" at the alleged cost of others' liberty, trolling -- or the perception of trolling -- becomes inevitable when others reject those ideas, and with them the idea that they're somehow responsible for your happiness or your sense of "safety," much less your life.

The big problem I had with Stein's article was the way he takes for granted that as a straight white male, his "vulnerabilities [to trolling are] less obvious." How he can study trolling as a phenomenon of the mostly white alt-right and not see it as an expression of a pretty obvious vulnerability is a mystery to me. To some extent trolling may be a "keep out of our man-cave" tactic in defense of ballbusters' rights, but it's also a defense mechanism, not solely against the intrusion of Others with unpredictable sensitivities and different rules of conduct into their realm, but more obviously against the argument that they are evil -- that their culture and even their attitude are to blame for inequality and suffering in the world. Donald Trump would not even come close to winning the upcoming election were he not boosted by people who no longer want to be told that they're wrong, that they must change while no one else has to. Stein closes his piece by writing that "in the information age, sound is as destructive as fury," but thinking so may blind him to the silent fury of millions who plan to do their trolling at the polls.

19 August 2016

'Barack Obama doesn't care about white people!'

It's ironic how the politics of double standards leads to people changing their standards. It happens when partisans feel entitled to criticize politicians of the other party of the same sins of omission or commission for which their politicians were criticized by the other party, even when they didn't see their politicians' action or inaction as deserving of criticism. Because George W. Bush was condemned for his perceived indifference to sufferers from the flooding after Hurricane Katrina, Republicans now condemn President Obama for remaining on vacation while Louisiana is once again devastated by floods. Because the floods weren't caused by a dramatic hurricane, the flooding in Louisiana hasn't really gotten the attention it deserves as a humanitarian crisis. For the past few days I've started to hear people complain about Obama "doing nothing" about it, and Donald Trump apparently heard those complaints. His big photo op today was going to Louisiana to meet with flood victims. I don't know how selective the pictures I've seen are, but USA Today had a good-sized montage and it looked like the big majority of people displaced, if not also at Trump's photo op, were white. To some extent a feeling among whites that they're being ignored because of their race may be fueling the fresh anger at Obama, but the criticism is self-evidently tit-for-tat partisanship in most cases. Lots of people have missed the flood story to this point simply because they didn't have a hurricane to focus on, while the newspaper websites observe that flood stories have gotten few hits compared to election and Olympics coverage. Whatever the cause for neglect, the fact of the moment is that we have a lot of Republicans clamoring for the President to do something about flood damage. I thought Republicans weren't supposed to cry for federal intervention when stuff like that happens. What would Calvin Coolidge say??? Dyed-in-the-wool Republicans may yet feel the same way, but populist Republicans, as we've learned this year, are a different breed. They do expect government to take care of them, often in an exclusive, jealous way, and so there's probably little reason to accuse those now demanding that Obama (or Hillary Clinton) do something of hypocrisy, apart from their using the Republican party as their platform.

17 August 2016

Trump vs. the Johnson Amendment

The Johnson Amendment is a rule that sounds like it ought to have been part of American law from the beginning, but it only dates back to 1954. That it took effect then, in the era when the government required American currency to carry the motto "In God We Trust." I guess it just shows what a master legislator Lyndon B. Johnson was. Supposedly introduced by him in order to undercut his rivals in an upcoming Texas election, his Amendment to the tax code is the rule that allows churches to be stripped of their tax-exempt status if they engage in electioneering for specific political candidates. The Republican party platform and presidential candidate Donald Trump are committed to repealing it. That's pretty ironic. Trump is often perceived as an heir to the Know-Nothing tradition of nativism in American politics, but if there was anything the original Know-Nothings of the 1850s dreaded, it was the idea of clergymen telling congregations how to vote from the pulpit. Their distrust of Catholic immigrants was based on the idea that, once naturalized, they'd vote as their priests instructed them to, rather than think for themselves. Now the Republican party wants clergy, presumably of all sects and denominations, to do that very thing in the name of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. According to this analysis, they also want churches to do more fundraising for the GOP and right-wing causes, or else they want church funds to front for right-wing fundraising. This is ironic even without dragging history into it. These are strange things for Republicans to ask for, and a strange time to ask, when Americans, and presumably Trump's Republicans in particular, presumably are more wary than ever about religion intervening in politics and religion's role in making law. Obviously, though, I've forgotten that that wariness applies only to bad religions, while the good ones should have no limit on their self-evidently benevolent influence on American life. The bad religion is bad because it treats this world as its kingdom, while the good religion says its kingdom is not of this world. But if that's so, then the good religion has nothing to say about how this world or any of its countries are governed, does it? Yet according to research cited in this editorial, lots of clergy are getting away with electioneering already, most likely because the government is afraid of stirring a hornet's nest by cracking down. Which is funny, because these Christians aren't even threatening violence -- yet.

