29 November 2017

Another round with populism

Frank S. Robinson, the author of a book called The Case for Rational Optimism, takes a stab at the slippery concept of populism in an Albany Times Union op-ed. He traces the word all the way back to the Roman Republic, when the populates vied for power with the elitist optimates. He passes briefly over the People's Party of the 1890s U.S., noting that while their demand for "free silver" may sound arcane today, it was at least, by his lights, a "coherent and basically rational program." That's should tip you off that a comparison unfavorable to today's so-called populist is coming up. If that didn't, the invocation of Sigmund Freud to open the next paragraph should do the trick.  Robinson has determined that 21st-century populism is "id-based politics -- the politics of the gut." These populist aren't hungry, however; they are xenophobic in an apparently pathological way -- just as many 19th century populist were, if one bothers to take a closer look at them. So far, so predictable; populism is bound to seem bigoted to many observers because it refuses to treat "the people" as an abstract concept and is often tempted to see it as a mirror for "my kind." What's interesting about Robinson, however, is that he so hates the idea of populists "punching  down" that he starts chiding them for punching up as well. He notes that "until recently, at least, the elites were seen to have a certain moral authority" that he implicitly identifies with the nation's "sense of common purpose." He then writes that "all that has been eroded by a populist ethos of egalitarianism and individualism" -- which might sound like a good thing until it leads to "Joe Sixpack" sneering at politicians who support "anti-populist policies like liberal immigration and free trade." Our problem, it seems, is that we no longer allow "true leaders" to summon us to our "highest values, ideals and aspirations. " Instead Trumpian populism "panders to and inflames our baser nature until our good old "city on the hill" becomes "a squalid slum in a swamp." In other words, there are, or should be, moral optimates in a republic to whom "a certain deference" is owed. But when you have to insist on that, as Robinson does, it's probably too late to get that deference back, if it's even desirable, without more comprehensive change. My closing advice to Robinson is that writing as if bigotry is this nation's only problem today most likely isn't the best way to restore the deference he apparently expects from the masses.

28 November 2017


The President raised questions once more about his commitment to freedom of the press last weekend when he complained on Twitter that CNN, particularly its international channel, did a poor job representing the U.S. to the rest of the world compared to the more pro-Trump Fox News. His tweet quickly provoked angry and contemptuous responses, particularly from a CNN staffed who noted that it was the President's job, not the news network's, to represent the nation abroad. It certainly wasn't any news network's job, the critics agreed, to represent the country in the way that Trump presumably wanted, as a propaganda arm of the state and the party or person in power. Leaving  aside the persistent question of "fake news," since the critics assume that Trump is lying when he accuses them of lying, what we have here is a conflict between journalists' critical imperative, rooted in the American belief that dissent is the health of the state, and Donald Trump's Chamber-of-Commerce mentality, which prefers, if it doesn't require, that everyone be a booster rather than a kicker. Airing any of a community's dirty laundry is always bad for business from this perspective, though Trump himself had no problem crying "carnage" during his campaign and all the way to his inauguration. In any event, his preoccupation with the media remains troubling, even if we concede that certain media outlets are genuinely hysterical over his presidency. His expectation that everyone, including the media, rally around him unquestioningly is, like it or not, un-American, no matter how many Americans, incapable of thinking of themselves as un-American, cheer him on.

24 November 2017

The Third Party

It doesn't yet contest elections, but so far extra-electoral means seem to be working fine, and many of its antagonists aren't accountable to voters in the first place. It shares with the other prominent and controversial movements of our time a preoccupations with respect, and has perhaps the most concrete notion of what disrespect looks like. The uprising of 2017 against sexual harassment cuts across conventional party lines. Taking root with the expose of Candidate Trump's "grab them by the pussy" boasting, the movement has since accused Democrats and Republicans alike, and the private sector as well as the public. It is decentralized and uncoordinated, so that no one can presume an ultimate partisan motives,  though it wouldn't surprise me if people began suspecting that those mischievous Russians are behind at least some of these disruptive women. Conspiracy theory aside, the movement has some of the spontaneity of a Salem-style witch-craze, and some of the same intolerance of skepticism. You saw that in the controversy over one of our Olympic gymnasts accusing the team doctor of abusive behavior. Her charges provoked a conversation during which another gymnast dared raise the question of provocative dress or behavior by women. The second gymnast was subsequently so intimidated into conformity that she ended up accusing the doctor as well. There's something characteristic about the unilateral moralism on display here, the assumption that the moral burden is all on one side, that reminded me of the debates following the 2001 terror attacks over the extent to which American conduct abroad may have provoked the terrorists. The mere possibility was rejected by those who reject the idea of provocation as a blaming of the victim, regardless of how humans might inevitably behave in a world that has since, with the surge in social media, grown only more provocative in the name of personal liberty. To be clear, I have no reason to believe that any of the women now accusing prominent men is lying, and ideally women should be able to wear what they please, within statutory limits, without worrying about men being provoked. Moreover, much of what's been reported has more to do with power relationships and their privileges that have little to do with any provocation. Nevertheless, the unilateral moralistic on display here is perhaps too idealistic for its own good, not because women  have some specials obligation to modesty, but because social peace in our time may require the learning by everyone of an etiquette that by definition requires a compromise of the individual prerogatives we take for granted or guard jealously when challenged. The movements of the moment all have a populist streak to the extent that they require others to change, but not us, when the real solution may be more radical and require all of us to change.

