29 September 2017
27 September 2017
26 September 2017
The problem is that Trump clearly sees the singing of the National Anthem as a categorically different event, and the arena where it's sung as a categorically different venue, than those usually involved in questions of speech rights. Whatever the law might say, the President does not see the obligation to pay homage to the flag and The Troops for which it stands as subject to debate or any sort of qualification. In his mind, we may assume, a refusal to salute the flag puts your loyalty to the country in question. It becomes an offense comparable to "slandering the state," an oft-prosecuted crime in authoritarian or totalitarian countries.
Trump's nationalism demands unconditional love of country, at least on certain occasions and in certain places, and on some level you can understand why that doesn't sound to many people like an unreasonable request. I don't think he and his people are yet at the point where they want to silence all criticism of inequality, all denunciations of injustice or even all insults to his administration. But just as people on the other side demand explicit affirmation of certain premises (e.g., "Black lives matter") that others prefer, for whatever reason, to affirm only implicitly or take for granted, so the Trump movement demands some explicit affirmation from the other side that, when it counts, we're all on the same team and have each other's backs. They no doubt think that standing for the short duration of one verse and chorus of the anthem is not too much to ask, just as many on the other side think the three little words are not too much to ask. And, no doubt, just as some people deny that their refusal to say "black lives matter" makes them racist, so the sports stars and others deny that refusing to stand for the anthem makes them traitors. The issue once more is mutual disrespect, and the belief on each side that the affirmation required by the other side involves some nebulous yet unacceptable concession. When it comes to the anthem, the unacceptable concession is an implicit one; to salute the flag like everyone else would appear to concede that nothing is wrong with the country. Since the Trump movement itself doesn't believe that -- though they may think that what's wrong is that people think the wrong things are wrong, so to speak -- it might help just a little if they made it more clear that such a concession is not what they're demanding. It probably won't help too much, however, since being contrary for the sake of contrariness is probably an even more ingrained American trait, irrespective of race or ethnicity, than love of country itself. The right to be contrary is exactly what many people love about America. Telling them that's suddenly wrong is never going to go over well, as the President is finding out. But for a politician, all that really matters is that it goes over with an electoral majority, and Trump may yet have the winning argument in that case.
24 September 2017
One hundred years ago this month, drafted men from Columbia County NY paraded through the town of Chatham on their way to World War I. When the band played the Star Spangled Banner, William Van Ness refused to take his hat off. A crowd demanded that he show respect, and when he persisted in refusing, they beat him. Van Ness was subsequently charged with disorderly conduct. Three days after the incident, the town justice dismissed the charge, saying that Van Ness had suffered enough at the hands of the mob. The magistrate spoke from first-hand experience; Cornelius Shubert, now a lieutenant, had led the attack on Van Ness, whom he now sent home with a reprimand and a warning, paraphrased a century later, that "any future incident of a similar nature would be dealt with much more harshly."
We may presume that disgruntled sports fans in 2017 won't storm the playing fields of America to chastise professional athletes involved in incidents of a similar nature, but many plainly agree with the President's loathsome remarks in Alabama a few days ago, when he said that any "son of a bitch" who refuses to stand for the National Anthem should be fired. The sad thing about such pathetic threats that the simple act of taking a knee during the anthem is the epitome of nonviolent protest. No doubt, however, the angry white folks in the stands or watching at home assume that the same person taking a knee will loot a store or burn a police car on the streets. The problem with such people, you'd likely hear, is that they respect nothing. Athletic protests like these date back almost fifty years to the 1968 Olympics, but patience with them seems to have run thin recently as whites increasingly resent the disrespect they feel the rest of the population shows them, even as many of those others still feel disrespected by whites.
The consistent thing over time about these threatening demands for respect is an equation of the flag with the troops. To refuse proper reverence to the flag and its theme song is to deny respect to the people who, in the usual vulgar formulation, fight and die for the flag. By this logic the flag embodies that covenant with the dead upon which authentic, sincere patriotism depends. A similar sentiment, not exactly patriotic, rallies defenders of Confederate memorials. The essence of this sort of patriotism is keeping faith with the dead; that sort of patriot resents perceived disrespect for the dead, as disrespect for themselves. That same fetishistic patriotism is in turn resented by those, including many whites, who see it as a form of idolatry and identify the associated demand for unconditional love of country with a "my country right or wrong" attitude that seems, to some, profoundly un-American. Liberalism requires love of country to be justified. While liberals may reject the idea that individuals need to earn respect, many feel entitled, if not obliged, to withhold respect from the nation as a whole, or at least its symbols or monuments, until it earns their love. Meanwhile, many on the other side probably believe unconditional love and reverence to be both natural and necessary to a healthy, great nation. What we have here is a profound disagreement over what it means to be a citizen that most likely won't be decided on the playing field, even if that's where the action seems to be right now.
