20 June 2018

Conservativism vs. anti-liberalism

David Brooks opposes the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy toward undocumented immigrants, believing that it unjustly targets many we've become useful members of society after their original offense. He also sees the policy as a betrayal of conservative values, being instead an instance of statist overreach, of "government officials blindly following a regulation." That observation moves him to clarify his distinction between Trumpists and authentic conservatives. Trumpists are merely anti-liberalism, and often "anti-liberalism trolls." Brooks has a theory that Trumpism, if not Trump, was shaped by the battles against political correctness on college campuses. While those struggles supposedly have been motivated by a spirit of liberty, Brooks charges that Trumpist anti-liberalism are interested less in liberty or any limited-government principle than in simply crushing liberals. They are uninterested, as principled conservatives presumably should be, in the "tangled realities" of a complex issue, but resort to "inhumane abstractions" and oversimplification, e.g. that any alternative to zero-tolerance is "amnesty." The immigration debate aside, Brooks is contesting the ownership of the word "conservative" and the right of some of the right to describe themselves as conservative. This is nothing new; it has gone on as long as fascists and anti-communists have been lumped together as part of "the right" and as long as many on the left have said they are all the same thing. Anti-statist conservatives have been at pains to deny any affinity with fascism and so emphasize their opposition to statism and any self-styled conservatism driven, as Trumpism allegedly is, by mere enmity. Theirs is a valid and perhaps even a coherent position, but it doesn't necessarily entitle them to exclusive ownership of the word "conservative." History argues against the claim, as there were statist conservatives in history long before American anti-communists aspired to define what was legitimately worth conserving and how it was to be conserved. Conservatism cannot be limited to limited government, and it's arguably contrary to the conservative modesty of someone like Brooks to claim that conservatism can only be one thing. On the other hand, it probably would be a good thing if each conservative faction adopted its own label, and just as good if every liberal or progressive faction did likewise. The sooner we all see that there are always more than two sides or two ways to view every question, the sooner we might form effective coalitions of factions or interests dedicated to governing rather than destroying or driving out the so-called enemy.  It might also make it easier to see whether there are actual enemies of the people in our midst.

19 June 2018

Le mot injuste

I gave the President a pass on the "animals" thing a few weeks ago, on the understanding that he meant that word to refer only to the MS-13 gang and similar criminal groups. I understand the implicit objection that no white man should refer to any non-white person as an "animal," but I don't think criminal gangs should enjoy any exemption from invective on the ground that they're depraved on account of they're deprived. Today, however, Trump seriously F'd up. Responding to criticism of the separation of illegal immigrant parents from their children, the Chief Executive pushed the button, sending out a tweet railing against Democrats for their opposition to stricter border controls. He tweeted that Democrats "want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13." There's just no way to defend "infest." You'll notice that he tried to save himself at the last minute with that "like MS-13," and he and his sycophants will certainly say that gangs only are the subject for the verb "infest." Grammar doesn't work that way, however; the self-evident meaning of his sentence is that all illegal immigrants are infesting the country -- and given the direction he looks in when he thinks of illegal immigrants, he's going to have a very hard time, much more so than the last time, denying any racist intent. I won't go as far as some critics who claim to see an implicitly exterminationist meaning to "infest," but you don't need to take the long jump to that extreme conclusion to see that this sentence is going to haunt Trump and the Republican party for some time to come. Inevitably he'll whine that he's being misinterpreted or misrepresented, but the President has only himself to blame for this one. 

10 June 2018

THINK 3 VIDEO NEWS: Pride and Sin

The annual Capital Pride parade took place today in Albany NY. A parade always draws a big crowd, and you no more had to conclude that all the people lining Lark Street and Madison Avenue were gay than you have to assume that people cheering a St. Patrick's Day parade are Catholic. One people's celebration is often everyone's occasion to celebrate. As well, cheering the gay marchers, at least at the corner of Lark and Madison where the marchers and floats turn toward Washington Park, is an opportunity to stick it to the killjoys who ever year occupy their own little free-speech zone to cast their anathemas at homosexuals in particular and sinners in general. They moved slightly, or were moved, from their usual spot at the southwest corner, in front of the neighborhood gas station, to the head of Dana Park, a pedestrian island across Lark from the corner, dividing that street from Delaware Avenue. I suspect they were moved with the idea being that the marchers should not have to see them as they turned the corner, though they may still have heard the leader preaching with his bullhorn -- and sounding rather like a Dalek in tone if not in vocabulary, over the cheers and whistles from noisemakers thrown to the crowd. Here's a bit of the parade first.

And here's some of the heckling, giving you a better idea of their distance from the turn of the march.

I wonder whether the protesters felt emboldened in any way by last week's Supreme Court decision upholding a baker's right to refuse service to a gay marriage. A strong majority found the state law in question overly hostile toward religion but stopped short of saying no law could be made against "principled" homophobic discrimination. For the time being, religious homophobia has a constitutional advantage over the gay rights movement, and may retain that advantage until the Constitution can be amended. The courts must defer to, or at least respect the religious opinion that homosexuality is sin and undeserving of civil authority, and while religion can't veto the political enactment of civil equality individual believers are effectively entitled to deny equality at the "civil society" level of private enterprise. This is a uniquely cruel privilege to which many feel obliged to acquiesce on the ground that any group of people of sufficient antiquity is entitled to stigmatize whatever the deem to be "sin." Ask whether you'd be as tolerant of any faith that deemed interracial marriage sinful before retreating into complacence. While it may be comforting to think that men like the assholes of Dana Park are a dying breed whose superstitions needn't trouble us in the future, it seems like a constitutional amendment is necessary on principle to draw a line limiting the "exercise" of religion when it becomes subversive of civil equality, specifically on the point of sexual preference. Obviously you can't force fools like these to change their own minds, but when they seek to deny, explicitly or implicitly, equality of sexual preference (for consenting adults) in any way other than pathetic displays like today's, we should expect the federal government not to defend them, much less take their side.

25 May 2018

'They should stand proudly...'

The President wasn't fully satisfied with the National Football League's new policy on player conduct during the National Anthem. He objects to the provision permitting those who don't wish to stand for the anthem to stay off the field. His view is that all players -- and, presumably, all fans -- should "stand proudly," or else. Maybe they shouldn't be playing football, he said, and maybe they shouldn't live in this country. It's probably the most nearly fascist thing I've seen Donald Trump say. I suppose I should take a breath here and reiterate that I understand where critics of the anthem protests are coming from. They believe, or claim to believe, in a love of country that transcends politics and partisanship, and they see saluting the flag as a promise, if not a proof, that Americans will have each others' backs in spite of everything. Now it seems that Trump is asking for more than that, little realizing or little caring how difficult he makes it for many Americans to feel proud of their country.

23 May 2018

Only a quarterback can take a knee

The National Football League announced a new rule today to resolve the controversy over players staging silent protests during the playing of the National Anthem. In doing so, league executives have fallen between two stools while trying to address both those fans offended by perceived insults to the flag and the soldiers for which it stands and the players' right of conscience. It has not been made compulsory for players to salute the flag, but those who don't wish to do so must remain off the field or out of public view while the anthem plays. To show perceived disrespect to the flag and to the troops for which it stands by kneeling or any other deviation from accepted anthem etiquette is now to court punishment for yourself or your team. Self-styled superpatriots of the Trumpian persuasion are no doubt happy with this new rule, while many to their left see it as a curtailment of civil liberties. Conservative apologists for the NFL predictably have taken the line that civil liberties don't exist in the workplace, while the other side as inevitably sees a football game as a public event where the principles of civil society should apply. Ultimately the NFL is a business and will do what's best for business, however the owners and administrators feel about the flag and the military for which it stands. People of real integrity will do what they have to do as well, as a matter of conscience and ideally regardless of material risk. We've had a controversy not only because many Americans are intolerant of dissent they equate with sacrilege, but because many other Americans believe dissent should be risk-free all the time. The consequence of such expectations is the nation we have now, where people feel entitled to dissent to anything in spite of everyone, whether their dissent is principled, reasonable, pathological or simply stupid. Our mass political culture is frivolously toxic to an extent that makes kneeling during the National Anthem supremely dignified by comparison. Now, however, we should learn who's done it frivolously and who's still willing to take a stand when it means taking a risk as well. Game on.

22 May 2018

A GOP generation gap?

Jonah Goldberg, age 49, reports a recent survey showing a profound generational divide within the Republican party. It finds that 82% of pro-Republican respondents ages 18-24 want someone to challenge Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential primaries, while 74% of respondents over age 65 want Trump renominated without opposition. Goldberg, no fan of  Trump himself, attributes this to a belated youth rebellion among conservatives, driven by a more accommodating attitude toward diversity, if not political correctness. As Goldberg puts it, "Young people understand that some of the things old people see as 'political correctness' [reflect] an attempt to craft decent manners in the increasingly diverse and egalitarian society that young people live in." Going further, Goldberg echoes essayist Ben Shapiro's argument that young Republicans "care about character and values" more than their elders now do. Older Republicans, Goldberg implies, have been corrupted by their hatred of political correctness and all it represents and are now more interested in crushing their electoral or demographic enemies than in principled government. In short, younger Republicans are less tribal than their elders, though this may not be true with young rightists as a whole. I have to wonder whether the survey's "Republican and Republican-leaning" categories exclude the alt-right, which was still a youth movement the last time I checked. If alt-rightists don't identify as Republican but will support Trump, the generation gap may not be as significant as Goldberg hopes. I also wonder whether age, rather than income, education  or geography, is the ultimate determinant of rabid Trumpers. Many NeverTrumpers,  after all, are older Republicans, and many others in the same age bracket would be shocked to learn that they've abandoned character and values. While something may be missing in that survey, Goldberg isn't wrong to observe that the demographic bomb will keep ticking for the GOP unless Republicans can reach out to unfamiliar demographics in ways the most reactionary oldsters and the most contemptuous youth may despise. Whether they can could depend less on Republicans' good manners than on whether others can see Republican values as anything more than the mores clung to by a bitter, moribund tribe.

