25 May 2017

The Rich mystery, further mystified

The latest embarrassment in a very bad year for Fox News is the network's publicizing of a dubious theory attempting to explain the 2016 murder in Washington D.C. of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee data director. Given the alleged importance of leaked DNC emails in deciding last year's presidential campaign, armchair detectives of a political bent, believing that there are no coincidences in politics, came to suspect that Rich may have had something to do with the leak. Julian Assange of Wikileaks may have thought the same thing, or some infer from his mentioning the Rich murder during an interview last year. In short, the popular theory (in some circles) is that Rich was killed in reprisal for leaking emails to Wikileaks or the Russians. Recently a former police detective who appears occasionally on Fox News appeared once more to claim that evidence of contacts between Rich and Wikileaks had been covered up. His claims were touted by Sean Hannity, Fox's most prominent host after the sacking of Bill O'Reilly. The detective subsequently threw Fox under the bus, claiming that one of their people had told him about suppressed evidence in the first place, while he had no relevant evidence of his own. Hannity and Fox have been blasted by Rich's family, and some advertisers reportedly have bailed out on Hannity's show. On May 23 Fox formally retracted its news report, while Hannity announced that he would no longer discuss the subject on his show.

None of this, of course, will deter hardcore conspiracymongers who, if anything, will see Fox's retractions as fresh proof of the enduring power of the Deep State or the Clinton family, while some cynics will continue to see political profit in the Rich mystery. Assuming that the conspiracy theory will be kept alive to benefit a particular cause, what if it didn't? For amusement purposes only, let's imagine that Rich was leaking DNC documents. The object of leaking emails and other documents, presumably, was to discredit the Clinton campaign -- but there's obviously more than one way to do that. So what if Julian Assange, from his lair in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, arranged to have Rich killed on the assumption that people would blame the DNC or the Clintons? What if the Russians were involved in the data transaction and then had Rich killed on the assumption that either the Clintons or Assange could be blamed, the former if elected, the latter should he prove unfriendly in the future? What if either Assange or the Russians had a random DNC guy killed, who had noting to do with them, on the assumption that people would jump to conclusions about the Clintons? Watch enough TV whodunits and you'll realize that Occam's Razor isn't as sharp as reputed. The simplest explanation isn't necessarily the best, and sometimes an explanation appears simplest and best only from a certain perspective. Meanwhile, the problem with many conspiracy theorists, strange as it looks, may be that they lack imagination, that their thinking runs through a limited number of set channels determined by prejudices and personal feelings. Despite an air of cynicism or worldly wisdom, they tend to think that only certain people or groups are capable of anything and so jump to blame one suspect while ignoring others. They assume that certain people are guilty of something (or everything) and reason backwards from that assumption. The way to defeat partisan conspiracymongering may well be to counter them with more imaginative and cynical conspiracy theories that may be no more true but could well prove more entertaining -- and that probably counts more than anyone cares to admit these days.

24 May 2017

The biggest Democratic crybabies ever

In New Orleans and Charlottesville, and at points in between, there's been some hubbub over the past month over the removal of statues of Confederate war heroes. It was the typical caterwauling over the attempted erasure of regional heritage, brought to a hysterical peak in Charlottesville by alt-rightist Richard Spencer, who acted as if removal of the white race was next on the agenda. There's excess on the other side of the question, of course, and there's definitely room to debate whether every important American who owned slaves should be seen as a villain today. However, the removal of Confederate statues should be a moment of relative clarity. Let me put the issue in terms that those protesting the statues' removal might understand. For the sake of argument, let's presume that these protesters are supporters of President Trump, if not registered Republicans. If I'm right, then these people have spent much of the last five months or more calling Democrats crybabies and sore losers because Trump won the presidential election fair and square in the Electoral College. Some people have found it virtually seditious that Democrats in 2017 continue to question the legitimacy of Trump's Presidency or attempt to discredit his election. You've heard the rhetoric on TV or radio and seen it on social media: grow up, get over it, he's your President, etc. If Democratic behavior in 2017 is shameful and despicable, Democratic behavior in 1860 was far worse. Democrats that year were so freaked out over a Republican winning the election, even though they had only themselves to blame because their own party split along sectional lines that year, that several Democratic state governments seceded from the Union and started a war when President Lincoln refused to recognize the legitimacy of their action on such a chickenshit pretense. Let me repeat this: Southern Democrats seceded from the Union and started a war because they were sore losers of a presidential election. They gave Lincoln even less of a chance than today's Democrats are giving Trump, without even the fig leaf of accusations of foreign influence. Instead of marching and sometimes looting, they raised armies and perpetrated wholesale slaughter. And those are the heroes whose statues so many want to defend. This shouldn't be so hard to understand, and let it be noted that it has nothing to do with the presumed feelings of black people or any other demographic group. Republicans (and, presumably, Trump fans) like to link today's Democrats with their party's dark heritage of support for slavery and segregation. They like to say that because Democrats were racist back then, by some convoluted logic they are racists now. Those sort of partisan historic analogies should work both ways. How, then, can anyone who thinks of himself as a patriotic conservative today profess to revere people from 150 years ago who behaved the same way, only worse, as the partisans they currently despise? The answer is all too obvious and has everything to do with the feelings of some white people, as if those matter more when they're hurt than black feelings or any others. Well, let the rebs cry. That usually means we're doing something right.

23 May 2017

The Tampa Case

If they don't make a movie about the recent events in Tampa I'll be very surprised. If you haven't heard about it yet, once upon a time there were four buddies who shared an apartment down there and were white nationalists. A few days ago one of them stormed into a local smoke shop brandishing a gun and threatening patrons. After surrendering to police, he told them that he'd killed two of his roommates. The fourth roommate was arrested later while transporting bomb-making materials he had kept in the apartment. The existence of an "Atomwaffen" cell is a story in its own right, of course, but Roommate No. 3, the shooter, has gotten more attention, not just because he killed people but because of his improbable conversion to Islam. Jumping from white nationalism to Islam is quite a leap, as Islam, like Judaism, is semitic in origin, and is understood to preach racial equality. It's less of a leap, of course, if your only motive for joining either motive is piss off people you know, or society in general, by joining the most transgressive, offensive movement they can imagine. Local news reports give the impression that the shooter converted as he was falling out, or washing out, with others in the Atomwaffen. In that case, converting to Islam may simply have been a gesture calculated to piss off white nationalists. On one hand, I wonder about the sincerity of his conversion. That his roommates, still white nationalists, disrespected the shooter's new faith may seem superficially plausible as a provocation, but that and the spectacle he made of himself at that store may simply cover up issues having more to do with the bomb materials than with anyone's religion. On the other hand, I wonder whether the shooter is like a canary in a mineshaft indicating a change in fetishes among angry, alienated youth. If white nationalism is often simply a big F.U. to modern society, radical Islam is arguably more so, and possibly more appealing to misfits like the Tampa killer because of its greater success at acts of violence like yesterday's suicide attack at a Manchester pop concert. If you want to see the world burn, are you really going to put your faith in Hitler or Aryanism in the year 2017? I suppose you might if you still depend on your "whiteness" to give your life meaning, but if the shooter had already become an odd man out before converting, does that mean that the more completely isolated you become, the more alluring an Islamic vision of destructive power becomes? Time may tell, especially if people who've placed their faith in President Trump as a savior for white people see his promises unfulfilled.  It wouldn't be much different from kids becoming radical Marxists, or pretending to, back in the 1960s, except that it seems easier for anyone to fulfill their dreams of terror today. Since no one is going to make any of these ideas go away, somebody somewhere has to start offering a more compelling vision of the future before those with no vision decide simply to do as they will.

22 May 2017

The mountain comes to Muhammad

The President was in Saudi Arabia over the weekend to finalize another arms sale and give a speech about Islamic extremism. The speech, as it appears on the President's Facebook page, was an interesting balancing act, and from the snippets I've heard Trump delivered it well. The balancing act consisted of not denouncing the religion of Islam while not appearing to pander to it. In this way he avoids alarming people without insulting the intelligence (for want of a better word) of his fans with happy talk about a "religion of peace." Trump's main point. repeated forcefully in the highlight of the speech, was that it's primarily the responsibility of Muslim-majority governments to "drive out" extremists from their midst, but on this subject the President may have been too vague for his own good. What exactly is an "extremist?" On Trump's testimony, it seems to be someone with a proclivity toward violence. More specifically, they are "barbaric criminals." But for what purpose? Trump himself says that terrorists only invoke God falsely, that "Terrorists do not worship God [but] worship death." This misses the point by some distance. Any discussion of Islamic extremism (or Islamism) has to be a discussion about shari'a law. The issue since the middle of the last century has been whether governments in Muslim-majority lands are legitimate if they don't govern according to the traditions of the Prophet as canonically interpreted by some ancient school of jurists. If a line is to be drawn in the sand against Islamic extremism, it presumably needs to be made clear that extremists aren't entitled to force shari'a down anyone's throats, not even fellow Muslims'. Of course, Saudi Arabia probably is the wrong country to make that speech in, and the President has to be a diplomat -- as does any businessman of global reach, I suppose. But if anything, Trump's diplomatic solicitude toward the Saudis sometimes makes the Riyadh speech sound like a description of an alternate reality.

