31 October 2016

Burying the Hatch Act, or: Are the Democrats digging their own grave?

When you read the fine print in reports of the FBI investigation of the computer used by former Rep. Anthony Weiner and his former wife Huma Abedin, the situation looks less dire than either Democrats or Republicans are making it out to be. As I understand it, the FBI is taking action simply because Abedin was Secretary of State Clinton's deputy chief of staff. Since there appears to have been State Department correspondence in her share of the emails, due diligence requires the FBI to go through them to see if any of them violate the rules against classified correspondence. In other words, the FBI hasn't actually found anything on Clinton, much less a "smoking gun," but they are obliged to look for something. It's the panic in the Democratic camp that makes Clinton look guilty more than anything else right now. You would think that people like Sen. Reid, the Minority Leader, had just discovered that President Obama, in one of his occasional fits of bipartisanship, had appointed a Republican to head the FBI. Reid reached the height of Democratic  hysteria over the weekend by accusing Director Comey, the Obama appointee, of violating the federal Hatch Act by publicizing the Bureau's investigation of the Weiner-Abedin computer. The Hatch Act, passed in 1939 and much amended since then, forbids certain federal employees from "us[ing their] official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election." But if Comey's investigation, or his publicizing it, affects the results of the 2016 presidential election, would that really be his fault? Reid's reasoning seems to be that Comey, a Republican -- albeit one condemned across the board by fellow Republicans earlier this year for not recommending prosecution of Clinton -- has self-evident partisan motives for publicizing an investigation that actually has been going on for several weeks below the surface. To those who try not to see everything through partisan lenses, this does not follow. If anything, the public has an imperative right to know if and why a candidate for office is under investigation -- though in this instance a computer, not a candidate, is being scrutinized -- regardless of anyone's feelings about any of the other candidates. The public then has a right not to give a damn, as millions won't, but to suggest that the electorate is better off not knowing, or that it's unfair somehow for this to come out, is despicable.

I don't really want Donald Trump to become President, but that doesn't exempt any of his rivals from accountability to the law. If Comey's investigation dissuades people from voting for Clinton, and if the American liberal left can't anticipate this by coordinating itself behind some other candidate, even a write-in, over the course of a week in this Information Age, it will just be too bad. I don't mean that flippantly, as I have little confidence in Trump, but the only reason he's remotely close to becoming President is that millions of liberals and progressives refused to consider an alternative to Hillary Clinton. In all seriousness, if things had gone differently Donald Trump would sound like Joe McCarthy with the DTs right now raving about Commies and Bernie Sanders would win in a landslide next week. There was a piece on BBC America today that noted that Trump and Clinton are our only realistic alternatives for the presidency because they're the choices of approximately 9% of the entire American electorate. Something is profoundly wrong with the way we choose candidates, much less Presidents, when so many of us are forced to be so absurdly, shamefully defensive of these two wretches, and things may only get worse over the next week. Stay tuned.

30 October 2016

Shut up, Trump! (It's for your own good)

My nonpartisan advice to Donald Trump is pretty simple. If you want the latest flare-up of the Clinton email scandal to be the thing the media talks about next week, don't give them anything else to talk about. If you must talk, stick to boringly upbeat policy speeches and "making America great again" in the vaguest possible terms. Otherwise, the chances are that you're going to say something that will get spun back at you, and the more you're tempted to pontificate on Clinton, the more backspin you're going to get. I say this because one of the indisputable ways in which much of the media has been unfair to Trump is in their coverage of his vows to prosecute Hillary Clinton. It's self-evident that he wants a fresh inquiry and, if necessary/possible, a proper prosecution for, as Trump might put it, whatever's going on. But his rhetoric has raised the specter of partisan immunity, which warns with a bloodcurdling shriek that Donald Trump, in classic authoritarian fashion, wants to put his political opponents in prison. The implication is that Trump wants to put Clinton in prison simply for opposing him. This is self-evidently dishonest, though I suppose it doesn't seem that way to the multitudes who really don't give a damn about the emails and therefore can't imagine any other reason why Trump would want Clinton in jail. To be honest, though, Hillary Clinton probably could shoot someone in the middle of the street this week and still get at least 40% of the vote, such is the fear and loathing of Trump in much of the country, just as Trump probably has been right all along, albeit in jest, about his ability to get away with such things. That's what the ethos of partisan immunity -- the assumption that any criminal investigation of a politician is motivated by partisanship, with the result that politicians get away with stuff lest we "criminalize politics" -- has brought us to. Trumpophobes can console themselves with the thought that Trump himself remains under investigation for the questionable practises of Trump University, while Trumpophiles can tell us why that shouldn't matter to anyone. Expect many reminders of Trump University this week, but even in that event Trump should restrain himself from responding, especially if his impulse is to threaten lawsuits. There's no guarantee that this passive strategy will get the results he might hope for -- neither he nor you should be surprised to hear new accusations of lewd conduct against him before Election Day -- but for the email scandal to have the effect he hopes for it has to be seen as a matter of what Clinton did, not what he wants to do to Clinton.