But aren't we all animals?

Criticism of the President's recent remarks about the MS-13 gang sometimes sounds like an exercise in deliberate misinterpretation. Contextually, it was obvious that Trump had the Salvadoran gang and others like it in mind when he said that some people entering the country illegally were "animals." Yet I've just read Cynthia Tucker's column condemning the "animals" comment and MS-13 is never mentioned. Instead, Tucker describes Trump as pandering to his reactionary white base with unwarranted generalizations intended to dehumanize Latin immigrants as a whole. Could Trump have spared himself these attacks by speaking more carefully, e.g. by stating specifically that gang members were animals?  I doubt it, since his real offense, as a white man, was to describe any non-white person as an animal. Hillary Clinton faced similar criticism, and has never been forgiven in some quarters, for describing some black men as "superpredators." I doubt either person would be condemned as strongly for saying that the Sicilian or Russian mafia were animals, or even that some Sicilians or Russians were animals. I suppose that some people will object to the supposed dehumanization of anyone, regardless of race, especially if it's phrased as a generalization that violates the presumption of abstract people's innocence, and I suppose it might be taboo among some ethnic groups even to describe each other as animals, but the hubbub over Trump's remarks pretty much boils down  to his being white and the President. I hope those details don't disqualify him from condemning criminal gangs, foreign and domestic -- and perhaps he should turn his attention to the latter more often -- and I definitely hope that people in general don't feel inhibited from describing criminal gangs as they deserve out of an empathetic humanity the gangs do not reciprocate.

17 May 2018

Real Americans

Eugene Robinson writes: "The most offensive and corrosive idea in our politics today is that some Americans are more 'real' than others." He condemns the canard that coastal urbanites are "out of touch" or otherwise alienated from  the heart of the country, or that a coal miner is automatically a more "real" American, especially if he votes for Donald Trump, than a "goateed Brooklyn barista." What Robinson describes is nothing new. It predates any "populist" movement and goes back at least as far as Jeffersonian times, when farmers were seen by Jefferson himself as the "real" Americans while city dwellers were suspect because cities were inevitably decadent. In Jacksonian times the concept was broadened to admit "producers," including manufacturers, to the ranks of the "real," but the suspicion of metropolitan decadence has persisted, not just in spite but because of the perception that "coastal elites" are more intelligent and cosmopolitan. Of course, Robinson is entirely right to insist that the opinion (if not the vote, thanks to the Electoral College) of the batista is entitled to the same consideration as that of the coal miner, but the miner might fairly question whether Democrats like Robinson have practised what they preach. Haven't they challenged the legitimacy and even the authentic Americanism of opinions from "flyover" America on the assumption that they're grounded in bigotry, and isn't the bigotry charge, which Robinson renews implicitly in this column, just another way of calling uncomfortable opinions "out of touch" with authentic reality? I don't raise this question to engage in much-despised "what-aboutism," but to remind everyone that this is an almost inevitable strategy in a democratic republic where who the "real" Americans are is more or less decided by popular vote every few years and the losers are by definition "out of touch." Robinson's view will be proven right when the Democrats regain power, but only for as long as they retain it, and that goes for Republicans and Trump fans as well.

16 May 2018

Modern Whiggery

David Brooks declares himself a Whig in his latest column, contrasting himself with both progressives -- even though the "Whig theory of history" is the epitome of progressive thought -- and libertarians. Unlike progressives, whose goal (Brooks claims) is equality, and libertarians, whose goal is freedom, the Whigs' ideal is social mobility. As Brooks defines it, "Whigs seek to use limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility" by investing in infrastructure, public education, "public-private investments" and "character-building programs." Make what you will of it, but he doesn't include protectionism among the Whig virtues. Historically, he traces American Whiggery back to Alexander Hamilton and sees its influence persisting at least as late as the early career of Theodore Roosevelt before it "disappeared from American life" until showing signs of fresh life in our time. Where did Whiggery go? It receded, we can infer, when the American left rejected entrepreneurial standards of living and the American right, freshly fearful of the state, preferred to have families and churches build character. Again, if you acknowledge protectionism as a hallmark of Whiggery, you could see the Trump movement as the real revival, but Brooks, a diehard NeverTrumper, prefers to look elsewhere for signs of life. He finds them in small towns visited by the author James Fellows where communities have come back from industrial decline through the leadership of "business leaders who were both entrepreneurial and civically minded." I suspect that Brooks finds President Trump and his kind insufficiently civic-minded to qualify as Whigs, but I also suspect that Brooks will find modern Whiggery a tougher sell on the left, where people are perhaps more likely to see "character building" and entrepreneurial values as contradictions in terms. Trumpism threatens to provoke a doubling-down, at least, on leftist rejection of whiggish premises, while Brooks doesn't indicate what a Whig-left dialogue would sound like, if he anticipates such dialogue at all. But unless his neo-Whigs reach out to the left in some way, their replacing the Trump movement is unlikely to resolve our political impasse. Maybe Brooks thinks the Whigs can take over without the left or its constituents, but Trump has already won without them, and look where we are.

14 May 2018

No offense, but you're going to Hell

While dozens of people in Gaza sacrificed themselves on the altar of Palestinian revanchism, the new U.S. embassy opened in  Jerusalem, and some Americans took offense at the appearance of a Baptist preacher who, for all his Christian Zionism, believes that Jews are doomed to Hell if they don't recognize Jesus as savior and son of God. Particularly offended was Mitt Romney, who recalled that the same minister said that Mormons would also go to Hell. Need we add that Muslims are also bound for Hell in the pastor's learned opinion? In Romney's opinion this was nothing but bigotry, but the minister and his supporters retorted, on Twitter and elsewhere, that it isn't bigotry but a matter of faith to believe that those who reject Jesus, whatever their good deeds, condemn themselves to perdition. They also reminded Romney that it was their First Amendment right to believe this, and that if anyone was a bigot, it was Romney himself, to the extent that he would not let Christians speak according to their consciences. In the meantime, the Prime Minister of Israel was too busy sucking up to President Trump to take offense. Like it or not, the Baptists are right on this one. It isn't bigotry to say that someone of a different faith will go to Hell. The word Mitt Romney was looking for was "superstition," but I can understand why it didn't occur to him. 

The disrespected

The Washington Post reports the results of several surveys of regions loyal to President Trump and finds that support for the President is fueled to a great extent by the perception that "mainstream" liberal culture doesn't respect either the President or those who support him. You can read more here, but this shouldn't really be news to anyone. If anything, this report only revives the chicken-egg question of who's to blame, if blame is necessary, for the mutual disrespect that characterizes lay political discourse today. For all the unhappy Trumpets howl about how people call them bigots, it 's indisputable that the disrespect they perceive is driven by an enduring feeling that they disrespect those whose respect they now demand as a right. There may be a real cultural divide here, if it proves that respect means or requires different things for different groups, be they defined by ethnicity, geography or social class. But before we draw such a dire conclusion all sides need to join in a conversation in which all get a chance to explain why they feel disrespected. If either side feels a unilateral entitlement to respect, however, it'll be little more of a conversation than we already have. No one is innocent at this point, the poor oppressed Trump supporters least of all.

09 May 2018

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Trumpism

Christians on both the right and left politically have been asking for some years now how devout co-religionists, and evangelical Protestants in particular, can support a seemingly unrepentant profligate like Donald Trump. The May 14 Nation promised that Michael Massing would explain it by going all the way back to the Reformation, illustrating the point with a cover showing Martin Luther in a MAGA hat. Massing reports that Luther was a bigot, intolerant of disagreement with his own interpretation of scripture, and a social reactionary who cheered on the extermination of a large-scale peasant uprising. Massing also makes the commonplace observation that Protestantism, concerned primarily with individual salvation, is often indifferent to social-justice questions. What's unusual here is that Massing never mentions the long debate within American Protestantism between the "social gospel" movement and the more pessimistic and conservative premillennial tradition, represented in the article by Billy Graham's prediction that racial integration would come only after Christ's return. In general, Massing describes a Protestant populism best described, perhaps paradoxically, as anti-elitist conservatism. His may be a valid observation, but it does little to explain the core paradox of Trumpism. Why do self-described traditionalist moralists support such an obviously debauched figure as Trump? Luther doesn't explain it, though his heritage may explain  why his followers agree with the debauchee's political or social views. Why choose such a flawed vessel to defend the faith?  Again, Massing doesn't really explain that, despite an ample field for exploration in the attitude of Baptists in particular toward forgiveness of sin. He simply notes that people who see Trump as un-Christian are usually "championing their own particular definiton of Christianity," and while he refers specifically to liberals' more compassionate and tolerant faith he could just as easily mean any definition that excludes Trump for his presumed personal sins while other Christians, for reasons possibly having nothing to do with faith or doctrine, are not so judgmental, for once.