20 November 2017

Beast Mode

For the President, it was probably the ultimate insult. In Mexico, Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch refused to stand for the U.S. national anthem before his team played -- appropriately enough? -- the Patriots, but stood for the Mexican anthem. Inevitably Trump took to Twitter demanding that Lynch be suspended by the NFL, as if the league has some obligation to listen to him. It was a response guaranteed to harden everyone's attitudes, but you could say that about Lynch's demonstration as well. What we have here, yet again, is a failure to communicate, because standing for the anthem is two different things for different groups of people. For the football players who continue to take a knee, and for those cheering them on, standing for the anthem, or not, is a political act determined by individual conscience. For the President and those cheering him on, it's more like a moral obligation. Just as Trump expects governments to act in their nation's interests, by which he means the interests of the people, or at least his constituents, rather than according to any abstract ideology, so he most likely expects citizens to act on the basis of a like fidelity to the nation and people. In his mind, I assume, showing allegiance on these ritual occasions is not a matter of discretion or conscience. He more likely assumes that anyone who withholds allegiance can't be trusted to have the people's backs. It doesn't matter if that's not the intention of any of these protesters. As far as Trump and his people are concerned, these spoiled celebrity racists -- let's not deny that race is a factor here, or that Trump scores extra points with his base by taking no crap from black people on this question -- are putting themselves and their issues before the common good. The anthem controversy no doubt still seems trivial to many people, if not disturbing who see Trump's interventions as authoritarian in character, but it's a flashpoint between Trumpian nationalism, which refuses to take for granted where Americans stand without some show of loyalty, and those who for a variety of reasons find that sort of nationalism antithetical to whatever they think the nation stands for. What we have here is a clash of nationalisms, with each constituency assuming that the other's nationalism excludes or debases them. The national anthem won't stop being an occasion for controversy, and no President can make it stop, until our house ceases to be divided, and the nation stands for one thing or the other.

19 November 2017

Better the guilty go free...

"One of the things that separates America from the dictatorships of the world is that we don't let our politicians lock up political opponents, nor for that matter hound, try, execute or simply disappear their rivals," an Albany Times Union editorial asserts. The editorial writer was moved to this expression by the latest threat to prosecute Hillary Clinton over her role, as Secretary of State, in a perceived quid pro quo in which a Russian donor to the Clinton Foundation was cleared to buy American uranium through the purchase of a Canadian company. The TU is satisfied with Clinton's innocence on the strength of a Fox News report debunking the criminal narrative, and my purpose here isn't to take any side in that debate. My point, as long time readers may have guessed, is to remind you that the same inhibition about prosecuting politicians that the editorial celebrates may not be as positive a good as the editorial writer asserts. I've long observed an implicit principle of partisan immunity in American politics that presumes would-be prosecutors guilty of partisan motives when they make charges against politicians from another party. A further presumption is that the partisan consequences of a criminal trial of a prominent politician -- presumably the discrediting of the accused politician's party and the greater likelihood of one-party government, are worse than any consequences of the alleged criminal activity -- though of course, many will assume that any charge made by one politician against another from another party is a gross exaggeration if not an outright lie. Either way, the ultimate consequence is to let politicians get away with much that they probably shouldn't get away with, rather than risk a disruption of the reigning party system that could result in a more 'authoritarian" government. This may seem like an ugly but necessary price to pay for truly "free" i.e. multiparty government, yet in recent times we've seen multiparty democracies in Brazil and South Korea bring leaders to account without constitutional crises on undermining party systems. It can be done, but it would require both major parties here to admit corruption in their ranks, and it might require voters not to tie their interests too closely to corruptible political parties. Americans need to get over the childish idea that to admit the corruption of one party's leader is to guarantee the election of the antithetical party. That will never happen so long as people vote their interests, and if the discrediting of a major party after a criminal trial leaves Americans unable to vote their interests, the problem won't be any "criminalization of politics" but with the American electoral system itself.

