20 November 2017

Beast Mode

For the President, it was probably the ultimate insult. In Mexico, Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch refused to stand for the U.S. national anthem before his team played -- appropriately enough? -- the Patriots, but stood for the Mexican anthem. Inevitably Trump took to Twitter demanding that Lynch be suspended by the NFL, as if the league has some obligation to listen to him. It was a response guaranteed to harden everyone's attitudes, but you could say that about Lynch's demonstration as well. What we have here, yet again, is a failure to communicate, because standing for the anthem is two different things for different groups of people. For the football players who continue to take a knee, and for those cheering them on, standing for the anthem, or not, is a political act determined by individual conscience. For the President and those cheering him on, it's more like a moral obligation. Just as Trump expects governments to act in their nation's interests, by which he means the interests of the people, or at least his constituents, rather than according to any abstract ideology, so he most likely expects citizens to act on the basis of a like fidelity to the nation and people. In his mind, I assume, showing allegiance on these ritual occasions is not a matter of discretion or conscience. He more likely assumes that anyone who withholds allegiance can't be trusted to have the people's backs. It doesn't matter if that's not the intention of any of these protesters. As far as Trump and his people are concerned, these spoiled celebrity racists -- let's not deny that race is a factor here, or that Trump scores extra points with his base by taking no crap from black people on this question -- are putting themselves and their issues before the common good. The anthem controversy no doubt still seems trivial to many people, if not disturbing who see Trump's interventions as authoritarian in character, but it's a flashpoint between Trumpian nationalism, which refuses to take for granted where Americans stand without some show of loyalty, and those who for a variety of reasons find that sort of nationalism antithetical to whatever they think the nation stands for. What we have here is a clash of nationalisms, with each constituency assuming that the other's nationalism excludes or debases them. The national anthem won't stop being an occasion for controversy, and no President can make it stop, until our house ceases to be divided, and the nation stands for one thing or the other.

19 November 2017

Better the guilty go free...

"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

He Don't Need Another Hero

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

'I don't blame China'

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

Am I going to kill somebody?

Investigators as yet haven't isolated any specific motivation for yesterday's massacre of 26 people in a Texas church, but we're learning more about the man identified as the shooter. He was a former Air Force airman who received a "bad conduct" discharge for, among other things, beating his wife and stepson. More provocatively, given his choice of target, acquaintances of his have told the New York Times that he'd recently become a militant atheist and so "vocally anti-Christian" that many people unfriended him for saying that believers were stupid. So now, I suppose, just as some people want increased surveillance of Muslims after each act of Islamic terrorism, and others want increased surveillance of the alt-right after each act of racist violence, somebody's bound to ask just how "militant" some atheists are becoming, and to demand increased surveillance of atheists in order to find out. The Sutherland Springs shooter could become the poster boy proving to anti-atheists' satisfaction that, just as they always feared, those that deny God have no morals. Of course, there's little proof today that those who affirm God, whether in the form of Allah or Jesus, have much in the way of morals, but believers who haven't killed will tell you that those who do kill innocents in the name of God are hypocrites or misfits who just don't get their faith's essentially nonviolent message, while atheists who murder are simply fulfilling the potential of their "belief" system.

