30 March 2017

Trump vs Freedom

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

29 March 2017

Jobs! or: short-term thinking in democracies

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

28 March 2017

Cycles of liberal panic

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

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

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

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

27 March 2017

What is truth?

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

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

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

25 March 2017

The system works, or does it?

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

23 March 2017

The large policy

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

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

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

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

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

21 March 2017

What populism is not

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

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

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

20 March 2017

Jacksonian Trumpism

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

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

16 March 2017

Don't cry for me, Montenegro

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

15 March 2017

Somebody else's babies

Rep. King of Indiana embarrassed the Republican party and outraged just about everyone to its left a few days ago when he tweeted that "We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies." Subsequently King attempted to clarify his position, emphasizing that his concern was with culture, rather than race. He did not object to Americans adopting babies from all over the world, and in fact looked forward to a time when the interbreeding of races would make Americans more homogeneous in appearance and, he hoped, in their culture. At the same time, he insisted that the U.S. had to keep its birth rate up, strongly implying that adoption could not make up for a declining birth rate among culturally sound Americans. His comments disturbed many critics in the Republican party, while criticisms of King disturbed many in the Trump movement and on the so-called alt-right. His concern with American birth rates is reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt's worries over "race suicide." Teddy also felt that the native stock wasn't replenishing itself fast enough to keep up with the birth rates of the seemingly unassimilable others of his time. It's more disturbing to many to hear such talk more than a century later since it begs the question of whether King thinks American women have an individual duty to breed. But that wasn't what really bothered Republicans about King's recent remarks. Jonathan S. Tobin's column at National Review Online summarizes the critique of King from a self-conscious Right. Tobin considers King's unamended position a betrayal of American exceptionalism.

At the heart of King’s statement is not only a prejudicial mindset but also a profound pessimism about the strength of the values the congressman says he wishes to preserve. The country thrived because those values were not the preserve of a specific ethnic or religious group but could be embraced by anyone regardless of his background or faith. It is not naïve to assert that this hasn’t changed even while the skin color of immigrants is darker today than it was in the past. That is the essence of American exceptionalism. To think that only white babies can preserve this legacy is a betrayal of conservative principles that are rooted in faith in the law rather than race.

As noted, King subsequently stated that he did not think virtue depended upon blood. Nevertheless, while Tobin upholds a vision -- not the only one, obviously, -- of American exceptionalism, he rejects a vision of what could be called Islamic exceptionalism. "The fact that some immigrants or their children reject American democratic traditions or embrace violence is certainly discouraging," he writes, "just as it was a century ago when anarchists and violent leftists posed a threat that inspired the same kind of fear we experience today." In other words, Tobin rejects the idea that Islam is essentially incompatible with American values in an exceptional, unprecedented way that makes all comparisons with past nativist outburst irrelevant, arguing instead that all people who have judged any culture incompatible with American values are equally wrong. It would appear that one cannot be both an American exceptionalist and an Islamic exceptionalist in the sense I've just described, since the American exceptionalist admits no possible exception to his rule that people from any cultural background can recognize the appeal of American values and choose them over his native values. What makes America exceptional, presumably, is its uniquely universal appeal, to which no one is inherently immune. But given how many native-born Americans of ancient pioneer stock espouse values incompatible with "American" values as defined by Republicans, the confidence exceptionalists express seems somewhat misplaced. 
Republican criticism of Rep. King exposes a divide within the American right on the subject of culture. King and Tobin might well agree that "multicultralism" as espoused by Democrats and people further to the left isn't good for the country, but while each man presumably champions an "American" culture, it's not clear whether they agree on what that culture is. On the right, there's been an ongoing debate between those who see the U.S. as a "propositional" nation whose "culture" is defined by its founding documents -- the Declaration, Constitution, Federalist papers, etc. -- and those who define the culture in more cultural terms, as a matter of "blood and soil" or as part of a larger, pre-existing culture to which Americans still owe loyalty and to which immigrants must assimilate more thoroughly than the "propositional" proposition may require. This debate has been obscured, to the chagrin of the exceptionalists and "propositional nation" types, by the current imperative to define American civilization negatively as not Islamic, not Hispanic or not something else. But doing that only begs the big question, even as it postpones the answer for a time. At some point, however, people will want to know just what (or who) they're defending from the irreconcilable Other. Is it a culture defined by the Republican party? By the Christian Right? By the longshots in the white nationalist movement? What makes American culture distinctive if not exceptional? It won't do to say "freedom," since just about every culture on earth espouses some vision of freedom -- even the monotheists who see obedience to scripture as freedom from enslavement to self. If it were just "freedom" then no one would dispute the "propositional nation" idea, but once we get past "freedom," once someone suggests that true citizenship means more than simply knowing you're free, it becomes less likely that everyone on the current Right will agree with any one notion of what American culture is. That doesn't mean a consensus isn't possible, but it might take more work and more debate than many people are willing to undertake just now. And that's why King's recent comments made many people uncomfortable. Whether he intended to or not, he raised questions that probably will have to be answered eventually.

