24 July 2017

The wrong kind of pride

There was something like a scandal in my neighborhood a few weeks ago when two employees of a local tattoo parlor were effectively hounded into quitting their jobs after they were outed as members or affiliates of the Proud Boys, a self-styled "western supremacist" group. The Alt, a relatively new weekly paper following in the footsteps of the late Metroland, decided to look deeper into what the Proud Boys (and their female auxiliaries) are about. The surprising thing about Jaya Sundaresh's report is that the Southern Poverty Law Center, the leading watchdog of supremacist groups, isn't too concerned about the Proud Boys, at least for now. An SLPC representative told Sundaresh that Proud Boys founder Gavin MacInnes disavows racism and anti-semitism, opening the group to anyone who, in another writer's words, "recognize[s] that white men are not the problem." People closer to home are more concerned, mainly with the Proud Boys' reputation as street fighters. A Proud Boy reportedly attains the fourth and highest degree of membership for "enduring a major conflict related to the crowd." This is understood to mean that Proud Boys are prepared to do battle with their counterparts on the left, the "antifa" movement, though MacInnes insists that his Boys are to fight defensively -- presumably in defense of the targets of antifa demonstrations. Of course, street fighting + "western supremacism" = "storm troopers" in the leftist imagination, as confirmed by an Oregon professor who tells Sundaresh that the Proud Boys look like "a deliberate effort to reproduce the conditions that led to the emergence of fascism." From this perspective, MacInnes becomes a more sinister figure, "trying to insert authoritarianism and totalitarianism into the mainstream." Other critics point to the more eccentric rituals of Proud Boy membership -- to attain the second degree, reportedly, one must run a gauntlet while shouting as many breakfast cereal brand names as one can recall -- as reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan. Elsewhere in the July 19 issue, columnist Miriam Axel-Lute argues that boycott threats against the tattoo parlor were justified. She sneers at "self-professed liberals clutching their pearls over the fact that this became an issue at all." Such liberals are "more concerned with avoiding conflict than actually protecting anybody," Axel-Lute writes. Two people losing their jobs are trivial, she contends, compared to the hate crimes that have become routine in America. I can't help wondering whether she'd be as indifferent to people getting pressured into quitting their jobs because they were found to sympathize with antifa, but had not actually participated in any demonstrations to anyone's knowledge. As far as Axel-Lute is concerned, the customer is always right, or at least those customers are who "have every right to be actually scared for their safety around people " like the Proud Boys.

Ideologues are entitled to double standards, of course, since they really believe that some groups deserve to be treated differently from others.  The rest of us may wonder what the difference is, especially when it seems that the antifa people usually are the aggressors in public confrontations. I'm not thrilled by the emergence of street fighters on either side of the ideological divide, but beyond that I'd like to withhold judgment on the Proud Boys until I learn what they think "the problem" is. Judgment is rarely withheld for movements like this, and MacInnes probably asked for it by describing the Boys as "supremacists" rather than as a mere "pride" movement. But the difference in terminology probably wouldn't have made much difference. You always hear white people asking why they can't have a White Pride week or month, or a Western Civilization celebration. The glib answer to their complaint is that every day is White Pride Day in the U.S.A., but such a comeback shouldn't obscure the existence of an actual double standard on the subject of pride. In the 21st century U.S., it seems, only appeals to "white" or "western" or "European" pride are seen as inherently supremacist. Despite the existence of actual black supremacist groups like the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters, only among whites is "pride" assumed to be implicitly derogatory toward everyone else. For any other group, asserting "pride" is understood to mean, "We're great, too!" while an assertion of "white pride" is understood to mean, "We're the greatest, and the rest of you suck!" It would be stupid to deny that non-whites  have some historic reasons to be suspicious of assertions of white male or even "western" pride, but their suspicions should not absolutely preclude the possibility of white (or at least western) pride that is not exclusionary or derogatory. After all, for many 20th century liberals it was the supreme point of pride in western civilization that it welcomed all who approached it with open minds, and many liberals today no doubt have great pride in an idealized western civilization that theoretically encompasses all other civilizations instead of subjugating or exterminating them. The Proud Boys probably aren't so idealistic as that, but everything else being equal -- for this is America, ain't it? -- is that reason enough for them to lose their jobs? I understand that a lot of people already perceive them as the enemy, but their own treatment of them is most likely the quickest way to turn perception into reality.

18 July 2017

THINK 3 VIDEO NEWS: A neighborhood gutted

By the time I got back to Albany from work last night a torrential rainstorm had made the State Street hill below the Capitol look like a waterfall. By the time I got home to Dana Avenue I had no thought of going back out, and with the AC running and the TV on I never heard any sirens that night. But just a stone's throw away part of the 400 block of Madison Avenue, just east of the busy Lark Street intersection, was burning. To give regular readers a sense of location, the house with all the anti-Trump posters in its windows that I showcased a while back is a few doors further up the street and apparently was undamaged by the fire.

I only found out about the fire the old-fashioned way, by reading about it in this morning's paper. On my way to work I took a very slight detour to inspect the damage.


Approximately twelve hours later I was back in Albany, and this was the same block after four 19th century row houses had been torn down.


For now, investigators don't consider the fire suspicious, but still have no real idea how it started. About a dozen people were displaced by the blaze, and the Center Square neighborhood will be scarred for some time, perhaps for years to come.

17 July 2017

'Lenin is more alive than all the living'

This year sees the centennial of the Russian Revolution, a two-stage event in which the abdication of Nicholas II led to the creation of a republic which was in turn overthrown by the Bolshevik "October Revolution" that created the Soviet Union. I'm not sure how Russia plans to observe the occasion, for while Vladimir Putin has said the the collapse of the USSR in 1991 was a tragedy of world history, he's reportedly not that big a fan of the man who created that entity, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The current Russian leader is more of a Stalin fan, not because Lenin's successor was more totalitarian or more vicious but because he was a patriotic hero who defeated Hitler and made his nation a superpower. Whatever Putin's attitude, Lenin's on the minds of many people and bookstores are full of new books on the Revolution. Several of them have been covered in recent review articles in The Nation and Harper's. While those publications are left of center, many of the new books are, if not conservative in theme, still definitely unsympathetic or unforgiving toward Lenin as the founder of a dictatorship that ruled through terror. Some of the authors describe the Bolshevik uprising as a coup d'etat rather than a revolution, while the critics think that the authors go too far in describing the event as Lenin's opportunistic conspiracy, rather than a moment made possible, if not forced, by special historical circumstances that would not have changed much in Lenin's absence. In short, despite the fall of the Soviet Union the debate over Lenin's legacy goes on, and no doubt will go on as long as people remain unreconciled to the rule of capitalism. This is a debate within the left, of course, since the right and much of the center have been convinced since 1917 that Lenin was the devil. It's also in large part a debate about Stalin, the question being whether Stalinism follows inevitably or inherently from Leninism, or whether Stalin's excesses and atrocities were aberrations born of his own wickedness.

Even if you leave Stalin out of it, Leninism raises grave issues about revolutionary entitlement. Lenin, after all, is the man who decided that a revolutionary vanguard did not have to wait for the proletariat to develop sufficient class consciousness in the inevitable but protracted manner Marx predicted, but was entitled to seize any opportunity to push history forward. Most importantly and provocatively, he felt entitled to seize power and keep it by silencing dissenters and killing them if necessary. From a liberal perspective, there's little solace in the fact that Lenin had no desire to be worshiped, as Stalin apparently did, and was not murderously paranoid about his own comrades, as Stalin definitely was. Lenin claimed to act in the name of the people, but he did so on the assumption that he knew better on objective grounds what the people's interest was than the people themselves. Lenin will always be with us, probably, because democracy is constantly challenged by the idea that the people's (or the planet's) interest is not simply whatever the people (or any given electorate) say it is. Liberal democracy is always beset on two sides by those convinced that the people's interest has already been defined beyond dispute by divine revelation and those convinced that they can reason it out for themselves and act accordingly in defiance of all disagreement. In more specific terms Lenin still represents an alternative to capitalism to those convinced that some alternative must exist. They may recoil from Lenin's own extreme measures, but they may worry that to repudiate and vilify Lenin entirely is of necessity to endorse capitalism. They may also be the audience for Slavoj Zizek's oft-repeated advice, recycled anew for a volume exploiting the centennial, to recognize Lenin as a failure while endeavoring to "fail better," in Samuel Beckett's words, at the general goal of emancipating humanity from capitalist alienation through revolutionary mobilization. You may not want to go that far, but so long as it remains theoretically possible to reason out a common good that isn't subject to a vote, Lenin is unlikely to stay on the ash heap of history.

Speaking of history, here's a funny story. One of the things Putin doesn't like about Lenin, reportedly, is that he allowed a right to secession that was taken advantage of in 1991, killing the USSR. It makes you wonder why Stalin didn't do something about that. The answer probably is that Stalin's own 1936 constitution was full of civil liberties that no one took seriously, so what did he care about any one of those rights? Make of that what you will, but what do you make of the apparent fact that the Soviet Union, the epitome of totalitarianism, permitted exactly that thing which Abraham Lincoln claimed that the U.S. Constitution, the epitome of liberal democracy, did not, and that when Americans asserted that right in spite of Lincoln hundreds of thousands of people died, but when Soviet republics asserted their right, the "evil empire" went down without a fight?

