30 September 2016

The war for the white working class

The popularity of Donald Trump among white working-class voters has left Democrats and progressives again asking what's wrong with these people. These groups begin from the premise, to them self-evident, that Republican economic policies are the root cause of whatever economic misery working-class whites feel. Given that, they ask, like Thomas Frank has for a generation, why these people vote against their obvious economic interests. Interestingly, many Democrats or sympathizers diverge from Frank's own analysis. Joan Walsh, writing in a recent issue of The Nation, takes issue with Frank's recent contention that Trump's stand against free trade has endeared him to working-class whites who, as Frank has argued in the past, feel abandoned by the Democrats' apparent greater concern for "cultural" issues. Walsh dismisses the trade issue by citing a poll according to which only 8% of Trump supporters cited trade as a factor in their support. Throughout her article, Walsh is torn between acknowledging the pain felt by working-class whites and insisting that many in the same group exaggerate their suffering. "Whole pockets of the industrial Midwest and South have been left out of the 21st century," she writes, "and pessimism and resentment can't help but fester. Rising white mortality rates, largely due to addiction and mental illness, deserve attention." Yet to the dismay of Walsh and many other liberals, too many working-class whites refuse to acknowledge that they're better off now than they were in 2008. I've heard for myself the Trumpist argument -- I attribute it to Trump's supporters, not the candidate himself -- that the country's economic (not to mention moral) decline began with the inauguration of President Obama. For Walsh, this belief proves that working-class whites suffer from an attitude problem. She cites research by a University of California professor, Michael Tesler, that appears to show that "voters who score high on surveys designed to measure racial resentment are more likely to say that economic conditions are bad under Obama [than] those who are more 'racially sympathetic.'"

In Walsh's view, it seems, the Democrats have done no wrong and don't deserve the rebukes they receive from working-class whites. Working-class support for Trump is all the more inexplicable in 2016, given that "Virtually every position ... recommended to appeal to white working-class voters has been incorporated into the Democratic platform."This narrative contrasts sharply with Frank's. While he agrees with the left that working-class support for any Republican makes no sense at a practical level, he doesn't exempt Democrats from blame for the situation. He indicts Democrats, and the Clintons especially, for alienating working-class voters with "neoliberal" economic policies. For Walsh and other critics of Frank, the real problem is that many whites  went off the rez long before the Clintons came along, drawn to the Republicans by "dog-whistle" racism dating back to the 1960s, while Bill Clinton himself did relatively well among these voters, perhaps due to cultural affinity, compared to Democrats before and after him. Taking this longer view, Walsh can acknowledge that "many Democrats cravenly courted Wall Street and big business during the 1980s and beyond," while arguing that working-class whites "had defected from the party much earlier and for different reasons."

Walsh's implicit conclusion -- it wouldn't be smart to say it outright -- is that winning over more working-class whites requires further struggle against their "racial resentment" (and other resentments) even as the left acknowledges their "economic dislocation." I wonder whether an opposite conclusion can be drawn, and that one possible key to winning back working-class whites is to lay off the struggle a little. That doesn't mean validating whatever prejudices they have, but it might require some pragmatic ignoring of them, on the understanding that such people have little power to act on their prejudices in any systematic way anymore. Winning more white votes should not require a re-education campaign; that, in fact, would be the opposite of a successful strategy. If liberals agree with Ruy Teixeira that even if "you don't need the white working class in order to win the presidency... you need them to accomplish anything else you want to do," is it really a good idea to always treat them -- the men in particular, of course -- as the bad guys? You don't have to share whatever lofty estimate some of them have of themselves and their kind, but you needn't go out of your way to smash it, either, when it can be left alone as effectively harmless. Nor need you ignore the legitimate claims of minorities, even on hot-button (or "dog-whistle") topics like officer-involved shootings, when these can be analyzed in terms of a problematic police culture that potentially menaces everyone. Such an approach may require some swallowing of pride by liberals, for any number of reasons, but as Trump asked of blacks, what have they got to lose?

