President Trump's foreign policy has grown more mysterious after his decision to pull American forces out of Syria and Afghanistan drove his defense secretary to resign this week. The President has been condemned by many in his own party who see the Syrian move in particular as a capitulation to the Assad-Iran-Russia axis and a new lease on life for the self-styled Islamic State. Trump claims to be satisfied with the extent to which Daesh has been degraded, and seems to think that what's left is a regional problem rather than a threat to the U.S. He strikes a characteristic note when he complains about a lack of gratitude shown for American efforts in the region, but his tweets and other comments leave unclear who exactly was to show gratitude and what form it was supposed to take, though it most likely has something to do with buying American products, accommodating Israel and increasing oil production, in no particular order. The U.S. presence had the additional purpose, demonstrated by some punitive air raids, of holding Assad accountable for apparent war crimes, but that may no longer concern the President so much as the Syrian civil war winds down. He may actually have the pragmatic object of getting the troops out from in the middle of whatever reckoning may be impending for the Kurds, many Americans' favorite non-israeli Middle Westerners but doomed by geography, like 18th century Poland, to be divided among larger neighbors. Trump no doubt will be accused of abandoning both the Kurds and whatever liberal opposition survives in Syria, but perhaps he shouldn't be reproached so immediately for calculating the benefits to his own country of the expenditure of American resources more carefully than recent Republican regimes. Those same Republicans may bemoan a seeming concession of regional hegemony to the same Iranian regime that Trump himself hates so much, but it should not be impossible to argue that a stable Syria, while it will still suck for dissidents there, will be in everyone else's best interest. Could it be possible also that Trump has enough cynical intelligence to think that allowing Iran to improve its position will make his actual client states, Israel and Saudi Arabia, more conscious of their dependence on American power and thus more accommodating and, indeed, more grateful by whatever standard the President sets? All I can say for certain is that when the usual neocon suspects cry bloody murder over any President's foreign policy decisions, the rest of us shouldn't be in any hurry to join them.
05 December 2018
It was strange to hear an appointee of President Trump use the word "liberal" in a positive context, and for some of Trump's supporters the "new liberal order" proclaimed by Secretary of State Pompeo in Brussels must have promised the worst of both worlds: liberalism combined with the "new world order" of the late President Bush. For them, Pompeo softened the blow by emphasizing that Trump's new order would be founded on national sovereignty rather than bureaucratic multilateralism, but some still must wonder why this has to be "liberal." The best answer is that while Pompeo may have meant to throw a rhetorical bone to the neocons, he mainly was talking about "classical" liberalism, i.e. laissez-faire capitalism. He literally declared for neoliberalism, which differs from neoconservatism in focusing on global markets and an attendant civil society rather than aggressive ideology as liberating forces. Trumpian neoliberalism, to whatever extent the President actually endorses Pompeo's speech, is clearly concerned primarily with extending the global reach of American business, but its exponents will no doubt indulge in the rhetoric of liberty when it suits them. It's an obvious play when your perceived antagonists -- Russia, China and Iran -- are all perceived as authoritarian powers. But while the Trumpists most likely see Iran as an evil empire, their main concern with Russia, and probably with China as well, is to undermine any claim of an economic sphere of interest that might exclude American business. Trump himself might have a shot at selling this to his base by saying that the object is more and better paying American jobs. Depending on the occasion, however, almost any talk of any sort of new order may have many Americans wondering whether there was a dime's worth of difference all along between Trumpism and what came before?
01 December 2018
It's the son, "Dubya," who should be burdened with initials. Until he rose to power, his father was just plain George Bush. A senator's son and a New Englander turned Texan, the first President Bush was the last American chief executive to have fought in World War II, but he was somehow labeled a "wimp" in implicit comparison to that Hollywood tough guy, Ronald Reagan. During the 1980 Republican primaries he had it right when he called Reagan's notions "voodoo economics," but he made his peace with the Gipper and became his political heir. While many still give Reagan the credit for winning the Cold War that actually ended on Bush's watch -- it may be more accurate to say that Mikhail Gorbachev renounced it -- it was Bush who offered a vision of a post-Cold War world and acted on it,to the wonder of much of the world and the alarm of some. His rallying of a global consensus against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was arguably an unprecedented and irreproducible diplomatic feat, though in retrospect he may have taken too middling a course against Saddam Hussein, undermining a secular ruler but not deposing him at a time when Iraq might have proved more malleable in American hands. Instead, his caution appears vindicated by his son's overreach and its enduring consequences. On another front, we can speculate about Bush's approach to Russia in a second term, wondering whether the rise of Putin might have been less likely had Bush been less aggressive about expanding NATO. As it was, economics did him in, along with the Perot campaign. Already on the American right there were stirrings of resentment against a nebulous establishment that Bush seemed to embody, while his invocation of a new world order provoked irrational dread on both the right and the left. To some he seemed inauthentic and out of touch, but it's hard to argue that the nation benefitted from his son appearing more personable, or from a wealthier successor acting more like a common man. Bush's presidency may be deemed a failure because he wasn't reelected, but it grows more obvious with every subsequent administration that his time was a summit of U.S. power and prestige that may never be regained.