13 July 2017

Corrupt politician freed on technicality

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, Sheldon Silver's conviction for corruption in office has been overturned by a federal appeals court. Not so long ago, Silver arguably was the most powerful politician in New York State as speaker of the state assembly and leader of its Democratic majority. Like his Republican counterpart in the state senate, Dean Skelos, Silver exemplified pay-for-play politics in the Empire State until federal prosecutor Preet Bharara brought both men down. Today's decision doesn't reflect on Bharara's legacy from what I can tell, for the appeals court doesn't dispute that Silver did what he was accused of doing. Apparently, what you call whatever he was doing is the problem. The appeals court was guided by a unanimous ruling issued last year by our notoriously divided Supreme Court. That ruling overturned the conviction of a former governor of Virginia and in doing so narrowed the range of activities that count as "corruption" in criminal cases, excluding what the New York Times paraphrased as "routine political courtesies" like arranging meetings or securing contacts for "constituents" (i.e. donors) In the Silver case, the appeals court holds that the instructions to the jury should have reflected this new standard for corruption. Silver's conviction is held to be unfair since, despite the appeal judges' own doubts, a jury properly instructed may have seen wiggle room for an acquittal. Unsurprisingly, Bharara's successor as federal prosecutor vows to get Silver convicted again, but the highest court in the land may have made that result less likely. Just as opponents of limits on campaign donations argue that no corruption results from them unless you can read a politician's mind and prove that money changed it, so the courts now claim that there is no "official" corruption in most of the favors politicians may do for their most favored constituents. This is the sort of subject I'd like to see the President tweet about. As a mighty businessman, Donald Trump may well find the Silver ruling a just one. As the self-styled champion of ordinary Americans against a corrupt political class, might he think or at least tweet differently?  I wonder if we'll ever find out....

12 July 2017

Are Republicans mourning Joe?

Joe Scarborough was a "Contract With America" Republican who was elected to Congress in the anti-Clinton wave of 1994. He served four terms before dropping out. Since then, he's been best known as the co-host and namesake of Morning Joe and the main representative of conservative opinion on MSNBC. Scarborough announced last night that while he still considered himself conservative on many issues, mostly economic, he no longer considered himself a Republican. His switch to "independent" status is intended as a personal repudiation of President Trump and a Republican majority too cowardly, in Scarborough's eyes, to criticize Trump's excesses. The TV host has in mind not just the insults Trump lobbed at his co-host and fiancee Mika Brzezinki via twitter, but a stench of bigotry he senses in the Trump movement. Perhaps now Eric Alterman will stop complaining in his Nation column about Scarborough's supposed sycophancy toward Trump, but I'm not sure this news will make anyone else change their minds about Trump or Scarborough. It may count as a milestone, however, in a Trumpification of the Republican party that may in return revise the terms of political discourse in this country. On Fox News, Sean Hannity calls Scarborough "Liberal Joe" for no better reason that I'm aware of than that Scarborough opposes Trump. I suspect many rank and file Republicans, or Trump voters at least, feel the same way: you're either for Trump or you're with the enemy, i.e. "liberalism." But as many ideological or self-styled "principled" conservatives continue to oppose the President of grounds of policy and/or temperament, will they all become "liberal" too? What does "liberal" mean at that point? If we still think of anti-Trump Republicans as "conservatives," since that's how they still think of themselves, can "liberal" still mean the opposite of "conservative?" Of course, these terms only became antonymical when Democrats identified with one term and Republicans with the other. Historically, the "conservatism" identified with the late 20th century Republican party was an outgrowth of "classical" (i.e. 19th century) liberalism, and probably wouldn't be recognized by the "conservatives" of earlier times as much like their own beliefs. Does that mean that Trump represents a "real conservatism" re-emerging as old debates over the role of the state in the economy lose their defining force? It's probably too early to say. For now, and should the Republicans crack up further, keep in mind that "liberal" can be the opposite not only of "conservative" but of "radical," by virtue of liberalism's reluctance to undertake reforms, much less revolutionary action, that may provoke or require violence in getting to the root of problems in the original sense of the word. The question of our time may not be whether Trump or Scarborough is the "real conservative," but whether the Trump movement is alienating Scarborough-style conservatives because it's something else entirely.

10 July 2017

The state of exception in the exceptional nation

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist and one of the harshest critics of Vladimir Putin. "Over the years many Russians, including me, have come to believe that the [1999] apartment-building bombings in Moscow and elsewhere were organized and carried out by the FSB, the [Russian] intelligence agency, in order to shore up Putin's power grab," she writes in the July Harper's. She admits that "we do not know enough" about these incidents, but insists that "it is certainly too early to exonerate Putin and the FSB," observing that "this paucity of information, too, is one of the signs of autocracy." Gessen is not dismissed out of hand as a Russian "truther," I presume, because Americans simply assume that Putin, if not Russians in general, are more ethically or culturally capable of such things than their American counterparts. Gessen is here to warn us, however, that something similar may be in store for America under Donald Trump. To be clear, she isn't predicting a "false flag" terrorist attack and is not claiming that the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. were anything like that. More precisely, Gessen warns that Trump could use any large-scale terrorist attack as a "Reichstag fire," an opportunity or excuse to impose authoritarian rule on the United States.

Following the political philosophers Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben, Gessen warns Harper's readers about the potential for a "state of exception" during the War on Terror. Created as a concept and promoted by the pro-Nazi Schmitt and repackaged as menace by Agamben in our time, the idea of the "state of exception" is that during an emergency (real or fake) the "sovereign" has the power to declare that old rules no longer apply and make new rules. In Gessen's summary,  it is less a slippery slope than a cartoon snowball deliberately sent rolling down the mountain. "The emergency enables a quantum leap: The sovereign has to have enough power to declare a state of exception, and then by the declaration he acquires far greater, unchecked power. That is what makes the change irreversible, and the state of exception permanent." In practice, Gessen implies, the state of exception is the rationale for a dictatorship that is the sovereign's real goal, while the emergency only provides the pretext. For Hitler, the Reichstag fire, whether the work of Nazi arsonists or the lone nut actually convicted, justified a state of exception under which he consolidated his dictatorship. For Putin, as far as Gessen is concerned, the 1999 bombings provided a similar pretext. In the 21st century U.S., she claims, the pretext already exists thanks to 9/11. The state of exception was already called into being by George W. Bush, and was perpetuated by Barack Obama, both violating a 1976 law requiring Congress to confirm a state of emergency within six months of a presidential declaration. Gessen is compelled to compliment the last two presidents on their "restraint" for "not utiliz[ing] some of the more extreme possibilities of the state of emergency,' but worries that the current President will show no such restraint.

What, then, is exceptional about Donald Trump? Gessen claims that "he has already shown that he can deftly use the coercive power of the state being at war." Her evidence for this hardly seems to justify her dire warning. "During his first address to a joint session of Congress, Trump orchestrated more than two minutes of applause for the widow of a fallen Navy SEAL," she writes. Perhaps she has spent too much time covering Russia, if she doesn't know that presidents since Reagan have practiced this sort of  "naked cynicism that left no one in the audience any choice but to stand and applaud" by suing soldiers or their survivors as props for applause lines. She sees something extra and sinister, however, in the fact that the Breitbart web site "falsely claimed that several top Democrats had refused to" applaud. To Gessen, "This was a preview of the coercion by national unity that we talk about when we talk about the Reichstag fire." My hunch, however, is that you probably can find evidence of Fox News or radio talkers making similar charges against "unpatriotic" Democrats during the Bush administration.

Apparently, the peril of states of exception depends on the people in power, since Gessen notes that "Not all the periods of exception are remembered as repressive." She cites several occasions in American history when a formal or informal state of exception appeared to justify repressive measures that were soon rolled back, from the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams to the excesses of Joe McCarthy. The difference now, again, seems to be something about Trump. That difference, believe it or not, seems to be that Donald Trump is not merely authoritarian in his temperament, as many claim him to be, but all-out totalitarian. I'd better let Gessen try to explain this.

A key characteristic of the most frightening regimes of the past hundred years is mobilization. This is what distinguishes the merely authoritarian regimes from the totalitarian ones. Authoritarians prefer their subjects passive, tending to their private lives while the authoritarian and his cronies amass wealth and power. The totalitarian wants people out in the square; he craves their adulation and devotion, their willingness to fight and die for him....To totalitarianism watchers, Trump's campaign rallies, which segued into his victory rallies, including his 'America First' inauguration,have looked familiar and perhaps more worrisome than an imaginary future [Reichstag] fire. To historians of the twenty-first century, however, they will likely look like logical steps from the years of war rhetoric that preceded them, not quantum leaps. A nation can be mobilized only if it knows its enemy and believes in its own peril.

