31 January 2017

Dynamism: the cult of creative destruction

Different people have different reasons for opposing President Trump, and those who see no reason to oppose him are most likely idiots. Within hours of Trump's inaugural address, George Will had declared it the worst such address ever delivered by an American President. I would have thought H. L. Mencken's essay on "Gamalielese," inspired by President Harding's 1921 inaugural, would have settled that category for all time, but Will's judgment reflected more on Trump's content than on its form. The columnist is contemptuous toward Trump's description of closed American factories as "tombstones;" contemptuous, presumably, of the thought that they are or should be mourned.  Trump's presumed mournful tone betrays him as a "faux conservative" who believes that "existing jobs should be protected by policies that reduce the economic dynamism that threatens those jobs." Certain Republicans, like Will and David Brooks, are fond of the word "dynamism," probably because it makes a good euphemism for "creative destruction," a phrase many still find oxymoronic. For free market absolutists, "creative destruction" is synonymous with progress itself, since progress most often takes place, as they see it, through competition likely if not certain to result in the destruction of jobs, if not entire businesses.

Will praises creative destruction, or competitive dynamism, in the retail as well as the manufacturing sector. As a Washington Post writer his employer in recent years has been Jeff Bezos, the Amazon.com mogul whom Will elevates to the pantheon of "constructively disruptive retailers" alongside Sears, Roebuck, Montgomery Ward and Sam "Walmart" Walton.  Approvingly, he quotes a MarketWatch reporter who predicts that Amazon will "destroy more American jobs than China ever did," and he challenges Trump, as well as protectionists right and left, to explain why American workers need protection from China, but not from Amazon. It's a trick question, since Will sees no need for protection in either case. "Domestic protection of Madge [a theoretical diner owner driven out of business by Applebee's] and millions of others unsettled by the constant churning of a dynamic domestic economy would mean slow economic growth," he warns, adding the threat of increasingly intrusive regulation of consumption. "Protection from imports also means this," he adds further.

For Will, a dynamic economy is an indisputable good, but if all it means is constant uncertainty and the perpetual tumult of creative destruction, for whom is it good and how? The obvious answer to the "for whom?" question is the consumer, that abstract being whose right to the lowest prices he can get is no more to be questioned than where he gets the purchasing power to make demands when his job is always in jeopardy. Will seems assured that someone will have the money. He trots out the old fables about buggy makers and buggy whip makers, noting how Henry Ford and his peers destroyed all kinds of jobs, "the holders of which moved on, and usually up." For a conservative, Will has an oddly progressive notion of economic history. Because workers in buggy-related industries found work elsewhere, he presumes that people unemployed by creative destruction will always find work, or that enough will to sustain the consumer economy. If someone had predicted mass impoverishment thanks to the advent of the automobile, they would have been wrong. From this, Will infers that arguments for protection or against creative destruction are always wrong, that there will always be new opportunities when the old ones are destroyed, though whether there will be enough opportunity to make up the losses really doesn't matter to the columnist. In Will's economy you have to expect to move on. Your job security cannot compromise the dynamism of the economy. It is your duty to adapt or ... not. It won't do any good to protest that this dynamism is ungoverned by democracy, that the market was made for man and not man for the market, and that the market is rightly accountable to man, because to Will its ungovernable, unaccountable spontaneity is its defining virtue. No vested interest, no person's job, is more important than that. While admitting that there are times when vested interests, however humble, do stand wrongly in the way of progress, one should be careful not to define "progress" in the dynamic terms of higher profits for some, and lower prices for those who can still afford anything, that market cultists like Will prefer. We should all want a dynamic society, but we should all also insist that creativity not be as destructive as Will thinks necessary. Will himself recently lost a payday when Fox News dropped him as a talking head, but as a celebrity writer with a continuing gig in print I'm sure he'll adapt easily enough. He may take it for granted that everyone else can adapt, but he may yet learn that there are different, perhaps more creative ways of adapting to a destructive economy.

30 January 2017

A thought exercise on travel bans

Ask yourself: how many Americans would be protesting if a President imposed a temporary travel ban on Russians, or required them to be vetted in some new way before they were allowed to enter or stay in the country? My answer is that some would still protest, particularly those critical of Russophobia and fearful of escalating conflict between Russia and the U.S., as well as those deeply committed to the "nation of immigrants" ideal. However, I think the number would be less than what we saw last weekend -- and to update the news from my locality, several hundred people protested at the Albany airport on January 29 -- for the simple reason that it could not be argued that a travel ban against Russians was racist. That's actually a marker of the progress made in this country over the last century. One hundred years ago you could find plenty of Americans who'd argue that Russians or Slavs in general constituted a different, inferior race compared to traditional American stock. Since then, to show the limits of progress, Russians and Slavs have been promoted from inferiority, but only because they're recognized as "white." An ironic consequence of this is that it remains permissible to discuss Russian cultural inferiority to the U.S. or the west, since that discussion no longer carries the taint of racism, however bigoted it may be still. Right now, race clouds all debate over restrictions on Muslim travel or immigration during the ongoing war on terror. Even though Malcolm X famously observed at Mecca that there are many Muslims "whose eyes were the bluest of the blue, whose hair was the blondest of the blond, and who skin was the whitest of the white," the limited ban imposed by the President focuses mostly on lands (arguably excepting Iran) of darker-skinned people, as those happen to be centers of conflict and terrorism. The ban doesn't cover Pakistan or Bangladesh, where many Muslims are darker still, but the superficial evidence is still enough to convince many dissident Americans that this is just Whitey up to his old tricks again. They may recall how much more selective restrictions and internment of German-Americans and Italian-Americans was during World War II compared to the treatment of Japanese-Americans and assume that racism rather than national security was the real motivation then as now. Their underlying assumption is that Islamophobia is essentially racist, by virtue of the accidents of history that have limited the numbers of white Muslims worldwide. I suppose that's the price this country pays for its heritage of genuine bigotry: to warn against the dangers of immigration in the 21st century is to be the boy who cried wolf, whether the wolf is there this time, as many believe, or isn't again, as many others assume.

Another reason why you'd still see people protesting a Russian ban, of course, is that any such policy, whoever it targets, violates widely held notions of human rights on the individual level often accompanied by hostility to the concept of collective responsibility. On this issue proponents and opponents of restrictions are using two different languages, or two different modes of thought. Opponents of restrictions appeal to a logic according to which it's fallacious to treat all in group X as threats to the country because some in that group have attacked the country. Such a course also violates one of their most strongly held ideas, which is that individuals are innocent until proven guilty. Proponents appeal to probability and ask, "Why take chances?" or, more forcefully, "Why take chances with American lives?" They do not wish to wait for the guilty to produce evidence against themselves, since -- and it's hard not to sound like a neocon here -- such evidence may take the form of smoke clouds and pools of blood. They confront the individualist with an uncomfortable choice of priorities, as he often values individuality above nationality and often resents appeals to solidarity with people (e.g. cervix rufus Americanus) whose values or customs he deems unworthy of his empathy. But however unworthy they may be morally or intellectually, they remain his fellow citizens and patriotism unavoidably points toward a duty to protect them. Whether that duty is fulfilled effectively by acquiescence to travel bans or further restrictions may still be debated, but protesters are in error if they think there is no need for debate at all on this subject.