30 November 2018
26 November 2018
Lawrence Corbett claims to stake out a middle ground in the gun-control debate. His, he claims, is the ground of objective scholarship, while both the gun-control community and "the NRA and their ilk" take neglectfully one-sided stances that ignore other facets of the great question. In an op-ed that reads like a plea for research funding, Corbett argues that we can determine the reasonable scope of gun ownership by focusing on one facet of the question. He appears less concerned with the individual right of self-defense advocated by the NRA than with the collective right of defense against tyranny. The decisive question, he claims, is twofold: "What is the minimum level of arms that a population needs in order to allow it to resist a future government gone bad, and at what point do we decide that the cost of having that capability is too high?" Only people with specialized knowledge -- Corbett is a scholar of logistics -- can provide the information to answer these questions. Yet his plea can't help seeming disingenuous. Though he pays lip service to the possibility that such weapons as the AR-15 are "wholly unworthy of the damage they cause on a day-to-day basis," he has to anticipate that many observers will think the risk to individuals worth the security against tyranny. It may be telling that he doesn't discuss the possibility that no volume of private gun ownership can provide an effective safeguard against a tyranny armed with the full military power of the state. If his theoretical committee came to such a conclusion, would Corbett concede that there is no good reason for hoarding assault weapons, or would he let the question be decided according to the principle of individual self-defense? While he may have wanted to escape that facet of the issue by reverting to the original intent of the Framers, Corbett may stake too much on an obsolete argument. Those who would have prevented tyranny may have been better off limiting the expansion of the military establishment before it surpassed irreversibly the civilian power to match it. That's a side of this issue nearly everyone ignores.
11 November 2018
In France, the President preferred honoring American veterans at a military cemetery to taking part in an international peace forum. Some viewers will find it telling that the BBC had to cut from the latter to the former. It appeared to emphasize Donald Trump's isolation from his ostensible allies in Europe. As it turned out, Trump's remarks were apolitical and sentimental, but that won't change the impression that he's on a different course from that of international cooperation. In Europe, Trump's identification of himself as a nationalist most likely didn't lead people to suspect him of racism, but it probably did reinforce fears that his will be a destabilizing influence on the continent and around the world. Trump was in France because today is the centennial of the end of World War I, an event seen by many as the inevitable consequence of at least one form of nationalism. Whether Trump's is the sort of nationalism that makes war more likely remains to be seen, but it remains suspect in many eyes that infer inherent hostility to foreigners from any "nation first" rhetoric. It's safe to say, however, that "nation first" isn't synonymous with "nation uber alles." My assumption is that Trump's idea of international relations is inherently competitive but not Darwinian; that is, it does not have the subjugation or extinction of any other nation, except possibly for Iran's Islamic republic, as its goal.
On CNN right now, President Macron of France -- a fluent English speaker, by the way -- is quoted defining nationalism, presumably without making distinctions, as " who cares what happens to others." That implies a zero-sum hierarchy of "caring," with which Trump probably wouldn't agree. It simply doesn't follow that to care for "your own" first means not to care for others at all. Trump himself demonstrates this by recognizing no contradiction of his America-first principles in his unconditional support for Israel. He does, apparently, see a limit to the costs caring for others should impose on his own. His envisioning of a limit worries both those of avowedly boundless compassion and those who believe that the richest nations have a duty to subsidize peace by spending to stabilize troubled parts of the world. This may be the most substantive critique of Trumpian nationalism; the fear isn't that Trump will wage aggressive war, but that his selfish indifference will make outbreaks of war more likely around the world. A truly indifferent American nationalist might ask "so what?" so long as it doesn't affect us, but ultimately we can't know whether Trump is that kind of nationalist until the event happens. For all that people may hope that Trump might learn some lesson contemplating the Great War, the truth may be that the lessons of that war will teach us nothing about Trump.
07 November 2018
The Democrats have regained control of the House of Representatives but lost seats in the Senate. They can do more now to block President Trump's agenda but can do very little to advance their own. The next two years will test the President's legendary negotiating and deal-making skills as he deals with Speaker Pelosi. He can be expected to combine threats and flattery, as he does with people in power around the world, and he'll most likely appear both more belligerent and more accommodating than he's been in the first two years of his presidency. For her part, Pelosi should resist the temptation, or the popular demand, to use the House as an investigative body dedicated to overthrowing Trump by extra-electoral means. The Senate results suggest that there's little constituency for that, and a strong risk of a backlash that could reelect Trump and give the House back to the GOP in 2020. The midterm results indicate a consolidation of Trump's position rather than a reversal of his movement. He got out the vote in several crucial states and remains tremendously popular among the rural and working-class whites most likely to share his unconditional nationalism. He also remains a lightning rod for the resentments of racial minorities, intersectional women and nonconformist whites. He's not likely to be more humble in public on the road to 2020, but how he behaves behind closed doors may be a different story. Meanwhile, Pelosi will have to balance her national constituency's demand for resistance with a wariness of appearing obstructionist at a time when both major parties agree that many things need to be done, even if they disagree in specifics. In a sense, this week's results wipe the slate clean. What happens over the next two years will do more to decide the 2020 elections than what's happened in the last two.
01 November 2018
David Brooks' pop psychoanalysis of mass shooters leads him to an indictment of an individualist ethos that to many seems fundamental to American national identity. The common trait of mass shooters, he claims, is that they're lonely, and American society today seems designed to turn out lonely, distrustful, indifferent to other's opinions, etc. Brooks claims that Alexis de Tocqueville warned of this, that even in the early 19th century there was suspicion that individualism as an ideology could be taken too far. Brooks doesn't have the space in an op-ed to describe why the warnings were ignored, but it certainly had much to do with a long polemic against all forms of "collectivism" that encouraged Americans of nearly all political persuasions to believe that their individual identities were theirs alone to decide. Without necessarily admitting it, Brooks is arguing for a social construction of identity that may seem abhorrent to both the most self-conscious freethinkers and those who equate individual identity with the soul as an inviolate gift from God. Many Americans, I suspect, still see the claims of individuality and community in zero-sum competition. That 's partly the legacy of the Cold War and its existentialist excesses and partly, as Brooks hints, something deeper in the American heritage. Brooks himself, in his apparent willingness to question individualist premises and prejudices, arguably is becoming more of a pre-American sort of conservative. Long ago, conservatism and individualism were antagonistic viewpoints, but today conservatism critical of individualism usually is labeled "authoritarianism" or, more mildly, "populist," and seen as essentially un-American. Even Brooks' mild collectivism, which is all about trying to forge friendship through shared activities, is sure to face mistrust from all those who fear "brainwashing," "indoctrination" or "mobilization." My disinterested advice to Brooks is to let the adults rail, focus on the more malleable younger populations, and start reform in the schools. There's no guarantee of success, of course, but if a century ago a "lost" generation could be followed by "the greatest," it may be wise to skip ahead.
