28 February 2017

The headstone mystery

The fallen headstones in some Jewish cemeteries are a sort of 3-D Rorschach pattern; what you make of it may say more about you than the actual objects. Given the current global environment, it would be understandable for people to suspect Muslim vandals of desecrating these monuments or calling in threats to other Jewish facilities across the U.S. It seems just as likely, however, if not more likely that people will blame these incidents on white supremacist or "alt-right" vandals. This is the thinking of some Jewish groups, and many sympathizers, who've perceived a slowness to Donald Trump's denunciation of anti-semitism and claim that his rise to power has emboldened traditional anti-semitic elements in the U.S. Such claims seem hard to square with the President's oft-professed Zionist sentiments, but critics of the alt-right claim that admiration of Israel isn't incompatible with essentially anti-semitic sentiments. Richard Spencer, the supposed "alt-right" founding father, reportedly sees Israel as a model for the "ethno-state" he wants the U.S. to become, in which there may be no place for Jews. At the same time, Trump has been popular with the "paleoconservative" milieu from which Spencer emerged, which on anti-interventionist grounds, if not for other reasons, doesn't even share Trump's Zionism. As far as I know, no evidence has emerged yet pointing either to Muslims or whites as suspects in the recent vandalism, but it's obvious that many Americans would prefer that white anti-semites be proven the culprits, just as they sigh with relief when they hear that the most recent cases of cars driving into crowds of people were DWIs or senior moments. While theirs is clearly a defensive attitude on one front, it's also a prejudiced one on another, based on a stereotype of Trump supporters as xenophobic, chauvinist white men indiscriminate in their discrimination. It is taken for granted that such people hate all but their own kind, as narrowly defined as possible. If they're assumed to hate Muslims, it doesn't seem contradictory to assume that they also hate Jews. Their attitudes are assumed to be rooted in ancient prejudices more than in recent history, and recent history, it's suspected, only gives such people an excuse to vent hatreds that existed before anything supposedly provoked them and would persist had nothing provocative happened. The redneck, that degenerate subspecies of boobus americanus, hates anyone who looks, sounds, dresses or prays differently, according to this view, and needs no other prompting to hate. This viewpoint takes for granted that the white man is uniquely xenophobic in human history, or uniquely violent in his xenophobia; merely to identify as "white" is to conspire in the subjugation (if not the extermination) or the rest of humanity. Naturally, then, this monster is the first suspect in any hostile act against minority groups -- and the sad fact is that it is quite possible that someone like him is to blame for at least some of this vandalism, not because whites are uniquely hateful but because some of them are pretty damn stupid. I don't think anyone would dispute that whoever is tipping tombstones or calling in prank threats is stupid, regardless of background, and even in the unlikely event that the real perpetrators are provocateurs out to stir up hatred for groups other than Jews. That aside, it would also be stupid not to consider every possibility of culpability simply because you dislike the potential consequences. In particular, people who boast of their lack of prejudice should be the most ready to hold guilty individuals accountable, regardless of who or what they represent.

27 February 2017

'The enemy of the American people'

If the corporate media owe the government or the public nothing as a matter of law, it's also true that the government owes the media nothing except what's provided for in the First Amendment. They can't act in a way courts might see as violating freedom of the press, but that doesn't mean they have to give the press everything they want or claim entitlement to. The Constitution was not violated when the President's press secretary excluded a handful of news outlets from what's absurdly called a "gaggle" a few days ago, but the Trump administration had to know that theirs wasn't a smart move. It earned them rebukes from some conservative news outlets, and it only seemed to reconfirm the hysterical suspicion of many in the news business that Trump's object is Russian-style intimidation or outright suppression of dissident media. Trump himself provides regular fuel for that fire by taking an adversarial stance toward the "fake news" establishment that seems inappropriate to many observers, regardless of their views on Trump or the media, however well it plays with his more uncivil supporters. His recent charge that some media outlets, by purveying what he calls fake news, are "enemies of the American people" will only earn him more enmity and suspicious scrutiny.

It's a strange, dark moment when we look to George W. Bush for wisdom, but that moment came this morning, when the former President went on NBC to affirm the importance of free and independent media. Dubya had a thicker skin as President than Trump has, but  I think you can make the case that, despite all the mockery of Bush's intellect or even his facial features, the news media as a whole was less biased against him than they are against Trump. It's not really a tough case; simply look at how the mainstream media rejected the "truther" movement, which made the most damning charges against Dubya, compared to their indulgence of many wild charges against Trump. Without defending or endorsing Trump, it's simply an objective (albeit impressionistic) observation that the news media has never been so biased against a President since the days of FDR, when nearly every major paper in the country leaned Republican, or else turned against Roosevelt shortly after the New Deal got underway. The situation is probably even more unbalanced now, with so many conservative columnists still keeping their distance from Trump. That makes it appear as if there's an unprecedented consensus against the current President, who appears to many different people, for many different reasons, as an imminent threat to the American way of life. In part that's because Donald Trump really is the first 21st century President, the first truly to be shaped, despite his age -- he's actually a few weeks older than Dubya -- by the habits of social media.

The most threatening of those habits to the media establishment is Trump's insistence on talking back to them. If their fear is that he's demanding some kind of unseemly deference from them, they also expect a kind of deference from him, if not from the entire political establishment. They're used to a political order where the politicians act, the commentators comment, and the last word is, in effect, "Well, this is a free country, and that's your opinion." Trump doesn't leave it there. For him, the comment thread on an article is always open and you'd better not flag him. He constantly challenges the credibility of reporting and the integrity of opinion. What disturbs the media establishment, I think, is that Trump doesn't let things go once everyone has had their say, but seems determined either to change opinions or shut them up. On his own terms, he's simply demanding a fair shake and press coverage free from what he perceives as bias against him. For all that he plays the superpatriot he doesn't seem to comprehend how this goes against the American grain, at least at some level. For liberals and conservatives alike -- or, to be more specific, for conservatism as an outgrowth of liberal democracy -- dissent is the health of the state. Many people can't tell for certain if they're free unless they can bitch about the government and its leaders and get away with it. Eventually suspicion becomes an end (if not a good) unto itself, making it impossible for skeptics (or especially ideologues) to give each newly elected leader the "chance" he demands and arguably deserves. This testing will only grow more persistent (or more resistant to reason) once a leader is perceived as a threat to civil liberty, and Trump will only keep the loop going by pushing back constantly against criticism or suspicion of his motives. Perhaps the consensus that allows Americans to agree to disagree has at last been lost. Don't forget, however -- Trump hasn't -- that not all Americans think this way. Appeals for unity, calls for all people to pull together regardless of differences, don't carry the whiff of fascism to all senses. They may see partisan or ideological skepticism, taken to new levels in response to Trump, as an abuse of the First Amendment that requires some sort of check that the Constitution doesn't provide. That's why you hear talk of boycotts, not only against the news media but all media (including entertainment) deemed disrespectful to the President and by extension to his voters. That talk, of course, will only guarantee further reactions against "fascist" tendencies among the unwashed masses in our current environment of mutually resented mutual disrespect. Neither the President nor the media is doing much to calm the reactionary mood, now that both sides seem agreed that anger is the order of the day. Whether civil liberties can survive long under those conditions is debatable, but good luck trying to have a civil debate on that subject now.

