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.

11 April 2017

Comic book artist in suicide attack on own career

Ardian Syaf had just landed a plum assignment for an ambitious comic-book artist. After making a name for himself at DC Comics, the Indonesian penciller was now working at Marvel Comics as the penciller for X-Men Gold, a new title that's part of a relaunch for Marvel's ever-popular mutant line. The first issue appeared last week. Today, Syaf states on Facebook that "my career is over" because he was caught -- by readers, though not by his editors -- inserting "easter egg" references to Indonesian sectarian politics into a superhero comic. This comic-book news site explains exactly what Syaf did and how it's relevant to issues in his own country. Some of these references would have sailed over most readers' heads, but when a comics artist puts specifics words, letters or numbers in his art, some people are going to want to know what they all mean. In Syaf's worst offense, he drew one character sporting a shirt that referred to sura 5, verse 51 of the Qur'an, which in one translation reads: "O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you - then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people." This verse served as a slogan for opponents of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Christian governor of Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, who led the first round of voting in his re-election campaign earlier this year but has been accused of blaspheming Islam because he'd accused his opponents of using the verse in question to deceive voters. Of course, you don't have to know jack about Jakarta or Indonesian politics to be offended by a verse described just about universally in reports on the Syaf scandal as anti-Christian and anti-semitic. Denunciation from Syaf's peers appears universal, including a diatribe from a Marvel colleague and fellow Muslim G. Willow Wilson, the writer of the popular Ms. Marvel book, who denounces Syaf's "garbage philosophy" while claiming that twice-removed translations used in reporting the story miss the sura's actual meaning and historical context. An Indonesian colleague used Facebook to politely call Syaf a bonehead for imposing his pictorial commentary into someone else's script and intellectual property. In all likelihood, the remaining issues of X-Men Gold Syaf has already finished will be his last work at Marvel, though his own report of his career death may prove exaggerated. That only leaves the big question many comics consumers are asking themselves now: Does this make X-Men Gold #1 a collectors item?

10 April 2017

The McCarthy rule

The April 17 Nation is a relic of those bygone days when defending Russia sometimes meant defending Donald Trump, and thus caused problems for some of the magazine's writers. Once upon a time Stephen F. Cohen called it "McCarthyist" to accuse Trump or his advisers of colluding with the Russians, and this made many readers very angry. Some were just sick of Cohen's constant warnings against antagonizing Russia. The novelist Norman Rush, for instance, writes that Cohen and his wife, Nation publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, werer "failing to balance thenecessary project of nuclear detente with Russia against a proper appreciation of the country's renewed aggressive imperial strategems." But it's the McCarthy thing that really bugged Andrew Feffer of Union College, Schenectady. Feffer chides Cohen for twisting the meaning of "McCarthyism." He claims that Cohen "conflates Cold War belligerence with McCarthyism which, while it indeed inflated international threats, did so in large part to promote domestic counter-subversion." Feffer protests that "It is Trump who is accusing his opponents of subverting and conspiring against the nation," and "Trump and the Republicans who propose criminalizing protest," while denying implicitly that today's Kremlin-baiters are doing anything like that.

To my knowledge, Cohen hasn't responded to Feffer's criticism, but readers can probably refute this one themselves. Anti-Trump McCarthyism is "counter-subversive"insofar as it accuses the Trump movement (or the "alt-right") of undermining both American values and U.S. national security with the help and in the interest of a foreign power deemed hostile to values and security interests alike. If the original McCarthy whipped up Russophobia or its equivalent in his time, anti-communism, in order to discredit the American left, so the neo-McCarthyists, however much they might condemn Joe McCarthy's own politics, whips up Russophobia in order to discredit (if not criminalize) a large part of the modern American right. While Tail-Gunner Joe and his allies accused the "SJWs" of 1950 of furthering the International Communist Conspiracy, today's tail gunners accuse the Trump movement of furthering an International Authoritarian Conspiracy, also directed from Moscow -- or they did until last week. Now, perhaps, many of those who accused the President of being a Russian stooge will join Cohen's warnings against provoking Russia. A few may buy into conspiracy theories I'm hearing about, according to which the April 6 bombings were designed to give Trump cover and quiet the Russophobic left while he continues with pretty much the same foreign policy he'd planned all along.

Whatever the international consequences of his little stunt, the President has most likely stripped his domestic opponents of what Wisconsin letter writer Dean Schlabowske concedes was their most powerful weapon against him. "With Democrats having little power in any of the three branches of government," Schlabowske writes, "they may think this is their only means of slowing the efforts of an administration that many of us see as unlawful, dishonest and immoral." Schlabowske leaves us with the moral to this story, as far as his part of the left is concerned: there can be no such thing as left-wing McCarthyism because "McCarthyism made a concerted effort to instill paranoia toward any government official, member of the press, entertainment figure, or neighbor seen as sympathizing with the left." From this perspective, McCarthyism is neither a rhetorical tactic nor a political strategy available to anyone, but a singular historic phenomenon that can only be "trivialized" (a word often used by past victims of injustice when caught victimizing others) by using the M-word to describe anything inconsistent with Joe McCarthy's own agenda. McCarthyism, though, was only an American expression of a global trend of rulers accusing dissidents of treasonous foreign affinities, and that trend was peculiar or exclusive to neither right nor left. Right-wing regimes identified critics with the International Communist Conspiracy, while left-wing regimes identified their critics with an Imperialist conspiracy. In the 21st century this sort of argument probably will grow only more persuasive -- the French election reportedly is taking a Russophobic turn -- as it becomes increasingly impossible to shield any country's citizens (apart, perhaps, from North Koreans) from other countries' opinions of (or dirt on) their leaders and factions.  In this environment it won't be enough to indict the sources of information and propaganda as Democrats tried to do in 2016; no claim is automatically wrong because you can trace it via Wikileaks to the Kremlin. Instead, a more candid world will require more candor from world leaders, and neither McCarthyism nor cries of "McCarthyism!" can substitute for that candor.