28 September 2016

Everybody's empathy deficit

While getting ready for work this morning I browsed through the cable news channel and saw Mike Barnacle on MSNBC opining on Donald Trump's "lack of empathy for the human condition," if I remember the words correctly. This observation was provoked by Trump's reported insults, freshly publicized by the September 26 debate, of a Latina former Miss Universe who had gained weight. I suppose that was predictably boorish if not sexist of him, but Barnicle's seemed like an extreme, incorrect diagnosis of the problem. As a critic of Donald Trump I don't perceive a lack of empathy in the man. If anything, his appeal over the past two years has depended greatly on an empathetic connection with his constituents. At the least, Trump's supporters feel that he empathizes with them, and they seem to empathize with him. Democratic skeptics sneer that any perceived empathy toward the working class -- even the white working class -- on Trump's part is pure sham. Since they see him as nothing but a boorish billionaire, they can't believe that he feels empathy toward the working class. They're right about this only insofar as Trump actually empathizes with something other than the "working class" as such. The skeptics will interject that if Trump empathizes with anything, it's the "white America" that he inferentially wants to make "great again." The problem with Trump from this perspective is that he suffers from the selective empathy of the bigot or the male chauvinist pig. That still doesn't sound right, though.

My guess is that Trump loves this country sincerely if not unconditionally, and connects emphatically with people who feel the same way. Part of his appeal may be that his base only trusts someone like him -- older white male, apparently straight, superficially Christian, and rich -- to love the country as unconditionally as they do, without any of the grudges or grievances ethnic and sexual minorities and some women carry and express through declining to salute the flag. But with that unconditional love of country, I think, comes a sincere sort of empathy for "the American people" in some idealized form. This empathy, however, most likely isn't unconditional. It is very much conditional rather than selective; it does not dismiss or disqualify whole groups out of hand. But on some level the empathy of Trump or his constituents has to be earned; it doesn't come as automatically as liberals might demand. It requires a recognition that you're at least trying to pull your own weight, or would if you could. Once that recognition is granted, Trump and his kind are arguably more empathetic and indulgent than American ideological conservatism theoretically permits. The populism attributed to Trump, particularly as applied to trade issues, is a textbook case of empathy for the hard-working American trumping -- there's really no better word for it -- the Darwinian ideal of economic competition espoused by many Republicans and Libertarians. Trump at least appears to reject the "consumer is always right" thinking that demands unconditional free trade regardless of the cost in American jobs. Populism is a more empathetic form of patriotism, which is why people on the left often try to claim the P-word for themselves. The problem with populism is that its conditional (or selective) empathy cuts both ways, rejecting both elitism and universalism in its insistence that a particular group should always be the object of the nation's first regard. But before anyone condemns limited empathy as lack of empathy, let's acknowledge the persistent lack of empathy felt toward Trump's constituents by Trump's opponents, many of whom can't help seeing bigotry as the alpha and omega of their entire worldview. I've been reading articles lately in which liberals wonder how they can ever reach the white working class to break Trump's apparent spell on them. This shouldn't be a hard question to answer, yet Democrats have struggled with it all summer and into the fall. I hope to describe their struggles and suggest some remedies in a future post, but I hope I've done enough here to stop people from saying I don't give Trump credit for anything.

26 September 2016

What debate?