16 August 2016

The beef that made Milwaukee famous

While the balance of terror has been tipping in Hillary Clinton's favor lately, and no amount of scandal can dissuade millions of America from voting for her, incidents like last weekend's riots in Milwaukee may do more than any Clinton scandal to tip the scales back in Donald Trump's favor somewhat. Milwaukee might be remembered someday as the place where Black Lives Matter jumped the shark -- whether you blame that movement for the riots or only for the protests. The latest "officer-involved shooting" to go national looks a lot more defensible, based on what we know so far, than the other provocative incidents of recent years. This time, the suspect was armed, and while he was fleeing a car stop, he reportedly turned and faced the cop -- also black -- while failing/refusing to drop his weapon. It's hard to know what else the cop could be expected to do, except perhaps to hide. That's no solace to the dead man's family, of course, but the implicit message of the protests and riots is that under no circumstances whatsoever is a cop to kill a black man, except perhaps if the man has fired first. But I imagine that even then a more tribalistic mentality will protest the result so long as nothing can justify the death of one of "our men." Milwaukee may be an exceptional case, so far as protests go, due to the alleged intervention of the Revolutionary Communist Party, also known as the Bob Avakian personality cult. Avakian apparently sees blacks as the proletariat of the moment, ripe for recruitment into his Lenin-style RCP. His people deny responsibility for the rioting, of course, and there's probably some truth to accounts that describe Milwaukee as a powder keg that required but a small spark to ignite. At the same time there's probably little reason to believe that following some new Great Leader and his "line" will solve Milwaukee's problems. On the other hand, that would still be preferable to the alternative implied by one protester who described the desperation in his community to reporters and said, "And you wonder why there's ISIS in America." But no matter how toxic conditions are, I don't think many Americans will find the Milwaukee incident as sufficient a cause for protest, violent or nonviolent, as other shootings have been. There are many justified critics of police brutality and overindulgent rules of engagement who will not agree that every officer-involved shooting is a crime. If a line is to be drawn somewhere limiting police discretion, there also has to be a line drawn limiting our sympathy with career criminals behaving recklessly. We can still wish that police not act as judges and executioners while granting that circumstances can exist that require them to shoot. If some people loudly or violently reject that notion, they only guarantee a backlash that can only benefit Trump. For all I know, that's what people like Avakian really want, on the assumption that a Trump presidency will speed the day of revolution by exacerbating the oppression of the poor. If that's what they want, they'll deserve what they get, but I doubt it'll be the sort of revolution they hope for.

