30 May 2017

Fighting words in Portland

Over the weekend, two men were killed in Portland OR, and a third man was injured, when they tried to quiet a fellow train passenger who had started ranting loudly at another passenger who happened to be wearing a hijab. Resenting their intrusion on his speech rights, the ranter stabbed them. The killings have been universally deplored, from the White House on down, but leave it to someone to overplay their hand. Drawing a link between the killer's opinions and his violent outburst, the mayor of Portland has asked for federal intervention to prevent two upcoming marches in his city, one a generic "alt-right" event, the other an anti-sharia protest. The mayor embarrassed himself by making the spurious claim that "hate speech" was not protected by the U.S. Constitution -- the charter recognizes no such category -- and the ACLU quickly joined right-wingers in defending the rights of the two sets of demonstrators. It seems fallacious to blame the killer's opinions for the killings, since the victims were not killed for who they were, all three being white. Whatever the killer's opinion of the Muslim girl, it was most likely a superficial symptom of the madness that led him to attack the other guys. It's very unlikely that Islamophobia or whatever form of white supremacy he allegedly avowed effectively made him a killer, and it should not be assumed that anyone concerned about Islamic violence is a potential killer, a trigger waiting to be pulled by some provocative orator. The law, as I understand it, is that protesters of the sort the Portland mayor wishes to ban are within their rights so long as they don't explicitly incite violence. Meanwhile, it wouldn't surprise me if violence against those protesters is already being incited in Portland -- not by Muslims but by the same "antifa" elements who've been attacking "hate speech" across the country. If anything, should the demonstration organizers not stand down, the mayor's comments have made that sort of attack more likely. I'll make this simple for liberals: if you don't think people should blame the religion of Islam for Islamist violence, then in all fairness you can't blame anti-Islamic opinion in general for an act of violence that was only tangentially anti-Islamic. We probably have millions of people in this country who are sincerely concerned about any number of threats Islam may pose, yet would never think of physically attacking a Muslim. That should be self-evident enough to dismiss the idea that any (or every) utterance against Islam is an incitement to violence. As for "antifa," every attack they make on free speech brings closer the day when someone fights back against them the way American reactionaries might be expected to fight, and when it happens they'll have no one but themselves to blame -- though they'll certainly try to blame everything else.

25 May 2017

The Rich mystery, further mystified

The latest embarrassment in a very bad year for Fox News is the network's publicizing of a dubious theory attempting to explain the 2016 murder in Washington D.C. of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee data director. Given the alleged importance of leaked DNC emails in deciding last year's presidential campaign, armchair detectives of a political bent, believing that there are no coincidences in politics, came to suspect that Rich may have had something to do with the leak. Julian Assange of Wikileaks may have thought the same thing, or some infer from his mentioning the Rich murder during an interview last year. In short, the popular theory (in some circles) is that Rich was killed in reprisal for leaking emails to Wikileaks or the Russians. Recently a former police detective who appears occasionally on Fox News appeared once more to claim that evidence of contacts between Rich and Wikileaks had been covered up. His claims were touted by Sean Hannity, Fox's most prominent host after the sacking of Bill O'Reilly. The detective subsequently threw Fox under the bus, claiming that one of their people had told him about suppressed evidence in the first place, while he had no relevant evidence of his own. Hannity and Fox have been blasted by Rich's family, and some advertisers reportedly have bailed out on Hannity's show. On May 23 Fox formally retracted its news report, while Hannity announced that he would no longer discuss the subject on his show.

None of this, of course, will deter hardcore conspiracymongers who, if anything, will see Fox's retractions as fresh proof of the enduring power of the Deep State or the Clinton family, while some cynics will continue to see political profit in the Rich mystery. Assuming that the conspiracy theory will be kept alive to benefit a particular cause, what if it didn't? For amusement purposes only, let's imagine that Rich was leaking DNC documents. The object of leaking emails and other documents, presumably, was to discredit the Clinton campaign -- but there's obviously more than one way to do that. So what if Julian Assange, from his lair in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, arranged to have Rich killed on the assumption that people would blame the DNC or the Clintons? What if the Russians were involved in the data transaction and then had Rich killed on the assumption that either the Clintons or Assange could be blamed, the former if elected, the latter should he prove unfriendly in the future? What if either Assange or the Russians had a random DNC guy killed, who had noting to do with them, on the assumption that people would jump to conclusions about the Clintons? Watch enough TV whodunits and you'll realize that Occam's Razor isn't as sharp as reputed. The simplest explanation isn't necessarily the best, and sometimes an explanation appears simplest and best only from a certain perspective. Meanwhile, the problem with many conspiracy theorists, strange as it looks, may be that they lack imagination, that their thinking runs through a limited number of set channels determined by prejudices and personal feelings. Despite an air of cynicism or worldly wisdom, they tend to think that only certain people or groups are capable of anything and so jump to blame one suspect while ignoring others. They assume that certain people are guilty of something (or everything) and reason backwards from that assumption. The way to defeat partisan conspiracymongering may well be to counter them with more imaginative and cynical conspiracy theories that may be no more true but could well prove more entertaining -- and that probably counts more than anyone cares to admit these days.