13 March 2017

Reet, Preet and Gone

You should be able to tell the difference in the way American right-wingers generally and right-wingers from New York responded to last weekend's news that federal prosecutor Preet Bharara had been asked to resign by the Attorney General, and then fired for refusing to do so. To the rest of the country, it looks like Bharara is just another whiny Democrat, being an Obama appointee, whose foreign name probably makes him all the more contemptible. To New Yorkers, Bharara, born in India of a Sikh father and Hindu mother, Bharara looks more like one of the last truly nonpartisan figures in public life. He owes that reputation to his record of fighting corruption in the New York State Legislature. His investigations led to the fall from power and conviction of Sheldon Silver, the Democratic speaker of the state assembly, and Dean Skelos, the Republican leader of the state senate. More recently his inquiries have penetrated the inner circle of Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, and I heard many people rooting for him to go after the biggest of prizes within his reach, the governor himself. Unfortunately, as a federal prosecutor Bharara serves at the pleasure of the President, and when the White House changes parties spoilsmanship is the customary practice. Bharara was removed in a clean sweep of federal prosecutors that seems to have been more the Attorney General's idea than the President's. Resignations were asked (i.e. demanded) of all of them, and the only reason Bharara kicked was that Donald Trump supposedly had told him last November that he wanted Bharara to stick around after he became President. Automatically it was assumed by partisan observers and others hostile to Trump that the President must have had something to hide, in his public or private capacities, from the relentless prosecutor. The simpler and more likely explanation would be that Trump or Sessions wanted new prosecutors in place, both as customary practice and in order to assure that they'd all be on the same page as the administration. I don't know to what extent the White House can tell these prosecutors whom or what to prosecute, but I'd assume they wanted zero possibility of resistance or obstruction and considered every Obama appointee suspect, even one of Bharara's honorable reputation. It's unlikely, however, that this is the last we'll hear of Preet Bharara. He'll certainly be in demand as a talking head on TV, and his inevitable memoir will be in demand from publishers. While his foreign birth disqualifies him from the presidency, his influence over New York State politics may not be at an end. It might be fitting for his next public role to be that of the Empire State's attorney general, if not its governor. He could be the next Thomas Dewey, the next Rudy Giuliani or -- one really hopes not in this case -- the next Eliot Spitzer. New York loves its prosecutors, but they don't always justify that love.