29 January 2017

Media, you're fired!...aren't you?

Kellyanne Conway, one of the President's senior advisers, believes that the media was wrong about Donald Trump, given that he won the late election, and that there should be consequences for being wrong.

Who is cleaning house? Which one is going to be the first network to get rid of these people — the people who think things were just not true, it happened last week. I went on three network shows and spoke for 35 minutes on three network Sunday shows. You know what got picked? The fact that I said ‘alternative facts,’ not the fact that I ripped a new one to some of those hosts that they never cover the facts that matter....Not one network person has been let go. Not one silly political analyst and pundit who talked smack all day long about Donald Trump has been let go. They are panels every Sunday, they are on cable news every day. Who is the first editorial writer? Who is the first blogger that will be left out, that embarrassed him at outlets? I’m too polite to mention their names, but they know who they are, and they are all wondering who will be the first to go. The election was three months ago. None of them have been let go.If the mainstream media were a thriving private sector business that actually turned a profit, which is not true of many newspapers, 20 percent of the people would be gone.

This is the latest disturbing comment from Trump's inner circle indicating that they really have a Putinesque notion of the media's role in public life. They didn't learn it from Putin, of course, because Putin didn't invent any of those ideas, but those ideas are identified with him right at the moment so the comparison remains apt. The idea seems to be that the news media's business is to relate that the President did this, the President said that, and nothing else. The media should not have opinions about politics, and before you're tempted to nod your head bear in mind that Conway isn't referring specifically to reporters or newsreaders. She's talking about programs or segments dedicated to analysis and opinion, and saying that critics of Trump who appear on those should be fired. Why? Because they don't reflect public opinion -- which Conway, presumably, identifies with the consensus of states in the Electoral College rather than the actual number of people voting last November? That's not how the news media work, or how they should work. She seems to think the President is owed some deference to which he has never been entitled in the United States, and that the corporate media has some obligation to trim its sails to the changing political winds as a service to their viewers or readers. Conway claims to believe in a "full and fair" press but complains against "incomplete coverage" that gives inadequate emphasis, by her measure, to the new President's accomplishments. The President of the United States is a powerful man, but neither he nor his minions get to define what "complete" is. So long as the news media are privately held, they owe the President nothing, and the fact that Conway and others like Steve Bannon think the media do owe their master something is far more alarming to me than anything Trump is doing to foreigners trying to enter the country. Let's hope people who agree with Trump on the latter don't give him a pass on the former.

28 January 2017

A lone protest

Last week 7,000 people "inaugurated resistance" to the Trump administration in Albany NY. The President's new policy on refugees would seem to be just the thing those people meant to resist, but spontaneity may be in short supply among them. The one sign of protest I saw in an admittedly limited survey of Albany on an admittedly colder day was this man standing at a corner of Lark Street and Madison Avenue. Perhaps others gathered elsewhere, but I'll have to watch the local news to find out. This fellow told me he'd been standing there for about an hour when I asked to take his picture. Because it's a busy intersection, people occasionally bring signs there. On Election Day, an older gentleman was on the opposite corner holding a "Fight Racism" sign. Such gestures seem futile, but there's an indisputable courage in those who stand alone at such times, when protest isn't a carnival but a lonely vigil, when it's the thing to do not because publicity says so, but because your own conscience does.

26 January 2017

Wall of words

The U.S. -Mexico summit scheduled for next week has been cancelled, the countries' presidents instead agreeing to disagree, for now, on whether Mexico should contribute to the cost of the wall planned by the new U.S. administration for the countries' shared border. Recent days' developments have many Americans wringing their hands and rolling their eyes, but for the President of the United States, no doubt, it's all part of the negotiation. Whether he can win while negotiating with statesmen rather than businessmen remains to be seen. There's a certain "you want it, you pay for it" logic to the Mexican position, while Trump's options are either raw intimidation or an attempt to prove that Mexico has a responsibility to contribute some or (as he apparently prefers) all the costs of construction. The question now isn't whether a wall will or even ought to be built; like it or not, the late presidential election has settled the question, so long as the President is understood to have sufficient power through executive orders to command it, until another raises the question of tearing the wall down. The question is whether Mexico can be made to pay, whether an obligation can be proved or not. Or at least I thought that was the question, until I read a few minutes ago that the President's press secretary had announced a plan to fund the wall by imposing a 20% tariff on imports from Mexico. That sounds suspiciously like Trump has decided that the American consumer should pay for the wall. Of course, the American consumer could simply decide not to buy Mexican, but then how does the wall get built in the event of continued Mexican obdurance? Well, how does Trump propose to upgrade his country's infrastructure while cutting taxes? It had already been suggested that the U.S. would borrow money to build the wall pending an agreement with Mexico. If having the wall is the priority, paying for it becomes a question for another time. Such a conclusion may disappoint those deficit hawks for whom President Obama's deficits were an argument for Trump, but they have only themselves to blame by electing a Republican who'll most likely perpetuate the Republican preference. as practiced by Reagan and George W. Bush, for borrowing over taxation, i.e. taking the easy way out of the situation. But who knows? Maybe Trump's real idea is to float these proposals in order to inflame public opinion against Mexico as the cause of consumers or taxpayers' pain. But what public opinion can do about Mexico, or what the President can do, remains unclear. For now, the Mexicans understandably take an "Or else what?" stance, but to the extent that they regard the wall itself, regardless of who pays for it, as an affront, they have less cause for complaint, if only because a sovereign nation can do whatever its rulers please with its side of a border. Would Trump complain if the Mexicans built a wall? Of course not; that would save his country money! Meanwhile, Americans can question the propriety of building a wall or the motives for building it, but you can't really question the right to build it. And at this moment in history the argument that a border wall is somehow morally wrong is most likely a losing one.

25 January 2017

David Brooks: 'The central threat is not patriarchy'

David Brooks, whom I usually describe as a house conservative at the New York Times, may actually be one of the more impartial observers of politics right now. He deplores both President Trump's inaugural address and the following day's marches in opposition to Trump. Brooks deals with the President quickly in his latest column; Trump's address "offered a zero-sum, ethnically pure, backward-looking brutalistic nationalism." Unfortunately, according to Brooks, the Jan. 21 women's marches did not represent a viable opposition to Trump, for the simple reason that they were defined and constrained by "identity politics" as women's marches, presumably, inevitably must be. Identity politics, and gender politics in particular, are "too small for this moment." In the face of Trump's alleged exclusivism, Saturday's marchers failed to be inclusive.

Identity-based political movements always seem to descend into internal rivalries about who is most oppressed and who should get pride of place. Sure enough, the controversy before and after the march was over the various roles of white feminists, women of color, anti-abortion feminists and various other out-groups.The biggest problem with identity politics is that its categories don’t explain what is going on now... The central challenge today is not how to celebrate difference. The central threat is not the patriarchy. The central challenge is to rebind a functioning polity and to modernize a binding American idea.

