31 August 2017

Redneck and Yankee

Has the United States ever really had one culture? From the beginning, the white population saw itself split at least in two along lines that matched culture with geography. Ever since, cultural polarization has persisted even as the poles themselves have shifted. The one constant has been the figure alternately known as the "Yankee" or the "Puritan." Identified originally with the northeastern part of the country, he can now be found all over the country, as can his current antagonist, the "Redneck." The Redneck himself is something different from the Yankee's old antagonist, whom we can call the Slave-Driver. There is an obvious difference in class between this older figure and the Redneck, even though both are identified with the old south and a contemptuous attitude toward black people. The Slave-Driver was defined more by his presumed aristocratic contempt toward any social inferior than by hatred toward any group. In antebellum days, to accuse Slave-Drivers of hating blacks would have been a pointless redundancy. The Slave-Driver's vices were those of a decadent aristocracy, as the Yankee often emphasized. In the 21st century, of course, our modern Yankees have purged the word "decadent" from their polemical vocabulary. It may be hard to see the Yankee, much less the Puritan, in his most vocal descendants, since they now endorse behaviors that would have horrified the scolds of 19th century New England. It's still possible, however, to see the ancient and the modern as the same type, in the way they treat their personal preferences as moral imperatives.

To his antagonists across history, the Yankee has always been judgmental first and foremost -- hence the "Puritan" label. His impulse to judge involved him in things thought none of his business, from how a master dealt with his slaves to how people passed the time in a tavern. You might think his true descendants are the "moral majority" types of today, but you're more likely to find them on the opposite side of most debates -- including debates over college speech-codes where 21st century Yankees take a more obviously puritanical position against "hate speech" and other "triggers." In an apparent paradox of history, much of "Puritan" culture in the U.S. embraced the values of hedonism in our age of prosperity, though that might not be so paradoxical if you perceive narcissism as a fundamental feature of the Puritan/Yankee mindset. The focus of that narcissism is the question, "Am I a good person?" In the old days that was answered with reference to Scripture. Now the question seems to depend on whether not only you but others are happy. It might be rephrased: "Are people free to enjoy life by their own lights and be themselves without interference or the pressure of inferred judgments?" From that perspective, the bad people are those seemingly determined to keep others from being happy.

On the other side, for all that they love their simple or simplistic pleasures, rednecks arguably haven't succumbed to hedonistic values in the same way, if only because they've never been able to convince themselves that the world owes them a living. They in turn may go too far in refusing to demand more of society or its rulers, but that's a topic for another time. It suffices for now that their refusal, for religious or other reasons,  to acquiesce unconditionally to the imperatives of hedonism inevitably strikes their antagonists as contemptuous -- or simply hateful -- and that only makes them more contemptible in the eyes of the prevailing media. For some observers, these differences may not rise to the level of a cultural divide, but that doesn't seem to be how either side sees things. Culture wars in America may be fought more intensely between whites than they are between whites and any other group, and neither side seems willing to let elections settle their fundamental differences. These divisions, or similar divisions, have always been with us, but that doesn't mean we should take their indefinite sustainability for granted.

30 August 2017

Identitarianism and White Republicans

David Brooks now uses the word "identitarian" to identify a middle ground between ideological conservatism of the sort he presumably practices and outright white supremacism. He estimates that 40% of white Republicans can be described as "identitarians," which means that they practice "identity politics" in a manner similar to other ethnicities of self-conscious groups in American society. A larger number, though not a majority, espouses the sort of conservatism Brooks describes as universalist. "White universalists believe in conservative principles and think they apply to all people and their white identity is not particularly salient to them," he explains, "White identitarians are conservative, but their white identity is quite important to them, sometimes even more important than their conservatism." Identitarians are not supremacists, since they do not claim superiority to others, nor do they assert the inferiority of any other group. Instead, according to Brooks's idea of what identity politics is, white identitarians practice the politics of self-pity. They feel that they are being picked on due to their color or culture -- presumably by not only other colors or cultures, but by the white elite identified with the "mainstream media." Brooks considers the emergence of white identitarianism an unfortunate development, other people's identity politics being bad enough, that President Trump has only exacerbated. He sees it as something that could destroy the Republican party, which he sees as an entity historically and fundamentally opposed to race hatred.

"The G.O.P. was founded to fight slavery," he writes. That's a deceptive generalization. The Republican party was founded to fight "the slave power," i.e. the disproportionate influence of slaveholders over the federal government. It opposed the spread of slavery into the territories conquered from Mexico in the 1840s to prevent plantation owners from gaining unassailable power in Congress, once slave territories became states, and because they thought that slave economies limited economic opportunities for yeoman farmers. Few Republicans were abolitionists committed to the actual extinction of slavery, although Lincoln provocatively claimed that denying the territories to slaveholders would put the peculiar institution on the course of ultimate (albeit natural) extinction. Some early Republicans agitated for "free soil" while striving to prevent free blacks from living in their states. Lincoln himself was not committed to emancipation until it seemed expedient to him as a wartime measure. It's true, however, that after Lincoln Republicans regularly portrayed themselves as the champions of black America until the 1960s, when G.O.P. congressmen provided critical votes for major civil rights measures even as Barry Goldwater's ideological opposition to those measures set the tone for the party's future. The Republicans' transformation into the "white" party since 1964 has been fairly well documented and even more strongly denounced, but Brooks believes that things have really gone south, so to speak, over the last decade. To be more specific, something has changed for the worse since 2005, as measured by a great increase over that year in the number of whites claiming that they or their kind experienced a "great deal" of discrimination. This probably has less to do with the advent of Barack Obama than with a surge of challenges to a cultural hegemony that many whites had taken for granted.