10 March 2017

The rule of law

The president of South Korea was removed from office today by the country's Constitutional Court. She was impeached by a supermajority of the legislature, including many members of her own political party, following revelations that a powerful personal aide was soliciting contributions from large conglomerates (including global brands Samsung and Hyundai) to the aide's foundations, and had been allowed improper influence inside the government. While today's news sparked protests that reportedly have led to the deaths of at least two people, polls indicate that a large majority of the country supported the president's impeachment and removal. South Korea appears to have a more rational impeachment and removal process than the U.S. does. A supermajority of legislators was necessary for the impeachment, presumably to avoid the appearance of partisanship in the vote. The impeachment put the president's fate in the hands of the Constitutional Court, which had 180 days from the time of the vote to decide whether or not to remove her. Their vote is not a conviction but a confirmation of the validity of the impeachment. By comparison, impeachment in the U.S. means a trial by the Senate, where the requirement of a supermajority to convict means that a partisan majority of sufficient size can block the president's removal regardless of the evidence introduced during the trial. The South Korean Constitutional Court consists of nine judges. While all nine are appointed by the president, as in the U.S., the Korean president actually has complete discretion in the appointment of three of those justices. The other six are selected from pools of names determined by the court's own chief justice and the legislature. While this doesn't guarantee partisan or ideological balance, it theoretically makes a partisan or ideologically biased court less likely than the appointment process in the U.S. During the 180 day countdown the president was under suspension and stripped of effective power, the prime minister acting in her stead. Today's removal decision forces a snap presidential election, the prime minister remaining as acting president until the vote.

While extreme partisans may cry frame-up, this episode indicates that it is possible to hold the highest elected officials accountable in a republican form of government. It probably helped that South Korea is not really a bipolarchy. Five parties have seats in the legislature, though two (including the president's) clearly predominate. It may also be that partisanship doesn't work the same way in South Korea than it does in the U.S., where an apparently ironclad bipolarchy extending beyond the political sphere encourages a kind of partisan immunity on the presumption that any attempt to remove an elected official from office is a hypocritical conspiracy by the opposing party. Whatever the underlying reasons, it's good to have South Korea around as an alternate example of functioning liberal democracy when authoritarians, usually pointing at the United States, claim that such a system of government is hopelessly corrupt, hopelessly incompetent, or simply hopeless.

What's the matter with empathy?

In an eccentric but welcome change of pace from recent opinionating, Jonah Goldberg almost apologetically contributed a column about the Austrian school of economics and its relation to a recent critique of empathy by the American psychologist Paul Bloom. The Austrians, whose exemplar was Friederich von Hayek, are the economists who argued that planned economies could never function as efficiently as the spontaneous order of free markets because central planners. For Goldberg their virtue is a rationalism he finds preferable to the empathetic romanticism of the so-called German school. While Goldberg seems to overstate the Germans' reliance on empathy -- he also says they were "champions of bathing in statistics and other economic data" -- the specific critique of empathy he borrows from Paul Bloom is an interesting one. As the Germans supposedly were too concerned with discovering the individuality of different cultures as the key to understanding their economies, empathy in general "causes us to focus on a specific injustice or outrage" in a way that "sidelines reason." Bloom prefers "reasoned compassion" to empathy, equating the former with the parents who certainly feel their children's pain but still understand that in some cases "the suffering [can] be for their long term benefit." Returning to the economic or political context, the problem doesn't seem to be empathy itself, since people are going to feel what they're going to feel, but a hedonism that might be described as weaponized empathy. By hedonism I don't mean sensual self-indulgence but an outgrowth -- some might want to call it a decadent form -- of the utilitarianism Bloom reportedly espouses. While utilitarianism aspires to the greatest good for the greatest number, or the good of the whole at the expense of some parts, hedonism aspires to zero tolerance of suffering and thus can be recognized at the heart of 21st century progressive liberalism in the U.S., if not the wider west. Arguably it was the inevitable result of the left's repudiation of Leninism (if not Marxism altogether) and the implicit triumph of a more anarchist strain of leftism, or an anarchist tendency of the old labor movement, for whom the highest goal was an easier life for everyone. This hedonism questions the utility of any suffering (in a civilized world of presumed superabundance) beyond the literal "touch a fire and get burnt" level, and also questions any appeal for sacrifice -- other than monetary sacrifice by the rich, that is -- if not any appeal for deferred gratification. Such appeals are assumed to be someone exploiting you, in the absence of higher causes. It's still a matter of theory whether the sort of anarcho-hedonism I describe is a distinctive element in American though or politics -- that's a subject I'd like to explore more as a historian -- but its existence definitely would explain a lot, and recognizing it might keep empathy from getting a bad name.