Brooks's criticism will baffle marchers and sympathizers who no doubt see themselves as the most authentic and honorable American patriots, according to their own idea of what the nation stands for. Follow the link to Brooks' column and you can gauge their bafflement in the comments thread. Many Americans actually do feel that "the patriarchy" (see also "the redneck") as embodied by the predatory old man who now leads the nation, is the central threat to both national well-being and their own standing as equal citizens. It'll be hard work convincing people to lay off the patriarchy if they remain convinced that the patriarchs see them as second-class citizens, mere breeding machines, etc.

For all that, Brooks has an important point. For all that Trump is thought to be a narcissist, the marchers appear equally narcissistic insofar as their main concern is the threat that Trump is thought to represent to themselves and those with whom they choose to sympathize. What you hear constantly is that Trump and the Republicans are a threat to this, that, and another specific group of people, but what are those groups saying to the rest of the American people, who  may also be threatened by Trumpism, but in less immediately personal ways than those that concern the marchers? Brooks fears that the marchers really are saying nothing to anyone else except "Respect me!" He would have preferred "a red, white and blue alternative patriotism, a modern, forward-looking patriotism based on pluralism, dynamism, growth, racial and gender equality and global engagement."

For all that he apparently despises Trump, Brooks sees that he appeals successfully to "a true and fervent love of our home." The marchers certainly will say that they love their "home" as well, though they may mean "the planet" or "humanity," but Brooks's perception, at least, is that they really only love themselves. If they really want to stop Trump, they need "a better nationalism, with diversity cohering around a central mission, building a nation that balances the dynamism of capitalism with biblical morality." Brooks probably lost most of his Times audience with "capitalism" and "biblical," but one hopes they caught the bit about the "central mission [of] building a nation" before then. As Trump appears poised to sacrifice the environment and who knows what else to his own rebuilding effort, true progressives should have had an alternative rebuilding plan ready long ago. It may be unfair to criticize the Jan. 21 marchers for not articulating that vision adequately, since it's their prerogative to emphasize the specific threats to themselves  they perceive, but until we have marches of equal size calling for more jobs while preserving the environment, workers' health, and so on, those marchers are the only mass opposition we can see -- and they're not enough.

24 January 2017

Tripartite America?

Many ideologically conservative newspaper columnists continue to keep their distance from President Trump. In my newspaper, for instance, Cal Thomas is the only consistently pro-Trump writer (after opposing him for much of last year) you'll see during the week. In sharp contrast, George Will called the President's speech last Friday the worst inaugural address in American history. Jonah Goldberg deems it a "mixed bag" stylistically but "simply not a conservative speech and ...barely a Republican one." In his column, possibly without intending it, Goldberg offers an explanation for that discrepancy by dividing political opinion in the U.S. into three rather than two parts.

To the extent that Trump's speech was "a corrective to Obama's globalism," Goldberg enjoyed it. There was a limit to his enjoyment, however, since the speech ultimately was an "overreaction."

Forget the historical connotations of 'America First' (most people listening don't know them), this speech made no serious nod to American exceptionalism. He may use the word 'patriotism,' but what he means is nationalism. He may use the word 'winning,' but he means glory.

"Glory" however Goldberg understands it, is not a good thing in the context of a "nationalism" he opposes to "exceptionalism." The columnist has casually sketched an ideological axis with "globalism" and "nationalism" plotted at opposite poles and "exceptionalism," presumably, in the vital center. Goldberg sees Obamic globalism and Trumpian nationalism alike as betrayals of an exceptionalism he identifies with Republican conservative ideals of limited government and individual liberty. Globalists like Obama, he fears, will betray these principles -- to Goldberg the very ones that entitle the U.S. to exceptional influence in world affairs -- to accommodate other countries, while nationalists like Trump, Goldberg suspects, will sacrifice them for competitive advantage against other countries -- or to accommodate them, depending on how Goldberg feels about Russia.

Trump's inaugural had "one passing reference to freedom," the columnist notes, "but even that was couched in a nationalistic appeal to unity." He means the sentence in which the President said, "We all enjoy the same glorious freedoms and we all salute the great American flag." At first glance that would seem to be one of the least objectionable parts of Trump's speech, yet Goldberg implicitly objects, as if a "nationalistic appeal to unity" compromises the nation's exceptional liberties in some manner unclear to those uninitiated into the ideological mysteries.

Ideologues naturally imagine themselves occupying the center of any intellectual continuum, so that dissidents are extremists by virtue of proximity to the poles mapped out by the ideologue. But what if it's Trump and not Goldberg who occupies the center, so that the President's reputed nationalism contrasts with the opposite extremes of an allegedly submissive globalism based on an indiscriminate equality of nations, to the left, and, to the right, an aggressive exceptionalism that paradoxically claims for the land of limited government an entitlement to dominate the world. This orientation will seem more plausible to most observers, I'd bet, than one that implicitly deems it extremist to say, as Trump did, that "Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families." Goldberg cites that sentence as if it's part of the problem with Trump. I wonder whether he can defend that implication without sounding like an extremist himself.

23 January 2017

Make socialism credible again

Flag-waving socialists -- red flags, that is, showed up at last Saturday's anti-Trump rally in Albany NY, as they almost certainly did at rallies across the country that day. One of them handed me a little brochure entitled "Socialist Party USA: Who We Are, Where We Stand."  It's a primitive looking document in a way that might reinforce notions of socialist obsolescence. While it includes a link to a Facebook page (look under "CapitalDistrictSocialistParty") and an email address (their website, by the way is socialistparty-usa,net), from the names of politicians cited, or the absence of more recently famous names, the main might have been written in the last century. That alone doesn't make the Socialists irrelevant, though they seem terribly close to that. Unlike some other leftist parties, it did run a presidential ticket last  year, but the heirs of Eugene Debs won barely 2,700 votes in the two states where it made the ballot, as well as Guam. Its candidates had previously run for a seat in the California state assembly and for sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. In the latter case, the 2016 vice-presidential candidate actually won 21% of the vote. But you've never heard of these people and they have few ways to get you to know them. Most likely they depend on self-converted socialists discovering their party -- but what will they find there?

"Socialists believe that the problems facing America and the world, such as environmental despoilation, the systematic waste of public resources for private profit, persistent unemployment concentrated among women and racial minorities, and the maldistribution of wealth, power, and income, are not mere aberrations of the capitalist system -- they are the capitalist system," the brochure explains, "We believe that the use of profitability as the overriding criterion for the production and distribution of goods and services usually leads to decisions which harm the public welfare....Socialists feel that unless at least the 'commanding heights of the economy' are socially owned and democratically controlled, those corporations will use their enormous political and economic clout to circumvent and block political democracy."

Socialists may "differ on details" but the "many different points of view within the Socialist party ... are in agreement with these basic points of democratic socialism." Socialists (or at least these Socialists) see themselves (in an outdated Cold War way) as a "third force" opposed to "all forms of minority rule, whether capitalist, fascist or 'Communist.'" They implicitly differentiate themselves from Marxist-Leninists through their commitment to civil liberties, which they claim can be only "imperfectly" applied under capitalism. The ultimate test of their commitment to civil liberty, of course, would be whether they believe people can say no to Socialism and keep saying no after Socialists win elections.