16 November 2017

He Don't Need Another Hero

Stephen Seitz's op-ed in the Nov. 16 Albany Times Union is a reductio ad absurdam of the anti-gun mentality. An "author and journalist based in Vermont," Seitz writes to denounce Stephen Willeford, the man who traded fire with the Sutherland Springs church shooter and may have stopped him with resuming his slaughter of the congregation. In other words, Willeford comes pretty close to the NRA archetype of the "good guy with a gun" on whom we ought to depend,or whom we should aspire to be, when crises arise. Seitz will have none of that. Instead, to him, Willeford and the pickup driver who joined him in chasing the shooter "exemplify everything that's wrong with American gun culture." How So? Simply because Seitz refuses to trust in either man's competence. What if Willeford shot a bystander? What if they chased the wrong vehicle, or wiped out themselves, or ran an innocent over? By Seitz's standards, theirs was supremely irresponsible behavior, and they harmed no one themselves only because they were lucky.
One can support greater gun regulation and still have problems with Seitz's attitude. It's one thing to prefer that we not need people like Willeford to play hero, and another to deny so vehemently that he actually might be a hero under the circumstances. It might please some people more if Willeford had simply tackled the shooter while he was reloading, as some heroes have done, but should we prefer, under the actual circumstances, that he did nothing? I myself am concerned with people getting caught in a cowboy crossfire, but that's an argument for legislation, not for victims or bystanders to be absolutely passive during an amoklauf. What we see with Seitz, I suspect, is a variation on the cultural divide separating those who see the world as tough and those who see it as cruel. Willeford is most obviously a hero for those who feel that the world requires us to be tough, but the other side tends to see the requirement for toughness as itself cruel. Seitz's skepticism toward Willeford's heroism echoes a skepticism toward the very idea (or ideal) of toughness, which many liberals probably see as a mere rationalization of or acquiescence in cruelty. Toughness requires a competence that Seitz doesn't seem to believe in, thinking perhaps that there's no such thing as disciplined cruelty, except perhaps in the ranks of our duly constituted and professionally trained guardians -- though I can't help wondering where Seitz stands on the police brutality question. Most likely he'd prefer that force never be needed to resolve any crisis, but history suggests that he can't get there from here -- at least by the route he'd rather take. A cherry picked history of recent times encourages some to think that cruelty can be overthrown without cruelty or even toughness, but the more you read the more you doubt that -- and the more you doubt whether people like Seitz have any constructive critiques to make.

10 November 2017

'I don't blame China'

The usual voices are criticizing the President for saying, while China's guest this week, that he didn't blame China for its huge trade surplus with the U.S. To critics, this sounded like a reversal of his angry campaign rhetoric, which described China's trade practices in violent terms. Some no doubt suspect that, in typical fashion, Donald Trump had succumbed to the flattering attention shown him by the canny Chinese and was flattering them back. Trump's rhetoric today, when he vowed that the U.S. would not be taken advantage of anymore, should refute that suspicion. But it was apparent already yesterday that a protectionist and nationalist like Trump would not blame China for pursuing its national interest by taking advantage of American weakness. A free-trade would blame China for failing to play by proper free-trade rules;a protectionist would blame his own country for naively abiding by free-trade policies for ideological reasons. On trade policy, at least, as noted before, Trump is not a departure from but a return to the historic Republican position, from which Reaganite free-trade policy was a major deviation. Reaganite Republicans justified free trade by appealing to the American as a consumer, entitled to the widest range of choices and the lowest prices that the market would bear. Trumpian Republicanism has a different notion of both the American's essential identity -- he is someone who needs to keep or get a job above all -- and his government's primary obligation to him. This difference alarms many who've long defined Americans by their freedom of choice, since Trump may want to limit their freedom on multiple fronts, but on this particular front his materialist conservatism could be the right idea -- if it has the material results he hopes for. If he wants more Americans to buy American, who can blame him?

06 November 2017

Am I going to kill somebody?