27 October 2016

The authoritarian question

When someone like the governor of Maine says that the U.S. could use a dose of authoritarian power, I'm tempted to demand that he swear fealty in advance to the first person to seize power by force, since to reserve fealty seems to go against the whole authoritarian idea. The challenge quickly seems too absurd to press, since not even the most rabid authoritarian wants someone to wield that sort of power as an end unto itself. Authoritarianism isn't an ideology like liberalism or communism, because authoritarianism is only a means to any number of ends. That makes it abhorrent to ideologies that seek to define both means and ends, and especially to liberalism, for which the means are the end. I was catching up with magazines recently and read an article by Pankraj Mishra about Asia's critical response to western liberalism, and it struck me that the appeal of liberalism depends on what you oppose it to. Asians question liberalism because it seems to value the individual over the group or the state, while their own philosophical traditions prioritize ethical conduct over individual liberty. While some in the west still see "collective" as a dirty word, western liberalism is really less about opposing the individual against the collective than it's about safeguarding individuals against leaders. You probably can trace this all the way back to ancient Greece and its fear of the demagogue who becomes a tyrant according to a pessimistic cyclical theory of politics. By comparison, I doubt whether Asian philosophers before Mao ever preached unconditional obedience to rulers. I also doubt whether they were so fearful of authoritarian power that they would handicap the state as extensively as Americans have. The problem,  it now seems, with liberalism is that it limits the state's ability to perform essential goods as much as it constrains leaders from doing evil, which makes it almost blindly evenhanded. That makes it sadly funny to hear people cry that democracy is at stake in the 2016 election --since to the extent that democracy is, in pure form, an authoritarian form of government in its ultimate disregard for objections, it was snuffed out in America long ago.

25 October 2016

Over the Empathy Wall

The New York Review of Books election issue (dated November 10) features a review by Nathaniel Rich of Arlie Russell Hochschild's book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. This book belongs to the genre Rich traces back to Thomas Frank's What's The Matter with Kansas: an inquiry into why many white Americans vote against their apparent economic self-interest in favor of Republicans. Hochschild herself believes that the genre has neglected a proper appreciation of the emotional factor in politics. She wants to climb over an "Empathy Wall" that surrounds academics like herself from conservative working-class whites, and thus understand why they continue to vote Republican, or may go beyond Republicanism by voting for Donald Trump, despite often being the victims of GOP-generated deregulation, as in her subject state of Louisiana. She meets oil rig engineer Mike Schiff, who becomes an environmental activist after the Texas Brine company devastated his bayou land, yet still voted as a Tea Party Republican and opposed the EPA for its attention to the "fictive" global warming issue. From examples cited by Rich in his review, you can make out that these people tend to be complacent about pollution because they've never had any utopian expectations. "You have to put up with things the way they are," one woman told Hochschild, because "Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism." In Rich's account, Hochschild seeks an emotional key, a "deep story" to explain these attitudes. Rich paraphrases that story:

It begins with an image of a long line of people marching across a vast landscape. The Tea Partiers -- white, older, Christian, predominantly male, many lacking college degrees -- are somewhere in the middle of the line. They trudge wearily, but with resolve, up a hill. Ahead, beyond the ridge, lies wealth, success, dignity. Far behind them, the line is composed of people of color, women, immigrants, refugees. As pensions are reduced and layoffs absorbed, the line slows, then stalls. An even greater indignity follows: people begin cutting them in line. Many are those who had long stood behind them ... all now aided by the federal government....

As even endangered animals appear to have a higher priority in government eyes, "the Tea Partiers are made to feel less than human." They are "reviled for the Christian morality and the 'traditional' values they have been taught to honor from birth," and obviously we can add their presumed attitudes toward racial religious and sexual minorities. Rich doesn't fully agree with Hochschild's reading of the story, bringing us back to the debate described yesterday between those, apparently like Hochschild, who believe that "economic despair is the central motivation behind the Tea Partiers' rage," and those, obviously like Rich, who find it "difficult not to consider racial fear the formative aspect of the story." Rich is no doubt encouraged in his view by one of Hochschild's subjects who laments that "People think we're not good people if we don't feel sorry for blacks and immigrants and Syrian refugees. But I am a good person and I don't feel sorry for them." Rich, at least, is not going to take this person's word for his or her goodness. Both he and Hochschild may question why these people imagine themselves at the front of that line of march, or why they think it unfair that others, thought by many to have been held back unfairly, are moved ahead. Hochschild may be more inclined to think of them as good people at some level, or at least praiseworthy for "their capacity for loyalty, sacrifice, and endurance." Yet their tendency to vote in what she describes as their "emotional self-interest," in defense of their self-image as good people in spite of the scolding of liberals, remains a problem author and reviewer alike find it imperative to solve. Rich, at least, feels that "we never get the sense that they know themselves," which seems to mean that they can't see themselves as he sees them, as people with a prejudice problem.