06 April 2017

'Something should happen'

Donald Trump is probably no more or less impressionable than the average American. Chemical weapons have been used in an attack on Syrian civilians, and while the Assad government and their Russian allies predictably blame insurgents, the President appears convinced that Assad himself is to blame. He declares that this "heinous" attack has changed his opinion of Assad. His talk of "beautiful little babies" being killed shows that, despite the perception of Trump as the stereotypical heartless businessman, he's prone to the same humanitarian impulses that many Americans film when shown atrocities on TV. Just a few days after his press secretary said that regime change in Syria was not an option, Trump himself is saying that "something should happen" to the Assad regime, presumably meaning punitive American military action. His change of tone comes after he received the president of Egypt and the king of Jordan, two of the U.S.'s staunchest Middle East allies, and just about simultaneously with the expulsion of the relative Russophile Stephen K. Bannon from the National Security Council. Some observers will take all these things as signs that the "deep state" has gotten to Trump, while others will say that the President has at last awakened to the realities of the world, including the wickedness of Russia and its friends. There's a lot of ground between these poles of perception, however, and Trump is probably somewhere out there. He'll be talking to the president of China shortly, so who knows what he'll be saying after that. The one sure thing is that American foreign policy remains in flux amid an apparently intensifying competition for influence inside the White House. One hopes that some anti-interventionists still have his ear, or that someone might warn him that humanitarian impulses, however admirable in the abstract, aren't necessarily consistent with the "America First" priorities that got him elected, especially when some half-assed attack on Assad's military is still likely to benefit the self-styled Islamic State more than anyone else. If little else, a Trump presidency promised a more serious attitude toward Syria, but the President's impulsiveness may soon turn that promise to ashes.

Update: Something did happen. The President ordered missile strikes against the airfield from which the Syrians supposedly launched the gas attack, claiming that it was in the "vital national security interest" of the U.S. to deter the use of chemical weapons. He again mentioned the deaths of "beautiful babies" as if these justified an act of war -- coincidentally on the centennial of the U.S. entry into World War I. I saw the news break live while I was watching Tucker Carlson on Fox News demolish every argument of his neocon guest for punitive action or regime change. The guest claimed that removing Assad from power would weaken the Islamic State, since it was his contention that Assad's alleged persecution or Sunnis, as in Iraq, fueled the rise of the Sunni army. I have to say I was unaware of any great persecution of Sunnis in Syria, but it looks like they feel persecuted whenever they're the majority of the population but don't rule. As yet I've seen no official reaction from the Russian government, which reportedly was notified in advance of the strike.

05 April 2017

How do you solve a problem like Korea?

North Korea sent another missile into the Sea of Japan today, earning a routine condemnation by its neighbors and the United States. In the wake of this and recent experiments with an intercontinental missile that might someday deliver a nuclear weapon to the western U.S., the Trump administration has warned of the possibility of unilateral American action against the dynastic communist regime. While North Korea has been overshadowed today by the chemical warfare charges leveled against Syria, Kim's country remains a red flag waving irritably in the eye of the American bull. Like his father and grandfather, Kim Jong-Un is the archetypal totalitarian dictator of our nightmares, not to mention the sort of "madman" (or at least a spoiled brat) who might well fling a missile our way if he thinks it would hit. Like no other world leaders, it seems, the Kims inspire visceral hatred among American politicians, though ordinary Americans probably have always found them more laughable than scary. Every new outburst from Pyongyang incites debate over what to do about North Korea. These debates beg a deeper question: what does Kim want? American opinion seems split. Bruce Cumings represents those who believe that Kim wants security first and foremost. He blames American "nuclear blackmail" for North Korea's arms program and seems to believe that Kim would quiet down if assured that the U.S. and South Korea don't intend to topple him from power. For Cumings, this is a matter of common sense, or a matter of diplomats putting themselves in Kim's shoes and seeing the world as he may see it. He's frustrated with people who hate the Kims so much that they won't do this simple thing. Their viewpoint, apparently, is that Kim is so alien (or "grotesque," as a Clinton-era diplomat said to Cumings) that even proposing empathy as a thought exercise is obscene.

Of course, one might be too confident that someone born and bred to the purple like Kim Jong-Un thinks just as you or I might. Looking at the map, it may appear self-evident that Kim wants security first, but Cumings can go too far in describing the U.S. as the aggressor on the Korean peninsula, since it was the North that invaded the South in 1950 and not vice versa. It's not unreasonable to believe that Kim's first priority remains unifying Korea under his rule, at all costs. And for all we can know, had his grandfather succeeded then a Korea unified under the Juche Idea might be no more of a threat to southeast Asia than unified communist Vietnam is now. We were poised to put a stake through Kim Il-Sung back then before China intervened, and to this day the People's Republic remains North Korea's often-disgusted guarantor. China's interests are probably more self-evident than Korea's. They supposedly fear a refugee crisis that would land entirely in their laps were the North destabilized. More obviously, they presumably prefer a buffer state that remains ostensibly friendly to a unification that would put a potentially hostile army at their border. As well, they probably like the idea of North Korea distracting the U.S. from other strategic issues in the region. They prop up, or at least tolerate the Kim regime for the same reason that they oppose our installation of a missile defense system in South Korea: to ensure that the U.S. faces deterrents to full freedom of action in southeast Asia. In turn, we resent deterrents because we feel exceptionally entitled to freedom of action, for freedom's sake, all over the world. And in our arrogance, the idea that Kim dares to deter us with nuclear weapons makes him only more intolerable. If we were less arrogant about our role in the world, Americans wouldn't have to wonder about what might motivate Kim Jong-Un. It would be enough to know that, so long as he does not threaten to attack South Korea, he enjoys the same sovereignty, and thus the same legal protection against invasion or regime change from the outside as every other ruler, no matter how distasteful his practices are. All he has to do is renounce the idea of unification by force, so long as we and South Korea do the same, and he'd be free to command and abuse his subjects as he pleases until they finally figure out how embarrassing they look to the rest of the world for taking it and do something about it.