To my knowledge, all the terrorist acts carried out by Muslims in the U.S. have been carried out by Sunni Muslims, but in Riyadh Trump says that the fount of terrorism is Iran, the Shiite superpower. The Islamic Republic, which just had another apparently fair election in which the presidential candidate favored by the "Supreme Leader" lost, is the first cause of regional instability, in Trump's account. In his biggest absurdity, he calls Iran's intervention in support of the established government in Syria "destabilizing." To be fair, Iran certainly has been overly aggressive in its defense of Shiite rights outside its territory, particularly in Yemen, having no more right to act as guardian of the world's Shiites than Russia, say, has to act as guardian of the world's Slavs. But to say, as Trump seems to, that Iran is the problem in the Middle East or the Muslim world, simply ignores the autonomous origins of Sunni extremism in resistance, often supported by both the Saudis and the U.S., to secular or leftist regimes in the region. Americans might be confused by this focus on Iran, presumably caring little for geopolitics, were it not for the enduring hate engendered by the 1979-81 hostage crisis that makes it all too easy to portray Iran as the bad guy. Yet for all we know Sunnis probably would have flown the planes into the towers had the Shah of Iran remained on his throne. Scapegoating Iran for the global reach of Islamic terrorism today is an easy call in Riyadh, not to mention in the President's next stop, Tel Aviv, and it may fool people who still don't know (or don't care about) the difference between Sunni and Shiite, but taming or crushing the Islamic Republic is unlikely to solve the terrorism problem here or around the world, and I hope Trump isn't making plans on the assumption that it will.

19 May 2017

In your guts you know he's nuts

The code of conduct for the American Psychiatric Association includes something called the Goldwater Rule. This rule forbids APA members from making public comments on the mental health of public figures without personally examining them. The rule is named after Barry Goldwater, the former U.S. Senator from Arizona and late-life libertarian whose 1964 presidential campaign, despite its catastrophic failure at the polls, began the Republican party's transformation into its present form. Goldwater's campaign slogan was "In your heart you know he's right," to which critics answered, "In your guts you know he's nuts." Thinking along similar lines, one thousand psychiatrists that year signed a public statement diagnosing Goldwater, who wanted to roll back much of the New Deal and infamously asserted, in a Cold War context, that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," was psychologically unfit for the presidency. Goldwater successfully sued the magazine that published the psychiatrists' statement. More than fifty years later, The New Yorker reports that some APA members want to repeal the Goldwater Rule. You can guess why. If you can't, it's because they want to state publicly that Donald Trump is psychologically unfit for the office he actually holds. At least one interviewed by the magazine argues that his profession has a public duty to warn Americans about Trump's state of mind. This topic has come up before on this blog, after Trump had been diagnosed, without the benefit of a direct professional examination, with a "narcissistic personality disorder." Some psychiatrists argue for retaining the Goldwater Rule on pragmatic grounds, noting that comments on Trump's mental health inevitably will be attributed to a liberal bias in the profession. I'd like to think that some in the profession still remember when the Soviet Union and other communists countries were criticized -- particularly, I presume, by entities like the APA, for treating some of their political dissidents as if they were mental cases. Unfortunately, the history of the Goldwater Rule shows that American handwringing over the Soviet practice was at least partly hypocritical. While it is probably true that no one ever proposed forcing Barry Goldwater into a mental hospital, his political enemies were not above reducing his dissent against the liberal consensus to a psychological problem. The psychiatrists' campaign against Trump suggests that this questioning the sanity of liberalism's critics is typical of liberalism, as opposed to conservatives, who blame criticism of their own worldview on moral failings, and radicals, who often blame criticism of their agenda on stupidity. While some of Trump's behaviors and utterances may be genuinely worrisome, it's just as worrisome that some liberals can't believe that a sane person would disagree with their worldview.

18 May 2017

Roger Ailes (1940-2017)

The founder of Fox News barely outlived his good name. Ailes was forced out of power last summer after facing apparently creditable charges of sexual harassment, but those won't really taint his place in American history as probably the most consequential media figure since Henry Luce or William Randolph Hearst. Ailes wasn't a ground-up entrepreneur like those past media titans, being an employee of Rupert Murdoch, but few media figures have done more to influence the form and content of public discussion than Ailes did. His revolutionary act was to identify the absence of conservative bias on television news, in contrast to the heavy conservative bias of print media in the days of Hearst and Luce, as bias unto itself. In the way it presents news and opinion, Fox News isn't much different from a Republican-leaning newspaper of the 1930s, or Time magazine (or Life, which, unlike Time, had an editorial page) when Luce had direct control of it. But Americans had grown so unaccustomed to seeing right-wing bias in the media after the founding titans had passed from the scene that its appearance on television under Ailes' supervision seemed to many liberals like an alarming invasion of a sanctified sphere.

Ailes' justification was that there was a "conservative" side to nearly every issue, and that the established TV networks and CNN had failed in their implicit civil responsibility to present all sides -- or all the important sides -- of the issues. Presenting the conservative side, both in news reporting and interviewing and on Fox's popular prime-time talk shows, thus became sufficient proof that Ailes' channel was more "fair and balanced" than its rivals. Earlier conservative media moguls would not have recognized any duty to keep their publications fair and balanced, but Ailes exploited the modern news media's pretensions of objectivity, which those older moguls did not share, in order to expose his rivals' apparent hypocrisy. For Fox News, the only acceptable proof of objectivity was that all (i.e. both) sides were represented, however feebly the left might be represented (or however grossly it might be exaggerated) on Fox. While Ailes' side might be entitled to representation solely on the strength of numbers, both at the polls and in legislatures, its representation doesn't itself make any discussion of any issue more objective. The reductio ad absurdam of Ailes' logic is the "Teach the Controversy" assertion that traditional accounts of divine creation should be mentioned in discussions of the origins of life.

Nevertheless, the rationale for Fox News appealed to those who saw an increasing divergence between the way they saw the world and the way the established media reported it. The Fox News audience never was the only group to perceive such a divergence, or to perceive bias in what is fairly called the corporate media, but enough people shared Ailes' own perspective to sustain Fox when there was no chance for a Marxist or Anarchist news network. While some critics of Fox appealed to the old ideal of objectivity, it eventually became easier and more appealing to answer bias with bias, to the point today where Ailes' propaganda against the news establishment looks more like a self-fulfilling prophecy than a correct diagnosis of his own time. Meanwhile, there were signs before his death, if not before his departure, that the Fox News model was already becoming obsolete. Ratings reportedly show that Fox recently fell behind its cable-news rivals, the liberal-biased MSNBC and the quasi-objective CNN, for the first time in something like forever. Apologists for Ailes might blame this on the recent absence of his guiding hand, but it's more likely that Fox has fallen between two stools, being perceived from the left as too soft on President Trump while it has more likely been too ambivalent toward Trump for the tastes of its base. That base may be showing by its preference for Twitter and other social-media bubbles that it was always  more interested in bias than "fair and balanced," while Fox, despite its liberal critics, was always too much of an actual news network to give the most hardcore viewers the propaganda rush they really craved. Ironically, MSNBC may now deliver that sort of rush more consistently to its own base audience than Fox does to its loyalists. It would be more ironic still if, once past its apparent peak of influence, and at the moment of Ailes's death, that ambivalence towards Trump which may alienate many viewers, as opposed to the unanimous hysteria seen elsewhere, made Fox News the most objective of the cable news channels today. I doubt that's actually true, but it still would be ironic.

17 May 2017

Artifact: a public debate continues....

This is at the corner of Fourth Street and Broadway in Troy NY, across the street from the city post office and in front of a failed shopping mall now used by state workers:

I don't know when this debate began but there's more than one layer of paper posted here. I remember seeing it at an earlier stage where the disputants were trading quotes from Voltaire. Whatever its beginnings we have a libertarian of some sort (one who distinguishes between "croney capitalism" and a "truly free market") and some sort of leftist or, as the libertarian sees him, an incipient "facist." We've all heard that a healthy public sphere is essential to liberal democracy, but I'm not sure this is the sort of public discussion the idealists have in mind.

Artifact: "Police Everywhere, Justice Nowhere"

This was posted at the corner of Lark and Washington streets in Albany NY, outside a bank building that was recently converted into a church.

It's a produce of Crimethinc., an anarchist entity that's been around since at least the 1990s that currently describes itself as "a rebel alliance—a decentralized network pledged to anonymous collective action—a breakout from the prisons of our age. They sympathize with the global "antifa" movement, but it's unclear whether they endorse "antifa" efforts to banish "alt-right" or just plain "right" speakers from college campuses. The premise of the poster is that police are the same everywhere, whether it's a capitalist republic or a totalitarian dictatorship. A moral equivalence is implied between political dissidents, shoplifters and squatters. Crimethinc. rejects the premise that police are essential to a civilized society. The poster argues that killings by police make a mockery of the pro-police claim that "without you we'd all be killing each other," but the pretty clear threat that "You won't fuck with us much longer" belies the implicit claim that police are the actual violent element in society. I took this picture on May 12; I haven't checked since then to see whether the poster is still in place. A few blocks away, on the Dana Park pedestrian island, a poster calling on people to address police in "the only language they understand," and showing a bullet blasting through a police helmet, was up for some time, and may still be up now.