08 May 2018

Double lives

The attorney general of New York State has resigned following the publication yesterday of a magazine story accusing him of physically abusing women. Eric Schneiderman denies the charges but concedes that they make it impossible for him to carry out his duties effectively. It seems to come down to rough sex that he says was consensual and spiced with role play, while I'll wait until my New Yorker comes in the mail to see how the other side describes it. In any event, it looks like another case of liberal "hypocrisy," given how prominent a crusader Schneiderman has been, but what's really going on here? Ironically, the newspaper in which I read the story also had an op-ed by Cynthia Tucker recalling her shock at discovering that Bill Cosby, a crusader in his own right, apparently lived a vile double life of his own. Such stories continue to surprise, shock and disappoint because we take for granted that respect for women is part of the liberal value package, despite generations of disappointment by liberal politicians and celebrities. There's always a greater feeling of disappointment than when conservatives are discovered in arguably greater hypocrisy, however. While that may just show that our feelings differ when "our side" is damaged by scandal, it may also show that sexual morality of any sort, whether the biblical morality espoused by conservative hypocrites or the egalitarian feminist morality espoused by liberal hypocrites, simply doesn't matter that much for the left, compared to "social justice" issues where people like Schneiderman presumably would remain reliable regardless of what went on in his bedroom. Schneiderman may seem especially hypocritical given his role in the fall of Harvey Weinstein, but he clearly doesn't see his own indulgences as the same sort of abuse of power the movie mogul reputedly practiced. That may be part of the perception problem, too. The left doesn't see "power" on its own side, and so leftists presume their own innocence when they behave similarly to powerful people or conservative hypocrites. That probably won't change even when, as many feminists and some liberals probably wish more strongly now, we let women run everything.

30 April 2018

'Genuine conservatism'

Michael Gerson distinguished between the Trump movement and "genuine conservatism" in his latest column. Trumpism, in his view, is a movement of cultural nostalgia (and international revanchism following a perceived loss of status under President Obama) that "will eventually lose in a nation growing more diverse and progressive." Genuine conservatism, meanwhile, strives to "accommodate inevitable change in a way that honors the best of the past." Its purpose is "not to undo change, but to humanize it, and to root our shifting way of life in ultimate things." When he writes of "the best of the past" and "ultimate things," Gerson makes a implicit distinction between culture and values. He wants values preserved, e.g. "individual responsibility,family commitment, patriotism and a concern for social order," but doesn't believe them to be inextricably dependent upon a particular culture or religion. I presume that he believes these values can be arrived at and agreed upon through reason, but each of his values is arguably subject to reasonable debate over its definition. In particular, "social order" is probably seen as something desirable by everyone, but other everyone will agree on what social order looks like. Gerson himself has nothing to say about that here beyond appealing for a pluralism that accommodates traditionalism. He most likely takes for granted that right and left will continue to disagree about the meaning of these things, but he wants the right to agree that their values aren't dependent on specific religious, linguistic or racial traditions. Above all, I think, he doesn't want conservative values to be identified as "white" values. It may be too late to prevent that, given first how nearly exclusively white the Trump movement is, and secondly how, to all appearances, that movement does embrace the values Gerson values along with all the stuff he abhors. At the same time, the more the left opposes the entire Trumpist package and reduces all of it to white Christian chauvinism , the more Trumpists themselves are likely to see the whole package as  a culture rather than an idea.  Perhaps it could not turn out otherwise because of American history, but the outcome is still to be regretted. You may not care much for American conservatism, but we all should agree that it should be possible to debate policies and values without it all coming down to conflicting or irreconcilable cultures. On the other hand, as our debates appear increasingly irreconcilable, maybe we're learning something about not just the persistence of cultures, but where cultures come from.

27 April 2018

Political segregation

More than a decade ago, it was a scandal in Albany, where I live, that a man was thrown out of a shopping mall for wearing an anti-war shirt. The mall management could get away with this because it was private property and not, as many believe, a public space. The consensus was that it was still a terrible thing for the mall to do, and I remembered that feeling when I read this week about a man suing a New York City bar that had thrown him out for wearing a MAGA cap -- the red headgear with the "Make America Great Again" legend identifying the wearer as a supporter of Donald Trump. He lost his suit because anti-discrimination laws don't forbid the refusal of service on the basis of political opinion.  Not even the man's lame attempt to describe his choice of head covering as a religious observance -- he had just visited the 9/11 memorial -- swayed the court. This decision may be lawful, but it's also bad news. Inevitably you'll hear of somebody getting thrown out of someplace for wearing anti-Trump gear, or pro-Trump gear again, and it will be further proof of an accelerating segregation of the country along partisan lines. Are the stakes really so high right now that people should be ostracized for wearing their politics on their sleeve, or their heads? I'd like to think not, but I suspect that this decision, however lawful, will only raise the stakes by exacerbating feelings of persecution on all sides, once the inevitable tit-for-tat incidents occur. If the laws permitted this result then they need to be amended before people decide to defend their right to political expression in all-too American style by shooting up a place.

25 April 2018

Intolerance of intolerance

Jonah Goldberg gently chides Britney Spears in his latest op-ed column for a narrowness of perspective that led the singer, while receiving GLAAD's Vanguard Award, to insinuate that American culture was uniquely intolerant of difference. The one line he quotes is " I feel like our society has always put such an emphasis on being normal, and to be different is unusual or seen as strange." Nothing there implies that the U.S. is unique in this regard, but as a Republican and the author of Liberal Fascism Goldberg is used to drawing sweeping conclusions about non-conservatives. He clearly infers that Spears is furthering the supposed leftist narrative of America (or white America) as the most bigoted culture on earth, but whether he's right or not to jump to that conclusion, he is right to remind his readers that racism, homophobia and other forms of intolerance flourish the world over. He can even cite statistics showing, based on a survey that asked if respondents were willing to welcome neighbors of other races, that the U.S. is only the 47th most racist nation on the planet. But he seems at a genuine loss when it comes to explaining why so many Americans might see their country as uniquely intolerant of at least some forms of difference, if all he can blame that on is tunnel vision. He should realize that the U.S. will always be subject to rising expectations of more freedom in all areas of life, since Americans largely see their country as uniquely dedicated to freedom. Modern hedonist culture elevates those expectations still higher, and while any society is bound to disappoint such expectations, few of them will seem as hypocritical for doing so as ours does. Goldberg thinks that the U.S. hasn't been very hostile to "being different" for at least the last half-century, if it had ever been, but that dismissal misses the enduring complaint against a bourgeois "or else" culture that thwarts people's desire to live their own way without consequences and thus violates their expectation, however unrealistic, of unlimited (albeit victimless) personal freedom. Hedonist anger at this apparent betrayal won't be calmed by telling Americans to be grateful for what they've got because  other countries are worse. Goldberg wants Americans to stop portraying our sociocultural problems as "so much worse than they really are," but so long as we see them as so much worse compared to what we should be as the land of liberty, he should expect Americans to keep on exercising their most convenient freedom, the right to complain.

23 April 2018

The true faith?

Michael Gerson is encouraged by reports that evangelical thinkers are  "disturbed by the identification of their faith with a certain kind of white-grievance populism" and are searching for "a more positive model of social engagement than the anger, resentment and desperation of many Trump evangelical leaders." While "the predominant narrative of white evangelism is tribal rather than universal," more a siege mentality than a missionary mindset, Gerson agrees with those evangelicals who take the opposite view. They believe that "you can't advance a vision of liberation by oppressing the conscience of others [or] advance a vision of human dignity by dehumanizing others." In short, Gerson has chosen his side in the long dispute between the "social gospel" and the theological and political  conservatism historically identified with fundamentalism. As a sort of conservative himself, he's unlikely to embrace the entire social-justice agenda of liberal evangelicalism, but he supports its universalist tendencies, its imperative to welcome everyone to a "kingdom" that is not worldly. As for the other side,"an evangelicalism defined by the defense of its own rights rather than the dignity and sanctity of every life has lost its way." Like many observers, he's scandalized by the support for Donald Trump among many evangelicals and other theological and moral conservatives. There's something ironically pharasaical about this tendency to condemn Christians for embracing a blatant sinner, as well as some failure to distinguish between their endorsement of the policies they expect Trump to enact and an endorsement of his private life or business practices. Evangelical support for Trump can be written off to "white-grievance populism," but to do so risks ignoring the long-term resistance to the universalist theology Gerson prefers. To the extent that evangelicalism is intertwined with the history of fundamentalism, it's virtually defined by resistance to universalism or ecumenism, and by an idea that salvation depends on a doctrinal correctness that should be enforced socially. To the extent that "come-outerism" persists in evangelical DNA, there will always  be an evangelical constituency for the defensive, exclusionary policies of reactionary populism. Many evangelicals simply aren't as interested in "liberation" or even "human dignity" as Gerson thinks they should be. Even the kingdom of God has borders, it seems, and for that reason I have little faith in  evangelical Christians as our political salvation.

