20 October 2018

The Khashoggi Mystery

According to the Saudi government, dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed after getting into a fight at the Saudi consulate at Istanbul. Their story is meant to end suspicion that Khashoggi's death was the result of a deliberate attack condoned if not ordered by the power behind the throne. The distinction won't mean much to liberal observers worldwide, who even if they believe the official story will still see the affair as of a piece with authoritarian efforts to silence dissent outside their borders. The Saudi hope is that their story will suffice to mollify the Turkish and U.S. governments. The Turks raised the initial stink, resenting that it was done on their soil, even though a consulate is technically Saudi property, and presumably sympathizing with the dead journalist as a democratic Islamist of the Muslim Brotherhood sort. On the American side, President Trump has been under pressure to chastise the Saudis,in part because Khashoggi can be seen as an American journalist, having written recently for the Washington Post. He's more concerned with finalizing the latest arms sale and no doubt cares little for a journalist who was another country's problem. In recent days the Post has reported a posthumous smear campaign against Khashoggi, the argument being that the victim was unworthy of American sympathy because of his presumed ideological leanings. One of their own columnists, Cal Thomas, split the difference by denouncing both Khashoggi and the Saudis while whining about being labeled an Islamophobe. My own view is that so long as Americans remain free in this country  to denounce tyranny and violence against freedom of speech anywhere, the U.S. government should not make radical changes in diplomacy based on the fate of one person. While doing otherwise appeals to the moral sense of many people, it isn't wise in a practical utilitarian sense. It's deplorable when foreign governments take action to silence dissidents in exile, but 'twas ever thus and will be unless something like the sort of "world government" that Americans themselves fear can effectively enforce the rights of exiles. We still need to resist the hysterical narrative, endorsed by neocons and liberal Democrats alike, that every such incident as Khashoggi's killing is an advance for authoritarianism in its spread across the globe. If you must be outraged against a foreign  government, why not bother the Chinese, who reportedly are jailing relatives of naturalized American citizens in an effort to intimidate them into silence about the mass internment of Uighurs in re-education camps? The reason why not, I suspect, is that Americans doubt their ability to influence China, despite the President's efforts to change their trade policy, while there persists a sense of Saudi dependence on American power, as well as a hate for Islam greater than any antipathy toward China. But if you're looking for a threat to American freedom in foreign lands, it's not clear that critics of Saudi Arabia are looking in the right direction.

18 October 2018

The "White Civil War"

White people are to blame for extremism at both ends of the American political spectrum, David Brooks has learned. He learned it from a recent survey that purports to describe the nation's "Hidden Tribes." These tribes are defined along ideological lines, and at the extremes are found the "richest" and "whitest" of seven groups. At one extreme are the "Devoted Conservatives," nativist, Islamophobic, dismissive toward charges of sexual harassment and interested less in creativity than in good behavior. Their opposite numbers are the "Progressive Activists," to whom Brooks attributes an anarchic "darkened Rousseauian" worldview that idealizes human nature while blaming the bad things in life on hierarchical social structures. Both groups are characterized by "cult conformity" on their issues of interest, while all the groups in the middle, who go undescribed by Brooks, are more flexible in their thinking. This typology appeals to Brooks because it seems to refute the popular notion that "populism" drives our current political conflicts. Instead, the Hidden Tribes thesis suggests that ideas still drive conflict.

It seems unconvincing, or else Brooks makes a poor case for it, but the one thing that rings slightly true is its attention to what might be called alienated or non-conformist whites as a crucial part of an anti-Trump constituency that might otherwise be thought of as a coalition of minorities based on identity politics. These whites abhor identity politics, at least as practiced by other whites, because they reject the idea that whiteness imposes any particular cultural, spiritual or ideological obligations on them. They despise the perceived cultural populism of the Trump movement or the alt-right precisely because they are non-conformists for whom the appeal to cultural solidarity is a demand to conformity diametrically opposed to their own quests for self-definition. There probably is an elitist element to this, as Brooks suggests, to the extent that these people stereotype the opposition, contrary to the Hidden Tribes survey's finding, as white trash. But where are the "trash" in the nation of Hidden Tribes? Brooks implies that they're part of an "Exhausted Majority" that has no ideology of its own but isopen to persuasion. Trump won these people over with a more persuasive "threat narrative" than that peddled by Hillary Clinton, but Brooks believes they can be won away from Trump by a narrative of "gifts" that focuses on "the assets we have and how we can use them together." I don't know. Regardless of any survey, it seems obvious that most Americans need to see a threat or an oppressor crushed before they'll be ready to share their assets and work together, and it seems naive to think, as Brooks seems to, that there is no threat to the Republic other than those who see threats. He may think that the real threat will be over when both extremes lose, but they may be no more than blind men arguing over the attributes of an elephant that will remain  in the room after they're gone.

14 October 2018

Democracy Wall

Inside a bus shelter in front of the state capitol in Albany. The advertiser is reminding people of the recent Supreme Court decision making union dues no longer mandatory on all workers. Union sympathizers offer their own contributions.


09 October 2018

Is a spectre haunting the U.S.?

Long ago, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote that the "spectre of communism" was haunting Europe. Today, op-ed writer James Rothenberg writes that "Small signs of nervousness have begun to appear now that many of our citizens are able to mouth the word 'socialism' and not get sick to their stomachs." Rothenberg argues that this is capitalism's own fault, due to its perceived failures, but he also acknowledges that socialism is still "far off in the distance." That's because capitalists write the rules of law and politics, he claims, so that the working class accepts its subordination complacently in the name of  "respect for the law."At the same time, Rothenberg can't avoid the fact that socialism still has a bad name by association with twentieth-century tyrannies. He writes those off by arguing that if it isn't democratic, it isn't socialist. Since the U.S. is democratic, he argues that socialism should succeed here without the tyranny seen elsewhere. That depends on why socialistic tyranny exists. In many cases it's because socialism or communism is imposed by armed revolutionaries who think it necessary to impose revolutionary discipline on the whole population. But it might be argued that all socialists will resort to violence to cover up socialism's supposedly inevitable economic failures, blaming them on scapegoats who can be treated as "enemies of the people" rather than admitting any error. As a socialist, Rothenberg seems to take for granted that socialism will work and so doesn't address this possibility. To the extent that Americans already identify a socialist revival, fairly or not, with the excesses of antifa, socialists will need to come up with a more convincing refutation of the "tyranny" libel. It shouldn't really be that hard to argue that the mistakes of individual socialists shouldn't discredit socialism in general, but the best way to do that would be for socialists in power to admit error personally and admit that socialist policy isn't immune to error. You see the problem. The right kind of socialists have to win power somehow, and they have to admit from the start that they may not be able to solve all problems or get everything right the first time. Decide for yourselves which is the more likely event.