15 May 2017

Russiagate and detente

Nation magazine readers and contributors are still arguing over both the proper labeling and the propriety of the investigations into President Trump's alleged contacts with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign. Katha Pollitt's attempted vindication of "Russiagate," and her sneering attitude toward anyone reluctant to provoke Vladimir Putin, have been answered in the May 22/29 letters column. Patrick Lawrence slams Pollitt by implying that she has effectively taken the side of the CIA. "Have we so soon forgotten that the Pentagon and the spooks piled on Trump as soon as he questioned NATO's purpose and proposed to renovate relations with Russia?" he asks, "With history at our disposal, irrationality lies in accepting 'the intelligence community's' ever-couched assertions without evidence." Greg Grandin warns that "those betting the farm on proving that Trump is treasonous are doing so by embracing a catastrophic national-security state and international-warfare regime." No friend of the President, Grandin argues that "those who believe they can bring him down over Putin -- and by saber rattling over Russia -- are laying the groundwork for Trump 2.0." What he means by that I'm not sure, but it doesn't sound good.

These comments, and Pollitt's responses, expose a fundamental disagreement on the left over the implications of Russiagate. Simply put, critics of Democratic Russophobia fear that hyping the scandal will have dire consequences for American foreign policy, while Pollitt has no such fear. "If Putin is indeed the smart, sensible grown-up portrayed in much of The Nation's Russia coverage -- waging only defensive war in Ukraine out of justifiable fears of NATO, for example -- he should he able to live with whatever slap on the wrist Rachel Maddow metes out," Pollitt writes, implying heavily that she personally questions that portrayal of Putin. Less speculatively, she insists that "it should be possible to get to the bottom of Russiagate without setting off World War III." She believes this because she most likely sees Russiagate as purely a matter of domestic politics, her primary goal being to delegitimize Trump's domestic political agenda. She is concerned with Russia only insofar as Putin's domestic agenda of repressive cultural conservatism may explain the alleged affinity between his movement and Trump's. For her critics, the global stakes of Russiagate matter more. They already see evidence that the scandal has driven the President from his earlier conciliatory stance. They fear that the more that Trump sacrifices his most overtly or embarrassingly pro-Russia advisers, the more likely it is that U.S. foreign policy will continue on its dangerously interventionist course. As Lawrence puts it, "Parity between West and non-West is the century's most pressing imperative, and -- no flinching -- Russia's on the right side." To Pollitt's earlier question, "What worthy projects does 'Kremlin-bashing' attempt to derail?" Lawrence answers: "How about countering our liberal interventionists? Or standing against US-supported Salafist jihadis in the name of secular government? Or simply for international law, which the United States breaches daily?"

Pollitt, however, doubts whether a President who has promised a massive military buildup will be useful toward those ends. And for her, past unfairness toward Russia when it was the Soviet Union doesn't justify giving Putin's Russia a free pass by "minimizing the likelihood that Russia put its thumb on the scale for Trump." She argues that it is "feeble" to "automatically wave away all the claims [against Russia] because they come from intelligence sources and indict a nation that is a familiar folk bogeyman." A desire for peace doesn't justify these evasions, as far as Pollitt's concerned. Her critics want peace, she acknowledges, and she answers, "Well, who doesn't?" Not her, I'm sure, but a desire for peace and achieving peace are two different things. If the Russians did throw their weight behind Trump -- and I wouldn't say "put their thumb on the scale" unless someone has proof about actual Election Day interference -- it's because they have some definite idea of what peace requires of the U.S., not because anyone there gives a damn about American domestic policy. It seems irresponsible to treat Russiagate -- the scandal, not any actual crimes by Russia or the Trump campaign -- as if it has nothing to do with American foreign policy and won't have international consequences. If people like Pollitt can't stand seeing anti-interventionists come to Trump's defense, it's their responsibility to make clear that their own position on American interventionism is consistently independent of partisan or presidential politics -- if they can.

11 May 2017

A threat to the republic?

The hysteria over the firing of FBI director Comey continues. "Let’s stipulate that James Comey was a flawed FBI director, and that his actions during last year’s presidential race cast a cloud over the integrity of his agency," writes an editor in today's Albany Times Union, "That does not negate the fact that President Donald Trump’s abrupt firing of him is, in fact, far more troubling than Mr. Comey’s own missteps. The firing, in this writer's opinion, "is a crisis, and the future of American democracy may be at stake." In other words, it's the moment everyone -- well, a lot of people -- have been waiting for since Trump was elected. The editorial writer certainly doesn't minimize the stakes: "If this president is allowed to fire an FBI director when he finds an investigation politically threatening — a probe exploring the possibility of treasonous conduct — and if the House and Senate fail to respond, the Constitution’s check on executive power and the balance provided by our tripartite system of government will be rendered meaningless." The crisis, apparently, is a matter of timing. By now you've all probably heard the argument that since Trump could have fired Comey at any time after his inauguration, we must ask why he acted now, the only answer available, apparently, being that Comey was getting too close to the President's Russia connection. This argument is just a little disingenuous. It fails to acknowledge that Trump would have been criticized for firing Comey at any point in his presidency, and for the same reason. Since his ties to Russia have been an object of scrutiny, and of interest to Comey, since the 2016 campaign, Trump could never move against Comey without it looking like he wanted to suppress a necessary and proper investigation. There are, in fact, signs that the President had grown exasperated with the inquiries and Comey's involvement with them, but an innocent man might be just as exasperated with such inquiries, especially if he had reason to see them as politically motivated, as a man with something to hide. You might say that a man with nothing to hide should not have been exasperated, but does that sound like Donald Trump to you? In any event, I can't take this crisis as seriously as some want me to because I've never taken the whole Russia connection concept as seriously as many do. Let those who do take it seriously show me how Russia is currently dictating American foreign policy. I would have thought that Trump's Syrian shenanigans would have ended this issue, but it hasn't ended because many influential people don't want it to end. And if this is a crisis it's because those people want one. Make no mistake; I think Donald Trump perfectly capable of forcing a crisis through his own malice or stupidity, but what we see right now is boys crying "Wolf!" I hope that doesn't have the usual result when Trump really does something wrong.

10 May 2017

Age of Losers

Pankaj Mishra's Age of Anger: A History of the Present is one of the most talked-about books of the year in middlebrow circles. Mishra is an India-born writer and academic who publishes regularly in the Anglo-American media. He is a critic of Hindu nationalism in his native country, which he sees as a phenomenon similar in its root causes to all the so-called populist or nativist movements today, from Islamism to the movements that define themselves by enmity to Islamism or Islam. The thesis of Age of Anger is that these 21st century phenomena, from the emergence of the self-styled Islamic State to the election of Donald Trump, are merely the latest in a sequence of angry reactions to the inequities of modernization dating back to 18th century France. All these movements follow one prophet, whether they realize it or not, and his name is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For Mishra, Rousseau remains, after more than two centuries, the definitive critic of a modernization process that appears unfair to millions if not the majority of people around the world. Rousseau's anger was a reaction to the Enlightenment as represented by Voltaire, a primal villain of Mishra's narrative. Voltaire might be the original neocon if he had any ideological commitment to democracy, but for Mishra he is the prophet of top-down modernization, the champion of "enlightened despotism," a self-interested meritocrat and probably a smug asshole. He may not have willed all the bad aspects of modernity that Rousseau reviled, but his propaganda for progress and individual liberty helped usher it all in. Rousseau, meanwhile, is the first thinker to express the humiliation so many of the world's discontented are supposed to feel today. As a provincial, he seems to have felt personally humiliated in the Paris salons Voltaire frequented. As a result Rousseau came to despise the manners by which the upper classes and other elites were distinguishing themselves, and came to see self-interested, ambitious individuals like Voltaire as fundamentally dishonest in a radical way. The toxic mix of self-interest and manners made society itself dishonest, while an increasingly competitive society, its moral roots seemingly shorn away, left more and more people feeling alienated and oppressed while others enjoyed new wealth and liberty.

Reading Mishra's account of Rousseau, it occurred to me that Rousseau's heir in his own country is the novelist Michel Houellebecq, who denounces a continuing alienation and demoralization as society grows even more competitive today and imagines people longing for a sense of belonging for which they might gladly sacrifice their freedom. Age of Anger helps explain why people might feel more oppressed at a time of apparent progress, compared to the seemingly eternal oppression their medieval ancestors must have endured. The explanation seems to be that, however poor he was, or however desperate his lot at any moment, the peasant presumably felt that he had a place in his society, or in the great chain of being, that was no longer certain in a more competitive and skeptical time. A more competitive society appears to engender greater contempt for those who can't (or perhaps won't) compete. A peasant might be poor or even miserable, but it would seem that he wasn't a loser in the way many people, if not the great majority, are seen today. Rousseau is the prophet for those who reject a society or culture that dismisses them as losers. His remedy for loserdom is the general will. Paradoxically, he takes Sparta as his model for a society where people are truly free -- though Samuel Adams' wish that the United States would become a "Christian Sparta" shows that Rousseau was not exceptional in his vision. "In this society at least," Mishra tries to explain, "the corrupting urge to promote oneself over others, and the deceiving of the poor by the rich, could be counterpoised by the surrender of individuality to public service, and the desire to seek pride for community and country."