04 April 2017

Psychologist, heal thyself

How shall we get rid of President Trump? "Impeachment is a long, messy process, which projects the worst to a world eager for leadership," writes H. Brandt Ayers, a former Alabama newspaper publisher, "A clean, quick, decisive solution is for a majority of the Cabinet to invoke Article Four of the Constitution declaring Trump incapacitated." To be clear, Ayers believes that the President is incapacitated right now. Numerous experts cited by Ayers claim that Trump suffers from "narcissistic personality disorder." That's the finding of Dr. John Gartner, who "was willing to break an American Psychiatric Association rule against diagnosing without personal evaluation" in order to declare Trump a sufferer from this dread disease. Seconding opinions apparently were found by Ayers in a blogger's interviews with psychiatrists and psychologists who diagnose the President as dangerously ill.

Ayers defines narcissistic personality disorder as "a personality disorder that compels him to fabricate, exaggerate and lie." The Mayo Clinic describes sufferers as "conceited, boastful or pretentious. You often monopolize conversations. You may belittle or look down on people you perceive as inferior. You may feel a sense of entitlement — and when you don't receive special treatment, you may become impatient or angry. You may insist on having 'the best' of everything — for instance, the best car, athletic club or medical care. At the same time, you have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism. You may have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation. To feel better, you may react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make yourself appear superior."

It should be easy, regardless of political affiliations, to dismiss this sort of speculation, first because these snap diagnoses appear to violate a professional code of practice, and second because the extent of President Trump's fabrications and exaggerations seems to depend on the eye of the beholder. That is, I don't doubt that Trump exaggerates and knowingly lies about things, but diagnosing the lying or other habits of a politician as pathological could well depend on a perception of truth, political etiquette or interpersonal conduct that is itself political rather than objective. So it should be easy to dismiss this speculation about narcissistic disorders, except that the Mayo Clinic definition, presumably crafted without Trump in mind, rings true for me in many ways. The problem for Trump's critics, and especially those who want to believe that a narcissist disorder incapacitates him, is that the diagnosis rings true not just (or perhaps not even especially) in the President's case but for lots of people in this country. Though a layman myself in this field, based on the minimal information provided in Ayers' op-ed I might diagnose an epidemic of narcissistic personality disorder in the U.S., if not a pandemic. If Trump's condition, if correctly diagnosed, would justify his overthrow, might not the spread of the contagion justify a state of emergency nationwide in order to bring the pandemic under control?  Let's see if the experts have such ready answers to that question.

03 April 2017

Raise the false flag!

At least ten people were killed today in a subway explosion in St. Petersburg, Russia, that appears to be an act of terrorism. So here's a prediction: before very long, if not already, you should be able to find someone online claiming that President Putin was behind the attack, that whoever actually carried it out was enabled or abetted by the Russian government. When you consider how many people still think that the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. were secretly masterminded by the U.S. government, an ostensibly democratic regime despite the controversy of the previous year's presidential election, how many more would be willing to believe that an authoritarian personality like Putin, the former KGB man, would do something like this in order to have an excuse to crack down further on civil liberties after an embarrassing outbreak of protests across the country last week? The concept of the "false flag" attack appeals to a modern paranoia driven by fear of the state and fear of war. The idea goes back at least to the 1933 Reichstag fire which, having been exploited by the Nazis to justify an already-desired crackdown on the German left, was soon widely believed to have been perpetrated by the Nazis themselves, although evidence still points to a lone-wolf perpetrator rather than the conspiracy alleged by the Nazis or the alleged Nazi conspiracy. In the 21st century U.S., "truthers" claim that the U.S. government allowed (or organized) the 2001 attacks to justify an already-desired regime-changing intervention in the Middle East, since that's the sort of thing that "power" does.

"False flag" denialism in our time has relatively little to do with a desire to protect Muslims from blame or retaliation, since few "truthers," or few other than left-wing "truthers," have much or any love for Islam. It's more a matter of anti-statist paranoia that imagines an omnipotent "Big Brother" capable of manipulating everyone and everything, from the fanatic dupe to the enraged victims, for its own selfish ends. It's a kind of blanket denial of responsibility, covering not just the culpability of actual perpetrators but the implicit duty to respond to the offense. "Truthers" opposed the invasion of Iraq, as did many other people who did not dispute the fundamental responsibility of al-Qaeda for the 2001 attacks. For "truthers," however, it was not enough to refute arguments linking Saddam Hussein to the attacks, however easily that could be done. Instead, since they assumed that anger over "9/11" fueled public support for the impending invasion, they had to discredit the accepted story of the terrorist attacks. If it followed from the attacks that something had to be done about the Middle East at the risk of American lives, then people had to understand that the attacks were not what they thought them to be. In more general terms, the false-flag impulse rejects the idea that events impose obligations on people, or on citizens especially. Recognizing this fallacy doesn't mean accepting that events always impose obligations, but reasonable people can debate the obligations imposed by events without denying that events can happen by some will other than that of the state, the elite, the Illuminati or Bilderbergers, etc., and must be addressed accordingly. While the reasonable debate is over what to do, if anything, the denialist knows from the beginning that he doesn't want to do anything and tells a "false flag" story to justify his refusal. Of course, there's also a more disinterested denialism that you'll hear if people start blaming Putin for the St. Petersburg bombing. There's no risk to the paranoid outsider in whatever Putin does about the attacks, but those paranoids who see Putin as an existential "authoritarian" threat to world order may take it for granted that he'd sacrifice his own people to further his own agenda, whether that's a crackdown on Muslims or a crackdown on dissent in general. He may well exploit what happened to an unjustified extent, targeting people utterly innocent of today's atrocity, but that would make him at worst a cynical opportunist, not the author of the original crime. The false-flag mentality assumes that the worst thing that can happen is for the state to act, and that when the worst happens, the state must be behind it. It's not hard to see the world more clearly, though that doesn't necessarily make the response to terrible events any easier.