Moving past the economy, there's a possible inconsistency in their positions on other issues. In time-honored fashion, the SPUSA contends that "it is only by abolishing the root economic causes or war that war will finally be ended." Whether this is inconsistent with other positions they take depends on whether they consider the "root economics causes" of war to be necessary and sufficient. Reading further, we learn that capitalism isn't to blame, and economics can't explain, everything bad. For instance, "The Socialist Party recognizes that the oppression of women pre-dates capitalism and so will not automatically be ended by the transition to democratic socialism." Likewise, in explaining its support for "independent organization by people of color to fight oppression," the SPUSA asserts that "Racism will not be eliminated merely be eliminating capitalism." Where I find a possible inconsistency is in the Socialists' allowance for a motive for chauvinistic domination and oppression independent of capitalist profit motives. If capitalism is not the root cause or racism and sexism, what makes it the root cause of war? If the desire to dominate and discriminate exists independently of capitalism, how sure can Socialists be that abolishing capitalism will abolish war? They trust that "working people around the world have more in common with each other than with their national rulers," but in our time they'll need to do more to address nationalist or "populist" skepticism on that point.

Looking back at the late election, the SPUSA website has nothing good to say about President Trump, of course, but nothing good to say about his main opponent, either.

The election of Donald Trump signals the beginning of a new and dangerous chapter in United States history....This is not to say that Hillary Clinton was a suitable option. We recognize that electing the first woman to the presidency is an important and long-overdue milestone for the United States, but it is incredibly disheartening that the first woman president would have stood in support of the status quo radical feminists have fought so hard to dismantle. Having a woman hold the highest office of government is a hollow victory if that woman perpetuates the systemic oppression that cemented women’s status as second class citizens in the first place....No legitimate socialist or socialist organization would give support to such a person without betraying everything that socialism stands for.

The SPUSA doesn't advocate complete separation from the political establishment. "Most Socialists are deeply involved in other, larger movements," the brochure claims, "and it is from those movements that many new Socialist Party members are recruited....Socialists can be found in the consumers' movement, in the labor movement, in the feminist movement, in the disarmament and peace movements [etc.]" While working "to promote the immediate aims of those movements" Socialists should try to "push those reforms an extra mile" and persuade colleagues that "for their goals to be fully achieved requires fundamental change." All well and good, but in our time some people may be asking whether we need more fundamental change than Socialists are offering. Socialism's future depends on whether socialists recognize this, and how they respond to the question.

21 January 2017

THINK 3 VIDEO NEWS: Albany inaugurates resistance to Trump

The day after Donald Trump took the oath of office, an estimated 7,000 people thronged West Capitol Park in Albany for an "Inaugurate Resitance" rally coinciding with the "Million Women March" in Washington and demonstrations across the country. Following an afternoon of workshops preparing participants for a promised "100 Days of Resistance," demonstrators marched along Washington Avenue to the capitol at 4 p.m. I arrived there at approximately 4:15 p.m. There was already a good crowd on the capitol grounds proper, and many more were coming in.


Later, I made my way into the park and shot this panoramic footage of the crowd reacting to one of the speeches.

The loneliest (or bravest) man in Albany today was a sole Trump supporter who attempted to remonstrate with demonstrators. When I arrived he was telling a woman with a "Love Trumps Hate" sign that Trump didn't hate anybody, the proof of that being his appointment of Dr. Carson to his Cabinet. After filming the march on Washington Ave., I returned to Swan Street to find him arguing with some other people. He has just told a woman that protesters should get jobs instead of collecting Welfare at the Social Services office up the street as the video begins.

I think the 7,000 estimate was a good one. It was the biggest political crowd I'd seen in Albany since the day Trump and Bernie Sanders were both in town, and part of the problem that led to this rally taking the place is that you never saw such a crowd come out for Hillary Clinton during the campaign. That's perfectly understandable given Hillary Clinton, but if today teaches us anything it's that it's much easier in this country to be against something (or someone) than for something. If anything, Americans may be more culturally inclined to opposition than affirmation, since only by opposing the powers that be can you prove to yourself that you're free. That's why I can't agree with they hysterics who see Trump as the coming of American fascism, since fascism requires a commitment to affirmation that few Americans care to make. It's more likely that Trump will go the way of George W. Bush, who started out beloved for his folksy common-man quality but left office largely despised. Of course, I'm one of those people who doubted whether Trump could ever become President, so don't take my word for any of this -- but don't panic, either.

Here are some random bonus photos of the demonstration.

 Some of the signs reflected the fundamentally feminist nature of the event.

Not all participants were strictly feminist.

Turnabout is fair play in this marcher's opinion

Give the President a few years, based on past practice,
 and he probably will fulfill these folks' demand.

Here's our heckler moments before I started recording him.

Finally, I would have loved to see the heckler take on these guys, 
but by this point I think he had left. And that's probably 
the only time I could use "left" to describe him.

20 January 2017

Now we know who to blame if we're attacked

From President Trump's inaugural address:
There should be no fear. We are protected and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.

That "most importantly" is the part that really (i.e. figuratively) kills me. Is it just because I'm a non-believer, or does it seem to you, also, that the President is unwittingly denigrating the military and police of the country? You guys are great, you know, but God has our back. He has our back now as he apparently hadn't from 2001 until now. But I guess this means, just as it did to Revs. Falwell and Robertson back in 2001, that it'll be on God if we get attacked -- which is to say, of course, that it'll be on all the sinners out there rather than the national security screw-ups. Don't blame Trump, in other words; it will have been God's will, and others' fault.

The rest of the speech -- I read rather than heard it -- seems fairly forceful in its declaration of opposition to an establishment that has benefited while ordinary Americans have suffered in recent times and its assertion of an "America First" policy across the board. If Trump has a blind spot it's his identification of Washington D.C. as the center of this establishment, as if the politicians were primarily to blame for jobs leaving the country. Mr. Businessman should know better.

I'm not sure what he can say to make his critics feel that he means them when he promises that all Americans will benefit from his policies. Trump says that "When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice," but I'm not sure that'll convince people who perceive the most prejudiced people also to be the most self-consciously superpatriotic. It'll more likely appeal to people who'll think he's addressing those who are insufficiently patriotic and thus prejudiced against whites.

The one thing that surprised me is that, while he mentioned protecting the borders a few times Trump didn't mention "the wall" specifically. I don't think that means he isn't planning it, but the omission surprises me because I expected something more "in your face" in keeping with the rest of the address. The "America First" stuff will have people talking and writing all weekend because the term still has obnoxious connotations dating back to before Pearl Harbor for some folks, but in 2017 it boils down to what Trump said elsewhere in the speech: "it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first." Let's see how that plays out in practice.

On an artistic note, you really can tell which parts were written by others and which are probably his. For instance, I think a speechwriter gave him this one:

And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the wind-swept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they will their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator.

While this --

America will start winning again, winning like never before.

 -- is inimitably authentic.