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

Gun-country Fatalism

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

Terror on wheels

Gun-rights advocates used to joke that automobiles should be banned on the same principles justifying gun bans, since cars kill more people each year than guns. As if inspired by those jokes, terrorists have adopted the automobile, or more specifically the truck, as their weapon of choice, a blunt object that can be acquired without potentially intrusive background checks. In New York City today, someone used a rented truck to run over a few dozen people on a bike path, killing eight of them according to the latest count. After crashing into a school bus, he emerged from his vehicle apparently intending to commit suicide-by-cop, brandishing a paint gun and a pellet gun in order to draw fire. He was wounded and taken alive, but the latest update didn't make clear whether or not his wound was life-threatening. Witnesses claim to have heard him shout, "Allahu akbar," to no one's surprise, though I suppose there's a tiny chance that that was just another way to get the cops to shoot him. We know only that he's 29 years old; whether he's a "lone wolf," insofar as that term is applicable to someone killing for a cause, or part of some cell remains to be learned. We're far enough along now that this attack is unlikely to change anyone's position, though the fact that it would be even more difficult to deny cars than guns to people on any discriminatory basis may strengthen the argument that the only practical safeguard against future attacks is more sweeping discrimination against Islam. What happened in Charlottesville this summer may prove that vehicular attacks can be carried out by anyone on the spur of the moment, but many will feel justified in arguing that regulations targeting Muslims will reduce the immediate probability of such attacks. The terms of the larger debate remain the same. One side refuses to compromise the nation's character or their own principles to thwart threats that remain essentially theoretical through actions that, to their minds, declare people guilty before the fact, while the other is unwilling to risk actual lives on principles that don't define their own more materialist sense of citizenship. Each side finds the other too willing to sacrifice something real to something less so, and I'm sure it's only a matter of hours, if not minutes, before someone tries to change the subject by declaring today's incident a "false flag" attack designed to distract us from the Manafort case, or with some other ulterior motive. Meanwhile, the world grows more violent and intolerant as cosmopolitanism falls further behind globalization. The spread of truck attacks is particularly terrifying because each new attack shows how easy it can be for not just a Muslim but anyone to take weaponize transportation. It seems like fewer and fewer people think that their problems, personal or global, can be solved without a bloodbath. With that in mind, Happy Halloween!

Does the Alt-Right make sense?

In Making Sense of the Alt-Right University of Alabama assistant professor George Hawley attempts an objective survey of the movement or movements behind the most conspicuous new brand in American politics. A student of ideological conflicts within American conservatism, Hawley interviewed some alt-right pioneers, most importantly Richard Spencer, in an effort to get at the essence of the movement and distinguish it from the associated phenomena with which it often gets lumped together. As far as he's concerned, for instance, President Trump and the bulk of his supporters can't be considered part of the alt-right. There's also an important distinction between what Hawley sees as the authentic alt-right and the so-called "alt-lite," which agrees with the former on only certain issues, e.g. hostility toward Islam, opposition to political correctness, etc. The authentic alt-right, as defined largely but not exclusively by Spencer, is committed to white nationalism.

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

The Catalonia question

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

Republicans: defiant in surrender

While Democratic castigations of President Trump can be dismissed as partisanship, fanaticism or outright hate, condemnations of a Republican President by Republican Senators get more people's attention. Trump's critics within the GOP can be, and are, dismissed in turn as "the establishment" by would-be insurrectionists like Steve Bannon, but it's still unclear how the Republican majority takes them. What the rank and file think of Sens. Corker and Flake, for instance, is for all intents and purposes a moot point, since both solons have announced that they will not seek reelection next year. In other words, they have declared war on Trump and simultaneously surrendered to him. Unless we learn that either man has been driven from public life solely by Trump's sheer obnoxiousness, the simplest assumption to make is that neither man wanted to contest a primary against a presumed pro-Trump challenger. Presuming such challenges inevitable, the incumbents feared either defeat in the primaries or the sheer ordeal of them. Either way, howevermuch they cast defiance at the President, they seem to be chickening out of contests that would be cast inevitably as referenda on Trump, tests to prove whether his movement has seized control of the party as completely as the Reagan movement did forty years ago. If they confine their fights with the President to Washington, theirs will all be empty gestures. The real fights will be in their home states, and the real question is whether they've surrendered the field to those presumed pro-Trump challengers or are laying the groundwork for successors more like themselves. If they retire only to have Trumpets replace them, they'll only have furthered the cause they claim to oppose. Of course, all either Senator may care about now are book sales, Flake from a volume already published, Corker from one sure to come. But that hardly seems patriotic when they've portrayed Trumpism as a danger to the republic, or at least the Republicans. Ironically, those liberals who see the danger in these moves may find themselves rooting for the familiar GOP sugar-daddies, people like the Koch Bros. who are known to oppose many aspects of Trumpism, to take an interest in these 2018 primaries. For all I know, that might only provoke Trump to threaten to "open up" campaign-finance laws, but in any event, to the extent that the American center-right now has a recognized strategic importance in the struggle with Trump, liberals and progressives may find themselves choosing strange bedfellows next year.