Brooks implies that white identitarians are likely to feel discriminated against not just as whites but as Christians, and some no doubt feel discriminated against, however they might mean the word, as men, or as straight men. Some of that has to be written off as inevitable anger at inevitable change. If there really was such a thing as "white privilege" that all whites (or at least all white men) enjoyed once upon a time -- mostly with no real economic benefit to make it meaningful to them until it was gone -- it was the privilege of thinking of themselves as the default or "average" American, entitled to judge the authentic American-ness of everyone else regardless of any individual intellectual or moral qualification. To have that almost unconscious privilege yanked away, or at least yanked at, amid a profound economic downturn and societal demoralization (measured by suicides and opiate addiction) was the last straw, apparently, for many whites whose newly assertive demands for respect and anxiety over their perceived cultural endangerment are taken by many in other groups as a reassertion of a now-unacceptable hegemony -- and by some, most notably in the antifa movement -- as virtually a casus belli. The irony of all this, from the standpoint of partisan politics, is that the Republicans' ancient antagonists in the Democratic party may have done more than any other entity in American history to invent "whiteness" in a conscious effort -- and here's a further irony -- to gain acceptance for immigrants who were considered culturally alien by virtue of their religion. So if Republicans seem to many observers to betray a noble legacy by pandering to "white identitarianism," Democrats, in opposing that phenomenon, are confronted with a monster -- it's purely a literary metaphor, folks! -- of their own creation.

29 August 2017

They Saved Hitler's Desk!

It was struggle enough for the New Eastcoast Arms Collectors Associates to continue holding gun shows in Saratoga Springs NY in the face of increased uneasiness about the alleged fetishization of firearms and the violent potential of gun enthusiasts. Things got worse for the NEACA this month when people saw that their next show in the Spa City would include an exhibit and auction of a writing desk and accessories believed to have belonged to Adolf Hitler. Under pressure from the Saratoga Springs City Center Authority, which operates the venue, the NEACA cancelled the exhibit and arranged for the auction to take place out-of-state. Concerns were raised about the exhibit following the violence and controversies over Confederate statuary elsewhere in the U.S., but this strikes me as a case where important distinctions can be made.

A desk is an artifact, a literal piece of history, and it is also simply a desk. Nothing about the desk is heroic unless you project something heroic onto it. To the contrary, it strikes me that a curious person might want to see a desk where der Fuehrer might have signed important orders, drafted a speech, or doodled without at all approving of anything Hitler did. The spectator might simply crave the sensation, morbid or otherwise, of being close to history. An artifact is not a monument; it does not exist to honor anyone or anything. To go to the City Center to look at the desk would not be to do Adolf Hitler any honor. I suppose, however, that a "one percent doctrine" prevails among those who opposed the exhibit. The idea that anyone might approach the desk with reverence -- that someone in the building might be a Nazi sympathizer -- probably was the truly unacceptable thing.  There's something paranoid about such anxiety that is not equivalent to the abhorrence one probably should feel over the existence of statues in public squares anywhere in America honoring -- no other verb describes their purpose as well -- the ringleaders of a seditious conspiracy.

Of course, apologists for the statues will argue that the mindset of today's iconoclasts isn't really different from the hysterical attitude of some people in Saratoga Springs. Those apologists will argue that it is paranoid to assume that someone who admires the statues is a white supremacist or neo-Confederate. They may argue further for a distinction, fudged by the President recently, between "history" and "heritage." For the sake of argument, "heritage," the word usually used by statue apologists, entails a value-free (or politics-free) reverence for ancestors who died in war, no different in essence from the monument anyone gets over his or her grave. Whether Confederate monuments ever can be politically neutral is debatable in the face of persistent claims that secessionists and rebels, not to mention slaveholders and their defenders, deserve reverence from no one. Despite that debate, descendants of Confederates will continue to claim the right to honor their kin, if for no other reason than that they are kin. In any event, it should be self-evident that a desk, no matter who used it, is a thing of a different order. There is less reason to see it as inherently idolatrous or offensive than there is to distrust a public statue. While the Saratoga Springs case is less flagrantly absurd than ESPN's recent reassignment of an Asian-American reporter named Robert Lee from its coverage of a Charlottesville basketball game, it's still an instance when the impulse to remove any reminder of evil from a potentially tempting place in public view goes a little too far.

28 August 2017

Has antifa jumped the shark?

The Washington Post headline for its report of yesterday's violence in California reads significantly: "Black-clad antifa members attack peaceful right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley." The story itself reports that the usual black bloc types took the offensive against people identified as Trump supporters -- people who chose to express themselves despite being warned to stay home by organizers of an aborted "No to Marxism in America" rally. The story serves as a reminder, if not a revelation to some, that leftists often have been the aggressors in confrontations with right-wingers or Trump supporters since the President took office. These aggressors no more represent the left as a whole than any gathering of "alt" or "old" right represents the opposition as a whole. The black-bloc attackers reportedly represented about 100 people out of an estimated 7,000 people who showed up for a counter-demonstration against "No to Marxism." The mayor of Berkeley called out the attackers, stating that "Fighting hate with hate does not work and only makes each side more entrenched in their ideological camps.” It's an admirable sentiment, but will he back up words with actions? What is to be done about antifa? Ideally the term should become a pejorative as the peaceful opposition to Trump and Republicanism distances itself more distinctly from those who claim license to beat up "fascists" and "haters" while applying those labels to nearly everyone to their right. Shunning may not be enough, however. Ironically, one way to tame antifa might be to borrow from the old anti-Klan playbook and ban the wearing of masks and hoods in public by adults. At the same time, an old-fashioned civics lesson about tolerance for those we disagree with, or deeply dislike, couldn't hurt. It needs to be said authoritatively, from the left, that the Trump movement is not -- or is not merely white America's war against the world, before the widespread assumption that it is becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The worst thing that could happen over the next three years is for people to refuse to listen to Trump supporters, even if they're mostly wrong about things, for the express reason that they're white, as that might only encourage a counter-assumption that only white people are capable of citizenship on the terms Trumpists might deem necessary. The next-worst thing is to keep running around calling Trump people "fascists" when most of them probably haven't had a truly fascist thought in their entire lives -- though they probably have an idea by now of what real stormtroopers look like.

