28 December 2017

Whose News?

My clock radio is set to a public radio station that plays National Public Radio news briefs. On the morning after Christmas I woke up to the news that the Chinese had sentenced a dissident to a stiff prison term. The following morning, the top story was that Myanmar was detaining two Reuters news service reporters. These are events worth knowing about, but I found myself wondering whether they really were the top stories of their respective days. It's most likely a matter of perspective, and NPR's perspective is global. Its choice of top stories sustains a narrative of civil liberty and press freedom under attack around the world, implicitly including in President Trump's America. Not merely the right to dissent but the right to tell truths inconvenient to power is in danger everywhere, according to this narrative, which hints strongly that the suppression of dissent and free inquiry anywhere is a threat to the same things everywhere.  If I seem to object to this, it's not because I think repression in other countries is none of our business as individuals. I simply wonder about the priorities of a bastion of the reputedly liberal media when NPR can find nothing domestic worthy of headlining their morning news brief. One of the arguments against America's human rights-oriented foreign policy from the left was that our country had injustices of its own to deal with before it could claim the right to judge other countries. Under Trump, surely, that should be more true than ever, but NPR is more liberal than left and apparently more concerned with a perceived global threat to civil liberty than with actual conditions at home. For them, perhaps, dissent isn't just the health of the state but the health of the world. I could agree that every nation would be better off if rulers were more accountable to responsible criticism, but to see the world primarily as the battleground of a vast struggle for liberty is sometimes to come slightly too close to a neocon stance for comfort.

22 December 2017

The new war on Christmas

The Washington Post reports today that right-wing ranting about a "war on Christmas " may prove a self-fulfilling prophecy. The war, you will recall, consists of bank and store clerks wishing customers "Happy Holidays" in order not to slight implicitly those who observe Chanukah or Kwanzaa. The objection to this has always been absurd, since Christmas is implicit in "Holidays," but some Christianists and traditionalists insist that there is no cause for complaint should they prefer to explicitly (and exclusively) wish people "Merry Christmas." Donald Trump pandered to these people during his election campaign and continues to do so, boasting of how unafraid he is to honor Christmas. To my knowledge, he has not demanded that anyone be fired for saying "Happy Holidays," but his intervention in this one-sided  kuturkampf seems to have had the same effect as his criticisms of athletes who refuse to stand for the national anthem. The Post reports that some people are more reluctant than before to say "Merry Christmas," out of fear of offending opponents of Trump, while others are more likely to say "Happy Holidays" in order to offend Trump's fans. As in the anthem controversy, the President's involvement has made the issue, intentionally or not, all about him. Just as there may be more resistance to standing for the anthem if doing so is seen as paying homage or submitting to Trump, so "Merry Christmas " may become a partisan slogan, if not a kind of loyalty oath to Donald Trump, while "Happy Holidays" loses its original neutral tone to become a declaration of hostility to Trump's particular form of Christianist. It's sad either way. While "Happy Holidays " has always seemed perfectly sensible to me, I as an atheist have never inferred a demand  that I worship Jesus from "Merry Christmas. " Non-Christians could have interpreted those words as a sharing of happiness across cultural borders on a festive occasion, not an assertion that Jesus is Lord, but this seems less possible now that the Trump, in some eyes, has stolen Christmas. May December 25 be a merry holiday for everyone just the same.

20 December 2017

America or Israel First?