24 October 2017

The Tacitus Trap

Western news media are reporting the decision by the Chinese Communist Party congress to incorporate "Xi Jinping Thought" into the country's constitution as akin to declaring a personality cult. According to the state news agency, however, it is almost routine to canonize a paramount leader's guiding principles into the fundamental law. It's not the sort of thing we'd do in the U.S., but it doesn't mean that Xi is another Mao, either. The thing I actually found interesting about the congress and the attendant hoopla was that, for all that Xi and his colleagues are committed to the "sinicization" of socialism, or molding Marx and Lenin's ideas to the contours of Chinese culture, their thinkers seem to be significantly influenced by at least one western thinker. Since the Chinese famously take the long view of things, they've looked back to the work of Publius Cornelius Tacitus, the historian of first-century CE Rome.

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

The Proposition

It's a sad measure of the decline of American politics in the 21st century that people now look to George W. Bush as a model of principle and integrity. But some people will simply say that President Trump is so bad, or such a threat, that Dubya now sounds like a welcome voice of reason by comparison. He earned plaudits last week for a speech denouncing "blood and soil" nationalism in an implicit rebuke to Trump and his alt-right supporters. In effect, Bush upheld the idea, popular among liberals and many conservatives, that the U.S. is a "propositional" nation, based more on ideas than ethnicity or any ethnically specific or exclusive culture.  Since he launched the War on Terror in 2001, his ideological justifications for redeeming "evil" nations by "liberating" them have been challenged by dissidents on the right, starting with the Pat Buchanan-type "paleoconservatives" whose criticisms were often written off as amoral isolationism. The alt-right and the Trump movement have renewed the challenge and are similarly labeled, with less reluctance to ascribe their isolationism to bigotry. They still don't believe that it was Americans' right or responsibility to liberate either country, and many still doubt whether the 21st century U.S. should be any other country's role model, but they share neocons' suspicion  that the anti-interventionist right argument is based on bigoted assumptions about non-westerners' capacity for individuality and citizenship as we understand it, if not an inhumane indifference to whether non-western people live or die. 

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

'He knew what he was getting into'

Donald Trump says so many asinine things on a regular basis that it actually dilutes valid criticism to focus on one of his comparatively innocuous statements, but the new controversy over the President's attempted condolence call to the widow of one of the Green Berets recently killed in Niger reinforces my suspicion that Trump and his opponents hardly speak the same language. As you may have heard by now, a Democrat congresswoman sitting in on the call at the widow's home described the President's remarks as not only "insensitive" but "horrible" and "absolutely crazy, unnecessary." At the heart of her complaint, lately seconded by the soldier's mother, is Trump's comment, as paraphrased by Rep. Wilson, that the soldier "knew what he was getting into" when he joined the military.

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

Is liberal indifference sustainable?