24 August 2017

Building a wall around Congress

The President has frightened Republican congressional leaders and Wall Street investors by threatening to "shut down" the government by vetoing any bill that raises the debt ceiling without also funding the border wall that was supposed to be funded by Mexico. The credibility of the threat depends on Congress itself. The question the GOP leaders face is twofold. First, can they pass a bill to fund the wall? Second, can they override a presidential veto of a bill without wall funding? The answer to the first question is up to Republicans themselves, since they have a majority of both houses of Congress. Some Republicans, possibly a critical mass, dislike the wall idea for pragmatic or libertarian reasons. There's probably no chance of getting Democrats to make up for any Republican defectors on a wall vote. Meanwhile, Democrats could help override any veto of a wall-less bill -- but at what price? These questions trouble Speaker Ryan and Senator McConnell because they assume from past experience that they, rather than the President or the Democrats, will be blamed by the public should the government shut down. I'm not so sure that that's so. Isn't it more likely that the President would take most of the heat, at least from the media? After all, this would be madman Trump shutting down the government because Congress wouldn't fund his nativist, racist, etc. goddam wall. Yet I suppose the fates of congressional Republicans are tied to the President whether they like it (or him) or not. They'd be the first to face a public backlash, whether he shuts down the government or gets his wall -- if there is a backlash, that is. Republican congressmen can only distance themselves so far from a Republican President, no matter how much they might insist that their aren't responsible for or to him. The veto is any President's check on the legislature's power of the purse, but our age of seemingly ceiling-less national debt may have tipped the balance in the executive's favor. It may be true that Congress owes the President nothing personally -- the latter is not the leader of the majority party and must negotiate (or threaten in this case) rather than dictate to them -- but as far as the executive and legislative branches are concerned, the Constitution may require Congress to pay up this time, so to speak, if the majority isn't willing to seek a better deal elsewhere.

23 August 2017

What's the matter with moderation?

David Brooks writes, "Like most of you, I dislike the word moderate." While he never explains his assumption that most of us share his view, he does explain that the word "moderate" sounds too "milquetoast" to him. He then goes on, in a recent column, to list the praiseworthy qualities of "moderates," conceding that he'll stick with the word "until a better one comes along." The better word, I'd suggest, is moderate -- once you stop treating it, as Brooks (if not "most of you") apparently does, as synonymous with "centrist" or "middle of the road." His disdain for "moderate" is a consequence of the very bipolar political thinking Brooks urges us to transcend. Thinking in terms of American party politics, he takes to "moderate" to be seeking a dubious middle ground between the extremes of Republican conservatism and leftist liberalism. But there is nothing inherently centrist about moderation. Our English word derives from a Latin word meaning control, and its traditional meaning is "self-control." Moderation has been identified with the middle ground because it's often used to describe a philosophy ascribed to the ancient Greeks, "moderation in all things." That idea, in turn, is often identified in classrooms with the avoidance of opposite extremes, e.g. one must not be too miserly nor too profligate. Moderation thus tends to be placed in bipolar contexts, and when these contexts are controversial moderation gets equated with intellectual or moral mediocrity. But the concept of moderation doesn't depend on the concept of opposites, and the true moderate should not be presumed to cower in the middle ground between them.

There is, or ought to be, a difference between telling both right and left that they can't have everything they demand, on one hand, and merely splitting the difference between them. Because the true moderate -- a word synonymous with his position, but unfortunately tainted by association with a failed reform movement, is "temperance" -- is moderate in all things, that moderation can't be understood in terms set by the opposite extremes of bipolar politics and can't be reduced by either or both to a mere middle ground. A real moderate would be just as moderate in a tripolar or even more pluralist political order where the choices can't be reduced to opposites but the risks of extremism are just as great. The moderate has something like the quality Brooks himself calls "humility," which he describes as "a radical self-awareness from a position outside yourself," though "objectivity" might be the better word. That, at least, makes sense of his recommendation to put "truth before justice," though the obvious implication that truth and justice are not synonymous, in current political usage at least, is a future topic unto itself. In the end, Brooks, still a conservative in theory, has a very liberal sense of what moderation entails, incorporating pluralism, syncretism and skepticism into the mix on the assumption that "monadic" identities "brutalize politics." Whether these qualities truly characterize moderation depends on the extent to which any of them tend to be self-indulgent or become ends unto themselves, but the true moderate presumably will still cultivate these qualities in moderation. I don't think there's anything at all wrong with the word "moderation." Those who think otherwise may need to moderate their attitude toward reality itself.

22 August 2017


On MSNBC this morning, after the President's speech on Afghanistan, Joe Scarborough brought a panel on to discuss whether last night was the moment when "Paul Wolfowitz became President." The question, in other words, was whether Donald Trump had become a neocon, or given in to them, by committing to an indefinite, expanded American military presence in that benighted country. Trump himself acknowledged that he had changed his mind about Afghanistan, having once been inclined to withdraw. He now accepts at least one premise identified with the neocons (like Wolfowitz) of George W. Bush's time: that terrorists have a better chance of striking at us if they have a sympathetic country as a safe haven. That premise remains debatable. It'd be interesting to see someone attempt to correlate the volume of ISIS-inspired attacks over a given time period to the amount of territory the self-styled caliphate controlled in Iraq or Syria. My hunch is that the idea will outlast the caliphate, especially now that terrorism is most often carried out on a relatively small scale that doesn't seem to need the scale of logistical support that a sovereign country might provide. Such speculation doesn't change the likelihood of a power vacuum emerging in Afghanistan following a U.S. pullout, or the likelihood of an entity more hostile to us taking power there. Whether our presence alone prevents that outcome, and how much longer Americans in general and Trump's base in particular are prepared to accept that responsibility, remain to be determined.

