28 December 2017

Whose News?

My clock radio is set to a public radio station that plays National Public Radio news briefs. On the morning after Christmas I woke up to the news that the Chinese had sentenced a dissident to a stiff prison term. The following morning, the top story was that Myanmar was detaining two Reuters news service reporters. These are events worth knowing about, but I found myself wondering whether they really were the top stories of their respective days. It's most likely a matter of perspective, and NPR's perspective is global. Its choice of top stories sustains a narrative of civil liberty and press freedom under attack around the world, implicitly including in President Trump's America. Not merely the right to dissent but the right to tell truths inconvenient to power is in danger everywhere, according to this narrative, which hints strongly that the suppression of dissent and free inquiry anywhere is a threat to the same things everywhere.  If I seem to object to this, it's not because I think repression in other countries is none of our business as individuals. I simply wonder about the priorities of a bastion of the reputedly liberal media when NPR can find nothing domestic worthy of headlining their morning news brief. One of the arguments against America's human rights-oriented foreign policy from the left was that our country had injustices of its own to deal with before it could claim the right to judge other countries. Under Trump, surely, that should be more true than ever, but NPR is more liberal than left and apparently more concerned with a perceived global threat to civil liberty than with actual conditions at home. For them, perhaps, dissent isn't just the health of the state but the health of the world. I could agree that every nation would be better off if rulers were more accountable to responsible criticism, but to see the world primarily as the battleground of a vast struggle for liberty is sometimes to come slightly too close to a neocon stance for comfort.

22 December 2017

The new war on Christmas

The Washington Post reports today that right-wing ranting about a "war on Christmas " may prove a self-fulfilling prophecy. The war, you will recall, consists of bank and store clerks wishing customers "Happy Holidays" in order not to slight implicitly those who observe Chanukah or Kwanzaa. The objection to this has always been absurd, since Christmas is implicit in "Holidays," but some Christianists and traditionalists insist that there is no cause for complaint should they prefer to explicitly (and exclusively) wish people "Merry Christmas." Donald Trump pandered to these people during his election campaign and continues to do so, boasting of how unafraid he is to honor Christmas. To my knowledge, he has not demanded that anyone be fired for saying "Happy Holidays," but his intervention in this one-sided  kuturkampf seems to have had the same effect as his criticisms of athletes who refuse to stand for the national anthem. The Post reports that some people are more reluctant than before to say "Merry Christmas," out of fear of offending opponents of Trump, while others are more likely to say "Happy Holidays" in order to offend Trump's fans. As in the anthem controversy, the President's involvement has made the issue, intentionally or not, all about him. Just as there may be more resistance to standing for the anthem if doing so is seen as paying homage or submitting to Trump, so "Merry Christmas " may become a partisan slogan, if not a kind of loyalty oath to Donald Trump, while "Happy Holidays" loses its original neutral tone to become a declaration of hostility to Trump's particular form of Christianist. It's sad either way. While "Happy Holidays " has always seemed perfectly sensible to me, I as an atheist have never inferred a demand  that I worship Jesus from "Merry Christmas. " Non-Christians could have interpreted those words as a sharing of happiness across cultural borders on a festive occasion, not an assertion that Jesus is Lord, but this seems less possible now that the Trump, in some eyes, has stolen Christmas. May December 25 be a merry holiday for everyone just the same.

20 December 2017

America or Israel First?