23 February 2017

Old right vs. alt-right

Someone clearly sounded an alarm bell after Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to address CPAC, the big annual conference of movement conservatism. Days before the shindig got under way, Yiannopoulos was disinvited in the wake of the scandal over his recorded comments on the sexuality of 13 year olds. Today a great show was made of just about literally throwing out Richard Spencer, the self-styled "identitarian" nationalist regarded by many as a founding father of the "alt-right." Spencer is also credited with coining the term, though what he wrote in the 2008 article cited by Wikipedia is "alternate Right." Whoever came up with the abbreviated version possibly was clever than he or she knew, since "alt" is also German for "old." That makes sense, though, to the extent that the alt-right is an extension of the "paleoconservative" movement from which Spencer emerged. The "paleos" in turn opposed the "neoconservatives" who had come to dominate the Republican party at the turn of the century. They were distinguished above all by their opposition to the invasion of Iraq, the great neocon project of the George W. Bush administration, and in the 2008 article, which is more a survey of the conservative publishing scene than a declaration of principles, Spencer appears to identify with anti-war conservatism. As an intrigued reader of The American Conservative, a sort of paleo organ, I noted a greater willingness on their part, compared to the Republican mainstream, to question the premises of an ideology that had been shaped if not warped by the Cold War. They anticipated Donald Trump by questioning free-market orthodoxy, and they appeared to appreciate that shouting "freedom" would not solve all problems of society or politics. They certainly saw themselves as more intellectually rigorous than the GOP establishment who were little more than dittoheads. In 2008 Spencer seemed sick and tired of conservative literature that did nothing but denounce the left, and part of his "alternate Right" idea seemed to be to promote a creative right. He called for an overhaul of the conservative intellectual tradition as it stood at the end of the Bush years:

Also due for some rethinking is the conservative intellectual canon, so dependent as it is on Kirk’s Conservative Mind as well as the “fusionism” (“liberty vs. virtue”) debates of the Cold War. To criticize the “save the world” messianism and leftward drift of much of the putatively “conservative” Religious Right, a non-movement thinker like Mencken is much more useful than Kirk or Meyer. As I mentioned in another context, William F. Buckley began his career planning a book called Revolt Against the Masses, a work based on Nietzsche and Ortega y Gasset. The fact that these two giants would be rejected and ignored, respectively, by the conservative movement reveals a lot about the kind of intellectual narrowing that’s taken place over the past 50 years.

So Spencer is not some know-nothing, at least in one sense of the term. I've listened to some remarks he gave after getting thrown out of CPAC, and now you can also, thanks to an account called "Peace One Love Kindness Evokes Kindness."

This confirms an impression I had that the alt-right actually hasn't much interest in many issues long important to the Republican party. Spencer says that gutting environmental regulations, for instance, isn't a high priority for him, if it's a priority at all. In keeping with his paleocon background, he warns against neocon warmongering, particularly against Russia but also against Iran. He denounces Russophobia as a politically correct form of racism, but given his own emphasis on race and culture he would have to concede that Russian culture is fair game. Addressing charges of anti-semitism, he makes clear a degree of discomfort with the concept of "Judeo-Christian" civilization while denying any race hatred. His focus on identity reminds me of The American Conservative's rejection of the concept, dear to neocons, of the U.S. as a "propositional nation," according to which American identity is defined by the values propounded in the Declaration, Constitution, etc. rather than cultural ties to ancestors, blood, soil, etc. The degree to which religion factors into ideas of essential American identity has always been a sticking point with me, but the degree varies from thinker to thinker. The fact that Spencer, in 2008, could recommend that scourge of religion, H. L. Mencken, as a "useful" thinker suggests that, however he differentiates Christians from Jews culturally he is not committed to an unconditional defense of conventional piety. Of course, if he has any idea that culture is racially (i.e. genetically) determined he'd be full of crap, but I don't know enough about the man to know his true position. For further research on that subject, and on the alt-right in general, Spencer's own website is a better point of reference than the Breitbart News site that critics want to link to Spencer and others of more virulent views. Breitbart's Steve Bannon will be speaking at CPAC while Spencer will only get to watch online. Spencer's views offend CPAC organizers who denounce the alt-right as "left-wing fascists," which I thought was a redundancy in GOP circles. The executive director of the American Conservative Union relegates Spencer to the left wing because he sees the alt-right as collectivist rather than individualist. Take that as fresh proof of the myopia of the Republican establishment -- the "old right" for our current purposes -- as few observers 200 years ago would have equated "conservatism" with individualism. As it happens, the current lead article at Spencer's website cites Alexander Tocqueville to argue exactly that an overcommitment to individualism has helped put the U.S. in its current predicament, and that alt-right style identity politics are a remedy. No really rational person can think it's the sole remedy, as humanity needs to be more forward-looking than ancestor worship can comfortably permit -- and in any event many libertarian ideologies are more collectivist than is readily appreciated, since they're always ready to sacrifice individuals for the good of the Economy or the purity of the Market -- but such thinking shows at least that those who take the alt-right for the knuckle-dragging contingent of the American right wing are probably underestimating them. That may include the Republican party itself.

21 February 2017

The Misfortunes of Milo

It can happen that fast. Milo Yiannopoulos probably reached his high water mark of public acceptance last weekend when he appeared on Bill Maher's HBO talk show amid the free publicity of Jeremy Scahill refusing to appear with him.Within days it has all come crashing down in a manner that speaks volumes on the ambiguous role of homosexuals -- or, perhaps more specifically, white male homosexuals -- in the current American political landscape.

As noted last week, Yiannopolous is a provocateur, a scourge of "political correctness" who takes pride in refusing various minority groups (or women, some say) the respect they feel entitled to. He had become a hero of the right and/or "alt-right" for his defiance of violent leftist protesters who've tried to prevent him from speaking at various venues. While he was not the first openly homosexual man to espouse Republicanism, he appeared to give the alt-right a certain hipness, as well as armor against the argument that they were just the same old repressive Christianists and rednecks in new clothes. All the while, his status as a supposed spokesman for the "alt-right" and a star of Breitbart News made him a target for what they call opposition research. Just as Yiannopoulos was invited to speak at CPAC, the big annual conservative conference, the opposition research struck paydirt.

A podcast was found on which Yiannopoulos apparently questioned whether an adult's sexual attraction to a 13 year old was pedophilia, since someone of that age, in his opinion, was sexually mature. This was publicized by a nebulous entity called the Reagan Battalion, which consists of a Twitter account, on which the damning excerpt was posted, and a website consisting almost entirely of links to conservative sites critical toward President Trump. The Battalion endorsed Evan McMullin, the independent candidate who tried to snatch Utah away from Trump, in last year's presidential election. One investigation of the Reagan Battalion suggests that it, in turn, has ties to a Democratic PAC opposed to both Trump and Hillary Clinton. Whatever its motives, the Battalion started the dominoes tumbling. CPAC disinvited Yiannopoulos. The new scandal gave the Simon & Schuster publishing firm cover to terminate a contract for a Yiannopoulos book that had alienated some of their regular authors. Finally, after the inevitable "out of context" denials, Yiannopoulos fell on his sword this afternoon and resigned from Breitbart News. There were limits to his freedom of speech, after all.