30 March 2017

Trump vs Freedom

Don't freak out. My headline is just an abbreviated way of introducing the impending showdown between the President and the self-styled House Freedom Caucus, a band of Representatives whom Trump blames for the effective defeat of his health insurance reform bill. The President tweeted out a threat today to primary Freedom Caucus members next year, to which the caucus has responded with protests that they, among congressional Republicans, are Trump's true friends. In simplest terms, the President wanted to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act," while the Freedom Caucus is interested mainly, if not exclusively, in "repeal." As fiscal conservatives, and no doubt as "personal responsibility" conservatives, they abhor the mandates and subsidies that the rest of the civilized world takes for granted. The President may say that he wants to make sure every American still has access to health insurance after "Obamacare," but the Freedom Caucus's position seems to be that if the Market can't provide for that it's none of the government's business. To the extent that Trump doesn't agree with that premise, he is not ideologically sound, but conflicts like these serve to remind us that a lack of ideological soundness or even coherence is probably one of this President's virtues. That's not to say that his bill would have been a fine thing, as it seemed to promise, at least as reported, only higher premiums for Trump's older base. But his determination to hold the Freedom Caucus, along with the Democrats, accountable for the bill's failure, and his apparent readiness to test his popularity in their enclaves, show something different from the bipolar thinking that characterizes Washington. Trump came to power as an insurgent within the Republican party and clearly intends to continue that role as President, despite charges from left and right alike that he has already been claimed or co-opted by "the swamp." If this means that the national debate on health insurance is going to become more than a matter of "yes to everything" vs. "no to everything," than Trump's first legislative defeat may be eclipsed in time by a real presidential accomplishment.

29 March 2017

Jobs! or: short-term thinking in democracies

For the current President, jobs trump everything. He's trying to roll back much of the Obama-era regulatory regime on the premise that if a government rule can be blamed for "killing" a job, it must go. His supporters, particularly those employers who expect to benefit from Trump's executive orders, seem to have no arguments against regulations except that they are "burdensome," which means that they compliance costs more than they care to spend. Pressed, they might talk a good game about reasonable stewardship and so on, but you can't help wondering where exactly they would draw the line. How much more pollution, how many more workplace injuries, how much more work-related illness can they tolerate than their political opponents? For now, however, none of that matters more than the promise of more jobs, and it may be that those who want jobs -- whether they'll actually be created or not -- are willing to risk more of the above than others think they should have to. Whatever damage might be done to the environment -- by reopening or expanding coal mining operations, for instance -- may seem purely speculative compared with the economic needs of the moment. But part of what makes the Trump movement "populist" may be a willingness, arguably characteristic of democracy itself, to prioritize the needs (or wants) of the here-and-now over long-term interests. I tend to identify that tendency in the hedonistic habits of modern "progressive" liberalism, which often seems to abhor any sort of sacrifice but the monetary sort, but whenever anyone proposes that sacrifice is necessary to preserve the environment or the planet's ability to sustain civilization, we see a similar resistance to sacrifice among so-called or self-styled conservatives. From right or left, appeals for sacrifice are heard as con jobs for con artists' benefit. In the present case, the supposed con artists are those environmentalist "hoaxers" whose real interest is power. In other cases, wars are presumed to be promoted by war profiteers. Either way, no one is presumed objective; self-interest is perceived behind all political advocacy, but especially when sacrifices and benefits aren't distributed equally. Suspicion can only grow when sacrifices are necessary immediately (as employers claim they must be when regulations burden them) and benefits are promised only gradually, or are negative benefits, e.g. no further deterioration of the environment. For that reason, despite progressive anger at the apparent stupidity of it all, climate conservation measures always will meet resistance, especially when opponents characterize them as "job killers." Those who want jobs now are content to defer payment to a future that may not come true. But if the time does come to pay, the one sure thing is that today's "job creators" will find a way to blame the opposing party for everything.

28 March 2017

Cycles of liberal panic

In the March 20 New Yorker Adam Gopnik writes, "You would think that people who think for a living would pause and reflect that whatever is happening usually does stop happening, and something else happens in its place." This is his criticism of writers who see the election of President Trump and the 2016 Brexit vote, among other phenomena, as the "death of liberalism." Gopnik finds these writers guilty of presentism, which he defines as "the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it." In context, the "death of liberalism" fear errs in assuming that the Anglo-American events of 2016 -- each of which, Gopnik notes, only barely happened -- represent an inexorable trend. Doesn't it look, though, as if the "death of liberalism" camp are the people claiming that something (i.e. liberalism)  has stopped happening? By contrast, Gopnik seems to argue for a cyclical theory of history that does not stop and thus guarantees that liberalism will have another day. Focusing on Pankraj Mishra's new tome, "Age of Anger," he questions the (implicit?) assumption that liberalism -- or, worse, neoliberalism -- is merely an episode of history that has reached its limit because its inherently elitist bias can't address what Gopnik describes as "the truth that men and women want to be members of a clan or country with values and continuities that stretch beyond merely material opportunity." If liberalism is dying, supposedly, it's because different populations are "enraged at being reduced to the hamster wheel of meaningless work and material reward." Gopnik doesn't think anything like this is happening, though he does acknowledge an unusual degree of anger in our world.

Each citizen [sic?] carries on her person a computer more powerful than any available to a billionaire two decades ago, and many are using their devices to express their unbridled rage at the society that put them in our pockets.

Rather than assume that "the way in which our societies seem to have gone wrong is evidence of a fatal flaw somewhere in the systems we've inherited," Gopnik argues, perhaps more fatalistically, that "the dynamic of cosmopolitanism and nostalgic reaction is permanent and recursive." Following Karl Popper, he describes "a permanent cycle of history in which open societies, in their pluralism, create an anxiety that brings about a reaction towards a fixed organic state, which, then as now, serves both the interests of an oligarchy and those of a frightened, insecure population looking to arrest change." Both Islamism and anti-Islamism, from this perspective, are "deep racial and ethnic cultural panics [of the sort] that repeatedly rise and fall in human affairs." He goes so far as to claim that illiberalism "is the permanent fact of life" while liberal moments are the precious exceptions, but he seems certain that there will be more exceptions so long as people take Voltaire's advice to cultivate their gardens. For Gopnik, that means "happiness is where you find it; and you find it first by making it yourself." In more practical terms, "Getting out to make good things happen beats sitting down and thinking big things up." Is that how he thinks liberalism won in the past? It's probably unfair to expect an entire theory of history in a five-page book review, but Gopnik's attempt at a calming wrap-up reads less like Candide and more like Pollyanna. His optimistically cyclical prospect blatantly neglects the strong possibility that modernity's greater awareness of the world's limited resources could well disrupt all historical cycles in decisive fashion. His apparent amusement at the paradox of mass anger amid (admittedly unequal) prosperity willfully ignores all the ways in which people around the world feel increasingly insecure and disrespected amid all our virtual wonders.