There are no good guys in Age of Anger. If the heirs of Rousseau are rightfully angry at some of the injustices of modernity, their recourse to patriotic solidarity almost always escalates into chauvinism, nativism and hate. This is exactly what Rousseau expected and presumably approved. "The patriotic spirit is exclusive and makes us look upon all those who are not our fellow citizens as strangers and almost enemies," the Frenchman wrote. Elsewhere, he made the same point: "Every patriot is severe with strangers; they are merely men, they are nothing in his eyes." Mishra clearly hopes for an alternative but can't point to one in his book. Instead, from Rousseau's time to ours there is a parade of nationalist movements founded on hate for other nations, starting with hatred for France (and later the Jews) among Germans resentful of Napoleon's conquests of their little principalities and determined to prove that their culture, language, etc. still mattered. Alternatives to the nation as the object of chauvinist loyalty have come and gone. For Marxists it was the working class. For Islamists, suspicious of the tyrannical top-down modernization efforts of secular self-styled nationalists like Kemal Ataturk, the Shah of Iran or Saddam Hussein, the alternative is the ummah, the global community of Muslims. Within these objects of loyalty, minorities are often despised and made scapegoats for the injustices of modernity. For some, like the Marxists and Fascists, the object of loyalty was not an idealized past but an idealized future, the home of the New Man born from revolutionary violence and conquest. Even the wave of anarchist violence at the turn of the twentieth century counts as part of the reaction to modernity because Mishra sees it as self-assertion in its rawest form against oppressive society. Taking this broad view, Mishra sees nothing new about ISIS, apart perhaps from its exploitation of social media, and chides those in Europe, India and the U.S. who see its violence as something intrinsic Islamic rather than a localized form of something that has been happening, obviously with greater or lesser degrees of severity, just about everywhere for the last two centuries.

In the end, Mishra stands with neither Voltaire or Rousseau but calls  vaguely for "some truly transformative thinking about both the self and the world." He's clearly uncomfortable with the heartless free-for-all he identifies (unfairly, according to some critics) with Voltaire or the resentfully self-effacing alternative he identifies with Rousseau, in which the price for securing a place in the world looks something like becoming an interchangeable part.  Perhaps oddly, the thinker who comes off most positively in the book is Nietzsche, a critic of both the bourgeoisie and national chauvinism who is probably too easily misinterpreted to be useful in finding a third way. Age of Anger is a pessimistic, frustrating yet fascinating and invigorating read that should stir up your interest in reading many of the writers he cites and drawing your own, hopefully more optimistic conclusions from them.

09 May 2017

'You're fired!'

James Comey angered so many people in both major parties during his tenure as FBI director that it's tempting to suspect that he was doing something right, but the truth is more likely that his incompetence managed to infuriate everyone, only never all at once. Just a few days ago, Hillary Clinton suggested that, if not for Comey's overdramatic intervention in October 2016, she would be President today. At the time, candidate Donald Trump applauded Comey for revealing that the email investigation was still in progress, only to rage at Comey days later when the director said, in effect, "never mind." A recent report detailing Comey's screw-ups at that time seems to have triggered President Trump's decision to fire Comey today, but his action has raised a question of timing for those who expected Comey to be canned the moment Trump took office. Democrats now seem to want to portray Comey as a victim or martyr, their conspiracy theory being that the director must have gotten too close for Trump's comfort to the truth of his (or his campaign's, or his advisers') ties to Russia. For partisans and never-Trumpers, Comey's dismissal is the smoke that virtually proves the fire of collusion with Vladimir Putin. From that perspective, Trump's action is akin to President Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre," when the Attorney-General and his deputy resigned rather than obey the President's order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, while the New York Times has also reminded readers that President Clinton fired an FBI director appointed by President Reagan, but waited until six months into his term to do so. Some hysterics have described Comey's removal as something like a coup d'etat. I personally heard someone say "America is dead." That means it's time to take a breath. While there may be understandable concern over whether Trump will appoint a director inclined to prosecute/persecute the President's political or personal opponents, it's also fair to ask whether Donald Trump really has given us reason to think that more likely under him than under any previous President. I think he's owed a little benefit of the doubt on that score, while Comey pretty much squandered his benefits some time ago. I say that without passing judgment on the investigations in which he has participated. It just seems that the man was not up to the challenges of this moment in American political history.

'Adolf Hitler was a master of empathy'

Jonah Goldberg's statement may look counterfactual to some readers, but the key to it is what he means by "empathy." In a previous column Goldberg touted Paul Bloom's book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, and the controversy over the talkshow host Jimmy Kimmel's comments about his sick baby has brought Goldberg back to the subject. Kimmel argued from his child's plight that no infant's access to healthcare should be limited by family income or pre-existing conditions. Goldberg, a Republican, judges Kimmel's argument "devoid of any consideration of the facts, trade-offs, or costs of what is the best way to deal with people, including babies, who have pre-existing medical conditions." He claims that Kimmel's appeal to empathy makes it "very difficult to have a rational discussion about the trade-offs inherent to any health-care system." In general, Goldberg believes that "empathy alone is dangerous and can distract us from rational thought and meaningful compassion." That's because, according to Goldberg's paraphrase of Paul Bloom, empathy "is like a drug. It distorts our perspective." Empathy is most dangerous, Bloom and Goldberg agree, when it responds to suffering with anger. That's where Hitler comes in. "The cause of nationalist empathy for the German tribe triggered profound moral blindness for the plight, and even the humanity, of Jews, Gypsies and Slavs," Goldberg writes. Something similar, he argues, has possessed many Sunni Muslims around the world. "Sunni nations empathize with the plight of suffering Sunnis [in Iraq and Syria], and that empathy causes them to further hate and demonize Shiites." The "Black Lives Matter" movement, he continues, is a milder form of the same condition that "blinds [African Americans] to why others respond to the term by saying 'all lives matter.'" All of this is because, contrary to what some may think, or what might make Goldberg's comment about Hitler sound absurd, empathy, as understood by Bloom, is always selective. "Empathy is biased," Bloom writes, "pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism." Goldberg himself thinks that empathy isn't quite that terrible. "It seems to me not only natural but also defensible to give priority to figuratively kindred people," the columnist writes, his example of figurative kinship being the U.S. and Great Britain. Bloom, meanwhile, sees empathy getting in the way of something we might describe as empathy. The inevitable selectivity of empathy as he understands it, blinds people "to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with."

Despite all this, it seems that some people are indiscriminate, either on principle or on impulse, in their empathy with suffering or needy people. The issue Goldberg has with such people -- whether Kimmel counts as one of them is unclear -- is that they don't approach the issues raised by suffering and need with "rational thought and meaningful compassion." Whether Goldberg is a reliable guide to rational thought on any issue is also unclear, but we can probably figure out for ourselves rationally the political issues raised by mass suffering or deprivation. What Goldberg opposes is best described as hedonism, the idea that all suffering is intolerable -- or that your empathy for suffering is unbearable -- and must be minimized if not eliminated from human life. Empathy and hedonism are not synonymous, nor does hedonism follow automatically from an empathetic response to suffering. It doesn't follow from a strong emotional response to suffering that all suffering is unjust. It should be possible for someone to empathize strongly with someone else who isn't making it in life while fully appreciating that his own mistakes may be at least partly responsible for his miserable state. People who've made mistakes themselves that have held them back in any way should empathize all the more strongly with the other person's plight, yet also feel all the more urgently that such people need to learn not to keep making similar mistakes. The intensity of empathy may vary from person to person, but how much has it really to do with the hedonist's conviction that ending suffering must have priority over learning lessons? That comes from someplace else, I think. You can empathize with someone and believe that something must (and always can) be done, and you can empathize just as strongly yet believe that nothing can be done. Yet another person might say that nothing should be done, but we're probably not dealing with an empathetic response in that case. In any event, looking to empathy itself as the root cause of many of the world's problem, as Bloom seems to do, probably is a mistake.

I still feel a little empathy -- not just sympathy -- whenever I hear a small child crying inconsolably, but I don't stop everything to try to make him or her stop. There are many reasons for this, from respect for the prerogatives of family to my understanding that some things just need to be cried out. It would be more useful for academics and columnists to study the varieties of responses to empathy than to blame empathy itself for all the things that conservatives like Goldberg or liberals like Bloom don't like.

04 May 2017

More on McCarthyism

Stephen F. Cohen struck a very sensitive nerve in many Nation readers and contributors when he compared the rush among Democrats and progressives to link the Trump campaign and administration to Russia to the anti- Soviet mania of the McCarthy era. As a "red diaper baby" who experienced McCarthyism as a child, Katha Pollitt claims to argue with some authority against Cohen in the May 8/15 issue. She's not the first,  however, to argue that the ideological specificity of McCarthyism as an anti-left movement makes the word an inappropriate label for the questioning of a right-wing government. The "use of immense state power against ...fairly powerless ordinary people," she claims, isn't the same as "calls by Democrats to investigate whether Russian agents hacked the Democratic National Committee at the behest of Vladimir Putin, or whether Trump's financial interests are tied up with Russia." But I still don't see why McCarthyism should be unanalogizable, or why it should never be ascribed to the American left. The M-word is simply the American word for the global tendency to discredit a political opposition by accusing it of acting in the interest of hostile foreigners -- which is what Pollitt herself still suspects Trump of doing.