18 April 2018

Everything old is young again

The latest issue of The Nation, like a recent issue of Time, has a cover story about the clique of students from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland FL who've become aggressive anti-gun activists since the amoklauf at their school earlier this year. Predictably, George Zornick piece stresses the kids' commitment to intersectionality, focusing on their efforts to link school shootings with inner-city violence in order to bring more blacks into the gun-control movement and call the gun-control establishment's attention to systematic racism. The article also emphasizes the vilification some of the kids have suffered from gun-nuts and other reactionaries who see something unnatural, so it seems, about their precocious activism. Questioning their authenticity is one way to address the shock of seeing leftish radicalism in high schools, where most people, presumably, didn't expect it. It's the equivalent shock to the discovery of the so-called alt-right in our midst, and I wonder whether both phenomena are equally shocking to some liberals, given how illiberal the Parkland kids sometimes seem. They've made it clear that they're not that interested in a debate with the gun lobby, taking the increasingly common position among the young left that the imperatives essential to their survival and safety aren't subject to debate. The boycott campaign against Laura Ingraham's sponsors, for instance, shows a wish to silence the gun lobby, and not just because she insulted one of the activist students. To have demanded a boycott over the insult alone would be laughable, but the thing itself is no laughing matter. It's another manifestation of a growing illiberalism that's sometimes labeled populist, sometimes authoritarian. It's simply the feeling, provoked by social media's exacerbation of partisanship and paranoia, that many people's opinions are not worth hearing, that everyone's insistence on speaking their mind on every issue in spite of little evidence of mind is handicapping the nation or,  depending on your perspective, threatening the world. It's not so much an anti-democratic movement, as liberals fear, but a feeling that democracy, even in a republic, is supposed to work differently, more effectively than it has here lately. Many have worried about the implications of such a feeling for ethnic, religious or sexual minorities, but illiberalism on the left poses a theoretical threat to political minorities as well. Believing themselves the majority, and believing their lives at stake, anti-gun youth recognize no moral right to oppose gun control or other items on their agenda. This isn't the first time we've seen radicalized youth in this country, and in some ways the new wave is probably less radical than the last great wave from fifty years ago, but in some ways they may seem more so, and that clearly scares people who might otherwise be embarrassed to be scared of children. 

14 April 2018

'Mission accomplished '

Well, it's done.  American, British and French forces carried out punitive air strikes last night to degrade Syria's capacity to perpetrate chemical-weapon attacks. The President, apparently forgetting the irony of a recent predecessor's boast, has posted a "Mission accomplished" tweet. Whether that will come back to haunt him depends on what his real mission was. Cynics will note that Trump's earlier threatening tweets gave the Syrians and Russians time to move any really valuable assets out of harm's way, for use on another occasion -- presuming, as most do, that the Russians were full of it when they claimed that the British staged the Douma atrocity to justify the air strikes. If those strikes leave Bashar al-Assad undeterred, then Trump won't have accomplished much apart from reconfirming his own toughness to his domestic base. However, the damage done to Syria may count for less than the damage done to Russia. Trump has carried out his threat, but to our knowledge the Russians either failed or did not bother to carry out their threat to shoot down American missiles. There's still time for Russia to find some proportionate way to retaliate, but until they do the President can plausibly claim to have proven Vladimir Putin a paper tiger, and perhaps to have proven his own ability to intimidate the dreaded Putin into acquiescence. Of course, extreme cynics and conspiracy theorists can still argue that Trump and Putin have stage-managed everything to some mutual benefit, but such people would see even a shooting war as proof of some Orwellian collusion allowing each man to consolidate authoritarian power at home. In short, they see what they want to see. The rest of us should be slower to draw conclusions. If Trump's demonstration renders Putin less assertive in the long run, that might be to the world's benefit, but he would still need to prove the worth of the venture to his America-first constituents who'll want to know how it all benefits them materially. This Syrian intervention may work out better than many fear, but whether it was worth doing and whether it was really our business are still up for discussion.

12 April 2018

'Get ready, Russia'

The President's April 11 tweet virtually daring the Russians to stop an American punitive missile attack on Syria may be Donald Trump's most dangerous social-media utterance to date. It's an act of chest-beating defiance following a Russian vow to shoot down any such missiles or strike at their source, and it escalates tensions in the region shortly after Trump had declared his intent to disengage from Syria as soon as possible. Of course, he declared that intent before seeing footage of the aftermath of an apparent chemical weapons attack on an insurgent village. That kicked in an irrepressible American impulse -- one Trump supposedly had hoped to suppress -- to do something when tyrants commit atrocities against their own people. No matter how often he affects an "America first" position, he indulges as readily as any of his predecessors in acts of moral extravagance with no obvious material benefit to Americans. He may hope that Russia will back down from its bluster and rethink its support for the Assad regime, but now that they see how easily Syria can discombobulate American foreign policy, why would the Russians ever do that? They want their Mediterranean naval base and still think that only Assad can guarantee it, and they definitely don't give a damn what he does to rebels within his own borders. Since the recent Syrian trouble began, I've thought that the most likely way to get rid of Assad, if you really wanted to take a chance that way, was to have all the relevant powers assure Russia that any new regime would allow them to keep their base, since to my knowledge it's not American policy to drive Russia out of there. The real problem, however, isn't the naval base but Assad and Putin's friendly stance toward Iran, the power seen by both Israel and Saudi Arabia -- increasingly in the same Hitlerian terms -- as an existential threat. The President's real strategic goal should be getting Russia to cut ties with the Islamic Republic, but the hard fact is that Putin will never consider that without a major concession in return, most likely our acquiescence in Russia's domination of its "near abroad." In modern times Americans hate having to make such concessions -- "Yalta" is still a dirty word in some quarters -- but it seemed for a time that Donald Trump might see the world and our place in it differently. There's still a chance that he may, but just now, however novel and frightening his rhetoric seems, it looks like same old, same old.

11 April 2018


David Brooks still considers himself a "never-Trumper" but confesses in his latest column that he and those like him have failed to check Donald Trump's takeover of the Republican party or turn his base against him. He blames this on an intensifying tribalism that will forgive the President indefinitely so long as he appears to be on "our" side, but he seems to think that attacking this tribalism is part of the problem with never-Trumpers or anti-Trumpers in general. Trump himself is dangerously "nationalist" in some way, yet Brooks warns against attacking Trumpers' nationalism. Brooks's despair seems to derive from a feeling that the opposition has painted itself into a corner, convinced as he now seems to be that Trump voters should not be criticized for wanting what Trump himself is criticized for wanting.

It all boils down to the now-familiar charge that anti-Trumpers are too "condescending," as Brooks puts it mildly, toward Trump voters. But it is one thing to ask, as reasonable critics of actual anti-Trump hysteria have asked, that the opposition abandon its ad hominem   strategy and focus on the  economic and social issues believed to be the root cause of Trumpism. Brooks, however, concedes too much when he writes that Trumpers "rightly feel their local economies are under attack, their communities are dissolving and their religious liberties are under threat." That last concession is definitely too much, as it only enables the Trump-empowering tribalism Brooks presumably deplores. To say that their cultural anxieties and xenophobic hysteria are in any way "rightly" based is effectively a capitulation to that which Brooks still claims to resist. I hope he doesn't find it condescending of critics to ask why, if the problems fueling Trumpism are economic and social in origin and essence, they must at best ignore, at worst pander to or flatter the cultural fears and prejudices of Trump's white Christian base. The cynical answer is that the white vote swings election, but will Brooks admit to being "rightly" cynical, or will he recognize his own confession that he's closer to Trumpism than he wants to admit?

04 April 2018

Human nature and gun control

In a recent column, E.J. Dionne describes how many people, particularly on the right, believe the gun-control debate to be driven by opposing notions of human nature. According to the viewpoint he describes, liberals desire gun control because they blame gun violence on guns rather than people, and do so because they believe people are innately good before exterior influences corrupt or radicalize them, while conservatives, mostly Christian believers in original sin and innate depravity, more readily blame people than guns for gun violence. Dionne goes on to challenge this dichotomy, noting that liberalism actually bases its demand for regulations on a recognition of original sin, or at least of essential human fallibilty, and is more consistent about this than conservatives who idealize the good guy with a gun and generally prefer liberty to regulation. The columnist has a point here, but in getting to it has followed conservatives down the wrong trail.

I don't think the liberal desire for gun control has anything to do with what Dionne calls "extreme optimism about human nature" or with any theory of human nature at all. It comes down plainly and simply to a belief that no one deserves to be killed, not even an active shooter -- an ideological hedonism that recognizes no such thing as a justifiable homicide. The real difference between the gun-control and gun-rights movements is over the right to kill. To the latter it's self-evident that the active shooter deserves to die, or at least deserves what he gets if someone has to shoot him down. To the hedonist ideology, ultimately anarchic rather than utilitarian, that idea is unacceptable. To put anyone to death, by court sentence or in self-defense, makes all human life dangerously contingent, according to this view. Those who hold it would deny everyone the means to kill if they could, but by its very nature this view is unenforceable because it will not impose itself in or-else terms. Gun control will only prevail, therefore, when the other side loses its faith in the generic citizen's ability to act as a good guy. That moment may be nearer than many people think, but more may come from such a change that is not as desirable for us. In other words, when the right starts to call for more gun control, then you can worry about authoritarianism on the march.

02 April 2018

The meaning of 'fake'

Sinclair Broadcast Group is the latest target of critics who fear that President Trump and his supporters want to turn TV news into a state propaganda tool. Outrage erupted in the opposition camp after Sinclair management ordered local news anchors to read a corporate-drafted statement decrying "the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided new stories plaguing our country" and "the sharing of biased and false news [on] social media." While some observers note that the text reads at least superficially like an appeal for evenhanded objectivity, critics point to the words "fake" and "biased," which they see as code-words for criticism or investigation of the White House. Even though the Sinclair script goes on to say that "Truth is neither politically left nor right," critics believe that the Trumpian buzzwords belie the conglomerate's  pretense of objectivity.