It can be argued that Gopnik should take his own advice, yet take a longer view and possibly see something stop that seemed like it could go on forever. On the other hand, I can definitely see a historical cycle in operation, and in the short term there may be a few more cycles to it. People who are scared today see the value of kinship, solidarity and strong authority, and so long as survival remains the overriding self-interest they're willing to submit (their consciences, perhaps, more than anything else) to whatever power might protect them. How much would it really take before some or many of them feel secure and confident enough again to like their chances on their own once more, with all the freedom, openness and liberalism they require? In the short term, Gopnik is probably right to see Trumpism in the most particular sense as a transient thing, especially since people are already predicting its demise less than 100 days into the Trump presidency. Inferring from that that the cyclical transience of liberal democracy remains a permanent principle may be going too far. According to legend, the Chinese revolutionary Zhou Enlai was asked in the 1950s what he thought of the French Revolution. He answered that it was too early to tell. It's definitely too early to tell what to make of Trump's election, and it'll definitely be too early to tell what to make of his presidency after he leaves power in three or seven years. What's certain is that it's too early to say with anything like Gopnik's complacent certainty that it doesn't mean as much as it seems to.

27 March 2017

What is truth?

Historians someday will have to determine whether Donald Trump was the biggest liar ever to be President, but many people want an answer now, thinking that they know it already. On the left, The Nation has taken the lead in asserting an objective imperative for reporters to call the President a liar. Eric Alterman set this tone in numerous columns, and it was echoed more recently by Nic Dawes in the magazine's special "Media Issue." Dawes has no patience with people who hesitate over using the L-word, and no patience with their pretensions of neutrality. For him, there can be no neutrality between truth and falsehood, and neutrality between political parties is no excuse for not taking the proper stand. Dawes has nothing but contempt for Gerald Baker, the editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, who warned recently that "If we routinely make these kinds of judgments, readers would start to see our inevitably selective use of a moral censure as partisanship." Dawes answers this caution with the blunt assertion that "for the press to articulate a politics of independence, accountability, fairness and accuracy, and then to choose its words on that basis, is not partisan." He's even more contemptuous toward Baker's argument that, in Dawes' paraphrase, "we cannot see inside the president's mind and divine his [Baker's words] 'state of knowledge and moral intent.'" Dawes will no doubt be equally indignant with the latest Time magazine, which on its cover asks "Is Truth Dead?" in echo of its famous "Is God Dead?" cover of fifty years ago. Time editor Nancy Gibbs echoes Baker when she writes that "there's a limit to what we can deduce about motive or intent" when Trump or any politician says something obviously untrue. Perhaps more provocatively, she asks, "Does it count as lying if [Trump] believes what he says?...Where is the line between lie, spin and delusion?"

For critics like Dawes, there's no use answering with anything like, "Well, what about Obama's lies?" or "What about Clinton's lies?" because those critics are already immovably convinced that Trump has lied on an unprecedented scale, or with unprecedented contempt for facts. It's probably more accurate to say that Trump has unusual contempt for fact-checking, as many of his whoppers boil down to his impulsively repeating some unsubstantiated claim he read or saw somewhere. For a master businessman, he seems alarmingly trustful of claims that can easily be proven right or wrong online, so long as they appear to flatter him or further his agenda. He made no effort, it seems, to check the claim that he had won the presidency by the biggest margin in the Electoral College since Ronald Reagan until critics finally put the truth in his face. But not everything that's been described as a Trump "lie" is so plainly a matter of fact. In a partisan and ideological environment, a "lie" may well boil down to an alternative interpretation of a fact, or the choice of one fact over another. Ideologues tend to think that they alone see the world as it is and what the world should be; to contradict ideology, then, is often tantamount to lying about reality. The same goes for "tribal epistemology," which is how one writer describes the thinking of Trump and his supporters, though it could apply equally to Trump's most dogmatic critics. According to tribal epistemology, information only has value to the extent that it serves the good of your group. Leninists felt the same way, I suppose, but used usefulness to class or party as their standard. Inevitably, information is cherry-picked and inconvenient or uncomfortable truths are ignored. Something like this, I assume, is what Gerald Baker meant when he warned that a morally censorious impulse is "inevitably selective" and, implicitly, inevitably partisan. It's not a simple matter of sorting out facts from false assertion, since there are, inevitably, more facts than any ideology or party platform, or even any commitment to "truth," can encompass, especially in a democratic culture in which the "common good" is as much a matter of popular choice as it is a matter of objective fact.

In Time's truth article, Michael Scherer quotes the German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt: "Truth has a despotic character. It is therefore hated by tyrants who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot monopolize." Might it not also be hated by democrats who rightly fear a coercive force that is not a matter of choice. In the essay quoted by Scherer, Arendt goes on to write that truth "enjoys a rather precarious status in the eyes of governments that rest on consent and abhor coercion [because] Facts are beyond agreement and consent." Writing in 1967, she observed that "While probably no former time tolerated so many diverse opinions on religious or philosophical matters, factual truth, if it happens to oppose a given group’s profit or pleasure, is greeted today with greater hostility than ever before." She goes on:"The modes of thought and communication that deal with truth, if seen from the political perspective, are necessarily domineering; they don’t take into account other people’s opinions, and taking these into account is the hallmark of all strictly political thinking." It may be a mistake to think that anyone whose subject is politics is capable of an unimpeachably truthful account of the truthfulness of politicians, if truth is never politics' goal. When people insist on labeling Trump a liar, or when others claim that he has never told a lie, it's not the truth that's really at stake -- but I'm not going to call anyone a liar for thinking otherwise.