The solution remains obvious: if they feel insulted, don't insult them. If liberals and progressives would not spend so much time and bandwidth trying to reeducate these people, perhaps their resentment and emotional self-interest might not obscure their rational self-interest so completely. After all, does anyone believe that white people are the only bigots or haters in the United States? Go ahead and tell me that only those with power can be racists, but what power do these people have? Have they any more power than the many black Americans who believe in the white-devil mythology of the Nation of Islam or related phenomena, but are not, to my knowledge, exhorted to renounce it? If the idea in such cases is that their bigotry is harmless if they don't act on it -- which may not be as consistently the case as it was a generation or two ago -- then why not let white bigots think what they like as long as they have no power to violate other people's civil rights? To repeat, that doesn't stop anyone from advancing policies to minimize discrimination or mitigate its long-term consequences, but don't you suppose that if you keep at that necessary work without constantly harping on white people's heritage of wickedness, they might reconcile with change sooner and more peaceably? With that in mind, one of the few reasonable arguments for a Hillary Clinton presidency is that with one more great "glass ceiling" broken, perhaps progressives won't need to rail against prejudice so much in the future, and will concentrate instead on real progress for everybody.

24 October 2016

The Cheated

The New York Review of Books' election issue arrived in my mailbox this weekend. It includes thirteen short essays from frequent contributors, all predictably horrified by Donald Trump and whatever he represents. The only dissonant note sounded comes from David Bromwich, a Yale professor, who departs from the consensus by being almost equally horrified by Hillary Clinton. He definitely has no love for Trump, who "panders to wishful ignorance" and whose "vagueness, bloat and feckless reiteration of [his] promises ... go against the grain of a representative government based on checks and balances." But while few of the other contributors can find a bad word for Clinton, Bromwich notes that while "everyone admits that the Clinton Foundation has done good works....anyone with a nose can tell that it uneasily mixes philanthropy and aggrandizement." Long a critic of President Obama's foreign policy, Bromwich is appalled by Clinton's.

In brutal vulgarity of sentiment, her statement on the mutilation and murder of Muammar Qaddafi, 'We came, we saw, he died,' and the cackle that followed the proclamation are barely matched by Trump's saying of his failure to pay taxes: 'That makes me smart.'

Bromwich also goes against the liberal grain by identifying and criticizing Clinton and Democrats' perceived attitude toward the working-class whites who lean toward Trump. There's a debate in the media over how to address these people, some arguing reasonably that, regardless of Trump's faults, his campaign has empowered working-class whites to articulate concerns that liberals and progressives ought to take seriously and address compassionately, while others (here's an example) pretty much dismiss all white Trump supporters as haters jealous of their endangered status as the demographic majority of the country and resentful of the ascendancy of anyone other than white men. "Taking Trump supporters seriously means not pretending their concerns are about the economy," Dylan Matthews writes at Vox. He feels justified in saying that because polls and statistics reveal that Trump's fans are not the poorest whites, and because support for Trump correlates in some polls with critical attitudes toward nonwhites. Matthews' own attitude may be what Bromwich is groping toward when he describes Clintonian/Democratic contempt ("not a shred of feeling") for "people who played by the rules and haven't been crowned with success.

The exceptions [to that rule] are the needy and minorities; but that only reinforces the sense that Democrats treat with contempt those whom they cannot patronize. How many non-elite white voters can now be drawn by Trump to vote with their resentment of the selective compassion of liberals? Trump, of all people, with his trademark saying, 'You're fired,' has turned into the candidate of people who feel they have lost out but don't know why -- the people Nathaniel West called 'the cheated.'

I don't know whether West (a 1930s novelist best known for The Day of the Locust) thought his "cheated" actually had been cheated or merely felt that they had, but liberals today clearly believe that Trumpists only believe themselves cheated -- or believe the system "rigged," if you please -- because of "racial resentment." Perhaps they think that Trump's Trash have no business complaining if their once unfairly-large share of the pie has shrunk to a more appropriate size, but one might as readily argue that women and racial minorities are fools to celebrate their larger slices of a shrinking pie. But to listen to most Democrats, once Sen. Sanders was beaten in the primaries, the pie isn't shrinking at all, and only bigots think otherwise. If liberal Democrats' compassion appears selective, it's probably because many think that working-class whites disqualify themselves from compassion for thinking badly of blacks, immigrants or certain women. I've been here before this year but I may as well repeat myself: if Democrats did not spend so much time trying to change working-class white people's minds about nonwhites, and concentrated on improving their economic position while continuing to combat discrimination at the policy level, they might find those people's attitudes softening gradually toward both nonwhites and Democrats. You don't have to say they're right about blacks, immigrants, etc., but you do have to stop reminding them of how wrong they are about everything when you're supposed to be soliciting their votes. "Racial resentment" is inevitable when one group of people is told incessantly that they're the bad guys of history. Trump probably will get at least 40% of the vote simply by telling them they're not. Does that mean we have to tolerate their belief that other groups are the bad guys? I'd prefer "ignore" to "tolerate," just as I'd prefer a campaign that really looks toward the future to those concerned with settling scores from the past.