The progressivism of fools

Someone once called anti-Semitism "the socialism of fools," meaning that blaming Jews for socioeconomic problems was going after the wrong target. In the 21st century United States, where the inauguration of the new president has been marred to a probably unprecedented degree by fighting and protesting, most people feel that socialism is the socialism of fools, so let's say that hatred of the redneck is the progressivism of fools in our time. This is something different than hatred of white people, as many whites indulge in this hatred, though rednecks themselves probably see such people as self-hating whites. In at least one sense the stereotypical redneck is not unlike the anti-Semites' stereotypical Jew. Rednecks are presumed to see themselves (i.e., "white people" rather than "rednecks") as a people apart, and are presumed to hold themselves apart contemptuously from the rest of humanity, so that whatever cultural gifts they possess become tools for the oppression of everyone else. History's greatest hypocrites, they are always presumed to desire the subjugation of those who aren't like them or those, like progressive whites, who don't like them. When they appear to hold political power, as they do now by casting decisive votes for Donald Trump in crucial states, the equal standing of all other people appears endangered. Many Americans really believe that President Trump -- he has just taken the oath of office as I write -- and his supporters want to reduce blacks, Hispanics, women, homosexuals, etc. to second-class citizenship, or worse, and when there is no documentary evidence justifying such fear it is assumed that rednecks look upon the rest of us as second-class citizens anyway. Why should they do so? For the basest reasons: they don't like the way others look, talk, dress, pray, etc., without regard for the substance of these differences. Rednecks are presumed to despise difference itself, and if they attempt to advance reasons for their dislikes those are dismissed as rationalizations of their atavistic knee-jerk hatred of the Other.

The redneck has been with us for a long time, of course. H. L. Mencken described him back in the 1920s to the amusement of sophisticated and sophomoric readers alike. Back then the redneck was a joke, to put the best face on an embarrassment, but now that non-whites and women are serious contestants for power, few find him funny today. From the way people have behaved since November, a lot of them want to fight rednecks, while the rednecks themselves, the supposed lumpenproletariat and foot soldiers of neo-fascism, have done very little to contest the streets so far. Maybe that should tip people off that these working-class whites aren't exactly what others fear them to be, that they may have had reasons of their own to vote for Trump that had nothing to do with subjugating or humiliating others. They may not have been good reasons, but maybe they aren't the sort of bad reasons many assume. But there's no sign yet that the opposition realizes this, but if they fail to imagine the next crusade against Trump as anything other than a crusade against stereotyped bigotry, a battle with the redneck bogeyman, then their next crusade will most likely fail unless Trump himself fails so badly that progressives can win in spite of themselves -- and in that case victory probably will prove short-lived. I don't deny that rednecks in the worst sense of the term exist, and I don't mean to say that progressives should stop advocating for equality. But as I've said since November, if you have no other argument to make to the white working class than "Stop being bigots!" you won't stop anything anytime soon. It should not be so hard to come up with better arguments given Trump and his Cabinet, but given how political thinking has deteriorated across the ideological spectrum in this country it can't be taken for granted that we'll come up with something. It's early yet, however, and I'm open to suggestions.

19 January 2017

The perfect dictator

The Gambia is being invaded by a coalition of its neighbors, with the apparent approval of the United Nations Security Council, in a sign that Yahya Jammeh, who once hobnobbed with Presidents, has no more friends in the world. Jammeh took power in a coup d'etat back in 1994 but has submitted to elections since then. He squeaked through with 53% of the vote back in 2001 but won later votes by margins that would have seemed suspiciously larger if not for the outcome of last month's election, in which he won less than 40% of the vote. Despite initially conceding defeat, Jammeh has since called the result into question and has had a state of emergency declared. The president-elect, who won with a plurality in a three-man race, fled to Senegal, where he was inaugurated today according to the original schedule. As I read into the matter more, it looks like Jammeh has merely been stalling in the hope of negotiating an immunity deal. He doesn't seem to be one of the great monsters of African politics, but just the typical "big man" with policies and opinions that appear eccentric if not (in some cases) bigoted by western standards. I call him "the perfect dictator" since his fate seems to be playing out like liberals globalists' wildest dreams, with the international community apparently united in reprisal against a ruler who refuses to accept the outcome of an election. I can't find anyone defending Jammeh. No one defends his sovereignty against alleged western or globalist puppet masters, or claims that the election was rigged in favor of his opponent by sinister forces. Not even the usual defenders of sovereignty at all costs, Russia and China, are sticking up for him. This can mean one of two things. Either Jammeh somehow has made himself so odious that no one will take his side, or else The Gambia has nothing in which anyone has bothered taking a stake that would associate them with the president. Since it is one of Africa's smallest countries, with an economy based largely on agriculture, re-export and tourism, it's more likely that, for once, a country will benefit from no great power really giving a damn about it. The lesson, then, would seem to be that if you want to be a dictator -- or president-for-life, or whatever Jammeh had in mind, -- you had better have something to sell if not something with which to threaten the world, or else the world will turn against you eventually.

18 January 2017

Lies, damned lies and Donald Trump

In his latest screed against Donald Trump and the American news media -- proving that you don't have to take a side for one or the other -- Eric Alterman writes: "American journalists simply don’t know how to report on a president who is also a compulsive liar." The cynic in me is tempted to doubt this, since many of them have had decades of experience. But that wouldn't satisfy Alterman, the Nation columnist who every few weeks blames the media for failing to denounce Trump or the Republican party with sufficient rigor. For years he's gone against the grain by denouncing the media for cowardice rather than bias. He believes that the media has been intimidated by constant Republican whining about bias, but has also succumbed to a cynical, incorrect belief that "both sides do it" that blinds them to the unique evils embodied by the Republican party, and the still worse evils embodied by the President-elect. Varying his theme, Alterman claims that reporters "have no experience covering an American president who doesn’t even pretend to care about truth." He goes on to make slightly more sense for a moment:

Mainstream journalists are used to collaborating with politicians to tell the truth a little bit at a time. Lies are accepted when they fit the master narrative, but they need to hover within an acceptable range of plausibility. At the very least, they require the pretense of evidence, however specious it might be.

But again, Trump is alleged to be unique in his disregard for the truth and freedom of the press. The media have an imperative duty, Alterman insists, to call Trump a liar, and it infuriates him to hear an editor say that you “run the risk that you look like…you’re not being objective” by calling any politician a liar -- on the news broadcast, presumably, rather than in an opinion piece. What the editor meant, I hope, is that you would not look objective if you focused on  one politician's lies while ignoring those of other politicians. I don't think Alterman wants us to ignore Democratic lies, but he clearly doesn't see them -- whichever statements he considers lies -- in the same category as Republican or Trumpian lies. Alterman plays by "If you're not against him, you're for him" rules, the only ones that allow him to see Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC as "unpaid advisers-cum-supplicants to Trump." But if lies themselves are the problem then all lies should be exposed and denounced equally, and then what time would you have for the rest of the news? I suspect, however, that even for Eric Alterman some lies count more than others, and in his case the standard for weighing the wickedness of lies is certainly as ideological and partisan as anyone else's. I'd be all for a daily survey of proven lies by politicians without regard for party, and a quantitative test of Alterman's assumption that Democrats lie less than Republicans. But if it's the news media's job to show someone like Trump unfit for office, as I assume Alterman wants, it's also their responsibility to show whether the opposition is fit for office rather than declare them entitled by default, as I assume Alterman also wants. If it's the media's job to educate the American people, that might also mean a lot more than Alterman really wants. 

