20 November 2017
19 November 2017
"One of the things that separates America from the dictatorships of the world is that we don't let our politicians lock up political opponents, nor for that matter hound, try, execute or simply disappear their rivals," an Albany Times Union editorial asserts. The editorial writer was moved to this expression by the latest threat to prosecute Hillary Clinton over her role, as Secretary of State, in a perceived quid pro quo in which a Russian donor to the Clinton Foundation was cleared to buy American uranium through the purchase of a Canadian company. The TU is satisfied with Clinton's innocence on the strength of a Fox News report debunking the criminal narrative, and my purpose here isn't to take any side in that debate. My point, as long time readers may have guessed, is to remind you that the same inhibition about prosecuting politicians that the editorial celebrates may not be as positive a good as the editorial writer asserts. I've long observed an implicit principle of partisan immunity in American politics that presumes would-be prosecutors guilty of partisan motives when they make charges against politicians from another party. A further presumption is that the partisan consequences of a criminal trial of a prominent politician -- presumably the discrediting of the accused politician's party and the greater likelihood of one-party government, are worse than any consequences of the alleged criminal activity -- though of course, many will assume that any charge made by one politician against another from another party is a gross exaggeration if not an outright lie. Either way, the ultimate consequence is to let politicians get away with much that they probably shouldn't get away with, rather than risk a disruption of the reigning party system that could result in a more 'authoritarian" government. This may seem like an ugly but necessary price to pay for truly "free" i.e. multiparty government, yet in recent times we've seen multiparty democracies in Brazil and South Korea bring leaders to account without constitutional crises on undermining party systems. It can be done, but it would require both major parties here to admit corruption in their ranks, and it might require voters not to tie their interests too closely to corruptible political parties. Americans need to get over the childish idea that to admit the corruption of one party's leader is to guarantee the election of the antithetical party. That will never happen so long as people vote their interests, and if the discrediting of a major party after a criminal trial leaves Americans unable to vote their interests, the problem won't be any "criminalization of politics" but with the American electoral system itself.
16 November 2017
Stephen Seitz's op-ed in the Nov. 16 Albany Times Union is a reductio ad absurdam of the anti-gun mentality. An "author and journalist based in Vermont," Seitz writes to denounce Stephen Willeford, the man who traded fire with the Sutherland Springs church shooter and may have stopped him with resuming his slaughter of the congregation. In other words, Willeford comes pretty close to the NRA archetype of the "good guy with a gun" on whom we ought to depend,or whom we should aspire to be, when crises arise. Seitz will have none of that. Instead, to him, Willeford and the pickup driver who joined him in chasing the shooter "exemplify everything that's wrong with American gun culture." How So? Simply because Seitz refuses to trust in either man's competence. What if Willeford shot a bystander? What if they chased the wrong vehicle, or wiped out themselves, or ran an innocent over? By Seitz's standards, theirs was supremely irresponsible behavior, and they harmed no one themselves only because they were lucky.
One can support greater gun regulation and still have problems with Seitz's attitude. It's one thing to prefer that we not need people like Willeford to play hero, and another to deny so vehemently that he actually might be a hero under the circumstances. It might please some people more if Willeford had simply tackled the shooter while he was reloading, as some heroes have done, but should we prefer, under the actual circumstances, that he did nothing? I myself am concerned with people getting caught in a cowboy crossfire, but that's an argument for legislation, not for victims or bystanders to be absolutely passive during an amoklauf. What we see with Seitz, I suspect, is a variation on the cultural divide separating those who see the world as tough and those who see it as cruel. Willeford is most obviously a hero for those who feel that the world requires us to be tough, but the other side tends to see the requirement for toughness as itself cruel. Seitz's skepticism toward Willeford's heroism echoes a skepticism toward the very idea (or ideal) of toughness, which many liberals probably see as a mere rationalization of or acquiescence in cruelty. Toughness requires a competence that Seitz doesn't seem to believe in, thinking perhaps that there's no such thing as disciplined cruelty, except perhaps in the ranks of our duly constituted and professionally trained guardians -- though I can't help wondering where Seitz stands on the police brutality question. Most likely he'd prefer that force never be needed to resolve any crisis, but history suggests that he can't get there from here -- at least by the route he'd rather take. A cherry picked history of recent times encourages some to think that cruelty can be overthrown without cruelty or even toughness, but the more you read the more you doubt that -- and the more you doubt whether people like Seitz have any constructive critiques to make.
10 November 2017
The usual voices are criticizing the President for saying, while China's guest this week, that he didn't blame China for its huge trade surplus with the U.S. To critics, this sounded like a reversal of his angry campaign rhetoric, which described China's trade practices in violent terms. Some no doubt suspect that, in typical fashion, Donald Trump had succumbed to the flattering attention shown him by the canny Chinese and was flattering them back. Trump's rhetoric today, when he vowed that the U.S. would not be taken advantage of anymore, should refute that suspicion. But it was apparent already yesterday that a protectionist and nationalist like Trump would not blame China for pursuing its national interest by taking advantage of American weakness. A free-trade would blame China for failing to play by proper free-trade rules;a protectionist would blame his own country for naively abiding by free-trade policies for ideological reasons. On trade policy, at least, as noted before, Trump is not a departure from but a return to the historic Republican position, from which Reaganite free-trade policy was a major deviation. Reaganite Republicans justified free trade by appealing to the American as a consumer, entitled to the widest range of choices and the lowest prices that the market would bear. Trumpian Republicanism has a different notion of both the American's essential identity -- he is someone who needs to keep or get a job above all -- and his government's primary obligation to him. This difference alarms many who've long defined Americans by their freedom of choice, since Trump may want to limit their freedom on multiple fronts, but on this particular front his materialist conservatism could be the right idea -- if it has the material results he hopes for. If he wants more Americans to buy American, who can blame him?