20 October 2016

Human rights and populist foreign policy

The Obama administration is drawing to a close with another foreign-policy disaster, apparently finalized today when the president of the Philippines announced his intention to cut ties with the U.S. and align himself with China and Russia. This appears to be entirely the consequence of American self-righteousness. Rodrigo Duterte won his election earlier this year as a kind of populist -- some have called him a Filipino Donald Trump, though there's little resemblance in terms of wealth -- and has governed, in at least one respect, as an authoritarian. He has become notorious for his extreme drug-war policies, which reportedly include the sanctioning of vigilante killing of both drug dealers and drug users. Naturally Americans object to this, and Duterte resents that. He has told the President and his diplomats to go to hell, and has told an interviewer that he doesn't give a damn about "human rights" because he has a responsibility to save this and the next generation of Filipinos from the drug scourge, even if he racks up a Hitleresque body count. He sounds like a violent boor, but my right to express a superficial opinion is different from the American diplomatic corps' responsibility to maintain our strategic position in the South Pacific. Yet it seems as if Obama/Kerry State Department is incapable of restraining itself from moralistic lecturing, and incapable of not being surprised when other countries resent the lecturing. Practically the one selling point Donald Trump has with me is the possibility, despite Democratic fearmongering over his impulsive temper, that he and his diplomats would behave differently. It's that quality, of course, that gets Trump accused of being a "puppet" of Vladimir Putin -- his "You're a puppet!" retort probably was his most pathetic moment during the third debate -- the liberal fear being that Trump will prove as indifferent to human rights as Putin or Duterte seems to be. The idea that civil liberties in other countries may not be our business horrifies liberals. They fear that a lack of commitment to human rights everywhere makes your commitment to human rights here questionable. The contrast between their anxiety over any manifestation of "authoritarianism" and Trump's desire to get along with most countries may reveal a distinction between what we could call Trump's populist foreign policy and the approach of the diplomatic mainstream.

Both liberals and many Republicans (particularly the neocons) believe American foreign policy should be dedicated to the defense and advancement of human rights. The neocons are more likely to talk about "natural rights," and to attribute them to God, but both groups believe that a moral law of human rights applies to every nation on Earth. They envision a constant struggle between human/natural rights and authoritarianism, and Duterte's pivot to China may only convince them that the authoritarian tide is advancing to America's peril. For the sake of comparison, let me suggest that populist foreign policy is influenced by a positivist notion of rights. What that means is that rights do not precede politics, that rights are created and local rather than eternal and universal. For example, the rights of American citizens are based on the Constitution and nothing else. The idea that authoritarian tendencies in other countries undermine American rights must appear absurd from that perspective. That would make it easier to maintain a pragmatic, diplomatic indifference toward authoritarianism among allies, as we probably ought to have done regarding Duterte. I don't know how well he and Trump could get along -- Duterte reportedly challenged Trump to a fight after some perceived slight earlier this year -- but do you doubt that Trump would let him do whatever he thinks he's got to do, as long as he remained useful in a part of the world Trump considered important? It would be helpful if someone had thought to ask him and Clinton about the Philippines at the debates, but I suppose everyone thought there were lots of more important questions to ask about the candidates' comparative depravity. That's too bad, because debating how much we should care about the Philippines might clarify how much the candidates really care about their own country.

Keeping things honest

I was down in the city the other day walking along 42nd Street,and there seemed to be more panhandlers than I remembered from recent visits. New York City panhandlers are a more sedentary lot than those I see regularly upstate. Of course, if you set up at the crossroads of the world it's easy to let people come to you; up here they have to hustle to find prospects. Metropolitan panhandlers also seem to be encumbered with more stuff, so it makes more sense to pick one spot and stick to it. Still, I'm surprised more effort isn't made to keep them off one of the main tourist thoroughfares. Maybe that's a DiBlasio thing, to let them stay. Anyway,  when you have a number of panhandlers working the same street you get some creative competition for the attention of passers-by. One fellow takes the always-welcome tongue-in-cheek approach. His sign says his family was killed by pigeons and he needs your money fot BB ammo. Head a few steps east and a man sits ensconced in the niche of a building with a cash box in front of him bearing the legend, "Give me a dollar or I'm voting for Trump." His box appeared to be empty. I think I understand why. After all, this man claims that his vote will be determined by financial donations. He is soliciting a bribe in return for an active or passive vote against Trump. Giving him money would be rigging the election. And no wants to prove Trump right, do they?