For once Donald Trump will be right if he claims that the presidential debates are rigged. The only thing is that they're rigged in his favor, as the nominee of the Republican party. Once again the people who organize the debates have excluded the most viable third-party candidates, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green standard-bearer Jill Stein, from sharing the stage with the major-party candidates. The Commission on Presidential Debates still acts on the assumption that a first round of elections has already taken place through opinion polls. It thus disqualifies Johnson and Stein because neither has yet won the consistent support of 15% of the electorate in polls. This has long struck me as bass-ackwards reasoning, since in our telecommunications age it seems unfair to judge the viability of third-party candidates until you've given them a chance to perform on television alongside the big two. The commission, I'm sure, will protest that there's no other objective way to admit viable candidates without also admitting every fringe or frivolous contender. Such a protest would be an abdication of responsibility. especially at a time when Clinton and Trump have increased demand for alternative candidates. These disgruntled people may have themselves to blame for not already supporting Johnson, Stein or some other candidate, but isn't there also an obligation on the part of the news media to call more attention to the existence of alternative candidates? If so, then there also remains an inescapable obligation to separate serious from frivolous candidates, especially given the method I propose for getting candidates into the debate. There ought to be an online petition site where people can demand the inclusion of one or more candidates into the debates. Reaching a threshold number of online signatures will entitle those candidates to consideration by some panel of disinterested experts whose first responsibility will be to eliminate the truly frivolous candidates who'll be promoted as someone's idea of a joke. There's no alternative to trusting the judgment of these experts, however they're appointed, though guidelines might be provided, e.g. adding two candidates at a time, one from the left and one from the right, so one major party doesn't accuse the debate commission of helping the other major party. The ultimate guideline is that the debate commission has no right, whatever the polls say, to tell the electorate that one of only two people can become President, so you'll only see those two.

Or you could give up on the debates altogether. I doubt I'll watch tonight's joint appearance by Clinton and Trump. I imagine most people, their minds already made up long ago, will be watching only to see whether one of the candidates makes a campaign-killing gaffe. If 2016 has proven anything, however, it's that Clinton and Trump are unkillable by conventional political means. Nothing either says really matters, for the simple reason that the other candidate exists. Nothing Clinton says from now to November will dissuade those who hate and fear Trump the most from voting for her -- and as I've suggested, her health scares may actually make more people willing to vote Democratic in the hope of a President Kaine within the next four years. Nor are Trump's true believers willing or capable of imagining anything their man could say that would disqualify him or break their faith in his character. Is it possible that anyone hasn't drawn a conclusion about Donald Trump before tonight? That someone will be meeting him for the first time? That anyone will make a decision based on what he says tonight as opposed to what he's said over the past year? It doesn't work that way. We like to imagine the demagogue betraying himself in a moment through some word or gesture, be he Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd or Oswald Cobblepot in Batman Returns. It's more likely that a demagogue's following is built on the understanding that he will say whatever's necessary to get power, and on his follower's faith that they know the true man and what he'll really do. This has never been more plain than with Trump, who is often quite openly cynical about this strategy without disillusioning any great number of people. Have you heard from anyone who supported him a year ago, or six months ago, who's changed his or her mind? Probably you haven't, and that's not all because of hate and fear of Hillary Clinton. There is a strange, apparently invulnerable faith in Trump that is the dominant fact of this campaign, and that I want to address in a separate post. That faith is part of what scares people about the Trump movement, since it seems immune to facts, to the frustration of critics on his left and right alike. I don't think anything he says or does tonight will shake that faith -- unless perhaps he and not Hillary faints on stage. The debate will matter only to the media themselves, of course, and those people who somehow haven't chosen among the three real options: #nevertrump, #neverhillary and #nevereither.

20 September 2016

Terrorist lives matter, or: Take another knee, Kaepernick

This isn't the first blog to note the irony of the suspected Chelsea bomber being taken alive, despite exchanging fire with cops, while the news showed us footage of an unarmed Tulsa OK man being killed by police, apparently for touching his SUV the wrong way. But let's not overstate the irony. The suspected terrorist, after all, is a potential asset. Alive, he may tell the NYPD, FBI, etc. important things about jihadi networks and terror cells. By comparison, of what use was the "bad dude," as a helicopter cop called the Tulsa victim, to local law enforcement? Tulsa, it seems, is a bad place; one of their "finest" (a reserve deputy, actually) is already doing time for shooting an unarmed man with his revolver when he meant to taze the bro. Once again, of course, the latest Tulsa victim was condemned for failing to comply. In a possibly addled state, he seemed to think it okay not to obey instructions so long as he kept his hands in the air. He sealed his fate by moving as if to get something out of his car -- it wasn't a gun, we now know -- and was tazed and shot just about simultaneously. Someone did the right thing, at least, or at least relatively speaking.