In other words, because Donald Trump is a demagogue, he is a potential totalitarian dictator. By this standard, we dodged a deadly bullet during the Clinton years, given how notoriously Bill was said to crave the love of the people. Had he served a third term and led us through 9/11, perhaps things would be different! But no. Judging from those aspects of Trump's agenda Gessen most wants us to oppose, Trump is dangerous not because he craves applause -- though he clearly does -- but because he's a bigot, and bigots are the most dangerous potential authoritarians or totalitarians of all despite the fact that the most bigoted of Americans have formed a key part of the base for the party of "limited government" for the past fifty years. Let's grant that bigotry in wartime could well be worse than bigotry in general -- ask Japanese-Americans about that -- but that still doesn't prove that bigotry itself or even a fondness for the sound of one's own voice accurately predicts a desire for dictatorship. So is it that Trump is just an egomaniac, or just a greedy businessman, or has bad hair and an unnatural complexion -- or is it the other way around?

Actually, it's a trick question, since Gessen closes her article by warning readers against "the assumption that things were fine until Americans inexplicably elected Trump." The problem isn't really Trump at all, or else he's only part of the real problem that dates back to the turn of the century, for which Bush and Obama share much of the responsibility. The problem, Gessen concludes, is the War on Terror itself.  In her eyes, the 95 Americans killed in "attacks ostensibly driven by jihadist ideology" since September 2001 pale in comparison to the hundreds of Americans killed by police in "killings [that are] extrajudicial by definition" in only the first quarter of 2017. She finds it sufficient to tabulate that "an American has a lesser chance of dying in a terrorist attack carried out by a refugee than of being struck by lightning." No fear that you feel justifies what the state has done since 9/11, Gessen argues, and "to be worthy of the lofty name 'resistance,' the opposition to Trump must aim to break the country's post-9/11 trajectory. It must question the very premise of the war on terror, challenge the very fact of a perpetual state of emergency." In the end, Gessen is somewhat grateful to Trump, since his already-obnoxious presidency has made American civil society "far stronger, paradoxically, than it was before the election." That leaves me wondering what she takes as evidence of a resurgent civil society, though I suspect it may look highly and ironically "mobilized." Her odd mix of alarmism and optimism leaves one wondering again about the resiliency of liberal democratic political order in the face of emergencies that liberal democrats would prefer never to happen. My worry is that the 21st century will see more emergencies, not all of which can be dismissed as irrational fear of strangers or necessarily met by exclusively liberal measures. Liberalism distrusts emergencies because it assumes that political decisions are never matters of life and death. In treating the last election as a matter of life and death, liberalism arguably has betrayed itself without effectively addressing any of the emergencies facing the nation or the world.

06 July 2017

Trump on western values: "We want God."

The President is in Poland today to address a summit meeting of the Three Seas Initiative, an informal organization of central and eastern European nations. He's there in part to tout the U.S. as an alternative energy supplier that would never withhold energy supplies for the sake of political intimidation, unlike You Know Who. In case you don't know, in one of his speeches today Trump pointedly recounted the sad fate of the Warsaw Uprising during World War II, when Poles were slaughtered by Nazi occupiers while Russian (I mean Soviet) armies stood by within striking distance, presumably content to let a resistance unbeholden to Moscow get annihilated. In case anyone was still confused, the President explicitly admonished Russia to "cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere." Ukraine is not a member of the Three Seas Initiative, but many actual members were formerly part of the Warsaw Pact or the Soviet Union itself and are hardly fans of an assertive Russia. For what it was worth, Trump also called on the Russians to end "support for hostile regimes, including Syria and Iran, and to instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself." At this point a Russian might interject that Syria and its Iranian ally are frontline states in the defense of civilization as hands-on opponents of the self-styled Islamic State. One Russian in particular may well remind the President later this week that his nation, which claims to have killed the IS's self-styled caliph in an airstrike, is doing more in the defense of civilization than Trump has in his preoccupation with so-called "hostile" states. Choose your own side in that theoretical discussion but acknowledge that the President's Warsaw speech is not what you should expect to hear from someone supposedly in bed with the Russians, unless Trump is more subtle and devious than anyone could believe.

In fact, despite his acknowledgment that Europe "no longer confronts the specter of communism," his idea of western civilization seems to have been shaped by the Cold War. His civilizational rhetoric seems to have gotten the most attention in the media, perhaps because liberals worry that such talk, coming from an old white guy, is implicitly exclusionary. I suppose it was to some extent, given how much it sounded like simple Republican conservatism. He told the Poles that big government was virtually as grave an internal threat to western civ as terrorism was an external threat.

This danger is invisible to some but familiar to the Poles: the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people.The West became great, not because of paperwork and regulations, but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.

Just as much as terrorism, bureaucracy "threaten[s] over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are.If left unchecked, [it] will undermine our courage, sap our spirit and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies." In western civ, Trump says, "We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives....We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons anywhere on Earth, but if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive." Religion appears to be inextricable from the rest of it. To listen to Trump today, it wasn't Ronald Reagan who won the Cold War, but John Paul II. Of course, the President may simply have meant to flatter his Polish hosts by praising their national hero, but I had the feeling that he really believes what he said.

[W]hen the day came on June 2nd, 1979, and 1 million Poles gathered around Victory Square for their very first mass with their Polish pope, that day every Communist in Warsaw must have known that their oppressive system would soon come crashing down.They must have known it at the exact moment during Pope John Paul II's sermon when a million Polish men, women and children suddenly raised their voices in a single prayer.A million Polish people did not ask for wealth. They did not ask for privilege. Instead, 1 million Poles saying three simple words: ``We want God.'' In those words, the Polish people recalled the promise of a better future....Their message is as true today as ever. The people of Poland, the people of America and the people of Europe still cry out, ``We want God.''

I hadn't noticed many Americans crying for God, but perhaps I'm not in the right social-media bubble. In mine -- which for all I know may be a bubble of one --  the defense of civilization Trump seems so gung-ho for has little meaning if it doesn't defend our right to say "We don't want God" and not just "We don't want Allah." Today, at least, that didn't seem like a high priority for the President. Perhaps he was pandering to a more devoutly Catholic country -- he definitely got the "Donald Trump! Donald Trump!" chants he presumably wanted -- and perhaps he meant the speech to play well with his Christianist constituents at home as well. But an American President can go too far with this God talk, however much it pleases the pious. It can alienate many who identify fully with western civ without identifying with religion at all. The last thing Trump should want to do is tell these people that they're wrong.

05 July 2017

Dignity

David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, wrote the lead comment for the July 10 issue before the controversy broke out over the GIF showing Donald Trump beating up a CNN stand-in, but after the President had posted his ad hominem tweets against the co-hosts of Morning Joe. "When has any politician done so much, so quickly, to demean his office, his country, and even the language in which he attempts to speak?" Remnick asks, "Every day, Trump wakes up and erodes the dignity of the Presidency a little more." He worries that "the atmosphere of debasement and indignity in the White House ... is contagious." He's probably right to worry, but Trump is not Patient Zero. In purely aesthetic terms, his is certainly the most undignified rhetoric of any President, but in the race to the bottom of indignity in America he is follower more than leader. Meanwhile, a preoccupation with "dignity" probably isn't helping Trump's critics, either in opposition or within his own party. To Trump's base, it most likely looks like snobbery, especially among those for whom the President himself and his family epitomize "class."

Those who find the President undignified tend, like Remnick, to identify his indignity with his petty trolling of opponents. Trump lacks dignity, the argument might go, because he shows no respect to anyone who disagrees with him. But Trump's real fans probably see no sacrifice in dignity in calling things as you see them, and probably consider insults the least of what his enemies deserve. While some Republicans are just as repelled by Trump's social-media shenanigans, those probably matter more to Democrats, not just because Trump is a partisan enemy, but because his trolling habits offend their sense of egalitarian dignity. Their theory of democracy includes an entitlement to dignity; each person is owed respect as a human being, while people's status as equal citizens is threatened when their identities as individual or group members are disrespected. That's why Trump's insults are so often perceived as threats. Protests against those perceived threats, meanwhile, make little impression on observers whose idea of democracy requires a degree of mutual accountability apparently denied by both the subculture of political correctness and a political culture that privileges dissent and "speaking truth to power." From that perspective, appeals to "dignity" simply rationalize an unfair refusal to allow the President or his people to answer in kind attacks on their character that aren't exactly dignified themselves.

While "speaking truth to power" is a slogan of the left, the privileging of dissent is a general American tendency, arguably inevitable in a polity and culture that value "freedom" more than anything else. We've reached the point where the absence of something like Fox News or MSNBC marks a country as dangerously authoritarian in many eyes. Dissent is the health of the state from this perspective, while any suggestion that dissent goes too far sounds like a call for the suppression of all dissent. When the only proof of a free (if not a good) society is your ability to bitch at the leaders, an unlevel playing field of discourse becomes increasingly apparent to whoever supports the party in power, belying the rhetoric of egalitarian dignity, and attacks on opponents' dignity will seem increasingly appropriate and gratifying. In an ideal republic mutual respect and mutual accountability are perfectly compatible, but that's not where Americans live. Accountability arguably is the higher priority here, and that may require us to endure some undignified times.