05 October 2018

It takes two...

Thomas L. Friedman worries that the U.S. is spiritually closer to civil war today than at any time since the actual Civil War ended. While admitting that this hasn't been the most violent time domestically since then as far as politics is concerned, he's troubled by the increased, unprecedented tribalism of American politics, which he, following the political scientist  Norman Ornstein,  defines less as identity politics than as an uncompromising "rule or die" sentiment. Friedman appears to agree with Ornstein that Republicans are primarily to blame, going back to Newt Gingrich's ascendancy. That doesn't sound right, somehow. Republicans had been denouncing liberal Democratic policies as dangerously un-American long before Gingrich came along, and to focus on the 1990s is really to deplore the new ability of Fox News and radio talkers like Rush Limbaugh to amplify that familiar message. But while Friedman resists what he calls a temptation to blame both parties, we wouldn't be where he sees us at if not for a hardening of attitudes on the left. If Republicans since the Cold War increasingly have treated Democrats as surrogates for their ideal Communist enemy, Democrats have found Republican rule increasingly unacceptable and even illegitimate. Republicans may have provided the original provocations, but Democrats arguably take the "rule or die" attitude to a greater extreme than Republicans, since it's their belief, infuriatingly rejected by Republicans, that politics is primarily a means for keeping people alive. Democrats seem more likely than Republicans to believe that government policies literally can condemn people to death, or to take the "tribal" viewpoint that taking power means "It's our turn to eat." If things seem worse now than in Gingrich's time, it's because Democrats, increasingly inclined to attribute conservative politics entirely to bigotry, are starting to abandon that acquiescence in defeat that's actually a necessary attribute of liberalism as a political system. The liberal order remained stable so long as acquiescence in defeat remained the norm, but now that neither party seems interested in acquiescence Friedman senses danger. He wants us all to step back to a point when compromise wasn't seen as a sin, but that will require both sides to concede that they can't have everything they want at a time when it's unclear that either side can do so -- not when your liberty, your identity or your very life seems to ride on the outcome of each election. If anything, we may all need to take politics less seriously. You'd think having someone like Donald Trump in the White House would make that easy, but reality shows us that the problem Friedman perceives is bigger than he admits.

04 October 2018

Dignity without Honor?

In a recent book philosophy professor Tamler Sommers attempt to explain Why Honor Matters, or at least why he thinks it should matter more than it seems to in the modern U.S.  In this country, he argues, honor has been sacrificed to the idea of dignity. Honor differs from dignity, according to Sommers' definitions, in its essential dependence upon other people's opinions. Dignity is non-negotiable by comparison; it is a presumption of inherent worth independent of personal opinions. It does not need to be proved to anyone, but in practice must be upheld by the authority of the state. It is claimed by those who demand to be accepted as they are. For Sommers, a preoccupation with dignity leads to an atomized and cowardly society in which people call a cop, so to speak, instead of standing up for themselves or for what is right. In more honorable societies, the more strongly felt need to earn the respect of others inspires heroic or simply more civic-minded action. Sommers is all too aware that modern culture equates honor with violence, but argues that "honor groups" often limit the scope of violence through codes of conduct, and that a modest amount of violence (certainly non-lethal) sometimes is an appropriate response to bullying or deeper forms of oppression. We would all respect each other more than we seem to now, he suggests, if we all understood that we were all willing to stand up for ourselves and what we believe in, even at risk to ourselves. In one extreme moment, Sommers remarks that people value their own lives too much these days, but since he isn't really concerned with honor's expression in war he doesn't really follow up that provocation.

Sommers is also well aware that honor is seen as a conservative value. He makes a point of distancing himself from many conservative positions and makes a special point of saying that white nationalism is not the stuff of which honor is made. He claims that appeals to honor could bolster some liberal or progressive positions, though some of his examples, e.g. claiming that a refusal to accept refugees is cowardly, sound merely sophisticated rather than honorable. He can't help conceding that honor has a populist if not nativist tendency due to its basis in group identification compared to dignity's basis in abstract or generic humanity. When decentralization is advisable, when localism is preferable to appeals to impersonal central authority, that sort of honor can be helpful. But for all that he criticizes the preoccupation with dignity at honor's expense, his own commitment to an essentially irreducible idea of individual human dignity is apparent in his recommendations for "containing" honor and preventing such excesses as "honor killings." He's really arguing for some moderate golden mean between extroverted, aggressive honor and introverted, passive-seeming dignity, but "honor" and "dignity" may be terms too dramatic to address the problems Sommers perceives.

That we should all be accountable to each other isn't necessarily a matter of honor or dignity, but it is a matter of democracy. A mere opposition of words doesn't tell us much about how American democracy has declined to the point where many people feel that they don't have to listen to people with different views, and where even more people hear "You're wrong" as an expression of hate. The worst flaw of Why Honor Matters is its lack of much sense of history, its failure to explain the shift from honor to immoderate dignity in any substantial way. Without that, whatever valid points Sommers has are lost in mere wordplay. Before he can hope to persuade people to trade some dignity for more honor, he needs to show that he understands why people rejected honor for dignity in the first place. Doing so may be outside the scope of his project, but that only means that this would-be philosopher has more work to do.

03 October 2018

Patriotism vs Liberty

Listening to the President's UN speech last week, Jonah Goldberg was less disturbed by Trump's laughable boasting than by his assertion of a "doctrine of patriotism" at odds with Goldberg's own "doctrine of liberty." Trump himself opposed patriotism to an "ideology of globalism," but Goldberg sees Trump's patriotism as a sort of individualism of nations while warning readers that individualism can mean profoundly different things depending on the beliefs or interests of individuals. Even liberals are individualists, this conservative observes while insinuating that liberal or progressive individualism doesn't quite jibe with conservative ideals of individual liberty. Trump's invocation of a doctrine of patriotism at the world body was grounded on an assertion of each nation's cultural uniqueness. That sounds unproblematic, except insofar as it implies that each nation really has a single, commanding culture that can compel conformity, but Goldberg worries that Trump may excuse other nations' offenses against liberty as expressions of distinct cultures that neither he nor we have the right to judge. He must have missed the part where Trump condemned communism, but Goldberg is clearly worried less about Marxism as such than about the threat of nationalist strongmen, regardless of ideology, with whom Trump seeks strong personal relationships.