Pollitt also scoffs at Cohen's description of liberals' Trump-Russia inquiries as "Kremlin-baiting." She dislikes the term, it turns out, because it presumes both Trump and Russia innocent. She hints that the defensiveness shown toward Russia by Cohen and others is one part cowardice and one part misunderstanding of the current Russian regime. Putin's Russia is "a capitalist kleptocracy run by an autocrat and an enemy of human rights." Leftists who discourage investigations of Trump for Russia's sake fail to understand that Russia "now embodies everything they oppose." Here, however,  Pollitt misunderstands her own opposition. The leading critics of 21st century McCarthyism can be found on the anti-interventionist right and the anti-imperialist left. Neither group is really interested in what sort of regimes take power abroad, but are united in a belief that the U.S. does more harm than good, not only to foreigners but to its own people, when it tries to dominate the world. What they oppose is an American hegemony project, and they see Democratic Russophobia as part of such a project. Pollitt doesn't seem to realize this because she sees Putin's American defenders as the Democrats' enemies. We'd probably need to see some of the charges against Trump proven, and then still see Democrats lose the next elections, before people like Pollitt can see this issue more clearly.

01 May 2017

'Why was there the Civil War?'

Apparently you're not allowed to indulge in "What If?" history if you're the President of the United States. The current President is enduring a fresh round of mockery for his assertion, in an interview published today, that the Civil War might not have happened had Andrew Jackson been President at the time. Trump sees himself as a sort of 21st century Jacksonian; others may agree or disagree depending on their opinion of Old Hickory. In the interview, the President describes visiting the grave of Rachel Jackson, who didn't live to see her husband inaugurated and whose death is sometimes blamed on vicious slanders, by the standards of the time, that were made against her and her husband during the 1828 presidential campaign. Specifically, because of some bureaucratic bungling Rachel, a divorcee, technically was a bigamist when she married Jackson. Needless to say, Trump can empathize with both the slandered lady and the enraged widower, whom he also sees, presumably, as a model for cleaning the "swamp" of the Washington D.C. establishment. As a historian by vocation, I know what Trump is talking about on the subject of sectional conflict. His handicap, however, is an inability to express concepts more sophisticated than the simplicities of his stump speeches or his tweets. One of his bad habits is to inflate sentences with empty generalities, expressed with a limited vocabulary, until it seems like the more he says, the less he seems to know.  He tripped himself up during the interview by saying that Jackson "was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War." Critics and haters pounced immediately: stupid Trump must have thought Jackson, who died in 1845, was still alive when the war started in 1861! This, I think, is one of those times when you were supposed to take the President seriously but not literally. I feel certain that he meant to say that Jackson was angry at increasing sectional tensions that were already apparent before his death, but for some reason he doesn't know how to say it right.

To the extent that Trump's actual argument is being criticized, here are two points in Trump's defense. That is, there are at least two reasons to believe that a civil war would not have happened had Jackson been President in 1860. The most obvious reason is that with a southern slaveholding Democrat like Old Hickory as President, the southern fire-eaters of 1860 would have had no reason to believe, as they did when the Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected, that slavery had been put on what Lincoln called "the course of ultimate extinction." Because of their determination to keep slavery out of the territories conquered from Mexico, the Republicans were seen as an existential threat to the Slave Power that Jackson never would have been. And yet, even if the fire-eaters found an excuse to secede or threaten secession, Trump most likely sees Jackson's treatment of the South Carolina Nullifiers of 1832 as a model for what he might have done in 1860. Jackson himself thought he hadn't really done enough in his own time, reportedly citing as one of his great regrets that he did not have John C. Calhoun, his first-term Vice President who became the intellectual leader of the Nullifiers in his home state, hanged for treason. Yet Trump's point today, I presume, is that Jackson resolved the Nullification crisis -- in short, South Carolina refused to allow federal officials to collect tariffs at high rates recently approved by Congress, claiming a state's right to nullify laws they deemed unconstitutional and tariffs they deemed unfair -- without hanging Calhoun or slaughtering South Carolinians. Jackson did this by combining a credible threat of force, including congressional authorization to send troops into South Carolina, with negotiations on the tariff issue. It may be Trump's opinion that Lincoln's passive provocation of the secessionists, designed to make them fire the first shot, as they finally did in South Carolina, was the wrong approach, and that a more intimidating show of force, albeit short of invasion, earlier in the game may have made the fire-eaters more willing to discuss terms for renouncing secession.

On the other hand, Jackson himself probably has a small share of blame for hastening the war because of his advocacy, before his death, of the annexation of the Republic of Texas, a move that arguably made the Mexican War inevitable and also threatened to tip the balance of sectional power further in favor of the slaveholding states. Because Old Hickory was a hard-core slaveholder who hated abolitionists, the idea that he might have prevented civil war probably disgusts people today who assume that slaves would have paid the price for sectional peace. Some of Trump's critics no doubt assume that his imagining a history without the Civil War shows his indifference toward the historic plight of black people in America. Some no doubt regard the Civil War as inevitable and necessary, if only for the purpose of freeing the slaves. These people may well know that for nearly half the war Lincoln was willing to win or end the conflict without emancipating anybody, but since military necessity finally inspired the Emancipation Proclamation, they may feel that the war had to happen -- presuming also, most likely, that ingrained southern racism made any fantasy of gradual or compensated emancipation literally fantastical. For this school of thought, imagining a different history is automatically suspect. But let's not read too much into Trump's historical speculations. His question, "Why was there the Civil War," is not a wrong question for any American to ask. If anything, it's an essential question for everyone to ask if they want to understand the history of this country.

28 April 2017

Faith in the West

David Brooks's subject isn't the state of religious belief in the western world, but the state of faith in western civilization as an ideal worth defending. He perceives a loss of faith in "democratic ideals" around the world, on the varied evidence of terrorism, authoritarianism (e.g. Putin, Erdogan), "illiberal" populism (e.g. Trump, Le Pen) and the "fragile thugs" who try to keep right-wing speakers off college campuses. Why is all this happening? Many people have different theories, but Brooks chooses laughably, for his column's purposes, to blame a loss of faith in western civ. on the part of educators. Neglecting economics and ecology, but nostalgic for the good old days when Will and Ariel Durant's "Story of Civilization" books were best-sellers, Brooks laments a revisionist turn in history writing and teaching.

Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.

We had better make clear what Brooks, exactly, means by western civ. There is no way not to describe such a phenomenon selectively, and what Brooks selects is a typical Best Of list: "the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated." Just what you'd expect to hear from a center-rightist like Brooks, just as you might expect to hear about a "history of oppression" from someone far to his left. Whenever I hear this sort of complaint, I want to ask whether the complainant wants whitewashed history taught in Americans schools, as some to Brooks' right do, their idea of education being to teach love of country before the critical thinking (i.e. "reasoned discourse") that's usually considered an important part of the western civ. package. When someone resents hearing about a "history of oppression," would they have us teach our children that Americans oppressed no one? Is that necessary to faith in western civ? Brooks actually has what's probably the best possible answer to my questions. "All I can say," he writes,  "is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it." In other, more Churchillian words, western civ is the worst thing in the world, except for all the others.  But this doesn't really answer whether we're obliged to deny facts for the sake of patriotism or, to use Brooks's word, faith.

The actual answer requires a distinction between the actual history of oppression, which obviously is not unique to the U.S. or western civ., and what we could call "oppressive history," which is really what Brooks is complaining about. There needs to be a distinction between rightfully pointing out those times when the U.S. or west didn't live up to its principles, or acted on no principles at all, and the more radically hostile idea that western civ. is a project of oppression with no purpose but to dominate, plunder and kill everything different. A person can still believe this but should recognize that it describes pretty much every civilization in human history. That's the position of those who think humanity's salvation is the emergence of the New Man through a revolutionary break with all traditions. In an American public school or university, it should suffice to teach the facts and the critical faculties necessary to interpret them. If we are to be confident in the superiority of our values, we should be able to assert that no number of admitted misdeeds disqualify us -- especially not when few if any are unique to our history. Once the universality of oppression is acknowledged rather than denied, we can compare civs. on their merits, by standards capable of being proved objective. At that point we can take up Brooks's challenge to find or imagine a better alternative to western civ., so long as we understand it, and its alternatives, warts and all.

26 April 2017

'All that mattered was that I wasn't like them'

Back when I subscribed to the American Conservative, Rod Dreher was one of their stable of interesting writers. He was a self-styled "Crunchy Con" who shared that magazine's often-critical attitude toward capitalism and the culture it created, while of course looking to religious traditions for answers. Dreher is profiled in the latest New Yorker because his latest book, The Benedict Option, has received a lot of attention in the world of opinion. It's not a Robert Ludlum pastiche, nor has it anything to do with the Pope Emeritus. Instead, Dreher has called on conservative Christians to give up on the culture wars and focus on building their own faith-based communities, not so much to be doctrinally pure but in the hope of achieving a greater sense of community than modern American culture allows. Dreher is critical of a "liquid modernity" that leaves everyone supposedly rootless, and he doesn't see Donald Trump as the answer. In Joshua Rothman's paraphrase, Dreher believes that Christian support for Trump "suggested a weakness in their faith." He finds many Christians self-centered in a way he dates back to the 14th century, blaming this on "nominalism," the idea that the things God says are good -- and by secular extension, the things men say are good -- are good simply because God says they are, not because the good is a reality God is bound to respect. Some of this is obscure stuff that readers can pursue further with Google's help if they wish. I only bring it up to set up something telling Dreher said in his interviews with Rothman. It's not so much telling about himself -- make of Dreher and his ideas what you will -- but pretty accurately describes a reactionary, envious, hopelessly bitter sort of conservatism that I hear expressed almost daily, which Dreher had to deal with, to his horror, from his own family.