For those who find the question itself offensive, I'd ask the same one if the President and his UN ambassador threatened to cut American aid to countries voting the "wrong" way on a resolution pertaining to another country. On this specific occasion, I suppose, would see it as an insult to both American and Israeli sovereignty if nations vote to recommend that the U.S. reconsider its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The real idea behind the threat is more likely that Trump wants to force a resolution of the Palestine question by intimidating countries into acquiescing in his fait accompli. He also wants to remind his "Judeo-Christianist" base that he isn't afraid of Muslims and doesn't care what the international community thinks. Israel remains the exception to the supposed Trump rule of foreign policy based on national self-interest. Many of his supporters and many of his opponents, if not the man himself, see Zionism as a moral imperative to which no one has any reasonable objection, but could be denied only on the basis of Jew-hatred.  They simply don't care whether support for Israel makes life more difficult for Americans as a nation or as individuals. Tying foreign aid to acquiescence in Jerusalem as the Israeli capital is a defining statement of this derangement. No matter what many yahoos may think, foreign aid is not a handout but a strategy premised on a calculation of costs and benefits favorable to the U.S. Trump himself may despise the calculus of foreign aid -- he sneered that the U.S. would save a lot of money if nations vote the wrong way at the UN -- but he just finished endorsing a National Security Strategy that deplored the emergence of power vacuums exploited by competitors whenever the country retreated from its rightful world leadership. It should occur to him that withdrawing foreign aid for this petty reason would create a similar vacuum that our competitors and adversaries would be happy to exploit, and that the pettiness of it will only further alienate the international community from an administration already seen, to a hysterical degree, as part of some white revanchist movement. Obviously principled arguments for reducing foreign aid can be made, and one can even argue that a degree of "ingratitude" might disqualify some countries from consideration. Denying countries aid because they won't kiss Israel's ass is not a principled argument, however. It will only further fuel (if not confirm) all the arguments against "imperialism," "arrogance," or "cold war mentality" that much of the world finds increasingly persuasive. The U.S. gives out foreign aid to further its own interests, in the final analysis. We should defend Israel if that's what the American people really want, since no one has an ultimate veto on Jewish nationhood that we're bound to respect,  but our desires and our interests are two diferent things, and we should not sacrifice our own interests out of spite for Israel's sake.

18 December 2017

Revisionists and rogues, adversaries and competitors

"A central continuity in history is the contest for power," reads the new National Security Strategy of the United States published by the Trump administration, "The contests over influence are timeless." The new document is an indictment of post-Cold War "strategic complacency," based on a perceived denial of historic reality. "We believed that liberal-democratic enlargement and inclusion would fundamentally alter the nature of international relations and that competition would give way to peaceful cooperation." Trump's advisers believe that Chinese and Russian reassertion  (if not revanchism) was inevitable, and that Presidents from G.H.W. Bush through Obama were wrong to ignore that inevitability in pursuit of peace dividends. More interestingly, the NSS criticizes a characteristically American binary thinking that sees "states being either 'at peace' or 'at war' when it is actually an arena of continuous competition." This myopia has enabled "adversaries and competitors" alike act freely and ruthlessly "below the threshold of open military conflict" in order to "achieve maximum effect without provoking a direct military response." The President's own calls for "smarter" and "tougher" policies presumably target this neglect.  Throughout the document a distinction is drawn implicitly between "competitors" like Russia and China, who inevitably seek to expand their influence in ways that could harm the U.S., but are not existential threats, and "adversaries" or "rogue" entities like Iran, North Korea and the various Sunni Muslim terrorist organizations. This seems reasonable, possibly excepting its view of Iran, while its view of Russia in particular seems more subtle than that of the American bipartisan establishment that can't help seeing Russia, or simply Vladimir Putin, as an existential threat to something they value. The new NSS doesn't deny that Russia's different values will sometimes make its advances harmful to American interest, but the document is happily free of paranoia about Putin (or the Chinese, for that matter) promoting some global "authoritarian" agenda. It acknowledges, however, that authoritarian regimes have potential strategic advantages over the U.S. Such states are "often more agile and faster in integrating economic, military and especially informational means to achieve their goals," and are "unencumbered by truth, by the rules and protections of privacy inherent in democracies, and by the law of armed conflict." Partisan cynics may wonder whether the President envies these advantages, but the authors of the NSS remain confident in historic American ingenuity, combined with what they consider a more clear-headed understanding of American interests. This is, of course, an "America First" strategy based on the perceived interests of the actually-existing American people rather than on ideological priorities, committed to defending American values, however the Trump NSA understands the, rather than imposing them on other nations. The document sharply eschews faith-based optimism in (classical) liberal ascendancy worldwide. The "American way of life" is not "the inevitable culmination of progress," it states. For some, this will be too pessimistic a document, or perhaps too self-serving in its apparent insistence on a permanently vigilant military-industrial complex, at the likely expense of social programs. But compared to the arrogance of G.W. Bush in particular, we might start an objective appraisal of the NSS by observing that it could be worse, and we've had worse not so long ago.