17 October 2016

Pressing Trump

The Committee to Protect Journalists has taken the "unprecedented step" of denouncing a U.S. presidential candidate, Donald Trump, as a threat to freedom of the press. The CPJ statement accuses the Republican nominee of having "consistently betrayed First Amendment values." It cites many of his well-known tirades and threats against the media to show that Trump "has consistently demonstrated a contempt for the role of the press beyond offering publicity to him and advancing his interests." For a while I've wanted to ask the people who condemn media bias against Trump why exactly the media should be so hostile to someone who's bound to provide them with plenty of hot copy and clickbait should he be elected. Here, presumably, is a reason, but I imagine that for Trumpists this is a chicken and egg question. If the media is afraid of Trump, they might say, it's because they're afraid of getting what they deserve, whatever that might be. They may resent the lack of accountability the mass media appear to enjoy, and that Trump may intend to remedy, based on his threat to "open up our libel laws." The "mainstream" media is complicit, as far as they're concerned, in the great lie that Trump is something other than the good if not great man his acolytes believe him to be. They remain convinced that Trump is owed something by the media, though the legal basis of that obligation is unclear. Republicans long ago rejected the "equal time" principle or the Fairness Doctrine as threats to the integrity of talk radio and Fox News, so for them to say now that not merely Republicanism but Trumpism is entitled to a voice in the media, or even respect, is hypocritical, just as it would be hypocritical now for advocates of the Fairness Doctrine to say that Trump should expect nothing from the media. What, then, does Trump owe the media? Apart from respecting the First Amendment, who can say? He's within his rights to snub and insult them, I suppose, though that won't win him more favorable coverage. Leaving aside whatever he might do, it's not wrong to ask whether the media should be more accountable when they seem to be one of the great entrenched interests of the country. Since "the media" is a collection of private entities, the first recourse of an angry public is to punish them in the marketplace, though the most that can be done in this regard would be to listen only to the media entity Trump is widely expected to create, should he lose, to exploit his popularity and his fans' anger, and if anything the example of Fox News shows that biased media will only spawn more biased media. If Trump's people want the media to stop "lying," or stop being biased -- that is, stop being biased against them -- nothing short of the "authoritarian power" some want Trump to exercise may do the trick.  I would take these people's objections more seriously if I wasn't convinced that they simply want to silence criticism of Trump, but they do raise questions that ought to be asked without partisanship, and in an ideal world can be answered the same way.

16 October 2016

Does the U.S. need a religious right?

Ross Douthat thinks so. One of the New York Times' house conservatives -- which means that many self-described conservatives probably won't recognize him as one of their own -- Douthat thinks that liberals are gloating too soon at an apparent crack-up of the established religious right over the issue of Donald Trump. The crack-up has split religious conservatives into pro and anti-Trump camps, the latter unable to endorse him after repeated revelations and accusations of sexual thuggery, the former willing to forgive too much, in the eyes of the latter, for no better reason than anti-Clinton partisanship. Douthat doesn't support Trump but wants readers to understand why some devout, apparently moral people might. The main reason is that they think Clinton will be worse for them -- they fear some sort of persecution -- while another is that her condoning of abortion is more immoral than Trump's alleged deeds or recorded fantasies. Douthat also reminds us that many on the religious right opposed Trump during the Republican primaries, preferring Sen. Cruz, Sen. Rubio or Dr. Carson. Overall, however, Douthat is looking beyond 2016. Taking Trump out of the equation, the columnist argues that the country needs a religious right, albeit a really religious one. The Trump movement, he argues, is what you get when you secularize American conservatism. It becomes more divisive than anyone imagined the Moral Majority-era religious right to be. A truly religious right, Douthat hopes, would restore "the pull of transcendance" to conservatism; without it conservatism becomes mere tribalism -- "tribal, cruel and very dark indeed." On an intellectual level I understand what he's trying to say, or at least I understand that he identifies "transcendence" with religion. But there's a certain abstract naivete in his recommendation, since to have a civil society in our time, religion itself, whatever its commitment to transcendence, is one of the things to be transcended. If there's an axis of opinion with "tribalism" at one pole and "transcendence" at the other, it should be obvious to any observer that religion, in any society of many faiths, will always gravitate closer to tribe than to transcendence. The truly transcendent ideal has to be secular in nature because we want citizens' first loyalty to be to the nation and its people as a whole, rather than to the idols or dogma of a particular faith. If anything, Trump's supporters who identify as "religious right" are transcending their dogmas not out of rank partisanship, as Douthat suspects, but out of a sincere if misguided belief that the nation's secular salvation depends on Trump's alleged leadership qualities. But if they're thinking essentially in secular terms, they still remain a sort of religious right. Their religion just happens to be Trump, and that may be what really bothers Douthat. A cult of personality has come into being, increasingly as intolerant of irreverence toward its idol as many Muslims are in their defense of Muhammad. The growing ugliness of this cult may make Douthat idealize the old religion and the old religious right, but those truly committed to secular civilization should reject the idea that the only alternative to some sort of Trump cult is a religious right that did little good for the nation in its heyday and is unlikely to help in the future.