Apart from possibly destroying his own career as an opinionator, Yiannopoulos probably has done real damage to the gay rights movement by reviving the suspicion that homosexuality is a gateway to pedophilia. I just happened to watch a Young Pope episode last weekend in which a homosexual priest tries to explain to the title character that homosexuality and pedophilia are two different things and not morally equivalent. The Milo scandal has most likely remuddied those waters, presuming of course that many people buy the argument in the first place. All that aside, it might be asked why exactly the damning quote makes Yiannopoulos less of a rallying-point for free-speech libertarians, since it is only yet another politically incorrect thing the man has said, if not the most. Whom, exactly, has he offended with these words more than he's offended anyone else, and why should the offense expressed now, which has cost him much of his livelihood, matter more than the offense felt by others over other statements?  My point isn't to defend pedophilia, but to remind people that the great thing about Milo Yiannopoulos supposedly was that he was free to speak his mind regardless of whom he offended -- or was it? Or was it that some people, in other people's opinion, deserved to be offended, and that Milo would be cheered while he offended them, so long as he did not offend people or beliefs that did not deserve to be offended? People are free to think that way, of course, and nearly everyone does so automatically, but does the principle behind the thought really count as "freedom of speech," or was it something else all along?

20 February 2017

Trump's triangular diplomacy in Europe

While most opinionators pondered what the hell the President thought he was talking about regarding recent events in Sweden, the Vice-President was in Brussels playing an interesting game with NATO. Contrary to the Trump administration's alleged Russomania, Pence reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to holding Russia "accountable" in Eastern Europe, but in keeping with Trump campaign rhetoric, he hinted strongly that continued U.S. commitment was conditional on other member nations contributing more to mutual defense. If you paid attention you might have perceived the glimmerings of an actual strategy. That strategy might be a European version of the "triangular diplomacy" Richard Nixon practiced in his dealings with China and the Soviet Union. Nixon's now proverbial pivot to China was designed to give him greater leverage with both Communist nations. Recognizing the rivalry between the two giants, Nixon knew better than to threat them as a monolithic Communist conspiracy, and a period of detente. Trump can't really play NATO and Russia off each other so ruthlessly since the U.S. is bound by its NATO membership, but Pence's performance in Brussels gives an idea of what the President might do to manipulate both Russia and NATO to American advantage. The most obvious thing, and the most likely successful, is to raise the specter of U.S. reconciliation with Russia, not to mention acquiescence in some of its revanchist agenda, in order to force concessions from NATO nations in the form of larger contributions that presumably would ease the financial burden on the U.S. Such a strategy presumably would be designed to work in the other direction as well, in which case Trump's attitude toward NATO might be determined by Russia's good behavior according to whatever standard Trump imposes. How far Trump might go using NATO to extract concessions from Russia may be limited by a desire to turn Russia from its apparent anti-American accommodation with other "authoritarian" powers (e.g. China, Iran) to a firmer ally in what Trump's alt-right advisers see as a "Judeo-Christian" rather than "western" coalition. Trump may depend on supposed "populist" allies in Europe shifting more NATO countries from a "western" to "Judeo-Christian" orientation, but until that happens Russophobia will be as much a problem for him in Europe as it has proven to be at home. In such an environment it may well be to his advantage if his administration continues to send mixed signals to Russia and NATO. If each side becomes convinced that the U.S.'s ultimate loyalty is in play, both may move to win it in a way from which, ideally, all Americans will benefit. Of course, this depends on Diplomat Trump being someone very different from Twitter Trump, or else on the President having the business sense to delegate this delicate work to people who really know their job. The challenge there may be finding knowledgeable people and credible diplomats who aren't Russophobes, but it might well be a simpler matter of getting diplomats to realize that their first priority should never be thwarting another country, but promoting their own.

17 February 2017

Politics is bullying

Liza Featherstone writes a kind of political advice column for The Nation. In the February 20 issue, "Walking on Eggshells" writes Featherstone to complain about a woman "of public prominence" who "uses politics as a form of bullying." To be specific, the unnamed woman singles out people she hates, criticizes their every mistake, and encourages others in her organization to "pile on." Her bullying behavior "has thrown at least one political organization into disarray," or so Walking claims. This is a tantalizing glimpse at left-on-left bullying that inspires Featherstone to comment on "a huge problem in our movements right now." To begin with, "people on the left feel paralyzed and scared" amid right-wing ascendancy, and on top of that "progressives are blaming their political impotence on one another." This isn't new behavior, even on the left, Featherstone notes, but as many others have noted "social media rewards this behavior" in some new way because "its neoliberal incentives favor those who come up with the most attention-getting insults." On the left, bullies "use a variety of hot-button emotional issues, all genuinely important -- Syria, racism, sexism and the recent U.S. election -- to foment division and denounce others for not having exactly the right position." Such people should be shunned as much as possible, regardless of whatever power or prominence they enjoy. Addressing Walking's complaint, Featherstone advises, "This person would relish a public battle, and you must not give this satisfaction." If she's a leader, it may be time to form a new group. The key is to ignore the bully as much as possible. "Bullies thrive on getting a reaction, especially a negative one," Featherstone advises, "Block her on social media ... do your best to ignore her baiting, even in public.We simply don't have time for such people."

Here the devil's advocate must ask, "But do the bullies really have as much time for you as you assume?"What, exactly, is this particular bully trying to accomplish? Is she trying to accomplish anything other than trolling people in order to get a kick out of the negative reaction? Most likely she is. Attempting to describe political bullies in general, Featherstone says two potentially contradictory things. Bullies "feel everyone is wrong except them, and they're temperamentally disposed to thrive on pointless infighting." But is the infighting pointless to the bully? Couldn't perceived bullying be a reaction to a presumption of pointlessnes? Couldn't there be something more substantial behind supposed bullying than the trollish narcissism Featherstone implies? If bullying appears to express contempt for a person, could that contempt be merited? Bullying, if we must call it that, may be exacerbated by 21st century social media, but it may also be motivated a greater sense of urgency to things in our time. This is an anxious but also an impatient age, and as anxiety increases so will impatience with those who don't seem to share an appropriate sense of urgency. It begins not only with Tea Party anger at the Obama administration, but also with Democratic anger at Republican obstructionism. That anger has intensified now that Republicans appear hypocritically to protest Democratic obstructionism against the Trump administration, while Republicans in turn see hypocrisy in obstructive tactics that Democrats seemed recently to think were wrong on principle. In both cases, an essentially democratic sensibility rages against the entitled attitude of liberalism and its "conservative" cousin, their refusal to see election results ( i.e. the will of the people de jure or de facto) as reasons to rethink their positions or prejudices -- or in simpler terms, their refusal to let winners rule. The American system tends to privilege the sovereign conscience, while our postmodern culture probably hardens an "accept me as I am" stubbornness to which many cases of supposed bullying between or within parties probably are reactions. The fact that people perceive more pervasive bullying in political life -- liberals naturally play canaries in the mineshaft here -- should be a hint that this bullying isn't just a matter of unhealthy individual pathologies. They are more likely reminders that, howevermuch liberals have tried, with some success in more peaceful and prosperous times, to soften the blunt force of politics, coercion, crudely expressed or otherwise, is an inevitable element of politics, and a necessary one in any polity where decisions are made and carried out without unanimity of opinion. In recent times, however, our culture has grown more resentful of coercion, but more recently still conditions have provoked a sense of coercive urgency in many Americans that makes that resentment more resentful. If you can follow that, then you might understand why we seem to have more bullying, and why you might feel a bullying mood yourself sometimes. For those who only see themselves as victims of bullying, things probably won't get easier anytime soon.