06 November 2017
Many theists believe that a truly compelling moral code can't be invented by means of human reason, since we mortals can always change our minds, but must be accepted unconditionally from a source exterior to humanity, i.e. divine revelation. Never mind that, in the Christian tradition alone, multitudes have changed their minds about the divine admonition to turn the other cheek; the point is that the admonition itself, being divine, is unchanging and unchangeable, and the good Christian understands that he has no choice in the matter, while the atheist is never without choice and never without danger. Yet there must be incalculable numbers of atheists who have proven no less moral, at least in the legalistic sense, than believers are. I consider myself one of that group. I work from an assumption that there is no god as described in the Abrahamic scriptures, though I concede that it is impossible to disprove conclusively the existence of as capriciously omnipotent a being as the god of Abraham. One can only hope to show that such a being's existence is not necessary in order for the universe and its natural laws to exist. What follows from such a showing? Not the Dostoevskian assumption that in God's absence, everything is permitted, since it doesn't follow from God's nonexistence that every principle attributed to God is wrong, unless you believe, as many Abrahamites do, that God's existence alone gives validity and authority to those principles. That belief assumes, ultimately, that someone's "say so" is the only real underpinning for moral or ethical principles, and that categorical imperatives are impossible in the absence of the absolute authority of a divine creator. Yet relatively few atheists turn nihilist or criminal, and the abominable violence of Leninist atheists probably has less to do with their denial of divine restraints than with their sense of superhuman entitlement as the vanguard of history. For most of us, the golden rule doesn't depend on the will of a god, and the possibility that we might abandon that rule on a whim or a rationalization wouldn't exempt us from the just judgment of those who remain true to that most eminently reasonable principle.
What theists miss in their concern that any individual atheist may change his mind about morality is that in a society no individual has the last word on moral questions. Some atheist may decide that he's no longer bound by "superstition" or "bourgeois morality," but so long as he is answerable to other people those people have no obligation to defer to his opinion on the matter. As long as groups of people can reason out rules and hold those who deviate from them accountable, the possibility that any given atheist can change his mind about morals should be no more troubling than the possibility that any given believer can "backslide," as many do. Most if not all atheists believe that reason can discover laws of nature that are not merely our inventions, and while the existence of natural laws of human society is still a subject for debate, such laws would likely be as much discoveries as inventions. Ideally, they would provide a groundwork for judging individuals who go against those laws, no matter what right they claim to change their minds. They would not have authority simply or solely because someone "says so, and so should have a sounder basis than any alleged divine revelation, the mere authorship of which will always be subject to debate. And yet atheists commit crimes, just as theists do -- but while their atheism may determine what crimes they commit, or whom they they target, their essential motivations probably differ little from those of religious criminals. There's probably more moral divergence among atheists, or among Christians, than there is between atheists as a group and Christians as a group. Should the Sutherland Springs shooter prove to be decisively motivated by atheist animus, the only thing that would prove about atheists is that they're no less susceptible to murderous temptations than any other group, however disappointing that may be to some observers. But when has human nature failed to disappoint its more sensitive observers? Yet even atheists have faith that it can be improved.
05 November 2017
The sheriff of Wilson County, Texas, spoke to reporters a few minutes ago, hours after a black-clad white guy shot up a Baptist Church in the town of Sutherland Springs, mortally wounding 26 people and wounding many more. The sheriff said, "Media, don't go saying this shouldn't have happened, because it does." He could have meant a number of things, but none of them seem good. Of course we can and should say that incidents like this, however common, shouldn't happen, and if he meant to say that American politics, American culture, or human nature make these things inevitable, that would be more sad, if not more scandalous, than the actual massacre. We cannot reconcile ourselves to this state of affairs; to do so is effectively to write off our potential for civilization. Human potential and American potential are two different things, of course, but we shouldn't be ready to give up on either yet.
31 October 2017
Hawley makes a distinction between white nationalism and white supremacy early in his book, claiming that the alt-right is less interested in establishing a hierarchy of superior and inferior races than in asserting the fundamental incompatibility of races as a rationale for turning some or all of the United States into a white "ethnostate." Alt-rightists think of themselves as "race realists," convinced that race is not merely a social construct, as leftists and anti-racists in general have long claimed, but an irrepressible fact that, presumably, imposes obligations from birth on those born into any particular race. In his interview, Spencer allows that everyone has multiple identities that can pull you in different directions, but "race is the foundation of identity." Race, it would seem, is something you belong to whether you want to, or like it, or not. Borrowing some phraseology from Leon Trotsky, he tells Hawley, "Whether you want to identify with race [or not], race identifies with you. You are part of something bigger than yourself." Spencer and other alt-rightists are dedicated to bringing white "normies" to this crucial realization, but if anything Hawley downplays how difficult a sell this will be to individualist whites, though he does emphasize the extent to which the alt-right could be seen as un-American, not because of its racism but because of an intellectual allegiance among many of its intellectual leaders to a "European" tradition from which the American experiment deviates. Spencer himself seems influenced by a genealogy of German thinkers toward a Romantic or "Faustian" ideal of human progress, while some of his pre-alt-right associates view the American Revolution as a historical mistake. In any event, the alt-right's "identitarian" element goes against the now-established American grain of self-definition. Spencer says that an identitarian asks "Who am I?" or "Who are we?" before anything else, but many Americans never get to the "who are we?" part and answer "Who am I?" in a purely individualist manner and I don't like the alt-right's chances of getting many of them to think differently.