31 October 2018
The President probably has never sounded as much like the authoritarian strongman his most hysterical critics believe him to be as when he told an Axios interviewer that he could effectively amend the U.S. Constitution by executive order. He wants to end the policy of "birthright citizenship," which he believes to encourage illegal immigration. The policy is based on the 14th Amendment, which states that "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof," are citizens. Critics of birthright citizenship claim that the "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" clause is a qualifier that rules out the children of illegal immigrants, but the fact that any qualification would apply equally to both those born and those naturalized makes that a questionable reading. The President's apologists are quick to state that it will be the Supreme Court, not Donald Trump, that decides ultimately what the words mean. They predict that any executive order will only start a process resulting in a definitive judicial ruling on the meaning of the amendment. In our current political climate, a lower court most likely will block any executive order until the high court can have its say. Nevertheless, this is a bad time for Trump to suggest that he could change the law unilaterally. We've just had people massacred by an extreme xenophobe because he assumed that they supported the welcoming of more refugees into the country, and we are now less than one week from the congressional elections. Now the President underscores his own xenophobia -- let no one deny that fear rather than principle drives the reaction to mass migration -- while appearing to fulfill the worst fears of both liberals and ideological conservatives about his style of governance. All you need for a perfect storm would be for that refugee caravan to arrive in time to be violently turned back before the election -- but in our climate, such a storm could blow either way.
28 October 2018
As news came in from Pittsburgh yesterday many Americans, after their initial horror, had one of those increasingly familiar moments when what mattered most was the identity of the person who killed eleven people in a synagogue. Many no doubt felt relief when the killer proved to be a white man. For some, the worst case scenario would have been for the killer to have been a person of color, a Muslim and a recent immigrant. That would have been bad news, according to this line of thinking, because it would have been used to vindicate suspicion toward those categories or justify harsher measures against them. People on the other side of the political divide no doubt felt the same way. Now that both the Pittsburgh shooter and the would-be mail bomber who targeted liberal celebrities have been identified tentatively as almost stereotypical angry white men, many right-wingers fear understandably that these crimes will be used to discredit the Trump movement and the Republican party close to the congressional elections. Their fears are justified, as Democrats will most likely treat Republicans the way they wouldn't want Muslims or migrants to be treated had circumstances have been different. It's clear already that they want to hold the President rhetorically responsible for the past week's crimes, especially since it appears that the Pittsburgh shooter's anti-Semitism was exacerbated by anger at a Jewish organization that assists refugees.
On the far right, the defense mechanism against anticipated assertions of collective guilt is to spread a counternarrative portraying the mail bomb attempts, for starters, as "false flag" attacks, actually perpetrated by the other side specifically to discredit an entire movement or party. I haven't yet seen anyone claiming that the Pittsburgh amoklauf was a false-flag shooting, but modern times have taught us that sufficiently motivated people are capable of believing anything. False-flag paranoia isn't exclusive to the right, of course; that thinking dates back to the anarchist habit of blaiming all discrediting actions on agents provocateurs in their midst. It just seems to be more popular lately among those who seem to see humanity itself as a conspiracy against their liberties. False-flag thinking in general is grounded on a justified resistance to sweeping assertions of collective responsibility after individual atrocities. Donald Trump is no more personally responsible for the past week's crimes than the Muslim who lives down the street is responsible for the crimes of any self-styled IS soldier. If he has any responsibility as a person or a President, it's not to admit guilt but to warn against anyone claiming his kind of populist (if not nativist) nationalism as an entitlement to kill those who seem subversively un-American. And if there's a false flag flying anywhere in this country it's the one that presents the traditions and prejudices of one group of people as the standard of the nation itself.
23 October 2018
The President called himself a nationalist the other day and some people took predictable alarm. To some listeners, to be a nationalist is tantamount to being a national socialist, but we should take that suspicion no more seriously than the canard that national socialists, as socialists, belong to the left. Nationalism got a bad name before Nazism, however, being blamed for the horrors of World War I, if not both world wars. "Nationalism" denoted an inherently competitive if not Darwinian system of international relations that made war a constant danger, if not a fact of life in some places. For Donald Trump, nationalism is most likely a synonym for another old-fashioned term he favors, "America First." Its opposite in his dictionary is globalism. A globalist, he told his Texas audience, is "a person who wants the globe to do well, frankly not caring about our country so much." That may strike some listeners as a misrepresentation. Many self-styled globalists will tell you that as the "globe" does well, so will the U.S. The idea, of course, is that global prosperity creates markets for American goods. This, however, is a utilitarian view that expects the nation in general to do well regardless of however many individual Americans do less well. The globalism Trump decries is in part the libertarian sort that tries not to cry over lost jobs and challenges the unemployed to adapt to the global market as a test of character. It's also the "progressive" sort that assumes that the U.S. owes the rest of the world something that may require individual Americans to pay a just price. Trump himself affects to begrudge every American job lost, treating globalists of all sorts as at least theoretical enemies of the people. At the same time, there's some of the old-fashioned nationalism to his foreign policy, which seems based on a premise of perpetual competition that falls short of the existential antipathy of neocon thinking but still carries a risk of war, especially as he abandons treaties in his pursuit of maximum national advantage. In short, there's a lot more to Trump's nationalism than the mere racism some people seem to infer, but that only means it could be both better and worse than it sounds.