So here we are again, just as a lot of Americans had convinced themselves that "privileged" football players had nothing to complain about. Of course, a lot of those Americans remain convinced even after the news from Tulsa. The nation arguably is more visibly divided between the "comply or die" party and those who refuse to accept such outcomes as the breaks of the game than it is along more conventional party lines. One side insists that you have to choose between maximum safety and discretion for police and the lives of self-evident troublemakers. They've already decided that "blue" lives matter more than others in this country. The rest of us believe that it's not for the cops on the street to decide whether any lives matter less than others, unless someone is indisputably threatening other lives. Shooting-involved officers are defended invariably in the name of their own self-preservation -- the idea being they should not be punished for making mistakes lest they err the opposite way before a real threat -- and not the protection of others. Yet if we accept that police risk their lives to protect the innocent, doesn't it follow that police must accept risk in order to avoid injuring or killing people who are neither real threats nor (it must be conceded) real bright? This should not be too much to ask in a purportedly civilized society, yet look what happens when people ask. They're condemned as if they're complicit in the next such incident or the death of any police officer -- and lately they're condemned as if they're traitors to their country. I suppose they might be traitors if we lived in a police state, but despite some people's wishes we're not there yet.  I will note that so far I haven't heard as much rabid defense of the police from some of the usual channels that I usually hear on such occasions. There may even be a consensus that the police really did botch this one. Why don't we ask our presidential candidates about it?...

19 September 2016

A dialectic of distrust

David Brooks is just one of many opinionators bemoaning a surge in mutual distrust among Americans this election year. He holds Clinton and Trump partly to blame for their suspicious secrecy about many aspects of their lives, but for Brooks their toxicity only exacerbates trends he's long bemoaned that seem to leave Americans increasingly isolated and alienated from each other. He worries about the possibility of a "death spiral" in which "the loss of intimacy makes society more isolated. Isolation leads to more fear. More fear leads to fear-mongering leaders." He finds that young people, the great hope of progressives, are often "the most distrustful of all." This in turn he blames partly on the replacement of society with social media and its "illusion of intimacy." Mutual trust has deteriorated rapidly over the last generation, Brooks claims. The polarization of politics since the 1980s may have something to do with that, while American individualism probably has deepened distrust at both poles. Brooks often bemoans the disappearance of a common culture without offering really credible suggestions on how it might be restored or renewed. It will be especially difficult for anyone to appeal to loyalty to something in common when people from all directions are likely to ask, "Who are you to say...?" Each party does it when its particular sense of individuality seems threatened. When we've reached a point when we can't see past individuality, and take anyone's appeal to patriotism or humanity as a self-serving ploy, then individualism as perhaps not just an ideology but a principle of perception has gone too far past the limit of healthy moderation.

There are signs, however, of a reaction against different facets of dogmatic individualism. You see it in the divide between ideological Republicans, who cling to a utopian ideal of "may the best man win" economic competition, and the Donald Trump movement, whose "America first" sentiment rejects the idea that who wins such competition should be a matter of indifference to the individual consumer. There was a weaker expression of a similar sentiment in Sen. Sanders' campaign against Clinton. At the same time, a heightened awareness of inescapable global competition -- both the existential competition to which Islamism has challenged the world and the sort of oldschool eternal jostling for advantage practiced by Russia -- may reawaken a sense of common interest and purpose among Americans, should it be acknowledged that neither form of competition can be wished away and that we as a nation are in it together whether we as individuals like it or not. By this point in history any transition back toward solidarity and common culture will be a rough one, since Brooks wishes for a restoration of mutual trust at a time when many Americans see very specific limits to such trust. As well, the nature of any new common culture -- and it must be new to an irreducible extent no matter how it hearkens to the past -- will be contested so long as one person says "America First" and another hears it as "White People (or White Men) First." Neither Clinton nor Trump has what it takes, at first glance, to ease any such transition, unless Trump proves so profoundly different a President than he has been a campaigner that his own base may feel betrayed. Nor is there any guarantee that change can come without at least the perception of coercion. Brooks's admittedly "paradoxical" remedy -- that "somebody’s got to greet distrust with vulnerability, skepticism with innocence, cynicism with faith and hostility with affection" -- might well be wrong in every particular. But distrust, skepticism, cynicism and hostility as a package must be answered, and there will be many answers offered. Whose is the correct answer remains to be seen.