Hawley may convince you that the alt-right will have a more lasting impact on the way politics is practiced in this country as master-manipulators of memes and irreverent trollers. While Hawley himself never makes the argument, you could infer that for many young men coming of age politically today, the alt-right is their form of irreverent rebellion against a seemingly stodgy cultural establishment, just as some sort of Marxist leftism was the form preferred by their grandparents in the 1960s. The alt-right's appeal to the funnybone may be as important as its appeal to race loyalty, though it ironically panders to an irreverent spirit that remains essentially individualist and could just as easily be turned on the alt-right itself should they seem too pious toward their particular idols. To the alt-right's critics the racism and the irreverence probably are all of a piece, the essence of it being the withholding of respect for difference. To counter the alt-right's appeal, the left might try to relearn its own irreverent tradition, but it will have to overcome that same obsession with respect that leaves them so vulnerable to trolling.
The alt-right seems more appealing comprehensive in its irreverence because it's committed, as Hawley notes, to overthrowing not only the left and the multicultural establishment but the Republican party establishment as well. Their goal, he concludes, is to lose the "alt" tag and become the right in this country by crushing the GOP as we know it. In return, the alt-right is under fire not only from the Republican establishment but by some of its near-relations in the paleoconservative movement who clearly distrust both its obvious collectivist tendencies and its apparent disinterest in most of the orthodoxy of Cold War conservatism. Howevermuch the alt-right may be enabling the Republican conservative agenda by electing GOP congressmen, Hawley believes that they don't really care about supply-side economics, limited government, "Judeo-Christian" values and other hallmarks of Reaganite conservatism. They are "right" only insofar as racism has come to be identified with the ideological right since the southern turn to Republicanism in the 1960s. Hawley believes that the alt-right has a better chance in its fight with the Republicans than earlier far-right movements had, simply because no one today can act, as William F. Buckley did for so long, as a kind of conservative pope, marginalizing what he found disreputable by excluding it from his movement-defining media. The internet and social media have made the sort of heresies Buckley persecuted virtually impossible to suppress because they can always find a home somewhere, unless the rules of online speech change drastically, and more people have the power to seek out ideas that intrigue them, regardless of where they appear. The real battle for the future of the right, I suspect, will have less to do with ideology or what to do about other races than with what it means to be white in the U.S. For all intents and purposes, the alt-right needs to create a unitary white culture as its constituency where none -- despite the assumptions of minorities and the left -- has really existed before, with only continuing economic insecurity to give that culture ground to take root in. While Hawley makes his own distaste for the alt-right clear early, he scrupulously avoids hysteria in his reporting, concluding that the movement as yet has very little real power for all its new visibility. He also notes, correctly, that it hasn't been a violent movement to date, though that could change on very short notice. His main concern is not that the alt-right may take over the country, but that it's contributed to a permanent unleashing of racial resentment that threatens the ideal, presumably shared by Republican conservatives, of a color-blind society. For anyone who wants a better idea of what the alt-right is rather than jumping to conclusions about a bunch of other things, Making Sense of the Alt-Right may be as good a starting point in its dispassionate compactness as any you'll find today.
30 October 2017
Catalonia hasn't really been independent since the 12th century, but the region has declared independence from Spain after an overwhelming majority of voters participating in a referendum demanded it. However, only a minority of eligible voters participated, while the central government declared the referendum illegal. Secessionists claim that a majority would have turned out if not for vote-suppression by the central government, but from what I've read the secessionists have never gotten a majority to turn out for any of the votes leading up to the independence referendum. That would seem to disqualify the referendum, as hundreds of thousands of protesters claimed in Barcelona last weekend, but democracy historically has been government by majority of those who show up. Where the credibility of this secession fails is in Catalonia's apparent inability to defend its independence in the face of the central government's monopoly on force. The secessionists apparently believe that massive civil disobedience will be enough to compel acquiescence from Madrid, but probably have underestimated the extent of civil disobedience against them. Their naive action most likely will prove even more irresponsible down the line, for there is nothing like the suppression of a powerless movement for independence to generate terrorist violence in the future.
It seems like we must expect more such episodes. Scottish secessionism has not been stilled by the defeat of a similar referendum, but was revived by the U.K. Brexit vote, with which the Scots disagreed. Just last week I heard that regions of northern Italy are contemplating separation. There as in Catalonia, locals who see themselves as their nation's breadwinners declare themselves tired of providing for deadbeats elsewhere or the central government. The Catalonians themselves aren't easily pigeonholed as left, right or populist, nor is this movement necessarily an expression of the anarchist sentiments for which the region is known through George Orwell's reporting during the Spanish Civil War. Catalan nationalism has been simmering there since the 19th century, but approaches critical mass in the 21st because globalization fueled more by corporate economics than by democratic politics paradoxically sharpens differences among peoples. Whatever the real numbers are, fewer Catalonians than ever see themselves in the faces of fellow Spaniards, and you can see the same thing happening around the world. In every local enclave, possibly, the locals judge every stranger or every seeming outsider complicit in their economic decline or the corruption of their virtue, and people once taken for granted seem increasingly like strangers. Some Euro-paranoids see Russia's hand behind it all, perceiving a Putin divide-and-dominate strategy at work. It looks to me more like people like the Spaniards need no help dividing, and that neither the Russians nor any other nation will conquer if this process continues.