Toning down his neoconservatism, Goldberg concedes that free nations have neither the obligation nor, implicitly, the right to "crush [barbaric] customs at gunpoint," but insists on their moral obligation to "bear witness to evil" in such places as the UN. He believes that "countries such as North Korea, China, Rusia" and even Iran, which Trump condemned in no uncertain terms, we're "Happy to hear the leader of the free world champion the 'doctrine of patriotism' instead of the doctrine of liberty." That reads as if Goldberg, not hearing what he wanted to hear, didn't hear what actually was said. It's remarkable how many people haven't gotten their heads around the idea that Trump refuses to treat any nation, except maybe for Iran, as an existential enemy or, with the likely exception of Israel, as an unconditional friend on the basis of ideology.  They miss the ways in which Trump has, if anything, intensified our rivalry with Russia, because he doesn't talk about Putin the way they want. His approach certainly isn't guaranteed to strengthen our position in the world or, as seems to be his primary goal, bolster the American economy, but it's hard to take Goldberg and other critics of his foreign policy or his alleged doctrines seriously when they can't even describe it in any way that resembles reality.

25 September 2018

Didn't expect that reaction

Has any nation's leader been as blatantly mocked by the United Nations General Assembly as President Trump was today? I know of no similar case. The diplomats responded with laughter when Trump boasted, in typical style, that he had "accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country. He based this claim, after the laughter, on the stock market and a low unemployment rate, emphasizing allegedly historic low rates for racial minorities. Of course, the same skepticism shown toward the Obama recovery, in terms of the quality and stability of jobs, applies equally, if not more so, to the Trump recovery, but in any event the President was there to talk foreign policy and, to his credit, and probably unlike his worshipers who will see the laughter as further reason to despise the UN, he seemed to take the mild heckling in stride. Nevertheless, it belies any claim Trump wants to make about the U.S. being more respected abroad than in Obama's time.

As for foreign policy, the really interesting thing about his speech was his implicit attack on the idea of economic spheres of influence. He sees "reliance on a single foreign supplier" as one of the "new forms of coercion and domination" that can "leave a nation vulnerable to extortion and intimidation." However friendly he might be toward Vladimir Putin, Trump clearly intends to compete with Russia economically even in Russia's "near abroad." He applauded Poland, which also got a shout-out, along with India, Israel and Saudi Arabia, later in the speech, for its role in a Baltic pipeline intended to free eastern Europe from energy dependence on Russia. Those who've been paying attention knew already that Trump was committed to aggressive economic competition with Russia. He made it more clear today that he wants the U.S. to compete as well with OPEC, which he accuses, his friendliness toward the Saudis notwithstanding, of "as usual, ripping off the rest of the world" but particular the U.S. that "defend[s] many of these nations for nothing." That sounds undiplomatic when, if anything, OPEC, or at least the Saudis, depresses prices to beggar Iran and Russia, but Trump is more salesman than diplomat here, as always after a better deal. The exception to this dealsmanship remains Iran, the one evil nation, other than perhaps Venezuela,  in the Trump demonology. His demands for Iran's further isolation will most likely go unheeded for reasons he can't really criticize. Trump's anti-globalist attitude affirms every nation's right to pursue or further it's own interests, and so long as Iran troubles the U.S. other nations with actual or potential beefs with the U.S. will find it in their interest to cultivate Iran's ability to make trouble. Why should they care if Iran threatens Israel or curses America or subsidizes Syria if none of that harms their interests? Until Trump can answer that question in a plausible way, the world may well keep laughing at him behind his back. To put it another way, Trump is unlikely to make progress with Iran, if any is possible, until he abandons the exceptional moralizing tone, reminiscent of neoconservatism, that he usually takes toward the Islamic Republic and  finds a more Trumpian way to deal with them and their friends.

21 September 2018

The Kavanaugh nomination: nobody wins

The timing is too dramatic, the charge too resonant with today's craze for me to believe Christine Blaney Ford's charge against Brett Kavanaugh. Something probably did happen between the two long ago, but only now would anyone think that whatever happened disqualifies Kavanaugh from public life, and only now that Kavanaugh stands at the brink of confirmation as the next associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court does Ford take the one action that might stop him. I could go on about the alleged excesses of the #MeToo movement that has weaponized grievances like Ford's, but on this occasion my only thought is that the Republican party, and Republican senators in particular, deserve whatever they get in this process.  They thwarted the nomination of Merrick Garland by legal but profoundly unfairly means, so until it's shown that Ford or whoever recruited her has committed a crime all is fair in the effort to thwart Kavanaugh. For what it's worth, this isn't about Donald Trump, who most likely was here merely fulfilling his pact with the GOP to nominate ideologically sound judges. I don't think the President is looking for a personal loyalist or robed consigliere, since even he must understand that Kavanaugh will remain on the court long after Trump has left the scene. The Republican senators, inconvenienced by Justice Scalia's sudden death, decided in their partisan and ideological arrogance that they didn't even have to debate his replacement by the nominee of a Democratic President. Some may feel that the Democrats should be bigger than that, or that it's their responsibility to restore bipartisan comity by offering no unreasonable resistance to Kavanaugh. These premises can be debated rationally, but for now all I have to say is that none of the Republicans whining and crying over the latest twist in the story get any sympathy from me.

18 September 2018

Making the perfect the enemy of the great

In today's Albany Times Union a professor chides Governor Cuomo from backing down from his assertion, challenging President Trump's "Make America Great Again" nostalgia, that the nation was "never that great." In the professor's opinion, Cuomo was "condemned for speaking the truth." He proceeds to demonstrate, at least to his own satisfaction, the truth of the governor's original observation, presenting a litany of atrocities and insults directed at non-white or non-WASP people over the American centuries. Whatever we think of MAGAts,  I suspect that none of them will deny that any of the offenses cited in the op-ed actually took place, yet they would most likely still affirm that the U.S. was great while most of these things happened. The professor might assume that such a conclusion only proves their indifference to the oppression of minorities, but all it would show is that, for some Americans, greatness can be shown with a balance sheet on which inequality is outweighed by other factors, while for the professor, the governor and others, nothing imperfect can be great. Like Cuomo, the professor believes that the U.S. will only be indisputably great when, for starters and in the governor's words, "discrimination and stereotyping against women ... is gone." They appear to be guilty of the same fallacy that mainstream Democrats like Cuomo ascribe routinely to critics on their left: they're making the perfect the enemy of the good. Philosophically speaking, it may be arguable that equality is, or should be, the sole criterion of national greatness, but politicians aren't seeking votes from a nation of philosophers. Like people of all nations, most Americans find more obvious proof of greatness in wealth and military might, while Americans in particular will often cite our right to complain about everything as proof that people shouldn't complain about anything, much less dispute American greatness. Under such conditions, progressive politicians might take advice from Minister Louis Farrakhan, who defended his controversial claim that Adolf Hitler was a great man by amending his assessment to "wickedly great." If they can keep such qualifications in mind, and preferably to themselves, progressives may not get into self-destructive debates over semantics so often.