For those who find the question itself offensive, I'd ask the same one if the President and his UN ambassador threatened to cut American aid to countries voting the "wrong" way on a resolution pertaining to another country. On this specific occasion, I suppose, would see it as an insult to both American and Israeli sovereignty if nations vote to recommend that the U.S. reconsider its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The real idea behind the threat is more likely that Trump wants to force a resolution of the Palestine question by intimidating countries into acquiescing in his fait accompli. He also wants to remind his "Judeo-Christianist" base that he isn't afraid of Muslims and doesn't care what the international community thinks. Israel remains the exception to the supposed Trump rule of foreign policy based on national self-interest. Many of his supporters and many of his opponents, if not the man himself, see Zionism as a moral imperative to which no one has any reasonable objection, but could be denied only on the basis of Jew-hatred.  They simply don't care whether support for Israel makes life more difficult for Americans as a nation or as individuals. Tying foreign aid to acquiescence in Jerusalem as the Israeli capital is a defining statement of this derangement. No matter what many yahoos may think, foreign aid is not a handout but a strategy premised on a calculation of costs and benefits favorable to the U.S. Trump himself may despise the calculus of foreign aid -- he sneered that the U.S. would save a lot of money if nations vote the wrong way at the UN -- but he just finished endorsing a National Security Strategy that deplored the emergence of power vacuums exploited by competitors whenever the country retreated from its rightful world leadership. It should occur to him that withdrawing foreign aid for this petty reason would create a similar vacuum that our competitors and adversaries would be happy to exploit, and that the pettiness of it will only further alienate the international community from an administration already seen, to a hysterical degree, as part of some white revanchist movement. Obviously principled arguments for reducing foreign aid can be made, and one can even argue that a degree of "ingratitude" might disqualify some countries from consideration. Denying countries aid because they won't kiss Israel's ass is not a principled argument, however. It will only further fuel (if not confirm) all the arguments against "imperialism," "arrogance," or "cold war mentality" that much of the world finds increasingly persuasive. The U.S. gives out foreign aid to further its own interests, in the final analysis. We should defend Israel if that's what the American people really want, since no one has an ultimate veto on Jewish nationhood that we're bound to respect,  but our desires and our interests are two diferent things, and we should not sacrifice our own interests out of spite for Israel's sake.

18 December 2017

Revisionists and rogues, adversaries and competitors

"A central continuity in history is the contest for power," reads the new National Security Strategy of the United States published by the Trump administration, "The contests over influence are timeless." The new document is an indictment of post-Cold War "strategic complacency," based on a perceived denial of historic reality. "We believed that liberal-democratic enlargement and inclusion would fundamentally alter the nature of international relations and that competition would give way to peaceful cooperation." Trump's advisers believe that Chinese and Russian reassertion  (if not revanchism) was inevitable, and that Presidents from G.H.W. Bush through Obama were wrong to ignore that inevitability in pursuit of peace dividends. More interestingly, the NSS criticizes a characteristically American binary thinking that sees "states being either 'at peace' or 'at war' when it is actually an arena of continuous competition." This myopia has enabled "adversaries and competitors" alike act freely and ruthlessly "below the threshold of open military conflict" in order to "achieve maximum effect without provoking a direct military response." The President's own calls for "smarter" and "tougher" policies presumably target this neglect.  Throughout the document a distinction is drawn implicitly between "competitors" like Russia and China, who inevitably seek to expand their influence in ways that could harm the U.S., but are not existential threats, and "adversaries" or "rogue" entities like Iran, North Korea and the various Sunni Muslim terrorist organizations. This seems reasonable, possibly excepting its view of Iran, while its view of Russia in particular seems more subtle than that of the American bipartisan establishment that can't help seeing Russia, or simply Vladimir Putin, as an existential threat to something they value. The new NSS doesn't deny that Russia's different values will sometimes make its advances harmful to American interest, but the document is happily free of paranoia about Putin (or the Chinese, for that matter) promoting some global "authoritarian" agenda. It acknowledges, however, that authoritarian regimes have potential strategic advantages over the U.S. Such states are "often more agile and faster in integrating economic, military and especially informational means to achieve their goals," and are "unencumbered by truth, by the rules and protections of privacy inherent in democracies, and by the law of armed conflict." Partisan cynics may wonder whether the President envies these advantages, but the authors of the NSS remain confident in historic American ingenuity, combined with what they consider a more clear-headed understanding of American interests. This is, of course, an "America First" strategy based on the perceived interests of the actually-existing American people rather than on ideological priorities, committed to defending American values, however the Trump NSA understands the, rather than imposing them on other nations. The document sharply eschews faith-based optimism in (classical) liberal ascendancy worldwide. The "American way of life" is not "the inevitable culmination of progress," it states. For some, this will be too pessimistic a document, or perhaps too self-serving in its apparent insistence on a permanently vigilant military-industrial complex, at the likely expense of social programs. But compared to the arrogance of G.W. Bush in particular, we might start an objective appraisal of the NSS by observing that it could be worse, and we've had worse not so long ago.