26 October 2017
24 October 2017
From Tacitus Chinese political scientists derive the concept of the "Tacitus Trap," against which Xi is trying to immunize the Communist Party. The Tacitus Trap is a kind of tipping point, past which a government or its leaders, through corruption, dishonesty, lack of transparency etc., loses credibility so irretrievably that people won't believe them when they're actually telling the truth or doing the right thing. This preoccupation with Tacitus probably derives from China's long struggle with corruption since Deng Xiaoping liberalized the economy. Western observers, I suspect, don't take China's anti-corruption efforts too seriously. Since Leninist regimes in general fell into the Tacitus Trap long ago, westerners tend to assume that if a Communist party leader is accused of corruption, it's most likely only because he or she is a political opponent of a ruling clique that is most likely just as corrupt. While that explanation probably can't be ruled out, we probably shouldn't underestimate the seriousness with which the Chinese Communists take the corruption issue as part of their effort to present their style of government as a practical alternative to a western liberal democratic model that has fallen into a Tacitus Trap of its own, sprung by partisanship.
That the Chinese now actively promote their system as an alternative model suggests that they believe, as do many western liberal democrats, that certain types of government will be inherently hostile toward them, or inherently unstable on the geopolitical stage. The Chinese most likely would rather deal with authoritarian regimes on the assumption that they'll have consistent, predictable foreign policies, presumably based more on realist notions of national interest than on ideological agendas. The western contention, of course, is that authoritarian regimes are inherently unstable because they provide no check on a leader's ambitions while inevitably generating resistance tending toward civil war by suppressing dissent. Reality occupies a middle ground between these positions. China's concern with the Tacitus Trap indicates that the Communist Party does worry about losing the confidence of its people. The question for the future of China is whether they maintain (or regain) that confidence through a greater emphasis on transparency and honest government, or through the more typical Leninist method of conditioning people to trust the Party no matter what.
23 October 2017
As for the "propositional" nature of the U.S., it's at least superficially indisputable, as the Founders staked independence from Great Britain on ideological justifications that weren't necessarily reducible to culturally-dependent "rights of Englishmen." Any revolutionary regime is a propositional nation in that sense, though the U.S. obviously was a less radical departure from ancestral traditions than the Leninist revolutions of the 20th century, the most successful of which -- as of 2024, when the People's Republic of China will have outlasted the Soviet Union -- eventually reconciled itself to much if not most of its national cultural heritage. But while the U.S. may be inescapably dedicated to certain ideas that, as ideas, can never be absolutely exclusive to one culture, the responsibility to promote liberal democracy abroad promoted by Dubya and accepted by his successor, despite Barack Obama's own criticism of Dubya's wars, simply does not follow. The anti-interventionist right, including the alt-right, is immune to that temptation because its members are materialist conservatives. For them, the nation is never so much an idea as it is the people (or certain people) who actually live within its borders here and now, whose material interests -- some, more controversially, would add cultural interests -- should count for more than ideology in American foreign-policy making. If they seem naive about certain nations others see as threats, it may be because they embrace an ideal of nationality according to which the U.S. should aspire to normalcy rather than exceptionalism, and they assume that most other nations are normal in that sense.
Criticizing Dubya on the Daily Caller website, Scott Greer condemns the neocon belief that the U.S. "cannot exist just like other nations in serving its citizens and protecting its sovereignty." One need not be a neocon to question whether the governments most concerned with their sovereignty in the face of international scrutiny are the ones that best serve their citizens. But you cannot be a neocon, apparently, or perhaps not even a liberal, and question whether those governments' performance is any of our business, much less question whether our own national character depends on it being our business. A nation dedicated to individual liberty is a nice idea, but the worth of individual liberty always will depend on individuals, not institutions; and making nations safe for individual liberty at all costs, at the expense of every other consideration, may not be in individuals' best interests in the long run.
18 October 2017
It seems self-evident to me that the President was trying to say something to the effect that the soldier was a brave man to serve his country knowing the risks that service involved. If so, it's understandable that he sees Rep. Wilson's interpretation of it as deliberately deceptive. He believes he had "a very nice conversation" with the widow. Wilson heard it differently, so that it sounded like "just matter-of-factly, that this is what happens, anyone who is signing up for military duty is signing up to die." Putting it that way "disrespected" the fallen soldier in a way that Trump absolutely could not have intended. But Donald Trump speaks for a worldview profoundly different, it seems, from the people he meant to console. The difference in perception between Trump and his movement, on one hand, and their opponents may be based on nothing less than a different understanding of human existence. I don't mean to be pretentious about this, so let's put it in as simple terms as possible. The U.S. can be roughly divided between people who feel that life is tough and those who feel that it is cruel. For someone whose loss seems incommensurable and probably senseless, a "life is tough" response, however complimentary to the deceased in its intent, will seem almost cruelly inadequate. From one perspective, the idea of "signing up to die" is practically unimaginable in its horrific implications; from the other it's a moment of honor, courage and toughness. President Trump has often said that Americans need to get tough (or "smart" in a synonymous sense), while many opposed to him see the very requirement of toughness, and what it implicitly entails, as essentially cruel. I could go on about the fundamental conflict between "tough-mindedness" that veers between aggression and complacency and a hedonic mentality dedicated to the political overthrow of cruelty, but we don't need to go into all its political dimensions to see the failure to communicate here. That failure will persist until one side learns toughness or the other recognizes cruelty. Elections probably won't hasten either event, but other events might, so that future historians will recognize an absurdity to this particular controversy that many of us today cannot.