03 July 2017

21st Century Presidential: American politics as wrestlemania

A regular correspondent of this blog likes to harp on Donald Trump's association with Vince McMahon as a performer for McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment. I tended to dismiss such comments, attributing them to the writer's obsession with wrestling. Now, however, the President himself has invited comparisons by retweeting an animated GIF showing himself manhandling some WWE personality, over whose head is superimposed a CNN logo. What followed further illustrated the cultural divide in the country. The liberal media, along with some establishment politicians, predictably recoiled in horror and disgust, drawing the equally predictable conclusion that Trump was promoting violence against the media. Little of this outraged commentary showed any awareness that the GIF was no more than a variation on memes that have been around for some time and have nothing to do with advocating violence. You'll see what I mean if you look at comment threads on the popular sports news websites. Whenever someone or some team beats someone else in decisive fashion, you'll often see GIFs much like the Trump vs. CNN graphic. People like to take clips of the wrestler Randy Orton using his finishing move, the RKO, "out of nowhere!" on an opponent, and superimpose heads or team logos over the heads of Orton and his victim. With the President, whoever created the CNN GIF has the advantage of footage showing Trump himself as a sort of wrestler. That GIF no more advocates violence against CNN on Trump's behalf than any of the Randy Orton GIFs advocate violence against the person or team symbolically taking the RKO -- because the victim in all these GIFs has already been defeated. The Trump GIF was clearly meant to signify an apparent Trump victory over CNN last week, when the news channel retracted one of its stories about links between Trump people and Russia, leading three reporters to resign.  I suspect that at least some media people understood this, but still found Trump's recourse to retweeting GIFs and memes, the practice Trump himself now describes as "21st Century Presidential," beneath the dignity of his office. This only allowed Republicans to score more points, as they have for years now, against liberal/Democratic humorlessness.

Those chiding the President over the GIF, one of his supporters told CNN this morning, need to stop taking everything (especially themselves) so seriously. He also cited the self-evident fakery of professional wrestling to dismiss any thought that the GIF incited actual violence. I doubt he changed any minds, as liberals are hardwired, it seems, to believe that Trump and the people who support him are inherently violent, just as the values they espouse are inherently cruel. I want to elaborate on the important distinction between"cruelty" and "toughness" in the near future, but it's enough for now to note that this latest outrage over a presidential tweet exposes something about the President's critics (as distinguished from his opponents) more than it exposes the President himself. They do take a lot of things too seriously, just as their opposite numbers refuse to take seriously a lot of things they should. What Trump does on social media could be equated with wrestlers cutting promos, boosting themselves while belittling their antagonists in order to keep viewers (or followers) interested, but you could just as easily say that about social media as a whole: a lot of chest-beating trash talk with hardly any genuine threat behind it. Depending on the measurements you use, professional wrestling has declined steeply in popularity from its modern peak in the late 1990s, -- though I've found the evolution of wrestling fandom increasingly fascinating -- but that may be because public life has become so much more like wrestling in our time, with people getting "worked" at every level of their lives, that the actual matches hardly seem special anymore. Rather than a poor imitation of sport, it's become a poor imitation of life, while the Trumpster lays the smack down for real from coast to coast.

29 June 2017

Tweets and twits

Since the administration of John Adams, presidents of the United States have been satirized, vilified and caricatured by opposition media with little regard for the dignity of either the office or the men who occupied it. The vilification and caricaturing of President Trump is nothing new, nor is it unprecedented in its vulgarity or obscenity, though the hostility shown toward him may be more inescapably pervasive in our age of cable news and social media. What seems unprecedented to many is the manner in which the current President talks or tweets back at his critics. Some previous presidents -- notably Andrew Jackson, whom Trump sees as something of a model, and Harry Truman -- were known for their salty or straight talk, depending on who was listening, but in their days millions of Americans didn't receive every overnight outburst from a President on their cellphones. Today, it is feared that President Trump further debases our public discourse every time he lashes out on Twitter. He faces a new storm of criticism after lashing out at Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, and his fiancee Mika Brzezinski, the co-hosts of MSNBC's middle-of-the-road Morning Joe show. No one seems to know what specifically triggered the President, but Morning Joe has often criticized him, despite allegations from the likes of Eric Alterman that the hosts actually toady to Trump. In any event, the President went on a typical ad hominem (and feminam) attack, calling Scarborough "Psycho Joe" while mocking Brzezinski's supposed poor facelift in lurid terms and, as always when he attacks media figures, accusing their show of failing in the ratings. For his trouble, he has been rebuked by Republicans as well as Democrats, but what else is new? Meanwhile, his spokespeople defend his right to go tit-for-tat with those who mock and slander him.

Since the days of Adams and Jefferson, media figures have been vilified and caricatured nearly as often as their officeholding targets -- and in those days they could be challenged to duels or beaten in the street, depending on their perceived social status. If anything is new now, it's that the President or other top politicians don't have to rely on surrogates to heap mud on their media enemies. The freedom with which politicians can spew unfiltered opinions or insults alarms some people and simply disgusts others. Forgive me if I read like a Republican for a second, but I fear a double standard is at work here. Trump's tweets are condemned, by presumed political allies as well as partisan antagonists, for degrading the dignity of his high office. But there seems to be no regard for that same office or its dignity when the opposition takes rhetorical or pictorial potshots at this particular President. It can no doubt be argued that in a liberal democracy dissent should have more license than authority, and it will almost certainly be argued that Donald Trump is the first cause of any debasement of the office he occupies. It's still unconvincing to blame Trump alone (or the Republicans, or conservative media, or the alt-right) for the perhaps terminal decline in American civil discourse, especially when millions of people can vent their bile onto those millions of cellphones. Let's concede that the President's trolling of Morning Joe was childish, if only in order to ask whether it was really much more childish than anything you see online daily from his friends or foes. Let's concede that it's beneath the historical dignity of the Presidency, to the extent that most of his predecessors would find Donald Trump contemptible, but let's remember that ours is a democratic republic in which the President is widely seen as the one true representative of the American people as a whole. Why should we presume (or even want) him to be more dignified than we are?

28 June 2017

The Iconoclast

What kind of nut would ram his car into Ten Commandments monuments in two different states? The answer seems to be a self-described born-again Christian who admits to psychotic episodes, during which he flirted with Satanism, and strongly believes in the separation of church and state. The man arrested this morning for destroying a freshly-installed monument outside the Arkansas state capitol is believed to be the same man who wrecked a monument in Oklahoma in October 2014. "[N]o one religion should the government represent," he reportedly says in a Facebook post prior to his latest exploit. Oklahoma was eventually compelled to remove the Commandments monument from its capitol, but Arkansas is required by state law to keep a monument near its capitol grounds. While the perpetrator's core idea is admirable in the abstract, it's probably inseparable in fact from a madness that may have reclaimed the poor fool. The depths of his previous madness are detailed in a letter he wrote to an Oklahoma newspaper in 2015. I was tempted to describe him as a non-lethal terrorist, but "vandal" is more appropriate, since the only life he appears to have threatened was his own. I can't sympathize with any believers who feel aggrieved by this attack, but at the same time this country doesn't need people like the attacker taking the Constitution into their own hands. We might well ask how much more sane all the other people are who lash out against the way the political winds are blowing.

27 June 2017

Trump's Evil Empire?

Neocons probably are the only people on Earth complaining that President Trump is too diplomatic. Michael Gerson in particular longs for the days of President Reagan, whose 1983 "Evil Empire" speech against the Soviet bloc reportedly inspired liberal dissidents around the world. Trump, Gerson laments, offers little aid or comfort to today's dissidents because he's more interested in currying favor with their oppressors. Gerson finds Trump's direction dangerous not only because of the President's supposed "personal fascination with authoritarianism," but because it represents an abandonment of "soft power — the superiority of a spiritual ideal of freedom to a materialistic vision of historical forces — that allowed the Cold War to be won." Having written that, Gerson can't really be taken seriously, but his column reminds us of a point of convergence between neocons and neoliberals in the Democratic party, among whom must be included Presidents Clinton and Obama, as well as Hillary Clinton. Whatever their differences over American domestic policy, all these neos appear to agree on a theory of international order from which Trump allegedly dissents.

According to Gerson, Trump's "simplistic" foreign policy "assumes that the current order in oppressive countries can be indefinitely preserved — as long as it is not destabilized by meddling outsiders." Neos like Gerson believe to the contrary that "the instability of oppressive governments emerges from within," and that international indifference to sovereign oppression eventually destabilizes the international community as a whole.

[Oppressive governments] prevent the diffusion of choice and power, which is the source of economic and social success in the modern world. Monopolizing power encourages cronyism, corruption, resentment and discontent. Strongmen can succeed for a time by feeding hatred of enemies, real and imagined. But this is the path of arrogance, mediocrity and insurrection. In such societies, a few eyes and mouths open — often resulting in imprisonment or house arrest. These are the dissidents whom Trump seems intent on betraying and discouraging. The message is thereby sent that the United States values the good opinion of strongmen more than the dignity and liberty of the people they rule. This is resented, and remembered.