Sinclair has struck back at the critics, citing some pro-Trump rumors and anti-Democrat conspiracy theories as examples of the "fake stories" they condemn.  Vice president Scott Livingston jumped on the "double standards" bandwagon to change the subject, finding it hypocritical of critics to protest Sinclair's employment of a former Trump advisor as a commentator carried on local broadcasts when they don't hold the past party ties of Chris Matthews and George Stephanopoulos against them.  This is changing the subject because the real cause for complaint right now is the script that anchors, regardless of political affiliation, are obliged to read. One can have nonpartisan reservations about that level of corporate interference with local news organizations. That looks like a reversion to the corporate dictation of the early 20th century, when powerful and mostly conservative newspaper tycoons dictated their papers' editorial policies, and I'm not aware of anything equivalent going on between the major TV  networks and their local affiliates -- a growing number of which are owned by Sinclair. Even if the corporation lives up to its objective pretensions, the mere fact that it claims a right to tell local anchors or reporters what to say should be disturbing to all Americans, regardless of party. If you don't want George Soros buying a bunch of Fox affiliates and making their news teams tell you, explicitly or implicitly, to ignore the Fox News Channel, then you should disapprove of what Sinclair is up to, no matter what the script says. The mere existence of a script is the real problem. If Republicans don't see that now they may regret it later.

29 March 2018

Begging the (census) question.

The Trump administration wants to revive the practice of asking participants in the U.S. Census whether they're citizens of the country. Democrats are predictably alarmed, seeing the proposal as a nativist Republican plot to entrap undocumented immigrants and reduce the congressional representation of states presumed "blue," yet also certainly including ruby-"red" Texas, with large immigrant populations. At first glance, it may look like Democrats are once again picking the wrong fight. Shouldn't the Census count only citizens?  Not necessarily, according to the Constitution. To determine the apportionment of Representatives in Congress, the founding charter originally required the Census to count "free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years," while slaves (i.e. "all other Persons") would count as only three-fifths of free persons and "Indians not taxed" weren't counted at all. The Fourteenth Amendment abrogated the three-fifths clause and provides that a state's congressional delegation can be reduced if the state denies the vote to male citizens 21 and older for reasons other than rebellion or "other crime." In the relevant clause of the original text the word "citizen" is not used. The word appears in the Fourteenth Amendment only in the context of voting rights. A state can have its representation reduced by denying voting rights to people the Constitution declares eligible, but the basis of representation is "the whole number of persons," not the number of citizens. Asking whether people are citizens thus appears irrelevant to the apportionment of congressional seats. What Democrats, mainly, seem to fear is that their states will lose seats because immigrants will evade the Census rather than identify themselves as non-citizens, even though the proposed yes-or-no citizenship question would not distinguish between illegal immigrants and those on the legal path to naturalization. In other words, irrational fear may cost Democrats congressional seats, while states with large immigrant populations may lose out on government funds allocated according to population. Yet it's the Democrats who are stoking the irrational fear for short-term gain, portraying the proposal as another Republican assault on democracy itself in order to scare more people into voting Democratic this year. If they want to win elections over the next decade, however, cooler heads ought to prevail.

28 March 2018

Taking school safety 'seriously'

In the March 28 Albany Times Union letter writer Stephen Dansereau argues that high school students "need to view themselves in a more humble and selfless context.' This appears to be a critique of both school shooters and protesters against school shootings, and if anything Dansereau is more critical toward the latter. 'If someone can't be trusted to own a gun until age 21, perhaps they lack the maturity to vote before them as well," he writes before closing with this whopper: "If school safety and ado,essential development were to be taken seriously, there would be a crucifix in every classroom, and the daily pledge of allegiance would be followed by the Our Father." You know, because Abrahamic monotheism has been so effective at supressing violence throughout history and men like Dansereau, so obviously looking for every solution to school violence except gun control, so clearly uphold the turn-the-other-cheek tradition. To be fair, we could all use a little more humility in all our social interactions, but in my experience the Christian "I'm saved and you're going to Hell" attitude hasn't been what I'd call humble. It's more often as arrogantly contemptuous as Dansereau's letter, which can be condensed effectively down to "Shut up and pray."

27 March 2018

Jealous lovers of their country

Marc A. Thiessen is a "rock-ribbed conservative" who supports President Trump on many issues but rejects the popular Trumpian argument that his opponents don't love this country. In a column last week Thiessen chided the failed Republican candidate in the recent Pennsylvania special election for saying that "many of these on the left ... have a hatred for our country," not to mention a hatred for God. Thiessen's own mother is a liberal Democrat, you see, and he knows that she hates neither country nor, presumably, God. Thiessen sees that sort of slanderous rhetoric  -- he cites another cknservative who called progressives "stupid and evil" -- as morally equivalent to the widespread Democratic libel that conservative Republicans must be bigots of some sort. Thiessen's admirable thought for that particular day was that people like him and his mother may disagree about politics, "but we both love America and want to make this country great." The thought is admirable but wishfully simplistic.

Just about everyone in the country except for the few "revolutionary anti-imperialists" and some radicalized Muslims will tell you that they love America -- but what do they mean when they say that? This country encompasses conflicting notions of what this nation is that are so divergent that one view may seem not merely wrong but treacherous from another perspective. We can identify at least three widely-held and possibly irreconcilable definitions of the American nation. There's the view identified with neoconservatives and some liberals that the U.S. is a "propositional" nation defined by the ideals expressed in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Then there are at least two rival forms of populism whose first loyalty is to "the people." One that could be called "progressive populism" is concerned about the well being of people here and now, without imposing tests of loyalty or identity beyond demanding fidelity to progressive populism. The other populism, the one that disturbs liberals, could be called "cultural" or "traditionalist" populism. It defines "the people" by their fidelity to traditions, sacred or secular and does not embrace or welcome everyone as they are unconditionally, as progressive populists increasingly demand. One populism is cruelly exclusive by the other's standard, while the progressive, to the traditionalist, is treacherously inclusive. And in the meantime the neos don't quite care whether any of the populists lives or dies, so long as their ideals endure.

There just isn't the consensus on what the country is, on what or who it stands for, for anyone to be deeply assured by the anodyne notion that everyone loves America. Nor does consensus seem possible just now, the rival populists hoping rather to shout each other down, or beat each other into submission. The problem may be that when one side questions whether the other loves America, it's really one person asking desperately whether anyone loves him as he is, as he defines himself. There may not be enough of that sort of love to go around -- but maybe we'll be lucky and have an economic boom that makes that sort of love less urgently necessary.

'The second-most dangerous American'

To those who see the President's hiring of John Bolton as his next national security adviser as an abandonment of Donald Trump's anti-interventionist convictions, George Will answers with a millennial's punchy emphasis, "Trump. Has. No. Convictions." Will is a conservative critic of the neocons with whom Bolton, George W. Bush's sometime UN ambassador, is identified. He describes the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which Bolton still defends despite Trump's own criticism, as the worst foreign-policy blunder in American history. Having Trump's ear will make Bolton the second-most dangerous man in America, by Will's estimate, if not more dangerous than Trump himself because of his intellect and fanaticism. But will he persuade Trump to betray such foreign-policy principles as he possesses? That question begs another: what are Bolton's actual principles?

I started to wonder how much of a neocon Bolton has been, but it didn't take long to realize that there are two kinds of neoconservative, one of which is more likely congenial to Trump than the other. Our stereotype of the neocon derives from Dubya-era propaganda identifying his wars with an agenda of democracy promotion, the premise being that capitalist democracies with civil societies and the rule of law are the surest guarantors of global peace, while dictatorships are an inherent threat to global order. The archetypal neocon believed (or at least argued) that the secure spread of free-market democracy around the world depended on American hegemony. A less idealized definition of neoconservatism is offered by British professor Natasha Ezrow on the Common Dreams website. She describes neoconservatism as "a political tendency that believes that the U.S. should pursue and defend primacy or unlimited power." In other words, stripped of propagandistic justifications, many neocons see American hegemony as an end unto itself. It wouldn't be hard for President Trump to agree with that, nor should it be hard for him to square that view with his own mix of anti-interventionism and belligerent rhetoric.

Unlike many alarmists, I don't think Bolton is going to persuade Trump to bomb or invade anybody. It's said that the President admires Bolton's tough talk on TV, and it's probably talk more than anything else that Trump wants from him. My guess is that Trump wants to conduct a good cop-bad cop foreign policy, seeking good relations as a rule so long as they're to the nation's advantage and hoping to intimidate others into more advantageous relationships. More specifically, he probably hopes to intimidate foreign leaders into seeking negotiations in which Trump's own vaunted deal-making skills and his readiness, distasteful to many domestic observers, to schmooze with the world's other tough guys can come into play. The most likely reason for all the upheaval in Trump's foreign-policy team is that he wants to be the only good cop. People like Tillerson and McMaster may have taken it upon themselves to play good cop to the President's bad cop too often for Trump's taste. Trump may claim for himself the prerogative to play both roles, but he probably wants all his minions to play bad cop exclusively unless he says otherwise, if only so he can claim credit for whatever deals ultimately are made. If Bolton lives up to his bulldog reputation in a role that may consist largely of TV appearances, he'll suit this theoretical Trumpian agenda to a tee. It's sure to be ugly, but that doesn't mean it can't work.