24 May 2017

The biggest Democratic crybabies ever

In New Orleans and Charlottesville, and at points in between, there's been some hubbub over the past month over the removal of statues of Confederate war heroes. It was the typical caterwauling over the attempted erasure of regional heritage, brought to a hysterical peak in Charlottesville by alt-rightist Richard Spencer, who acted as if removal of the white race was next on the agenda. There's excess on the other side of the question, of course, and there's definitely room to debate whether every important American who owned slaves should be seen as a villain today. However, the removal of Confederate statues should be a moment of relative clarity. Let me put the issue in terms that those protesting the statues' removal might understand. For the sake of argument, let's presume that these protesters are supporters of President Trump, if not registered Republicans. If I'm right, then these people have spent much of the last five months or more calling Democrats crybabies and sore losers because Trump won the presidential election fair and square in the Electoral College. Some people have found it virtually seditious that Democrats in 2017 continue to question the legitimacy of Trump's Presidency or attempt to discredit his election. You've heard the rhetoric on TV or radio and seen it on social media: grow up, get over it, he's your President, etc. If Democratic behavior in 2017 is shameful and despicable, Democratic behavior in 1860 was far worse. Democrats that year were so freaked out over a Republican winning the election, even though they had only themselves to blame because their own party split along sectional lines that year, that several Democratic state governments seceded from the Union and started a war when President Lincoln refused to recognize the legitimacy of their action on such a chickenshit pretense. Let me repeat this: Southern Democrats seceded from the Union and started a war because they were sore losers of a presidential election. They gave Lincoln even less of a chance than today's Democrats are giving Trump, without even the fig leaf of accusations of foreign influence. Instead of marching and sometimes looting, they raised armies and perpetrated wholesale slaughter. And those are the heroes whose statues so many want to defend. This shouldn't be so hard to understand, and let it be noted that it has nothing to do with the presumed feelings of black people or any other demographic group. Republicans (and, presumably, Trump fans) like to link today's Democrats with their party's dark heritage of support for slavery and segregation. They like to say that because Democrats were racist back then, by some convoluted logic they are racists now. Those sort of partisan historic analogies should work both ways. How, then, can anyone who thinks of himself as a patriotic conservative today profess to revere people from 150 years ago who behaved the same way, only worse, as the partisans they currently despise? The answer is all too obvious and has everything to do with the feelings of some white people, as if those matter more when they're hurt than black feelings or any others. Well, let the rebs cry. That usually means we're doing something right.

23 May 2017

The Tampa Case

If they don't make a movie about the recent events in Tampa I'll be very surprised. If you haven't heard about it yet, once upon a time there were four buddies who shared an apartment down there and were white nationalists. A few days ago one of them stormed into a local smoke shop brandishing a gun and threatening patrons. After surrendering to police, he told them that he'd killed two of his roommates. The fourth roommate was arrested later while transporting bomb-making materials he had kept in the apartment. The existence of an "Atomwaffen" cell is a story in its own right, of course, but Roommate No. 3, the shooter, has gotten more attention, not just because he killed people but because of his improbable conversion to Islam. Jumping from white nationalism to Islam is quite a leap, as Islam, like Judaism, is semitic in origin, and is understood to preach racial equality. It's less of a leap, of course, if your only motive for joining either motive is piss off people you know, or society in general, by joining the most transgressive, offensive movement they can imagine. Local news reports give the impression that the shooter converted as he was falling out, or washing out, with others in the Atomwaffen. In that case, converting to Islam may simply have been a gesture calculated to piss off white nationalists. On one hand, I wonder about the sincerity of his conversion. That his roommates, still white nationalists, disrespected the shooter's new faith may seem superficially plausible as a provocation, but that and the spectacle he made of himself at that store may simply cover up issues having more to do with the bomb materials than with anyone's religion. On the other hand, I wonder whether the shooter is like a canary in a mineshaft indicating a change in fetishes among angry, alienated youth. If white nationalism is often simply a big F.U. to modern society, radical Islam is arguably more so, and possibly more appealing to misfits like the Tampa killer because of its greater success at acts of violence like yesterday's suicide attack at a Manchester pop concert. If you want to see the world burn, are you really going to put your faith in Hitler or Aryanism in the year 2017? I suppose you might if you still depend on your "whiteness" to give your life meaning, but if the shooter had already become an odd man out before converting, does that mean that the more completely isolated you become, the more alluring an Islamic vision of destructive power becomes? Time may tell, especially if people who've placed their faith in President Trump as a savior for white people see his promises unfulfilled.  It wouldn't be much different from kids becoming radical Marxists, or pretending to, back in the 1960s, except that it seems easier for anyone to fulfill their dreams of terror today. Since no one is going to make any of these ideas go away, somebody somewhere has to start offering a more compelling vision of the future before those with no vision decide simply to do as they will.

22 May 2017

The mountain comes to Muhammad

The President was in Saudi Arabia over the weekend to finalize another arms sale and give a speech about Islamic extremism. The speech, as it appears on the President's Facebook page, was an interesting balancing act, and from the snippets I've heard Trump delivered it well. The balancing act consisted of not denouncing the religion of Islam while not appearing to pander to it. In this way he avoids alarming people without insulting the intelligence (for want of a better word) of his fans with happy talk about a "religion of peace." Trump's main point. repeated forcefully in the highlight of the speech, was that it's primarily the responsibility of Muslim-majority governments to "drive out" extremists from their midst, but on this subject the President may have been too vague for his own good. What exactly is an "extremist?" On Trump's testimony, it seems to be someone with a proclivity toward violence. More specifically, they are "barbaric criminals." But for what purpose? Trump himself says that terrorists only invoke God falsely, that "Terrorists do not worship God [but] worship death." This misses the point by some distance. Any discussion of Islamic extremism (or Islamism) has to be a discussion about shari'a law. The issue since the middle of the last century has been whether governments in Muslim-majority lands are legitimate if they don't govern according to the traditions of the Prophet as canonically interpreted by some ancient school of jurists. If a line is to be drawn in the sand against Islamic extremism, it presumably needs to be made clear that extremists aren't entitled to force shari'a down anyone's throats, not even fellow Muslims'. Of course, Saudi Arabia probably is the wrong country to make that speech in, and the President has to be a diplomat -- as does any businessman of global reach, I suppose. But if anything, Trump's diplomatic solicitude toward the Saudis sometimes makes the Riyadh speech sound like a description of an alternate reality.