16 February 2017

'There is no value in "debating" him'

With those words Jeremy Scahill broke his engagement to appear on Bill Maher's HBO talk show this weekend, after learning that Milo Yiannopoulos would be a fellow panelist. Regular readers will recall that Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking at the University of California Berkeley by violent protesters a few weeks ago. He's the man who was banned from Twitter after he instigated a mass flame war against the comedienne Leslie Jones. Scahill, a credible journalist who did much to expose Blackwater a decade ago, believes that Yiannopoulos can cause worse things than flame war, and worse violence than that employed to silence him. Putting "Milo" (I'll stick to this usage hereafter to save keystrokes) on the Maher show "could also be used to incite violence against immigrants, transgender people and others," Schahill fears, while Milo's public attacks on individuals "could lead to violence or even death." I have not heard of any Milo-inspired violence, unless you count the protests against his appearances, but for some people, I'm sure, his mere words are a form of violence.

So who is this monster, anyway? The self-styled "Dangerous Faggot" and "Supervillain of the Internet" is a homosexual British Catholic conservative. In a way he's Andrew Sullivan 2.0, and perhaps less likely than Sullivan to eventually renounce the political right. Less concerned with Milo's biography than with what he actually thinks, I went to that mouth of Hell, the Breitbart website looking for some of his controversial speeches. I found two of interest. One is a diatribe against abortion that left me understanding why some women might judge him a misogynist, though the charge isn't necessarily fair. There's something patronizing in his attitude toward women and his contempt for a feminism he dismisses as emotional compared to his own superior logic, which he credits to his Catholic heritage.The more interesting speech attempts to explain "Why the Democrats Lost the White Working Class." That class, Milo explains, wants jobs, security and freedom to feed, amuse and express themselves as they please, while the Democrats' constituency consists of "social justice warriors" who work in the service industry --a bad thing, apparently -- if they work at all and are obsessed with identity politics that inevitably denigrate the white working class. "They talk to you like you’re a stupid dog who just pissed the rug for the fifth time this week," he says of Democrats. He claims that the white working class rejects identity politics, while the other side most likely assumes that they are the practitioners par excellence, if not the inventors of identity politics. But that can't be so in Milo's mind, since he really does seem to see those people as the salt of the earth.

Working class Americans are fundamentally decent people. They are work hard, play hard people.  They are very different than me, and frankly very different from most of you [Milo is addressing college students]. No matter what background you come from, you shouldn’t look down on the working class, because they are what America is really about.The difference between conservatives and the new breed of Democrats is that we don’t think the working class is evil, or that they need to be controlled and taught how to think.

Since I didn't really see any hatemongering in Milo's talk (his comments on Islam are fair hits and he makes no policy recommendations) I'll content myself with using the quote above to elaborate on a crucial divide of the moment. Some readers probably will resent his warning against "looking down" on the [white] working class because they believe that class looks down on them. Milo never actually denies that premise in his talk, probably because the charge, to him, is too ludicrous to require refuting. Nevertheless, that is the charge that divides the American left from the white working class right now, and the feeling is certainly mutual. They feel the left (for this purpose, the Democratic party) doesn't respect them, while the left's constituencies feel disrespected by them perpetually. More dangerously, they infer disrespect from every critical statement made about the left or its constituencies, and not just disrespect for their opinions but disrespect for their persons. "We fight outrage culture by being outrageous," says Milo, referring to what's usually called political correctness, but his mocking manner only reinforces, or so I presume, the perception of disrespect. That, more than any real-world consequences of his antics, fuels the anger people like Scahill feel toward him.

Milo stands at the front line of two competing, probably incompatible notions of democracy. One side considers unconditional mutual respect a precondition of democracy. That means, above all, accepting people as they are and letting them be themselves without requiring them to conform to someone else's notion of citizenship or humanity. Milo's insulting style explicitly refuses this respect, while the history of race relations in the U.S. leaves white people, and now the white working class in particular, under suspicion of implicit disrespect, with no real way to prove those suspicions wrong. On the other side, democracy depends on a kind of mutual accountability that makes it absolutely essential to call out people when they screw up, even if they're just being themselves by their own lights. While the left idealizes "speaking truth to power" but denies that it can ever be the "power," the other side insists that accountability and judgment are always two way streets, that the rich can judge the poor, whites can judge blacks, men can judge women, and so on. While these judgments often are harsh and ad hominem, they do not amount, in the minds of the people making the judgments, to the kind of categorical disrespect the left perceives and resents. Think of the difference this way. Someone may judge you by your politics as an idiot and a loser, but that doesn't mean he thinks you incapable of smartening up. In fact, people like this almost invariably punctuate their criticisms by telling the targets to "wake up" or "wise up" in a way they wouldn't if they thought you permanently irredeemable or incapable of doing better. Yet people on the left hear this as "You'll always be a loser because the kind of person you are is inferior to me and my kind." That's because, in stark contrast to an earlier left that celebrated the malleability of man and the right of revolutionaries to mold men, the current left seems stuck in an "accept me as I am" staredown with its critics, while of course it doesn't really accept the white working class as it is because they're the exception that proves the left's rule, the people who can't be accepted as they are because they're presumed guilty of accepting no one else as they are. In reality, unconditional respect shouldn't be incompatible with mutual accountability, so long as respectful accountability is the rule and "accept me as I am" doesn't mean "I never have to change." But because some have been too unconditional in their demand for respect, the likes of Milo rise up to resist them, no doubt believing that accountability must take priority over respect in our urgent times. He should just be careful not to underestimate the vehemence with which people will insist on respect when it seemed within their grasp after a history of oppressive disrespect, but now seems to slip away. This has departed somewhat from the substance of Milo's own views, but we can save the subject of whether he's just another corporate bootlicker for another time.

15 February 2017

The limits of humanism?

The American Humanist Association sent me a letter the other day in the hope that I would become a dues-paying member. This mailing seems to be tied to President Trump's recent renewal of his vow to abrogate the Johnson Amendment. Doing this, says AHA executive director Roy Speckhardt, would "essentially turn churches in to super PACS, funneling millions of dollars to elect Religious Right candidates." That alarmist tone carries on into the main letter. "Are you tired of the Religious Right's monopoly on values?" Speckhardt asks, "Do you feel like a second-class citizen when politicians voice the need to believe in God in order to be a good person?" This goes on for several pages, and it becomes clear over those pages that the AHA is primarily if not exclusively concerned with a Christianist menace to the nation. Speckhardt is troubled by Trump's vow to "protect Christianity," and by "a resurgence of attempts to insert Bible study and creationism in public school classrooms." Yet throughout his warnings against religious chauvinism and religious monopolization of the public square, the word "Islam" never appears. You don't have to be an alarmist on the subject of Islam to find that a significant and actually troubling omission. The nearest Speckhardt comes to it is a purposefully vague reference to "the destructive nature of extremist religion." Overall, Speckhardt and the AHA clearly are more troubled by the prospect of Christianist power than the actuality of Islamist violence. I suspect that's mainly because the AHA, as described in the letter, is primarily a lobby dedicated to arguing against the Christian Right in the courts and propagandizing against its legislative agenda in Washington D.C. By its nature it's more concerned with preventing a seizure of political power through political channels by religious extremists than with protecting people against religiously motivated violence. If the AHA is doing anything to address terrorist threats, it isn't mentioned in the letter I received. You'd get the impression from reading it that to be humanist it suffices to be anti-Christianist, if not anti-Christian, even though the AHA boasts of its collaboration with "progressive faith groups" and its welcoming of members "who may not identify as humanists."