16 September 2016

Teflon Don or Teflon Dick?

While some liberals lament Hillary Clinton's inability to open up a consistent lead over Donald Trump and rightly blame it on her own deficiencies, others -- and, really, some of the same people -- can't comprehend why Trump hasn't cratered in the polls. It seems unreasonable, if not hypocritical, of people to lambaste "Lyin' Hillary" when Trump, depending on who interprets him, lies practically every time he opens his mouth. It's hard to dispute that Trump lies frequently, and I haven't really seen or heard his grass-roots defenders deny that he does. They may believe that his lies are of a different order than Clinton's. They may feel, whether any would dare admit it or not, that the sort of fibs Trump may indulge in are just part of competitive life, or even, as the mafiosi say, "just business." It's more likely that they just don't give a damn. While it's tempting to think of Trump supporters worshiping a whitewashed idol of a wise businessman -- you'd like to believe they're naive, delusional or just plain dumb -- they probably take a more warts-and-all approach. It wouldn't surprise me if many of them conceded that Donald Trump is, or can be at times, a dick. They might then go on to say that that's his virtue, or it's what we need right now. Our best analysis of this election may come from a twelve year old movie with puppets:

The only question is whether Trump really can get it up at his age and keep it up for four years. That's the medical report we need to see!

14 September 2016

Burkini Blowback II: Laicity and the American Left

Katha Pollitt, The Nation's resident feminist, is opposed to France's ban on the burkini, that throwback to 19th century beach fashion adopted by devout Muslim women. She takes her stand while deploring Islam's sexist modesty code. "If covering is just about faith, why don’t men do it too?" she asks. She recognizes the ban as consistent with France's longstanding policy of laïcité, which she defines with reasonable accuracy as "the rigorous denial of a public role for religion." Such a policy, she recognizes also, can be a good thing, compared with the apparent porousness of the First Amendment.

In France, for example, the Catholic Church doesn’t control one-sixth of all hospital beds and use government funds to deny women modern reproductive-health care. Public schools do not bring in religious zealots to lecture the students on the evils of birth control. You won’t find creationist propaganda in the bookstore at a national park.

Banning the burkini, however, strikes Pollitt as laïcité in overreach. It becomes apparent upon reading her column on the topic that she doesn't like the premise on which the ban is founded, that women wearing the burkini -- or other conservative forms of Islamic dress -- are victims who have no will or agency of their own. She rejects the idea that Muslim women would only wear such things because their fathers and brothers force them to. She finds it telling that, to her knowledge, there are no regulations in France against Islamic male fashions like long beards or cloth skullcaps. That makes her suspect that regulations against Islamic female fashions are less about stigmatizing Islam than they are about stigmatizing (or fetishizing) Muslim women. From her perspective, the burkini debate pits two forms of sexism against each other, both denying women the right to dress as they please.