06 September 2018

Their hearts were hardened

The Los Angeles Times reported recently on an experiment that appeared to disprove the hopeful premise that Americans would become less vehemently partisan if we would only take time to listen to opposite points of view. For the experiment, conducted by the National Academy of Science, subjects of confirmed partisan views were paid to follow a Twitter bot that would retweet comments from the opposite party or ideology. At the end of the experiment, liberal subjects, taking a survey for the second time, had become "slightly more liberal" while conservatives had grown "substantially more" conservative. Those results should have surprised no one, but maybe it shouldn't surprise us that people who thought that the sort of listening some feel is needed could be done on social media were shocked by the results. Platforms like Twitter are not where people are going to seriously or sincerely consider other people's opinions. They're not where the sort of conversations we may well need are going to take place. They are places for people to vent their anger or flaunt their contempt for the opposition, so of course partisanship will harden if all you see from the opposite party is their hatred for you and all you stand for. A different venue is necessary for those hoped-for conversations in which people can demonstrate that disagreement is not the same as hate or show that saying you can't have everything you want isn't the same as wishing you dead. Whether such conversations are possible anywhere anymore is the looming question of our time.

04 September 2018

Department of Justice

Only someone like President Trump could make someone like Jeff Sessions a sympathetic figure. Whatever his own odious ideological or partisan agenda, Sessions can't help looking like a champion of the rule of law compared to the man who made him Attorney General and seemingly has used him as a punching bag ever since. Most recently, Trump has lambasted Sessions for allowing two Republican congressmen to be indicted during an election year, as if it were the Attorney General's job to prevent that. The President's persecution complex only spotlights his dubious assumption that the Department of Justice exists primarily to protect his own personal and partisan interests. On the assumption that Trump would only replace Sessions with someone who actually agrees with Trump's view, it may seem heroic of Sessions to stay on despite the constant humiliation and the more recent threat of a post-midterm sacking. But his persistence only reminds us of what many Republicans have seen all along as their bargain with the Trump movement. Despite the objections of many ideologues mainly concerned with the potential for mischief in the Executive Branch, more cynical Republicans, mindful of Trump's popularity among the yahoos, resolved to endure any executive idiocies of his so long as his popularity gave them cover to carry out their own reactionary agenda. Jeff Sessions is the embodiment of Republican shamelessness, yet his mere failure to comply with Trump's impossible demands may leave him looking like a man of principle on his inevitable exit and most likely guarantees him a big payday from some publisher. Only the dreaded Trump Derangement Syndrome could make Sessions seem like a martyr, but such are the diseased times we live in.

30 August 2018

The illusion of balance

The President thinks it unfair that a Google search of his name results in a preponderance of "bad" news about him and hints that search engines should be regulated to assure more balanced results. While he may think he's being targeted by the same old elite-media cabal, it was reported that a similar search for "Hillary Clinton" produced similarly "bad" results. Inevitably, Trump's complaint has caused alarm among civil libertarians and progressives, as it echoes generations of conservative demands for "balance"  that, as critics see it, have actually skewed political discourse. The critics think that conservatives have "worked the refs" by demanding a minimum of recognition for views that critics consider objectively unworthy of consideration. Such demands are inevitable in multiparty democracies, but are driven less by an objective commitment to representation for all sides of all questions than by demands for recognition of power. Conservatives want equal representation for their views not because they're simply the other side of important debates but because they're a mass political movement representing millions of people and billions in wealth. Were the demand for balance driven simply by solicitude for all sides of any question, than Marxists would be equally entitled to balanced coverage of economic issues, and white racists equally entitled to balanced coverage of cultural issues. No one would take their entitlement seriously, however, because they lack the conservatives' numbers -- but most would agree that they're not entitled because their views can be dismissed objectively without counting heads or dollars. The progressive argument now is that numbers do not entitle Trumpism to balanced representation in the media because it's self-evidently beyond the pale morally and intellectually. If there's an authoritarian  (or authoritarian democratic) aspect to Trumpism, however, it would include a claim that numbers and the raw fact that Trump won an election entitle him, in fact, to more than balanced coverage, just as the entire nation owes him some deference until the next election. Whether balance is Trumpists' true ideal, or anyone's, is open to debate, and that would be a debate where all sides would deserve to be heard.

26 August 2018

The shadow president

John McCain always looked good next to his major political antagonists, from George W. Bush to Donald Trump, perhaps especially in retrospect, but he never looked good enough to become President. Against Bush and later against Mitt Romney, McCain was the great opponent of money in politics. Against Barack Obama he was the voice of experience and the champion of American global leadership. Against Donald Trump, in a purely rhetorical struggle, he reiterated the nation's commitment to American-style democracy as a global good and spoke truth to foreign power when the President preferred not to. Against Trump's alleged bigotries stood the memory of McCain's great moment from the 2008 campaign when he rebuked one of his own supporters for calling Obama an "Arab." He and Romney may be looked on in retrospect as the last truly ideological Republicans, champions of a Cold War worldview before the GOP declined into a tribal party. Before Trump came along, McCain was distrusted by the populists who would embrace Trump. They distrusted McCain's neocon warmongering, uninterested in democratizing any other part of the world. More than any other group, including the anti-imperialist left, they perpetuated the legend of "Songbird" McCain, the willing collaborator with his North Vietnamese captors. By comparison, Trump's seeming contempt for a soldier who got captured was mere schoolyard taunting. But even if I see him as an ideological conservative, many more ideological conservatives hated McCain as well, mostly for his efforts to regulate campaign donations, which pundits like George Will saw as a self-interested incumbent's interference with the free market of political opinion. And even observers with no dogs in his intraparty feuds saw a sometimes unpleasant streak of self-righteousness in McCain, not to mention a contempt for Romney even more than for Obama, and a tendency  to see his own motives as more pure than those of other politicians. Even in comparison to Trump, whose flattery of authoritarians seems contemptible to many, McCain's relatively knee-jerk kicking at people like Vladimir Putin was not self-evidently the correct approach to foreign leaders. Now that he is gone, McCain will be honored as an anti-Trump, and perhaps remembered by some Republicans as an anti-Obama. His good qualities will be magnified in death, and if they were never enough to earn him the highest accolade in life, people may say that was the fault of the time, not the man. It seems unlikely, however, that the U.S. and the world today would have been much different had McCain beaten Bush and then Gore in 2000; his instincts in reaction to the September 2001 terror attacks were, if anything, more hair-trigger than Dubya's, and we might have invaded Iraq sooner rather than later, with all the same consequences if not more, with President McCain in charge. Of course, people are more likely to remember Dubya fondly when he goes, simply for not being Donald Trump. It doesn't take much nowadays for a politician from the past to be remembered fondly, but let's not begrudge anyone any fondness they feel toward McCain this weekend. The historians will have their turn in time.