17 January 2017

Lenin is dead; Orwell is alive

From Davos, after President Xi Jinping's speech to the World Economic Forum:

Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt noted that a century ago, Russian Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin was plotting world revolution in Zurich, a couple of hours' train ride from Davos.
"And now, 100 years later we have the leader of the largest communist party in the world coming to the leading meeting of global capitalists to preach the virtues of globalization....Lenin is dead."

From  Anthony Scaramucci, the President-elect's man in Davos:

"[W]e want to have a phenomenal relationship with the Chinese....But if the Chinese really believe in globalism, and they really believe in the words of Lincoln, they have to reach now towards us and allow us to create this symmetry, because the path to globalism in the world is through the American worker and the American middle class."

From Animal Farm (1944):

There was the same hearty cheering as before, and the mugs were emptied to the dregs. But as the animals outside gazed at the scene, it seemed to them that some strange thing was happening. What was it that had altered in the faces of the pigs? Clover's old dim eyes flitted from one face to another. Some of them had five chins, some had four, some had three. But what was it that seemed to be melting and changing? Then, the applause having come to an end, the company took up their cards and continued the game that had been interrupted, and the animals crept silently away.
But they had not gone twenty yards when they stopped short. An uproar of voices was coming from the farmhouse. They rushed back and looked through the window again. Yes, a violent quarrel was in progress. There were shoutings, bangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious denials. The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and Mr. Pilkington had each played an ace of spades simultaneously.
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

In other news, Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia, but if the new administration has its way, it may turn out that we have always been at war with Eastasia....

16 January 2017

Icon vs. Iconoclast

On this year's Martin Luther King holiday the big story for many people is one of King's last surviving colleagues, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. A leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee before it went radical, Lewis was one of the first Freedom Riders, spoke during the March on Washington, and got his skull cracked at Selma. This, I suppose, is why people got angry when the President-elect said that Lewis was "all talk." The President-elect was angry because Lewis had announced that he would boycott Friday's inaugural exercises, since he did not consider Donald Trump a "legitimate" president due to presumed Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign. Naturally Trump lashed out, apparently making a knee-jerk assumption that Lewis's congressional district was crime-ridden and that the congressman should attend to that instead of questioning Trump's credentials. Sociologists and statisticians can tell us whether that was a fair hit, but the indisputable thing is Trump's right to answer in kind. Lewis's place in history, is indisputable, however highly you rate it, but that shouldn't stop Americans from asking what he has done for us lately. He has been a congressman for thirty years -- and his views on some issues (e.g. trade, Iraq) aren't so different from Trump's -- but from what I can tell from Wikipedia his major legislative accomplishment was to secure funding for the national museum of African-American culture that opened in Washington D.C. last year. It should not be ruled out of bounds to dismiss Rep. Lewis as a partisan hack, regardless of his valiant deeds of fifty years ago. No one in the political arena is above politics or above criticism -- and for Trump, of course, no one is above or beneath criticism.

The Lewis controversy suggests a sad answer to the annual "What if Dr. King were alive today?" question: an 88 year old King might well be in a Twitter war of his own against Trump, though perhaps not on the same pretext, unless you suppose that his remaining alive would have so altered history that there never would have been a President Trump.  One might at least hope that King, unlike Lewis an adult during the McCarthy era, would refrain from the paranoid rhetoric or the conspiracy theories Lewis has apparently embraced. A critic of the Cold War, King presumably was not as Russophobic as today's liberal establishment. Today's Russophobia, however, isn't just about a traditional identification of Russia with illiberal government. For many Democrats, it's a rather desperate attempt to refute Trump's populist credentials. How can he claim to represent the "real" American people, presuming that any Americans are entitled to that adjective, when he's the dupe if not the willing agent of a foreign power historically antithetical to American values? Better still, if Trump's fans are indifferent to the Russia question, or if they share Trump's apparent admiration for the "strong leader" Vladimir Putin, how can they claim to be real Americans or question the authenticity of anyone else? It actually wouldn't surprise me if some people sought a racial explanation to tie everything together. Why is Trump so eager to be friends with the authoritarian Putin yet eager for confrontation with the authoritarian Chinese? The correct answer certainly has something to do with the comparative threat each country presents to the American economy, but it wouldn't surprise me if some Americans thought it came down to Putin being a white man. That wouldn't be entirely false, either; there's some racial geopolitics implicit in the wishful thinking of the current National Enquirer, virtually the Pravda of Trumpism, which predicts a Trump-Putin alliance against China (ha!), North Korea (ha ha!) and Iran (hahahahaha!). But that's the Trump of some sucker's fantasy, not the man himself, just as the Russophile puppet, compromised by damning documents and business ties, is a paranoid fantasy.

For at least a century now, Russia has been useful to different factions of Americans as an antithesis of America, and enmity to Russia has often been a test of Americanism. It might sadden us but it shouldn't surprise us to see black politicians, whom we might assume reluctant to question other people's Americanism, doing just that when it serves partisan ends or simply softens the blow of a painful defeat. Martin Luther King probably saw no nationality as the enemy. If so, for Lewis to indulge in Russophobic conspiracymongering, whether cynically or sincerely, is a betrayal of King's and his own legacy.

11 January 2017

Nazi tactics?

It was an interesting choice of words from the President-elect to characterize the newest sleaze campaign against him. Given the context -- as ever, the allegation is that Donald Trump has a compromised or compromising relationship with Russia -- the right term might have been McCarthyism, but Trump is probably wise not to use that term, since many of his older constituents probably believe that McCarthy was right all along. The irony is that "Nazi tactics" is exactly what you'd expect a Russian or a Russophile to say, since they tend to see anyone who hates Russia as a Nazi. This latest round reinforces our impression of the bipartisan nature of both Trumpophobia and Russophobia, since the dirty dossier was, as I understand it, initiated for use against Trump during the Republican primaries, then was passed on, or at least offered, to the Democrats, and was more recently passed on to the FBI by Senator McCain, who reportedly made no judgment on the actual claims made but was impressed by the sources. Get ready for up to four more years of this. The hunt for smoking guns proving corrupt ties between Trump and Russia will be unrelenting, because American Russophobes believe even the desire for better, less judgmental relations with Vladimir Putin to be corrupt. The role of Republican neocons in whipping up the hunt makes clear that this is more than a matter of partisan sour grapes among Democrats. And you don't have to be some naive or, alternately, heartless character to recognize something irrational in this fear of Putin in particular, if not Russia in general, among the American political establishment. I don't doubt that Putin is a corrupt bully whom Russian liberals and East Europeans have every right to hate, but he is self-evidently not the same sort of threat to the United States that he is to those unfortunate groups, and American diplomats should not treat him as such. I wonder, presuming that McCarthyism circa 1950 reflected an American fear that communism was catching on not only around the world but at home as well, whether 21st century Russophobia, focused on Trump as a Russian stooge, reflects a current fear that "authoritarianism" is catching on at home, but has to be blamed on outside forces and treacherous Americans. It's still highly debatable whether Trump represents any sort of "authoritarian" tendency -- it really can't be proven one way or another until he actually wields authority -- but if he does we'd be better off, as the original McCarthyists would have, seeking domestic sources for the problem instead of foreign monsters to destroy.