14 December 2017

No Moore

Was this week's special U.S. Senate special election in Alabama the first truly post-partisan vote? It was, at minimum, a uniquely ad hominem verdict in one of the reddest of Republican states. The balance seemed to tip decisively against Judge Moore last weekend when Sen. Shelby repudiated him.  History will most likely show that Moore died of a thousand cuts, from lingering suspicion of his Christianist bent to disgust with his alleged preference for very young women. These outweighed appeals to partisan solidarity from the President, who had supported Moore's opponent in the Republican primary, and to tribal solidarity, for want of a better term, from Steve Bannon. There was a rush to judgment against Bannon after Tuesday's result, the feeling being that, as Moore's biggest booster, he had foisted a fatally flawed candidate upon Alabama Republicans. Partisans there have themselves to blame, however, for choosing Moore when the President was urging them to nominate someone else. His ambivalent stance probably minimizes the damage to his own prestige from the Alabama debacle, though Democrats will portray the election as part of a wave repudiating Trump  and Trumpism. Apologists for Bannon -- and we should be careful to distinguish him from  the "alt-right" despite  Democratic and antifa perceptions -- might note that their cause almost prevailed and would have if not for Moore's toxic persona, but the Republican establishment could answer that, compared to typical Alabama elections, Moore's defeat was not a near-miss but a catastrophic abandonment of the party. While Democrats credit black turnout for putting their candidate over the top, a more typical GOP voting pattern would have more than compensated for that, as it has in the recent past. If any lasting lesson is to be learned from Alabama, it'll be the same lesson the nation as a whole has been taught this year. While the sexual-harrassment craze endures, more intensive vetting will be necessary for both major parties, not only for aspirants to office lest they share Moore's fate, but for incumbents lest they share Sen. Frankenstein.   This could go on at least until 2020, when we can now expect Sen. Gillibrand to position herself as the people's scourge of male swinishness in general and a seemingly swinishness President in particular. But while that develops, the cultural wars waged by Moore and Bannon will continue to rage as if nothing really significant happened in Alabama this week, since on that battlefield, nothing really did.

10 December 2017

Press freedom and accountability

The President once more enraged most of the media establishment by issuing a tweet demanding that a Washington Post reporter be fired for issuing a tweet misrepresenting the attendance at a presidential rally in Florida. The tweet ironically described the event as "packed to the rafters," illustrating that with a picture of a far from full venue actually taken a few hours before the event began. The reporter claims he made an honest mistake because the picture shows Trump on stage, the President having arrived in advance of the event. The President sees this as another case of "fake news" intended to belittle him, and it's fair to ask whether he'd give a damn if any other politician or entertainer was treated the same way. One can't help wondering whether he thinks the reporter's real offense is lese-majeste or something tantamount to "slandering the state." Almost certainly, this President thinks he's entitled to more respect, if not more deference, than he's been getting in the media. But if his inferred attitude represents an extreme of intolerance of criticism or lampooning, there is, inevitably, an opposite extreme indulgent of almost any excess justifiable by suspicion of power, that would rather see reporters err, intentionally or not, with impunity than have them unwilling to take risks for fear of punishment. The idea here is that any prosecution or penalization of a journalist, justifiable or not, will have a chilling effect on all future scrutiny of leaders while giving those leaders a slippery-slope rationale for persecuting any reporter who doesn't see things the same way they do. But that would be like arguing that actually holding leaders accountable through impeachment and criminal trials would discourage anyone from seeking political office. In either case we would be better off viewing every case in objective isolation instead of treating them as episodes in perpetual campaigns effecting everybody. To be clear, I don't think the Post reporter should be sacked for a bit of Twitter snark that blew up in his face. But to argue that the media need answer to no one for its excesses, or that to demand some answerability is tyrannical, is itself potentially tyrannical, albeit in a different register, so long as you understand tyranny as that to which no one can say no.