You've seen this idea expressed many times on this blog over the past decade: political liberalism, as it evolved during the 20th century, is defined by its indifference to the outcomes of elections. It requires acquiescence in election results because it presumes that no result in a freely contested election can be so unacceptable that it justifies resistance to the winning candidate or party taking office. Because liberalism -- or at least the pluralist liberalism identified with Isaiah Berlin -- takes for granted that there is no ultimate universal standard or good that permits or requires us to override the will of the electorate, it follows that there are multiple if not infinite acceptable outcomes, so long as the process is respected. Modern liberalism -- you could also call it progressivism -- envisions the electoral process as a perpetual-motion machine; its faith is that no idea or policy truly antithetical to democracy can survive the electoral process. Its most fundamental article of faith is that elections in and of themselves can not destroy democracy, though what elected officials do once elected may tell a different story. It occurred to me that this modern attitude diverges significantly from the classical political tradition. That tradition assumed that political history played out in cycles, or in rises and falls, or pendulum swings from one extreme to another. The tradition anticipated decadence to overtake any political order in time, though political theorists, including the American Founders, experimented with building safeguards against decadence into constitutions. Decadence followed certain predictable patterns, most typically when the expansion of voting rights created opportunities for unprincipled demagogues to take power for their own selfish ends by pandering to equally self-interested voters, either on the basis of raw self-interest or through rhetoric that gave self-interest the appearance of principle. In modern times, leftism cast the narrative of demagoguery into disrepute, reducing warnings against it into the self-interested conservatism of established elites. Even without leftism, a democracy tending toward universal suffrage will increasingly resent the demagoguery narrative, while pluralist liberalism absolves the electorate from blame should a demagogue take power, withholding judgment on the actual demagogue until that official abuses his or her power -- by which time, according to critics of so-called authoritarian democracies, it may be too late. Liberalism has no real answer to authoritarian democracy except the idea of term limits, an idea with which many liberals remain uncomfortable because it limits the electorate's options. It would seem that liberalism, to the extent that it's committed to universal suffrage and plural goods, has no structural answer to the threat of demagoguery, except to propose immunizing the masses against demagogic appeals by enhancing their education. Contemporary observers question the effectiveness of that strategy, and a few (as discussed yesterday) go so far as to propose contracting the franchise to ensure that elections are determined more objectively. Democracy's moral claim, however, has nothing to do with any pretensions of objectivity, and while liberals may idealize objectivity as the opposite of irrational passion, they're sure to question any "objective" recommendation to limit either the options available to or the actual composition of the electorate. Liberalism remains convinced that liberal democracy is an end unto itself. In effect, it holds that the electorate and the nation are one and the same, so that there is no separate standard of national interest that could possibly overrule the electorate. While we should all be careful about asserting such a standard, or assuming that it justifies our disapproval of an election, we should be willing to ask whether the nation is something other than the electorate, and whether anything important follows from that, without being accused automatically of authoritarian tendencies. At a point in American history when we seem obliged to choose between demagogues with no other plausible options, we definitely need to rethink a lot of things we took for granted not so long ago.

16 October 2017

The case for epistocracy?

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

Say Anything

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

Is love of country blind?

A Delmar woman addresses the national anthem controversy in a letter published in today's Albany Times Union.  "Before we all go boycotting the NFL," she writes, "perhaps we should consider a broader definition of patriotism, one that moves beyond blind deference to the flag and military and embraces all the values our flag was created to represent." Her word choice exposes another of the conflicts of perception dividing the country. The crucial word, as you may have guessed already after reading the header, is "blind." This is another way of expressing the sentiment I've ascribed to those taking a knee, which sees any requirement to stand or otherwise "show respect" during the anthem as a requirement to ignore the pressing problems of the nation. To show respect unconditionally, as President Trump and his supporters appear to demand, is to say everything is okay when it is not okay. Put another way, the demand for an unconditional show of respect on certain occasions is seen by many as just another way of saying, "My country right or wrong," a sentiment abhorrent to those for whom the rights of conscience override every other consideration. Yet I'm fairly certain that no one demanding respect for the flag and the anthem understands himself to be demanding that anyone "blind" themselves to anything. For whatever reason, they feel that there are some times and places where the right of conscience should temporarily yield to other considerations.

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

Discovering Trump's America on Columbus Day

Today is Columbus Day, the quasi-holiday (I'm working) honoring the discoverer of the western hemisphere as the man who made the U.S. possible, as well as the secular patron saint of Italian Americans. Many Americans prefer to observe the day as "Indigenous People's Day" in remembrance of the native population for whom Columbus's appearance marked the beginning of a centuries-long invasion and dispossession of their land. USA Today points out that, in keeping with the previous Republican president, and in contrast with Presidents Clinton and Obama, President Trump made no mention of Native Americans in his mandatory Columbus Day proclamation. Instead, he hailed Columbus unambiguously as a "skilled navigator and man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions -- even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity." What matters to the President is that Columbus's voyages "set the stage for the development of our great Nation." He nods to the nation's "diverse history" elsewhere in the proclamation, but nowhere in the document does he acknowledge that anyone might have any reason to see Columbus's arrival as a bad thing, or the start of one. By now this should surprise no one, though it will certainly annoy many.