The Wolfowitz question was a funny one for Scarborough to ask, since he had just shown a clip of the President from last night saying that the U.S. would no longer go around the world trying to remake every nation in our own image. That sounds like a repudiation of the "democracy promotion" that was a hallmark of both W-era neoconservatism and its Democratic counterpart under Clinton and Obama. But as at least one guest pointed out, Trump's position was not inconsistent with what might be called first-generation, Cold War era neoconservatism as practiced by people like Jeanne Kirkpatrick who often opposed democracy promotion. Kirkpatrick in particular became notorious for defending dictators aligned with the U.S. from demands for democratization. Her position was founded on a distinction between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian" regimes, and on a suspicion that, under Marxist influence, superficially democratic uprisings against authoritarians would turn totalitarian too often for America's comfort. Exchange Islam for Marxism and you can see why this line of thinking might make a comeback after a stormy "Arab Spring." Trump apparently has decided that democracy is not the answer for Afghanistan, or at least that it's not the answer for any problem Afghanistan poses for the U.S. His next question should be whether an authoritarian solution is possible that includes a degree of power sharing to end that country's seemingly incorrigible sectarianism and ethnic strife, or whether his best bet is to put all his chips on one strong man who could be given the tools to keep everyone else in line. Some of Trump's supporters may be disappointed that simply nuking the place isn't an option, but if they thought their man would simply wash his hands of the place, they should have known better. His initial gut skepticism about our presence in Afghanistan might have been right on a practical level, but how would he ever have turned our withdrawal from a destabilized land in the face of hostile forces a win? Trump must win somewhere -- his personality presumably demands it -- and by now he may believe that he has a better chance of winning there than here.

21 August 2017

Us and Them

People of good will everywhere bemoan the fact that world seems perpetually divided into "us" and "them." Anywhere you go, you have an "us" and a "them," or many "thems." Why should this be, many people ask, when we are all human beings? Why can't there just be "us?" Some of these people answer their own question when they treat those of "us" who don't identify with a universal "us" as "them." At the same time, those who claim to represent the universal "us" can only be "them" in many eyes in nearly every place, because they seem not to belong to, or care for, any particular "us." That's where we're at, it seems, in the United States today, deadlocked in mutual resentment of a mutual refusal to belong to each side's ideal "us." It's easy to dismiss any particular "us" as narrow-minded and exclusive, but it's nearly as easy to dismiss an indiscriminate "us" that may amount to no more than a multitude of "me." It sometimes seems as if you have to jump through too many hoops to belong fully to any particular "us," and for no good reason other than custom, but do we really want to say that you don't need to do anything but be yourself to belong to the universal "us?" Is there really an "us" when the only requirement is to accept each other as we are? Some may answer that our common humanity is an irrefutable fact that makes us "us" automatically, but is that how most people feel about "us?" I suppose it depends on whether we mean "me" by "us," or something more that makes belonging meaningful and responsible. Ultimately, the problem of "us" and "them" remains a problem of, and for, "me" and "you."

17 August 2017

'Our Beautiful Statues'

It looks like the President is going to give love to those who love him, and not give a damn about anyone else's opinion. In the continuing debate over the violence in Charlottesville last weekend, Trump at least has a leg to stand on when he asserts that both "alt-right" and "alt-left" (antifa, etc) were violent, though that means neither that both sides are equally to blame, as some infer him to mean, nor that the left has any share in the blame for the vehicular homicide that climaxed the day. The President might have furthered a useful conversation about an emerging violent streak on the left or the question of whether the alt-right has a right to assembly without molestation. But he's just about blown any chance of that conversation happening soon with his tweets and other comments in defense of Confederate monuments.

Trump reached a new low this morning when he took to Twitter to decry the removal of "our beautiful statues." For the most part he reprised his arguments of the other day, in which he equated the removal of Confederate statues with the rewriting of history and worried that Washington and Jefferson might be purged from "history" because they owned slaves. But that "our statues" bit was an insult to most of the country. Donald Trump may be our President, some far-leftists notwithstanding, but those definitely are not "our" statues, and it's sad, to use words Trump will understand, to think that he thinks of them as his statues. For all I know, the fool may simply like them because they're pretty. That's what I get, in a generous frame of mind, when he tweets about "the beauty that is being taken out of our cities." I suppose he'd find statues of Lenin and Stalin beautiful as well, when he visits Russia, and he might well feel the same way about statues of Mao in China, or the Kims in North Korea. As for the good old U.S.A., he tries to justify his stance by tweeting, "You can't change history [even though that's what he accused the statue-removers of doing], but you can learn from it." But what exactly can you learn from a statue? That Robert E. Lee was a handsome man, or a brave one? In fact, we do need to learn from history, but can we learn anything we need about Confederate heroes from these statues? All they really teach us is that the defeated foot-soldiers of a defeated conspiracy still saw their leaders as heroes, when they had no cause to that the rest of us are bound to respect. The old idea that even we in the north should look at the generals, at least, as tragic heroes of an American Iliad is garbage and has rightly been trashed. The right attitude toward those statues is probably something closer to what Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos etc. express whenever Japanese politicians visit the Yasukuni shrine where convicted war criminals are memorialized. As I wrote before, I understand the President's need or desire to pander to his perceived base, but for him to think, in the 21st century, that no one should be offended by the memorialization of slaveocratic secessionists, is maliciously ignorant. Maybe if he read books instead of admiring statues he'd have a better sense of history. And as for the "you will not replace us" crowd, if Confederate statues represent what they're worried about, then maybe they or their forebears should have been replaced a long time ago.