To my knowledge, all the terrorist acts carried out by Muslims in the U.S. have been carried out by Sunni Muslims, but in Riyadh Trump says that the fount of terrorism is Iran, the Shiite superpower. The Islamic Republic, which just had another apparently fair election in which the presidential candidate favored by the "Supreme Leader" lost, is the first cause of regional instability, in Trump's account. In his biggest absurdity, he calls Iran's intervention in support of the established government in Syria "destabilizing." To be fair, Iran certainly has been overly aggressive in its defense of Shiite rights outside its territory, particularly in Yemen, having no more right to act as guardian of the world's Shiites than Russia, say, has to act as guardian of the world's Slavs. But to say, as Trump seems to, that Iran is the problem in the Middle East or the Muslim world, simply ignores the autonomous origins of Sunni extremism in resistance, often supported by both the Saudis and the U.S., to secular or leftist regimes in the region. Americans might be confused by this focus on Iran, presumably caring little for geopolitics, were it not for the enduring hate engendered by the 1979-81 hostage crisis that makes it all too easy to portray Iran as the bad guy. Yet for all we know Sunnis probably would have flown the planes into the towers had the Shah of Iran remained on his throne. Scapegoating Iran for the global reach of Islamic terrorism today is an easy call in Riyadh, not to mention in the President's next stop, Tel Aviv, and it may fool people who still don't know (or don't care about) the difference between Sunni and Shiite, but taming or crushing the Islamic Republic is unlikely to solve the terrorism problem here or around the world, and I hope Trump isn't making plans on the assumption that it will.

19 May 2017

In your guts you know he's nuts

The code of conduct for the American Psychiatric Association includes something called the Goldwater Rule. This rule forbids APA members from making public comments on the mental health of public figures without personally examining them. The rule is named after Barry Goldwater, the former U.S. Senator from Arizona and late-life libertarian whose 1964 presidential campaign, despite its catastrophic failure at the polls, began the Republican party's transformation into its present form. Goldwater's campaign slogan was "In your heart you know he's right," to which critics answered, "In your guts you know he's nuts." Thinking along similar lines, one thousand psychiatrists that year signed a public statement diagnosing Goldwater, who wanted to roll back much of the New Deal and infamously asserted, in a Cold War context, that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," was psychologically unfit for the presidency. Goldwater successfully sued the magazine that published the psychiatrists' statement. More than fifty years later, The New Yorker reports that some APA members want to repeal the Goldwater Rule. You can guess why. If you can't, it's because they want to state publicly that Donald Trump is psychologically unfit for the office he actually holds. At least one interviewed by the magazine argues that his profession has a public duty to warn Americans about Trump's state of mind. This topic has come up before on this blog, after Trump had been diagnosed, without the benefit of a direct professional examination, with a "narcissistic personality disorder." Some psychiatrists argue for retaining the Goldwater Rule on pragmatic grounds, noting that comments on Trump's mental health inevitably will be attributed to a liberal bias in the profession. I'd like to think that some in the profession still remember when the Soviet Union and other communists countries were criticized -- particularly, I presume, by entities like the APA, for treating some of their political dissidents as if they were mental cases. Unfortunately, the history of the Goldwater Rule shows that American handwringing over the Soviet practice was at least partly hypocritical. While it is probably true that no one ever proposed forcing Barry Goldwater into a mental hospital, his political enemies were not above reducing his dissent against the liberal consensus to a psychological problem. The psychiatrists' campaign against Trump suggests that this questioning the sanity of liberalism's critics is typical of liberalism, as opposed to conservatives, who blame criticism of their own worldview on moral failings, and radicals, who often blame criticism of their agenda on stupidity. While some of Trump's behaviors and utterances may be genuinely worrisome, it's just as worrisome that some liberals can't believe that a sane person would disagree with their worldview.

18 May 2017

Roger Ailes (1940-2017)

The founder of Fox News barely outlived his good name. Ailes was forced out of power last summer after facing apparently creditable charges of sexual harassment, but those won't really taint his place in American history as probably the most consequential media figure since Henry Luce or William Randolph Hearst. Ailes wasn't a ground-up entrepreneur like those past media titans, being an employee of Rupert Murdoch, but few media figures have done more to influence the form and content of public discussion than Ailes did. His revolutionary act was to identify the absence of conservative bias on television news, in contrast to the heavy conservative bias of print media in the days of Hearst and Luce, as bias unto itself. In the way it presents news and opinion, Fox News isn't much different from a Republican-leaning newspaper of the 1930s, or Time magazine (or Life, which, unlike Time, had an editorial page) when Luce had direct control of it. But Americans had grown so unaccustomed to seeing right-wing bias in the media after the founding titans had passed from the scene that its appearance on television under Ailes' supervision seemed to many liberals like an alarming invasion of a sanctified sphere.

Ailes' justification was that there was a "conservative" side to nearly every issue, and that the established TV networks and CNN had failed in their implicit civil responsibility to present all sides -- or all the important sides -- of the issues. Presenting the conservative side, both in news reporting and interviewing and on Fox's popular prime-time talk shows, thus became sufficient proof that Ailes' channel was more "fair and balanced" than its rivals. Earlier conservative media moguls would not have recognized any duty to keep their publications fair and balanced, but Ailes exploited the modern news media's pretensions of objectivity, which those older moguls did not share, in order to expose his rivals' apparent hypocrisy. For Fox News, the only acceptable proof of objectivity was that all (i.e. both) sides were represented, however feebly the left might be represented (or however grossly it might be exaggerated) on Fox. While Ailes' side might be entitled to representation solely on the strength of numbers, both at the polls and in legislatures, its representation doesn't itself make any discussion of any issue more objective. The reductio ad absurdam of Ailes' logic is the "Teach the Controversy" assertion that traditional accounts of divine creation should be mentioned in discussions of the origins of life.