22 October 2018
Michael Gerson writes: "The accusation of fascism must clear a high hurdle, so that the term has content when it is necessary to employ." The theme of his latest column is that it's not yet time to employ the dread term to the Trump administration. Despite "echoes of fascist language and arguments" in his rhetoric (nostalgia, nationalism, fuehrerprinzip) Trump has not yet taken concrete action against civil liberty or the separation of powers. Saying this, Gerson presents himself as a moderate critic of Trumpism and a more moderate critic of liberal alarmism. He then goes on to say that Trump could go fascist if the Republicans win the midterm congressional elections. Should the GOP hold Congress, Gerson warns, Trump will be emboldened to seek retribution against his enemies on all fronts. Should Trump go that way, "alarmism would be realism." That's Gerson's case for voting Democratic this November, but the relative merits of the major parties aside, Gerson's subtle alarmism can be refuted counterfactually. Isn't it more likely that Democratic victory and control of Congress would trigger a fascistic reaction on the part of Trump and his supporters? Wouldn't Trump, as Gerson describes him, be more inclined to ignore Congress if he sees it as the enemy of himself or the people? Wouldn't he play the sore loser and claim that the congressional elections were rigged against him (i.e. against the Republicans) in some way that would throw Congress's legitimacy into question? Aside from any predictable accusations of voting by illegal immigrants, the President arguably has already laid the groundwork for this sort of backlash by insinuating that the Chinese are trying to influence the election. That could prove to be more than tit-for-tat pettiness, and the consequences could be just as bad for civility as the Russia libel against Trump. This scenario may or may not seem more plausible than Gerson's, and I don't offer it as some rationale for voting Republican. Regardless of whether either scenario looks realistic, let's agree that if there's real fascist potential in the Trump movement -- and that still remains to be proven in terms of real fascism -- then it's unlikely that that potential or spirit will be long thwarted or deterred by the results of one round of voting. Real fascists don't take elections that seriously, after all.
20 October 2018
According to the Saudi government, dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed after getting into a fight at the Saudi consulate at Istanbul. Their story is meant to end suspicion that Khashoggi's death was the result of a deliberate attack condoned if not ordered by the power behind the throne. The distinction won't mean much to liberal observers worldwide, who even if they believe the official story will still see the affair as of a piece with authoritarian efforts to silence dissent outside their borders. The Saudi hope is that their story will suffice to mollify the Turkish and U.S. governments. The Turks raised the initial stink, resenting that it was done on their soil, even though a consulate is technically Saudi property, and presumably sympathizing with the dead journalist as a democratic Islamist of the Muslim Brotherhood sort. On the American side, President Trump has been under pressure to chastise the Saudis,in part because Khashoggi can be seen as an American journalist, having written recently for the Washington Post. He's more concerned with finalizing the latest arms sale and no doubt cares little for a journalist who was another country's problem. In recent days the Post has reported a posthumous smear campaign against Khashoggi, the argument being that the victim was unworthy of American sympathy because of his presumed ideological leanings. One of their own columnists, Cal Thomas, split the difference by denouncing both Khashoggi and the Saudis while whining about being labeled an Islamophobe. My own view is that so long as Americans remain free in this country to denounce tyranny and violence against freedom of speech anywhere, the U.S. government should not make radical changes in diplomacy based on the fate of one person. While doing otherwise appeals to the moral sense of many people, it isn't wise in a practical utilitarian sense. It's deplorable when foreign governments take action to silence dissidents in exile, but 'twas ever thus and will be unless something like the sort of "world government" that Americans themselves fear can effectively enforce the rights of exiles. We still need to resist the hysterical narrative, endorsed by neocons and liberal Democrats alike, that every such incident as Khashoggi's killing is an advance for authoritarianism in its spread across the globe. If you must be outraged against a foreign government, why not bother the Chinese, who reportedly are jailing relatives of naturalized American citizens in an effort to intimidate them into silence about the mass internment of Uighurs in re-education camps? The reason why not, I suspect, is that Americans doubt their ability to influence China, despite the President's efforts to change their trade policy, while there persists a sense of Saudi dependence on American power, as well as a hate for Islam greater than any antipathy toward China. But if you're looking for a threat to American freedom in foreign lands, it's not clear that critics of Saudi Arabia are looking in the right direction.
18 October 2018
White people are to blame for extremism at both ends of the American political spectrum, David Brooks has learned. He learned it from a recent survey that purports to describe the nation's "Hidden Tribes." These tribes are defined along ideological lines, and at the extremes are found the "richest" and "whitest" of seven groups. At one extreme are the "Devoted Conservatives," nativist, Islamophobic, dismissive toward charges of sexual harassment and interested less in creativity than in good behavior. Their opposite numbers are the "Progressive Activists," to whom Brooks attributes an anarchic "darkened Rousseauian" worldview that idealizes human nature while blaming the bad things in life on hierarchical social structures. Both groups are characterized by "cult conformity" on their issues of interest, while all the groups in the middle, who go undescribed by Brooks, are more flexible in their thinking. This typology appeals to Brooks because it seems to refute the popular notion that "populism" drives our current political conflicts. Instead, the Hidden Tribes thesis suggests that ideas still drive conflict.