15 August 2017

'You're changing culture'

The President probably had yesterday's demonstration in Durham NC, where a mob toppled a Confederate statue, as well as the weekend's carnage in Charlottesville in mind when he spoke combatively with the press today. While he had valid points to make, particularly that there was violence from what he called the "alt-left" as well as the alt-right in Charlottesville, he jumped the shark when he denounced the peaceful removal of Confederate monuments. He perceived a slippery slope taking us from the disappearing, so to speak, of Robert E. Lee to the purging of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. If Confederates must be removed from the theoretical public square because they owned slaves, Trump reasoned, won't Washington and Jefferson inevitably be taken as well? To remove Confederate monuments, he argued, somehow was to rewrite or distort history. "You're changing culture," he complained, and that brings us back to Thomas Friedman's column of last week, in which the New York Times writer advised Democrats that not all Americans with "gut" cultural concerns about immigrants, Muslims, etc. could be written off as white supremacists. Friedman's column begged the question of where the line was to be drawn; to what extent should we tolerate and address people's cultural concerns, and at what point can we criticize their suspicions as bigotry? Trump has shown us where he'd draw the line, arguing that one can revere the Confederacy, and object to its purging from public history, without being a white supremacist. The President was most likely correct to say that not everyone who protested against the Charlottesville statue's removal was a white supremacist on the odious level of the Klan or the neo-Nazis. But can there really be a value-free embrace of the Confederacy on the abstract "heritage" level, presumably meaning that you think it cool, and nothing more, that great warriors once lived where you live now? It's possible, I suppose, as long as you have no idea at all of what the Confederacy was about. Only the ignorant could fail to draw important distinctions between Founding Fathers and Secessionists -- including ignorant people on the left who may well think exactly as Trump presumes. I'd like to think that I could make even Trump understand the difference. How would he feel, and what would he do, had some crazy Californians actually carried out their post-election threat to take their state out of the Union rather than have Donald Trump as their president? I'm pretty confident that the way Trump would feel is exactly how most Americans from Abraham Lincoln to the present day feel about the Confederacy. You can cut through all the neo-Confederate sophistry regarding the relevance of slavery to secession or the subsequent war by noting that a bunch of privileged crybabies took their states out of the union, without really consulting their constituents, solely to protest an election. Many states seceded before Lincoln had a chance to do any of the supposedly unconstitutional things they feared -- before he was even inaugurated. Theirs was the #notmypresident movement of their day. Does Donald Trump really want to endorse that? Does he really think that people who fought for that cause are heroes? Is the Confederate heritage really a core part of the American culture he expects everyone to defend? It's up to the President's northern supporters to say otherwise. They should be as hostile to Confederate idolatry as an internal poison as they are to any perceived external poison. On a cynical level, I can understand why the President, no doubt contemplating reelection, can't take the lead here. But if northern Trumpists don't feel the hostility toward the Confederacy that they should as a matter of heritage, I'd like to know why.


Repercussions from Charlottesville have taken most people's minds off some really irresponsible recent talk from the President. Trump told reporters last Friday that he would not rule out military intervention to end the instability in Venezuela, where the opposition sees the convening of a Constituent Assembly as the ultimate power grab by Hugo Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro. The President observed that "the people are suffering and dying" there, but he's never struck me as a humanitarian-intervention sort of guy. To the extent that Trump's own fans noted this before Charlottesville erupted, they must have wondered how national security justified a Venezuelan intervention, or how everyday joes like themselves could benefit from it. I suppose we could infer from the President's past comments about taking Iraqi oil that he might like to have Venezuela's vast oil reserves under American strategic control, but beyond that I can't understand this sudden bluster. I do understand that Maduro, as Chavez's heir, has a place in an unofficial axis of evil leaders whose bark is worse than their bite, to judge from the rage their rhetoric provokes in many Americans, but are we really so thin-skinned, or is our President, that we have to take down any ruler that insults us? That we are thin-skinned is beyond doubt, but what worries me about Trump's threat to Venezuela is the idea that the President might get off on threatening foreign leaders. Perhaps he feels more powerful, and even more presidential, as he exchanges threats with Kim Jong Un. Perhaps he thinks that, with the might of the U.S. military behind him, he can win through raw intimidation. Perhaps he thinks the rest of the world sees him as he sees himself, as a figure of unquestionable power who is not to be trifled with -- or perhaps he wants them to see him that way. And perhaps he relishes being able to "negotiate" with fitting antagonists like Kim and Maduro in a way he really can't when dealing with domestic opposition. Whatever's going on in his head, his behavior toward Venezuela doesn't really match the non-interventionist stance attributed to him, often by hostile observers, during his presidential campaign. Part of Trump's appeal, I thought, was the idea that he would not embroil Americans in counterproductive conflicts for the sake of ideas or the sake of humanity as his predecessors did. Or did we misread his audience? Or do they just want to see him slap somebody down, even if it isn't anyone they really want slapped down? We may get a better idea if Trump keeps up the tough talk on Venezuela and it actually starts to register with his base, or if he does something about North Korea first. If anything, should he not lash out at some foreign enemy, they may grow more impatient for him to lash out at home. For all I know, Trump may be picking foreign targets to keep himself from doing just that.

14 August 2017

Is a culture truce possible?

The day before the Charlottesville incident, one of the local papers ran a Thomas Friedman column urging Democrats to appeal to swing voters on a gut level, on the understanding that "Some things are true even if Donald Trump believes them." Friedman appeared to argue that it was possible to take a populist stand on some cultural issues without going down the slippery slope to white supremacy. He made a distinction between a pro-Trump "white nationalist constituency" that Democrats can't hope to reach and a larger, potentially more decisive group of voters to whom Democrats ought to make some intellectual concessions. Three out of his four recommendations touch on cultural issues. He asks Democrats to acknowledge that "We can't take in every immigrant who wants to come in." He suggests "constructively engaging" Muslims on their problems with pluralism. He proposes easing off on "political correctness" so people feel more "comfortable expressing patriotism and love of country when globalization is erasing national identities." His fourth recommendation is for Democrats to focus on blue-collar job creation while acknowledging the existence of "a trade problem with China" and the even-bigger problem of increased automation. These are Friedman's "gut" issues, "gut"apparently being a euphemism for "culture" at a time when some on the hard left, echoing the legendary words of a Nazi playwright, reach for a rock to throw whenever anyone says "culture." 