15 August 2016

The Queens Whodunit

Local news media may have jumped the gun by reporting that the killer of Imam Maulama Akonjee had been captured Sunday night, a day after the imam and an aide had been shot in broad daylight. But information from a local report already complicates the knee-jerk narrative of Islamophobia run amok. Everyone's first assumption since the news broke Saturday, it seemed, was that here, at last, was a self-evidently Islamophobic murder, something that could be blamed by politicians (and many Muslims) on Donald Trump as if Americans hadn't hated Muslims before Trump came along. I'd held out the possibility that Akonjee -- a Bangladeshi who doesn't seem to have been on anti-Islamic media radar -- had actually been the victim of Islamic extremism. Perhaps he'd been killed by some radical because he wasn't radical enough in some way. However, a New York Daily News report on a suspect in a hit-and-run near the shooting scene, who may have been the shooter fleeing the scene, raises the possibility of something more along the lines of gang violence. Investigators believe the killer at least looks Hispanic, and the News's sources are talking about "an ongoing feud between Muslims and Hispanics in the neighborhood, saying the shooting may have been payback after a group of Muslims allegedly attacked some Hispanics a few weeks earlier." I wonder what that was about. It's clearly too early in any investigation to know who started whatever beef existed or what role the imam may have played in it. But it seems safe to say that any Hispanic man who kills a Muslim is unlikely to have been motivated by Donald Trump's rhetoric. In fact, it looks like Trump can sit this one out, unless it proves that the shooter was an illegal immigrant. Then we'll probably see him show sympathy with a Muslim who can't talk back at him. But blaming Trump as the necessary and sufficient cause of the nation's hatreds in 2016 is as stupid as blaming President Obama for an economy and war on terror inherited from George W. Bush. Of course, just as one is still done so the other will be, at least until November. There's certainly plenty of stupidity yet to come.

12 August 2016

Rage against the media

As someone who works, however humbly, in the news media, I'm getting pretty sick and tired of hearing Donald Trump's fans complain about how the news media highlights everything bad about Trump while covering up for Hillary Clinton. At my level I can testify that this complaint is fundamentally dishonest. I take calls for a readers'-comments column in a daily paper. That is, I listen to the calls once they're recorded, since no one wants to listen to callers live. I'd say that on any given day the column is more anti-Clinton than anti-Trump, and yet pro-Trump people are constantly complaining that we don't run anything, or else run hardly anything, against Clinton. In some cases, people are complaining because they want every call they make put in print, but there's no way we're going to let someone call a dozen times a day and have us print every word as if it were a groundswell of public opinion. In some cases, I think people are simply lying because they take the liberal media bias narrative for granted. But I've begun to suspect that their anger represents something else that won't be assuaged by running more anti-Clinton comments. Their real problem, I think, isn't that we (or the media as a whole) don't criticize Clinton or the Democratic party enough. I think they simply don't want to see and don't want to hear any criticism of Donald Trump. Their anger tells me that they take criticism of Trump, whether grounded in fact or founded on fear, as a personal insult, if not an insult to their country, their values, etc. When Trump is belittled, they feel disrespected. Their victory, I fear, would be forcing people to show Trump respect, if not forbidding people from criticizing him. Just as you might assume that the wildest, darkest conspiracy theories reflect what some conspiracy theorists would like to do if they had power, so I suspect that all the railing about media bias against Trump or the suppression of damaging stories about Clinton reflect no real desire for fairness or balance, but an envious wish for the power to suppress liberal or leftist opinion and force their reactionary opinions down everyone else's throats. In short, while I still see no reason to believe that Donald Trump himself is any sort of fascist, however trollish his temperament, I think a lot of his supporters this year have fascism in them, in the simplest, most thuggish sense of the word.

But for what it's worth, I think there could be more questions asked about the Clinton Foundation in light of recent email leaks, and I see no reason no to follow up on Juilan Assange's dark hints that a DNC staffer may have been murdered for leaking stuff to him. Always remember that arguments against Trump (or his fans) are not arguments for Hillary Clinton or the Democratic party. To believe that, or to believe that arguments against Clinton are arguments for Trump, is simply to be a tool of the two-party system.