14 December 2017

No Moore

Was this week's special U.S. Senate special election in Alabama the first truly post-partisan vote? It was, at minimum, a uniquely ad hominem verdict in one of the reddest of Republican states. The balance seemed to tip decisively against Judge Moore last weekend when Sen. Shelby repudiated him.  History will most likely show that Moore died of a thousand cuts, from lingering suspicion of his Christianist bent to disgust with his alleged preference for very young women. These outweighed appeals to partisan solidarity from the President, who had supported Moore's opponent in the Republican primary, and to tribal solidarity, for want of a better term, from Steve Bannon. There was a rush to judgment against Bannon after Tuesday's result, the feeling being that, as Moore's biggest booster, he had foisted a fatally flawed candidate upon Alabama Republicans. Partisans there have themselves to blame, however, for choosing Moore when the President was urging them to nominate someone else. His ambivalent stance probably minimizes the damage to his own prestige from the Alabama debacle, though Democrats will portray the election as part of a wave repudiating Trump  and Trumpism. Apologists for Bannon -- and we should be careful to distinguish him from  the "alt-right" despite  Democratic and antifa perceptions -- might note that their cause almost prevailed and would have if not for Moore's toxic persona, but the Republican establishment could answer that, compared to typical Alabama elections, Moore's defeat was not a near-miss but a catastrophic abandonment of the party. While Democrats credit black turnout for putting their candidate over the top, a more typical GOP voting pattern would have more than compensated for that, as it has in the recent past. If any lasting lesson is to be learned from Alabama, it'll be the same lesson the nation as a whole has been taught this year. While the sexual-harrassment craze endures, more intensive vetting will be necessary for both major parties, not only for aspirants to office lest they share Moore's fate, but for incumbents lest they share Sen. Frankenstein.   This could go on at least until 2020, when we can now expect Sen. Gillibrand to position herself as the people's scourge of male swinishness in general and a seemingly swinishness President in particular. But while that develops, the cultural wars waged by Moore and Bannon will continue to rage as if nothing really significant happened in Alabama this week, since on that battlefield, nothing really did.

10 December 2017

Press freedom and accountability

The President once more enraged most of the media establishment by issuing a tweet demanding that a Washington Post reporter be fired for issuing a tweet misrepresenting the attendance at a presidential rally in Florida. The tweet ironically described the event as "packed to the rafters," illustrating that with a picture of a far from full venue actually taken a few hours before the event began. The reporter claims he made an honest mistake because the picture shows Trump on stage, the President having arrived in advance of the event. The President sees this as another case of "fake news" intended to belittle him, and it's fair to ask whether he'd give a damn if any other politician or entertainer was treated the same way. One can't help wondering whether he thinks the reporter's real offense is lese-majeste or something tantamount to "slandering the state." Almost certainly, this President thinks he's entitled to more respect, if not more deference, than he's been getting in the media. But if his inferred attitude represents an extreme of intolerance of criticism or lampooning, there is, inevitably, an opposite extreme indulgent of almost any excess justifiable by suspicion of power, that would rather see reporters err, intentionally or not, with impunity than have them unwilling to take risks for fear of punishment. The idea here is that any prosecution or penalization of a journalist, justifiable or not, will have a chilling effect on all future scrutiny of leaders while giving those leaders a slippery-slope rationale for persecuting any reporter who doesn't see things the same way they do. But that would be like arguing that actually holding leaders accountable through impeachment and criminal trials would discourage anyone from seeking political office. In either case we would be better off viewing every case in objective isolation instead of treating them as episodes in perpetual campaigns effecting everybody. To be clear, I don't think the Post reporter should be sacked for a bit of Twitter snark that blew up in his face. But to argue that the media need answer to no one for its excesses, or that to demand some answerability is tyrannical, is itself potentially tyrannical, albeit in a different register, so long as you understand tyranny as that to which no one can say no.