17 October 2017
16 October 2017
It used to be the right- wing that believed most people too stupid to have a say in great political decisions. After the election of President Trump, more people on the left seem open to the idea. Jan-Werner Muller isn't one of them. Instead, he uses his review of Jason Brennan's new book Against Democracy in the October 9 Nation to warn against the temptation of what Brennan calls "epistocracy," the newest label for rule by the wisest. Brennan apparently believes that most Americans don't bother studying policy options closely because they assume that their individual votes make no difference, i.e. they have no real power as individuals. Worse, they tend to vote on the basis of "team" loyalty regardless of the team's merits. Worse still, the team-fan mentality encourages them to see the other "team" as the enemy; invoking European football, Brennan calls people with this mentality " hooligans." While Brennan sees these tendencies as tendencies of democracy itself, Muller (the author of a recent volume on populism) doesn't think the problem inherent in the form of government. A more committed egalitarian -- Brennan, by comparison, doesn't think epistocracy will reduce anyone to real second-class citizenship -- Muller cites the most obvious criticisms of Brendan's idea, which begs the question of who'll get to draft the tests that measure people's fitness for the franchise. In his view, epistocracy inevitably would turn authoritarian -- and in any event Muller doesn't think that ignorance and mindless partisanship are the people's fault. "Polarization is a project that confers great political and economic benefits," he writes,"unreasonableness can be big business." The blame for it all, Muller charges, lies with the right-wing media and the Republican party, and even if it's spread to the to the other party, it's important to know who started it.
On a more theoretical level, Muller disagrees with Brennan on what democracy is for. Democracy can't be judged by whether people make rational choices, Muller contends. Democracy "is a system that allows leaders to gain power on the basis of their claim to represent different ideas, interests and identities....Democratic representation is therefore neither about finding the one right policy answer nor about the mechanical reproduction of already existing interests and identities." Democracy creates new identities and thus, presumably, legitimizes the team mentality Brennan misguidedly deplores. While I won't endorse Muller's jargon, I have to agree with him on the actual scope of democracy. In simpler terms, at the electoral level democracy will always be a decision on what we, the people want rather than a determination of what we might need. Once you've made the choice for democracy over epistocracy or any more Platonic alternative, you effectively concede that democracy will pursue something other than truth. Liberal democracy in particular is premised on the impossibility of discovering objectively correct answers to policy questions, and an assumption that a number of options, if not all optimum, all are acceptable. On the further assumption that very few possible choices are categorically unacceptable or self-evidently self-destructive, liberal democracy requires us to acquiesce in choices we don't agree with -- even those we find personally offensive.
If democracy seems to be failing now, that's largely because fewer Americans seem willing to abide by this crucial requirement. That refusal probably has less to do with levels of education or ignorance than Brennan apparently assumes, and less to do with anyone's conscious, conspiratorial manipulation -- the old word is demagoguery -- than Muller chooses to believe. Liberal democracy depends on an ultimate indifference to results, on the assumption that no result is fatal. Muller himself writes that democracy's supreme virtue is its provision for "throwing the bastards out." The problem with democracy right now is that many of us feel that we can't wait for the next designated opportunity to do that, that too much is at stake right now, and that the stakes may be higher than liberalism can stand. Constitutional reform is less likely to change that attitude than changes in society and culture. Whether those can take place by constitutional means is one of the great questions of our time.
14 October 2017
I don't really trust President Trump to respect the First Amendment much more than most people trust him -- especially not after his quasi-Christianist rant at the recent "Values Voters" convention. But the latest hysteria over his threatening remarks toward the media is fueled at least in part by a willful misinterpretation of what Trump is saying. Furious over an NBC story that he calls a lie, according to which he had asked for an immense increase in the nation's nuclear arsenal, the President said, "It's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write." Well, how dare he? Again, Trump's rhetorical incompetence when not pandering to his equally simple-minded base contributed to the misunderstanding, but given the context his meaning should have been plain enough to everyone. Yet critics took this sentence as an attack on the very principle of freedom of speech, for what else is that, they asked, but the right to say or write "whatever they want?" It should have been obvious, however, that Trump was deploring the media's assumed license to write whatever they want without regard for the truth. That elaboration may not impress those who assume that the President is the liar on the point of what he said about the nuclear arsenal, but his real meaning was probably clear enough to those whose rhetorical grammar isn't sophisticated enough to infer a different meaning.