It seems unconvincing, or else Brooks makes a poor case for it, but the one thing that rings slightly true is its attention to what might be called alienated or non-conformist whites as a crucial part of an anti-Trump constituency that might otherwise be thought of as a coalition of minorities based on identity politics. These whites abhor identity politics, at least as practiced by other whites, because they reject the idea that whiteness imposes any particular cultural, spiritual or ideological obligations on them. They despise the perceived cultural populism of the Trump movement or the alt-right precisely because they are non-conformists for whom the appeal to cultural solidarity is a demand to conformity diametrically opposed to their own quests for self-definition. There probably is an elitist element to this, as Brooks suggests, to the extent that these people stereotype the opposition, contrary to the Hidden Tribes survey's finding, as white trash. But where are the "trash" in the nation of Hidden Tribes? Brooks implies that they're part of an "Exhausted Majority" that has no ideology of its own but isopen to persuasion. Trump won these people over with a more persuasive "threat narrative" than that peddled by Hillary Clinton, but Brooks believes they can be won away from Trump by a narrative of "gifts" that focuses on "the assets we have and how we can use them together." I don't know. Regardless of any survey, it seems obvious that most Americans need to see a threat or an oppressor crushed before they'll be ready to share their assets and work together, and it seems naive to think, as Brooks seems to, that there is no threat to the Republic other than those who see threats. He may think that the real threat will be over when both extremes lose, but they may be no more than blind men arguing over the attributes of an elephant that will remain in the room after they're gone.
14 October 2018
09 October 2018
Long ago, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote that the "spectre of communism" was haunting Europe. Today, op-ed writer James Rothenberg writes that "Small signs of nervousness have begun to appear now that many of our citizens are able to mouth the word 'socialism' and not get sick to their stomachs." Rothenberg argues that this is capitalism's own fault, due to its perceived failures, but he also acknowledges that socialism is still "far off in the distance." That's because capitalists write the rules of law and politics, he claims, so that the working class accepts its subordination complacently in the name of "respect for the law."At the same time, Rothenberg can't avoid the fact that socialism still has a bad name by association with twentieth-century tyrannies. He writes those off by arguing that if it isn't democratic, it isn't socialist. Since the U.S. is democratic, he argues that socialism should succeed here without the tyranny seen elsewhere. That depends on why socialistic tyranny exists. In many cases it's because socialism or communism is imposed by armed revolutionaries who think it necessary to impose revolutionary discipline on the whole population. But it might be argued that all socialists will resort to violence to cover up socialism's supposedly inevitable economic failures, blaming them on scapegoats who can be treated as "enemies of the people" rather than admitting any error. As a socialist, Rothenberg seems to take for granted that socialism will work and so doesn't address this possibility. To the extent that Americans already identify a socialist revival, fairly or not, with the excesses of antifa, socialists will need to come up with a more convincing refutation of the "tyranny" libel. It shouldn't really be that hard to argue that the mistakes of individual socialists shouldn't discredit socialism in general, but the best way to do that would be for socialists in power to admit error personally and admit that socialist policy isn't immune to error. You see the problem. The right kind of socialists have to win power somehow, and they have to admit from the start that they may not be able to solve all problems or get everything right the first time. Decide for yourselves which is the more likely event.
05 October 2018
Thomas L. Friedman worries that the U.S. is spiritually closer to civil war today than at any time since the actual Civil War ended. While admitting that this hasn't been the most violent time domestically since then as far as politics is concerned, he's troubled by the increased, unprecedented tribalism of American politics, which he, following the political scientist Norman Ornstein, defines less as identity politics than as an uncompromising "rule or die" sentiment. Friedman appears to agree with Ornstein that Republicans are primarily to blame, going back to Newt Gingrich's ascendancy. That doesn't sound right, somehow. Republicans had been denouncing liberal Democratic policies as dangerously un-American long before Gingrich came along, and to focus on the 1990s is really to deplore the new ability of Fox News and radio talkers like Rush Limbaugh to amplify that familiar message. But while Friedman resists what he calls a temptation to blame both parties, we wouldn't be where he sees us at if not for a hardening of attitudes on the left. If Republicans since the Cold War increasingly have treated Democrats as surrogates for their ideal Communist enemy, Democrats have found Republican rule increasingly unacceptable and even illegitimate. Republicans may have provided the original provocations, but Democrats arguably take the "rule or die" attitude to a greater extreme than Republicans, since it's their belief, infuriatingly rejected by Republicans, that politics is primarily a means for keeping people alive. Democrats seem more likely than Republicans to believe that government policies literally can condemn people to death, or to take the "tribal" viewpoint that taking power means "It's our turn to eat." If things seem worse now than in Gingrich's time, it's because Democrats, increasingly inclined to attribute conservative politics entirely to bigotry, are starting to abandon that acquiescence in defeat that's actually a necessary attribute of liberalism as a political system. The liberal order remained stable so long as acquiescence in defeat remained the norm, but now that neither party seems interested in acquiescence Friedman senses danger. He wants us all to step back to a point when compromise wasn't seen as a sin, but that will require both sides to concede that they can't have everything they want at a time when it's unclear that either side can do so -- not when your liberty, your identity or your very life seems to ride on the outcome of each election. If anything, we may all need to take politics less seriously. You'd think having someone like Donald Trump in the White House would make that easy, but reality shows us that the problem Friedman perceives is bigger than he admits.