06 December 2017

The Jerusalem Provocation

How bad is your Trumpophobia? One way to tell is what you make of the President's decision today to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocate the U.S. embassy there. I can imagine extreme cases seeing this as a deliberate provocation, designed to provoke a terrorist attack Trump could then use to justify some extreme measure of his own, whether that be a roundup of American Muslims, a punitive attack on Iran,or something similarly chilling to this mindset.  Objectively, his decision is a provocation that almost certainly will have a violent response somewhere. But I don't think that response is something Trump really wants, much less depends upon. At worst, he may see it as a way to show the world that he isn't afraid of any consequences to come, or of the Muslim world. But his very careful, repetitive prepared speech today suggests that he, or at least his diplomatic advisors see this as they call it, as a fait accompli that will settle the Jerusalem question irreversibly. For an occasion that gave him ample opportunity to say "Fuck you, Islam," he adopted an almost painfully conciliatory tone, reserving the smack talk for the unnamed past Presidents who couldn't solve this problem before he cut the Gordian knot. He sounds little different from them, however, in his stated desire for peace conditional upon Islamic reconciliation with the permanent existence of Israel.
What happens next depends on the extent to which those in a position to worry about the repercussions of the next terrorist attack are in a position to restrain those who have less reason than ever to give a damn. That's the short term. The long term may depend on powers outside the Middle East that might find just as much reason to keep Muslims riled up as they have to prop up Kim Jong Un. Donald Trump's Zionism is an inconsistency in his America First policy that makes him vulnerable to those who might turn the security of Israel into something for which Trump may have to make concessions elsewhere, e.g. Eastern Europe or the South China Sea. It is not inconsistent with his nationalistic view of the world for him to believe strongly that the Jewish people are entitled to a nation over which Islam or the Third World hold no anti-imperialist veto. But I'm not sure if he's calculated how much that should matter to the U.S., or what price Americans should pay to affirm that principle. He may well see only benefit to himself in the form of Jewish and End Times-obsessed Christian voters. But in less than a decade he won't be President anymore, while the rest of us continue to deal with whatever consequences follow from what he's done today.

Neighborly naivete

The other day I saw a blog post arguing that the left doesn't owe the right a debate on anything; that a leftist would be justified in telling a right-wing er to "go eat a dick" no matter how eager he was to debate the issues. While there was a perhaps legitimate complaint about right-wingers "shifting the goalposts" in their sophisticated enthusiasm, I was inclined to dismiss the post as typical antifa arrogance, until the latest David Brooks column reminded me that some things really shouldn't be subject to debate. Brooks is unhappy over the Supreme Court having to deliberate whether the state can sanction a baker for refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding on religious grounds. He's quick to remind us that he supports gay rights, but he also claims that the beleaguered baker wasn't disputing them, either. Rather,"He's simply asking not to take part," and in the end, "It's just a cake." Rather than take this matter to court, Brooks believes that the Baker and the betrothed could have dealt with their dispute in a "neighborly" manner. This would entail the gay couple inviting the Baker home for dinner  "so you can see our marital love, and so we can understand your values. You still may not agree with us, after all this, but at least we'll understand each other better and we can live more fully in our community." Well, wouldn't that be special? We may scoff, but Brooks warns that the litigiousness exemplified by the current case contributes to social polarization and  anger, when "the holy messiness of actual pluralistic community ... could be addressed in conversation and community." In this case, however, is conversation really possible when one side is guided by an absolute rule of divine authority? Does Brooks's pluralistic ideal really require one group of people to "understand" another's belief that their way of life is "sin?" I suppose Brooks would say it must, so long as no group can impose its belief in another's sin on the community as a whole. Ironically, of course, it is the more intolerant community that complains against acceptance of the "sinful" community being shoved down their throats. If Brooks sees a moral equivalence between this too-familiar complaint and gay people's demand not to be treated as implicit second-class citizens for any reason, than his pluralism is as naive and hopeless as his Frank Capra fantasy of homosexuals and religious homophobes having a happy dinner together.

05 December 2017

Conservatives vs. Conservation

The President has used his executive authority to shrink two large tracts of Utah national park land created in recent years, outraging environmentalists and Native American activists who see his action as a blatant move to open land seen as sacred or simply pretty to ruthless economic exploitation. Republicans in Utah are hailing the President's action as a necessary correction of federal overreach, while Trump himself invokes the principles of states' rights and local control. The main idea in his mind, most likely is "Jobs!" He seems convinced that resource extraction is the quickest way to achieve the job growth he's promised Americans. He probably also agrees with the Republican ideology of "responsible stewardship," which sees no necessary incompatibility between job creation and environmental protection. The opposition considers "responsible stewardship" a bad joke, and more Republicans used to agree with them. The national park system is what it is, arguably, because Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt -- whom, for all I know, Trump admires as a tough guy but Tea Party conservatives despise as an original "progressive"-- didn't entirely trust the robber barons of his day to be responsible stewards of anything. TR saw himself as a moderate steering clear of the extremes of oligarchy and populism, and a moderate might well make the case that even though limits on economic exloitation of the landscape remain necessary, past Presidents went too far in seizing Utah land, or that maximizing park land isn't necessarily the best course for everyone. The problem, of course, is finding a true moderate today, when even centrists are getting fewer and further between.