22 August 2018

Will Trump take us back 100 years?

NFL football season is approaching and with it, in all likelihood, fresh controversy over the proper reception of the national anthem. New league rules are meant to discourage players from making a public show of their refusal to stand for the song, but some players have already made their dissident intentions clear during the pre-season, while the President continues to agitate for harsher measures against the recalcitrant. I wonder whether, for all his nostalgia, Donald Trump knows that there was a time when refusing to stand for the anthem was at least theoretically illegal. In 1918, during World War I, the Sedition Act of 1918 made it a federal crime to treat the flag in a disrespectful manner. For that reason, in August of that year the Bullis brothers of Amsterdam NY were brought before a federal court. Workers at the Watervliet Arsenal, they had refused to stand when the anthem was played at a theater in nearby Troy. They were nearly mobbed by an angry audience until they were marched to the nearest police station. While they had to face a federal commissioner, ultimately they were sentenced in a local court for disorderly conduct. It was clear, however, that the brothers, who lost their jobs before they were sentenced, could have been tried under the Sedition Act. That statute was repealed in 1920 but has never, to my knowledge, been found unconstitutional. It was part and product of an unprecedented mass-media propaganda campaign to keep Americans in a war frenzy, and without a state of war existing it's unlikely that Trump or like-thinking superpatriots could enact a 21st century version of the measure. But from that quarter comes a similar demand for unconditional solidarity, whether with the troops or with themselves, and for an unconditional love of country. It's naive for anyone to take standing and holding your hand over your heart as conclusive proof of unconditional love, but I suppose it's also naive to think that refusing to do that for whatever explicit or implicit reason won't insult some people. Should people pay for the insult? The issue is complicated by the President's interventions, which only harden the hearts, so to speak, of those who claim the right to use the playing of the anthem to protest current conditions. Trump's insistence on "respect" will only make standing and saluting look more like a personal loyalty oath to Trump himself to those who loathe him, but I don't think Trump himself sees it that way. I think he sincerely believes that occasions like the playing of the anthem should transcend partisan politics, and that Americans should show that they love their country regardless of who's in charge or what you think of his policies. If he seems to admire authoritarian nations, it may be because he sees in those places the sort of unconditional, unanimous love of country he wants to see here, however artifical and compulsory it may actually be over there. But as long as unconditional love of country is equated by anyone with acquiescence in the way things are now, so long as the Trumpist message to the rest of the country is, "You can't change us, but you have to love us," he will not see that sort of unconditional unanimity here, and he will most likely remain enraged by the willful refusal of it by many people. History shows that, in theory, a Trumpist majority could attempt to force unanimity by criminalizing acts of passive dissent. The question for our time is whether they're actually tempted to use that historical power, and whether they can resist the temptation.

16 August 2018

Never that great

Governor Cuomo the Younger of New York may have snuffed his already flimsy presidential ambitions after giving remarks this week in which he said, in contrast to President Trump 's "Make America Great Again" sloganeering, that the United States was "never that great" in the past the President apparently pines for. For Trump and his worshippers, that will prove that Cuomo doesn't really love his country and perhaps, like all others whose love isn't unconditional, should find another. While it was impolitic to rile the yahoos,  it was also understandable for someone with unfinished ambitions within the Democratic party to talk this way, whether or not it will prove wise in the long run. In the long view, it reminds us that the real debate between the MAGA crowd and their detractors is over the criteria for judging American greatness. Cuomo's comments remind us that for progressives (whether or not you see him as one) the only criterion for greatness is an egalitarian one by which the U.S. will be found wanting until recent times. For the MAGA crowd (MAG-its?) this is an overly narrow if not utterly mistaken standard of judgment. For them, the nation that won the world wars and the cold war and has long been the world's richest has been self-evidently great for a long time, if not for always, and only a fanatical tunnel vision or a personal bias that puts one's national loyalty into question can deny that. Can only a white person believe in the country's historical greatness? Certainly, but can a non-white person (or a homosexual, or even a woman) affirm it without being denounced as some sort of Uncle Tom? Perhaps not now, but for the time being any aspiring progressive will have to learn to thread a very narrow needle to get those working class white thought that apparently are still needed to put a national candidate over the top. The wise politician will need to say two things: first, that America had a great past in spite of many enduring injustices that still need to be enumerated; and second, that progressive policies, not Trumpian reaction, will make America greater by anyone's standard.

15 August 2018

Gone to the dog

Even when the President is self-evidently trying to edit his Twitter impulses, he can't catch a break from his critics. Kathleen Parker, an anti-Trump Republican, sees  his labeling of former aide Omarosa Managault-Newman, a sort of Frankenstein monster of his going back to The Apprentice, as a "dog" for releasing clandestine recordings as of a piece with insults aimed at LeBron James, Don Lemon, Maxine Waters and others. In other words, to call a black woman a dog is worse than if he had used the word to describe a white woman or man -- critics of that complexion are usually dismissed as losers or failures -- because "dog" dehumanizes the person thus labeled. The sad thing about this tirade against Trump is how obviously "dog" isn't what he really wanted to say. Unless the President has read a lot of comic books or pulp fiction, "dog" is not an epithet that's going to flow naturally from his tongue or fingers. Do I need to spell it out further?  I'll do so only to ask whether Trump would get in worse trouble had he used more natural and characteristic language and called his nemesis a bitch as he probably wanted to. Parker probably still would have gotten a column out of it, calling Trump a sexist instead of a racist, but who can say what the final score would have been?  The President is much admired in some quarters for talking back to his critics, but in a time when criticism is mistaken for hate on all sides, he only guarantees more hate for himself by doing so.