08 March 2017


The first big inter-Republican showdown is shaping up as Congress considers a "repeal and replace" healthcare bill supported by the President and the Speaker of the House, but opposed by many movement conservatives. Democrats also oppose the legislation, claiming that millions of people will be stripped of coverage, but some may come around should they become convinced that it's the best deal they can get in the face of conservative opposition, especially if conservative opposition proves so strong that Speaker Ryan finds himself needing Democratic votes. Trump and Ryan find themselves in what should prove a comfortable middle position between Democrats who want no retrenchment whatsoever and conservative ideologues who seem to object to any public subsidy for personal health insurance, but whether any middle ground on this subject is tenable is open to debate. I'm already hearing some Trump fans complain about the bill as a Republican betrayal of their constituents because they've heard it will force their premiums even higher than they've risen under the Affordable Care Act. So far, however, it doesn't sound like they blame the President, and as long as he can appear to stand above the fray he has some room to maneuver, either to push for amendments in response to his "forgotten" base or simply to save face. Reporters and opinionators claim that "repeal and replace" will be the first real test of Trump's ability to "deal" with congressional Republicans. He's already brought out the stick, reportedly warning of a primary "bloodbath" if the legislation fails, while the carrots may not be as visible to untrained observers. The impending struggle may also prove a test of what Trump really stands for on domestic politics. On the campaign trail, he gave indications that he didn't believe the "free market solves all problems" philosophy of the health bill's opponents. Will he be willing to challenge that orthodoxy openly in defense of the bill? Meanwhile, Trump's "populism" usually has been understood in the negative terms of who or what he's against. We may see now what it means in a positive sense, and what the President really believes is necessary for the well-being of his people.

07 March 2017

Why Russophobia?

Stephen F. Cohen's latest attack in The Nation magazine on anti-Trump "Kremlin baiting" provoked a lengthy and fascinating comment thread that tends to confirm his diagnosis of three strains of "latter-day McCarthyiste hysteria" on the American left. Cohen attributes Kremlin-baiting to vindictive supporters of Hillary Clinton; American politicians and commentators who are really more scared of Trump than of Russia; and "enemies of Trump’s proposed détente with Russia, who want to discredit both him and Putin." He attempts to refute six distinct allegations of Russian-Trumpite collusion and is most effective when pointing out when many other Americans whose loyalties or integrity are not suspect have had similar dealings with Russian politicians or oligarchs. Cohen is so far against the grain of the American left on this subject that he's willing to give General Flynn, the disgraced former National Security Adviser, credit for reaching out to the Russians to dissuade them from overreacting to President Obama's last round of economic sanctions. Cohen works himself into a righteous fury in closing:

In fact, it is not Putin who is threatening American democracy, but rather these Kremlin-baiting allegations against President Trump. It is not Putin who is endangering US and international security, but rather the high-level political and intelligence enemies of détente. Similarly, it is not Putin who is degrading the US media with “fake news.” Nor is it Putin who is subverting the American political process, but rather the US intelligence leakers who are at war against their own president. 

Of course, Cohen's many critics are accusing Trump, not Putin, of all these things, and blame Putin for abetting him. While two out of three of Cohen's categories of hysterics can be dismissed as frivolous, the hard core of Russophobia lies with the "enemies of détente." Why oppose détente? Different opponents have different reasons. Some, presumably, have a material stake in more open trading with Ukraine and the rest of Russia's "near abroad" than Putin might permit. Others have a sincere ideological grievance against Putin's alleged authoritarianism, while Cohen claims that there's no evidence for the routine charge that Putin is a "killer" of political enemies. Some of those critics fear that Trump may take the U.S. in a more authoritarian direction, mistaking the President's readiness to talk back to the media as a readiness to suppress it, while others have bought into the idea that Putin intends to defend "authoritarian" regimes everywhere as he has defended Syria  (where Russia has its only Mediterranean naval base), thus exacerbating the world's misery. All these strains of Russophobia converge on a point that arguably puts the lie to the portrayal of the reactionary populist movement in Europe as "nationalist."