What is a humanist, exactly? A separate brochure explains that, according to the AHA, "Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity." On another page we learn that "Humanists affirm the dignity of every human being and assert that humanity is responsible for its own destiny, having within itself all that is needed to improve the conditions of life." They "see reason and science as the best tools for the discovery of knowledge and the achievement of goals." The AHA's specific goals include "separation of religion from government, preservation and restoration of the environment, protection of civil rights and liberties, and promotion of personal choice regarding introduction of new life, family structure, and death with dignity." They "will not tolerate legally imposed sectarian judgments, human rights violations, or discrimination in any form."

As long as there has been self-conscious humanism, there has been anti-humanism. If there has been any consistency in the opposition, whether from Christian critics of "secular humanism" or Marxists who advocate a kind of "anti-humanism," it is in the rejection of the premise that man, understood as the individual or the individual consciousness, is the measure of all things. Religious believers reject that idea for obvious reasons, while some Marxists claim that individual consciousness is socially constructed and thus can't enjoy the moral subjectivity or autonomy claimed for it. Marxists in particular developed this line of argument against the charge that radical social revolution, including terror against counterrevolutionaries, violated supposedly universal norms of human rights. Some paradoxically argue that they remain the true humanists while challenging "bourgeois" humanism because only their communist revolution can emancipate the true human self, which would flourish in communion rather than curdle in isolation.

For its part, the AHA believes that "happiness is attained by harmoniously combining personal development with work that contributes to the welfare of the community." A Marxist might point out the omission of "struggle" as a precondition for this ideal state, while religious believers would insist on the necessity of orthodoxy and/or orthopraxy, faith and adherence to revealed law, before harmony is possible. The AHA can safely be labeled a form of liberal humanism dedicated to resisting repression but unwilling to see itself as practicing repression, much less advocating it in any form. It prefers to defend liberties rather than appear to deny them to anyone. It sees "personal development" as effortlessly compatible with "the welfare of the community," and the two, implicitly, as equal priorities. When confronting its chosen Christianist enemy, it will say, "You cannot do that," but it probably won't go as far as saying, "You cannot think that." At this point, its reluctance to address Islam may make more sense, on their own terms if not ours. Because no one is lobbying for shari'a law in legislatures today, the AHA may see nothing to confront, or they may see no way to confront Islam or Islamism without appearing to be repressive in a way that would betray their mandate.

On the AHA website, a revised statement on "A Humanist Approach to Islam" at least states that "Governing modern societies by literal application of Shari’a law is a backward reversion and should be recognized as such," but is satisfied that "while there is a continuing threat of terrorist attack from Islamic terrorist groups, extremist Islam as a political force does not exist in this country." The association sees "no contradiction, on the one hand, between their longstanding adherence to principles that run contrary to religious beliefs and, on the other, their strong distaste for efforts to propagate a crusade mentality against Islam or any other religion." Of course, many Christians, if they've heard of the AHA, may assume that it is, in fact, waging a "crusade" against them exclusively, and failure to acknowledge this perception of inconsistency may be as significant a blind spot as the AHA's apparent belief that religion is a threat only in courts and legislatures.

The slogan on the AHA brochure reads "Good Without A God," but in practice that seems to be a personal motto rather than an imperative for everyone. The AHA member presumably says, "I can be good without a god, and the rest of you probably can as well, but we won't require it of you." They come short of the "militant atheist" position that people can't be good with a god, or that when they're good it's in spite of God. Like all forms of liberalism, this sort of liberal humanism faces new tests of its tenability in the 21st century that weren't expected just a short time ago, when the end of the Cold War seemed to mean the happy ending of history and the beginning of progress without struggle. Whether humanism itself remains tenable as something distinct from liberalism is a separate question, but it's unclear whether the AHA has an answer for it.

14 February 2017

Out like Flynn

When Russian politicians complain about the apparently forced resignation of President Trump's National Security Adviser, that will only confirm to some American observers that General Flynn was too chummy with Russia for Trump's good. Flynn stepped down after mere weeks on the job after the media learned that recordings of his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. from before his confirmation contradicted his own account, made directly to the Vice President-elect, that he had not discussed Trump's intentions regarding the last round of sanctions against Russia imposed by the Obama administration to protest alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. Flynn's offense ultimately was threefold. He may have violated the Logan Act by discussing U.S. foreign policy with a foreign diplomat while still a private citizen; he apparently lied to Vice President Pence about the content of the conversation; and as the Russians would know that he lied, he made himself theoretically vulnerable to blackmail that could compromise U.S. policy. Flynn may have been the leading Russophile on Trump's national-security team, and it would make sense for the President to replace him with someone of similar sympathies, albeit with less suspect ties to Russia, in order to counterbalance relative Russophobes like the new Secretary of Defense, who regards Russia as a "principal threat" to U.S. interests. Despite the suspicions of hard-core Russophobes here, it should be possible to favor friendlier relations with Russia, warts and all, without coming under criminal suspicion. I know it's part of internet folklore now that anyone who says anything in Russia's favor online is in Russia's employ, but for all Vladimir Putin's alleged ill-gotten gains I doubt he's that rich. Trump's security and foreign-policy appointments so far suggest that he has a healthy interest in hearing multiple points of view, if not necessarily as many as he should hear, and it might be at least as big a mistake as appointing Flynn apparently was to feel obliged to replace him with someone of the opposite viewpoint.

13 February 2017

Thoughts on a dead Klansman

As of now, investigators seem to suspect that the murder of a self-proclaimed Imperial Wizard of the (equally self-proclaimed?) Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was a result of family disputes. That wasn't my first thought, however, when I'd heard that a Klansman's korpse had been found with a bullet in his head. For all that some people seem to think that the KKK has more influence today than it's had in ages, I imagine that it's probably not very safe to be as open a Klansman in the news media and social media as this victim had been. I suppose his death could just as easily be a meth deal gone wrong, but I couldn't help asking whether, were his killers black or any sort of nonwhite, the murder of a Klansman would be considered a hate crime. Going further, were the man killed for being a Klansman -- and a powerful Wizard, mind you! -- would the political motivation of such an act make the killing of a Klansman an act of terrorism? If either of these categories of crime has objective rather than partisan meaning, the answer would have to be yes, even if that goes against our assumption that terrorism and hate crime are bad things that happen to good people. If the investigators in Missouri are on the right track this will be only idle speculation for now, but it's not hard to imagine Klansmen being targeted for violence if the national mood continues to deteriorate, and it definitely would be interesting, and probably telling, to see how a Klansman's killer from outside his family tree would be treated in the courts of law and public opinion.