13 October 2016

The real multicultural America

As accusations and anger escalate in the last month of the 2016 presidential campaign, the nation seems divided as never before, or at least more deeply divided than we've seen it in a very long time. It's this division that sustains two of the most miserable excuses for major-party candidates the country has ever seen. It's easy to say that only hatred for Clinton keeps Trump alive as a candidate, and vice versa, but this apparent loop of codependency may not entirely explain the invulnerability of each candidate with his or her base. That is, it doesn't account for what each camp sees as a lack of appropriate moral outrage in the other over the other candidate's failings. What amounts to a cultural divide is most apparent in the controversy over Trump's macho banter captured on a 2005 recording. I don't think that it's just because they hate Hillary Clinton that Trump's real fans have failed to show the outrage the Clinton camp seems to consider obligatory following the revelation. There is, instead, a rejection of the premise that Trump's banter disqualifies him from public office, not just because Bill Clinton is assumed to have said or done the same or worse, but because the Trump people, or many of them, are simply indifferent to it. Media people have been scratching their heads over this phenomenon because that indifference seems utterly alien to them. Only two different cultural mindsets  -- products of age and perhaps education more than anything else --could hear the same things and respond so differently.

The outraged response is what might be expected from a culture identified with "political correctness" and concerned with a social etiquette based on unconditional respect for fellow citizens. According to that etiquette Trump is irredeemably disrespectful, and while consistency might require a retroactive disqualification of Bill Clinton, liberals will remind you that he's not running this year and that his wife is not responsible for his libido. While the other side is happy to call the Clintons and Clintonites out for hypocrisy, by their own standards Trump's utterances or inferred deeds are not a big deal. The consistent line of defense I've heard from female Trump supporters is that all men talk that way in private, or that all people do so, and that such talk is irrelevant to public life. That's just part of what we can call a ballbusting culture to accentuate the contrast with p.c. culture. These people do not spare each other in their banter, confident in the assumption that those in their own culture can take it and disturbed when p.c. outsiders refuse to accept it. While p.c. culture seeks to carve out ever more "safe space" where people's self-esteem isn't threatened by perceived insults or suspicious gazes, the ballbusters have never sought a society founded on unconditional respect, much less unconditional love -- there's not a lot of tribal solidarity among white people, after all -- and pride themselves on their thick skins and overall toughness. To them, to take offense as easily as p.c. does is an admission of weakness that should be cured -- by shock therapy of some sort if necessary -- rather than catered to. Unfortunately, liberals' defense of Clinton can't be explained in terms of their p.c. culture. Something else explains their indifference to the email scandals that have so horrified and nauseated the Trump camp -- perhaps an assumption that, contrary to the Trumpist belief, some ordinary person doing the same things would not be fired or arrested but ignored. Maybe it does come back to p.c. if Clintonites assume that something is being made up of nothing only because their candidate is a woman. In any event, it does seem obvious that p.c. Clintonites feel that ballbusting Trumpists have blown the email issue out of all proportion, just as the Clintonites appear to the Trumpists to have blown Trump's sex talk out of all proportion. We're left with perceptions, possibly culturally determined, that Clinton either gets away with stuff because she's a privileged elitist -- and it may be that ballbusting culture limits what people can "get away with" -- or else is singled out unfairly for special abuse because of who or what she is or represents. Consider these speculations just the beginning of an idea that can stand more work. For now, let me note in closing that the exception that may prove the rule for ballbusters is how whiny they get when their whole culture is challenged, as it seems to be now.

12 October 2016

Idiot of the week candidate: Paul Le Page

The Republican governor of Maine believes that President Obama has governed as an "autocrat," in disregard of the Constitution, for the past eight years. The remedy for this autocracy, Le Page believes, is Donald Trump, or someone like him. He proposes a very strong remedy:

Sometimes I wonder that our Constitution is not only broken, but we need a Donald Trump to show some authoritarian power in our country and bring back the rule of law.

At times like this you can't help imagining a Spaniard whispering in the governor's ear that that word doesn't mean what he thinks it means. But what does "authoritarian" mean, anyway? Part of the problem with the ideological anti-authoritarianism of the Obama Doctrine, which holds that authoritarianism is a major cause of instability around the world, is that the "authoritarian" label is applied to people who are perceived very differently depending on your point of view. Le Page might win the Idiot of the Year election, in a crowded and highly competitive field, if you believe that "authoritarian" is the diametric opposite of "rule of law." But for other people, possible including Donald Trump and Paul Le Page, "authoritarian" simply translates into "strong leader."To be more precise, since I doubt Trump actually uses the word, someone liberals might call "authoritarian," e.g. President Putin of Russia, appears to Trump as a strong leader who appears to have his country united. Of course, a person actually can argue for "authoritarian power," or even outright dictatorship, as a precondition to the re-establishment of rule of law. That was the position of those who supported dictatorship in Chile, for instance, after a communist government was overthrown by a coup d'etat, on the understanding that the dictator would restore the free market, from which civil society and rule of law would follow. I don't know whether Le Page's analysis or recommendations are that sophisticated, but I'm pretty sure, given how many Americans respond to the word "authoritarian," that the governor's endorsement was the last thing the normally praise-hungry Trump wanted to hear at a difficult point in his campaign. Of course, should Trump hear of this and retweet it or praise Le Page, he might take the Idiot title for himself.