It's often said that Putin and Trump, and their sympathizers in Europe, are nationalistic in some retrograde, repressive  manner. But "nationalism" doesn't exactly describe what a Russo-American rapprochement orchestrated by Putin and Trump would mean for Europe, or for the rest of the world if Trump applies similar principles globally. Critics of Trump and Putin seem to agree that the fate of Ukraine as a truly independent nation, if not also the future independence of the Baltic states and other former components of the Soviet Union, are at stake in Russo-American negotiations. It's assumed that conceding some degree of Russian hegemony over that region will be the prince Trump pays, however willingly, for greater Russian cooperation against Islamic terrorism or for Middle East peace. If those predictions are correct, then the U.S. and Russia would not be practicing nationalism but the geopolitics of spheres of influence. Ukrainian nationalism, Baltic nationalism, etc. would be sacrificed to Russia in this scenario. At stake, presumably, is a liberal nationalism analogous to the individualism of liberal democracy. As each individual in a liberal democracy should be free as possible to choose his or her identity or destiny, so should each nation in a liberal world order be free to refuse subservience to its largest neighbor. This attitude can be held by people who are most likely hypocritical on the subject of the Monroe Doctrine and people who most likely are not. In their opposition to conceding a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe they're united in a foreign policy that's essentially ideological. For them, the problem with Trump's prospective foreign policy is not that it might express a different ideology, but that it would eschew ideology altogether in favor of a pragmatic pursuit of American interests which, to critics' eternal chagrin, are not now nor perhaps ever identical to the interests of humanity as they define it. Critics of Trump's presumed foreign policy give a damn about other nations and their people in a way his most fervent domestic supporters most likely don't. That doesn't automatically make them un-American or disloyal, since no ideal foreign policy is written in stone or exempt from criticism. But few such critics seem to show consistent loyalty to humanity against other threats than Russian ambition or American selfishness. Until we see greater consistency along that line, as we haven't really since the heyday of Leninism, it's fair to ask how seriously critics of pragmatic foreign policies suited to the times should be taken.

Is mistaken identity a hate crime?

The man shot in Washington state last Friday by an assailant who reportedly told him to "get out of the country" was almost certainly mistaken for a Muslim because, as a Sikh, he wore a turban and a beard. Muslims are identified with turbans (hence the "towelhead" slur) but to my knowledge none of Islam's silly dress codes require men to wear them. Sikhs, however, are expected to wear them, which puts them in danger from ignorant people in this country. The victim will survive, fortunately, and meanwhile his family reportedly wants the case prosecuted as a hate crime. A case like this would really clarify the status of hate crime as thoughtcrime, even though the shooter (who remains at large) may not even have an opinion of Sikhs, unless he's an indiscriminate xenophobe. The idea that he hated somebody apparently would be enough to make his crime more deplorable than it already is. In the unlikely event that he did act out of specific hostility to Sikhs, he'd be out of step with President Trump, who has done some outreach to India and Americans of Indian descent, probably recognizing that Hindus, at least, are as certain allies in a war on Islamic terrorism as anyone you'll find on Earth. Over the weekend the President condemned the recent killing of another Indian man who somehow was mistaken for an Iranian by his assailant. It's in his interest to highlight non-white victims of radical Islam around the world as the best way to show that whatever measures he intends to take are not motivated by "racism" or raw nativist xenophobia, while idiotic acts like last Friday's shooting only confirm many people's suspicion that too many Americans hate any form of otherness, regardless of what those others think or believe. With luck, this can become an educational moment on all sides, but that might be wishful thinking by now.

06 March 2017

Excuse me, but who are the fascists, exactly?