25 March 2017

The system works, or does it?

Can we stop now with the talk about Donald Trump being or becoming a dictator? He's just suffered one of the most embarrassing legislative defeats in the modern history of the presidency at the hands of his own party. After promising during his campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act as soon as possible, and after more recently threatening to primary any Republican representatives who dared vote against the "repeal and replace" bill in the lower house, the President ordered Speaker Ryan to surrender by withdrawing the bill. He has learned what every President learns, which is that our political system today virtually guarantees re-election to any congressman who wants it, regardless of what a President who is also de facto party leader wants him to do or not do. Trump's fans hoped, and many of his detractors feared that his legendary deal-making prowess or his exaggerated bullying tendencies would override this dynamic, but until he can demonstrate that he can successfully primary defiant Republican incumbents those Republicans have no reason not to dare him to try. I suspect, however, that the President won't carry this grudge into next year, especially if the threat only makes dissident Republicans in the center and on the far right more defiant. Whatever else happens in the next two years, it is now proven that this Republican congress will not simply rubber-stamp the Republican President. Hooray! Meanwhile, "Obamacare," with all its flaws, remains in place, presumably unamended, for what Ryan calls the foreseeable future. Trump's idea now seems to be to let the ACA "explode," as he expects it to, so that Democrats will still be blamed for rising premiums and other problems until popular demand for change proves irresistible to quibbling Republicans. This doesn't seem like the ideal way to reform the health insurance business, but it's probably the inevitable way so long as an admirable idea of providing insurance for everyone is yoked to ideologies and vested interests and made an object of partisan competition. So long as universal health coverage means more costs than benefits for some people and offends others' notions of deserved suffering, the politics of health care will not be easy, even (or especially) for alleged authoritarians like President Trump.

23 March 2017

The large policy

Stephen Kinzer's The True Flag is being marketed as pop history, as you can tell from the subtitle assigning Mark Twain a starring role in the narrative even though he proves a latecomer to the debate over the "imperialist" turn in U.S. foreign policy at the end of the nineteenth century. Kinzer is a historian of American interventionism, having previously written a history of U.S. complicity in the Iranian counterrevolution of the 1950s and a survey of American actions overthrowing foreign governments. In his new book he goes to the start of the trouble, the Spanish-American war of 1898 and the American victors' acquisition of the Philippines the following year. Kinzer sensibly sees multiple motives behind the war. It was the first time that the media successfully whipped up a frenzy for what we now call humanitarian intervention, thanks to William Randolph Hearst's hyping of Spanish atrocities against Filipino and Cuban freedom fighters. For Hearst himself, and more so for Theodore Roosevelt war was an opportunity to prove their manhood and more, especially their potential as history-making figures. For other Americans the most important objective was turning Spanish colonies into American markets for surplus industrial product. For other still, including Kinzer's real mastermind, Henry Cabot Lodge, the war was part of what Lodge called "the large policy" of great-power assertiveness. For Lodge and Roosevelt the conquests from Spain had more strategic than mercantile value. The Philippines in particular, not to mention little Guam, would allow the U.S. to project naval power further into the Pacific than ever before. These contradictory motives made disillusionment inevitable when the humanitarians realized that, while Cuba received a sort of independence, the U.S. had no intention of liberating the Philippines at all. Instead, American troops settled in for a hard fight against many of the same freedom fighters who had been lionized in the U.S. press shortly before but now were portrayed as savage fanatics. According to Kinzer, the U.S. killed more Filipinos in four years than the Spanish had in centuries of colonial rule. Among the disillusioned was Twain, who was touring Europe when the war with Spain broke out and cheered the fall of one cruel empire, only to deplore the rise of a new one as a betrayal of fundamental American values.

The occupation of the Philippines provoked the rise of a sizable "anti-imperialist" movement in the U.S. Before Twain took the stage, the biggest celebrity on this side was the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, while the movement's greatest hope was the defeated but still young 1896 Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Despite betraying the movement by voting to ratify the treaty that turned the Philippines over to the U.S. -- he justified his vote by arguing that the first priority was to get Spain out of the picture, but Kinzer thinks he was afraid of disqualifying himself from the 1900 presidential campaign by alienating jingoists -- he gave the anti-imperialists their best chance of changing the nation's course at the turn of the century as he insisted on self-government for the Philippines as soon as possible. As Kinzer tells it, the country's course might well have been changed if not for Bryan's ideological stubbornness. Though not a member of the Populist (or People's) party, Bryan embodied first-generation populism for many Americans who voted against him in 1896. He wanted to help farmers get credit and pay debts by increasing the money supply with more silver coins, but that idea outraged gold-standard conservatives who saw it as a recipe for inflation. Kinzer claims that Bryan could have dropped his demand for "free silver" by 1900, because the Klondike gold rush had increased gold reserves and put more money in circulation. The author stresses that the silver issue was a big turnoff for many of the anti-imperialists who might otherwise have voted for Bryan, and argues that the Democrat's insistence on free silver killed both his 1900 campaign and the country's best chance to strangle imperialism in its cradle. Bryan's alienation of anti-imperialist monetary conservatives demonstrates a point Kinzer will emphasize repeatedly in a final chapter taking the debate over imperialism/interventionism to the almost-present day: that debate never has run parallel to the conventional Democrat-Republican or Left-Right fault lines of American politics.