The prime minister of France justifies the burkini ban by observing that “The burkini is not a new swimwear fashion; it’s the transmission of a political project, against society, founded notably upon the subjection of women. Some people try to portray those who wear them as victims, as though we were calling liberty into question." Pollitt is one of those people, despite her apparent belief that Islam often does subjugate women. She criticizes the burkini ban from what I'd call a unique (if not exceptional!) American perspective that would reject French-style laïcité despite its sometime favorable features.There's a coercive element to French secularism that Americans are unlikely to consider either desirable or necessary. That's because the typical American assumption is that people have the right to be whatever they want to be -- a further assumption being that what we want to be is what we're meant to be. These assumptions are implicitly conditional upon your right to be not interfering with others' rights, but liberal Americans, at least, will assume further still that for every cultural choice there is a way to be that choice that is certain not to interfere with others' right to be themselves. American conservatives, by comparison, are more concerned with the right to do than the right to be, but they're another story. By a more relevant comparison, France's divergent revolutionary heritage is less likely to take this right to be (on one's own terms, that is) for granted. From the Jacobins forward, in a tradition extending beyond France and beyond Europe, there has been an assumption that a citizen is something you must become, not something you can just be. Citizenship requires conscious shaping of the citizen through educational and cultural institutions, in a manner at odds with American notions of individual autonomy and "self-made" people, that can be perceived by Americans as on the slippery slope to totalitarianism. American liberals (or progressives) want a world in which any woman who wears a burkini is given the benefit of the doubt on questions of independence, agency and loyalty, just as other forms of personal expression are. Whether such a world is possible remains subject to debate, but it can't be denied that it has seemed less possible in recent years. The yearning for such a world is typically American. Many Americans, whether they think of themselves as left or right, imagine that Utopia will become real if we're all just allowed to be ourselves and do our own thing. Both the American left and the American right differ from their counterparts around the world in their individualist biases, despite the left's alleged collectivism. But there are small signs, or perhaps only hints, that Americans are growing less divergent, so that the demands France makes of its people may seem progressively less strange and unacceptable in the years to come, despite the protests of individualists on both right and left.

11 September 2016

Clinton's health: a no-lose crisis?

Republican rumormongering appeared to be vindicated today when Hillary Clinton had to be treated for dehydration at a 9/11 commemoration and was revealed to be suffering from pneumonia. For weeks Donald Trump's supporters have manipulated every least bit of evidence that could be spun into portraying Clinton as an ill woman, the idea being that someone might thus be convinced to vote for a man one year her elder who nevertheless projects machismo, or something like it, by flaunting trophy wives and acting in a manner often described, with little basis, as "tough." The Trump strategy depends on some voters being willing to vote for the Republican candidate for no other reason than his relative state of health. How many people actually are likely to make such a decision for such a reason? Who that is even tempted to vote for Hillary Clinton is going to be scared off by her questionable physical fitness and then say, "I guess I'd better vote for Trump because he's healthy?" Anyone who presumably would vote for Clinton except for concerns about her health probably has long ago rejected any possibility of voting for Trump. A real Clinton health crisis might still help Trump get elected, but it would be because anti-Trump voters might decide to vote for Gary Johnson, Jill Stein or "Other." However, such a crisis might actually help the Democratic party if the Democrats are smart enough to make the last stages of the race about party more than personality. Might not more people be willing to vote Democratic at the top of the ballot this November if they had some confidence that Clinton might drop dead just past the historic finish line, delivering them to the presumed safety of a Kaine Administration? Who knows but that having Hillary go the way of William Henry Harrison might be the best-case scenario, allowing her to make history without doing too much damage to the country? It would be a sublime irony to have Republican rumormongering backfire that way, but if the polls begin to indicate such a reversal, watch for Trump to start playing sick at his rallies. I'm sure a lot of people would rather see a Pence Administration as well....