Nevertheless, the rationale for Fox News appealed to those who saw an increasing divergence between the way they saw the world and the way the established media reported it. The Fox News audience never was the only group to perceive such a divergence, or to perceive bias in what is fairly called the corporate media, but enough people shared Ailes' own perspective to sustain Fox when there was no chance for a Marxist or Anarchist news network. While some critics of Fox appealed to the old ideal of objectivity, it eventually became easier and more appealing to answer bias with bias, to the point today where Ailes' propaganda against the news establishment looks more like a self-fulfilling prophecy than a correct diagnosis of his own time. Meanwhile, there were signs before his death, if not before his departure, that the Fox News model was already becoming obsolete. Ratings reportedly show that Fox recently fell behind its cable-news rivals, the liberal-biased MSNBC and the quasi-objective CNN, for the first time in something like forever. Apologists for Ailes might blame this on the recent absence of his guiding hand, but it's more likely that Fox has fallen between two stools, being perceived from the left as too soft on President Trump while it has more likely been too ambivalent toward Trump for the tastes of its base. That base may be showing by its preference for Twitter and other social-media bubbles that it was always  more interested in bias than "fair and balanced," while Fox, despite its liberal critics, was always too much of an actual news network to give the most hardcore viewers the propaganda rush they really craved. Ironically, MSNBC may now deliver that sort of rush more consistently to its own base audience than Fox does to its loyalists. It would be more ironic still if, once past its apparent peak of influence, and at the moment of Ailes's death, that ambivalence towards Trump which may alienate many viewers, as opposed to the unanimous hysteria seen elsewhere, made Fox News the most objective of the cable news channels today. I doubt that's actually true, but it still would be ironic.

17 May 2017

Artifact: a public debate continues....

This is at the corner of Fourth Street and Broadway in Troy NY, across the street from the city post office and in front of a failed shopping mall now used by state workers:

I don't know when this debate began but there's more than one layer of paper posted here. I remember seeing it at an earlier stage where the disputants were trading quotes from Voltaire. Whatever its beginnings we have a libertarian of some sort (one who distinguishes between "croney capitalism" and a "truly free market") and some sort of leftist or, as the libertarian sees him, an incipient "facist." We've all heard that a healthy public sphere is essential to liberal democracy, but I'm not sure this is the sort of public discussion the idealists have in mind.

Artifact: "Police Everywhere, Justice Nowhere"

This was posted at the corner of Lark and Washington streets in Albany NY, outside a bank building that was recently converted into a church.

It's a produce of Crimethinc., an anarchist entity that's been around since at least the 1990s that currently describes itself as "a rebel alliance—a decentralized network pledged to anonymous collective action—a breakout from the prisons of our age. They sympathize with the global "antifa" movement, but it's unclear whether they endorse "antifa" efforts to banish "alt-right" or just plain "right" speakers from college campuses. The premise of the poster is that police are the same everywhere, whether it's a capitalist republic or a totalitarian dictatorship. A moral equivalence is implied between political dissidents, shoplifters and squatters. Crimethinc. rejects the premise that police are essential to a civilized society. The poster argues that killings by police make a mockery of the pro-police claim that "without you we'd all be killing each other," but the pretty clear threat that "You won't fuck with us much longer" belies the implicit claim that police are the actual violent element in society. I took this picture on May 12; I haven't checked since then to see whether the poster is still in place. A few blocks away, on the Dana Park pedestrian island, a poster calling on people to address police in "the only language they understand," and showing a bullet blasting through a police helmet, was up for some time, and may still be up now.

15 May 2017

Russiagate and detente

Nation magazine readers and contributors are still arguing over both the proper labeling and the propriety of the investigations into President Trump's alleged contacts with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign. Katha Pollitt's attempted vindication of "Russiagate," and her sneering attitude toward anyone reluctant to provoke Vladimir Putin, have been answered in the May 22/29 letters column. Patrick Lawrence slams Pollitt by implying that she has effectively taken the side of the CIA. "Have we so soon forgotten that the Pentagon and the spooks piled on Trump as soon as he questioned NATO's purpose and proposed to renovate relations with Russia?" he asks, "With history at our disposal, irrationality lies in accepting 'the intelligence community's' ever-couched assertions without evidence." Greg Grandin warns that "those betting the farm on proving that Trump is treasonous are doing so by embracing a catastrophic national-security state and international-warfare regime." No friend of the President, Grandin argues that "those who believe they can bring him down over Putin -- and by saber rattling over Russia -- are laying the groundwork for Trump 2.0." What he means by that I'm not sure, but it doesn't sound good.