Investigators as yet haven't isolated any specific motivation for yesterday's massacre of 26 people in a Texas church, but we're learning more about the man identified as the shooter. He was a former Air Force airman who received a "bad conduct" discharge for, among other things, beating his wife and stepson. More provocatively, given his choice of target, acquaintances of his have told the New York Times that he'd recently become a militant atheist and so "vocally anti-Christian" that many people unfriended him for saying that believers were stupid. So now, I suppose, just as some people want increased surveillance of Muslims after each act of Islamic terrorism, and others want increased surveillance of the alt-right after each act of racist violence, somebody's bound to ask just how "militant" some atheists are becoming, and to demand increased surveillance of atheists in order to find out. The Sutherland Springs shooter could become the poster boy proving to anti-atheists' satisfaction that, just as they always feared, those that deny God have no morals. Of course, there's little proof today that those who affirm God, whether in the form of Allah or Jesus, have much in the way of morals, but believers who haven't killed will tell you that those who do kill innocents in the name of God are hypocrites or misfits who just don't get their faith's essentially nonviolent message, while atheists who murder are simply fulfilling the potential of their "belief" system.

Many theists believe that a truly compelling moral code can't be invented by means of human reason, since we mortals can always change our minds, but must be accepted unconditionally from a source exterior to humanity, i.e. divine revelation. Never mind that, in the Christian tradition alone, multitudes have changed their minds about the divine admonition to turn the other cheek; the point is that the admonition itself, being divine, is unchanging and unchangeable, and the good Christian understands that he has no choice in the matter, while the atheist is never without choice and never without danger. Yet there must be incalculable numbers of atheists who have proven no less moral, at least in the legalistic sense, than believers are. I consider myself one of that group. I work from an assumption that there is no god as described in the Abrahamic scriptures, though I concede that it is impossible to disprove conclusively the existence of as capriciously omnipotent a being as the god of Abraham. One can only hope to show that such a being's existence is not necessary in order for the universe and its natural laws to exist. What follows from such a showing? Not the Dostoevskian assumption that in God's absence, everything is permitted, since it doesn't follow from God's nonexistence that every principle attributed to God is wrong, unless you believe, as many Abrahamites do, that God's existence alone gives validity and authority to those principles. That belief assumes, ultimately, that someone's "say so" is the only real underpinning for moral or ethical principles, and that categorical imperatives are impossible in the absence of the absolute authority of a divine creator. Yet relatively few atheists turn nihilist or criminal, and the abominable violence of  Leninist atheists probably has less to do with their denial of divine restraints than with their sense of superhuman entitlement as the vanguard of history. For most of us, the golden rule doesn't depend on the will of a god, and the possibility that we might abandon that rule on a whim or a rationalization wouldn't exempt us from the just judgment of those who remain true to that most eminently reasonable principle.

What theists miss in their concern that any individual atheist may change his mind about morality is that in a society no individual has the last word on moral questions. Some atheist may decide that he's no longer bound by "superstition" or "bourgeois morality," but so long as he is answerable to other people those people have no obligation to defer to his opinion on the matter. As long as groups of people can reason out rules and hold those who deviate from them accountable, the possibility that any given atheist can change his mind about morals should be no more troubling than the possibility that any given believer can "backslide," as many do. Most if not all atheists believe that reason can discover laws of nature that are not merely our inventions, and while the existence of natural laws of human society is still a subject for debate, such laws would likely be as much discoveries as inventions. Ideally, they would provide a groundwork for judging individuals who go against those laws, no matter what right they claim to change their minds. They would not have authority simply or solely because someone "says so, and so should have a sounder basis than any alleged divine revelation, the mere authorship of which will always be subject to debate. And yet atheists commit crimes, just as theists do -- but while their atheism may determine what crimes they commit, or whom they they target, their essential motivations probably differ little from those of religious criminals. There's probably more moral divergence among atheists, or among Christians, than there is between atheists as a group and Christians as a group. Should the Sutherland Springs shooter prove to be decisively motivated by atheist animus, the only thing that would prove about atheists is that they're no less susceptible to murderous temptations than any other group, however disappointing that may be to some observers. But when has human nature failed to disappoint its more sensitive observers? Yet even atheists have faith that it can be improved.

05 November 2017

Gun-country Fatalism

The sheriff of Wilson County, Texas, spoke to reporters a few minutes ago, hours after a black-clad white guy shot up a Baptist Church in the town of Sutherland Springs, mortally wounding 26 people and wounding many more. The sheriff said, "Media, don't go saying this shouldn't have happened, because it does." He could have meant a number of things, but none of them seem good. Of course we can and should say that incidents like this, however common, shouldn't happen, and if he meant to say that American politics, American culture, or human nature make these things inevitable, that would be more sad, if not more scandalous, than the actual massacre. We cannot reconcile ourselves to this state of affairs; to do so is effectively to write off our potential for civilization. Human potential and American potential are two different things, of course, but we shouldn't be ready to give up on either yet.