Supporters of President Trump had the clever idea of branding last Saturday as a day to "March 4 Trump" across the country. Predictably turnout was low compared to anti-Trump rallies since the election, in part because the modern American right, with some Tea Party exceptions, isn't really keen on mass demonstrations, while social media may make such affairs seem obsolete to the "alt-right." There was no rally in Albany, that I know of, for me to record; the nearest one, if I can judge from our local news channel, was far off in Rome. Local Trump people probably were better off staying home and warm, as their counterparts elsewhere often found themselves under attack from "Black Bloc" types and other demonstrators. Once again, Berkeley CA stood out for violent intolerance, as you can see from numerous YouTube videos. Despite the perception of Trump supporters as nascent brownshirt stormtroopers, it seems that they've been on the defensive most of the time. Apparently the few incidents of Trump people hitting hecklers at 2016 rallies have been enough to let some agitators assume that the Trump movement started some kind of street war. But this sense of entitlement to attack goes back to before Trump appeared on the political scene. For a long time, a segment of the left has felt that racists, particularly skinheads or neo or crypto-Nazis, are eligible to beat up, that "hate" can only be answered with hate. And since it has become a truism in many circles that Trump supporters are "haters" of some sort, they too can be beaten up by people who fancy themselves the moral equivalents of anti-Nazi streetfighters in Weimar Germany -- if they know any history, that is. What these people hope to accomplish apart from counting coup -- and if we're dealing with actual Black Blocs then a lot of this is white-on-white violence, for what that's worth -- is a mystery to me. As crazy as it may sound, some of them may actually want to provoke the sort of violent response from the right that would confirm their stereotype of the Trump movement, because that's the only motivation that appears to make practical sense. I don't think it's going to make fewer people vote for Trump or the Republican party next time, and it'll probably hurt the Democratic party (not that Black Bloc sorts care) because the Trump people will readily believe that the DNC if not Barack Obama himself (or that ultimate puppetmaster antichrist, George Soros!) is orchestrating every anti-Trump outburst in the country. The very last thing American liberals and progressives need at this time is violent morons demonstrating that no dialogue is possible with the Trump movement, since they may well convince the Trump movement that no dialogue is possible with the left as a whole. These fools on the left may think they can get their enemies to reveal their true nature as fascists, but if the American right turns fascist in response to the sort of "carnage" we saw on March 4, the left probably won't like what they see. Until that happens, however, the only fascists I see out there are the ones who think they're fighting fascists.

02 March 2017

The kangaroo court is now in Sessions

The newest target of organized Russophobia is Attorney General Sessions. The former Senator is under pressure to recuse himself from any investigation of the Trump campaign's ties to Russia because his own ties to Russia are now under question. At issue is the answer he gave to a question from Sen. Franken during his confirmation hearings. Sessions said that he did not have contact with the Russian government during the presidential campaign, but it was revealed recently that he did meet with Russian officials. The honesty of the answer appears to depend on the context of the question, which came up during discussion of Sessions' role in the Trump campaign. Sessions' defenders argue that he honestly denied meeting with Russians in his capacity as a Trump "surrogate," and that meetings with them in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee were not relevant to the question. Some Republicans aren't happy with this apparent hair-splitting and have joined in calling for a recusal, while Democratic leaders have pushed on to demand Sessions' resignation.

While some Democrats no doubt sincerely hate Vladimir Putin as an "authoritarian" bully and fear any possible influence he might exert on the Executive Branch, their Russophobic campaign probably also has a more cynical motivation. The idea, I suspect, is to turn the supposed xenophobia of Trump's supporters against him by underscoring as often as possible what a Russian tool his whole administration is. The problem with such a strategy is that not everyone feels the way they (and some neocon Republicans) do about Russia. A recent NBC poll shows that Putin himself remains unpopular in the U.S. as a whole, but that Republicans are far less fearful toward him and his country than Democrats are. While Democrats are three times more likely to see Russia as an enemy than as an ally, Republicans are split almost fifty-fifty on that point, a slim majority seeing Russia as an ally or friend. The GOP is split generationally on this subject, older folks with Cold War memories continuing to distrust Russia while younger people are increasingly more likely to see Russia as a friend or ally. We don't know how Democrats break down by generations, but it would be interesting to see whether the same trend exists, or whether younger Democrats are more Russophobic, thanks to Putin, than their elders. In any event, the Republican stats suggest that it won't do for Democrats simply to say that Trump and his people are the lackeys of furriners! For good or bad reasons, the Trump base doesn't feel threatened by Russia and either feels no compassion for those oppressed by Putin or feels that any oppression gong on is none of their business. And if they don't fear or hate Russia they won't care much whether Trump or his people met with Russians in 2016, and if Russia actively supported Trump they'll simply assume that great minds think alike. In short, unless someone finds evidence of gifts, payments or quid-pro-quo that compromise U.S. interests (rather than just reversing U.S. policy) there's a limit to the political capital to be gained by all this 21st century McCarthyism, and that limit probably has been reached already. The Sessions scandal looks a lot like smoke rather than fire, and the more smoke gets blown, the less patience nonpartisans will have with it. One of these days someone's going to ask a Democratic senator whether he or she at long last has left no sense of decency, and then what will happen? That someone will probably get accused of trivializing the McCarthy era, false moral equivalence, etc., but most people will draw different conclusions.