10 September 2016

The Deplorables

The "double standards" crowd is condemning Hillary Clinton for saying at a recent fundraiser that half of Donald Trump's supporters belong in a "basket of deplorables" consisting mainly of bigots of different sorts. For Republicans, this is the Democratic equivalent of Mitt Romney's infamous 2012 remarks about 47% of Americans (not merely of Obama supporters) were basically freeloaders. As the Washington Post reports, at that time Trump said Romney had no reason to apologize, but what else would you expect of Trump? Of course, his people insist that Clinton must apologize to all Trump's supporters, apparently on the assumption that none of them can be certain that they weren't included in Clinton's calumny. If there's a lesson to all of this, it's that candidates should never attempt to quantify such things as dependence or deplorable bigotry. Trump probably would have whined had Clinton suggested that any percentage of his support was bigoted, but it should be self-evident to all observers, including Trump's erstwhile rivals for the Republican nomination, that some of his supporters are bigots in anyone's sense of the word. Anyone who claims that the real number is zero percent is simply lying. I've heard too much from an admittedly small sample -- and I'm not talking about what they think of Muslims -- to let any blanket claim of innocence stand. Yes, some if not many of Trump's supporters are motivated by a positive belief in his expertise and his promises to restore American greatness, and there is some tone-deafness in Democratic denunciations of what they insist is Trump's exaggerated negativity about current conditions. But even these sincerely disgruntled and possibly unprejudiced people are as naive in their faith in Trump's boastful promises as others are in their hope that Clinton will govern as a progressive in any meaningful sense. What I'm saying is that while I'm not so scared of Trump that I'll waste my vote to stop him, I still can't see any good reason for anyone to vote for him. From my perspective, merely to vote for someone who sounds tough because he fires people on TV, or because you think his celebrity proves him a successful businessman and leader, is just as deplorable as voting for Clinton out of mindless fear of Trump or Republicans in general. In 2016 a large majority of the entire electorate is deplorable, and no one should have to apologize for recognizing that fact.

08 September 2016

Trump, Putin and leadership

Liberals, along with a fair number of Republicans, think that Donald Trump damns himself every time he praises President Putin of Russia. We've had another round of damning Trump since he talked about Putin at a televised forum on military issues last night. What did he say specifically? It's worth noting that Trump noted that Russia has "a very different system, and I don't happen to like the system." It would be interesting to learn what Trump doesn't like about the Russian system, and it'd be in his interest to elaborate, though he wasn't pressed to do so this time, since he might calm critics who fear that he sees Putin as a model for governing the United States. Trump went on to say that "in that system, he's been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader." His next sentence was "We have a divided country," the twofold implication being that Russia under Putin's leadership is a less divided country, and that divisions in America reflect Obama's lack of leadership. A moment earlier, Trump seemed to mock liberal criticism of Putin by saying, "I mean, you can say, 'Oh, isn't that a terrible thing' -- the man has very strong control over a country." The problem with that statement is that many Americans do think it a terrible thing for a man to have "very strong control over a country" if that means using the means often attributed to Putin, i.e. the intimidation or persecution of dissidents. How terrible it sounds depends on what you're hearing. Many Americans hear that a "man has very strong control" and their dictator-alert goes off; from that perspective the problem is the man who is suspected of using that "very strong control" for his own selfish ends. By comparison, Trump is arguably a real old-school conservative, to whatever extent a real old-school capitalist can be that, because the significant part of the statement for him is probably "control" as a synonym for "order" or "stability." The opposite of Putin's "very strong control" is Obama's "divided country," howevermuch Trump's chosen political party is to blame for that condition. Trump may believe, however, that it's the leader's responsibility to resolve the divisions that exist in his country, whether he's the immediate cause of them or not.

Does that mean that Obama, or a Democratic successor, should treat the Republican party like Putin treats his opposition, or that they should treat Fox News as Putin treats opposition media, or as Trump might treat MSNBC, in order to end division and take very strong control? Not to Trump, probably, since ours is a "very different system." Yet I suspect that his notion of order or good governance is essentially non-ideological to an extent that might make his own distinction between systems less relevant than we might want or hope. I'm more certain that his idea of leadership is non-ideological, which is why he can praise Putin unreservedly by conventional American standards, and that's exactly what bugs people on both left and right. For neither group is order really an end unto itself; each has a set of freedoms that must be accommodated for order to be just and society free, and insofar as Putin's Russia appears unfree in many respects, his order is not worth having, much less praising. Trump's ultimate retort to that sentiment might be that what matters to him as a potential President is whether Putin's order is good for, or compatible with, American interests, not whether it's good for Russian intellectuals or compatible with American values. Many Americans, at least in public life, find Putin's power neither compatible with nor good for American interests -- much less the interests of people in Russia's "near abroad" whom they want to protect from Putin -- but what American interests (if not values) actually are is arguably more subject to debate this year than in recent election cycles. That's why I think Trump should be probed more about his feelings about Putin and Russia; not to goad him into a gaffe, but to find out whether he actually offers an alternative to the establishment consensus that can't help seeing Russia as not merely a competitor on the world stage -- which it is indisputably -- but also an existential enemy. I don't know if Trump has the vocabulary to elaborate his views the way I'd like, but I think he could give us enough to figure out the rest ourselves.