These comments, and Pollitt's responses, expose a fundamental disagreement on the left over the implications of Russiagate. Simply put, critics of Democratic Russophobia fear that hyping the scandal will have dire consequences for American foreign policy, while Pollitt has no such fear. "If Putin is indeed the smart, sensible grown-up portrayed in much of The Nation's Russia coverage -- waging only defensive war in Ukraine out of justifiable fears of NATO, for example -- he should he able to live with whatever slap on the wrist Rachel Maddow metes out," Pollitt writes, implying heavily that she personally questions that portrayal of Putin. Less speculatively, she insists that "it should be possible to get to the bottom of Russiagate without setting off World War III." She believes this because she most likely sees Russiagate as purely a matter of domestic politics, her primary goal being to delegitimize Trump's domestic political agenda. She is concerned with Russia only insofar as Putin's domestic agenda of repressive cultural conservatism may explain the alleged affinity between his movement and Trump's. For her critics, the global stakes of Russiagate matter more. They already see evidence that the scandal has driven the President from his earlier conciliatory stance. They fear that the more that Trump sacrifices his most overtly or embarrassingly pro-Russia advisers, the more likely it is that U.S. foreign policy will continue on its dangerously interventionist course. As Lawrence puts it, "Parity between West and non-West is the century's most pressing imperative, and -- no flinching -- Russia's on the right side." To Pollitt's earlier question, "What worthy projects does 'Kremlin-bashing' attempt to derail?" Lawrence answers: "How about countering our liberal interventionists? Or standing against US-supported Salafist jihadis in the name of secular government? Or simply for international law, which the United States breaches daily?"

Pollitt, however, doubts whether a President who has promised a massive military buildup will be useful toward those ends. And for her, past unfairness toward Russia when it was the Soviet Union doesn't justify giving Putin's Russia a free pass by "minimizing the likelihood that Russia put its thumb on the scale for Trump." She argues that it is "feeble" to "automatically wave away all the claims [against Russia] because they come from intelligence sources and indict a nation that is a familiar folk bogeyman." A desire for peace doesn't justify these evasions, as far as Pollitt's concerned. Her critics want peace, she acknowledges, and she answers, "Well, who doesn't?" Not her, I'm sure, but a desire for peace and achieving peace are two different things. If the Russians did throw their weight behind Trump -- and I wouldn't say "put their thumb on the scale" unless someone has proof about actual Election Day interference -- it's because they have some definite idea of what peace requires of the U.S., not because anyone there gives a damn about American domestic policy. It seems irresponsible to treat Russiagate -- the scandal, not any actual crimes by Russia or the Trump campaign -- as if it has nothing to do with American foreign policy and won't have international consequences. If people like Pollitt can't stand seeing anti-interventionists come to Trump's defense, it's their responsibility to make clear that their own position on American interventionism is consistently independent of partisan or presidential politics -- if they can.

11 May 2017

A threat to the republic?

The hysteria over the firing of FBI director Comey continues. "Let’s stipulate that James Comey was a flawed FBI director, and that his actions during last year’s presidential race cast a cloud over the integrity of his agency," writes an editor in today's Albany Times Union, "That does not negate the fact that President Donald Trump’s abrupt firing of him is, in fact, far more troubling than Mr. Comey’s own missteps. The firing, in this writer's opinion, "is a crisis, and the future of American democracy may be at stake." In other words, it's the moment everyone -- well, a lot of people -- have been waiting for since Trump was elected. The editorial writer certainly doesn't minimize the stakes: "If this president is allowed to fire an FBI director when he finds an investigation politically threatening — a probe exploring the possibility of treasonous conduct — and if the House and Senate fail to respond, the Constitution’s check on executive power and the balance provided by our tripartite system of government will be rendered meaningless." The crisis, apparently, is a matter of timing. By now you've all probably heard the argument that since Trump could have fired Comey at any time after his inauguration, we must ask why he acted now, the only answer available, apparently, being that Comey was getting too close to the President's Russia connection. This argument is just a little disingenuous. It fails to acknowledge that Trump would have been criticized for firing Comey at any point in his presidency, and for the same reason. Since his ties to Russia have been an object of scrutiny, and of interest to Comey, since the 2016 campaign, Trump could never move against Comey without it looking like he wanted to suppress a necessary and proper investigation. There are, in fact, signs that the President had grown exasperated with the inquiries and Comey's involvement with them, but an innocent man might be just as exasperated with such inquiries, especially if he had reason to see them as politically motivated, as a man with something to hide. You might say that a man with nothing to hide should not have been exasperated, but does that sound like Donald Trump to you? In any event, I can't take this crisis as seriously as some want me to because I've never taken the whole Russia connection concept as seriously as many do. Let those who do take it seriously show me how Russia is currently dictating American foreign policy. I would have thought that Trump's Syrian shenanigans would have ended this issue, but it hasn't ended because many influential people don't want it to end. And if this is a crisis it's because those people want one. Make no mistake; I think Donald Trump perfectly capable of forcing a crisis through his own malice or stupidity, but what we see right now is boys crying "Wolf!" I hope that doesn't have the usual result when Trump really does something wrong.

10 May 2017

Age of Losers

Pankaj Mishra's Age of Anger: A History of the Present is one of the most talked-about books of the year in middlebrow circles. Mishra is an India-born writer and academic who publishes regularly in the Anglo-American media. He is a critic of Hindu nationalism in his native country, which he sees as a phenomenon similar in its root causes to all the so-called populist or nativist movements today, from Islamism to the movements that define themselves by enmity to Islamism or Islam. The thesis of Age of Anger is that these 21st century phenomena, from the emergence of the self-styled Islamic State to the election of Donald Trump, are merely the latest in a sequence of angry reactions to the inequities of modernization dating back to 18th century France. All these movements follow one prophet, whether they realize it or not, and his name is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For Mishra, Rousseau remains, after more than two centuries, the definitive critic of a modernization process that appears unfair to millions if not the majority of people around the world. Rousseau's anger was a reaction to the Enlightenment as represented by Voltaire, a primal villain of Mishra's narrative. Voltaire might be the original neocon if he had any ideological commitment to democracy, but for Mishra he is the prophet of top-down modernization, the champion of "enlightened despotism," a self-interested meritocrat and probably a smug asshole. He may not have willed all the bad aspects of modernity that Rousseau reviled, but his propaganda for progress and individual liberty helped usher it all in. Rousseau, meanwhile, is the first thinker to express the humiliation so many of the world's discontented are supposed to feel today. As a provincial, he seems to have felt personally humiliated in the Paris salons Voltaire frequented. As a result Rousseau came to despise the manners by which the upper classes and other elites were distinguishing themselves, and came to see self-interested, ambitious individuals like Voltaire as fundamentally dishonest in a radical way. The toxic mix of self-interest and manners made society itself dishonest, while an increasingly competitive society, its moral roots seemingly shorn away, left more and more people feeling alienated and oppressed while others enjoyed new wealth and liberty.