Just about everyone now believes that someone else is lying in our political discussions, but no one seems to know what to do about it, and few dare suggest a solution from fear of being called fascists. That's because our political culture still gives dissent -- if only certain kinds -- the benefit of the doubt, on the assumption that dissent is the health of the state, that you can't tell whether you're actually free unless you can insult the leaders and get away with it. It's possible that Donald Trump doesn't share that mindset, and not so many of us may now as we used to. We seem to have entered a new era where affirmations of solidarity and shows of respect are valued more highly and considered more imperative by many of us. Of course, hardcore civil libertarians will say that that makes it only more imperative for them to defend their rights of conscience against a rising "authoritarian" tide, but we can still ask them whether that makes it all right to lie. I suspect that some will say it does, or that the danger from the sort of opening up of libel law that Trump once envisioned outweighs any damage lies, which presumably can be disproven easily enough, can do.
There are two dangers here. The President probably has an unhealthy craving for praise, if not a feeling of entitlement to it by virtue of his election. At a minimum, he is more thin-skinned than any President since Nixon. But at the same time his personality and the positions he is thought to represent have alarmed many people so far beyond reason that any propaganda trick that might hurt him now seems justified. The American assumption that dissent is practically an end unto itself only exacerbates the situation, even as a long-simmering backlash against that mentality seems to be gaining strength. What this nation needs is more dispassionate objectivity, especially in the media -- but where's the money in that? Who knows, though? A real "plague on both your houses" attitude, backed by a plausible alternative, could pay these days. Until someone can test that theory, it can't hurt the rest of us to just step back every so often, take a breath and listen to the world instead of the media, left or right. We just might see that life isn't how either side describes it -- that both sides have been lying, or are just plain wrong.
11 October 2017
It's important to understand the backlash against athletes taking a knee is not just a demand for respect but also a demand for solidarity. The present populist moment in our history is driven by an anxiety that Americans don't have each other's backs. It's a reaction to as many as three generations of escalating mutual distrust and disrespect, and what it requires of everyone is some act of affirmation. The sort of affirmation demanded depends on the people making the demand. As this controversy continues, with an ultimate showdown possible during this Sunday's NFL schedule, I grow more convinced that the demand for shows of allegiance/respect from pro athletes is the "Black Lives Matter" movement of white populists, absolutely equivalent in its insistence upon an explicit affirmation that others would rather be taken for granted. In the case of "Black Lives Matter," the refusal of activists to be satisfied with "All Lives Matter" baffles and infuriates many people. In the case of the anthem, the refusal of Trumpists and older superpatriots to be satisfied with anything along the lines of "Of course I love my country..." is equally infuriating and baffling to those who feel obliged to perform perhaps the mildest act of civil disobedience possible. The offense in both disputes is basically the same. BLM activists don't trust that their lives matter implicitly to those who say "All Lives Matter," on the assumption that if their specific lives really did matter people wouldn't have a problem making the more specific statement." Angry superpatriots don't trust people unwilling to "honor America" for one measly minute to have their backs, keep faith with the troops, etc.
If anything makes the anthem controversy more controversial it's the athletes' understanding that they have no more public or dramatic way to publicize their dissent than what they've been doing, though by now it's probably become unclear to many people what exactly Colin Kaepernick's successors are protesting. The point remains that for all the other opportunities they presumably have as celebrities to promote their sociopolitical agendas, nothing gets in people's faces more effectively, if only to rile them up, as taking a knee on national television, and since just about everyone in the U.S. reserves a right to dissent on their own terms when they please, the athletes will surrender the field only reluctantly, if not after a fight. Their obdurance must leave others wondering whether there is any occasion left when Americans can forget their partisan or parochial differences and affirm their common citizenship and national solidarity. The answer to that question is yes, but lots of people have to be killed before those moments happen. For the situation to improve, many Americans will have to convince themselves that they can (and should) express allegiance to the republic -- not "the troops" -- that guarantees their freedom on appropriate occasions, while reserving and using their right to dissent every other time. As long as people remain confident of their rights -- and that may be another underlying problem right now -- a minimal show of allegiance like standing for a flag that does not stand for Donald Trump need not be seen as blind loyalty, or even as the blink of an eye.
09 October 2017
Does Donald Trump hate Native Americans? I doubt it. Does he think it was their inescapable destiny to give way to a superior civilization? I doubt he's ever thought about it that deeply, and in any event such questions most likely would strike him as irrelevant if not antithetical to his obligation to proclaim the holiday. For him and his supporters Columbus Day takes place in the same sphere as the raising of the American flag and the playing of the national anthem. That sphere is neither "private" nor "public" in the usual sense of either word, but national. The continuing controversy over whether athletes should salute the flag when the anthem is played, freshly escalated by the Vice-President's angry departure from one of yesterday's games after more athletes took the knee and a threat by the owner of the Dallas Cowboys to bench players who refuse to stand, shows the existence in the Trumpist mindscape of certain spaces that are public in the most basic sense, yet not really the same as the seemingly synonymous "civil society" where everyone's right to make personal or political statements is largely unquestioned. In this national sphere, the right to principled self-expression guaranteed by the First Amendment still holds, but is overridden informally by a patriotic obligation to affirm allegiance to the country, the flag, the troops, etc. In other words, it may not be illegal to withhold allegiance, but forms of sanction short of criminal prosecution -- getting fired by an employer, for instance, are considered appropriate and encouraged by Trumpist patriots.