After his sister's death, Dreher moved back to his home town of St. Francisville LA, hoping that the close-knit traditional community he'd rediscovered there might provide greater spiritual satisfaction. He found that, as far as St. Francisville was concerned, he'd been in the big city (Philadelphia) too long. "They just wouldn't accept me," Dreher says, "They just could not accept that I was so different from them....All that mattered was that I wasn't like them." The problem, dating back to his student days, was that Dreher was making his living as a writer.

"They had this idea that, if you did what you were supposed to do, you would succeed," Dreher continues. So far, so much like Barack Obama, actually. Here's the difference: "I didn't do those things, but I didn't fail, and that drove them crazy."

It drives a lot of right-wingers crazy. It fuels their resentment of programs or proposals to make future generations' lives easier. They cry that it's unfair that they as taxpayers may have to subsidize those programs, but it's the idea that people might not have to work as hard or sacrifice as much as they did that really enrages them. It's probably an unfair way to describe them, but they seem resentful that younger people might not live lives as miserable as theirs seem to have been, as if history itself could prove unfair to them. Add to that the feeling that some higher power requires every generation to live the same way and you have the makings of a great toxicity of spirit in this country. From what I read of Dreher now, I'd guess, since he still believes in religious obligations, that materialism is the real problem. That materialism may be what he means when he criticizes "an individualism at the center of both parties ... that I find really incongruous with what I believe to be true because of my religion." Dreher is so committed to a sacralized, ritualized life that he has converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, but only one with a dangerously romanticized sense of history could think that that or any form of Christianity or monotheism somehow made life in, say, the Middle Ages okay or at least bearable for ordinary people. He seems to be looking for something that he expects to find only in revealed religion. But taking his thought out of the religious context, it may be possible to agree with him when he says, "People today ... want close community without sacrifice. They want the good things, and they want to edit out the bad things," by which Dreher means those aspects of communal life ("being up in each other's business") that are uncomfortable for individualists. But it need not be a sacrifice to the past, and probably it should not be, for that would likely be in vain.

25 April 2017

Artifacts: the Campaign to Play for Keeps

What do anarchists have to say in the Age of Trump? One answer can be seen stapled to telephone poles in parts of Albany NY.

It's not uncommon to see anarchists angrier with the left than with the right. That's probably because the uselessness of the right is taken for granted, while the left's errors, as anarchists see them, are frustrating because anarchists presumably expect better from people who supposedly share their desire for a world free from exploitation. It's easy to disappoint dreamers of impossible dreams. Anarchists long for a world without "power," "control" or "domination," perhaps believing in a non-capitalist version of the libertarians' spontaneous order, to the extent that they idealize "order" at all. I googled "Campaign to Play for Keeps" and found a transcription of an earlier document, possibly from the same author, that takes a pessimistic view of the future, insofar as the author anticipates that "Life becomes perpetual struggle, becomes perpetual war for perpetual freedom." In effect, the author argues that (individual) freedom is a state of perpetual conflict against all the forces that might curtail or compromise it, so that "civil war becomes the definition of a free society."

Here's another broadside from the Campaign, broken into two parts to make the text legible.

Since this looks more like a typical piece of anarchist art than a programmatic statement, I'll let it stand without comment.

24 April 2017

THINK 3 VIDEO NEWS: Armenian Martyrs Day

Armenians date the beginning of the Ottoman Empire's attempted genocide of their people from April 24, 1915. Armenians abroad commemorate the atrocity annually on April 24, which they designate as Armenian Martyrs Day or Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. In Troy NY the commemoration took place this afternoon in Riverfront Park, a couple of minutes by foot from my office. The Armenian Genocide monument is located behind a much larger Vietnam War memorial, the rear wall of which formed the backdrop for today's proceedings. Local politicians attended the event, finding it easier than it is for their counterparts at the national level, where good relations with the Republic or Turkey are widely desired, to use the g-word to describe the Turks' slaughter of Armenians. Here's the crowd singing the Armenian national anthem.

And here's an excerpt from the opening remarks by one of the organizers. The gentleman in the white "Armenia" jacket meant no harm but simply could not help getting in the way of my camera.

I was hoping for some stemwinding oratory against the Terrible Turk, but instead there was a lot of singing in Armenian, and a lot of politicians complimenting the feed the Armenians put on for them.

In case you can't make out what the monument says, here's a close up view:

Vive la France

In France, a candidate whose party didn't exist little more than a year ago was the top vote-getter in yesterday's first round of the republic's presidential election, and is now the favorite to win the runoff election next month. Regardless of what you think of Emmanuel Macron or his En Marche! party, if you think anything of them, it would seem that France is doing something right for that sort of result to be possible. It may be, however, that it's something the French don't do that makes a difference. The most obvious detail of yesterday's vote is that the French electorate is not polarized. Four candidates received between 19% and 24% apiece in the first round, while the party of the incumbent president, who is not running again, received a humiliating 6% of the vote. The top vote-getters are, in order: a progressive centrist, a populist nationalist, a center-rightist and a candidate to the left of the established socialist party. Six additional candidates appeared on the ballot; three of those got at least 1% of the vote. The runoff makes voters choose between the top two candidates, Macron and Marine Le Pen of the National Front, and many of the defeated contenders already have endorsed Macron.

Le Pen basically inherited her party from her father. She has steered it away from his old-timey anti-semitism toward 21st century populism opposed to Muslims, the European Union and so on -- the sort of candidate Vladimir Putin is supposed to like. Le Pen is more popular than her own party, which only has two seats in the French senate and none in its lower house, though it is better represented in the European Parliament that it presumably despises. Some may take it as a sign of the French electoral system's weakness that her 21% of the vote advances her to the final round, but them's the breaks when a diversity of candidates makes a first-round majority victory virtually impossible. In any event, it appears almost certain that she'll be clobbered in the runoff.

We can guess that the National Front gets a lot of the same sort of hate that Trump voters get in the U.S., that they're probably seen as the "rednecks" of France if not neo-Nazis. In his novel Submission Michel Houellebecq imagined an Islamist candidate beating Le Pen in a runoff thanks to the widespread hate for her and whatever she's thought to represent. In reality it seems quite unlikely that supporters of the center-right "Republican" party or the leftist "France Unbowed" would turn to her after their hopefuls failed to make the cut. The only question is whether she gets beat as badly as her dad did when he made it to a runoff against Jacques Chirac in 2002. A runoff format inevitably results in many people voting against the "worst" candidate, but it also requires most voters to acquiesce actively in the election of someone other than their perfect ideological soulmate, when the only alternative is staying home to spite the system. It might be argued that most American voters acquiesce in a similar way after the party primaries, but it's probably more significant when a Socialist or "Republican" decides that he has to vote for Macron than when a Sanders supporter decides that he has to vote for Hillary, or when a Cruz fan feels obliged to vote for Trump. Even if it's ultimately more a vote against Le Pen than for Macron, it's still an act of civil responsibility that transcends partisanship in a way the comparable American scenario doesn't. The U.S. needs a Tocqueville in reverse: someone who'll go to France and explain to Americans how the French avoided bipolarchy politics and ended up with more freedom of choice in their elections than we have in our supposedly most free of nations.

21 April 2017

The Ex-Factor

I suppose I should say something about the fall of Bill O'Reilly from his perch at Fox News, but I'm not really worked up over it one way or the other. Apart from feeling that his "no spin" pretense was self-evidently false, unless he meant by it that he wouldn't try to hide his partisan and ideological biases, I never really got worked up about him and his ratings success the way many liberals did. It's always been my suspicion that the ratings for right-wing talk on TV and radio have been inflated by liberals and left-wingers tuning in in order to get outraged, while right-wingers are less likely to do the same thing by watching Rachel Maddow. I try not to watch, listen to or read anything simply to get outraged, and so I've ignored O'Reilly and his Fox News colleagues, as well as their radio counterparts, unless I see on Google News that they've said something worth commenting on. He doesn't loom large to me as an enemy like he does to the liberal mainstream, so I don't feel like his removal from Fox News is some kind of victory for somebody. What happened finally was that a fresh wave of sexual-harassment accusations drove more sponsors from O'Reilly's program, though none that I know of abandoned Fox News entirely. While The O'Reilly Factor remained the most popular program on cable news, someone at Fox -- in the absence of Roger Ailes, who was driven out by similar charges last year -- decided that the host was more trouble than he was worth. This proves that commercial media is not a democracy. I don't know whether all the accusations and scandals had cost O'Reilly viewers, but his standing in the ratings still appeared unassailable at the time of his fall. But the public can't will their favorites to stay where they are against corporate decision makers determined to end them. The best O'Reilly's fans can do is follow him to whatever subscription-based streaming-media platform he'll probably set up if he wants to stay in the game without worrying about advertisers worrying about boycotts. Given all the recent upheaval at Fox News and its overall ambivalence toward Donald Trump, the time might well be right for an alternative conservative news network even more opposed to political correctness or other concerns that made O'Reilly's position at Fox ultimately vulnerable. For instance, were some entrepreneur to plant his flag with a promise that no on-air personality would ever be removed for sexual harassment until the charges against him were tested in a court of law, I'd guess that Fox News would find itself facing an instantly powerful rival. On the other hand, it may be past time for conservative culture in the U.S. to get past the good-old-boy attitude that presumably deems it okay for men like O'Reilly, Ailes and Trump -- and Bill Clinton, to make a non-partisan point -- to deal with women the way they supposedly do, when so many people find it not okay. Unless there's something inherently and inextricably "male chauvinist" about American conservatism, the movement should be able to shed the chauvinist trappings that alienate people who might otherwise give its more substantive ideas the courtesy of a hearing.