22 September 2017
Perhaps in Will's ideal world most people would naturally gravitate toward dispassionate arbiters like himself to distinguish the free from the cheap, but the trends predicted by Volokh and confirmed by Will make such an arrangement increasingly unlikely. Sadly, Will doesn't seem to consider whether the sort of skepticism he expresses reflexively, his refusal to believe that authority can ever be objective, is a fundamental part of the problem. Deny that possibility, after all, and you enable all forms of skepticism indiscriminately, and you elevate distrust to a fundamental right. While that skepticism pretty much prevents any attempt at even the most innocuous regulation of social media through law, the sort of remedies for the consequences of an altered speech market that Volokh conceded might become necessary may have to evolve informally. You can see an unhealthy evolution already in the antifa movement's assumption of a prerogative to silence perceived fascists or their fellow-travelers, a development likely to be mirrored once the alt-right gets angry enough. There may, however, be some cases, particularly in the field of "fake news" that Will rightly deplores, where similarly informal remedies for the most obvious lies or self-evident slanders could have some educational effect. All that would be needed then would be for the state to look the other way for a moment. Sometimes the remedy for cheap speech might be a cheap shot -- but not a gunshot, of course. Feel free to dismiss this as an immodest or too-modest proposal. That, for good or ill, is your prerogative. All's fair in the endless race for the last word.
20 September 2017
19 September 2017
18 September 2017
Populist trade policy tends to be protectionist on a sort of "no job left behind" principle, while free traders are more likely to see tariffs as robbing Peter the consumer to pay Paul the manufacturer. Worse still from their perspective, a political decision to conserve any American manufacturing industry is a case of "picking winners" instead of letting the Market, in its infinite wisdom, do its necessary work. Free-trade apologists would point to the quarter-million solar energy jobs as proof of the overall benefit of a free-trade policy, on the assumption that far fewer jobs would exist were the American manufacturers able to impose their preferred prices on everyone else. On classic utilitarian grounds, they'd seem to be correct, so long as you assume that all or even most of those jobs depend on the availability of cheap imports. Should 250,000 jobs be jeopardized to keep 8,000 people at work in a domestic industry that has, arguably, already failed in the global marketplace? The "greatest good for the greatest number" argument definitely doesn't favor a tariff, but it could be argued that a focus on literal numbers is an overly simplistic utilitarianism, while a "greatest good for the whole" argument might justify maintaining and encouraging an American solar-panel industry, even if that requires fellow Americans to pay more for panels than they'd like.
Whether the U.S. ought to have a healthy panel-manufacturing industry capable of meeting domestic demand is the sort of practical question our representatives should spend more of their time debating. I find such debates interesting because they seem to belie the individualist ethos of many free-market conservatives. It's probably more accurate to say that the implicit utilitarianism of their free-trade position belies their oft-expressed anti-collectivist bias, since it means that they're willing to sacrifice any number of individual workers, or at least their jobs, to the collective economy. I suppose they could argue that they remain individualists at heart because they uphold the supreme right of individual consumer choice against selfish manufacturers who would limit our choices, but whenever they condemn a domestic industrial sector to the death they feel it inevitably deserves, they are unavoidably sacrificing individuals to the collective. They might not be killing anyone literally on the altar of free trade, but they may well make life more difficult for thousands or millions of people, depending on the industry in question, and consumer choice doesn't always seem like justification enough for that.
15 September 2017
Is there any formula for moral equivalence between Hill's anti-Trump tweet and Schilling's anti-transgender whatever? It's hard to see the former as "hate speech" in the usual sense of that term, since Hill was criticizing an individual, albeit on subjective suspicion, while Schilling presumably disrespected an entire group of people. Trump supporters may feel disrespected by Hill's tweet, but it's hard to believe that their sense of identity is offended in any similar way -- presuming, of course, that any transgender person took offense upon actually reading Curt Schilling's Facebook page. It could be argued, however, that these social-media smears are approximately equivalent in their slanderousness -- that there could be a moral equivalence between disrespecting a group of people and maliciously lying about an individual. Is it slanderous to call Trump a white supremacist? Some would say it's self-evidently so in light of Trump's statements post-Charlottesville, but can they forbid anyone from thinking that the President was practicing white-man's taqiyya on this explosive subject? It won't be hard to find people ready to argue that this or that action of the President, including even his reiteration yesterday that both white supremacists and their antagonists had shares in the blame for the Charlottesville violence. In the 21st century, can a public official (or anyone) compel people to take him at his word by treating the refusal to do so as slander? Can Donald Trump -- or, some might ask despairingly, any white person -- prove a negative on this point so conclusively that no one would have a right to question his stance? It seems impossible, especially when the proof demanded by many is conflated with ideological tests by those who see Republican economic policies as racist in some way. This may seem unfair, but it explains why many people see the press secretary's statement as an un-American attempt at intimidation, and not as a defense of the President's honor. Nor is this anything new in our history. The difficulty of establishing the truth of certain points of controversy probably was a big reason why calling someone a liar 200 years ago was effectively to challenge him to a duel, or to invite a beating in the street. You might not be able to make someone believe you, but you might have a better chance at simply shutting him up. Back then, of course, dueling was a gentlemen's game, and it was a gentleman's prerogative to cane an inferior in the street for calumny. We probably don't want to go back to those rules in our more egalitarian age, but we still need to work out a new etiquette for the social-media age, as it becomes increasingly easy for people, whether presidents or reporters, to speak their minds without thinking.