24 March 2018

Think 3 Video News: "Marching for our lives"

Across the country today, marches and rallies have taken place inspired by the recent student walkout protesting gun violence. Reporters in Albany NY estimate that about 5,000 people took part in the festivities at the state capital. For a student-inspired event, the Albany rally had an all-too familiar look and sound to it. While a fair share of students were given a chance to talk to the crowd, a lot of that crowd was well beyond school age. Marches and rallies like these simply appeal to an older generation, while students might well find social-media organization more interesting if not more effective. Arriving at West Capitol Park, I heard the stereotype sounds of folk singing that made the occasion sound far older than an initiative for 21st century high school students. Take a listen:

To be fair, a number of students got to speak, some with endearing spontaneity, some seeming to get lost in their notes. Here's one of the more articulate speakers explaining that not only Americans had a stake in school safety.

And here's the climax of another speech; as you can see, some people in the crowd really got into it.

Still, it was demoralizing to have politicians come in and make this an electioneering event. I'd rather not have the next generation of voters take it for granted that the Democratic party is their vehicle for salvation, no matter how much they may fell that the Republican party is their natural enemy. If the whole point of these rallies, as I understand it, was to express dissatisfaction with politics as usual, having the usual politicians around seemed to defeat the purpose. They also encourage cynics and reactionaries alike to complain that party politicians are only manipulating young people. An extra level of criticism kicks in when the cynics and especially the reactionaries, hating Democrats in some special way, say that those pols don't really care whether students live or die. Come on, people; they're liberals -- they don't want anyone to die and they really don't want anyone to be killed. That's why they condemn both gun violence and the NRA narrative of the need for the good guy with a gun. There's more to that position than a "statist" agenda and an itch to control people, and those who for whatever reason want to change these kids' minds -- and those of all the older folk at the rally -- can't act as if "Freedom!" much less "Molon labe!" is going to end the debate. They're going to have to explain to these children of hedonist civilization why sometimes people have to be killed. Good luck with that.

21 March 2018

'Do Not Congratulate'

This country is in a sad state when we need Donald Trump to teach lessons in diplomacy, but I have to take his side in the latest controversy over his relations with Russia. The President has been criticized for offering congratulations, against some high-level advice, to President Putin on his recent reelection, the feeling among neocons in particular being that the result was most likely rigged in the authoritarian incumbent's favor. Speaking for myself as a private citizen, I don't doubt that Putin used machine tactics in getting out the vote, and I don't doubt that his opponents didn't get as fair a shake from the Russian media as a major party candidate would get here. At the same time I don't doubt that Putin was the choice of most Russian voters, whose preferences in leadership most likely differ significantly from our own. The main point, regardless of one's view of the Russian electoral process, is that heads of state or government should not go out of their way to insult their peers around the world. Trump may not be consistent about this when it comes to North Korea, but he is almost certainly correct when he tweets that "Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing." It would be a bad thing only if Trump explicitly endorsed Putin's style of governance as a model for his own, or if getting along meant consigning Russia's neighbors to a far worse fate than is likely in store for them.

What Trump gets, and what neocons and many liberals can't stand to hear, is that the United States' national interest is not essentially ideological, and that it's not the President's job to promote an ideological agenda abroad. If our interests conflict with Russia's or China's or Iran's, it won't be because any of these countries are dictatorships, or because their cultures are so alien to ours. In foreign policy the alternative to ideology isn't "blood and soil" but a materialist calculation of national interests, as illustrated by Trump's focus on trade. Again, Trump can be maddeningly inconsistent about this, since there's nothing material to our unconditional support for Israel unless counting votes for future elections counts as materialism. But if he sees no reason to pick fights with Russia solely on the basis of how Putin runs his own country, he seems more reasonable than many of the supposed grown-ups in the proverbial room. What he understands about diplomacy, if only in this case but still ironically enough, is that the diplomat should not just say whatever pops into his head. His job is not to speak his mind or "speak truth to power," but to further his nation's interests. Whether Trump's approach to Putin actually does that remains to be seen, but to assume that it's not worth trying will only ensure that our relations stay in their current dismal state. That might be in some people's interests, but not necessarily in ours.

20 March 2018

European vs. American conservatism

The difference between Andrew Breitbart and Steve Bannon, Jonah Goldberg claims, is the difference between American and European styles of conservatism. While Bannon, Breitbart's heir for a time, recently told a French crowd to "Let them call you racists," Breitbart himself, according to Goldberg,  resented the "racist" libel and always sought to disprove it. Bannon represents a "blood and soil" sort of conservatism that Goldberg deems un-American. Citing libertarian prophet Friedrich Hayek, the columnist argues that the U.S. was founded on classical liberal principles largely antithetical to the authoritarian traditionalism that was contemporary conservatism. American conservatism as espoused by the Republican party since the 1960s is a continuation of the classical-liberal tradition of limited government and laissez-faire commerce, while "alt-right" conservatism of Bannon's sort is a degenerate departure poisoned by the pathologies (Goldberg calls it "swill") of 20th century Europe.

  From Goldberg's perspective, principle is all on the "American" side. From a different perspective, we see two different approaches to tradition. Goldberg notes that American conservatism "has always been deeply traditionalist, sometimes too much so," but the traditionalism of the "American" school, or at least its professional politicians and pundits, has been essentially utilitarian. That is, it promotes traditions as means to more highly valued ends like limited government and a productive workforce. By comparison, for "European" conservatives traditions are ends unto themselves, essential to their constituents' self-esteem and a sense of belonging that makes their existence meaningful and noble. Tradition, even in the minimal form of language and dress, is indispensible to the "European" mindset but always potentially expendable to the "American," should it get in the way of free enterprise or encourage intrusive government.

That two such mentalities exist and oppose each other seems obvious enough. Whether "American" and "European" are accurate labels for them is less obvious. My suspicion is that many if not most constituents of "American" conservatism have been and remain more "European" in their hearts -- in a traditionalist rather than a purely bigoted sense -- than their political representatives and partisan ideologues care to admit, but their "European" mindset rarely contradicted  their "American" leadership until a series of circumstances coalesced into an existential threat to their sense of self and worth that their leaders didn't take as seriously as they did. How long those circumstances will continue to threaten American conservatism remains unclear, but it is clear now that the "American" tradition cherished by Jonah Goldberg and many other Republicans faces an unprecedented challenge that may show exactly how deep that tradition has taken root in American soil.

19 March 2018

Liberty and Death

Early reporting on the President's anti-drug speech predictably focused on his suggestion of capital punishment for some drug dealers, as if this was something characteristically exceptional from Donald Trump. Some reporters, and not a few other Americans, probably see this as an authoritarian proposal comparable to what's done in Singapore or the Philippines, though no one has yet insinuated that Trump will encourage the sort of extrajudicial killing currently practiced in the latter country. Trump himself describes it as getting "tough" on dealers, but "tough" and "authoritarian" are increasingly synonymous for some observers.

Without analyzing the possible effect of the death penalty on drug traffic, we can recognize that it's a step most liberals would rather not take. At heart, their belief is that no one deserves to be killed. That belief also explains their abhorrence of the "good guy with a gun" paradigm of self-defense. It distinguishes 21st century liberals not only from their "conservative" opponents but also from the global "left" tradition with which conservatives often try to associate them. American liberals largely reject the "general will" idea that civil liberty depends on everyone putting their lives in the hands of the state. For all that they're accused of desiring an omnipotent state, they're often reluctant to grant the state this particular power. That may only mean that they want a state that's so omnipotent that it doesn't have to kill people, because it will have eliminated any material or even spiritual reason for anyone to commit crime.

For liberals the state's purpose is to preserve life, but what is to be done when people don't do their fair share toward this end, or actively oppose it? Liberals can only go so far because going further contradicts their sense of purpose; they'd judge themselves hypocrites if they killed people in order to perpetuate life. Whether this inhibition betrays the limits of a "human rights" approach to progress is still unclear. For what it's worth, the conservative "natural rights" ideology, often more resistant to state power for reasons of its own, doesn't seem to share the liberal abhorrence of capital punishment, perhaps because it's usually coupled with a "personal responsibility" mentality that recognizes suffering as just deserts and a belief that the source of natural rights has also mandated death for a range of offenses. To the liberal, all that means that the other side doesn't value human life the way it should, but could that mean that the liberal values human life too much? The liberal may imagine valuing something so much more than his own life that he'd sacrifice his life for it, but is it possible -- could it be necessary -- for him to value something, and not just the life of a loved one, so much that he could sacrifice someone else's life for it? I don't have an answer for myself, but the certainty I once had that there was no point to such a question, no need to ask it, is not what it used to be.

14 March 2018

A snapshot referendum on Trump

If the Democratic candidate's very narrow victory in yesterday's special congressional election in Pennsylvania holds up after all the absentee ballots are counted, then to the extent that any vote for a House seat this year is a referendum on the President, Donald Trump may have only himself to blame for the verdict. With the margin so close -- less than 1,000 votes -- you have a right to wonder whether Trump's removal of Secretary of State Tillerson yesterday morning influenced any last-minute deciders. While I've seen some Trump apologists defend the seemingly constant White House upheaval as simply the sort of decisive management Trump was elected to practice, how many more people saw it as one proof too many, for that particular day, of presidential instability and a dangerously erratic foreign policy? By no means do I claim that Tillerson's dismissal was a "jump the shark" moment that seals Trump's fate for 2020 or the GOP majority's fate this November. People's attention spans are too short and too much can happen over the next months or years to make any such claim a safe one. All I'm suggesting is that if Trump sacked Tillerson today, or last weekend, or at any time when it wouldn't be the top news story as Pennsylvanians went to the polls, he might have one less opponent in Congress this spring. If I'm right about this, however, this election really should worry Republicans, since it appears to show that Donald Trump lacks that attribute his admirers would most likely ascribe to him: common sense.