Charlottesville is a win for the rock-throwers because it appears to reinforce their argument that white supremacy is the true face of the Trump movement, after the media spent the weekend asking why the President didn't denounce white supremacy specifically (or exclusively) after Saturday's violence. Presumably Trump satisfied most critics with his remarks today, though no doubt it will be claimed that his condemnation of white supremacy was tardy and only made under pressure. After this, there probably will be even less desire on the left for compromise with cultural populists than there was before Friedman wrote his column. Whether or not people honestly believe that Donald Trump is a white supremacist, a desire to spite the actual white supremacists is likely to outweigh either pragmatic or principled considerations for the next little while. Nevertheless, Friedman is right to remind readers of the existence of cultural populists -- one might also call them materialist conservatives, but this isn't the time to explain that one -- who are not rednecks or any sort of hyphenated Nazi. Friedman's is a rare concession that there are Americans with exclusionary views who are not a priori white supremacists, who can't be said to want a "lily-white" America just because they're suspicious of Muslims or Mexicans, but the majority on the left -- the people most likely to dismiss Friedman himself as a neoliberal -- can't imagine any other reason for excluding foreigners. In the face of that skepticism, it was still right for many Republicans to denounce white supremacy after the car attack, because they have a job of persuasion of their own if they hope to calm the nation's turbulent mood. It's in their interest to persuade the skeptics that there is an American culture worth defending against potentially antithetical influences that cannot simply be reduced to "whiteness," and that cultural populism isn't simply a matter of white people dictating to everyone else how to be an American. If the Democrats have to go for the "gut" to regain power, Republicans may need to go for the brain to retain it.

12 August 2017

Violence in Virginia

In Charlottesville VA the city council voted to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee, presumably on the premise that memorials to Confederate soldiers endorse slavery or racism. Alt-right groups saw the move as anti-white and are holding rallies in Charlottesville to protest the statue's removal, chanting the slogan, "You will not replace us." Inevitably, anti-racist groups, no doubt with "antifa" streetfighters in their midst, held counterdemonstrations. Just as inevitably, alt-right and anti-racist groups have been clashing all weekend. This afternoon, a presumed anti-anti-racist escalated the conflict, apparently borrowing from the Islamic terror playbook by deliberately driving his vehicle into a crowd of marching counter-demonstrators, killing one outright and injuring dozens more. The President quickly condemned the act, but his denunciation of "hate" and "bigotry" quickly proved inadequate for many critics. The problem, as they read his tweet, was that Trump had failed, predictably from their perspective, to denounce white supremacism. The President's spokespersons in the news media came to his defense, inferring a self-evident condemnation of white supremacy in Trump's more general comments. The story no doubt can write itself from there. But let's review: Confederate leaders, military or political, should be heroes nowhere in America; white chauvinists or supremacists, however odious their views, have just as much right to demonstrate without getting beat up as any one else with a controversial opinion; no offense committed by antifa or anti-racist groups in general against freedom of speech or assembly justifies an attempted mass murder of the sort that apparently took place today -- this could yet prove a DWI or apolitical road rage incident -- the victims of which may not even have taken part in street fighting. Finally, the President should be given the benefit of the doubt, this time at least, when he says he condemns what happened, when the more Trumpian response, based on some people's estimate of the man, might have been to say nothing at all. It's sad to think that some Americans think that if the President didn't say "white supremacists," he might have been condemning the victims or proposing some moral equivalence of all the weekend's combatants. In any event, white supremacism, if it was a motivating factor at all, was not the sufficient cause of today's atrocity. Neither white supremacists nor the alt-right in general is exclusively responsible for creating an environment in which vehicular homicide looks like the next natural step to take. People on all sides are taking "culture war" all too literally these days, including many who should know better. There's more than enough hate to go around right now -- but of course, no one will admit to it. We could all stand to be more honest about our biases at this moment in history. Candor certainly can't make things much worse.

10 August 2017

Defrauding the donors?

While channel surfing this morning I saw a brief item on Fox News about a Virginia man who was suing the state and local Republican party organizations for fraud. The story is actually about a week old and started here. Bob Heghmann wants the money back that he donated to the GOP last year, contending that Republicans solicited donations under false pretenses. They solicited donations on the promise that they would repeal Obamacare, but Heghmann claims, citing statements from a former Speaker of the House, that they did so knowing that they could not or would not kill the Affordable Care Act. He believes that while "members of the House of Representatives and Senate cannot be sued for failing to abide by campaign promises," the party can be held responsible for its members' failure to fulfill its promises. He considers it the party's responsibility to "pressure" its congressional caucus to live up to those promises. Of course, party spokesmen dismiss Heghmann's suit as frivolous, and I can understand why they'd be angry at him. His complaint puts the lie to an oft-used argument against stricter regulation of campaign donations, which is that donations are not quid-pro-quo transactions. Donors don't give money in return for specific votes, we're to understand, but to support candidates who already have an affinity with donors' values and priorities. Heghmann clearly expected something specific in return for his admittedly-modest donation, and who knows how many donors, modest or not, feel the same way. Common sense may argue that you punish politicians and parties that break their promises at the polls, but that doesn't get Heghmann his money back after he expected it to be effective. If more donors begin to act as he has, or start voting with their wallets by keeping them closed, it will be harder for politicians to sustain the argument that campaign donations aren't intended to influence votes. If a judge ever hears Heghmann's case, I the official to argue that he had no right to expect a quid-pro-quo return on his donation, that too many variables of circumstances make it impossible to hold political parties to such expectations. Those would actually be perfectly valid arguments, practically speaking, but they won't change the truth that Heghmann has spoken about campaign donors and what they expect for their money.