Reading Mishra's account of Rousseau, it occurred to me that Rousseau's heir in his own country is the novelist Michel Houellebecq, who denounces a continuing alienation and demoralization as society grows even more competitive today and imagines people longing for a sense of belonging for which they might gladly sacrifice their freedom. Age of Anger helps explain why people might feel more oppressed at a time of apparent progress, compared to the seemingly eternal oppression their medieval ancestors must have endured. The explanation seems to be that, however poor he was, or however desperate his lot at any moment, the peasant presumably felt that he had a place in his society, or in the great chain of being, that was no longer certain in a more competitive and skeptical time. A more competitive society appears to engender greater contempt for those who can't (or perhaps won't) compete. A peasant might be poor or even miserable, but it would seem that he wasn't a loser in the way many people, if not the great majority, are seen today. Rousseau is the prophet for those who reject a society or culture that dismisses them as losers. His remedy for loserdom is the general will. Paradoxically, he takes Sparta as his model for a society where people are truly free -- though Samuel Adams' wish that the United States would become a "Christian Sparta" shows that Rousseau was not exceptional in his vision. "In this society at least," Mishra tries to explain, "the corrupting urge to promote oneself over others, and the deceiving of the poor by the rich, could be counterpoised by the surrender of individuality to public service, and the desire to seek pride for community and country."

There are no good guys in Age of Anger. If the heirs of Rousseau are rightfully angry at some of the injustices of modernity, their recourse to patriotic solidarity almost always escalates into chauvinism, nativism and hate. This is exactly what Rousseau expected and presumably approved. "The patriotic spirit is exclusive and makes us look upon all those who are not our fellow citizens as strangers and almost enemies," the Frenchman wrote. Elsewhere, he made the same point: "Every patriot is severe with strangers; they are merely men, they are nothing in his eyes." Mishra clearly hopes for an alternative but can't point to one in his book. Instead, from Rousseau's time to ours there is a parade of nationalist movements founded on hate for other nations, starting with hatred for France (and later the Jews) among Germans resentful of Napoleon's conquests of their little principalities and determined to prove that their culture, language, etc. still mattered. Alternatives to the nation as the object of chauvinist loyalty have come and gone. For Marxists it was the working class. For Islamists, suspicious of the tyrannical top-down modernization efforts of secular self-styled nationalists like Kemal Ataturk, the Shah of Iran or Saddam Hussein, the alternative is the ummah, the global community of Muslims. Within these objects of loyalty, minorities are often despised and made scapegoats for the injustices of modernity. For some, like the Marxists and Fascists, the object of loyalty was not an idealized past but an idealized future, the home of the New Man born from revolutionary violence and conquest. Even the wave of anarchist violence at the turn of the twentieth century counts as part of the reaction to modernity because Mishra sees it as self-assertion in its rawest form against oppressive society. Taking this broad view, Mishra sees nothing new about ISIS, apart perhaps from its exploitation of social media, and chides those in Europe, India and the U.S. who see its violence as something intrinsic Islamic rather than a localized form of something that has been happening, obviously with greater or lesser degrees of severity, just about everywhere for the last two centuries.

In the end, Mishra stands with neither Voltaire or Rousseau but calls  vaguely for "some truly transformative thinking about both the self and the world." He's clearly uncomfortable with the heartless free-for-all he identifies (unfairly, according to some critics) with Voltaire or the resentfully self-effacing alternative he identifies with Rousseau, in which the price for securing a place in the world looks something like becoming an interchangeable part.  Perhaps oddly, the thinker who comes off most positively in the book is Nietzsche, a critic of both the bourgeoisie and national chauvinism who is probably too easily misinterpreted to be useful in finding a third way. Age of Anger is a pessimistic, frustrating yet fascinating and invigorating read that should stir up your interest in reading many of the writers he cites and drawing your own, hopefully more optimistic conclusions from them.

09 May 2017

'You're fired!'

James Comey angered so many people in both major parties during his tenure as FBI director that it's tempting to suspect that he was doing something right, but the truth is more likely that his incompetence managed to infuriate everyone, only never all at once. Just a few days ago, Hillary Clinton suggested that, if not for Comey's overdramatic intervention in October 2016, she would be President today. At the time, candidate Donald Trump applauded Comey for revealing that the email investigation was still in progress, only to rage at Comey days later when the director said, in effect, "never mind." A recent report detailing Comey's screw-ups at that time seems to have triggered President Trump's decision to fire Comey today, but his action has raised a question of timing for those who expected Comey to be canned the moment Trump took office. Democrats now seem to want to portray Comey as a victim or martyr, their conspiracy theory being that the director must have gotten too close for Trump's comfort to the truth of his (or his campaign's, or his advisers') ties to Russia. For partisans and never-Trumpers, Comey's dismissal is the smoke that virtually proves the fire of collusion with Vladimir Putin. From that perspective, Trump's action is akin to President Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre," when the Attorney-General and his deputy resigned rather than obey the President's order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, while the New York Times has also reminded readers that President Clinton fired an FBI director appointed by President Reagan, but waited until six months into his term to do so. Some hysterics have described Comey's removal as something like a coup d'etat. I personally heard someone say "America is dead." That means it's time to take a breath. While there may be understandable concern over whether Trump will appoint a director inclined to prosecute/persecute the President's political or personal opponents, it's also fair to ask whether Donald Trump really has given us reason to think that more likely under him than under any previous President. I think he's owed a little benefit of the doubt on that score, while Comey pretty much squandered his benefits some time ago. I say that without passing judgment on the investigations in which he has participated. It just seems that the man was not up to the challenges of this moment in American political history.