04 October 2018
In a recent book philosophy professor Tamler Sommers attempt to explain Why Honor Matters, or at least why he thinks it should matter more than it seems to in the modern U.S. In this country, he argues, honor has been sacrificed to the idea of dignity. Honor differs from dignity, according to Sommers' definitions, in its essential dependence upon other people's opinions. Dignity is non-negotiable by comparison; it is a presumption of inherent worth independent of personal opinions. It does not need to be proved to anyone, but in practice must be upheld by the authority of the state. It is claimed by those who demand to be accepted as they are. For Sommers, a preoccupation with dignity leads to an atomized and cowardly society in which people call a cop, so to speak, instead of standing up for themselves or for what is right. In more honorable societies, the more strongly felt need to earn the respect of others inspires heroic or simply more civic-minded action. Sommers is all too aware that modern culture equates honor with violence, but argues that "honor groups" often limit the scope of violence through codes of conduct, and that a modest amount of violence (certainly non-lethal) sometimes is an appropriate response to bullying or deeper forms of oppression. We would all respect each other more than we seem to now, he suggests, if we all understood that we were all willing to stand up for ourselves and what we believe in, even at risk to ourselves. In one extreme moment, Sommers remarks that people value their own lives too much these days, but since he isn't really concerned with honor's expression in war he doesn't really follow up that provocation.
Sommers is also well aware that honor is seen as a conservative value. He makes a point of distancing himself from many conservative positions and makes a special point of saying that white nationalism is not the stuff of which honor is made. He claims that appeals to honor could bolster some liberal or progressive positions, though some of his examples, e.g. claiming that a refusal to accept refugees is cowardly, sound merely sophisticated rather than honorable. He can't help conceding that honor has a populist if not nativist tendency due to its basis in group identification compared to dignity's basis in abstract or generic humanity. When decentralization is advisable, when localism is preferable to appeals to impersonal central authority, that sort of honor can be helpful. But for all that he criticizes the preoccupation with dignity at honor's expense, his own commitment to an essentially irreducible idea of individual human dignity is apparent in his recommendations for "containing" honor and preventing such excesses as "honor killings." He's really arguing for some moderate golden mean between extroverted, aggressive honor and introverted, passive-seeming dignity, but "honor" and "dignity" may be terms too dramatic to address the problems Sommers perceives.
That we should all be accountable to each other isn't necessarily a matter of honor or dignity, but it is a matter of democracy. A mere opposition of words doesn't tell us much about how American democracy has declined to the point where many people feel that they don't have to listen to people with different views, and where even more people hear "You're wrong" as an expression of hate. The worst flaw of Why Honor Matters is its lack of much sense of history, its failure to explain the shift from honor to immoderate dignity in any substantial way. Without that, whatever valid points Sommers has are lost in mere wordplay. Before he can hope to persuade people to trade some dignity for more honor, he needs to show that he understands why people rejected honor for dignity in the first place. Doing so may be outside the scope of his project, but that only means that this would-be philosopher has more work to do.
03 October 2018
Listening to the President's UN speech last week, Jonah Goldberg was less disturbed by Trump's laughable boasting than by his assertion of a "doctrine of patriotism" at odds with Goldberg's own "doctrine of liberty." Trump himself opposed patriotism to an "ideology of globalism," but Goldberg sees Trump's patriotism as a sort of individualism of nations while warning readers that individualism can mean profoundly different things depending on the beliefs or interests of individuals. Even liberals are individualists, this conservative observes while insinuating that liberal or progressive individualism doesn't quite jibe with conservative ideals of individual liberty. Trump's invocation of a doctrine of patriotism at the world body was grounded on an assertion of each nation's cultural uniqueness. That sounds unproblematic, except insofar as it implies that each nation really has a single, commanding culture that can compel conformity, but Goldberg worries that Trump may excuse other nations' offenses against liberty as expressions of distinct cultures that neither he nor we have the right to judge. He must have missed the part where Trump condemned communism, but Goldberg is clearly worried less about Marxism as such than about the threat of nationalist strongmen, regardless of ideology, with whom Trump seeks strong personal relationships.
Toning down his neoconservatism, Goldberg concedes that free nations have neither the obligation nor, implicitly, the right to "crush [barbaric] customs at gunpoint," but insists on their moral obligation to "bear witness to evil" in such places as the UN. He believes that "countries such as North Korea, China, Rusia" and even Iran, which Trump condemned in no uncertain terms, we're "Happy to hear the leader of the free world champion the 'doctrine of patriotism' instead of the doctrine of liberty." That reads as if Goldberg, not hearing what he wanted to hear, didn't hear what actually was said. It's remarkable how many people haven't gotten their heads around the idea that Trump refuses to treat any nation, except maybe for Iran, as an existential enemy or, with the likely exception of Israel, as an unconditional friend on the basis of ideology. They miss the ways in which Trump has, if anything, intensified our rivalry with Russia, because he doesn't talk about Putin the way they want. His approach certainly isn't guaranteed to strengthen our position in the world or, as seems to be his primary goal, bolster the American economy, but it's hard to take Goldberg and other critics of his foreign policy or his alleged doctrines seriously when they can't even describe it in any way that resembles reality.
25 September 2018
Has any nation's leader been as blatantly mocked by the United Nations General Assembly as President Trump was today? I know of no similar case. The diplomats responded with laughter when Trump boasted, in typical style, that he had "accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country. He based this claim, after the laughter, on the stock market and a low unemployment rate, emphasizing allegedly historic low rates for racial minorities. Of course, the same skepticism shown toward the Obama recovery, in terms of the quality and stability of jobs, applies equally, if not more so, to the Trump recovery, but in any event the President was there to talk foreign policy and, to his credit, and probably unlike his worshipers who will see the laughter as further reason to despise the UN, he seemed to take the mild heckling in stride. Nevertheless, it belies any claim Trump wants to make about the U.S. being more respected abroad than in Obama's time.