11 August 2016

The great contradiction of American liberalism

Liberal democracy as a concept presumes that it shouldn't make too much difference who wins an election; that's what makes it safe to hold elections. No election should be a matter of life and death, so it follows that none should be treated like one. In the modern United States, the Democratic party is the "liberal" party," yet it treats almost every election as a matter of life and death. Their appeal to voters is almost entirely based on fear. They warn that belligerent, reactionary Republicans could get us into a world war, not to mention a nuclear war. This year they warn specifically that Donald Trump's prejudices or his impulsive trollishness may get us into a new war. On the domestic front, Democrats warn that the poor may starve under Republican economies or, at the minimum, their lives will be made far less bearable. On the cultural front, they warn that Republicans' bullying bigotry will make life more dangerous for many kinds of minorities or dissidents. No good can come from Republican power, Democrats say, and yet Democrats seem content with a political system that gives Republicans approximately a 50-50 chance of taking power, regardless of whom they nominate for office. Either Democrats exaggerate the threats posed by Republicans (just as Republicans exaggerate the threats from Democrats), or else they're naive in their loyalty to a political system that so readily permits such illiberal forces to take power. For nonpartisan observers, the larger question is whether liberal democracy can dependably thwart illiberal takeovers like those described by Democrats. If free people must depend on something other than the safeguards of liberal democracy, the value of liberal democracy itself might be questioned. A lesser question might be whether liberal democrats can dependably resist the temptation to exaggerate the stakes in electoral competition, or whether that illiberal impulse is yet another flaw in the system. It might also be asked whether, if the stakes are real for Democratic constituents in elections that determine economic and social-welfare policy, those constituencies' vulnerability to the outcome of elections is itself a weakness or a betrayal of liberal democracy.

09 August 2016

The Republican auto-purge

Anyone who thinks that public denunciations of Donald Trump by present or former Republican elected officials and appointees are going to seriously damage his presidential campaign is most likely making a big mistake. Trump is the anti-establishment candidate, after all, and every condemnation of him by an establishment figure will only increase his credibility among his base constituency. From what I hear from such people, Trump's GOP critics are sore losers and crybabies, and their comments can be treated accordingly. If the critics want to say that Trump is a traitor to party principles, his fans consider the critics traitors to the party itself, all the more so since opposition to Trump is, for all realistic intents and purposes, acquiescence in Mme. Antichrist's election. For that part Republicans have only themselves to blame after a quarter-century of indiscriminate execration of the Clintons. How do they expect to convince anyone that a minimum of four years of Hillary is more desirable than four of a duly nominated Republican candidate? With Trump, the Republicans seem to have won a race to the bottom with the Democrats, each having taken the position, in effect, that the other party is so unbearable and intolerable that their constituents have to accept anything the party gives them. Taking GOP propagandists at their word, the Republican base can't understand objections to Trump as anything but betrayal. These supposedly principled conservatives, neocons, etc. may think of Trump as an incipient authoritarian, but theirs seems like the truly authoritarian argument. It may not come with the threat of violence we now identify with authoritarianism, but it is an argument from authority, founded on a belief that yes, they are the establishment, and therefore their opinions should mean something to people. Theirs is a demand for deference, made to people who feel they no longer deserve any. Of course, anti-Trump Republicans have every right to speak out against the nominee, and to put "principle" or "country" or anything else before party, and Trump's fans are mostly reactionary trash whose bigotry spills over any barriers Trump himself may erect. But with that being said, those critics especially who think that by denouncing Trump, and even by denying him victory, they are saving the Republican party in the long term are more likely doing the opposite. They have invited the Trumpets to blame them more than anything or anyone else if Trump loses. They will have "rigged" the election against Trump by their betrayal of party and candidate. If Trump wins, he's sure to purge them to whatever extent he can by primarying elected officials and replacing appointees. But if Trump loses -- not if he wins, as some fear -- it may mean the end of the Republican party, if his defeat convinces his fans that the GOP will never truly represent them.