01 December 2017

Republicans, Tories and 21st century conservatism.

The Conservative party of Great Britain is angry at the President of the United States, a fellow conservative by virtue of his membership in the Republican party, over his uncritical retweeting of videos posted by the "Britain First" group and described as scenes of Muslim migrants randomly attacking people. The Tories thought this irresponsible, while the President characteristically riposted that the British government should focus its attention  on radical Islamic terrorism. The Tory position seems to be that there's a difference between that and the allegedly indiscriminate Islamophobia spread by groups like Britain First. The subtext of this little flame war is a struggle to define conservatism for the 21st century. In Britain, the Tories have been "Conservative" since long before there was a "conservative movement" in the U.S., but the sort of conservatism they preach now is mainly a version of 20th century U.S. movement conservatism, at least when it comes to individual  rights. Evolving in opposition to Bolshevism, this sort of conservatism -- history may need to assign it a more accurate label -- focused on individual liberty based on supposed natural rights above and beyond the positive law of any nation. Shaped as well by the imperatives of globalized capitalism, this conservatism prioritizes the free movement of people and products as necessary to the operation of the free market and civil society upon which civilization depends. Across the Atlantic, many Republicans who see themselves as principled conservatism still advocate free trade and, to varying degrees, the free movement of people seeking to improve their lives wherever the Market creates opportunities. President Trump's conservatism differs to such a degree that many Republicans question whether he's conservative at all. That's because his more nationalist conservatism seems detached from any idea of "natural" or "human" rights, concerned only, it seems, with the interests of "our kind." From Trump's perspective, abstract notions of individual liberty take second place, at best, to the interests of actually existing Americans. To many more individualist conservatives, as to their estranged liberal kin, to deny all Muslims entry into the U.S. because some might commit terrorism automatically violates the human rights of the presumed vast majority of Muslims. Trump or his supporters might concede this point in the abstract, but would rather not take chances with the lives of those citizens who are their actual responsibility. In short, 20th century conservatism disapproves of any attempt, for any reason, to assign one group of people more or less rights than another, since the natural-rights assumption is that rights aren't ours to confer or deny. President Trump represents those who distrust the older generation of conservatives' refusal to make necessary distinctions, their seeming refusal to take "their own" side on questions of security or survival. This strikes me as a debate unlikely to be resolved through conventional debate. Instead, it may be resolved democratically,depending on how public opinion on either side of the Atlantic is shaped by the history to come.

29 November 2017

Another round with populism

Frank S. Robinson, the author of a book called The Case for Rational Optimism, takes a stab at the slippery concept of populism in an Albany Times Union op-ed. He traces the word all the way back to the Roman Republic, when the populates vied for power with the elitist optimates. He passes briefly over the People's Party of the 1890s U.S., noting that while their demand for "free silver" may sound arcane today, it was at least, by his lights, a "coherent and basically rational program." That's should tip you off that a comparison unfavorable to today's so-called populist is coming up. If that didn't, the invocation of Sigmund Freud to open the next paragraph should do the trick.  Robinson has determined that 21st-century populism is "id-based politics -- the politics of the gut." These populist aren't hungry, however; they are xenophobic in an apparently pathological way -- just as many 19th century populist were, if one bothers to take a closer look at them. So far, so predictable; populism is bound to seem bigoted to many observers because it refuses to treat "the people" as an abstract concept and is often tempted to see it as a mirror for "my kind." What's interesting about Robinson, however, is that he so hates the idea of populists "punching  down" that he starts chiding them for punching up as well. He notes that "until recently, at least, the elites were seen to have a certain moral authority" that he implicitly identifies with the nation's "sense of common purpose." He then writes that "all that has been eroded by a populist ethos of egalitarianism and individualism" -- which might sound like a good thing until it leads to "Joe Sixpack" sneering at politicians who support "anti-populist policies like liberal immigration and free trade." Our problem, it seems, is that we no longer allow "true leaders" to summon us to our "highest values, ideals and aspirations. " Instead Trumpian populism "panders to and inflames our baser nature until our good old "city on the hill" becomes "a squalid slum in a swamp." In other words, there are, or should be, moral optimates in a republic to whom "a certain deference" is owed. But when you have to insist on that, as Robinson does, it's probably too late to get that deference back, if it's even desirable, without more comprehensive change. My closing advice to Robinson is that writing as if bigotry is this nation's only problem today most likely isn't the best way to restore the deference he apparently expects from the masses.