19 April 2017

Ask an Expert: Is Trump fascist?

No matter how many times people answer, other people will ask whether President Trump is a fascist for at least the next four years. Some won't take no for an answer, since a reactionary blowhard with a large lower-class following presumably can be nothing else. Perhaps in the hope of a definitive answer the editors of Le Monde, a leading French newspaper, asked the American scholar Robert O. Paxton, whose The Anatomy of Fascism is widely respected as an authoritative work on the subject. His essay was published in March and appears, presumably updated, in the May issue of Harper's. Paxton concedes that given Trump's blustery manner, revanchist spirit and obvious egomania, "it is powerfully tempting to call the new president of the United States a fascist." But in the next paragraph he warns that the F word is "justified only if it enlarges or clarifies understanding." In the case of Trump, Paxton clearly doesn't think it justified. He emphasizes that the "regimentation" craved by fascists continues to go against the American conservative grain, as does the "corporatist" economics practiced by Mussolini and Hitler. Trump himself may have an "authoritarian personality," but he has no desire to expand the American empire. Paxton leaves open the possibility that Trump might declare martial law in the event of a major terrorist attack on American soil, but people here have worried about every recent American president possibly declaring martial law. Trump would differ from them, Paxton implies, because he'd act "emotionally and without expert advice." He seems to think that some of Trump's advisers, most notably Steve Bannon, might lean more toward fascism, but the emphasis on Bannon only shows that Paxton's article could use more updating than the deadline for a monthly magazine allows.

Interestingly, while doubting whether Trump is fascist, Paxton's diagnosis doesn't seem designed to put people at ease. If not a fascist, Trump may end up practicing "generic dictatorship" in a worst-case scenario but to Paxton he's more obviously a plain old plutocrat. While I agree that Trump is nothing like a fascist, I did see a hole in Paxton's argument that alarmists might exploit. He sees the plutocratic strain in the Trump movement as essentially libertarian in its hostility to regulations, noting also that the historic fascist regimes practiced progressive taxation. Paxton seems unaware that the more libertarian Republicans, not to mention capital-L Libertarians, are among the President's strongest critics, not just because they, like people to their left, see a fascist potential in his demagogy, but because they specifically oppose protectionist policies that they deem antithetical to the free market. The Trump they hate claimed the spotlight again this week as the President signed an executive order designed to  pressure American businesses to hire American workers rather than foreigners using H1B visas. Trump's emphasis on retaining or regaining jobs for American workers isn't fascist by any standard I'm aware of -- it's arguably the most admirable aspect of his presidency, so long as he places a similar priority on educating Americans for the jobs he wants them to have -- but to the extent that Paxton's argument against Trump as a fascist depends on him being a libertarian instead, Trump's protectionism undermines the argument. Clearly Trump himself doesn't see protectionism as incompatible with the rest of the Republican economic agenda, and he may think that protectionism is a price Republicans should willingly pay (as they gladly paid in the grand old days) in return for lower taxes and fewer regulations. He may well be going further on those other fronts than he otherwise might in the hope of getting Republicans to accept protectionist policies, but he does also seem to think, in supply-side fashion, that cutting taxes and regulations will create jobs. Would he be more fascist if he came out for higher taxes or tighter regulations? The idea sounds absurd, but I'd expect more Republicans to entertain it if Trump did go that way. It should not make someone fascist to argue that national interests, understood (as Trump sometimes seems to understand it) as the well-being of average Americans, should sometimes override the moral imperatives of economic libertarianism. But this is still America, where some people who make exactly that argument are called "liberal fascists" or worse, so the best thing to do when Americans debate whether Donald Trump or anyone else is a fascist is simply not pay attention.

18 April 2017

Hate Crime or Terrorism?

An individual already suspected of murder went on a shooting franchise at a bus stop in Fresno CA today, killing three people before police took him into custody. Whether he committed the earlier murder or not, he was open about his motive for today's crimes, telling the police that he hated white people. He was heard to shout "Allahu Akbar" as he fired, but if he is the author of the Twitter account under the name reported by police he was more likely motivated by some form of black nationalism than by any form of Islam most Islamists would recognize. The Twitter feed, which only began in February, is full of promos for hip-hop music, anti-Trump graphics, and warnings of divine wrath in the form of natural disasters if "our demand for reparation and separation" was not met by progressive deadlines. While the Twitter feed may belong to someone else of the same name, it and today's shootings appear to be the work of lunatics. Expect to hear some debate over whether the killings were primarily acts of terrorism, by virtue of "Allahu Akbar," or hate crimes, by virtue of the suspect's own statements. What exactly is the distinction? A person could argue reasonably that there is none, but the question is still worth asking in the context of a comparison with Dylann Roof, the perpetrator of the Charleston massacre. It was self-evident that Roof had committed a "hate crime," but how many people went further to call it "terrorism?" Why wouldn't you? It might be argued that neither Roof nor the Fresno killer belonged to an organization, and that "terrorism" presumes an organization with an agenda -- the end to which terror is a means -- beyond the personal hatreds and rationalizations of lone-wolf shooters. From another angle, it might be argued that a "hate crime" ultimately is a matter of personal responsibility, while "terrorism" requires further steps. The Charleston massacre provoked little in the way of demands for a crackdown on the racist media that influenced Roof. The Fresno killings may prove more provocative, if only because the shooter said the A-word, and also because white fears of violence by blacks may grow more compelling, but a case could be made against making distinctions based on the identity of the perpetrator or his targets. Why not treat Dylann Roof, the Fresno shooter and your generic Muslim attacker the same, as terrorists, hate criminals or whatever? Why not try in each case to get to the roots of their hate and, so far as the Constitution permits, root them out? If "all lives matter," as some are wont to say, then all killers are equal, qualitatively if not quantitatively, and if we seek to hold ideas or media responsible in one case, we should do likewise in all cases, and to do otherwise is merely partisan.

What's the difference between 'patriotism' and 'nationalism?'

Common sense might suggest that "patriotism" and "nationalism" are synonymous, but the idea that they are two different things, the latter worse than the former, goes at least as far back as George Orwell. There's a fresh impulse in the U.S. to distinguish between good "patriotism" and bad "nationalism" given the perception of President Trump, or some of his advisers who appear to be losing influence, as "nationalists." As the invocation of Orwell in E. J. Dionne's recent column suggests, a debate over the 21st century direction of the U.S. is being shaped by the terminology of the 1940s. Dionne writes that "nationalism rankles," meaning that the word "nationalism" rankles, "partly because of the evils of Nazism and Fascism." Just as some people try to tie the modern left to Nazism because the Nazis were the "National Socialist" party, so nationalism becomes suspect in some eyes for the same superficial reasons. Nazism seems to have shaped Orwell's understanding of what "nationalist" meant. Dionne quotes from "Notes on Nationalism," an essay Orwell wrote in 1945. "Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism," the great man writes, with the emphasis in the original. The distinction he makes between the two boils down to this: patriots and nationalists alike believe that theirs is the best country or culture in the world, but the nationalist, apparently unlike the plain old patriot, adopts an amoral "my country right or wrong" attitude committing him to ruthless advancement of his country's interests in a zero-sum competition of nations. Nationalism, for Orwell, is a violently aggressive mutation of patriotism "inseparable from the desire for power." By comparison, while Orwell can imagine a "purely negative" nationalism defined entirely by hostility to some entity, "patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally." This patriotism may be just as chauvinistic in essence as nationalism, but it doesn't seek to impose itself on other nations or cultures. Dionne doesn't mention this distinction, perhaps because he realizes that it might confuse his Orwellian analysis of contemporary American politics.  The so-called "nationalists" in Trump's circle seem to be the ones taking a more defensive than aggressive stance, concerned mainly with defending the nation from threats from without (free trade, immigration, Islam) while disclaiming any intention of imposing American values elsewhere. They seem to be the ones who sought better relations with Russia and Syria, a desire critics attributed to some sinister "nationalist" ideology they shared with Russia's leadership. But to the extent that the "nationalists" are the "isolationists" in Trump's camp, they seem more like Orwell's "patriots" than his malevolent "nationalists."