10 February 2017

A progressive right

Conservative Republicans' aversion to the word "progressive" is one of their most maddening traits. How can one oppose "progress," after all? And yet "progressive" has become a pejorative among them. Some of them label Democrats as "progressive" with a vicious glee that might convince you that they don't even know the meaning of the word. You might expect this of right-wingers if you assume that conservatism is inherently opposed to any sort of progress, so long as progress means a departure from tradition, or can be equated with decadence. But the debate between progress and tradition isn't the only way to define the divide between "left" and "right." It might be useful to distinguish "conservative" from "right," and not just because doing so would keep Republicans from making fools of themselves describing fascism as a "left" phenomenon.

Historically, a clearer distinction might be drawn between "left" and "right" on the question of equality, identifying a "progressive right" as well as a "progressive left,"  each with its own vision of historical progress. The "progressive left" would be identified with an egalitarian vision of human progress, albeit one that has changed radically in recent generations, and in a way that helps clarify what a "progressive right" might stand for. The old progressive left envisioned progress in which everyone would share -- except for "class enemies," that is -- but the old vision of progress required the cultivation of a "new man" through ideological indoctrination and, in some cases, an aggressive abandonment of traditions. Reports of the crimes of the Marxist-Leninist regimes of the 20th century threw this "totalitarian" vision into disrepute. In its place is something like a vision of a spontaneous, gradual synthesis of human cultures into a cosmopolitan global culture, ideally one in which all cultures participate so that nobody feels excluded. This progressive left is egalitarian at the level of nationalities, cultures and religions. A progressive right would not be. While critics see "populist" movements around the world as essentially reactionary, in flight from progress understood as globalization, it should be possible to credit such groups with their own progressive visions. But according to these, true progress seems to depend on the ascendancy of one culture, or possibly a coalition of cultures, and the subjugation or suppression of cultures deemed inimical to progress. Move the discussion to the national level and the question becomes whether progress is necessarily democratic, with everyone sharing relatively equally in the rewards, or whether it depends on genius requiring special prerogatives and disproportionate rewards. In a sense, the entrepreneurial mentality of many American conservatives made their movement a "progressive right" all along, compared to earlier conservative parties, but that identification got lost in the midst of other battles against what looked like a united "progressive" front. At the same time, it isn't out of bounds to ask whether the left has become more reactionary than progressive in its apparently increasing reluctance to pay some meaningful price for progress. Ultimately, of course, any debate on these questions hinges on what "progress" means to you: who it benefits, and when; what it requires of us, and for how long; and so on. Once more people on the right realize that they don't have to treat "progress" as a fighting word, but can align it to their cause, the more likely a truly meaningful debate on progress can take place.

09 February 2017

'The party of the Ku Klux Klan'

Inevitably, when some Republican gets sick and tired of hearing himself or his comrades called racist, he's tempted, as Senator Cruz or Texas was yesterday, to talk as if it means something today that southern Democrats once supported the Ku Klux Klan. What do they expect to happen when they say this? Do they expect black Americans to say, "OMG, we didn't know that! The Democrats must be the real racists in this country!" Do they expect 21st century Democrats to think that the words and actions of long-ago Democrats, many of whose descendants, genetic and spiritual, are in the GOP today, disqualify them from discussing racially-charged issues or calling Republicans racist? To be honest, I'm not sure there's any strategic or even tactical purpose to these periodic outbursts. They're more like knee-jerk reactions, and if they send any message it's to Republicans themselves. They're the only ones who believe it, at least. What they believe, to be more specific, is that there's been an insidious continuity in Democratic attitudes toward blacks despite the dramatic partisan realignment fifty years ago that saw blacks abandon the "party of Lincoln" for the  "party of the Klan." The idea is that Democrats have always wanted to keep blacks a state of dependent subjugation. Before the Civil Rights movement, this was done through Jim Crow laws and economic exploitation, enforced by the Klan. Today, of course, it is the dread Welfare State that perpetuates black bondage to the Democracy. Democrats actively discourage aspirations to self-reliance in the black community, so the charge reads, because self-reliant blacks would have no reason to vote Democratic, having realized at last how unfair Democratic policies are to self-reliant people. Some Republicans will go further and claim that Democrats are racists in at least a patronizing, paternalistic way, accusing them of thinking blacks incapable of succeeding on their own. And since no Democrat would speak any of these alleged truths in broad daylight, they keep blacks in line by waving the bloody shirt of Republican racism when it's the GOP, according to this account, that wants to liberate them, just as Lincoln did.

The Democratic countercharge, that Republicans, freshly prodded by the nebulous "alt-right," want to reduce blacks and others to second-class citizenship in fact if not by law, is, of course, equally unfair. Yes, there certainly are Trump voters and more conservative Republicans who resent aspects of the black presence in American life. But to argue that they seek to relegate non-whites to some racially or culturally defined inferior category reserved for them is surely wrong. Few Trump voters, apart from real old-timers (who probably were Democrats once) or fringe figures who have no influence over the President or even Steve Bannon, really believe in hierarchies of race. They definitely believe in hierarchies, however, even if only on the simplest level of "winners" and "losers," and they'll happily relegate millions of white men into the "loser" category without shedding a tear of racial or cultural solidarity. If anything, Democratic race rhetoric distracts working-class white Republicans from this prospect; as long as Democrats simply damn them for supporting Trump, without telling them why it's not in their specific interest to support him, they can keep on believing that Trump's the one who really cares for "real" Americans like themselves. Until Democrats or others on the left can figure out that the general threat Trumpism represents to all Americans matters more than the particular threats he may pose to particular groups, Republicans will be free to continue, after their paradoxical if not perverse fashion, to claim the moral high ground by not caring whether any particular person lives or starves.


I didn't expect to take Senator McCain's side against President Trump very often, but I was overestimating the Trump administration. McCain and Trump are in another spat already, this time over the raid in Yemen in which a Navy SEAL and several Yemeni civilians were killed. One objective of the raid was to take out an al-Qaeda leader, and because that target survived while a SEAL was killed, McCain says, reasonably enough, that the raid was not a success. He hasn't learned yet that you can't tell Trump that he didn't succeed in something, while Trump and his press secretary have learned to use the troops as human shields defending the President's narcissism. To say that the raid failed, they claim, both emboldens the enemy and insults the memory of the dead SEAL. In other words, "winning" under Trump means taking the attitude of totalitarian nations, whose armies, according to their propaganda, won at everything they tried. But for Trump to pick a fight on this subject with McCain, who's probably more gung-ho about such operations than most other Senators, looks like the opposite of winning. It also goes against American principles as best expressed by Theodore Roosevelt. During the George W. Bush administration Teddy was much quoted by people defending their right to criticize the President during wartime. Much of the time those people quoted him out of context to defend their right to criticize the war itself, while T.R. did not believe Americans had any right, legal or moral, to repudiate a war once the country had committed to it. However, he did believe that Americans had the right to criticize the President's conduct of the war. His words from 1918 are always relevant, but they're arguably more relevant on his own terms now than they were in Dubya's day:

The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly as necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.