'Adolf Hitler was a master of empathy'

Jonah Goldberg's statement may look counterfactual to some readers, but the key to it is what he means by "empathy." In a previous column Goldberg touted Paul Bloom's book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, and the controversy over the talkshow host Jimmy Kimmel's comments about his sick baby has brought Goldberg back to the subject. Kimmel argued from his child's plight that no infant's access to healthcare should be limited by family income or pre-existing conditions. Goldberg, a Republican, judges Kimmel's argument "devoid of any consideration of the facts, trade-offs, or costs of what is the best way to deal with people, including babies, who have pre-existing medical conditions." He claims that Kimmel's appeal to empathy makes it "very difficult to have a rational discussion about the trade-offs inherent to any health-care system." In general, Goldberg believes that "empathy alone is dangerous and can distract us from rational thought and meaningful compassion." That's because, according to Goldberg's paraphrase of Paul Bloom, empathy "is like a drug. It distorts our perspective." Empathy is most dangerous, Bloom and Goldberg agree, when it responds to suffering with anger. That's where Hitler comes in. "The cause of nationalist empathy for the German tribe triggered profound moral blindness for the plight, and even the humanity, of Jews, Gypsies and Slavs," Goldberg writes. Something similar, he argues, has possessed many Sunni Muslims around the world. "Sunni nations empathize with the plight of suffering Sunnis [in Iraq and Syria], and that empathy causes them to further hate and demonize Shiites." The "Black Lives Matter" movement, he continues, is a milder form of the same condition that "blinds [African Americans] to why others respond to the term by saying 'all lives matter.'" All of this is because, contrary to what some may think, or what might make Goldberg's comment about Hitler sound absurd, empathy, as understood by Bloom, is always selective. "Empathy is biased," Bloom writes, "pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism." Goldberg himself thinks that empathy isn't quite that terrible. "It seems to me not only natural but also defensible to give priority to figuratively kindred people," the columnist writes, his example of figurative kinship being the U.S. and Great Britain. Bloom, meanwhile, sees empathy getting in the way of something we might describe as empathy. The inevitable selectivity of empathy as he understands it, blinds people "to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with."

Despite all this, it seems that some people are indiscriminate, either on principle or on impulse, in their empathy with suffering or needy people. The issue Goldberg has with such people -- whether Kimmel counts as one of them is unclear -- is that they don't approach the issues raised by suffering and need with "rational thought and meaningful compassion." Whether Goldberg is a reliable guide to rational thought on any issue is also unclear, but we can probably figure out for ourselves rationally the political issues raised by mass suffering or deprivation. What Goldberg opposes is best described as hedonism, the idea that all suffering is intolerable -- or that your empathy for suffering is unbearable -- and must be minimized if not eliminated from human life. Empathy and hedonism are not synonymous, nor does hedonism follow automatically from an empathetic response to suffering. It doesn't follow from a strong emotional response to suffering that all suffering is unjust. It should be possible for someone to empathize strongly with someone else who isn't making it in life while fully appreciating that his own mistakes may be at least partly responsible for his miserable state. People who've made mistakes themselves that have held them back in any way should empathize all the more strongly with the other person's plight, yet also feel all the more urgently that such people need to learn not to keep making similar mistakes. The intensity of empathy may vary from person to person, but how much has it really to do with the hedonist's conviction that ending suffering must have priority over learning lessons? That comes from someplace else, I think. You can empathize with someone and believe that something must (and always can) be done, and you can empathize just as strongly yet believe that nothing can be done. Yet another person might say that nothing should be done, but we're probably not dealing with an empathetic response in that case. In any event, looking to empathy itself as the root cause of many of the world's problem, as Bloom seems to do, probably is a mistake.

I still feel a little empathy -- not just sympathy -- whenever I hear a small child crying inconsolably, but I don't stop everything to try to make him or her stop. There are many reasons for this, from respect for the prerogatives of family to my understanding that some things just need to be cried out. It would be more useful for academics and columnists to study the varieties of responses to empathy than to blame empathy itself for all the things that conservatives like Goldberg or liberals like Bloom don't like.

04 May 2017

More on McCarthyism

Stephen F. Cohen struck a very sensitive nerve in many Nation readers and contributors when he compared the rush among Democrats and progressives to link the Trump campaign and administration to Russia to the anti- Soviet mania of the McCarthy era. As a "red diaper baby" who experienced McCarthyism as a child, Katha Pollitt claims to argue with some authority against Cohen in the May 8/15 issue. She's not the first,  however, to argue that the ideological specificity of McCarthyism as an anti-left movement makes the word an inappropriate label for the questioning of a right-wing government. The "use of immense state power against ...fairly powerless ordinary people," she claims, isn't the same as "calls by Democrats to investigate whether Russian agents hacked the Democratic National Committee at the behest of Vladimir Putin, or whether Trump's financial interests are tied up with Russia." But I still don't see why McCarthyism should be unanalogizable, or why it should never be ascribed to the American left. The M-word is simply the American word for the global tendency to discredit a political opposition by accusing it of acting in the interest of hostile foreigners -- which is what Pollitt herself still suspects Trump of doing.