In reality, Orwell's distinction between defensive patriotism and aggressive nationalism isn't very relevant to the current debates over "nationalism." We get nearer the heart of the matter when Dionne, a liberal, approvingly cites Republican writers who call contemporary nationalism "a demagogue's patriotism" and "ultimately the fire of tribalism." They aren't really criticizing "nationalism" as such -- I was taught in school that the idea went back to the 19th century resistance to Napoleon and his revolutionary ways -- but something that usually gets a modifer like "ethno-nationalist" or, in the worst case, "white nationalism." In other words, "nationalism" in today's politics denotes a presumably bigoted patriotism dedicated less to nation than to that segment of the people that sees itself as the exclusive embodiment of nation. By comparison, Dionne prefers a propositional patriotism. "Ours is not a loyalty to blood or soil," he writes, "It is an embrace of a series of powerful propositions" that no one on earth is innately incapable of adopting. For him, then, nationalism is the idea that those propositions are the exclusive birthright of a specific group of people, either unavailable or fundamentally incomprehensible to others. Take that as you will, but I don't really find it useful to make the distinction Dionne and others insist upon between "nationalism" and "patriotism" because "patriotism" should not be equated even implicitly with any ideology.

This debate over "nationalism" looks like just another way to talk about "populism." Orwell himself wrote that he used "nationalism" for want of a better term to describe attitudes held by groups other than nations, and Americans may use it now because "populism" doesn't seem to be the better term. But "nationalism" as contemporary Americans describe it in discussions of the Trump movement bears a lot of resemblance to "populism" as I understand it. Both terms refer to what academics might call an embodied patriotism, not necessarily "blood and soil" but definitely "flesh and blood." Establishment liberals and conservatives alike are having trouble addressing a fresh expression of patriotism or nationalism that insists that the national interests are not abstract concepts but the material interests of actual people. Liberals mistrust this insistence because it seems inseparable from those actual people's prejudices, while conservatives worry that it's unconstrained by constitutional or ideological scruples. Portrayed as extreme, this movement occupies a conceptual middle ground between libertarian individualists who feel no special solidarity with anyone and those universalists who don't see national borders as reason enough to show more solidarity with people within those borders than with people outside. In the long run, the really noteworthy thing about this phenomenon is its departure, in some ways, from the dogmatic individualism that defined American conservatism in the Cold War era, most notably in its preference for protectionist trade policy, on the assumption that no loss of American jobs is acceptable, over free trade principles. Establishment conservatives probably see this "nationalism" as collectivist in some obnoxious way, while establishment liberals see this renascent collectivism as "nationalist" in a pejorative and even more obnoxious way. What seems indisputable is that the very word "nationalism" makes a wide range of ideologues deeply uncomfortable. Whatever you think of the "nationalists" themselves, this discomfort is probably a good thing.

15 April 2017

THINK 3 VIDEO NEWS: 'Show us your taxes, you big orange Cheeto!'

April 15 is the traditional tax deadline day and so seemed an appropriate time for another wave of anti-Trump protests. The idea this time was that the President should feel fresh pressure to make his tax returns public. In Albany, at least, that idea didn't draw anything like the crowd that thronged West Capitol Park back in January, immediately after Trump's inauguration. My own eyeball estimate was that there was no more than a tenth of that mob out today, several hundred instead of several thousand. It's possible that there was some confusion over the nature of today's demonstrations. Hearing about "tax day" protests, some people may have thought that marchers would be protesting against taxes, which would make them the wrong type of crowd. In any event, this was the scene as I arrived at approximately 3:30 p.m. After some preliminaries, the demonstrators were hitting the sidewalk to march around the capitol block. As you'll see, the vanguard went in the wrong direction and had to be herded the other way. Ironically, they turned right when they should have gone left.

Once everyone was headed in the right (I mean left) direction, I crossed the park to catch the crowd as it came back to the park, and to watch them as they marched past the historic capitol steps. A wedding party picked this day to take their picture on the steps; despite the interruption they happy couple and friends got into the spirit of the occasion, joining in some of the chants.

Here's one of those chants.

And here's the battle cry that gives this post its title.

Here's an excerpt from a speech by one of the organizers, representing a new political entity called Bethlehem Indivisible.

While much of the talk today was relevantly progressive, a lot of the poster art seemed obsolete in light of recent events, still accusing Trump of being a Russian stooge in some way or another. Nothing short of a shooting war will get that taint off him as far as some people are concerned. Despite their fears, the President seems headed toward the center on many fronts, for good or ill, in a way that has alienated some of his base supporters while possibly calming the anxiety many opponents have felt since the election. I'm not sure we'll see the kind of numbers anymore that turned out against Trump in January -- unless there is a shooting war, that is. Then a lot of these same people may wish we were friendlier toward Russia. But for what it's worth, we probably should see those tax returns, or else we should hear a more convincing case from the President's lawyers for why we can't see them yet.

14 April 2017

Thomas L. Friedman's virtual reality

For a New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has written a lot of inane stuff, along with the occasional valid insight, but he hit some sort of low with his April 12 column, in which he argues against making a strategic priority out of defeating the self-styled Islamic State forces in Syria. "Why should our goal right now be to defeat the Islamic State in Syria?" he asks. Before you offer what you think is your ready answer, Friedman preempts you by making a distinction between ISIS in Syria and the ISIS that's out to kill you. The latter, you see, is "Virtual ISIS," a malevolent social-media entity that inspires lone wolves to go out and kill all over the world. The Islamic State fighting in Syria in Iraq is "Territorial ISIS," and Friedman actually has a valid point when he argues that destroying Territorial ISIS won't make Virtual ISIS go away. Forevermore, the propaganda of jihad is going to attract alienated people the world over, but you can also argue that not having a rallying point like the self-styled Caliphate might make ISIS less cool or compelling for a lot of these losers. Friedman, to the contrary, suspects that Virtual ISIS will grow still more violent to make up for any defeat Territorial ISIS suffers. That reads a lot like rationalization to me, however. As far as Friedman is concerned, focusing on ISIS takes our eyes off the prize, which is the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad and the weakening of the Syrian-Iranian-Russian axis in the Middle East. He actually proposes doing nothing about ISIS in Syria until the Russians and Iranians are ready to pay the price for our cooperation, presumably Assad's head. Why should eliminating Assad be the higher priority? Friedman, I fear, disingenuously argues something like what I've called the Obama Doctrine, which holds that tyranny is the necessary and sufficient cause of unrest because people inevitably will rise up to fight tyrants. In the Syrian context, Friedman sees ISIS primarily as a Sunni nationalist movement and blames the oppression of Sunnis by the Iran-backed Shiite majority in Iraq and the Alawite ruling clique in Syria for the rise of the caliphate movement. I call this a disingenuous argument because it willfully ignores all history before the 21st century, particularly the fact that, he except for the participation of Assad's father in the 1991 coalition against Iraq, Baathist Syria has been treated as an enemy of the U.S. for reasons having nothing to do with the regime's treatment of Sunnis. Syria's sin was, and is, that it is an "anti-imperialist" and especially anti-Zionist state. Syria can never be more of a threat to the U.S. than it is to Israel, and it is not more of a threat to us now than the I.S. is online or on the ground. But Friedman persists, without really admitting it, in fighting the old fight even when a new one should be more compelling. In his column, he tries to appeal to President Trump's devious, hard-bargaining nature in recommending his extortionate policy. It's clear by now that the President has a lot of bad advisers, but Friedman, should Trump heed him, might prove the worst of all.

12 April 2017

'It is not our job to represent the people of the United States.'

The speaker is the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who yesterday was in Troy NY, the city where I work, to speak to students at a local college. Justice Roberts was explaining his opposition to "diversity" as a criterion for appointing future justices, rightly arguing against the idea of demographically proportional representation in the highest court of the land. He is also right to identify the Supreme Court as a check on democracy rather than an expression of it. The high court's purpose is to uphold the Constitution, as a majority of justices understand it, against the will of any given majority of people, or a majority of their representatives in Congress, should either go against the founding charter's dictates. For that reason, I'm curious to know whether Justice Roberts approved of last year's action by the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate blocking any consideration of President Obama's nominee to replace the late Justice Scalia. I would not expect the Chief Justice to say the Republicans acted unconstitutionally, since the Senate notoriously enjoys the prerogative of making virtually any rule for itself that a majority wishes. Instead, I wonder what Roberts thinks of the argument Republicans used to justify their sabotage of Merrick Garland's nomination. Their argument, dubiously based on historical precedents, was that a seat on the bench that goes vacant in a presidential election year should remain vacant until after the election. They argued explicitly that the American electorate should decide, if not who specifically should fill the vacancy, then the sort of judge who should do so, by voting for the ideologically appropriate candidates for President and Senator. The Republicans argued, in effect, that a Supreme Court justice did represent the people of the United States, since the presidential election would effectively determine his identity. One could argue that this is only what the Constitution dictates, until one recalls that the founding charter hardly intended the President to be chosen in as democratic a fashion as he is today, and that a President chosen in the old manner could hardly claim, as Presidents flaunting their democratic credentials have done since the days of Andrew Jackson, to represent the American people as a whole. All arguments aside, thanks to Republican obstruction and Republican victory last fall, the Chief Justice now has a colleague more along his own lines, presumably, than should have been the case. Of course, the Republicans' Senate majority last year probably meant that Garland never would have joined the court, and their arguments against giving him a hearing merely rationalized their refusal to take the risky step of actually voting Garland down on no better grounds than that a Democrat had nominated him. So I wonder whether Justice Roberts is really comfortable with the way he came to swear in Justice Gorsuch this week. I would like to think that he isn't, but despite his own disclaimer that justices are neither Republican nor Democrat, I suspect that he can live with this perfectly well.