10 January 2017

Celebrity and statesmanship

Many people find it ironic if not hypocritical for Donald Trump's fans to question celebrities' right to criticize the President-elect, since he seems to many people no more and no less a "celebrity" than the people he Twitter-feuds with. The latest round pitted Trump against Meryl Streep after she denounced him (without speaking his name) at the Golden Globe awards show. Naturally, Trump saw fit to challenge Streep's standing in her own profession, in a form of ad feminam attack, by calling her an overrated actress. Perhaps he had in mind her impersonation of him at some event last year, admittedly not one of her finest moments despite the fat suit and wig, and perhaps impersonation (see also Alec Baldwin) makes him especially angry. For his fans, it's sufficient to note that Streep is a mere entertainer and thus without credibility on political subjects. Again, it's ironic given that a great part of Trump's appeal with such people is his lack of political experience. As opposed to the dreaded career politician, Trump and Streep are equally outsiders, and if we're to reject the platonic premise that statesmanship requires specific expertise not acquired in commercial life, then there's no reason to conclude automatically that Streep, for example, has more or less credibility than Trump -- who, despite whatever his fans may claim, would not be where he will be later this month without first appearing on The Apprentice.

Of course, Trumpists will remind us that Donald Trump is a "successful businessman," but even were we to concede his success, as many do not, how is that a qualification for political office? It may be true that the Founders did not want the country run by the sort of career politician we see today, but I doubt whether many of them wanted it run by the sort of businessmen Donald Trump has been.  The rural Jeffersonian types certainly would not have conceded that Trump's sort of businessman had special qualifications for political leadership. Nor would anyone living today, were they honest, argue that business expertise or "success" entitles anyone to serious consideration for political office. At bottom, Trump's vocation matters less than what he says and what he claims to stand for. After all, would his fans feel that they owe any deference to Warren Buffett, due to his business success, when he says the wealthy should pay more taxes, or to George Soros, whom many on Trump's side see as almost the Adam Weishaupt of our time? And history shows that a mere actor, one who to my knowledge created no more jobs in private life than Meryl Streep has, can become the idol of those same people, or their fathers, simply for saying what they wanted to hear. So the argument that mere celebrities have no business imposing their political opinions on us is pure bullshit or, if you prefer, a smokescreen covering the real wish never to hear from liberals anywhere, ever. That doesn't mean that the celebrity of the moment isn't an idiot, or simply wrong, but whether their opinions are wrong or stupid really has nothing to do with who they are or what they do. Complaining about celebrities is just a way to avoid actually answering what they say, which is probably convenient for people who can barely articulate their own beliefs and most likely envy entertainers' ability to do so.  But who are they to have opinions on anything, one might ask, much less any ambition to express their opinions? The answer might suggest a golden rule of discourse to people interested in anything besides imposing their will or silencing everyone else.

09 January 2017

Age of Assange

Michael Gerson notes a recent shift of attitudes among some Americans. Not so long ago, he recalls, Republicans like Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity and Donald Trump called for Julian Assange, the Wikileaks impresario, to be hunted down, arrested and killed for crimes against the United States. Now, however, Palin has apologized for her stance, Hannity conducts a fawning interview with Assange and the President-elect takes his side against national intelligence agencies when they claim that Wikileaks received Democratic National Committee emails from Russian hackers. For Gerson there's a simple explanation for this: these Republicans credit Wikileaks with damaging Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, and Assange's good works of 2016 eclipse his alleged past treacheries in their minds. This scandalizes Gerson, who blames these reversals on blind tribalism, the tribe being the Republican party. By applauding Assange, he claims, Republicans put party interests before national interests. He accuses them of condoning (or at least forgiving) any real damage Assange has done to this country  because Democrats are his most recent victims. But is no other explanation possible? Could it be that some people's view of Assange has changed because their view of the world has grown closer to his? This may well be the case with Trump, though I'm reluctant to give any intellectual credit to the other two.

To the extent that Assange has an ideology, it seems focused on the abuse of power, with an emphasis on American abuse of superpower in the forms of atrocities and cover-ups. If we can infer from this that Assange would prefer a more multipolar world, or at least a world in which the U.S. doesn't intervene in other countries' affairs so often, you can see some hints of convergence with what we know (or suspect) of Trump's agenda, which includes reducing his country's overseas commitments (or what we spend on them) and presumably conceding some sort of regional hegemony to Russia that the last two administrations could not accept. And if Trump seems less jingoistic in some respects than he used to be, despite the "Make America Great Again" rhetoric, perhaps that's because identifying abuses of American power with an Obama-Clinton axis opens a perspective that Republicans usually refuse, and may make possible a better appreciation of Wikileaks' work apart from its immediate personal benefit to Trump. Some, of course, still refuse that perspective. Since Wikileaks emerged, two groups in this country have held consistent opinions on Assange: the Republican neocons, for whom he is a permanent villain, and the anti-interventionist (or "anti-imperialist") left, for whom he remains a hero. Many other Democrats thought more highly of him back when he exposed apparent misdeeds of the Bush administration than they do now that he has held Obama and Clinton to the same standard. For Gerson, apparently, Assange has always been a villain, because he exposes U.S. abuses of power -- and supposedly endangers U.S. intelligence assets. It's interesting that he accuses recent converts to Assange fandom of tribalism, since a viewpoint that values American hegemony beyond any principle of accountability might well be described as "tribal" compared to how things might be done in a more civilized world.

08 January 2017

Whatever happened to the old fashioned amoklauf?

News of a mass shooting draws out two or maybe three kinds of people. One kind expects the shooter to be a Muslim. Another clearly hopes that the shooter proves another Dylann Roof, to confirm his own sense of threat. A third will use the occasion to renew calls for greater gun control, and a fourth may try to preempt any raising of that subject by warning against politicizing a tragedy -- and will politicize it by doing so. In Fort Lauderdale we appear to have a plain old madman, though it should not surprise us in these days to see the so-called Islamic State or the federal government playing a significant role in his delusions. For what it's worth, the suspect is a native-born Hispanic who served in Iraq, but so far there are few hints of the sort of antisocial grudge that drives the classic amoklaufer. There seem to be fewer such incidents these days, or else the amoklaufer has grown more politicized or "radicalized" in recent times. The Columbine or Virginia Tech sort of angry-misfit rampage has perhaps become passé, and perhaps the sort of people who might have killed as recently as a decade ago are content now to torment people on social media, leaving mass murder to those with political or spiritual agendas, or to those, like the Fort Lauderdale suspect, who just seem crazy. If so, then with the classic amoklaufer goes some kind of clarity, for it was obvious to all but the most stubborn Second Amendment absolutists that the problem behind the amoklaufer was too easy access to guns. Now the debate has shifted to the ideas motivating shooters and the forms of hate that alarm contending groups of people, so that many of us seem to prefer that a shooter be a certain type of person. But whatever type of person he is, his victims are just as dead.