09 August 2017

Fire and Fury

The Secretary of State says that the President's threat yesterday to subject North Korea to "fire and fury like the world has never seen" was just Donald Trump's attempt to speak to Kim Jong Un in the only language the hereditary dictator is presumed to understand. Tillerson promptly translated the remark into more conventional language as a reaffirmation that "the United States has the capability to fully defend itself from any attack, and our allies, and we will do so." The Washington Post noted an important shift in emphasis; the secretary promised a response to an "attack," while the President threatened a response to "threats." Greg Sargent believes that Tillerson is trying to prevent "fire and fury" from becoming Trump's "red line," an equivalent to President Obama's mostly empty threats to the Syrian government. At issue is what the current President means by "threat." The current presumption seems to be that hotheaded Trump was provoked by the verbal threats of the North Korean government, and that, as Tillerson suggested, he was responding to trash talk with trash talk. If that's what the President meant when he said the Kim dynasty "best not make any more threats," then the clock is already ticking for "fire and fury," as the Kimites have already answered him by threatening to launch missiles at Guam. If Trump doesn't answer with "fire and fury," we should expect to hear criticism at least from the neocon right -- Senator McCain has already  called it an irresponsible statement -- and mockery from Pyongyang. It may be one thing to bully and bluster the same way that Kim Jong Un does, but it will be another for the bluster of a President to be as empty as Kim's often is.

Of course, no one has asked what Trump really means by "fire and fury." For all we know, it could just mean that North Korea will have made him really, really mad. They could well face fire and fury like Twitter has never seen -- and wouldn't that be preferable to the worst-case scenario some people assume? If history judges his words, they'll be judged by what Kim Jong Un does in response. Trump's hope, no doubt, is that the dictator will be intimidated by his obvious power to return to the negotiating table, in which case, if the terms end up favorable to us, the President will claim a win. For all we know, Trump may be practicing the kind of "madman" diplomacy Richard Nixon occasionally indulged in, in an attempt to persuade Kim that he is, in fact, a different kind of President whom the dictator must deal with differently. It's hard to say, however, whether Kim Jong Un is more or less likely than, say, an American liberal to perceive Donald Trump as a dangerous madman. Either way, the smart play for the dictator would be to negotiate, perhaps to meet Trump face to face. After all, the President often seems greatly impressed by strong leaders who are beloved by their people, and no one projects that image more persistently than Kim Jong Un. They might actually get along great, and while I do mean that as something of a slap at an oddly ingratiating tendency of Trump's it would also be something of a relief to have a President not conditioned by neo-thinking to see the Kim dynasty as evil incarnate, a thing to be crushed unconditionally rather than dealt with diplomatically. The risk now is not so much that Trump might treat the destruction of North Korea as a moral imperative, but that he may feel it necessary to follow through on his threat to prove his dominance, not only abroad but at home. He'd be better off asking his advisers why North Korea is building nukes. If it's not to export communist revolution, then it must be for national defense -- and that should make it simple for the President. Is it in the national interest -- by his standard, the interest of actual Americans -- to maintain a permanent confrontational stance with ad admittedly repugnant regime that still would not be an existential threat to the U.S. under ordinary circumstances? Is it in the national interest to defend South Korea at all costs? Is it in the national interest to perpetuate a conflict that inevitably will be exploited by more serious potential antagonists to distract us while they advance their agendas? All of that is for Trump and his team to decide, but not to take for granted as his predecessors have. He needs to take his vacation seriously, resist the temptation to get into some macho showdown with Kim Jong Un, and give the cooler heads he's hired a chance to prevail.

07 August 2017

The unfriending of America

Republicans and right-wingers often rail at leftists who want to turn university campuses into "safe zones" where their opinions and self-esteem are never challenged by "hateful" ideas, but there seems to be a tendency on the right to treat social media as a safe zone. An op-ed in a local newspaper criticizes a number of Republican officeholders, including the President and the Governor of Maryland, who are blocking critics from their social media accounts. While I wouldn't be surprised to find Democrats doing the same thing, Republicans are supposed to be the people advocating robust debate everywhere. In the Maryland case the governor's office supposedly removed only "hateful and violent" content, but at least some of the people blocked insist that comments were "respectful, thoughtful and not profane." The ACLU is encouraging litigation against public officials who block users, on the premise that an official's social-media account is a public forum and blocking people violates the First Amendment.

Blocking unwelcome people from your social-media account is an uncontroversial practice for private citizens, though it usually reflects poorly on you in the eyes of those you block. When politicians block people from "official" accounts, it echoes the practice of relegating protesters and hecklers to some "free-speech zone." In both cases, the idea violates an assumed right of dissidents to get "in your face," to confront power directly and make your dissatisfaction with it known in the most obvious way. In the case of street demonstrations, "free-speech zones" are justified on the premise that demonstrators threaten the right to assemble of those they protest against. In social media, blocking people, however justified in some cases, is part of a much-deplored overall tendency of users to isolate themselves in "safe zones" of like-minded opinion, in an environment where any disagreement can be taken as an insult, if not an assault.