09 August 2018

The Anti-Trump Persuasion

Michael Massing's cover story in the August 13 Nation is surprisingly critical of the anti-Trump media, given its placement in one of the most anti-Trump magazines. Massing isn't out to defend Trump himself, but makes a reasonable argument against demonizing or gratuitously insulting the President's supporters. He's not the first writer to offer such a critique, and he recognizes that he risks the same backlash for making it that other writers have experienced merely for suggesting, as Nicholas Kristof did, that "Trump voters are human, too." Kristof and Massing agree that electoral success for liberals or progressives in the immediate future still depends on winning over some non-compete whites in "fly-over country." Those people have to be persuaded that they've made a mistake by supporting Trump, but as Massing notes, calling them stupid bigots is virtually guaranteed not to work. He recommends consideration of the economic vulnerability this demographic still feels after the 2008 recession, on the assumption that they can be convinced that Trump isn't acting in their economic interests. The problem with this recommendation is that the liberals and progressives Massing criticizes are not convinced that economics were the primary motivator for any Trump vote by non-compete whites in 2016. You can see why they would think that. Unless these voters embraced Trump specifically so he could institute protectionist trade policies, you would have to conclude that they voted for the same standard Republican policies that did not work for Mitt Romney in 2012. Was there a critical mass of protectionist sentiment in the 2016 swing states? Exit polls might confirm that, but it's easier for progressives to believe that swing-state voters were won over by Trump's reactionary nostalgia, which progressives find inseparable from some sort of white supremacism.

Did racial thinking (or misogyny disguised as distrust of Hillary Clinton) decide the 2016 election? What if it did? Massing, I suspect, would still argue for persuading Trump voters that they were wrong on that front, but many progressives seem to regard that task as beneath them. They act as if it's up to Trump  voters to renounce whatever bigotries motivate them before dialogue can even begin. They may believe that anyone who thinks that minorities has anything to do with what ailed America in 2016 is hopelessly irredeemable, even if thinking so condemns them to defeat at the national level. Obviously there's no convincing people who think non-white races or women to be inherently inferior beings, or those with a simple atavistic loathing of diversity. But what if some Trump voters don't hate blacks or others for what they are, but for what they (are thought to) do, or think. I don't mean perceptions of criminality, but a belief that blacks or other minorities, as a bloc, have mistaken ideas about the national interest or the common good due to their association with the Democratic party, the liberal media, etc. Can liberals address such perceptions without making it an existential debate about group identity?  Can they answer the charge that, for instance, black people in general are wrong on this or that issue without falling back on a some claim that blacks are entitled to their own beliefs without whites judging them? If we aren't going to let any group of self-conscious white people have their own beliefs without challenge, then the same rule must apply to everyone. Before there can be persuasion, it may prove, there must be recognition of an actual debate, not a demand for unconditional surrender.  Again, that's not the case if your antagonist's argument is simply that black people are disgusting, but where there is disagreement along demographic lines about political ends and means, neither side should have to acquiesce in the other's entitlement to its own ideology. In short, before you can change anyone's mind you have to hear what's actually on his mind without automatically branding him a heretic or a retard. Progressives may be too wedded to a civil-disobedience model that depends on breaking an antagonist's will by means other than debate to recognize this. They may need to see that model fail a few times more before trying something else, but let's hope not.

06 August 2018

Stupid is as stupid says

In predictable sequence the President overreacted to celebrity criticism and others overreacted to his criticism. Disliking what he heard in an interview given by the basketball player LeBron James, Trump tweeted that the CNN interviewer was the dumbest man on television and so made James look intelligent, which was hard to do. Since both James and the interviewer, Don Lemon, are black, many quickly decided that it was racist of the President to call them stupid. That was as ridiculous as Trump's need to call every critic a failure or otherwise insult them. Donald Trump most likely thinks that anyone who disagrees with him is stupid, and while that's an awful way to think it's not a bigoted way of thinking. I hope we're not at a point where white people aren't allowed to call any black people stupid. Democracy requires mutual accountability beyond the "speaking truth to power" paradigm. The majority has a right to criticize minorities, the rich have a right to criticize the poor, men have a right to criticize women, and so on, so long as the reverse in each pairing is also true. Donald Trump has ever right to think that LeBron James is stupid, even though it's beneath the dignity of his office to state his opinion so crudely. More importantly, LeBron James has every right to his opinion of the President and should not be bullied off the public stage for expressing it. The problem with debate via insult is that sensitive people can lose track of the scope of the insults and misunderstand what's being insulted. On some level Trump's presidency is an insult to all of us, but the reaction to it has arguably become the same thing.

03 August 2018

We have met the enemy ...

If a partisan press is "the enemy of the people," then what was Fox News during the Obama administration? If apologists for the Trump administration can answer that question objectively, their own "enemy of the people" rhetoric might not provoke such alarm. Yet conservative Republicans have really claimed a special entitlement when they have appeared to demand fairness or balance from the media. Their ideology, they feel, is uniquely entitled to representation, not because it's the view of a major political party and millions of people but because, with no pun intended, it is right. Only on that basis can they claim that Fox News is not as partisan as MSNBC, much less recommend Fox to the public as the President does. Even acknowledging the existence of some form of Trump Derangement Syndrome, objectivity requires recognition of an Obama Derangement Syndrome and an earlier Clinton Derangement Syndrome that resulted in exactly what Trump supporters fear today. Derangement syndromes are an unhappy fact of modern political life, and while their irrational excesses are to be deplored we need to make sure that we don't imply that all opposition is deranged. If it was wrong, as Republicans always insisted, to say that all resistance to Obama was racist,  Trump and his spokesmen should recognize that it's just as wrong to claim that all resistance to Trump is unpatriotic. If they don't want to be seen and treated as incipient authoritarians, they need to affirm the right to dissent along with their right to answer it.