In the Middle East context that most interests Gerson -- the column criticizes Trump for supporting the Egyptian government that took power after the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown by a coup d'etat -- this theory helps account for the rise of al-Qaeda and explains its strategy of attacking the U.S. for propping up oppressive regimes in the region. In the more specific context of Syria, Gerson incorporates what I've called the Obama Doctrine while implicitly criticizing Obama himself  for his limited application of the doctrine. It was Obama's own opinion that Syria's tyranny was the necessary and sufficient cause of the uprisings against Bashar al-Assad. Gerson clearly agrees with that assessment, but thinks that the U.S. had a strategic responsibility, which Obama largely failed to live up to, to shore up Syria's liberal democratic opposition with words if not also with deeds. Gerson's column appears as the Trump administration is again threatening to attack Syria over the use of chemical weapons, over the opposition of his supposed authoritarian buddies in Russia, so what exactly Trump is doing wrong?  His, apparently, is a sin of omission. He is thought either incapable or unwilling to articulate a utopian vision of a liberal democratic (much less secular) world order built with U.S. support. Gerson fears instead that Trump would sacrifice the liberal democratic aspirations of millions of people around the world to the more self-interested objectives of  his war on terror, but also fears that the sacrifice will be in vain, as he predicts implicitly that thwarted reformers will continue to lash out at America, whether they take power eventually or not.

Gerson acknowledges that "The United States must find common interests on a daily basis with governments that it finds oppressive and unjust." At the same time, he insists that "it is also in our national interest to hold up an ideal that speaks to current dissidents and future leaders — who are often one and the same." In other words, if the U.S. doesn't stand up for liberal democracy against tyranny, tyrants will only be replaced by radicals who will most likely end up tyrants themselves and enemies of the U.S. While Donald Trump may not be the smartest guy in any room, I'd bet that he's never fallen for the neo idea that democracies never fight each other, much less the idea that ideas won the Cold War. His career as an international businessman probably has immunized him to dreams of global harmony while reinforcing the idea that competition is eternal. He probably doesn't stake American power on our being on the "right side of history" or any similar idea. That may be why his foreign policy has baffled most observers so far. It seems to have more to do with tests of will or strength than with promoting American ideals, while Trump may be learning on the job what American interests actually are. Only gradually will Trump, his diplomatic corps and his military advisers show whether they mean to interact with other nations, or the international community as a whole, any differently than their neo predecessors have. So far, the international community, with some isolated exceptions flattered by the President, doesn't like what they've seen, but we may not really have seen anything yet. For the moment Trump is stepping into to battles started by his predecessors. The real test of his foreign policy may be whether or not he starts something of his own.

26 June 2017

The church-state playground

While most observers cared only to learn what the Supreme Court would do about the President's proposed restrictions on travel to the U.S., the high-court announced a historic decision today on an unrelated topic. In Trinity Lutheran v. Comer a 7-2 majority ruled that state governments could not discriminate against churches, but are required under certain circumstances to give money directly to them. The state of Missouri started the trouble by refusing Trinity Lutheran's request for public funding to resurface its playground. the Missouri constitution forbade the disbursement of public money to any house of worship. According to the majority on the court, Missouri unfairly denied Trinity Lutheran a government benefit to which it was entitled. According to the Chief Justice, that was "odious to our Constitution." The decision endangers similar laws in other states, collectively known as "Blaine Amendments," enacted during the 19th century and attributed in retrospect to anti-Catholic bigotry. The majority gave several opinions to make the implications of their decision uncertain. Some justices emphasize that states are not now required to subsidize religious activities, arguing only that churches can't be denied access to a state-funded playground repair program. Rookie justice Gorsuch, however, isn't so sure a clear line can be drawn separating a church's religious activities from  ostensibly non-religious activities like maintaining a playground. That he expressed this caveat while voting with the majority suggests that Gorsuch will have more to say on the separation of church and state down the line. The two dissenting justices, Ginsburg and Sotomayor, make no distinctions between religious and non-religious activities; if a church receives money from Missouri's playground fund, that state is supporting religion, period.

Writing the dissent, Sotomayor hints at another future battle by affirming that under the First Amendment, "the government cannot, or at the very least need not, tax its citizens and turn that money over to houses of worship." This is an argument that could easily cross conventional liberal-conservative or secular-religious lines: the Supreme Court has entitled Missouri churches unfairly to a benefit toward which they don't contribute. If people are going to complain about their precious taxpayer dollars going to other categories of deadbeats, shouldn't they protest now against their dollars going to churches? I imagine that even devout Americans would agree that churches should pay in for whatever they get out of government -- and if taxing churches became commonplace no one would worry about endangering their tax-exempt status by speaking from the pulpit on political questions. If discrimination due to religion is wrong, it should be no less wrong for state and federal governments to discriminate in favor of churches by exempting them from taxes than it is to discriminate against them by denying them taxpayer-funded benefits. If that line of argument doesn't persuade people to have churches taxes, maybe it'll persuade them to dissuade churches like Trinity Lutheran from stirring up trouble by asking for government handouts. Time will tell.

22 June 2017

'Disruption is never restful'

George Will greets the impending battle between Walmart and Amazon to become what the New York Times calls "the predominant seller of pretty much everything you buy" with something like glee. For him, it'll be the climax of a dramatic cycle of creative destruction, the sort of thing that made America great. If you don't like the idea, Will likely sees you as part of the problem with America, just like most of the politicians, including the President. None of you get what's cool about this, but once again Will tries to explain it to us:

In the accelerated churning of today’s capitalism, changing tastes and expanding choices destroy some jobs and create others, with net gains in price and quality. But disruption is never restful, and the United States now faces a decision unique in its history: Is it tired — tired of the turmoil of creative destruction? If so, it had better be ready to do without creativity.

Notice how the "net gains" are taken for granted as a historical constant. Notice, too, that they are net gains by a consumerist standard, presuming that by "gains in price" Will means lower prices. And notice, while you're at it, the columnist's fatalistic assumption that all creativity is destructive, that steps can't be taken by a protectionist President or anyone else to preserve jobs without utterly extinguishing creativity. For Will, creativity is inherently competitive, and to question the pervasiveness and mercilessness of competition it to lobotomize the nation. "Americans just now are being plied with promises that the political class can, and is eager to, protect them from the need to make strenuous exertions to provide for themselves in an increasingly competitive world," he writes. To question the necessity of strenuous exertions dictated by economic competition is to question the natural -- that is, the spontaneous order, the "fecundity" of which is undermined by politicians or professors pretending to be "clever and farsighted enough to forecast the outcomes of complex systems." High up on his Hayekian hobby horse, Will writes that "The interacting processes that propel the world produce outcomes that no one intends." In effect, Will is telling us not to hold creatively destructive entrepreneurs, or competitors whose "creativity" consists entirely of cost-cutting, personally responsible for the human consequences of "disruption." All that activity is simply nature at work, while any attempt to regulate that activity for humane or patriotic purposes is just plain destructive -- and boring.

Recalling the poet Philip Larkin's line, "Most things are never meant," Will asks, "Who really wants to live in a society where outcomes are 'meant,' meaning planned and unsurprising?" He has a psychopath's enjoyment of "surprise," apparently, responding to the spectacle of creative destruction like lower-order moviegoers thrilling to Transformers wrecking cities. The desire for stability or security is not as contemptible as Will makes it out to be, so long as it isn't constrained by short-term thinking. Nor should either stability or security be confused with stasis, as Will would have us do. It would be wrong for politicians to tell us that we'll never need to make "strenuous exertions," but should we need to exert ourselves so, it should be for some better reason than that millions of people want to make more money. There is no law that I know of that says we have to adapt or die because The Market says so, yet Will regards the audacity of people saying no to The Market as akin to Stalin launching a Five-Year Plan, even though Stalinism itself could be described as a form of creative destruction. Whatever Friedrich Hayek actually thought, George Will is less interested in preventing a planned economy than in preempting protests against the economy. Like God, The Market for Will cannot be wrong, and it is heresy in his eyes for anyone to say otherwise. An aging prophet of The Market, Will stands ready to damn America for failing to heed his god.


21 June 2017

Nothing special about these elections

The Democratic party is now 0-4 in special congressional elections since the inauguration of President Trump. Desperate to look like winners, the Dems invaded four Republican districts from which Trump elevated the incumbents into Cabinet positions or other federal posts, in the hope that a quickly unpopular president's coattails would drag the GOP nominees down to defeat. While all of these elections were closer than normal, in none were there enough Republicans willing to renounce their party to spite Trump. More to the point, in none were there enough Republicans willing to vote Democratic to spite Trump. They may be more confident that a Republican Congress can check Trump should he really go overboard, or they may just hate Democrats more. This losing streak actually makes the Democrats' situation look worse than it did in November. They've wasted incredible resources, including unprecedented millions in donors' money, on a set of Stalingrad like battles, obsessed with the prestige of turning a red district blue, in the hope that victory would prove that everyone sees Trump the way they do. As a result, they allow Trump to say that these elections were referenda on him, and that he won every time, when my suspicion is that they had relatively little to do with him. In some of these districts he ran well behind the congressional candidate last fall, and I doubt that many voters considered their choices in the special elections acts of loyalty to the President. The fact is that Trump with all his flaws does not give Republicans reason enough to repudiate everything they stand for by voting for a party still perceived to represent everything they oppose. All these races were longshots for the Democrats, and while I can understand their desire for a win, their faith that Trumpophobia was strong enough to win for them borders on the delusional. It seems as if they'd rather flip a red district than wait 'til next year and do the hard work necessary to win back their regular Rust Belt voters without alienating the rest of their base. There's still plenty of time to get to work on that, but an extra round or two of soul-searching may now be necessary. The opposition party in this country -- whether the Democrats or whatever might follow their crack-up -- has to mean more than opposition to Trump or opposition to "hate." This country needs a "left" to check a capitalist society's tendency toward plutocracy -- the Democrats have been sleeping on that job for some time now -- but it needs the right kind of left, and I don't know if anyone on the left has figured out what that looks like. I especially doubt if they'll find what it looks like in Republican congressional districts.