Reports this weekend of Trump TV's "real news" videos on the President's Facebook page triggered fears that social media could be made an instrument of state propaganda where alternate points of view are even less welcome than conservative opinion supposedly was in the old days of the three major networks and their allegedly biased news reports. Meanwhile, I suppose it could be argued that the social-media accounts of elected officials are not "public" in the sense assumed by the ACLU, that would confer constitutional rights on anyone who wants to comment on them. "Social" and "public" are not synonymous, and "social media" could be seen as yet another manifestation of "civil society," the flourishing of which, according to liberal thinking, is a safeguard against encroaching totalitarianism. Yet we could also be seeing a modern, secular version of the old American Christian tendency called "come-outerism," invoking the injunction from II Corinthians 6:17 to "come out from among them and be separate ... and touch not the unclean thing." Now you can do this without even leaving home, and that makes it easier for all sides to abandon the ideal of mutual accountability upon which principled democracy depends. When no one wants to hear that they're wrong, or even that they might be wrong, you have a consensus, in effect, that everyone is wrong.

04 August 2017

The cowardice of signing statements

As President, Donald Trump is similar to his recent predecessors in one respect. He likes to attach grumbling signing statements to legislation passed with veto-proof majorities in Congress. The most recent case involves the bill imposing new sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia. It passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress. In the Senate, only Sen. Sanders, who felt it disrupted our nuclear negotiations with Iran, and Sen. Paul, who seems to have little use for sanctions in general, voted against it. It was obvious to the President immediately that the bill would complicate any attempt he might make to reconcile with Russia, not only because it imposes more sanctions, but because it constrains the President from negotiating away those sanctions before getting Congress' consent. Trump believes that this unconstitutionally violates his executive prerogative to negotiate with foreign leaders, and said so in his signing statement. This seems to be a higher-order objection than those that George W. Bush was wont to make in his signing statements, which usually indicated that he would still do whatever he pleased according to his (or Dick Cheney's) notion of executive power. One would think that a President has a duty to veto legislation he believes to be unconstitutional as a matter of principle, regardless of whether the veto will be overriden or not. Yet after expressing his objections, Trump feebly signed the sanctions bill for the sake of "national unity."

In one sense, I can understand Trump's capitulation. The Constitution makes no distinctions among the reasons why a President might veto a bill. Whatever the executive's objections, Congress always has the right to override. There is no procedure for referring a constitutional objection to the Supreme Court, and since the President is not the Supreme Court, Congress has no obligation to take his constitutional objections seriously. Given the consensus in favor of the sanctions, Trump would be SOL trying to dissuade Congress even if he had his immediate predecessor's academic credentials in constitutional law. Still, this might have been the time, given our increasingly tense relations with both Russia and North Korea, for a President who is not supposed to do things the way his predecessors did to do things differently. He still couldn't stop Congress from overriding a veto, but actually vetoing the bill might have been the sort of "profile in courage" gesture that might -- I know I'm being wildly theoretical here -- just might have provoked people into rethinking it. Trump did not do this, I suspect, because on a certain level he's a coward. Determined to win at all times, or to call whatever he happens to be doing a win, he probably could not stand to take a stand that was guaranteed to fail. He most likely didn't want the humiliation of an overwhelming override of what would have been his first presidential veto, particularly on a foreign policy question, as that might make him look weaker on the world stage. Well, that damage has been done anyway, as the world recognizes a reassertion of congressional influence in American foreign policy that the supposed strongman Trump could not resist. Now, presumably, Trump can only reserve for himself the satisfaction of saying "I told you so," not in the event of a Supreme Court vindication of his position, since they'll probably never hear the law challenged, but possibly after further deterioration of American relations with the rest of the world. If he really wants to tell us so, he should have vetoed the bill and damned the consequences. He'd have lost, certainly, but he might have earned a little more respect, in some quarters, at least, than he has now.

01 August 2017


Jeff Flake knows how to sell a book. His new tome, Conscience of a Conservative, hit bookstores today with a vast blast of publicity emphasizing how vehemently the junior U.S. Senator from Arizona, a Republican, denounces President Trump. The title is a conscious borrowing from a declaration of principles by fellow Arizonan Barry Goldwater, Flake's model of a conscientious principled conservative. In Flake's opinion, Donald Trump is neither conscientious, principled or conservative. To an extent, this is a matter of temperament. Trump is too "inconstant, mercurial, and shallow" to be a true conservative, Flake writes, much less President of the United States. The current President's unpredictable volatility is the opposite, in Flake's view, of conservative governance. Personality aside, Trump is guilty of enticing Republicans and others with "the sugar high of populism, nativism, and demagoguery." Flake warns that “The crash from this sugar high will be particularly unpleasant.”

The senator couldn't have picked a better time for an ad hominem attack on the Trump administration, in the aftermath of the meteoric rise and fall of Anthony Scaramucci, the White House communications director for an epic eleven days, and while the President rails against his own party failing to repeal Obamacare despite its Senate majority. Unlike the senior Senator from Arizona, Flake voted for the so-called "skinny repeal" bill, but that's an increasingly rare point of agreement between him and Trump. In promoting his book, however, Flake may have overplayed his hand by describing Republican infighting as the "spasms of a dying party." It's a strange thing to say given the GOP's undefeated record in special congressional elections so far this year, but I suspect Flake means that the Republican party is turning into something he soon won't recognize, that it may soon be dead to him, rather than that the party is doomed at the polls. He fears that a GOP dominated by Trump will abandon the principles that have defined the party for the last 50 years, since Goldwater's heyday. In an MSNBC interview Flake emphasized that "protectionism and isolationism are not conservative values." That crack about isolationism is just silly, since there really is no evidence that Trump is isolationist, while Flake's claim in the interview that "The Republican party has always been a free-trade party," is an abandonment, if not a simple forgetting, of a principle that defined the Republican party when it was founded. In that respect, at least, if not also in its suspicions of immigrants, the Trump movement represents a reversion to Republican attitudes predating the Goldwater-Reagan takeover of the Grand Old Party. The death spasms Flake perceives with such anxiety may only be the last stages of a long but temporary phase of American political history. We'll probably know sooner rather than later which side of history Jeff Flake is on.