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

Staring into the abyss

Nearly a week after the Las Vegas massacre, investigators haven't released any evidence of ideas that might have motivated the apparent killer, an accountant turned gambler, to accumulate an arsenal of weapons toward the end of opening fire on a mass gathering of people. We have cause to believe that he considered other venues for his attack, which would seem to refute the assumption that he targeted country-music fans specifically. We know more definitely that he sent his girlfriend away the week before the attack, and then wired a sizable sum of money to her. We -- or at least I -- have heard nothing about his opinion on any subject. This is the most troubling aspect of the investigation so far, since we've grown accustomed to seeing mass killings, whether the amoklaufs of alienated nihilists or the terrorists' propaganda of the deed, as statements of some sort, usually of some sort of grievance. There is as yet, to general knowledge, no evidence of grievance here. Into this absence of motive, some will most likely project conspiracy theories portraying the man found dead in the hotel room as a patsy for others more sophisticated and sinister, whose motives would be more familiar to us. Thomas Friedman opens a column this week by writing, sarcastically, that it'd be easier if the shooter were a Muslim, because then no one would tell us not to "politicize" his crime. His column is about gun control, as you might have guessed, but regardless of context it would be easier for everyone if the shooter were a Muslim, or a white nationalist, or antifa -- anything external to most of us. It's not so easy to judge what he might represent when there's no evidence of "radicalization" or any indication -- apart from the gun purchases and custom work -- that he'd "snapped." For the Holocaust survival Primo Levi, the definitive statement of Nazi evil was a camp guard's remark that "there is no why here." For now, it looks like there was no why in Las Vegas, and there's a chilling possibility that we'll never have any why. We're used to killers telling us why they kill, but where are we at as a society when people no longer care to tell us why, or when the implicit answer to the question is "Why not?" If no evidence of motive emerges, we could infer -- we might have to -- that it simply occurred to this man one day, maybe just by looking out a window, that he could shoot hundreds of people at once from the right place at the right time, and the idea, or the image of it he imagined, simply appealed to him. Think what you will of terrorists and amoklaufers, but there might be no more evil scenario than this one. That seems to be understood, as even the NRA seems willing to play ball on restricting the use of the sort of  "bump stocks" used in Vegas, perhaps out of an understanding that for such a man, unless we find out something else about him, the accumulation and modification of weapons may be our only warning sign. The Vegas massacre itself may be a warning sign, but of what, not to mention how we should respond to it, remains maddeningly unclear.

04 October 2017

When did the U.S. lose its 'innocence?'

Continuing to discuss the Las Vegas massacre, a panel on the Scarborough show this morning took up the old refrain about America's loss of innocence, which at least one panel member dated back to the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, the idea being that the ability of a loser like Lee Harvey Oswald to take down the most powerful man in the world made the killing an unprecedentedly demoralizing event. That didn't sound right to me, since you could just as easily describe the assassin who murdered President Garfield in 1881 as a loser or angry little nut, yet the nation endured that trauma with none of the consequences attributed to the murder of Kennedy. I leave the killers of Lincoln and McKinley out of the discussion since they could more accurately be described as terrorists in the interests of the Confederacy and anarchy respectively. Then it struck me that the whole exercise was both futile and unjustly flattering to Americans. Does any other nation have a "loss of innocence" narrative? Any nation born from revolution arguably is entitled to one, to the extent that it defines itself in idealistic terms doomed to be betrayed. On the other hand, nations born from revolution can hardly claim to be innocent because they are, by definition, born by violence. Of course, many Americans, mostly belonging to the political left or self-conscious minorities, will tell you that the U.S. was never innocent, and I see no reason to fight with them over that point. I still think, however, that "loss of innocence" is used to describe, however awkwardly, an actual epochal event in national history, even if people disagree over what specific event it was. What people have been trying to describe since the Seventies is probably better described as a loss of complacency, after which certain things once taken for granted, or ignored, can't be anymore. The Ken Burns Vietnam miniseries that played PBS last month makes (it really reiterates) a strong case for that war and the backlash against it on the home front, as the crucial moments. As "innocence" or "complacency" arguably was a privilege of white Americans, so the disillusioning, demoralizing moment came in two parts: first the spectacle of white youth protesting against their government, in apparent betrayal of the troops on the battlefield, and then the killing of white youth by the government at Kent State. It was sadly quaint -- I DVR'd the series and am still working my way through it -- to see, after watching the news from Vegas, how the deaths of only four people in 1970 traumatized the nation. And it was simply sad to see that some of the wounds of that era are still open, or barely scabbed over, even if the controversy over the proper attitude during the national anthem is just a trivial echo of the more intense controversies of half a century ago. The protests of those who feel that their nation's ideals have been betrayed, or were lies all along, still look like betrayal itself to much of the country. It should be recalled, however, that not even the Weather Underground adopted a strategy of mass murder of random victims in those days. The "loss of innocence" that accounts for the amoklaufs of our time will most likely be found closer to our time than to the Sixties or Seventies. Whether or not the search is worthwhile, at least it fills air time until someone learns something about why the Vegas killer did what he did.