08 August 2016

Russophobia and "neo-McCarthyism"

When I saw the "Against Neo-McCarthyism" headline over the lead editorial in the latest issue of The Nation, I assumed that the progressive weekly was going after Donald Trump for his alleged questioning of the loyalty of certain groups of Americans. Instead, the editorial was a defense of Trump --admittedly held at arms length -- against the charge that he is Vladimir Putin's favorite in the presidential campaign, if not Putin's pawn. The editorial, presumably reflecting the viewpoint of editor-in-chief Katrina vanden Heuval and her husband, Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen, deplores efforts by Democrats to vilify Trump merely for appearing to espouse a more pro-Russian foreign policy. For anyone familiar with The Nation, it should be obvious that the editorial is more a defense of Russia than it is a defense of Trump. Cohen has emerged over the last decade as the leading (and himself most vilified) critic of American Russophobia. For his trouble he is called an apologist for Putin, no matter how often he acknowledges the Russian's domestic misdeeds, but his fundamental position is that there is no good reason for a new Cold War with Russia, or anything hotter. And for that some probably call him a coward and an appeaser, though those labels are meaningless if, like Cohen, you don't think that Putin represents a strategic threat that the U.S. is obliged to confront.

Even more than a defense of Russia, "Against Neo-McCarthyism" is a defense of Cohen and vanden Heuval's anti-Russophobic position against all smears. Whether it's Stephen F. Cohen or Donald Trump, an American ought to be able to propose friendlier relations with Russia without having his character impugned. The problem, of course, as is most obvious in Trump's case, is that if you don't see Putin as the Devil himself, you're presumed to be soft on authoritarianism, and thus a sort of moral coward, if not a budding authoritarian yourself. The neoconsensus of our time is that authoritarianism is never an acceptable style of government for any people in any place at any time of history. With that belief comes a moral imperative to denounce authoritarians wherever they are found, and a corollary imperative to deter and contain them, whether on a piecemeal basis or on the assumption that there is some global alliance of authoritarians to guarantee their prerogative to grind their subjects under heel. For many this seems to be a risk-free imperative that comes with no obligation to weigh costs and benefits for the national interest. The American imperative to tell the world what we think of it without caring what they think trumps (no pun intended, I think) all other considerations, but Cohen is sadly right to warn of the practical dangers of this approach.

At this point in history there is more benefit to be had from the U.S. working with Russia than in opposing Putin's every move on principle, even if you agree that it probably sucks to be a dissident in Russia, or to be one of its immediate neighbors. If Putin is not Stalin, as I think everyone will concede, than there should be fewer scruples over cooperating with him (and, yes, his Syrian client) to crush the self-styled Islamic State and similar movements than there were over an alliance with Stalin against Hitler. That doesn't mean that Russia is a natural or inevitable ally at all times. Some may see Russia that way because they see both Russia and the U.S. as part of "Christendom," but if your first loyalty is to "the West" as a distinct culture founded on "freedom," Russia is always going to be something of a stranger to you. But that doesn't mean there's an irrepressible conflict between Russia and the West, as many in our political establishment seem to think. If they think there is such a conflict, it's more a creation of their own minds than anything that follows automatically from Russia's culture and history. It's also a byproduct of excess compassion for all the people Russia does oppress, both within its own borders and in its near abroad. I can't say those people don't deserve compassion, but it can't outweigh the American foreign policy establishment's obligation to consider the interests of the American nation and people above all. A middle ground must be found between an utterly amoral indifference to how a ruler behaves within his borders (or his sphere of influence) and a moralizing approach that takes too much interest for our own good. This requires a discipline of which Russophobia is incapable, but it's also unclear whether Donald Trump is capable of discipline of any sort. Maybe if we heard from the third parties on foreign policy at this point they might improve their chances.