01 March 2017

Selective Enlightenment

David Brooks worries for the legacy of the Enlightenment. The New York Times columnist fears that we're living in an anti-Enlightenment moment dominated by ethnic populism, a "Nietzschean" Russia, and Donald Trump. "When Trump calls the media the 'enemy of the people,' Brooks writes, "he is going after the system of conversation, debate and inquiry that is the foundation for the entire Enlightenment project." What, then, is that foundation? What is "the Enlightenment" to David Brooks? Historians today rarely discuss "the Enlightenment," but also add adjectives to indicate that the period of "the Enlightenment" encompassed multiple, sometimes contradictory movements that nevertheless appeared to share some traits in common. For Brooks, however, "the Enlightenment" is defined by a modest skepticism exemplified by the American Founders. In his summary:

The Enlightenment included thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant who argued that people should stop deferring blindly to authority for how to live. Instead, they should think things through from the ground up, respect facts and skeptically re-examine their own assumptions and convictions.Enlightenment thinkers turned their skeptical ideas into skeptical institutions, notably the U.S. Constitution. America’s founders didn’t trust the people or themselves, so they built a system of rules, providing checks and balances to pit interest against interest.

The end product of Enlightenment, in this account, is liberal democracy and its deliberative approach to political decision-making. Brooks' Enlightenment has its shortcomings; he criticizes its naive contempt for religion, as well as a related "thin[ness] on meaning" that cultivates "soulless technocrats." Still, Enlightenment is to be preferred to anti-Enlightenment tendencies that "don’t think truth is to be found through skeptical inquiry and debate," but "see history as cataclysmic cycles — a zero-sum endeavor marked by conflict." Such elements are essentially authoritarian; "They prefer the direct rule by one strongman who is the embodiment of the will of the people."

It's easy to put a noble Enlightenment heritage against the bad people of today if you cherry-pick history to harvest an ideal version of it. Brooks' anglocentric Enlightenment would seem to have no room for the phenomenon of "enlightened despotism," but would seem compelled to dismiss that phenomenon as an oxymoron. And yet there has been what might be called an Authoritarian Enlightenment probably for as long as people have talked about Enlightenment in the secular European sense of the word. That Enlightenment allows skepticism relatively limited scope, compared to Brooks's ideal, both because the Authoritarian Enlightenment is also a Progressive Enlightenment dismissive of most if not all skepticism toward the idea, not to mention the necessity of progress, and especially dismissive of the skepticism of the "unenlightened." Twentieth century critics, inspired by the so-called Frankfurt School of Marxist critics, have located "totalitarian" tendencies in the Enlightenment's dismissal of resistance as necessarily unreasonable. In this account Enlightenment brought with it an entitlement to dominate if not destroy others. Some of the "anti-enlightenment" elements decried by Brooks probably see the world this way, threatened by elites that are intellectually arrogant and contemptuous toward traditions, e.g. the European Union, the Democratic party, etc. At the same time, some of the elements Brooks labels "anti-Enlightenment" aren't necessarily opposed to the Enlightenment's historic or cultural heritage. Again, it depends on what people mean by "Enlightenment." Some of our struggles today may simply be the Enlightenment turning on itself, as an Enlightenment in which skepticism is the essential element probably is bound to do. But the seemingly ongoing backlash against the Enlightenment only seems more unreasonable when people idealize Enlightenment as a purely benign force in history, without owning up to its abuses, actual and potential, or simply owning the fact that Enlightenment always will meet resistance, but shouldn't always back down in the face of skepticism.