03 October 2017

The Martyrs of Las Vegas?

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

What happened in Vegas (updated)

In Las Vegas, a person tentatively identified as a 64 year man --at least one news network says that he was white -- took a room on the 32nd floor the Mandalay Bay casino. He set up a shooter's nest overlooking an outdoor concert venue about three football fields away, by the popular measure, where a country music festival was taking place. During Jason Aldean's performance, the distant spectator opened fire on a crowd of thousands of people. According to this morning's news, he killed at least fifty people, while more than 200 others  were either wounded by him or injured during the rush to escape the killbox. As usual, it remains unclear whether the suspect, whose name has been reported, was killed by police, who apparently identified his room by a smoke alarm, or killed himself. It is known that he was able to monitor the arrival of the police at the casino, and everything else indicates a thoroughly premeditated mass murder.

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.

Update: An Islamic State news service claims that the shooter -- whom a photo (if authentic) confirms to be white -- recently converted to Islam. While many reports are quick to note that the terrorists have offered no proof of their claim, I wonder whether they would make a claim that might be easily disproved. In any event, the Caliphate wants us to believe that the killer was Muslim. One knee-jerk interpretation of that would be that they want to provoke a Trumpian crackdown on American Muslims, or more general anti-Muslim violence, in order to radicalize the Muslim population. It may simply be that they want to show that their reach into people's minds is undiminished by Daesh's recent territorial losses in Syria and Iraq. More definite answers may come from the woman described as the shooter's companion, though the most recent reports indicate that she is currently in the Philippines. Meanwhile, depending on your news source, the number of people wounded/injured last night may be as high as 400. More updates later.

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

False choices on trade

Thomas Friedman seems to have several ideas mixed up in his mind. In his latest column, Friedman writes: 'We got rich by being “America Connected” not “America First.” Apparently he's trying to equate isolationism and protectionism, finding each equally inadequate to keeping up with an increasingly interdependent world. Today, he suggests, the U.S. should build its wealth "by having the most connections to the flow of ideas, networks, innovators and entrepreneurs." President Trump, he implies, prefers "a world of walls where you build your wealth by hoarding the most resources." Apparently Friedman is also trying to equate protectionism with mercantilism, though what resource Trump wants to hoard is unclear. Jobs, perhaps? In any event, the first sentence I quoted isn't even true if by "America First" Friedman means a protectionist trade policy, since Republican governments were committed to tariffs throughout the post-Civil War surge in industrial productivity. Unfortunately, it's actually fairly common for tariffs to be equated with walls, as if the latter actually prevented the importation or sale of goods from abroad. Tariffs are often described as "trade barriers," when the usual intent is more along the lines of leveling the playing field to compensate for foreigners' cheaper labor and/or economies of scale. You could still buy imports if you found them superior enough to justify the greater expense, and if the cheaper domestic product was crap, it would fail unless price was purchasers' only consideration. However people actually chose a century or more ago, economic growth did occur under protectionist trade rules, though whether growth correlated with protection or was merely coincidental is for economic historians to explain. But while Friedman goes on deploring Trump's presumed ignorance and Democrats' lack of imagination, his real beef seems to be with a mentality that entitles Americans to cling -- to use a provocative word -- to their current jobs. After his dubious history lesson, he goes off on our need to adapt constantly, both on a societal if not cultural level to climate change, but also on an individual, intellectual level to constant technological changes in the job environment. "Change" has been the neoliberal mantra since Bill Clinton's time, and "Adapt!" has been its commandment. But while the capacity to adapt is an admirable survival trait, so is the critical faculty that refuses to obey every command without question. Neoliberals treat the market as a force of nature, if not as the irresistible spontaneous order idealized by libertarians, but for the very reason that the market is a collection of individual, personal decisions we should reserve the right to question its supposed dictates on the sometimes-reasonable suspicion that they are something other than objective imperatives. It may be true sometimes to say "adapt or perish," but we should never assume that that's true every time it's said. That may sound isolationist to some ears, but it may just be an understandable reluctance to adapt to the point when you exist only to adapt and identity itself becomes all too adaptable. The market is not a climate. It is, in theory, easier to master, and it's indisputably easier to say no to when necessary. Anyone who'd have us renounce our capacity to master markets arguably wants us to adapt into something less than fully human. 