As for foreign policy, the really interesting thing about his speech was his implicit attack on the idea of economic spheres of influence. He sees "reliance on a single foreign supplier" as one of the "new forms of coercion and domination" that can "leave a nation vulnerable to extortion and intimidation." However friendly he might be toward Vladimir Putin, Trump clearly intends to compete with Russia economically even in Russia's "near abroad." He applauded Poland, which also got a shout-out, along with India, Israel and Saudi Arabia, later in the speech, for its role in a Baltic pipeline intended to free eastern Europe from energy dependence on Russia. Those who've been paying attention knew already that Trump was committed to aggressive economic competition with Russia. He made it more clear today that he wants the U.S. to compete as well with OPEC, which he accuses, his friendliness toward the Saudis notwithstanding, of "as usual, ripping off the rest of the world" but particular the U.S. that "defend[s] many of these nations for nothing." That sounds undiplomatic when, if anything, OPEC, or at least the Saudis, depresses prices to beggar Iran and Russia, but Trump is more salesman than diplomat here, as always after a better deal. The exception to this dealsmanship remains Iran, the one evil nation, other than perhaps Venezuela, in the Trump demonology. His demands for Iran's further isolation will most likely go unheeded for reasons he can't really criticize. Trump's anti-globalist attitude affirms every nation's right to pursue or further it's own interests, and so long as Iran troubles the U.S. other nations with actual or potential beefs with the U.S. will find it in their interest to cultivate Iran's ability to make trouble. Why should they care if Iran threatens Israel or curses America or subsidizes Syria if none of that harms their interests? Until Trump can answer that question in a plausible way, the world may well keep laughing at him behind his back. To put it another way, Trump is unlikely to make progress with Iran, if any is possible, until he abandons the exceptional moralizing tone, reminiscent of neoconservatism, that he usually takes toward the Islamic Republic and finds a more Trumpian way to deal with them and their friends.
21 September 2018
The timing is too dramatic, the charge too resonant with today's craze for me to believe Christine Blaney Ford's charge against Brett Kavanaugh. Something probably did happen between the two long ago, but only now would anyone think that whatever happened disqualifies Kavanaugh from public life, and only now that Kavanaugh stands at the brink of confirmation as the next associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court does Ford take the one action that might stop him. I could go on about the alleged excesses of the #MeToo movement that has weaponized grievances like Ford's, but on this occasion my only thought is that the Republican party, and Republican senators in particular, deserve whatever they get in this process. They thwarted the nomination of Merrick Garland by legal but profoundly unfairly means, so until it's shown that Ford or whoever recruited her has committed a crime all is fair in the effort to thwart Kavanaugh. For what it's worth, this isn't about Donald Trump, who most likely was here merely fulfilling his pact with the GOP to nominate ideologically sound judges. I don't think the President is looking for a personal loyalist or robed consigliere, since even he must understand that Kavanaugh will remain on the court long after Trump has left the scene. The Republican senators, inconvenienced by Justice Scalia's sudden death, decided in their partisan and ideological arrogance that they didn't even have to debate his replacement by the nominee of a Democratic President. Some may feel that the Democrats should be bigger than that, or that it's their responsibility to restore bipartisan comity by offering no unreasonable resistance to Kavanaugh. These premises can be debated rationally, but for now all I have to say is that none of the Republicans whining and crying over the latest twist in the story get any sympathy from me.
18 September 2018
In today's Albany Times Union a professor chides Governor Cuomo from backing down from his assertion, challenging President Trump's "Make America Great Again" nostalgia, that the nation was "never that great." In the professor's opinion, Cuomo was "condemned for speaking the truth." He proceeds to demonstrate, at least to his own satisfaction, the truth of the governor's original observation, presenting a litany of atrocities and insults directed at non-white or non-WASP people over the American centuries. Whatever we think of MAGAts, I suspect that none of them will deny that any of the offenses cited in the op-ed actually took place, yet they would most likely still affirm that the U.S. was great while most of these things happened. The professor might assume that such a conclusion only proves their indifference to the oppression of minorities, but all it would show is that, for some Americans, greatness can be shown with a balance sheet on which inequality is outweighed by other factors, while for the professor, the governor and others, nothing imperfect can be great. Like Cuomo, the professor believes that the U.S. will only be indisputably great when, for starters and in the governor's words, "discrimination and stereotyping against women ... is gone." They appear to be guilty of the same fallacy that mainstream Democrats like Cuomo ascribe routinely to critics on their left: they're making the perfect the enemy of the good. Philosophically speaking, it may be arguable that equality is, or should be, the sole criterion of national greatness, but politicians aren't seeking votes from a nation of philosophers. Like people of all nations, most Americans find more obvious proof of greatness in wealth and military might, while Americans in particular will often cite our right to complain about everything as proof that people shouldn't complain about anything, much less dispute American greatness. Under such conditions, progressive politicians might take advice from Minister Louis Farrakhan, who defended his controversial claim that Adolf Hitler was a great man by amending his assessment to "wickedly great." If they can keep such qualifications in mind, and preferably to themselves, progressives may not get into self-destructive debates over semantics so often.
06 September 2018
The Los Angeles Times reported recently on an experiment that appeared to disprove the hopeful premise that Americans would become less vehemently partisan if we would only take time to listen to opposite points of view. For the experiment, conducted by the National Academy of Science, subjects of confirmed partisan views were paid to follow a Twitter bot that would retweet comments from the opposite party or ideology. At the end of the experiment, liberal subjects, taking a survey for the second time, had become "slightly more liberal" while conservatives had grown "substantially more" conservative. Those results should have surprised no one, but maybe it shouldn't surprise us that people who thought that the sort of listening some feel is needed could be done on social media were shocked by the results. Platforms like Twitter are not where people are going to seriously or sincerely consider other people's opinions. They're not where the sort of conversations we may well need are going to take place. They are places for people to vent their anger or flaunt their contempt for the opposition, so of course partisanship will harden if all you see from the opposite party is their hatred for you and all you stand for. A different venue is necessary for those hoped-for conversations in which people can demonstrate that disagreement is not the same as hate or show that saying you can't have everything you want isn't the same as wishing you dead. Whether such conversations are possible anywhere anymore is the looming question of our time.