28 November 2017


The President raised questions once more about his commitment to freedom of the press last weekend when he complained on Twitter that CNN, particularly its international channel, did a poor job representing the U.S. to the rest of the world compared to the more pro-Trump Fox News. His tweet quickly provoked angry and contemptuous responses, particularly from a CNN staffed who noted that it was the President's job, not the news network's, to represent the nation abroad. It certainly wasn't any news network's job, the critics agreed, to represent the country in the way that Trump presumably wanted, as a propaganda arm of the state and the party or person in power. Leaving  aside the persistent question of "fake news," since the critics assume that Trump is lying when he accuses them of lying, what we have here is a conflict between journalists' critical imperative, rooted in the American belief that dissent is the health of the state, and Donald Trump's Chamber-of-Commerce mentality, which prefers, if it doesn't require, that everyone be a booster rather than a kicker. Airing any of a community's dirty laundry is always bad for business from this perspective, though Trump himself had no problem crying "carnage" during his campaign and all the way to his inauguration. In any event, his preoccupation with the media remains troubling, even if we concede that certain media outlets are genuinely hysterical over his presidency. His expectation that everyone, including the media, rally around him unquestioningly is, like it or not, un-American, no matter how many Americans, incapable of thinking of themselves as un-American, cheer him on.

24 November 2017

The Third Party

It doesn't yet contest elections, but so far extra-electoral means seem to be working fine, and many of its antagonists aren't accountable to voters in the first place. It shares with the other prominent and controversial movements of our time a preoccupations with respect, and has perhaps the most concrete notion of what disrespect looks like. The uprising of 2017 against sexual harassment cuts across conventional party lines. Taking root with the expose of Candidate Trump's "grab them by the pussy" boasting, the movement has since accused Democrats and Republicans alike, and the private sector as well as the public. It is decentralized and uncoordinated, so that no one can presume an ultimate partisan motives,  though it wouldn't surprise me if people began suspecting that those mischievous Russians are behind at least some of these disruptive women. Conspiracy theory aside, the movement has some of the spontaneity of a Salem-style witch-craze, and some of the same intolerance of skepticism. You saw that in the controversy over one of our Olympic gymnasts accusing the team doctor of abusive behavior. Her charges provoked a conversation during which another gymnast dared raise the question of provocative dress or behavior by women. The second gymnast was subsequently so intimidated into conformity that she ended up accusing the doctor as well. There's something characteristic about the unilateral moralism on display here, the assumption that the moral burden is all on one side, that reminded me of the debates following the 2001 terror attacks over the extent to which American conduct abroad may have provoked the terrorists. The mere possibility was rejected by those who reject the idea of provocation as a blaming of the victim, regardless of how humans might inevitably behave in a world that has since, with the surge in social media, grown only more provocative in the name of personal liberty. To be clear, I have no reason to believe that any of the women now accusing prominent men is lying, and ideally women should be able to wear what they please, within statutory limits, without worrying about men being provoked. Moreover, much of what's been reported has more to do with power relationships and their privileges that have little to do with any provocation. Nevertheless, the unilateral moralistic on display here is perhaps too idealistic for its own good, not because women  have some specials obligation to modesty, but because social peace in our time may require the learning by everyone of an etiquette that by definition requires a compromise of the individual prerogatives we take for granted or guard jealously when challenged. The movements of the moment all have a populist streak to the extent that they require others to change, but not us, when the real solution may be more radical and require all of us to change.

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!