Neither balanced nor biased

Nation magazine columnist Eric Alterman is sick and tired of hearing about liberal media bias. He also rejects the idea that the media should be evenhanded in its treatment of the two major parties. Objectivity, he insists, is not the same as evenhandedness or neutrality. "Simple accuracy is what annoys so many conservative complainers," he writes. He concedes, however, that "from a social-science standpoint this assertion is almost impossible to prove." Without sympathy for Republicans, I'd think it impossible to prove by any standard. All media are physically limited and all decisions on how to fill limited space with information are subjective. Editors make personal choices on what's newsworthy that can't be described as objective. The most obvious example from this election cycle is the question of Hillary Clinton's e-mail. For Republicans and Trump supporters the irrefutable proof of media bias is the perceived refusal by the "mainstream" media to pay adequate attention to the email controversy,  much less attention equal to that paid to the Trump scandals his supporters deem irrelevant to the issues of this campaign. Could Alterman claim that the email scandal has received an objectively appropriate amount of coverage, or that it can be determined objectively to be less relevant than Trump's taxes or his fantasies of sexual conquest? In reality he shouldn't have to. It should not be a scandal that media entities, being private,  have self-interested, subjective agendas and are not public utilities with some statutory obligation to treat all political parties equally -- despite the occasional liberal Democratic call for the revival of the Fairness Doctrine. The news media has been partisan practically from the beginning and the public should accept this and act accordingly in the marketplace. If the media seems especially biased against Trump it may be because they fear that he or his supporters do see media as a public utility, the content of which should be determined by the electoral majority and its representatives, and are less concerned about fairness than with turning it into a propaganda tool for Trumpism. In that context private bias might be preferable.

10 October 2016

Neo-Lincolnism at the debate

Was Sean Wilentz one of Hillary Clinton's debate coaches? I couldn't help wondering after the candidate actually invoked the Great Emancipator, whom Wilentz idolizes as a model of deal-making, arm-twisting presidential politicking, while attempting to explain her overly friendly tone towards Wall Street in the leaked excerpts from her secret paid speeches. Of course, she may only have watched Steven Spielberg's Lincoln picture, since she specifically invoked Old Abe's lobbying for the Thirteenth Amendment as seen in that film, which required him to disclaim any desire for racial equality. In Clinton's context, she presumably means us to believe that the best way to get Wall Street on board for economic reform is to assure all the CEOs and hedge fund managers that they're all just nice misunderstood successful people whom she'd trust with the national henhouse. Do you suppose that Donald Trump was in the audience for some of her talks? If he was, I wonder whether he recognized them for what he might call "locker-room talk?"

09 October 2016

If Republicans are looking for a different candidate...

They wouldn't really have to look far to find someone who shares many of their views. As The New York Times reports, courtesy of Wikileaks:

“There is such a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives,” Mrs. Clinton said. The pressure on officials to sell or divest assets in order to serve, she added, had become “very onerous and unnecessary.”

In a separate speech to Goldman Sachs employees the same month, Mrs. Clinton said it was an “oversimplification” to blame the global financial crisis of 2008 on the U.S. banking system.
“It was conventional wisdom,” Mrs. Clinton said of the tendency to blame the banking system. “And I think that there’s a lot that could have been avoided in terms of both misunderstanding and really politicizing what happened.”

When it comes to writing effective financial regulations, Mrs. Clinton said, “The people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry.”

Of course, the GOP could have had a candidate like this, albeit some man without so many scandals -- probably -- but there were too many of them and only one Trump. Now, it seems we have the sort of one on one contest the Republican establishment wanted back in the winter, and it looks like quite a few of them will vote accordingly.

06 October 2016

Wouldn't it be lovely?

There was something pathetic about David Brooks's latest New York Times column, in which, for all intents and purposes, he repudiated Republican conservatism. That wasn't what made it pathetic, but that's where it started. Brooks wrote that someone who thinks of himself as a "taxpayer" first isn't really a good citizen. "The problem with the taxpayer mentality," he writes, "is that you end up serving your individual interest short term but soiling the nest you need to be happy in over the long term." A good citizen, he implies, pays taxes cheerfully if not unquestioningly, which isn't only a repudiation of modern Republicanism but also, as I hope all parties would agree, a repudiation of critical thought. Citizens have a right within reason to question why taxes are levied and how they are spent. That's true whether you think taxes are wasted on Welfare or wasted on war. Reasonably enough, Brooks argues that "Some things the government does are uncontroversial goods: protecting us from enemies, preserving the health and dignity of the old and infirm. These things have to be paid for, and in the societies we admire, everybody helps." But everyone knows there's more to taxes than that, and questioning the expense and purpose of taxation doesn't itself make someone the sort of atomized wretch Brooks decries. Still, it's not his new(?) view on taxes, inspired by Donald Trump's "brilliance," that makes Brooks's column mildly pathetic. Instead, it's the simpering language with which the columnist idealizes a sort of sentimental patriotism that may once have prevailed in this country, but definitely doesn't now.