20 June 2017

The violence of rising expectations

Jonah Goldberg isn't quite joining the Republican rush to judge left-wing media in the wake of the Alexandria shootings. While the columnist is as happy as any of his fellow partisans to highlight liberal hypocrisy, whether actual or alleged, he hints gently in his latest column that "if your position is that political speech should never be indicted when a right-winger commits a crime, you probably shouldn’t let your understandable desire for payback seduce you into insisting that left-wing rhetoric is to blame when the shooter is a left-winger." Anyway, Goldberg has an theory of his own to explain the increasingly violent tone of political argument in the U.S.

For decades we’ve invested in the federal government ever-greater powers while at the same time raising the expectations for what government can do even higher. The rhetoric of the last three presidents has been wildly outlandish about what can be accomplished if we just elect the right political savior. George W. Bush insisted that “when somebody hurts, government has to move.” Barack Obama promised the total transformation of America in palpably messianic terms. Donald Trump vowed that electing him would solve all of our problems and usher in an era of never-ending greatness and winning. 
When you believe — as [the Alexandria shooter] clearly did — that all of our problems can be solved by flicking a few switches in the Oval Office, it’s a short trip to believing that those who stand in the way are willfully evil enemies bent on barring the way to salvation. That belief won’t turn everyone into a murderer, but it shouldn’t be that shocking that it would turn someone into one.

I don't exactly disagree with this. Clearly, the personal stakes involved in elections and policy seem much higher to many Americans than they did in the past. Conservatives are right to suspect that a greater sense of dependence on government has a lot to do with that feeling, though as Goldberg himself notes by invoking Trump, messianic expectations are also held by people who presumably don't think (or prefer not to) of themselves as dependent on government. Uncritical defensiveness toward Trump -- as opposed to rational skepticism toward Democratic hysteria -- probably reflects an older sense of dependence upon leadership that has less to do with theories of the "size and scope of government." In either case, however, this sort of dependent faith only becomes weaponized under certain circumstances. Rising expectations -- whether regarding the government's ability and obligation to meet our perceived needs or a leader's ability to achieve what he promises -- become dangerous when the economy or the leadership or the political order itself can't keep up with them. For an ideologue like Goldberg the real problem is that such expectations are inappropriate in the first place, rather than that a declining economy increasingly disappoints expectations, both by inherently limiting the ability of not only government but society to meet our expectations and by exacerbating political polarization and gridlock as every segment of society scrambles to get or keep its share of the national bounty. With that understood, Goldberg's analysis looks even more pessimistic to the extent that it predicts Trump supporters lashing out more often and violently at whomever they blame instead of the economy for their hero's failure to meet their expectations. Unlike what I infer to be Goldberg's own belief, I don't think the solution is for everyone to be more self-reliant. In a sociopolitical environment like ours, adopting self-reliance most likely will mean people taking anything they can by any means necessary. I also doubt whether people can be taught to reduce their expectations of a civilized world or a democratic polity by any other teacher than experience, and specifically an experience few of us would look forward to.

19 June 2017

What trash is Rome ...

The Public Theater's controversial production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar reached its scheduled close yesterday, just as its most vehement critics had learned to adopt the tactics that they, as avowed champions of free expression against political correctness, had affected to despise. Two of the last performances, including one yesterday, were disrupted by hecklers running onto the stage to denounce the production and the audience for envisioning the assassination of President Trump. Had the play's run gone on longer, things may have escalated to a scale not seen since the Astor Place riots of long ago. As is now well known, the old play was made freshly controversial and popular by dressing its Caesar and giving him stage business in the manner of Donald Trump. More provocative than this creative license, no doubt, was the fact that audiences, thus prompted, cheered the assassination scene. The Alexandria shootings last week made this sort of playacting more intolerable to partisans of Trump, to whom the Caesar production typified the American left's hypocritical claim of artistic license to vent its partisan hatreds, while the shootings themselves belied the condescending assumption that their venting should never be taken literally.

And yet, however inexcusable it may have been for audiences to cheer a symbolic assassination, a case probably can be made for a Trumpian portrayal of Caesar. The case would have nothing to do with any supposed parallels between the two men, nor should the point of any experiment be to get the crowd to cheer an act of murder. Julius Caesar, after all, is quite ambivalent about the assassination and the motives behind it, to the point where defenders of Trump could well find a useful moral in it. In the play, Brutus is goaded into joining a conspiracy that would gain credibility from his honorable reputation. He claims to act disinterestedly, proclaiming that "I know no personal cause to spurn at him/But for the general," i.e. Caesar's apparent desire to become a king. Cassius, the head conspirator who brings Brutus into the plot, is quite obviously motivated by envy. As far as he's concerned, Caesar is no better than anyone else in the senatorial class. He remembers having to rescue Caesar from drowning, or seeing him wretchedly ill, and wonders aloud why this guy bestrides the world like a colossus. His answer makes him sound like one of our modern paranoid misanthropes: "I know he would not be a wolf/But that he sees the Romans are but sheep." Today Cassius would be the guy telling everyone on the internet to "wake up!" And for all that Brutus may see himself defending the people of Rome, Cassius says, "What trash is Rome,/What rubbish and what offal, when it serves/For the base matter to illuminate/So vile a thing as Caesar!"

What makes Julius Caesar a tragedy, I think, is that Brutus's noble motives can't be separated from Cassius's base motives; the conspiracy is hopelessly tainted. If anything, Cassius's conspiracy of rage only hastens the final fall of the republic Brutus would protect, by opening the door to Octavian, the future Augustus. It might be argued that Shakespeare himself saw that Rome's problems were bigger than any one man's ambition. Brutus is doubly naive when he refuses to have Marc Antony (played by a woman in what had originally been the Public Theater's most controversial move) killed along with Caesar, not just because Antony will be the ruin of the conspirators by teaming up with Octavian, but also because Brutus's belief that he can save the republic with a decapitation strike misses the point of the moment. That's why it would make sense to turn Caesar into Trump; to show audiences -- as one hopes the Public Theater did show after the hype died down -- that simple solutions of that sort will most likely make matters worse for everyone. Shakespeare's been dead for 400 years, but he may have a better grasp of today's political culture than most of our politicians and pundits. I hope people won't hold the Public Theater against him.

15 June 2017

Patriotism, populism and partisanship

After the Alexandria VA shootings, in which a disgruntled leftist tried to assassinate Republican congressmen and seriously wounded the House Majority Whip, the political culture from the President to the punditocracy and the TV talking heads is sharing a "Can't we all get along?" moment. The President sounded the main theme for the occasion, striving to remind Americans that politicians on both sides of the partisan or ideological divide still love their country. I understand what he and others are saying, but I don't think they understand the state the country is in. To affirm that all politicians love the country is an almost meaningless statement in this populist moment of the country's history. For ideologues, it begs the question of what kind of country each party or person wants us to be, but for populists on both the left and the right, the real question, not so easily answered by presidential reassurances, is whether politicians love us. White populists on the right have come to hate the left because they're convinced that the Democratic party, academia and the nebulous "mainstream media" no longer love them as the true American people or care whether they have jobs, secure retirement, safe neighborhoods, etc. Populists on the left, including white people like the Alexandria shooter, have come to hate the right because they're convinced that the Republican party, the Trump/Tea Party movement and corporate America don't love all Americans equally and don't really care whether any American of any creed or color lives or dies. Populists may think of themselves as patriots but populism and patriotism are not the same thing. For a patriot is should be enough that all politicians love the country, so long as all abide by democratic, deliberated decisions determining its course. To love the country in this sense is to place its interests above your own, which obviously requires you to see your interest and the country's as at least potentially different things. Populists don't make that distinction as readily. To their minds, they are the state; America looks like them, whether as a matter of idealized heritage or as a mosaic of diversity from which no one is automatically or implicitly excluded. In a way, this is no more than saying, "What's in it for me?" though populism usually is more expansive than that, asking instead, "What's in it for my people?" -- whoever they are. Today's populism is a cycle of mutual disrespect, every faction feeling that the others don't give a damn about them, won't let them alone, won't let them be, or, in the worst case, won't even let them live. It's a decadent populism because it exposes how desperate most people are for recognition and validation from social media and popular culture. And it's an increasingly violent and potentially lethal populism as more people seem to demand respect, or deny it, by any means necessary. It may also be an inevitable populism as different groups scramble for bits of a shrinking pie or a dwindling number of musical chairs. We probably shouldn't hope for the next round of prosperity to make it go away, however. We need to see now whether anyone can transcend populism with patriotism, and, whether anyone who tries will be believed or trusted after passing the "Who are you to say?" test. If no one can pass that test, than the American people also will have failed their test.