06 December 2017

The Jerusalem Provocation

How bad is your Trumpophobia? One way to tell is what you make of the President's decision today to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocate the U.S. embassy there. I can imagine extreme cases seeing this as a deliberate provocation, designed to provoke a terrorist attack Trump could then use to justify some extreme measure of his own, whether that be a roundup of American Muslims, a punitive attack on Iran,or something similarly chilling to this mindset.  Objectively, his decision is a provocation that almost certainly will have a violent response somewhere. But I don't think that response is something Trump really wants, much less depends upon. At worst, he may see it as a way to show the world that he isn't afraid of any consequences to come, or of the Muslim world. But his very careful, repetitive prepared speech today suggests that he, or at least his diplomatic advisors see this as they call it, as a fait accompli that will settle the Jerusalem question irreversibly. For an occasion that gave him ample opportunity to say "Fuck you, Islam," he adopted an almost painfully conciliatory tone, reserving the smack talk for the unnamed past Presidents who couldn't solve this problem before he cut the Gordian knot. He sounds little different from them, however, in his stated desire for peace conditional upon Islamic reconciliation with the permanent existence of Israel.
What happens next depends on the extent to which those in a position to worry about the repercussions of the next terrorist attack are in a position to restrain those who have less reason than ever to give a damn. That's the short term. The long term may depend on powers outside the Middle East that might find just as much reason to keep Muslims riled up as they have to prop up Kim Jong Un. Donald Trump's Zionism is an inconsistency in his America First policy that makes him vulnerable to those who might turn the security of Israel into something for which Trump may have to make concessions elsewhere, e.g. Eastern Europe or the South China Sea. It is not inconsistent with his nationalistic view of the world for him to believe strongly that the Jewish people are entitled to a nation over which Islam or the Third World hold no anti-imperialist veto. But I'm not sure if he's calculated how much that should matter to the U.S., or what price Americans should pay to affirm that principle. He may well see only benefit to himself in the form of Jewish and End Times-obsessed Christian voters. But in less than a decade he won't be President anymore, while the rest of us continue to deal with whatever consequences follow from what he's done today.

Neighborly naivete

The other day I saw a blog post arguing that the left doesn't owe the right a debate on anything; that a leftist would be justified in telling a right-wing er to "go eat a dick" no matter how eager he was to debate the issues. While there was a perhaps legitimate complaint about right-wingers "shifting the goalposts" in their sophisticated enthusiasm, I was inclined to dismiss the post as typical antifa arrogance, until the latest David Brooks column reminded me that some things really shouldn't be subject to debate. Brooks is unhappy over the Supreme Court having to deliberate whether the state can sanction a baker for refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding on religious grounds. He's quick to remind us that he supports gay rights, but he also claims that the beleaguered baker wasn't disputing them, either. Rather,"He's simply asking not to take part," and in the end, "It's just a cake." Rather than take this matter to court, Brooks believes that the Baker and the betrothed could have dealt with their dispute in a "neighborly" manner. This would entail the gay couple inviting the Baker home for dinner  "so you can see our marital love, and so we can understand your values. You still may not agree with us, after all this, but at least we'll understand each other better and we can live more fully in our community." Well, wouldn't that be special? We may scoff, but Brooks warns that the litigiousness exemplified by the current case contributes to social polarization and  anger, when "the holy messiness of actual pluralistic community ... could be addressed in conversation and community." In this case, however, is conversation really possible when one side is guided by an absolute rule of divine authority? Does Brooks's pluralistic ideal really require one group of people to "understand" another's belief that their way of life is "sin?" I suppose Brooks would say it must, so long as no group can impose its belief in another's sin on the community as a whole. Ironically, of course, it is the more intolerant community that complains against acceptance of the "sinful" community being shoved down their throats. If Brooks sees a moral equivalence between this too-familiar complaint and gay people's demand not to be treated as implicit second-class citizens for any reason, than his pluralism is as naive and hopeless as his Frank Capra fantasy of homosexuals and religious homophobes having a happy dinner together.