The older citizenship mentality ... starts with the warm glow of love of country. It continues with a sense of sweet gratitude that the founders of the country, for all their flaws, were able to craft a structure of government that is suppler and more lasting than anything we seem to be able to craft today.The citizen enjoys a sweet reverence for all the gifts that have been handed down over time, and a generous piety about country that is the opposite of arrogance. Out of this sweet parfait of emotions comes a sense of a common beauty that transcends individual beauty. There’s a sense of how a lovely society is supposed to be. This means that the economic desire to save money on taxes competes with a larger desire to be part of a lovely world.

So sweet is Brooks's vision that I found myself suddenly craving insulin. Even more appalling is his apparent adoption of "the lovely society" as his latest buzzword. "In a lovely society we all pull our fair share....In a lovely society everybody practices a kind of social hygiene....In a lovely society everyone feels privilege, but the rich feel a special privilege. They know that they have already been given more than they deserve, and that it is actually not going to hurt all that much to try to be worthy of what they’ve received." This is Brooks's alternative to Trumpism, yet it makes you long to hear Trump heckle him, just to break the mood. Now I'm probably being too hard on the columnist. Edit out the hackneyed language and his is a vision of a good society. It's also a naive vision. I doubt whether that warm glow of love is possible or sustainable in advanced (decadent?) cultures like ours that accept very few things unconditionally, though my ironic guess is that the Americans most likely to describe their feelings this way are those most likely to support Trump. That he appears to love the country uncritically, as perhaps only a rich old white man can, is a big part of his appeal. The rest of us may find the degree of "reverence" or "piety" Brooks appears to want suspiciously "collectivist" or "totalitarian," depending on our ideologies. Perhaps public education can inculcate something like what Brooks wants without the cloying language, but I suspect that there was a reason why many appeals to patriotism in the 20th century equated love of nation with love of a leader. It may be that once developed nations have gone through the sort of upheaval that recent centuries have seen, once people are self-consciously divided against each other along lines of class, ethnicity or ideology, the sort of lovely love Brooks longs for simply can't return until something new becomes the object of collective love and virtual patriotism. The idea that Donald Trump might be that object for a lot of people appalls a lot of other people, but if not him, who -- or what? And if we find Brooks's emotive language appalling in its own way, can we offer a compelling alternative. We may think of some, but if something more than reason is needed to bind us together as citizens, as Brooks seems to imply in attacking the self-interest of the taxpayer mentality, what does any of us have to offer at this point in history?

03 October 2016

Taxing Trump

There's a certain tone-deafness to much of the commentary inspired by the New York Times' revelation that Donald Trump claimed nearly one billion dollars in losses in 1995 and thus was exempt from paying personal income taxes for many years. If critics hope to impress people with the idea that Trump thus got away without paying his "fair share" of taxes, they probably hope in vain. Those who already believe that people like Trump should pay their "fair share" regardless of the circumstances almost certainly have decided already against voting for him. It's more likely that many Americans disregard the "pay your fair share" argument because they want to pay as little in taxes as possible, for one thing, and for another such people most likely believe that taxes are objectively too high, on the assumption that they're being spent primarily on objects they object to -- Welfare, foreign aid, etc. -- or else simply go into politicians or their cronies' pockets. If there's a story to exploit here, it's about the $916,000,000 loss and how it would seem to refute the otherwise indestructible image of Trump among his cultists as a "highly skilled" businessman. Even then, however, there's room to doubt whether the news will have any effect. For most of the cult, the assumption that Trump is successful is based on the fact that he appears successful now, which would appear to show that he came back from whatever ailed him twenty years ago. That Trump may have owed his survival to the laws of the land that allow for bankruptcy filings and write-offs on your tax forms most likely won't impress the cult. It would only reinforce Trump's own narrative, according to which his mastery at working the system makes him ideally qualified to reform it, though why he should want to when it works so well for him is a mystery for another time. The fact is that there's no shame in his sphere of business or among those who idolize his sort of businessman.  Once upon a time someone who got into Trump's sort of predicaments might have been dragged to debtor's prison, or expected to kill himself for defaulting on obligations. Luckily for Trump we live in a more civilized world today, but people like him sometimes seem not to appreciate the benefits of an indulgent civilization when the stakes are much lower quantitatively, yet are just as high qualitatively for working-class people. The Trumps of our society always get another chance, unless they're dumb enough to get arrested, convicted and jailed, yet often espouse "or else" options for others. And while Trump and his acolytes rail against the biased media, Trump himself owes it to that same media that so many people perceive him as an invincible success story, not to mention a leader, since that helped make him credible when he fired game show contestants for all those years. The real key to Trump's success in the long term may be that no one has yet been in a position to fire him.