13 September 2017
Currently, the ACLU draws the line only when people plan to carry weapons during their demos, since that's something different from speech. Cole justifies this loose approach by noting that "Our history illustrates that unless very narrowly constrained, the power to restrict the advocacy of violence is an invitation to punish political dissent." On a related note, he finds it strange that many self-conscious minorities want governments to have more power to suppress speech when 1. "in a democracy the state acts in the name of the majority, not the minority" and 2. "if we were to authorize government officials to suppress speech they find contrary to American values, it would [at present] be Trump -- and his allies in state and local governments -- who would use that power." In general, while "One can be justifiably skeptical of a debate in which Charles Koch or George Soros has outsized advantages over everyone else, [one can] still prefer it to one in which the Trump -- or indeed Obama -- administration can control what can be said." Unfortunately, I doubt whether those whose views Cole challenges will be swayed by his logic. Their demands for government power to suppress oppressive speech are inseparable from a demand for power for themselves, after all. I think they're just smart enough not to empower anyone like Trump to silence them, though they still need to consider, should they get power in turn, that they may not always have it. As for minority rights and majority rule, it wouldn't surprise me if some radicals actually look forward to something like the concurrent-majority form of government envisioned by John C. Calhoun, the great defender of slaveholders' rights, in which protected groups (slaveholders in Calhoun's case, take your pick today) could check the potential tyranny of the majority through veto powers, local nullification or other expedients. Civil libertarian groups like the ACLU rarely get on well with radicals, and I confidently expect to see Cole attacked in the letters columns of subsequent issues for his apparent blindness to the moral imperatives behind the movement to silence oppressive speech. But just as the right sneers at the ACLU one day and seeks shelter with them the next, the left will do likewise inevitably. The ACLU's work must often seem thankless, but so, probably, does much essential work in a democratic republic.
12 September 2017
11 September 2017
Maskin and Sen respond with a cautionary note about compulsory voting, which might not achieve optimum results in American elections. "According to US data, citizens who don't vote tend to be less well informed about candidates and issues than those who do," they writes, "Compulsory voting might well introduce a raft of additional voters who are more susceptible to the false claims and simplistic solutions of extremists."
In Australia, compulsory voting apparently minimizes extremism, while American observers fear that it would empower extremists. Why the difference? The appealing answer would be that Australians, being obliged to vote, feel obliged to educate themselves on the issues. By educating themselves, they immunize themselves, presumably, against "false claims and simplistic solutions." How likely is this, actually, in the land where Rupert Murdoch was born, or anywhere? It sounds more plausible to assume that Australia requires people to vote whether they've bothered informing themselves or not. This, in fact, could explain the moderating effect of compulsory voting, since candidates must appeal to voters who, as Heerey claims, most likely aren't really politicized, much less radicalized. If the U.S. is different in a way that makes an extremist result more likely, would that be because more uninformed people would be voting, or because more people would be voting who have already been radicalized? Many Americans claim that they don't vote because the major parties have nothing to offer them. Such people aren't necessarily uninformed about issues, though they may be uninformed about solutions, or they may have their own ideas about solutions that aren't usually echoed by the major parties. It might be premature even for Nobel laureates to dismiss all their ideas as "simplistic," and their forced entry onto the voter rolls might influence election campaigns the other way round from what Maskin and Sen fear. It might not be a matter of these marks falling naively for some demagogue's "false claims and simplistic solutions," but of canny politicians adopting more extreme positions simply as a matter of reaching out to a potentially critical mass of new voters. In short, if similar electoral systems were to produce radically different results in two countries, something other than "uninformed" voters would most likely be behind it. If compulsory voting in the U.S. would produce a more extreme or radical result, the most likely reason is that Americans already are more radical than Australians. The question than becomes whether elections should be arranged to prevent extreme or radical results or whether they should, as Maskin and Sen appear to believe, reflect "what voters really want."