31 July 2018

The gun is God

The current issue of Time is "The South Issue," which despite intentions indicates that the rest of the country sees that part as, if not a problem, then at least still a puzzle after all these years. Politics is a big part of that puzzle, of course, so I was interested in seeing David French explain "What Democrats don't get about the south." He argues that lingering (though declining) racism matters much less down there than religion. "The single most important aspect of their identity," he writes, is "their faith in God." 21st century Democrats are handicapped when approaching the region, he writes, because only 32% of white Democrats claim to believe in "the God of the Bible." Yet religion doesn't really factor in anything else French writes. Instead, he notes that southern Republicans indulge in "culture signalling" to underscore their adherence to tradition, but almost all the signalling he cites focuses on guns. It would seem to follow that by flaunting firearms (and big trucks, apparently) successful politicians signal that they are good Christians. Was that not French's intent? Then why bring up religion if you're not going to describe anything that might have something to do with religion, like abortion or the gay rights debate? Maybe a paragraph was cut that shouldn't have been, but the impression left is that the sometimes cartoonish display of guns, done to appear "more Southern than the South," proves that guns are an inextricable,  perhaps intrinsic part of not only southern culture, but also their fundamental religion. And those same people fret about immigrants having un-American values....

21 July 2018

Putin Derangement Syndrome

Senator Paul has a short memory if he thinks that his colleagues' hostility toward Russia is fueled by their hatred for President Trump. He should know that 21st century Russophobia well predates the 2016 election. More than any other person, more so than even Osama bin Laden, Vladimir Putin stands as a scapegoat for the dissolution of post-Cold War dreams of a liberal, Americanist world order. He is hated because few Americans can imagine any good reason to resist U.S. Hegemony and so assume that Putin does so for bad reasons: a lust for personal power or wealth, an atheistic national chauvinism, an ideological antipathy toward liberal civilization. The anti-imperialist fringe may cite however many provocations of Russia by NATO and however many legitimate grievances, but the liberal establishment questions any entitlement Russia may claim by virtue of its size, its boasted culture or its nuclear arsenal. Many Americans see in Russia what some would say we fail to see in ourselves: a nation driven primarily by greed and a bullying temperament to no other end but its own gain. At the same time, those of us who can't comprehend such seeming belligerence motivated solely by national interest or pride see Russia as some saw it 200 years ago, as the bulwark and arsenal of international authoritarianism and an existential threat to liberal order. To his credit, Donald Trump doesn't seem to have such an ideologically blinkered view of the world. His own view paradoxically combines a cynical realism regarding international relations with a seeming naivete in dealing with those leaders whose strength he appears to admire. Whatever his own shortcomings as a diplomat may prove to be, he at least doesn't suffer from the Putin Derangement Syndrome that at least partly fuels many Americans' hatred for their President. Those people don't lash out at Russia to spite Trump, nor simply because they choose to blame Putin for Trump's election, but in many cases because, reasonably or not, they see Putin and Trump as two of a kind.

17 July 2018

Who goes there? Foe or ...?

For a politician, the President of the United States has a limited vocabulary which he uses in often slapdash fashion, yet Donald Trump showed unusual care in his choice of words when talking to a CBS interviewer last week. Many observers were alarmed by his use of the word "foe" to describe the European Union, even as he used the same word for Russia and China. While many took offense at his calling the EU a foe, it's clear from the word choice that he doesn't see the Europeans as an "enemy." At the same time, "foe" sounds more serious than "competitor" or "rival," which may reflect how much more seriously Trump takes global commerce than many do in the bipartisan political establishment. Unlike the libertarian consensus on trade, Trump clearly sees it as a zero-sum game that the U.S. can't afford to lose. He seems reluctant to accept the trade-offs globalism imposes or to concede the loss of any American job, even as critics warn that his protectionist policies may cost more jobs than they can possibly preserve.

To Trump, it seems, trade rivalry is more real and meaningful than the ideological affinities that, to some, should bind us unbreakably to the democracies of western Europe. At the same time, let's not overstate the implications of his labeling anyone a "foe." As noted already, he also identified China and Russia as foes, and in all cases foe-dom seems for him to be a matter of circumstances rather than an inherent state of being. Most importantly, when speaking of foes Trump added: "But that doesn't mean they're bad. It doesn't mean anything [!?!]. It means they are competitive. They want to do well and we want to do well."

The President has no vision of ultimate harmony among nations. His National Security Strategy recognizes rivalry as an inevitable fact of international life. That may seem fatalistic, cynical or self-fulfilling to many people, but it also seems to mean that Trump is less likely to attribute rivalry to malevolence on the part of his foreign counterparts. That would explain why he perceives and presumably approaches Vladimir Putin and other actual or alleged authoritarians differently from they way liberals or neocons would. He is almost certainly not as naive on that subject as many critics suspect, though it's possible that he underestimates how far Putin may go to advance his country's interests. It should suffice to say that as far as Trump is concerned, no nation's system of government or the governmental style of its ruler makes it automatically an existential enemy or a permanent friend of the U.S. His stance alarms people who see a solidarity of democracies as essential in the face of the apparently eternal authoritarian challenge, and see that solidarity undermined by Trump's protectionism. It may be that just as statesmen of the past questioned whether another nation's sovereignty was worth the lives of his own soldiers, Trump may question whether an alliance of democracies is worth the jobs of his own voters. The wisdom of that view probably will be longer in the proving than many have jumped to conclude.

12 July 2018

Captive to America?

According to the Trump foreign policy, alliances should materially benefit the United States. That became most apparent when the President chided Germany this week for receiving energy from a Russian pipeline. That deal, he claimed, made Germany a "captive" of Russia, presumably because German dependence on the pipeline gives Vladimir Putin leverage in geopolitical disputes. It was clear from the context of his remarks, however, that Trump resented the Germans not making themselves more economically dependent on the U.S. From an early point in his presidency, Trump has made it clear that he wants European nations to buy more American energy, making himself an open economic rival to Russia by making his pitch to Eastern European countries. When dealing with NATO, he makes it more clear that the member states should show their gratitude to the U.S. not only buy contributing more to the common defense but by buying American more often. As usual, Trump's comments on NATO have alarmed established observers. They take alarm because they see NATO  idealistically as something motivated by disinterested benevolence or by a principled defense of European national sovereignty against the perpetual threat of Russia. They see NATO as a matter of duty for the "leader of the free world" to which questions of compensation, much less profit, should be immaterial. Trump and his supporters take a more contingent view, and the President's demand that our allies come across with more money will most likely play well with Americans in general so long as it's understood that it will free up American resources for American needs. Few are likely to see his approach as the miserly shortsightedness described by many pundits and politicians. I see no reason not to expect Europe to contribute more to its own defense, so long as Europeans feel the need for an extensive defense establishment. But I can't help seeing the President's whining about that pipeline as somewhat venal and slightly childish in its intention to deflect persistent gossip about his own dependence on Russia. The alliance may not be the unconditional obligation some ideologues and geostrategists think it to be, but it isn't a protection racket either, and it's not unreasonable for people to worry when a statesman seems so openly to calculate the value of an alliance as a matter of profit and loss.