Where this relates to Columbus Day is the presidential position, implicit by omission in his proclamation and explicit in his railing against football players, that minority grievances are ultimately irrelevant in the national sphere, where citizens ought to be Americans first and exclusively. To my knowledge, despite his constant whining against the media's insults, Donald Trump doesn't intend to curtail our First Amendment right to protest his policies or alleged injustices in American society. He appears to insist, however, that there are times and places where the First Amendment is not properly our first consideration, where citizen obligations trump the rights of conscience, and where others are entitled to question your loyalty to the nation when you withhold allegiance. The President's aggressive expression of this attitude comes as a shock to a culture that has revered the 1968 Olympic athletes who gave the Black Power salute during their medals ceremony as heroes of civil liberty, and it probably disturbs some ideological conservatives in his own party who might see something suspiciously "statist" about his demands. But it probably comes as a welcome relief to those Americans who feel, justly or not, that something had gone terribly wrong in the country over the last half-century that could be characterized as neglect of duty, embodied by the refusal of allegiance or the refusal to keep faith with the dead during the Vietnam era. Their feeling will be written off by many principled protesters as the sort of authoritarian nationalism that leads to fascism if it isn't there already, and it will be resented by those who feel that compulsory shows of allegiance mean having to say everything's okay with the country when they feel obliged to tell the country the opposite. But whether a line can be drawn anywhere, whether there's a point beyond which people can fairly question whether protesters will have their backs when it counts without being called fascists, seems like an appropriate question for a national debate -- if either side considered the question debatable, that is. Columbus, this is your fault!
06 October 2017
04 October 2017
03 October 2017
A few minutes ago I saw something on the Fox News morning program that was so pathetic it was almost funny. They'd acquired video footage of the crowd at the country music festival singing God Bless America about an hour before the October 1 massacre. The hosts found the sight heartwarming in some way, even though it was self-evident that, by their own standard, God had not blessed the concert goers. One of the people in the studio described the video as a "gift" from the victims in Vegas, as if by performing the Irving Berlin standard they'd assured survivors that they'd gone straight to heaven. Then one of the hosts began speculating, in the persistent vacuum where the killer's motive should be, about whether the song had triggered him. According to his brother, the shooter had no religion, so perhaps the spectacle of piety playing out across the Strip put him over the edge into a killing rage. Just speculating!, the host disclaimed, but the show's correspondent in Las Vegas was left speechless by her comment, as any sane person would be.
02 October 2017
Investigators describe the shooter as a "lone wolf" but are eager to learn what his "ideology" was. They may be giving too much credit to the concept of ideology, now that we expect people to be "radicalized" and effectively weaponized by the Internet and social media. If modern American history has shown us anything, it's that many of us are perfectly capable of motivating ourselves to commit atrocities, though it might be argued that a defining American ideology of entitlement to kill enables even those killers of divergent or contradictory partisan ideologies. The public will want to know whether the shooter had an ideology in order to confirm their own prejudices or ideological biases, though at this time the massacre (or amoklauf) doesn't look like the work of a Muslim or (considering the target) a white supremacist. Some will see it as simply another occasion to remind the public of the pressing need for more effective gun control, though last night's crime raises more sweeping questions about the security of public gatherings within view (and range) of tall buildings. Others would prefer that no one "politicize" the incident, but the general threat to public safety implicit in every such slaughter seems an ideal subject for Democratic discussion. To decry politicization is to politicize it a second time, in a more partisan fashion, and nothing we learn about the shooter's motives will change that.
3 p.m. Without any opinion trail to follow as yet, there's some speculation that the shooter was a leftist of some sort. The sole basis for such speculation so far is the choice of target, a country music concert. That country music fans are the victims of prejudice is borne out by a Facebook post today from a legal executive at CBS who was fired this afternoon for withholding sympathy for the Vegas victims on the ground that "country music fans often are Republican gun toters." The terrible thing about that is that the executive didn't even say that all fans are that way, but judged "guilty" and "innocent" alike equally unworthy of sympathy. Country music is equated with political conservatism mainly because its fan base is presumed rural or simply "redneck," and because some critics may know little country music other than "Okie From Muskogie" or similar provocations that get mainstream publicity. But from Willie Nelson to Steve Earle -- and one could go further back if you want to include Woody Guthrie in the country tradition -- leftist views often have found expression in the country idiom. A national discussion about tastes in music would seem to be in order along with any further discussion about guns. The shooter's politics remain unknown as I write, but people have noted that his demographic profile (sixtysomething white guy) matches that of the attempted assassin of several Republican congressmen on a baseball diamond earlier this year. Beyond that, I'm reluctant to speculate about someone who appears, in the photo circulating with many news stories today, to be nothing more than a drunk. His harmless appearance has fueled some creative speculation that he may have been no more than a dupe or hostage (and victim) of whoever the real killers were. That sort of speculation is predictable when a mass murderer fails to fit a preferred profile and people in general prefer not to think about what made that person a mass murderer.
29 September 2017
27 September 2017
26 September 2017
The problem is that Trump clearly sees the singing of the National Anthem as a categorically different event, and the arena where it's sung as a categorically different venue, than those usually involved in questions of speech rights. Whatever the law might say, the President does not see the obligation to pay homage to the flag and The Troops for which it stands as subject to debate or any sort of qualification. In his mind, we may assume, a refusal to salute the flag puts your loyalty to the country in question. It becomes an offense comparable to "slandering the state," an oft-prosecuted crime in authoritarian or totalitarian countries.