05 January 2017

Discriminatory News

At 9 a.m. one cable news network led off the hour with the apparent hate-crime beating of a white Chicago man, while two others didn't. It can be argued that there are more important news stories this morning, but the networks' different priorities are still worth speculating upon. For Fox News, I'd guess, the priority is to highlight a violent hatred of Donald Trump, since the suspects railed against the President-elect during their Facebook Live spree. For the other networks, I suspect, the priority is to downplay an incident that seemingly could only refuel hatred of black people in general. If I'm right, that would be consistent with a liberal-culture mistrust of other people's ability to judge individuals without generalizing or stereotyping. You saw something like this in the late presidential election. Democrats tended to deny that the economy was still in bad shape, and that probably was in part because they feared that conceding any failure of President Obama's would disqualify any more black people from the Presidency in presumably bigoted minds. This isn't just about race, of course, since Democrats' fanatic defense of Hillary Clinton was driven in part by fear that in rejecting her voters were rejecting any woman for the Presidency, ever. In other words, convinced that they know how the right wing thinks, but uncertain of how many people are right wing, liberals don't trust people to judge individuals without also judging wider swaths of the population in a prejudicial manner. The assumes that people not known to be liberals think in stereotypes, and will see the Facebook torturers from Chicago as just more N-words. But isn't that also stereotyping? And wouldn't downplaying a story that would certainly run at the top of every hour if the roles were reversed a form of discrimination? Let the pundits ponder that.

04 January 2017

Progressive realism on foreign policy?

One liberal Democratic organ that doesn't share that cohort's prevailing Russophobia is The Nation. That's most likely because editor-publisher Katrina vanden Heuval shares the views of her husband, Stephen F. Cohen, who is, depending on your perspective, a leading voice of reason on the left regarding Russia, or a cowardly apologist for Vladimir Putin. The lead editorial in the January 16/23 issue, dedicated mainly to foreign policy, challenges the Democratic narrative of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and deplores the fact that those who challenge that narrative "are labeled a Trump apologist, a Putin puppet, or both." The editorial writer, presumably vanden Heuval, doubts in the first place whether the specific Democratic National Committee emails supposedly hacked by the Russians and provided to Wikileaks swayed many blue-collar voters in the crucial states Trump turned from blue to red. She also wonders why "liberals who have traditionally been wary of the national-security state and justifiably suspicious of its claims" are so ready to believe CIA accounts of Russian hacking. "Skepticism isn't treason," she writes, "instead, it's essential to establishing the truth." While I wouldn't put it past the Russians to carry out this sort of mischief, I also agree that The Nation's skepticism is reasonable and proper, especially given the angry butthurt Democrats continue to feel since the election.

In an introduction to the issue proper, the editorial calls for a fresh start with Russia, arguing that "it is neither pro-Trump nor pro-Putin, but simply sober realism, to argue that we need to partner with Russia on a host of issues, ranging from combating terrorism to promoting and enforcing nuclear nonproliferation." For the other contributors, this means finally abandoning the exceptionalist entitlement to global leadership, learning to respect other nations and cultures' standards of political legitimacy, and more simply learning to bargain rather than issue morally absolute demands. One writer in particular, Robert Wright, gets to the heart of what he calls "Our Empathy Problem." The problem, as he notes, "is not a shortage of empathy ... but rather an imbalance between two kinds of empathy." Wright makes a distinction between "emotional empathy," the all-too-obvious driving force in grass-roots liberal interventionism, and "cognitive empathy," which he considers a necessary corrective. Emotional empathy, he explains, is "the feel-your-pain kind," while cognitive empathy "means putting yourself in the shoes of other people in the sense of seeing how the world looks to them." While many of us can't help empathizing with dissidents and freedom fighters, especially when they defy overwhelming odds to oppose authoritarians like Putin of Bashar al-Assad and suffer for their trouble, Wright urges us to learn to "understand the perspectives of important actors clearly enough to calculate the likely consequences of our actions." Liberals resist this recommendation, he realizes, because it seems to mean "putting yourself in the shoes of brutal dictators," but "if you agree that preventing mass slaughter and mass suffering is morally good" then you need to be able to imagine how Assad, in the most obvious example, would react to calls for his unconditional abdication from power. While foreign policy "realism" remains unpopular among liberals and progressives who see it as indifferent to injustice and suffering, Wright recommends a "progressive realism" that makes a palliative distinction between "tolerating" and "backing" oppressive rulers while making "do no harm" foreign policy's first priority.

Wright probably undercuts his argument by offering liberals a choice between two kinds of empathy rather than the harder choice between empathy and reason. The latter, I'd think, would get a progressive realist to the same result regarding dictators' behavior as cognitive empathy, while weaning liberals away from their destructively emotion-driven foreign policy. The problem with emotional empathy especially is that it isn't really an imagining of yourself as another, but the imagining of the other as yourself. Empathetic assumptions are driven by our feeling of what our rights should be anywhere on earth, on what we would tolerate and what we should not. This is why we always imagine "freedom fighters" in our own image, despite the messier reality in most places. Liberals are arguably the worst at this because so many seem actually to believe what might otherwise be neocon propaganda, without having the vested interests in regime change that often actually motivate neocons. It'll be hard to change when American liberalism  pretty much defines itself by empathy and compassion, but perhaps reasonable compassion, always conscious of how things can be made worse by good intentions, can overcome the raw empathy that sometimes blindly drives American policy. It's here that Trump and his movement might recommend a prioritized empathy, insisting, and not unreasonably, not that you should not care what happens to oppressed people, but that you should care first and more about how your reaction to foreign oppression affects your fellow citizens. In a sense, if "progressive realism" is meant to minimize the cost to ourselves of empathetic interventions, as well as minimizing the suffering of others by minimizing conflicts everywhere, it could be described with two words progressives may not feel comfortable with, but fit just the same: "America first."

03 January 2017

Trump 1, GOP 0?

Congressional Republicans apparently have been intimidated by a tweet from the President-elect into abandoning, or at least postponing an attempt to place the ostensibly independent Office of Congressional Ethics under the effective supervision of the House Ethics Committee. The plan has been criticized for undercutting the OCE by forcing it to get approval from the Ethics Committee -- and, in effect, its Republican majority -- before it could recommend prosecution of anyone. Republicans who support the change, apparently in defiance of Speaker Ryan, claim that the current arrangement is unfair because, among many reasons, the OCE can conduct investigations based on anonymous tips. To be fair to them, that doesn't exactly sound like the best idea in a "fake news" era, but the idea, presumably, was to offer protection through confidentiality to whistleblowers. In any event, Donald Trump questioned the timing of the attempt, if not the principle of the thing. While appearing to agree that the OCE in its current form is "unfair" in some respects, he judges it bad form for the GOP to make this change the new Congress's first priority. Rather than go on the record as opposing Trump, the Republican caucus has backed off for the time being, though they are expected to take the matter up again this summer, presumably a less awkwardly conspicuous time. Whatever the ultimate consequences, this is a clear PR win for Trump, who thus differentiates himself from a GOP more deeply distrusted than him and demonstrates a readiness to hold them accountable in his own fashion. Little gestures like these keep the question open of who really has a mandate for the next couple of years, and whether it's the party's prerogative or the President-elect's to set the agenda for those years. The strong likelihood that Trump will acquiesce in whatever the House plans for the OCE later this year probably won't change the impression created among his fans that he'll be their safeguard against GOP excesses. For all we know, months from now no one will even notice when it happens.