28 April 2017

Faith in the West

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

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

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

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

26 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

25 April 2017

Artifacts: the Campaign to Play for Keeps

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

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

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

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

24 April 2017

THINK 3 VIDEO NEWS: Armenian Martyrs Day

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

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

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

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

Vive la France

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

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

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

21 April 2017

The Ex-Factor

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

19 April 2017

Ask an Expert: Is Trump fascist?

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

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

18 April 2017

Hate Crime or Terrorism?

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

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

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

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

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

15 April 2017

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

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

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

Here's one of those chants.

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

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

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

14 April 2017

Thomas L. Friedman's virtual reality

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

12 April 2017

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

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

11 April 2017

Comic book artist in suicide attack on own career

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

10 April 2017

The McCarthy rule

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

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

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

06 April 2017

'Something should happen'

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

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

05 April 2017

How do you solve a problem like Korea?

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

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

04 April 2017

Psychologist, heal thyself

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

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

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

03 April 2017

Raise the false flag!

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

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