28 June 2018

Perils of Journalism

Because I work in a newspaper office,  I won't jump to conclusions about the motives behind the amoklauf at the Annapolis Capital Gazette. Just this morning as I came into work, one of my coworkers told me she was frightened a little by a man who came in demanding to see the editor. I'm going to keep this vague, but basically the guy got in big trouble because of something that appeared in the paper that he claimed was inaccurate. He didn't really threaten anyone, but the anxiety he provoked seems relevant in light of the terrible news from Maryland. Before we assume that the Annapolis shooter was lashing out at "fake news" of some sort, bear in mind that people might have many more reasons to lash out against a newspaper than we can see from a purely national perspective. What happened was awful regardless, but let's not make it out to be more awful in its implications until more facts are in.

Weaponizing the First Amendment

If you believe that the poor are always right, or that the working class or organized labor is always right,don't expect to find confirmation in the U. S. Constitution.  That document is too dedicated to individual and minority rights and reflects the Framers' ideal of balancing class interests instead of empowering a majority class among the others. The Constitution can be "weaponized" against working-class interests and agendas, as Justice Kagan claims has been done by the majority in the Janus case. Led by Justice Alito, the Republican majority overturned a 1970s ruling that allowed states to require public employees to pay "agency fees" to unions to which they didn't belong. The requirement violated the First Amendment, Alito wrote, because it forced individuals to subsidize political activity with which they did not agree when unions became involved in lobbying and electioneering. Democrats and the left have interpreted Janus as an attack on public-employee unions and a self-evidently partisan attempt to cripple their capacity for political advocacy. Aliso doesn't exactly discourage that reading. He writes: "We recognize that the loss of payments from nonmembers may cause unions to experience unpleasant transition costs in the short term, and may require unions to make adjustments in order to attract and retain members." In other words, unions had better abandon partisan politics. Such a warning has been inevitable since the white working class was infiltrated by Republican conservatism in the late 1960s. With that came a backlash against any extension of solidarity beyond the workplace that offended conservative sensibilities. As individuals and minorities within organized labor, this backlash was bound to win vindication in a Republican Supreme Court in spite of liberal rationalization, and with the retiring Justice Kennedy certain to be replaced by a Trump appointee, the backlash will prevail for decades to come. It will, of course, provoke another backlash as people begin to ask why, if it violates their rights to have to subsidize speech and policies with which they disagree, they should be compelled to pay taxes to support the Trump administration.

26 June 2018

Trump beats Hawaii

In Trump v. Hawaii the Supreme Court, voting along the usual lines, upheld the President's ban on travelers from select nations. The majority rejected the argument that the travel ban violated the First Amendment by targeting Muslim-majority countries, as they had to given that North Korea and Venezuela were included in the ban while countries containing the majority of the world's Muslims were not. The majority rejected the claim that the Trump administration had not offered an adequate national-security justification for the ban, arguing in effect that our national-security needs are whatever the President determines them to be. His prerogative is not disqualified by anything allegedly Islamophobic he has ever said. The dissenting justices notwithstanding, the objections to the travel ban have always been more ideological than constitutional. When national security appears to justify a take-no-chances stance toward certain nationalities, individual rights in the abstract are inevitably violated, as is the feeling that all people should be held innocent until proven suspicious. Until a  positive universal law enshrines and enforces that principle, however, individual rights will be subject to national laws and national interests; the people of the world cannot all be equal in the eyes of any nation. For those offended by this fact, the Court offers consolation by placing a limit on what the President can do to Muslim citizens. The majority explicitly repudiated the infamous Korematsu decision in which a wartime Court affirmed the President's right to inter Americans on the basis of ethnic origin. It may seem small gratification for the Court to say that at least the President can't round up American Muslims and put them in camps, but considering how fearful many people are about the current President's ultimate intentions there should be some gratitude shown to the Roberts Court. But at a time when every trumping of perceived human rights by supposed national interests is attributed to raw bigotry, today's decision will inflame  rather than quiet dissent, and the finer details are likely to be forgotten.

25 June 2018

The little Red Hen and the decline of liberal civility

A few days ago the White House press secretary was thrown out of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington VA in a rebuke to her employer, the President.  This action was applauded by at least one Democratic congresswoman who encouraged people to "push back" at Trump administration people wherever they may be found in public. Inevitably, the President entered the discussion with an inevitable ad hominem attack on the Representative, an inevitable slander against the "filthy" restaurant, an inevitable misrepresentation of what the Representative said (translating "push back" to "harm") and an unsavory warning to "be careful what you wish for." It was another few days in the strange death of liberal America, a slight but still worrisome escalation of mutual intolerance. I can understand the desire to get in the faces of policy makers or political spokesmen, but I hope no one does it with the hope of changing anyone's minds. Gestures of this sort, probably inspired in part by the Supreme Court's protection of some conscientious objections to same-sex marriage, are most likely to provoke exactly the tit-for-tat response the President hints at, though it will no doubt be described differently, perhaps as "authoritarian intimidation tactics" or something along that line. Whatever you call it, it grows more likely the less we agree to let each other disagree about politics. That agreement is fundamental to political liberalism, but liberal civility appears increasingly unsustainable the more people feel that lives are at stake in political decisions. I've seen traditional liberal civility described as a form of white privilege, the privilege consisting of a presumed immunity to the material consequences of political decisions. The underprivileged and the self-consciously oppressed can no longer afford such civility, it seems, as antifa tactics grow more appealing. Whatever complexion you put on it, the underlying assumption is that politics is how people stay alive; to disagree, as Republicans seem to, is virtually to wish some people dead. This attitude, even more than the bigotry of reactionary whites, is a stumbling block for those well-meaning moderates who hope to re-establish mutual respect in the political sphere. How can you respect someone's opinion when you infer that that someone would rather see you die than compromise his so-called principles? Conversely, how can you respect someone when  they seem to have no principle but "I must live?" Can liberalism endure in such an environment? Liberalism seems perfectly compatible with an "everyone must live" ethos, until people claim philosophical or moral reasons to dissent from that ethos, and other people start to see such dissent as a crime against life. Genuine political liberals and civil libertarians in such conditions look like Rodney King during the L.A. riots asking, "Can't we get along?" Caught between two increasingly irreconcilable forces, they may well end up looking like King before the riots.

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.