You can find anti-imperialists, anti-interventionists or "isolationists" in both parties and at both extremes, from conservative Republicans like Herbert Hoover and Robert A. Taft to demagogic populist Democrats like Huey Long, who talked of making repentant imperialist Smedley Butler his secretary of war if he became president. This only makes sense, for the motives behind anti-imperialism were as diverse as those behind U.S. expansionism. For some critics, ruling other countries blatantly contradicted this country's founding principles. For humanitarians, American atrocities in the Philippines were as outrageous, if not more so, than Spanish atrocities. For many others, incorporating colored peoples into the American polity to any extent -- see also the annexation of Hawaii in 1898 -- offended racist sensibilities. In our own time, Kinzer notes, you can find anti-interventionists on both the far left, as might be expected, and on the far right among alleged isolationists like Pat Buchanan or fanatic libertarians like Ron Paul, while an interventionist foreign policy seems to be a hallmark of centrism.  The simplest explanation for all this would be that where one stands on imperialism or interventionism is not a matter of ideology. Kinzer himself implies that interventionist impulses don't really rise to the level of ideology because there isn't really much thought involved in them.

We intervene because we see bad situations, not because we have a clear plan to improve them. At moments of crisis or decision, emotion overcomes sober reasoning -- and emotion is always the enemy of wise statesmanship.

The question then becomes whether the interventionist impulse is something incorrigible in the American character, or a particular strain of American character. Let me suggest that Americans go with their gut so often when they see "bad situations" because of their peculiar commitment to individualism. Americanism, as many Americans see it, teaches that each and every human life is precious. Combine that with the hedonist tendency that has only grown stronger since 1898 and the suffering of one person allegedly caused by political oppression becomes intolerable, as does inaction in the face of that suffering. The traditional utilitarian calculus of the greatest good for the greatest number seems cruel and inhumanly unemotional if it seems to acquiesce in -- or, as now seems inconceivable to many, require -- human suffering anywhere. Fortunately, this mentality is countered by a more conservative emotionalism with enough historical consciousness to realize that intervention can do more harm than good, as well as by an attitude defined less by a lack of emotion than a lack of empathy, honestly indifferent to other nations or other people. Their individualism is less empathetic and definitely not hedonist in character; it's not about guaranteeing life, much less comfort, to every person on world or even in your own country. All these attitudes can turn against interventionism, but there still may be a natural limit to the opposition to American interventionism and the related drive for U.S. hegemony. As Kinzer notes, supporters of the taking the Philippines often argued that those who claimed that one people could not rule another or take another's land really had to repudiate the whole American project from Jamestown forward. No critic of imperialism mentioned by Kinzer accepted that premise; instead of giving it all back to the Indians, they preferred a "go and sin no more" attitude. But I don't know if that really answers the implicit question which, put at a more abstract level, asks whether there can be progress without conquest and coercion. Put that way, it may not be so easy to dismiss the past with the promise that we ain't like that no more, since with progress obviously still to be made there's no guarantee that the future won't force the same choices on us.

21 March 2017

What populism is not

Every so often I get a free sample copy of The Progressive Populist in the mail. It's a biweekly tabloid size compendium of opinion pieces and occasional reporting with a mandate to reconcile two contradictory tendencies in American politics and society. Of course, the extent to which "progressive populist" seems like an oxymoron depends on how you define both populism and progressivsim. For instance, they seem contradictory to me because progressivism, as I understand it, expects or requires everyone to change, while populism, tending to blame elites or minorities for everything wrong, assumes that its own kind don't really need to change at all. Other definitions are possible and inevitable, "populism" being perhaps the vaguest term in political discourse. Needless to say, the proprietors of The Progressive Populist resent any description of the Donald Trump movement as "populist," since the President embodies the opposite of anything "progressive populism" may be presumed to stand for. In the sample issue I received, Max B. Sawicky, an economist and blogger, states bluntly that "Right-wingers cannot be populist," and "There is no right populism, only intolerance." There can be no "right populism," Sawicky explains, because "Populism is about replacing the power of elites with democratic governance in the interests of the 99%." He acknowledges that the original Populist movement of the 19th century looks a lot like "right populism" to some observers who "stigmatized [it] as backward, racist, and prone to money crankery." He further acknowledges that "the old populists certainly did not measure up to contemporary standards of multicultural sensitivity," as they were nativist if not also Christianist (Protestant style) in their sentiments. What can be salvaged from that heritage, Sawicky claims, is a populist economic policy presumably antithetical with Republican pro-wealth policies under Trump. He finds it "interesting to note that the forward edge of radical economic thinking in nineteenth century America was upheld by some of the most culturally conservative Americans." But he never explains why that interests him.

Perhaps Sawicky is trying to say that today's xenophobes or nativists might yet be redeemed if only they shared their ancestors' critique of concentrated wealth. He writes that "populism and Republicans really don't mix" because Republicanism always favors the economic elite. Implicitly, the haters could keep on hating, but as long as they also hated the wealthy (or the hard-core capitalists among them) they could still be populists in good standing. Such an analysis would put Sawicky at odds with those who now see intolerance as the essence of Trump-era Republicanism, as well as those whose first priority remains ending intolerance rather than ending elitism. But Sawicky makes a fundamental error about populism that you may have noticed in the previous paragraph. He wrote that populism's goal is "democratic governance in the interests of the 99%." That, I think, is wrong. You can fudge the numbers as you please, but "democratic governance in the interests of the 51%" is probably closer to the truth about populism.

Liberals have always been uncomfortable with the idea of populism because, no matter how they'd like it to progress, populism remains essentially majoritarian. Certain other things have been consistent in American populism, particularly a desire for easy credit and easy payment terms that would make student debt relief the most populist issue of our time in purely economic terms. But populism is probably best seen as the hard edge of democracy, the demand that the majority, however defined, must have its way with as little resistance as possible. Majoritarianism can target both elites and minorities, the seemingly all-powerful and the seemingly powerless, if either seem to thwart the will of the majority. It also pushes against the Constitution's protections on state or individual rights in the name of pure democracy as a first principle of political life. Populism appears more threatening the more it identifies its implicit majority, the people who are The People, as a distinct people in social (i.e. class) or cultural terms, and the more it sees those outside the implicit majority as inherent enemies. Its goal is not a "99%" consensus of the sort Sawicky idealizes, unless that can be achieved, in extreme circumstances, by some great purge. Arguably, if populism is something that has evolved since the 1890s into something distinct from leftism -- the term is useless if populism and leftism are synonymous -- that may be because populists have come to assume that the implicit majority can't be defined entirely in terms of socioeconomic class. If Sawicky is right that "the most culturally conservative Americans" upheld "the forward edge of radical economic thinking" in the Populist heyday, this distinction between populism and leftism may have existed all along. It may also make a lasting alliance between 21st century populism and 21st century progressivism impossible. But Sawicky's historical note definitely should remind us that conventional left-right polarities don't necessarily help us understand what was going on in 1890, or even what is going on today.