08 February 2017

Senatorial correctness

Apparently there's one place where you can't call someone a racist, and that's the U.S. Senate -- as long as the subject is a U.S. Senator. Last night the Majority Leader disqualified Senator Warren of Massachusetts from further debate over confirming Sen. Sessions of Alabama as the next Attorney General for violating section 2 of Senate Rule XIX. According to this section, adopted in 1902, "No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator." Warren violated this rule by reading a letter Coretta Scott King had written in 1986 opposing Sessions' nomination to a federal judgeship, accusing him (he was denied that post) of using a "shabby" vote-fraud case to subvert black voting rights. That apparently impugned Sessions' motives at a time before he was a Senator, while a quotation from Ted Kennedy, also opposing the judgeship, impugned Sessions' character by claiming he would a "disgrace" to the Justice Department he is now likely to head.

The rule was introduced to suppress the use of fighting words lest they result in actual fights. According to this report, the incident that led to the rule saw the senior Senator from South Carolina, "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, attack the junior Senator, his fellow Democrat, for calling him a liar after Tillman had accused him of treachery under "improper influences." In a more notorious example, back in 1856 Senator Sumner of Massachusetts supposedly slandered Senator Butler, again of South Carolina, provoking Butler's cousin, Rep. Preston Brooks, to invade the Senate chamber and  beat Sumner nearly to death with a cane. It's worth noting in this context that section 3 of Rule XIX, adopted at the same time, prohibits similar reflections on any state in the Union.

Last night, the Majority Leader was promptly accused of selective, partisan enforcement of the rule. He was reminded that not so long ago, Sen. Cruz of Texas, a fellow Republican, had called Sen. McConnell himself a liar on the Senate floor, but suffered no formal rebuke. Meanwhile, the King letter (not so much the Kennedy) took social media by storm, and Warren probably gained more support as a prospective 2020 presidential candidate, even though she'll be older than than either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was last year. Whatever the rule says, McConnell's action, and the instant exposure of his inconsistency in enforcing the rule, appeared to reconfirm the paranoid opposition narrative that the Trump regime's ultimate goal is to suppress dissent by any means available. I suspect that, like many Republicans, McConnell was sick and tired of Democratic delaying tactics when the minority can't really do anything to defeat the President's Cabinet nominees. Their best chance came and went yesterday, when the Vice President had to cast a tie-breaking vote to confirm the new Secretary of Education, but there are unlikely to be Republican defectors against Sessions. Democratic opposition thus becomes mere posturing, but it's as much their prerogative to posture as it was Republicans' whenever President Obama nominated people they disliked. Think what you will of President Trump, but to hear Republicans whine that Democrats should "give him a chance" after their eight years of obstructing Obama is disgusting. Of course, someone can say it's disgusting that the Democrats won't give Trump a chance after eight years of insisting that Obama be given a chance, but I think those who insisted on their right, if not their moral obligation, to obstruct are the bigger hypocrites right now when they deplore obstructionism.

Maybe it was the Majority Leader's personal prerogative not to recognize an insult when Cruz attacked his character, while he may have felt obliged to defend a colleague who, as the nominee under consideration, could not defend himself, but hypocrisy explains the situation just as well. Rule XIX, section 2 probably isn't a bad thing in itself, but there ought to be a consistent, nonpartisan way of enforcing it and similar rules designed to ensure civility in debate. Otherwise it's just politics as usual, and I don't know if that's really worse than having people brawl on the Senate floor to defend their honor.

07 February 2017

War of Tweets

If an old fart like President Trump seems an unlikely Twitter junky, what about Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the heir to Ayatollah Khomeini and "Supreme Leader" of the Islamic Republic of Iran? Proving again that Islamists only want to take certain things back to the 7th century, Khamenei is waging a Twitter war with the President. Trump recently put Iran "on notice" after the Shiite state conducted a missile test, and joked that the Iranians should be grateful to President Obama for going easy on them, as Trump presumably won't. Khamenei retorted that Trump has shown the world the "real face" of the U.S. with his travel ban. Like Trump, Khamenei is loose with the facts, citing a photo of a handcuffed 5 year old as proof of Trump's cruelty, when the photo in question reportedly predates the Trump administration. But it's in his discussion of the so-called Islamic State, presumably the mutual enemy of the U.S. and Iran, that Khamenei gets really demented. His tweets are taken from a speech he gave to a group of Iranian Air Force commanders, in which the Supreme Leader asks what, exactly, Iran should thank Obama for? It's an understandable question if you, like the Ayatollah, blame Obama for the existence, or at least the flourishing of the IS. Since Trump also blames Obama for these phenomena, you'd think there might be grounds for agreement between the two leaders. Each claims to want to crush the IS, which by Churchillian standards would seem to make each a practical ally for the other in a common fight. Neither man, however, has the really tough pragmatism of a Churchill, a Stalin or an FDR.

Israel gets in the way. Follow the link on Khamenei's web page when he mentions ISIS in his speech and you'll see a video in which he supposedly proves that the takfiri fanatics "serve" Israel, either unwittingly or by design, by dividing the Muslim world and discrediting Islam with its unlawful beheadings and other atrocities. Donald Trump isn't that crazy, but you might almost wonder whether Khamenei has a point when the President continues to threaten a country that arguably has done as much as anyone to fight Sunni extremism in the Middle East, and for no other reason than that he perceives Iran as a threat to Israel. He's not exactly wrong about that -- among Khamenei's grievances against the IS is that is has distracted Islam from the struggle against the Zionist Entity while doing nothing to help Palestinians --  but what happened to America First, Mr. President?

I'll grant that Trump, being an old fart, probably still wants to settle scores from 1979, and it's probably true that many Americans will never forgive Iran for the hostage crisis -- after all, some really old people here still haven't forgiven Japan for Pearl Harbor. For that matter, many Iranians probably still won't forgive the U.S. for never turning over the Shah, or for inflicting him on them after they'd rejected him in the 1950s. Both sides need to keep their eyes on the prize here and now. Failing to find a way to work together against the IS would be like Churchill telling Stalin to go die when Hitler attacked him because he was a Bolshevik, or Stalin refusing British help because Churchill was an imperialist capitalist. History may determine that the feud between the U.S. and Iran is itself a principal cause of the rise of the IS, for which Khamenei also deserves a personal share of blame for trying to force Shiite hegemony down Iraqi throats after the fall of Saddam. It's hard to imagine the IS lasting much longer if the U.S. and Iran (as well as Syria, Iraq and Russia) got on the same page for however long it will take to whack the takfirs. I'm not sure how much pragmatism we can expect from the Ayatollah, but if it took Nixon to go to China, maybe it'll take Trump to go to Tehran. But what will it take to get him there?

05 February 2017

'We're so innocent?"