05 December 2017

Conservatives vs. Conservation

The President has used his executive authority to shrink two large tracts of Utah national park land created in recent years, outraging environmentalists and Native American activists who see his action as a blatant move to open land seen as sacred or simply pretty to ruthless economic exploitation. Republicans in Utah are hailing the President's action as a necessary correction of federal overreach, while Trump himself invokes the principles of states' rights and local control. The main idea in his mind, most likely is "Jobs!" He seems convinced that resource extraction is the quickest way to achieve the job growth he's promised Americans. He probably also agrees with the Republican ideology of "responsible stewardship," which sees no necessary incompatibility between job creation and environmental protection. The opposition considers "responsible stewardship" a bad joke, and more Republicans used to agree with them. The national park system is what it is, arguably, because Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt -- whom, for all I know, Trump admires as a tough guy but Tea Party conservatives despise as an original "progressive"-- didn't entirely trust the robber barons of his day to be responsible stewards of anything. TR saw himself as a moderate steering clear of the extremes of oligarchy and populism, and a moderate might well make the case that even though limits on economic exloitation of the landscape remain necessary, past Presidents went too far in seizing Utah land, or that maximizing park land isn't necessarily the best course for everyone. The problem, of course, is finding a true moderate today, when even centrists are getting fewer and further between.

01 December 2017

Republicans, Tories and 21st century conservatism.

The Conservative party of Great Britain is angry at the President of the United States, a fellow conservative by virtue of his membership in the Republican party, over his uncritical retweeting of videos posted by the "Britain First" group and described as scenes of Muslim migrants randomly attacking people. The Tories thought this irresponsible, while the President characteristically riposted that the British government should focus its attention  on radical Islamic terrorism. The Tory position seems to be that there's a difference between that and the allegedly indiscriminate Islamophobia spread by groups like Britain First. The subtext of this little flame war is a struggle to define conservatism for the 21st century. In Britain, the Tories have been "Conservative" since long before there was a "conservative movement" in the U.S., but the sort of conservatism they preach now is mainly a version of 20th century U.S. movement conservatism, at least when it comes to individual  rights. Evolving in opposition to Bolshevism, this sort of conservatism -- history may need to assign it a more accurate label -- focused on individual liberty based on supposed natural rights above and beyond the positive law of any nation. Shaped as well by the imperatives of globalized capitalism, this conservatism prioritizes the free movement of people and products as necessary to the operation of the free market and civil society upon which civilization depends. Across the Atlantic, many Republicans who see themselves as principled conservatism still advocate free trade and, to varying degrees, the free movement of people seeking to improve their lives wherever the Market creates opportunities. President Trump's conservatism differs to such a degree that many Republicans question whether he's conservative at all. That's because his more nationalist conservatism seems detached from any idea of "natural" or "human" rights, concerned only, it seems, with the interests of "our kind." From Trump's perspective, abstract notions of individual liberty take second place, at best, to the interests of actually existing Americans. To many more individualist conservatives, as to their estranged liberal kin, to deny all Muslims entry into the U.S. because some might commit terrorism automatically violates the human rights of the presumed vast majority of Muslims. Trump or his supporters might concede this point in the abstract, but would rather not take chances with the lives of those citizens who are their actual responsibility. In short, 20th century conservatism disapproves of any attempt, for any reason, to assign one group of people more or less rights than another, since the natural-rights assumption is that rights aren't ours to confer or deny. President Trump represents those who distrust the older generation of conservatives' refusal to make necessary distinctions, their seeming refusal to take "their own" side on questions of security or survival. This strikes me as a debate unlikely to be resolved through conventional debate. Instead, it may be resolved democratically,depending on how public opinion on either side of the Atlantic is shaped by the history to come.