Pollitt also scoffs at Cohen's description of liberals' Trump-Russia inquiries as "Kremlin-baiting." She dislikes the term, it turns out, because it presumes both Trump and Russia innocent. She hints that the defensiveness shown toward Russia by Cohen and others is one part cowardice and one part misunderstanding of the current Russian regime. Putin's Russia is "a capitalist kleptocracy run by an autocrat and an enemy of human rights." Leftists who discourage investigations of Trump for Russia's sake fail to understand that Russia "now embodies everything they oppose." Here, however,  Pollitt misunderstands her own opposition. The leading critics of 21st century McCarthyism can be found on the anti-interventionist right and the anti-imperialist left. Neither group is really interested in what sort of regimes take power abroad, but are united in a belief that the U.S. does more harm than good, not only to foreigners but to its own people, when it tries to dominate the world. What they oppose is an American hegemony project, and they see Democratic Russophobia as part of such a project. Pollitt doesn't seem to realize this because she sees Putin's American defenders as the Democrats' enemies. We'd probably need to see some of the charges against Trump proven, and then still see Democrats lose the next elections, before people like Pollitt can see this issue more clearly.

01 May 2017

'Why was there the Civil War?'

Apparently you're not allowed to indulge in "What If?" history if you're the President of the United States. The current President is enduring a fresh round of mockery for his assertion, in an interview published today, that the Civil War might not have happened had Andrew Jackson been President at the time. Trump sees himself as a sort of 21st century Jacksonian; others may agree or disagree depending on their opinion of Old Hickory. In the interview, the President describes visiting the grave of Rachel Jackson, who didn't live to see her husband inaugurated and whose death is sometimes blamed on vicious slanders, by the standards of the time, that were made against her and her husband during the 1828 presidential campaign. Specifically, because of some bureaucratic bungling Rachel, a divorcee, technically was a bigamist when she married Jackson. Needless to say, Trump can empathize with both the slandered lady and the enraged widower, whom he also sees, presumably, as a model for cleaning the "swamp" of the Washington D.C. establishment. As a historian by vocation, I know what Trump is talking about on the subject of sectional conflict. His handicap, however, is an inability to express concepts more sophisticated than the simplicities of his stump speeches or his tweets. One of his bad habits is to inflate sentences with empty generalities, expressed with a limited vocabulary, until it seems like the more he says, the less he seems to know.  He tripped himself up during the interview by saying that Jackson "was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War." Critics and haters pounced immediately: stupid Trump must have thought Jackson, who died in 1845, was still alive when the war started in 1861! This, I think, is one of those times when you were supposed to take the President seriously but not literally. I feel certain that he meant to say that Jackson was angry at increasing sectional tensions that were already apparent before his death, but for some reason he doesn't know how to say it right.

To the extent that Trump's actual argument is being criticized, here are two points in Trump's defense. That is, there are at least two reasons to believe that a civil war would not have happened had Jackson been President in 1860. The most obvious reason is that with a southern slaveholding Democrat like Old Hickory as President, the southern fire-eaters of 1860 would have had no reason to believe, as they did when the Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected, that slavery had been put on what Lincoln called "the course of ultimate extinction." Because of their determination to keep slavery out of the territories conquered from Mexico, the Republicans were seen as an existential threat to the Slave Power that Jackson never would have been. And yet, even if the fire-eaters found an excuse to secede or threaten secession, Trump most likely sees Jackson's treatment of the South Carolina Nullifiers of 1832 as a model for what he might have done in 1860. Jackson himself thought he hadn't really done enough in his own time, reportedly citing as one of his great regrets that he did not have John C. Calhoun, his first-term Vice President who became the intellectual leader of the Nullifiers in his home state, hanged for treason. Yet Trump's point today, I presume, is that Jackson resolved the Nullification crisis -- in short, South Carolina refused to allow federal officials to collect tariffs at high rates recently approved by Congress, claiming a state's right to nullify laws they deemed unconstitutional and tariffs they deemed unfair -- without hanging Calhoun or slaughtering South Carolinians. Jackson did this by combining a credible threat of force, including congressional authorization to send troops into South Carolina, with negotiations on the tariff issue. It may be Trump's opinion that Lincoln's passive provocation of the secessionists, designed to make them fire the first shot, as they finally did in South Carolina, was the wrong approach, and that a more intimidating show of force, albeit short of invasion, earlier in the game may have made the fire-eaters more willing to discuss terms for renouncing secession.

On the other hand, Jackson himself probably has a small share of blame for hastening the war because of his advocacy, before his death, of the annexation of the Republic of Texas, a move that arguably made the Mexican War inevitable and also threatened to tip the balance of sectional power further in favor of the slaveholding states. Because Old Hickory was a hard-core slaveholder who hated abolitionists, the idea that he might have prevented civil war probably disgusts people today who assume that slaves would have paid the price for sectional peace. Some of Trump's critics no doubt assume that his imagining a history without the Civil War shows his indifference toward the historic plight of black people in America. Some no doubt regard the Civil War as inevitable and necessary, if only for the purpose of freeing the slaves. These people may well know that for nearly half the war Lincoln was willing to win or end the conflict without emancipating anybody, but since military necessity finally inspired the Emancipation Proclamation, they may feel that the war had to happen -- presuming also, most likely, that ingrained southern racism made any fantasy of gradual or compensated emancipation literally fantastical. For this school of thought, imagining a different history is automatically suspect. But let's not read too much into Trump's historical speculations. His question, "Why was there the Civil War," is not a wrong question for any American to ask. If anything, it's an essential question for everyone to ask if they want to understand the history of this country.