05 August 2016


The President recently belittled Donald Trump's fear that the 2016 presidential election could be rigged. To be sure, Trump's statements were worth of rebuke. He had shown already that he has a low threshold of rigging, having complained during the primary season that the abortive collusion of Cruz and Kasich threatened to rig the remaining primaries against him. For Trump, rigging an election seems to encompass anything that reduces the Trump vote from its theoretical maximum. For him to suggest that the general could be rigged against him was incredibly irresponsible, no matter how suspicious you are toward the Clinton machine. The last thing we need is to have Trump's followers assume for the next four years after a narrow Clinton victory that her election and her Presidency were illegitimate. But in his eagerness to admonish Trump and his apparent contempt for the very notion that a presidential election could be rigged, Obama has unconsciously contradicted his own party, if not his own past statements. For is it not a fundamental premise of the 21st century Democratic party that the Republican party is striving constantly to rig elections through the passage of voter ID laws that are assumed always to depress turnout among key Democratic constituencies? Don't they even cite evidence to that effect in the words of one Pennsylvania Republican who promised that an ID law would deliver that state to his party? In fact, it's an article of faith among Democrats that the sole purpose of such laws is to depress turnout and thus rig elections in Republicans' favor. The Republican argument that elections can be rigged by swamping the polls with fraudulent voters is dismissed out of hand, of course, so the Democratic argument against the possibility of rigged elections really boils down to outrage at the notion that they would dare do such a thing. History argues otherwise, and in this case Democratic history is more relevant than it is when Republicans try to identify the party of Obama with its long-gone segregationist past. Both major parties have proven themselves capable of corrupt electioneering many times in the past, and in this most competitive era it seems naive to rule any possibility out as blithely as the President seemed to. What was really objectionable and irresponsible in Trump's speech was the implication that the only way he can lose is if the election is rigged. That may be what his idolators want to hear, but Donald Trump himself probably does more than anyone else to belie that assumption every time he makes an idiot of himself on the stump.

03 August 2016

Will Ryan's reckoning come early?

The Speaker of the House endorsed Donald Trump for President on the premise that, as President, Trump would sign the legislation Paul Ryan favors. The question now, three months before the election, is whether Ryan will be there to bang the gavel on that legislation. He's being primaried by a Republican even further to the right, while Trump takes a stance of mocking neutrality, using some of the same language Ryan used while he took his sweet time endorsing Trump after the primaries. Meanwhile, Trump has praised Ryan's rival, Paul Nehlen, for being one of the few Republicans to take his side in his feud with Khizr Khan, the Pakistani-American whose son was killed in Iraq while fighting for the U.S. Army. The Khan-troversy has left many Republicans shaking their heads. It seems to show that Trump simply can't let something drop. In fact, he didn't have anything to say immediately after Khan appeared at the Democratic convention to question the constitutionality of Trump's proposed regulations of Muslim immigration. It was only when prodded on one of the weekend panel shows that Trump crossed a line. Not content to defend his own position, he noted the silent presence of Mrs. Khan on the stage next to her husband and wondered aloud whether hubby would not allow wifey to speak. This was, arguably, the first actually bigoted thing Trump has said about a Muslim, and by prevailing standards it was still pretty mild. You wouldn't think so to follow the news, but Trump really hasn't had anything to say about the religion of Islam. But now he had committed a double sin in some Republican eyes: he had insulted Muslims implicitly and he had insulted the family of a soldier who had given his life for his country.  Speaker Ryan took a "hate the sinner, not the sin" approach to this, praising the Khan family and reiterating his own opposition to "a religious test for entering our country" without mentioning Trump. For Paul Nehlen, however, Republicans are either for Trump or against him. He defended Trump's position and criticized Khan for insufficiently denouncing radical Islam, while warning that Ryan would only prove an obstacle to a Trump Presidency. Whether Trump's fans agree remains to be seen, and depending on what happens in Wisconsin next week other Republicans may think twice, or thrice, about criticizing Trump or his positions -- or about supporting him at all.