Later this afternoon, Fox News will broadcast Bill O'Reilly's interview with the President. To promote the event the network released an excerpt in which the interviewer questions Trump's desire for better relations with Vladimir Putin, whom O'Reilly calls a 'killer.' The President's answer is a challenge: doesn't O'Reilly think we have plenty of killers here in the U.S.? Does he think we're so innocent?
In context, Trump doesn't seem to be referring to the criminal killers who plague Chicago and other places. His fairly clear meaning, I think, is that the U.S. has played dirty (Trump might prefer 'tough') in geopolitics, as Russia has, if not also in the domestic sphere, as Putin is assumed to do. There is self-evident truth in the President's comment, but a CNN host was not wrong this morning to tell an uncomfortable Majority Leader McConnell that had the previous President said the same words Republicans would have condemned him. Yet there is this difference: there was always a note of apology, albeit only inferred sometimes, when Obama raised these subjects.Republicans and other jingoists still despise him for his so-called apology tour. I doubt whether the current President really means anything accusatory when he questions American innocence. Instead, he probably means to challenge people who think we're too good to associate with Putin, or that we'd debase ourselves by working with him. Trump may know that when Hitler invaded Russia Churchill said he'd be willing to make an alliance with the devil to beat the Nazis, and so would gladly work with Stalin. To this day, of course, many people regret that Churchill and FDR had to work with Stalin -- the price of working with Russia usually ends up being the subjugation of Eastern Europe -- but none would rather have conceded anything to Hitler to spite the Bolsheviks.
Today, we can guess that Trump is willing to pay some price to get Russian cooperation against Islamic terrorism that others here are unwilling to pay, but a willingness to pay, even if other countries end up paying the real price, is probably better than a refusal to bargain from a dubious position of moral superiority. For all we know, Putin might be able to teach Trump something about geopolitical pragmatism. After all, allying with Russia against the self-styled Islamic State really should be an easy call. The real challenge to American self-righteousness would be to build a coalition against Sunni terrorism by reconciling with Russia's friends and the Shiite superpower of the region, the Iranians. So far Trump shows no sign of such pragmatism, but he still has plenty of time to learn.

03 February 2017

Tyrannies of past, present and future

Conservatism practiced in moderation looks to the past for practical lessons and examples to emulate, but when taken to excess the tyranny of the past presumes that all questions about humanity and society have long been settled and can't be improved upon, either by wiser men than we'll ever see again, or by divine revelation. Conservatism in excess distrusts innovation and experimentation, albeit in some realms more than others, and regards the future with fear so long as it fails to conform to the timeline of the prophets. In effect, it enslaves people to the past.

Progressivism practiced in moderation aspires to a steady improvement in the quality of human life, beginning as soon as possible and continuing indefinitely into the future. When taken to excess the tyranny of the future sacrifices the present to distant visions and wages war on the past. Totalitarians presume that no no one really knew anything before they came along and see nothing the past can offer except unwelcome contradiction. Since their future is a kind of perpetual becoming, always better than what came before or what exists now, the people here and now often seem less real, less meaningful, less worthy of consideration or compassion to them. In effect, they enslave people to the future.

Liberalism practiced in moderation combines critical awareness of the past's lessons, when they're still relevant, and an awareness of the future as an extension of the here-and-now. Taken to excess, liberalism becomes the tyranny of the present, spurning all appeals to past wisdom while stubbornly prioritizing the here-and-now over the future. While conservatism in excess is often skeptical toward innovation and progressivism in excess is often skeptical toward immediate human needs, liberalism in excess is skeptical toward sacrifice, doubting the worth of future goals for the people here-and-now who'll never see long-term goals realized. As the undisputed champions of the here-and-now over both past and future, liberalism in excess -- you might call it anarchy, hedonism, individualism, secular humanism --  doesn't see itself enslaving anybody, but are they right?

The first two kinds of tyrannies have been the subject of theory and critique for ages now, but the idea that liberalism in excess is a kind of tyranny, or at least a form of oppression -- though not the "liberal fascism" of sophomoric Republican rhetoric -- is less often considered, if only because most people doing the thinking and critiquing in the world are liberals. American liberalism is arguably a special kind of excess with specific historical sources that now seems incapable of addressing challenges from the many forms of 21st century extremism. Whether that means liberalism has reached its historical limit of usefulness, or whether American liberalism is uniquely handicapped, requires further consideration of the subject, which I hope to return to every so often when President Trump and his enemies aren't making so much news.

02 February 2017

New Proof: Trump is not a Know-Nothing after all

The President attended the National Prayer Breakfast this morning and made the usual spectacle of himself. Among his remarks was the renewal, with escalated language, of a promise made last summer during the presidential campaign to "destroy" the Johnson Amendment. That law is named after Lyndon  B. Johnson, then a Senator from Texas, who allegedly sought to undercut his local rivals by stripping churches of their tax-exempt status should their pastors endorse political candidates from the pulpit. Whatever Johnson's motives, his legislation seems like an appropriate enforcement of the separation of church and state, allowing no pretense that the god clerics serve favors one candidate or one party over another. Donald Trump doesn't like it, however. He wants Congress to repeal the Johnson Amendment in order to "allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution." One suspects that he would only make that recommendation having faith that the clergy thus unleashed will speak in his or the Republican party's favor. Trump is often portrayed as a "nativist" in the tradition of the Know-Nothing (aka American) party of the 1850s. The Know-Nothings were Protestant nationalists who feared that Roman Catholicism was incompatible with the country's young traditions of religious liberty and independent thought. One of the main reasons why they sought to regulate if not limit Catholic immigration -- among their proposals was a 21-year naturalization period permitting proper Americanization -- was their belief that Catholic citizens would be told how to vote by their priests, from the pulpit. That prospect apparently troubles neither Trump nor today's heirs of the Protestant nationalists, even as they double down for an apparently existential struggle with people who want clerics to tell everyone what to do. For many Americans, I suppose, it really comes down to which clerics get to give the orders.

01 February 2017

THINK 3 VIDEO NEWS: Troy students vs. the travel ban

My newspaper office is just a few feet away from Monument Square in the heart of downtown Troy NY. News often comes to us in such a convenient location, and it arrived around 1 p.m. this afternoon in the form of a few hundred college students and sympathizers who converged there, even though Monument Square isn't really the most pedestrian-friendly space, to protest the President's temporary ban on people from seven reputed terror-fostering countries entering the United States. Here are a few snippets of the event, which went on for nearly an hour.

First, some typical chanting:

Now here's a revival of the human-amplifier tactics of the old Occupy movement. Forgive the wasted footage of the last few moments; I thought I had already stopped recording.

Finally, here's some familiar sounding rhetoric from one of the protest leaders:

It reminds me a lot of the body metaphors used by the anonymous author of the New York Vigilance broadside from November. I doubt whether this speaker is the author of the Vigilance; it's more likely that the hate-as-cancer metaphor is common among this cohort of people.

I'm afraid that these protesters don't realize (or don't care) how much they're alienating other people who aren't Trump fans but don't view the travel ban with the same hysteria as demonstrators. That the ban is limited in scope and time matters little if you see it as the first step on a slippery slope. I get that it violates many people's ideals of individual liberty and innocence until guilt is proven. I just wonder whether massive resistance now will actually make it more likely that we slide further down the slope later. It will be easy for the President to claim the moral high ground here by asking whom
protesters really care about, or whom they should care about. Unfortunately for the protesters, "humanity" isn't the answer many people want to hear right now.

Here are a few more still images from today. They show that the protest seems to have caught local traffic, not to mention the local police, somewhat unawares, even though it was organized and announced in advance via Facebook. For non-Trojans, Monument Square is named for the city's Soldiers and Sailors Monument, where the protesters have converged.