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.

25 April 2018

Intolerance of intolerance

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

23 April 2018

The true faith?

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

18 April 2018

Everything old is young again

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

14 April 2018

'Mission accomplished '

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

12 April 2018

'Get ready, Russia'

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

11 April 2018


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

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

04 April 2018

Human nature and gun control

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

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

02 April 2018

The meaning of 'fake'

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

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

29 March 2018

Begging the (census) question.

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

28 March 2018

Taking school safety 'seriously'

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

27 March 2018

Jealous lovers of their country

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

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

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

'The second-most dangerous American'

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

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

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

24 March 2018

Think 3 Video News: "Marching for our lives"

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

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

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

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

21 March 2018

'Do Not Congratulate'

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

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

20 March 2018

European vs. American conservatism

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

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

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

19 March 2018

Liberty and Death

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

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

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