02 August 2016

Fur Lives Matter

In my neck of the woods people are angry at cops for an apparent case of excessive use of force. It is alleged that two off-duty police officers from the city of Rensselaer NY who were playing golf at a Troy course pursued and then ran over a groundhog or woodchuck. This report suggests that the animal had actually stopped fleeing, only to be run down mercilessly by its pursuers. What else is new, right? But the funny thing about this is that I'm hearing a lot more anger from people over this purported cruelty to animals than I've ever heard through similar channels when unarmed human beings are killed by police. I'm hearing people say things like "If they'll do that to an animal you can imagine what they'd do to a person," with no apparent self-consciousness, irony or awareness of current events. Of course, there are contrarians who, if they don't exactly find the woodchuck at fault, still extend it no sympathy, regarding the species as nothing but pests, but you hear this less often than you might expect among the lily-white samples of opinion I've heard. If it's a commonplace that cruelty to animals predicts cruelty to people, it's another that many animal lovers show more concern and compassion to the brute creation than they show toward fellow human beings. It will be remembered that Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian who abhorred cruelty to animals, for instance. I guess it goes to show that it's always easier to presume animals innocent than people ... and yet this animal was running away. Did it not get "the talk" from its parent or parents? Must it not have had something to hide or feel guilty about? Don't the rest of us know better enough to be quiet, still and compliant when possibly drunken policemen approach us headlong in their vehicle? Perhaps an objective review of the facts, free from prejudice and name-calling, will show that the creature had only itself to blame. After all, the very existence of police forces means that somebody somewhere must be guilty of something, and in this age of increased skepticism toward both law enforcement and the criminal justice system, perhaps it would be best to let the deity of your choice sort it all out.

01 August 2016

What do working-class whites want?

Michael Gerson has become another frustrated cheerleader for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. In his column following the Democratic National Convention Gerson offers a critique similar to David Brooks' from last week. To their minds, the Democrats focus too exclusively on economic matters to the exclusion of what Gerson calls "cultural matters." His implication is that Clinton will need to address such matters if she wants to win over white working-class voters, who seem overwhelmingly to favor Donald Trump. Gerson's convinced that Clinton's "liberal communitarianism" will not win them over. Well, why shouldn't it, apart from Clinton's questionable credibility as a spokesman for such a philosophy? What does she need to say to this demographic, defined largely by their lack of college education? Gerson suggests that she and Democrats in general need to be more tolerant of conservative views on reproductive rights, for instance, and offers Bill Clinton's welfare-reform agenda as a model for outreach to so-called cultural conservatives. But what exactly is "cultural" about welfare reform, or even about a dislike for abortion? Is Gerson using "cultural" as a synonym (or euphemism) for "moral?" The word has an obfuscating effect since culture in some sense of the word seems to weigh heavily on the 2016 race, most obviously in the way many whites perceive "their culture" to be under attack, not only by terrorists in the name of Islam or immigrants importing alien ways and languages but by an intelligentsia, if not a whole political class that sees "whiteness" as an evil at the heart of American life. Trump appeals to those whites most determined to push back against this last sort of attack by affirming that theirs is the one, true American culture that must prevail if the country is to be great again. That appeal, I think, is largely a backlash against the narrative of "white privilege" identified with "political correctness" in general. I think I understand intellectually what is meant by "white privilege," but I still think it is an unwise, alienating argument to make. The assertion that working-class whites enjoy a "privilege" that is essentially negative -- that they're "privileged" because they're not stigmatized or profiled wherever they go, for instance -- can't help but seem insultingly absurd to people who see no positive material benefit from such privilege. Those same people often see themselves as the people who never get a break in life, and definitely aren't given any breaks by the government, while everyone else wants and gets breaks all the time. Who, then, is privileged? The "white privilege" narrative strikes me as absolutely the wrong way to address actual enduring racism, much less police excesses that don't really respect white privilege at all. It wouldn't hurt Clinton to drop the subject. She can still talk about racism and other forms of discrimination in which gender and sexual preference factor in, so long as she and her surrogates lay off the privilege thing. She shouldn't have to compromise her liberal or progressive principles any more than she normally does to win back at least some working-class whites. But what she (or any candidate out to beat Trump from the left) absolutely must do is reassure those white people that, as far as the candidate, the party and the country are concerned, they are not the enemy. That shouldn't be hard for someone who actually wants to be President of the United States.