Trump's nationalism demands unconditional love of country, at least on certain occasions and in certain places, and on some level you can understand why that doesn't sound to many people like an unreasonable request. I don't think he and his people are yet at the point where they want to silence all criticism of inequality, all denunciations of injustice or even all insults to his administration. But just as people on the other side demand explicit affirmation of certain premises (e.g., "Black lives matter") that others prefer, for whatever reason, to affirm only implicitly or take for granted, so the Trump movement demands some explicit affirmation from the other side that, when it counts, we're all on the same team and have each other's backs. They no doubt think that standing for the short duration of one verse and chorus of the anthem is not too much to ask, just as many on the other side think the three little words are not too much to ask. And, no doubt, just as some people deny that their refusal to say "black lives matter" makes them racist, so the sports stars and others deny that refusing to stand for the anthem makes them traitors. The issue once more is mutual disrespect, and the belief on each side that the affirmation required by the other side involves some nebulous yet unacceptable concession. When it comes to the anthem, the unacceptable concession is an implicit one; to salute the flag like everyone else would appear to concede that nothing is wrong with the country. Since the Trump movement itself doesn't believe that -- though they may think that what's wrong is that people think the wrong things are wrong, so to speak -- it might help just a little if they made it more clear that such a concession is not what they're demanding. It probably won't help too much, however, since being contrary for the sake of contrariness is probably an even more ingrained American trait, irrespective of race or ethnicity, than love of country itself. The right to be contrary is exactly what many people love about America. Telling them that's suddenly wrong is never going to go over well, as the President is finding out. But for a politician, all that really matters is that it goes over with an electoral majority, and Trump may yet have the winning argument in that case.
24 September 2017
One hundred years ago this month, drafted men from Columbia County NY paraded through the town of Chatham on their way to World War I. When the band played the Star Spangled Banner, William Van Ness refused to take his hat off. A crowd demanded that he show respect, and when he persisted in refusing, they beat him. Van Ness was subsequently charged with disorderly conduct. Three days after the incident, the town justice dismissed the charge, saying that Van Ness had suffered enough at the hands of the mob. The magistrate spoke from first-hand experience; Cornelius Shubert, now a lieutenant, had led the attack on Van Ness, whom he now sent home with a reprimand and a warning, paraphrased a century later, that "any future incident of a similar nature would be dealt with much more harshly."
We may presume that disgruntled sports fans in 2017 won't storm the playing fields of America to chastise professional athletes involved in incidents of a similar nature, but many plainly agree with the President's loathsome remarks in Alabama a few days ago, when he said that any "son of a bitch" who refuses to stand for the National Anthem should be fired. The sad thing about such pathetic threats that the simple act of taking a knee during the anthem is the epitome of nonviolent protest. No doubt, however, the angry white folks in the stands or watching at home assume that the same person taking a knee will loot a store or burn a police car on the streets. The problem with such people, you'd likely hear, is that they respect nothing. Athletic protests like these date back almost fifty years to the 1968 Olympics, but patience with them seems to have run thin recently as whites increasingly resent the disrespect they feel the rest of the population shows them, even as many of those others still feel disrespected by whites.
The consistent thing over time about these threatening demands for respect is an equation of the flag with the troops. To refuse proper reverence to the flag and its theme song is to deny respect to the people who, in the usual vulgar formulation, fight and die for the flag. By this logic the flag embodies that covenant with the dead upon which authentic, sincere patriotism depends. A similar sentiment, not exactly patriotic, rallies defenders of Confederate memorials. The essence of this sort of patriotism is keeping faith with the dead; that sort of patriot resents perceived disrespect for the dead, as disrespect for themselves. That same fetishistic patriotism is in turn resented by those, including many whites, who see it as a form of idolatry and identify the associated demand for unconditional love of country with a "my country right or wrong" attitude that seems, to some, profoundly un-American. Liberalism requires love of country to be justified. While liberals may reject the idea that individuals need to earn respect, many feel entitled, if not obliged, to withhold respect from the nation as a whole, or at least its symbols or monuments, until it earns their love. Meanwhile, many on the other side probably believe unconditional love and reverence to be both natural and necessary to a healthy, great nation. What we have here is a profound disagreement over what it means to be a citizen that most likely won't be decided on the playing field, even if that's where the action seems to be right now.
22 September 2017
Perhaps in Will's ideal world most people would naturally gravitate toward dispassionate arbiters like himself to distinguish the free from the cheap, but the trends predicted by Volokh and confirmed by Will make such an arrangement increasingly unlikely. Sadly, Will doesn't seem to consider whether the sort of skepticism he expresses reflexively, his refusal to believe that authority can ever be objective, is a fundamental part of the problem. Deny that possibility, after all, and you enable all forms of skepticism indiscriminately, and you elevate distrust to a fundamental right. While that skepticism pretty much prevents any attempt at even the most innocuous regulation of social media through law, the sort of remedies for the consequences of an altered speech market that Volokh conceded might become necessary may have to evolve informally. You can see an unhealthy evolution already in the antifa movement's assumption of a prerogative to silence perceived fascists or their fellow-travelers, a development likely to be mirrored once the alt-right gets angry enough. There may, however, be some cases, particularly in the field of "fake news" that Will rightly deplores, where similarly informal remedies for the most obvious lies or self-evident slanders could have some educational effect. All that would be needed then would be for the state to look the other way for a moment. Sometimes the remedy for cheap speech might be a cheap shot -- but not a gunshot, of course. Feel free to dismiss this as an immodest or too-modest proposal. That, for good or ill, is your prerogative. All's fair in the endless race for the last word.