13 March 2018

Moral Hazard

Here's an analysis of Anglo-American conservatism from an explicitly hedonist perspective, from William Davies in the current London Review of Books:

Since the 1960s, conservatism has been defined partly by a greater willingness to inflict harm, especially in the English-speaking world. The logic is that the augmentation of the postwar welfare state by the moral pluralism of the 196ps produced an acute problem of 'moral hazard', whereby benign policies ended up being taken for granted and abused. Once people believe things can be had for free and take pleasure in abundance, there is a risk of idleness and hedonism....As the theory behind had it, government services shrink everybody's incentives to produce, compete and invest. They reduce the motivation for businesses to deliver services, and ordinary people's desire to work. Toughness, even pain, performs an important function in pushing people to come up with solutions.

Davies writes in an attempt to deduce the motives of Tories who support the "Brexit" despite forecasts of disastrous consequences for the British economy. He speculates that they hope to motivate Britons into greater self-denying productivity through the austerity that the Brexit may impose. He bases his suspicion on a belief that "The productiveness of pain is a central conservative belief, whose expression might be economic, but whose logic is deeply moralistic." According to this logic, "Only pain forces people to adapt or innovate."

A conservative might agree with the gist of Davies' analysis but not the terms, since they certainly don't define themselves by a desire, principled or otherwise, to inflict harm or pain. They are more likely to believe that pain and adversity are constants in life and history to which people must accustom themselves in order to adapt more readily. In their analysis, if I understand them correctly, the real danger of a hedonist welfare state is that it leaves dependents unprepared to adapt constructively to adversity. Davies may not see himself as a hedonist, but his analysis is ideologically hedonist in its attribution of pain, in these cases at least, to the will of selfish or dogmatic men. The pain he describes is something preventable through political action,in keeping with the hedonist faith that pain, if not all adversity, can eventually be minimized or abolished that way. Beyond that, he clearly questions both the need and the right's right to impose "painful" tests of character on citizens. Anyone's motives can be questioned, of course, and to question hedonist premises is not to affirm conservative premises. But whatever the motives of conservatives, however selfish and domineering they may be, we might still question whether the last fifty years have prepared us to deal adequately with adversities that appear increasingly inevitable instead of finding people to blame for them, as both left and right too often prefer to do.

12 March 2018

Selective denunciation

Somehow Louis Farrakhan got back into the news, though it probably was inevitable that whites tired of the presumption of their bigotry would use a black bigot to score rhetorical points. The point this time is that an organizer of last year's women's marches protesting the Trump inauguration was seen at a recent Founder's Day event at which Farrakhan went on about the Jews again. Pressured to condemn Farrakhan, Tamiya Mallory affirmed her own opposition to antisemitism but refused to dissociate herself from Farrakhan or the Nation of Islam, citing the good works they do in the black community and the need to build as large and diverse a coalition as necessary against Trump. That won't do, of course,for the "double standards" crowd for whom Farrakhan's idiocies evenly balance out the whole history of American negrophobia. Nor, I suspect, does it satisfy many liberals whose calculations of moral equivalence are more sophisticated yet still find all manifestations of hate equally unacceptable. It's easy to condemn Farrakhan and the Nation's quasi-Islam for the crackpottery it has always been, but I can't help wondering whether those liberals demanding that black activists purge themselves of any antipathy toward other groups of people are the same liberals warning the anti-Trump opposition not to challenge the presumed prejudices of white people so aggressively, lest they refuse to vote Democrat due to hurt feelings. I'd really like to know whether the people who don't want the opposition talking so much about racism, sexism, homophobia, nativism, etc., also think that for the sake of the big tent we shouldn't blow a gasket over black anti-semitism. Which would be more consistent? To ignore all prejudices and resentments in the interest of class solidarity or ideological priority, or to always follow the path that offends whites the least? How many will say the former but mean the latter? Speaking for myself, I'd love to go on about the revanchist stupidity of the NOI mythos, but I  consider the prejudices and supremacist fantasies of every other demographic group fair game as well, so if I'm told not to talk about the bigotries of the racial plurality but to have at the Jew-hating black man, I wouldn't necessarily blame anyone who thinks that isn't a fair game.

07 March 2018

"An election is not about self-expression"

Food for thought fom a fall 2017 exchange between New Yorker editor David Remick and Mark Lilla,a liberal academic recently controversial for his critique of identity politics:

Remnick: Unless I misread your book, you seem to say that, in the interest of winning -- and politics is about power, ultimately --  the Democratic side ought to think about abandoning certain issues, certain kinds of rhetoric, in order to win. But abandoning certain things like full-throated opposition to bathroom bills will mean that certain people -- transgender people, some of the most vulnerable people in our society -- will get hurt. How does a party go about sacrificing people on the altar of the general good?

Lilla: Well, my main point is this, and I want to get this across: we cannot do anything for these groups we care about if we do not hold power. It is just talk. Therefore, our rhetoric in campaigning must be focused on winning, so then we can help these people. An election is not about self-expression. It's not a time to display everything we believe about everything. It's a contest. And once you hold power, then you can do the things you want to do.

05 March 2018

Democratic protectionism

President Trump has abandoned current Republican orthodoxy in favor of GOP traditionalism in his protectionist trade policy. He does so with the support of a fair number of Democrats, in a deviation from their own ancient tradition.  For most of U.S. history the Democracy was a free-trade party on the zero-sum assumption that tariffs burdened all Americans for the benefit of only a few. Their position reflected the interests of their early constituents: southern planters who imported finished goods and feared that tariffs would harm their personal balance of trade, and coastal workers who handled imported goods and feared that tariffs would reduce their workloads and finally put them out of work. The party's position didn't really change until the 1960s, when its Rust Belt base began to feel threatened by imports from  Europe and Japan. The change was never complete, however, and was vigorously resisted by neoliberals who saw trade agreements rather than tariffs as the key to full employment. Despite the neoliberals' dominance since the 1990s, a populist streak -- in this context a belief that American consumers, or at least the U.S. government, owe solidarity to American workers -- has persisted with a vehemence that resists even a Democrat's instinctive antipathy toward Donald Trump.  If this doesn't seem as drastic a reversal as the Republican shift from protectionism to free trade, that's probably because the Democrats' old free-trade position never was as ideological as the Republicans' current position. In the old days, Democrats didn't oppose protectionism because they thought the Market knew best, but because they thought tariffs unfair to most Americans. Protectionist Democrats today believe that globalization is unfair to most Americans, and they assume that Republican free traders care more for the sacred Market than they do for their fellow citizens. Democrats still have a profoundly different notion of the national interest from Donald Trump's, but just as they can concede that a broken clock is right twice a day, some of them see that on trade their notions and his intersect. Whether that will inspire any further search for common ground remains to be seen.

01 March 2018

Man of steel

For much of American history, Republicans were the protectionist party of high tariffs while Democrats, representing those whose businesses and jobs depended on imports, espoused free trade. In 2018 it looks like Republicans will take the lead in opposing tariffs on imported aluminum and steel proposed by a Republican president. While Senator Rubio was howlingly wrong some time back when  he said that the GOP had always been a free trade party, he was true to recent trends in the party. Republicans represent salesmen rather than producers these day, and the salesmen complain that the tariffs will make many products more expensive and difficult to sell. That is just about the gravest sin imaginable to the Republicans' consumerist ideology, according to which consumer choice trumps (pun intended) every other concern. Accordingly, many observers scoff at the national-security justification for the tariffs offered by the Trump administration, arguing that defense industries' dependence on imported steel should be no cause for concern in a world crisis, since we get most of our steel from friendly nations. This blithe dismissal seems to overlook the possibility of hostile nations interdicting trade, for one thing, but in any event, to the extent that there already has been a trade war of sorts over steel, the free traders appear satisfied that America has lost and that revanchism is futile. Among the more libertarian critics a fatalistic attitude prevails according to which Americans should concentrate on making and exporting the stuff we don't need government action to help sell, regardless of whether there might be an objective national benefit to self-sufficiency in any field of production. The predictable cost-benefit analyses that see tariffs benefiting few while burdening many more simply don't allow for considerations of national interest, failing to acknowledge that a nation and the Market are two different things. While no one should take it for granted that the Trump tariffs will benefit the nation -- they probably won't accomplish much without simultaneous government support for increased domestic production --  too many people are reacting to them as if the debate was over before it even began, because tariffs are always bad.  Because trade policy has for so long been determined by ideology, it's hard to know where to find an objective opinion. You probably won't find one in the op-ed columns or from businesspeople with too intimate a stake in the game, but I wonder what Lin-Manuel Miranda thinks....