06 September 2016

Burqa blowback

This week has a while to go yet, but we've probably heard the week's funniest story already. The self-styled Islamic State has banned the wearing of the burqa, the signifier of pious modesty for Muslim women and thus the sort of thing Daesh usually insists upon with violence, in certain parts of Mosul, Iraq, after female resistance fighters used the voluminous garments to sneak in weapons, the better to blow away jihadis. It seems that God, when he sent his revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, failed to anticipate the security problems this modest garment creates for the believers as well as the infidels. It would seem now that no one anywhere can complain when burqa wearing is discouraged on similar security grounds, but I expect to see people argue instead that those who argue for burqa (or "burkini") bans are no better than the terrorists, or that this pragmatic decision proves that the IS is not so Islamic after all. But even where the IS no longer has control, Syrian women are shucking off their burqas as soon as they get a chance. You can't help but appreciate their prudence. I'm sure they'd have some interesting conversations with their sisters outside the region who seem so eager to wear the damn things. Then again, maybe some of the piously clad women in Europe have surprises waiting for their jihadi brethren....

02 September 2016

The Age of Negativity

The current Harper's features a foreign policy forum with a wide range of opinion: neocon, anti-interventionist, Muslim, European. The most interesting comments come from Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister at the time of the invasion of Iraq and thus in American eyes, since he opposed the invasion, the archetypal "cheese-eating surrender monkey." He remains opposed to American-style unilateralism -- by which he means, in the current context, building alliances based on exclusion. NATO is defined by its continued exclusion of Russia, for instance -- though the neocons challenge that characterization. The most interesting thing about Villepin's remarks actually has little to do with alliances and interventions. In the course of warning against intervention, he speaks of "the constraints that globalization places on us.

The speed with which images and ideologies travel gives a real advantage to negative opinions. Negative ideas travel faster than positive ideas. Violent images travel faster than any other images.

If Villepin is right, it would explain a lot about the 21st century so far, from accelerated polarization to the precipitous decline in civility in public life. Of course, what he perceives may merely reflect an objective decline in conditions around the world, the first cause of which is neither social media nor (more debateably) globalization. But if our impulsive, "hot take" online culture does exacerbate conditions, that raises an important question about media responsibility. Freedom of press and speech are cherished (in principle, at least) in the U.S. because they are considered essential to the informed deliberation on which republics depend. But if modern media tend to encourage "negative ideas" -- a lot obviously depends on how those are defined, and by whom -- at the expense of deliberation, does a principle of media regulation become necessary to ensure some balance of information, so that the hot take doesn't always prevail? Even if such a principle can be formulated, however, how can it be acted upon given how widely social media has been disseminated already? The easy answer to all these questions is to educate people to think before they react, or share a tweet, rather than try to control what they see or how they share it, as China does, but the danger is that the temptation of online immediacy can counteract the effects of education -- especially if young adults become convinced that their education has no point if it can't get them work. This challenge is like getting the genie back inside his proverbial bottle, or everything back inside Pandora's box. If that sounds hopelessly daunting, maybe we should ask how we can accelerate the speed of positive ideas, assuming that we can agree on what those are. Why are they so slow, anyway? Let me know how long it takes to answer that one.