14 June 2017

Et tu, brute? Or: Is Imagination Advocacy?

It was already my plan this week to write something about the controversy over the Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar in New York City, in which the assassinated dictator is dressed and made up to look like President Trump. Amid outcry from Republicans, some sponsors have withdrawn support from the company that staged the play. That outcry echoed the outcry against Kathy Griffin's photoshoot, in which the comic struck a Judith of Bethulia pose with a bloody effigy of Trump's head. In both cases, Republicans -- and, presumably, some centrists -- made the plausible argument that the outcry from the left would be even louder and more unforgiving had anyone staged a play or photoshoot in which President Obama was treated the same way. Republicans have perceived a double standard in artistic representations or invocations of living politicians at least since the 2006 mockumentary Death of a President, which imagined the murder of George W. Bush. My feeling at that time was that Republicans took that particular project too literally, that it could not be argued that the filmmakers, in imagining the killing of the President, had advocated it. It is, however, fair to ask whether most observers would regard a fictional assassination of Obama or Hillary Clinton with the same objectivity. If there is a double standard at play, it's based on an assumption by liberals and progressives that they never, ever would raise a hand in anger against an elected politician, regardless of what they imagine under artistic license. That is, they believe themselves more capable of detachment from the anger they express or sublimate through art. Apologists for Griffin or the Julius Caesar director most likely would argue that these people don't even wish Trump dead, much less wish to kill him themselves. But were Republicans to imagine the murder of any Democratic or progressive hero as a work of art or entertainment, they certainly would be accused of personally wishing Democrats dead, or at least of irresponsibly provoking someone willing to act on that wish. Why care what Ted Nugent says about politics otherwise?

Into this debate this morning burst a man tentatively identified as a white senior citizen from Illinois, whose Facebook page indicates support for Bernie Sanders and skepticism toward Trump's entitlement to or fitness for office. This man apparently learned that a team of Republican congressmen would converge on an Alexandria VA baseball diamond to practice for a game against their Democratic counterparts. He opened fire on them with an assault weapon, wounding the House Majority Whip and three other people before a security detail mortally wounded him. That, presumably, will put an end to all "liberals don't do that sort of thing" arguments, unless someone wants to dismiss the would-be assassin as a mentally ill loner or more extreme than that Facebook page suggests. Those arguments may have been more nearly true a generation ago, but "liberal" attitudes seem to have degenerated along with political discourse in general, to the point where many people believe with hysterical certainty that the Republican party actually wants them to suffer or die, or that the republic stands today at the actual brink of dictatorship. Despite all that, I'd still argue that a Shakespeare play or a celebrity photo stunt have relatively little to do with this escalating violence of spirit. They are symptoms rather than causes and can't seriously be considered causes of violence unto themselves. Nevertheless, liberal culture now has no excuse not to extend the same license or courtesy to anyone whose artistic vision encompasses violence against liberal heroes. They can't claim that imagining violence against the right is inherently less dangerous than imagining violence against the left. True liberals, I suspect, would hold out hope that art can channel the anger of the time, as felt on left, right, and points both outside and in between, by providing a relatively harmless release. Unfortunately, we more likely live in a time when people see no art anywhere, but propaganda everywhere they go. Everything is with us or against us, and there is little tolerance for enmity (or ambivalence) with the stakes so high for everyone. In Julius Caesar Cinna the Poet is lynched because a mob mistakes him for another Cinna, one of the conspirators against Caesar. The old play about the ancient world may yet prove a prophecy of where the relationship of art and life is headed now.

13 June 2017

Artifact: Anti-Trump house in Albany NY

This picture speaks for itself, and quite verbosely, so all I'll do is locate it on Madison Avenue near the intersection with Lark, at the edge of the Center Square neighborhood.


I acknowledge our freedom of speech and I agree that litter is ugly, but however agreeable the sentiments appear to passers-by, this litters the cityscape a little itself. What Trump is GUILTY! of specifically is unclear, given how much he's accused of. As the site is updated frequently, more details may be forthcoming....

12 June 2017

What is modernism?

The June 5/12 issue of The Nation had a review of a book I'm interested in reading, Frances FitzGerald's The Evangelicals. The book surveys the evolution of American evangelism and its relationship with American politics. The reviewer, Chris Lehmann, takes FitzGerald to task for overemphasizing a schism between "fundamentalist" and "modernist" Christianity. Lehmann thinks that the author misses evangelicals' "deep and incorrigible roots in modernity" on an assumption that they're "stalwart antimodernists calling for modern society's regress." Lehmann's own belief is that "For all their conservative cultural associations, fundamentalism and biblical literalism are profoundly modern approaches to interpreting Scripture," in the sense of modern that gives postmodern its meaning. He also notes that evangelicals, like their more militant Muslim counterparts, readily embrace modern communications technologies. In his summation, "The evangelical movement, in other words, may oppose certain aspects of modernity -- such as Darwinian evolution and moral and cultural relativism -- but it has come to rely on many others." Failure to recognize this "hidden modernism" weakens FitzGerald's account, Lehmann concludes.

Whatever FitzGerald's faults may be, Lehmann seems to be confusing two different things. He uses the words modernity and modernism interchangeably without appearing to recognize that religious reactionaries can and do embrace modernity while rejecting something that rightly can be called modernism. Leaving aside Lehmann's curious claim that fundamentalist literalism is "modernist" in some way, he really describes modernity in value-free materialist terms. Modernity gives us upgraded equipment that changes the way we live our lives in both quantitative and qualitative terms, but the improvements in both cases are objective, so long as you agree that having to spend less time each day on basic household tasks, for instance, is a good thing. Modernity can be judged as good or bad, since technological change and globalization may make economic competition more challenging than many people can tolerate, but modernity unto itself is not a value judgment. The difference between modernity and modernism is that modernism is an "ism," a contention that modernity entitles or requires us to rethink and reject traditional assumptions about life. Revealed religion must reject that claim, or so many adherents assume, but it need not reject modernity as a material fact, and especially not if it can be used to a proselytizing religion's advantage. This distinction blurs when you get to more orthopractic religions like Islam that mandate multitudes of specific trivial-seeming behaviors, but even in such cases no one really wants to live materially like the Companions of the Prophet, while in more orthodox faiths like Christianity it should be easier, most of the time, to accept modernity while guarding against modernism.

The historic schism between modernism and fundamentalism emerged when some Christians de-emphasized myths like the Genesis creation story that no longer made sense in light of modern science, while fundamentalists worried that the substitutionary-atonement story (i.e. "Jesus died for your sins") on which their understanding of Christianity rested seemed less certain once people could pick and choose which parts of scripture to take more or less seriously. Some historians of religion argue that fundamentalism actually is a "modernism" because few Christians, so these historians claim, really asserted before the challenge of actual modernism that every word of scripture was literally true, treating the Bible as a wisdom book rather than an exact account of the universe. The argument is valid if you agree that fundamentalism is a response to modernism, but it would be a modernism only in a paradoxical, self-negating way, since fundamentalism still denies that modernity mandates a conscious reinterpretation of revealed religion. Fundamentalists fully embraced modernity and the tools it offered to fight its battle against modernism, and continues to do so today. To return to the famous line from The Leopard that I often cite, modernity is everything that must change in order for things to stay the same, i.e. to stave off modernism. To reject the claim that religious fundamentalists are "antimodernists" because fundamentalists (not to mention terrorists) use the internet is to deny anti-fundamentalists a powerful rhetorical tool for no good reason.

11 June 2017

THINK 3 VIDEO NEWS: Pride and Prejudice in Albany NY

Every June Albany's Pride parade turns the corner of Lark and Madison streets, a couple of minutes' walk from my house. The southwest corner where a gas station stands is the parade's "free speech zone," where a small group of Christian protesters show up every year to denounce the marchers. These protesters aren't quite on the "God Hates Fags" level, but they come pretty close in their uncompromising condemnation of homosexuality. Their free speech zone is actually pretty close to the action, and puts them within yelling range of the majority of gay and pro-gay spectators across the street, who often cross over to taunt the Christianists in a form of counting coup. I've seen the same scenes for years, but now that I've belatedly joined the 21st century I can record what I saw today and share it with you.

My normal approach to Lark and Madison takes me to the corner where the protesters were, so the first clip shows them from behind, already engaged with counter-hecklers.



Here's another representative outburst of fire and brimstone.



Finally, here's a montage of scenes from the actual parade as one of the protesters chats with a traffic cop and the occasional Pridester crosses the street for a ritual challenge.


Scenes like these help explain why so many people still regard Christianists as the main enemy of our time. They're the ones who get in people's face, albeit at a judicious distance, with threats of damnation. It's worth remembering, however, that however hateful these threats sound, they are only threats -- if only because those making the threats are vastly outnumbered on days like these. Annoying as it may look or sound, this is what democracy of a sort looks like.