27 September 2017

Cutting a promo is not a declaration of war

I get the feeling by now that the President enjoys trolling Kim Jong Un. He's living out many Americans' fantasy of sticking it to everyone, including obnoxious foreign rulers, from the privileged position of "the most powerful man in the world." He probably feels like he scored some great coup when he recently provoked Kim to issue an unprecedented first-person statement in response to the previous Trumpian threat against himself and North Korea. Things haven't gotten any better since then. The story earlier this week was that the Communist kingdom would treat another Trump threat -- a warning that Kim "won't be around much longer" -- as a declaration of war by the United States that justified the Kim Dynasty should it be found necessary to shoot down American aircraft. At this point I guess I'm supposed to lament the President's bellicose rhetoric toward the Pyongyang regime, as if it will be Trump's fault if an American plane does get shot down. While Trump's impulse to cut promos on the dictator, as they say in professional wrestling, is indeed embarrassing, if not also dangerous -- since Trump can't depend on intimidating the little madman into submission -- it won't be his fault if the Juche jabronies act on their assessment of one particular utterance. Since I'm sure Kim assumes himself Trump's intellectual superior, if not the wisest of all living men, he really has no excuse for not knowing what a real declaration of war from the U.S. looks like -- even if we haven't delivered a proper one since World War II. To be more clear about it, he shouldn't expect the rest of the world to assume that he'd be acting in self-defense if he shot at an American plane, just because he and his mouthpieces say that Trump has declared war. Worse, by his own standard his stooges' constant threats to obliterate the U.S. with nuclear missiles are just as much a declaration of war, and could be used with equal justice to rationalize a preemptive American attack on North Korea. The sad thing about this, apart from the millions of lives potentially in jeopardy, is that each antagonist seems absolutely certain that he can scarify the other into backing down, when the worst thing either can do now is assume that the other is a paper tiger. Donald Trump strikes me so far as someone who wants to be either loved or feared, with no middle ground available, and as someone eager to make a demonstration of American might as well as his own will. I don't dare delve deeper that that, but what may really decide the fate of the Korean peninsula is whether or not, all gossip and propaganda aside, Kim Jong Un really is crazy. A sane man won't take as big a chance as he is on a still largely unknown quantity -- though I suppose a merely stupid man might.

26 September 2017

Oh yeah, the freedom of speech thing...

This week is probably the wrong time for President Trump's Attorney General to lecture the nation on the need to defend freedom of speech, if only because Jeff Sessions' talk at Georgetown University was not directed at the President himself. His appearance reminded us that freedom of speech is a big deal for the Trump movement and its alt-right auxiliary as far as college campuses are concerned. In fact, they're absolutely right to warn against the sometimes violent intolerance shown on campuses toward various types of conservative opinion. It just happens to sound inconsistent with the President's passionate dislike for silent protests during the National Anthem at sports events. Sessions tried to reconcile apparently inconsistent positions, reminding his audience -- including the inevitable protesters -- that professional athletes have ample opportunity outside the arena to " express their views without in effect denigrating the symbols of our nation." Of course, antifa students could as easily say that alt-right types have ample opportunity outside the campus to express their views without in effect denigrating other people. It's a very loose construction of the First Amendment to claim that because it allows speech anywhere, it also permits the banning of speech anywhere else. It's just as bad to demand that the NFL forbid protests during the anthem as it is to exclude right-wingers or different types of nationalists from college campuses.