20 March 2017

Jacksonian Trumpism

As part of the continuing effort to find fault with President Trump's every thought, Michael Gerson has identified Andrew Jackson as Trump's favorite president, on the evidence of a wreath 45 recently placed on 7's tomb. Gerson presumes that Trump admires Jackson as a macho proto-populist and the scourge of the establishment of his time. For the columnist, Trump represents the worst of the Jacksonian tradition. Old Hickory's reputation has declined since the 1940s, when Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s bestselling The Age of Jackson portrayed Andy as a precursor of the New Deal and its egalitarian vision for America. In its own time Schlesinger's book was criticized for idealizing or whitewashing Jackson, who self-evidently wasn't an egalitarian by 20th or 21st century standards. Since then, Jackson has come under regular criticism, as Gerson notes, for his cruelty toward blacks and bloodthirstiness toward Native Americans. On top of that, Jackson has also been seen as a precursor of the "imperial presidency." Dubbed King Andrew I by his Whig critics, Jackson developed the idea that the President was the unique representative of the American people as a whole, and claimed an equal right to the Supreme Court's to interpret the Constitution. Gerson passes over these finer points of criticism quickly (noting that Jackson "consistently pressed the bounds of executive authority") in his hurry to define Old Hickory as a hater.

Within the lifetimes of people still living, Andrew Jackson has gone from a role model for the Democratic party to a tar baby with which to besmirch Donald Trump by association. Jackson's status as American hero -- he was sometimes known simply as "The Hero" after the Battle of New Orleans -- has fallen to a revolution in national priorities reflected in Gerson's remark that "the dignity and value of people of color" was "the largest issue" of Jackson's own time. A historian may claim that it was the largest moral issue of the whole antebellum epoch, whether political leaders agreed or not, but it self-evidently was not the largest political issue of the Jacksonian era in the minds of its leading players, despite Gerson's efforts to put Jackson's enemies on the right side of history. He sees Trump's supposed choice of favorite President as a "self-indictment," but he arguably distorts Jackson to make him an evil proto-Trump, defined by a seemingly paradoxical populism that is anti-elitist without being egalitarian. For a historian that is presentism par excellence: judging people of the past by the standards of later times. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was no racist; for much of the 20th century he was a liberal of the liberals, from advising JFK to criticizing George W. Bush. It's probably no accident that he became a critic of "political correctness" late in life. It probably had something to do with seeing people repudiate Andrew Jackson instead of recognizing, as Schlesinger did, the progressive role he played for his own time in the democratization of America. Jackson certainly was wrong on many issues touched on barely or not at all by Gerson, but in what most likely really was the largest political issue of his time, this unrepentant slaveholder stared down fellow southerners who claimed a state's right to nullify national trade policy, despite their claims that federal power thus asserted threatened the peculiar institution itself. If President Trump could see that as a model for dealing with the conservative entrenched interests of our time when they go against the common good, we might be better off encouraging him to be more Jacksonian, not less.

16 March 2017

Don't cry for me, Montenegro

By the standard applied to Senator Warren earlier this year Senator McCain ought to have been silenced or reprimanded for his outburst against Senator Paul yesterday. Paul had blocked debate on a treaty admitting the tiny nation of Montenegro into the NATO alliance, and since all he had to do was register an objection, that's all he did. McCain, his fellow Republican, found this cowardly and insulting, and with Paul gone, he insulted the Kentuckian in a cowardly manner, accusing him of working for Vladimir Putin. This morning, on the Morning Joe show, Paul answered in kind, calling the Arizonan "unhinged" and an argument for term limits.His more substantial argument was that he saw no American security interest in extending NATO protection to the former Yugoslav republic. McCain accuses the Russians of backing an attempted coup d'etat there last fall, perpetrated by members of the country's pro-Russian Serb minority. Russia's supposed interest in Montenegro, as far as I can tell, is that a more friendly government might provide Russia with another naval base on the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Montenegro has been described as the 51st state of the Union by critics who contend that its post-communist privatization mainly benefited American businesses. While Rand Paul, as a libertarian of a sort, presumably has no objection to Americans making money abroad, his commitment to their freedom of action stops when it requires military guarantees.On Morning Joe he asserted quite plausibly that few if any Americans would be willing to risk their lives or spend their resources in Montenegro's offense. At least one panelist, however, felt that Paul had overstepped when he said the same thing about Ukraine. Told that some Americans are willing to fight for Ukrainian sovereignty against Russian aggression, Paul replied that he was okay with people volunteering themselves to fight in foreign countries' defense, but he clearly felt that it wasn't the U.S. government's business. From the perspective of McCain and his fellow neocons, Paul is simply following irresponsibly in the "isolationist" footsteps of his father, if not treacherously providing aid and comfort to that existential threat to American liberty, Putin. Paul, however, seems more committed to an "America First" foreign policy than the "America First" president, who as yet has taken no clear stand on the Montenegro question. Paul, at least, has made a decision that American lives count more than Montenegrin liberty, presuming that the latter is even in danger. You might think a believer in American exceptionalism would also believe that American lives are exceptional, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Those exceptionalists who promote a neocon foreign policy seem to believe that American lives are no more important than Montenegrin lives or liberties -- or the liberties of American businessmen there -- but may be sacrificed for all of those. The "America First" camp is probably more likely to think of the American people as exceptional, but they probably also know better than to assume that they're exceptional among nationalists around the world in that respect. There's still arguments to be made for a more egalitarian and universalist regard for humanity, but exceptionalists like McCain aren't making those arguments. They're arguing for American privilege instead.