08 June 2017

Posse Comey-tatus

The former FBI director didn't kill the Trump presidency today, but he definitely attempted a character assassination. Whether James Comey did more damage to the President or himself remains to be determined. I don't really dispute his disquieting characterization of a President more concerned with personal loyalty than with principle -- how does that not sound like Donald Trump? -- but I can't help thinking that once Comey determined that he could not trust Trump or his staff not to lie about him when it suited them, it was time for Comey to resign. Before Congress today, Comey accused the Trump administration, if not Donald Trump himself, of lying about various things, but he cautiously refused to say whether he thought that, by firing him, the President had obstructed justice, leaving that instead for an independent counsel to determine. He remains convinced, however, that the President fired him out of annoyance over the investigations of contacts between the Russians and Trump personnel. Whether that amounts to obstruction of justice will depend, for most observers, on whether there were unjust contacts, or contacts for unjust purposes, between Russians and Trumpites. So far it still looks like McCarthyism to me, since the implicit argument, in the continued absence of any proof of Russian interference in the actual voting last November, is for guilt by association, the further implication being that rapprochement with Russia is in some sense criminal unto itself. Whatever anyone thinks of Russia or its current leader, that simply can't be true. Inquiries will continue, of course, on the assumption of some corrupt bargain between Trump and Vladimir Putin, despite evidence indicating that if Trump became President with the idea of reconciling the U.S. with Russia, he is even more incompetent as a statesman than many already believe. Inquiries will continue on the fundamental assumption that the Trump presidency is such an aberration that only criminal prosecutions or conspiracy theory can account for it. In such an environment, it will look to some people like obstruction of justice simply to say, "Enough already!

"Whatever happens, today probably was the climax of James Comey's career as a history-seeking celebrity, as some of his utterances threaten already to become memes. The story of his career should prove as provocative as the lives of the politicians with whom history will link him, the candidates of both parties whom he has vexed. In one sense Comey may look like the fulfillment of all the dangerous potential of an office defined by J. Edgar Hoover, destroying one presidential candidate -- or so that candidate seems to believe, even though I saw one partisan this morning still dismissing Comey as "the Clintons' man," -- and perhaps thinking of taking down the other. In another sense, it seems plausible that Comey could have done such damage to the credibility of American politics entirely by accident, with no thought for anything other than his role in history, or no real thought at all, like a loose cannon rolling across the turbulent deck of the ship of state with its fuse lit and its aim uncertain. 

06 June 2017

The irony of antifa

The current issue of Time has an article on the recent conflicts over free speech in Berkeley CA, which pit Republicans and alt-right provocateurs against the so-called "antifa" movement and its "black bloc" stormtroopers. I don't know where "antifa" as a word came from; I know it's meant as an abbreviation for "anti-fascist," but it sounds more like an incomplete thought, though I may just be reading that into it. Antifa activists defend vandalism, declaring their intent to "physically disrupt and shut down things that need to be shut down immediately." What usually needs to be shut down is "hate speech," as practiced by Republicans, conservatives, populists, etc. Reporter Katy Steinmetz notes that "Many on the left say the words free speech are now being used as a cover for spreading hate in America." Many who say that act on an assumption that "hate speech" is not entitled to the protections granted by the First Amendment to political speech. They contend that "hate speech" is "dehumanizing" in some way. While no examples of this dehumanizing effect are given in the article, the argument usually goes that "hate speech," defined very broadly, seeks to drive certain people or points of view from the public sphere through insults and intimidation. In practice, it seems, antifa tries to shut down anyone who dares say that they or their causes are wrong. The college Republican Club reports constant harassment and bullying and complains that "they are projecting stereotypes onto us ... and they're also projecting their worst fears onto us." One can imagine what the stereotype is, yet the Republican who spoke to Time is a guy named Naweed Tahmas. I don't know his exact ethnic background, but his alleged mistreatment by Berkeley leftists suggests that antifa isn't simply concerned with the familiar white devil -- or so one assumes when they can't say that only the white devil is against them -- but with a wider range of affronts to their dignity.

Their beef isn't necessarily (or exclusively) with "hate" in the usual sense of bigotry, but rather with a more generalized, indiscriminate "hate" they infer from American conservatism as a whole. Antifa may be the ultimate (if not inevitable) reaction of an essentially hedonist ideology to a denial of its fundamental premises. It would be "hate," in this case, if you rejected, or perhaps even questioned the concept of entitlement, because you'd be disputing someone's right to live. For some, it would be enough simply to challenge someone's right to be himself or herself (or either at any given time), though this presumably puts antifa in the position of defending someone's right to be himself even when in doing so he challenges or threatens others' right to be themselves. The ones who don't share that right to be themselves, it seems, are the people on the right who for some reason aren't granted the same sort of privileged "other" status of, well, others. Maybe that's because such people are the exception that proves a rule, the ultimate "other" that is not an "other" but the enemy of all "otherness," the "hate" that everyone else can hate without being "haters." Whether you believe any of that or not, we're dealing with people, most likely including relatively privileged people in objective terms, who are enraged by any idea that seems to threaten their presumed guarantee of a place in society, that seems to impose "or else" conditions where hedonism says they shouldn't be. Antifa suggests a belated embrace by a decadent American left of a radical paradox of political hedonism, a recollection that "or else" can't be abolished except on "or else" terms. The problem, of course, is that antifa applies this lesson to hapless college students and trivial media celebrities, always going for the cheap victory of shutting down some talking head by chasing him or her out of a college town, while the victim retreats to social media and almost invariably wins the rhetorical war. The only sense of power they can hope for, it seems, is the petty power of a bully whose powerlessness in the wider world is all too obvious. These fools actually think they can silence ideas in the 21st century. They're not the only fools to think that way, but they may be the most foolish.

02 June 2017

Think 3 Video News: A Trojan War over Sanctuary

I didn't shoot this video, as I was stuck in my office as all this was going down not quite a mile uptown yesterday evening. Instead, "Mert Melfa" uploaded to YouTube what looks like a Facebook Live video taking during a demonstration outside of the Hedley Building in Troy NY, currently its City Hall. A coalition of local groups came to lobby city politicians to declare Troy a "sanctuary city" in defiance of Trump administration threats to withhold federal funds from municipalities that refuse to identify undocumented immigrants when asked by federal investigators. A counter-demonstration formed, including the protagonist of the video. Most of the following consists of commentary and discussion, but during the last couple of minutes things break down as people jostle for position to hear a pro-sanctuary organizer talk to the media.


Communities like Troy that are already cash-strapped probably should put pragmatism before principle whenever someone proposes putting federal aid in jeopardy. They find themselves under pressure from people who see undocumented immigrants as the moral equivalent of fugitive slaves in the antebellum days. Sanctuary city laws are analogous in intent to 19th century "personal liberty" laws that put northern communities on record as refusing to assist federal marshals in capturing escaped slaves. Troy had no such law back in the day but it did have resistance to the federal fugitive-slave law, most dramatically when activists broke Charles Nalle out of jails in both Troy and Watervliet in 1860. Opponents of the fugitive law depended on a constitutional theory that slavery was an exception to the comity principle that required each state to respect the laws of other states. Relying on English common law precedent, which many still considered relevant to the U.S., they argued that slavery could have no legal standing, and slaveholders no right to their slaves, should a fugitive escape into a state where slavery had been made illegal. In our time, sanctuary cities (or counties) don't pit one state's rules on immigration against another's, but put sanctuaries in direct opposition, however passively, to the federal government which alone sets the rules for immigration. They are a form of nullification that has nothing like the moral justification that could be invoked when communities refused to uphold slaveholders' rights. You simply can't assert that everyone on Earth has an inherent right to settle in the United States (or anywhere they please) in the same way that you could argue that no man should be a slave. There is no equivalent oppression or implicit crime against humanity, especially when you consider that the theoretical immigrant is not barred absolutely from entering the country, but is only obliged to "wait in line" and follow lawful procedures. Those strictures may be unfair by some standards, but not in the existential way in which slavery is deemed unfair or unjust, and not in any way that justified resistance to a federal government apparently determined to enforce its will. It would be one thing for those who believe zealously that "no one is illegal" to take their own risks, but pressuring municipalities to declare themselves sanctuaries exposes others, who may benefit from or depend on federal aid, to risk with neither their consent nor any necessary benefit from sheltering the undocumented. There was a time when the sanctuary city movement was a relatively risk-free form of moral posturing, but it looks like that time is over, and it was never clear in the first place how moral the posturing was.

Jobs vs. Climate

On the bright side, there was no climate denialism in the President's statement withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris accords. Instead, there was a reaffirmation of priorities, the needs of American citizens overriding all other considerations for Trump. That would be fine, except that he's prioritized short-term considerations over long-term interests, just like any politician looking no further than the next election. What's particularly sad here is the implicit admission from the supposed master entrepreneur that he can think of no other way to put his constituents back to work than to reopen coal mines or extract more fossil fuels. Of course, this was exactly what was to be expected from a "populist" President whose base supporters most likely feel that there's no need for them to change their ways, since other people -- and in this case other countries presumed guilty in advance of cheating on the accords -- are always the problem. Real conservatives might think more like the 19th century aristocrat in the novel The Leopard, who famously said that if his friends wanted things to stay the same, than everything had to change. It was inevitable, perhaps, that self-styled conservatives in a democracy would think differently. The President, however, talks, as he usually does, of renegotiation, so in theory neither this story nor the world has ended just yet.