The insult of leadership

The announcement from China that the Communist government intends to abolish term limits from the nation's highest offices inevitably provoked warnings that current top man Xi Jinping was now determined to rule for life. That "Xi Jinping" thought was to be incorporated into the Chinese constitution provoked warnings against a Mao-style personality cult. Chinese media went on the defensive, taking their usual line that western liberal values do not provide a universal basis for condemning the latest refinements of the "people's democratic dictatorship," and that it bordered on bigotry to describe modern China as a tyranny. Their contention that western democracies, increasingly mired in factionalism, didn't necessarily serve the common good as well as the Chinese system might strike closer to home were it circulated more widely here. Nevertheless, to say that some cultures are better served by dictatorship than liberal democracy will always be a hard sell in the U.S. especially. How can culture make it okay for a leader to forbid you from  saying he's wrong? While the Chinese may deny that that's how their dictatorship works, they might more honestly question the apparently unconditional prerogative westerners claim to denounce their leaders whenever they disagree. A Chinese might ask whether the dissident really has the common good in mind, but in the west that suspicion falls on the leader instead.

Liberalism has no place for philosopher kings. It cannot accept the possibility of anyone having such a perfectly objective, disinterested idea of the common good that no one would have good reason to challenge him. Because modern liberalism accepts the premise of multiple goods that aren't necessarily compatible, it distrusts any pretense to objectivity that appears to disqualify other options. Liberalism as it exists now is an ad hominem political philosophy that assumes that every possible leader will be "in it for himself" to enough of a degree to disqualify any claim he might make to indisputable objectivity. The leader or would-be leader may be out to enrich himself, or he may have a lust for power that is an end unto itself for him. That's how we think of people like Mao Zedong and that's why we worry about Xi Jinping -- or Donald Trump.

To be fair to the Chinese, I don't know whether they actually claim that Xi or the Communist Party possess the sort of unimpeachable objectivity that liberalism denies. Xi himself is probably too concerned with battling endemic corruption within the party to believe that even of himself, and the Chinese seem to prefer to argue that since all political systems, including liberal democracy, are vulnerable to abuse of power, communism's concentration and monopolization of power is in itself not tyrannical. Nevertheless, China makes a greater appeal to faith in leadership than the west does, despite the acknowledged cautionary tales of Mao's later years. That may be because they're more honest about the necessity of wielding power than western liberals who still hope that civil society can get on without it. The Chinese most likely think it wiser to accept the risk of abuse of power than to run the risk of making government powerless. Much of the west isn't ready to agree with that yet, still convinced that tyranny is worse than anarchy. If that changes in this century, it won't be because of any Chinese or generic "authoritarian" example. It will more likely be because of the negative examples in our own experience.

26 February 2018

An authoritarian fantasy?

For the second week in a row the most popular movie in the land is Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, the latest expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe of superhero films. The film has been lauded in many places, and sneered at in others, for its presentation of an African utopia in the form of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced nation on Marvel Earth, and its larger questioning of the obligation of the rich and powerful to intervene against injustice outside their borders. The more I think of it, the less some aspects of the film make sense. To preserve its independence, Wakanda keeps its advanced culture, all dependent on the miracle element vibranium, secret from the outside world, and it refuses to intervene in world affairs. According to the film's backstory, this starts to change only in the 1990s, when a Wakandan spy stationed in Oakland CA is radicalized by police brutality against black Americans. In other words, since we're told that Wakanda has had spies everywhere for centuries, when Wakandan spies presumably saw plantation slavery develop in the American colonies centuries earlier,  they were not radicalized. When European imperialists overran Africa during the 19th century, they were not radicalized. When they saw the strange fruit of lynch law in the Jim Crow south, Wakandans did nothing. But Rodney King, presumably, finally was more than one Wakandan could stand. That seems a bit like tunnel vision, according to which police brutality is the worst thing ever to happen to black people, to judge by Wakanda's still-slow response, because that's what's happening to black people today.  It's unlikely that Coogler or his co-writer thought seriously about how this might looks to anyone with a sense of history, just as, while writing a comic book movie, they most likely didn't think of the implicit politics of their Afro-futurist utopia.

Wakanda, as most Americans know by now, is a monarchy, "Black Panther" being one of the ruler's titles. The ruler consults with the elders of the nation's constituent tribes, but the film gives no indication that ordinary Wakandans have any voice in their government. We see no legislature or prime minister, and for that matter we see no news media commenting on the recent transition of power, which involved a trial by combat at a sacred waterfall. One might answer that Wakanda is as much a fantasy land as Asgard, to restrict ourselves to the Marvel universe, and no one expects to see representative government in the latter place. Yet it is strange that at a time when the American media and the liberal culture in general appears hypersensitive to any manifestation of authoritarianism, there's little questioning of how relevant the monarchic principle is to the Wakandan utopia and pop culture's celebration of it. Is there a longing for Wakanda that is also a longing for kingship? Does the movie's uncritical attitude toward monarchy reflect a black (if not a wider) dissatisfaction with a democracy that succumbs too easily to majoritarian prejudice for the comfort of any minority?   Something like that is there, I think, but we probably shouldn't overestimate it. To begin with, the superhero fantasy in general has a problematic relationship with the idea of the rule of law, which is why Christopher Nolan's Batman films were dubbed "fascist" by some who took them too seriously, so there's nothing necessarily essentially racial about Black Panther's inferred authoritarianism. Secondly, Wakanda's monarchy and its adherence to sometimes barbaric traditions can be seen simply as ways to establish its fantastical otherness. For the purposes of genre fiction, to be a Wakandan can't be the same as being the archetypal self-defining individual of liberal culture, or else what's the point of Wakanda? That's the ultimate question: is there a point to Wakanda apart from having a film full of black people that will be seen mostly by whites because to them it's a superhero movie first and foremost? The fact that pop culture has made such a big deal about it suggests that there are more points than that, and if our culture teaches us anything, it's that anyone today can find or make a point about anything. Time will tell how sharp any point becomes and whether any of us prick our thin and sensitive skins on it.

23 February 2018

'The NRA must die'

When I wrote yesterday that the National Rifle Association could be accused of stockpiling weapons for a mass murder of American liberals, I meant that as a morally equivalent response to Wayne LaPierre's hysterical raving about an elite conspiracy on the part of gun-control advocates to take away all individual freedoms. If he can say that, I argued, the other side has just as much right and just as much justification to say what I suggested. I seem to have underestimated the extent to which some on the left actually believe something like this.  In the current issue of the local alternative weekly, cleverly titled The Alt,  editor David Howard King goes full LaPierre. "It is time to call the National Rifle Association what it truly is," he writes, "The NRA is a terrorist organization that radicalizes, enables and protects the rights of white nationalists in an ongoing campaign to boost the sale of deadly weapons." Identifying last week's Florida amoklaufer as an "alt-right Trump-supporting shooter," King contends that "The NRA and its myth [that gun ownership is essential to freedom] have turned America into a war zone." Without a single quote to support the charge, King claims that the NRA is "promoting the picture of a world where a gun is the only thing that stands between a white man and 'the savages.'" On this issue's cover, he pronounces, "For Americans to live, the NRA must die." Unsurprisingly, he offers no advice on how to kill the gun lobby beyond voting only for explicitly anti-NRA candidates. How they are to kill the NRA is apparently for them to figure out. Shall it  be declared a terrorist organization, making its members unlawful combatants? Shall it be prosecuted somehow under the RICO laws? Shall we close our eyes and ears and shout, "Go away, go away, go away!" until they disappear? King proves quite unhelpful on this point, but is he not but a voice crying in the wilderness, waiting for that greater one who can cast out the nation's demons? I say let him and LaPierre have a debate. It would be a true contest of equals.

22 February 2018

The gun lobby from another planet

It must be frustrating to be publicly known as a member of the National Rifle Association. You're likely to be vilified as a bloodthirsty reactionary even before you're pressured to answer for the comments of your president, Wayne LaPierre. On the defensive since last week's amoklauf in Florida, LaPierre is railing against an allegedly totalitarian "elite" whose goal is "to eliminate the Second Amendment and our firearms freedoms so they can eradicate all individual freedoms." With a psychopathic idiot like that as your spokesman, people probably feel justified in claiming that the NRA is stockpiling weapons for a mass slaughter of liberals and progressives, when you, ordinary Joe Cardcarrier, just want to be able to defend yourself. When people rail against guns or the idea of arming teachers or hiring school guards, you probably wonder: do they really want to be helpless? The answer is that they don't see themselves as helpless without guns because they think all power comes, contra Chairman Mao, not from  the barrel of a gun but from the will of the people. They believe that they can enact the evils of the world out of existence, because isn't that what democracy means? Moreover, they absolutely do not want to kill, don't want to imagine a circumstance in which they'd have to kill -- you, on the other hand, imagine that too easily -- and most likely would deny that anyone ever deserves death for anything, especially not at the hair-trigger hands of a private citizens. Deny their premises by appealing to reality, as you see it, and you're guilty of perpetuating an eternal cycle of violence, revenge, hatred and fear. You can't say, if that's how you think, that that's how the world is without them telling you that the world is that way only because you want it so. You probably feel justified in thinking that the kingdom of these naive fanatics is not of this world -- and you'd probably be right so long as they say another world is possible without ever willing the means -- so long as the one thing they don't understand is force. The funny thing about this, though you might not laugh, is that you probably call yourself a Christian, and you probably think they're not. But that's not what it looks like from here. Of course, I'm not a Christian, so what do I know -- and if you're not a Christian, either, pat yourself on the back. Whatever else you are, you're not a hypocrite.

Update: We've only learned today that there was an armed police officer detailed to the school and on the premises as the amoklauf began. He did nothing, waiting outside the building as the shooting went on for four crucial minutes, even though he was, presumably, trained to deal with such a situation. So much for a good guy with a gun, one might think, but no doubt the NRA will say this only proves that we need better guys with guns. They have to be out there somewhere, don't they?...