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

O'er the land of the free...

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

Cheap Speech

George Will credits the coinage of "cheap speech" to the prescient law professor Eugene Volokh, who in the 1990s predicted the coarsening and increased polarization of public discourse as a consequence of the Internet. Volokh meant "cheap speech" literally; information technologies, and now social media, have dramatically reduced the cost of disseminating anyone's opinions. The term sounds oddly yet rightly pejorative relative to our cultural idea of "free speech." The problem with "cheap speech" seems to be that it's just too easy for everyone to inflict their opinions on others. The theoretical benefit of this democratization arguably has been outweighed by social media's tendency toward confirmation bias and ideological or partisan safe zones. As Will himself puts it, "Technologies that radically reduce intermediaries and other barriers to entry into society’s conversation mean that ignorance, incompetence, and intellectual sociopathy are no longer barriers." Volokh, reportedly a libertarian, worried about the consequences for public life, but also worried about over-hasty remedies.  While warning against statist solutions, he wrote, “The law of speech is premised on certain (often unspoken) assumptions about the way the speech market operates. If these assumptions aren’t valid for new technologies, the law may have to evolve to reflect the changes.” Will, who sees Volokh's direst predictions proven by both the rise of the Trump movement and the left's hysterical response, is even more opposed to regulating "cheap speech." The columnist has consistently opposed any measure designed to regulate political speech, and especially campaign-finance regulation, on the ground, repeated in his latest column, that "laws, written by incumbent legislators, inevitably will be infected with partisanship." Having seen no similar harm in the profligate speech of the wealthy, Will apparently prefers to endure the embarrassments of cheap speech in order to preserve the prerogatives of rich speech. He reassures himself that cheap speech does no great harm by claiming that the vast majority of Americans -- more than 95% -- "are not listening to excitable broadcasters making mountains of significance out of molehills of political effluvia." That estimate may be too conservative, but it's still fair of Will and others to ask whether anything can be done about cheap speech as a cultural phenomenon without endangering free speech as a political necessity.

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.




20 September 2017

The vote-fraud libel: old news is older news

Cynthia Tucker writes: "Among true believers on the right, there is no sturdier fiction -- no fairy tale more popular -- than the one that insists American elections are plagued by voter fraud." So far, so true, as far as the belief is concerned, but Tucker doesn't realize just how sturdy the supposed fiction has been. A few sentences later, she writes: "the myth has been circulating for decades now." Decades? Try generations, if not centuries. Tucker apparently suffers from tunnel vision that limits her historical perspective. She wants to trace the vote-fraud libel back to "the same time that the Voting Rights Act guaranteed black citizens access to the ballot," or fifty years ago. But it was old news a century before that. She may miss that in her belief that the libel is an idea of "the right," but the truth is that the Republican party has been accusing the Democratic party of voter fraud from the time the GOP was born. That's because the Democrats, howevermuch their overall attitude towards blacks has shifted over time, have always been dedicated to integrating newcomers or marginalized people into the electoral process as quickly as possible. From their beginnings, Republicans have accused Democrats of cutting corners on that integration process in order to win elections. Then as now, Republicans accused Democrats of bringing unnaturalized aliens to the polls to vote. Republicans have always accused Democrats of cynical if not treacherous inclusiveness, giving voice to an irrepressible nativism despite Lincoln's contempt for Know-Nothingism. Republicans in turn might be accused of practicing a cynical nativism that was never much more than a sour grapes argument. If Democrats had the immigrant vote locked up, then immigrants were going to ruin the country. In the 19th century the Irish were going to turn the country Catholic. A few generations later Italians and Slavs were going to drive down the national I.Q. while spreading dangerous political ideas like the plague. And so it goes. To imply that the voter-fraud libel had been invented only recently to spite black people specifically is historically blind and additionally handicapping when the real facts might earn the present targets of voter-fraud conspiracy-mongering some empathy from the descendants of people targeted the same way generations ago.