04 September 2018
Only someone like President Trump could make someone like Jeff Sessions a sympathetic figure. Whatever his own odious ideological or partisan agenda, Sessions can't help looking like a champion of the rule of law compared to the man who made him Attorney General and seemingly has used him as a punching bag ever since. Most recently, Trump has lambasted Sessions for allowing two Republican congressmen to be indicted during an election year, as if it were the Attorney General's job to prevent that. The President's persecution complex only spotlights his dubious assumption that the Department of Justice exists primarily to protect his own personal and partisan interests. On the assumption that Trump would only replace Sessions with someone who actually agrees with Trump's view, it may seem heroic of Sessions to stay on despite the constant humiliation and the more recent threat of a post-midterm sacking. But his persistence only reminds us of what many Republicans have seen all along as their bargain with the Trump movement. Despite the objections of many ideologues mainly concerned with the potential for mischief in the Executive Branch, more cynical Republicans, mindful of Trump's popularity among the yahoos, resolved to endure any executive idiocies of his so long as his popularity gave them cover to carry out their own reactionary agenda. Jeff Sessions is the embodiment of Republican shamelessness, yet his mere failure to comply with Trump's impossible demands may leave him looking like a man of principle on his inevitable exit and most likely guarantees him a big payday from some publisher. Only the dreaded Trump Derangement Syndrome could make Sessions seem like a martyr, but such are the diseased times we live in.
30 August 2018
The President thinks it unfair that a Google search of his name results in a preponderance of "bad" news about him and hints that search engines should be regulated to assure more balanced results. While he may think he's being targeted by the same old elite-media cabal, it was reported that a similar search for "Hillary Clinton" produced similarly "bad" results. Inevitably, Trump's complaint has caused alarm among civil libertarians and progressives, as it echoes generations of conservative demands for "balance" that, as critics see it, have actually skewed political discourse. The critics think that conservatives have "worked the refs" by demanding a minimum of recognition for views that critics consider objectively unworthy of consideration. Such demands are inevitable in multiparty democracies, but are driven less by an objective commitment to representation for all sides of all questions than by demands for recognition of power. Conservatives want equal representation for their views not because they're simply the other side of important debates but because they're a mass political movement representing millions of people and billions in wealth. Were the demand for balance driven simply by solicitude for all sides of any question, than Marxists would be equally entitled to balanced coverage of economic issues, and white racists equally entitled to balanced coverage of cultural issues. No one would take their entitlement seriously, however, because they lack the conservatives' numbers -- but most would agree that they're not entitled because their views can be dismissed objectively without counting heads or dollars. The progressive argument now is that numbers do not entitle Trumpism to balanced representation in the media because it's self-evidently beyond the pale morally and intellectually. If there's an authoritarian (or authoritarian democratic) aspect to Trumpism, however, it would include a claim that numbers and the raw fact that Trump won an election entitle him, in fact, to more than balanced coverage, just as the entire nation owes him some deference until the next election. Whether balance is Trumpists' true ideal, or anyone's, is open to debate, and that would be a debate where all sides would deserve to be heard.
26 August 2018
22 August 2018
NFL football season is approaching and with it, in all likelihood, fresh controversy over the proper reception of the national anthem. New league rules are meant to discourage players from making a public show of their refusal to stand for the song, but some players have already made their dissident intentions clear during the pre-season, while the President continues to agitate for harsher measures against the recalcitrant. I wonder whether, for all his nostalgia, Donald Trump knows that there was a time when refusing to stand for the anthem was at least theoretically illegal. In 1918, during World War I, the Sedition Act of 1918 made it a federal crime to treat the flag in a disrespectful manner. For that reason, in August of that year the Bullis brothers of Amsterdam NY were brought before a federal court. Workers at the Watervliet Arsenal, they had refused to stand when the anthem was played at a theater in nearby Troy. They were nearly mobbed by an angry audience until they were marched to the nearest police station. While they had to face a federal commissioner, ultimately they were sentenced in a local court for disorderly conduct. It was clear, however, that the brothers, who lost their jobs before they were sentenced, could have been tried under the Sedition Act. That statute was repealed in 1920 but has never, to my knowledge, been found unconstitutional. It was part and product of an unprecedented mass-media propaganda campaign to keep Americans in a war frenzy, and without a state of war existing it's unlikely that Trump or like-thinking superpatriots could enact a 21st century version of the measure. But from that quarter comes a similar demand for unconditional solidarity, whether with the troops or with themselves, and for an unconditional love of country. It's naive for anyone to take standing and holding your hand over your heart as conclusive proof of unconditional love, but I suppose it's also naive to think that refusing to do that for whatever explicit or implicit reason won't insult some people. Should people pay for the insult? The issue is complicated by the President's interventions, which only harden the hearts, so to speak, of those who claim the right to use the playing of the anthem to protest current conditions. Trump's insistence on "respect" will only make standing and saluting look more like a personal loyalty oath to Trump himself to those who loathe him, but I don't think Trump himself sees it that way. I think he sincerely believes that occasions like the playing of the anthem should transcend partisan politics, and that Americans should show that they love their country regardless of who's in charge or what you think of his policies. If he seems to admire authoritarian nations, it may be because he sees in those places the sort of unconditional, unanimous love of country he wants to see here, however artifical and compulsory it may actually be over there. But as long as unconditional love of country is equated by anyone with acquiescence in the way things are now, so long as the Trumpist message to the rest of the country is, "You can't change us, but you have to love us," he will not see that sort of unconditional unanimity here, and he will most likely remain enraged by the willful refusal of it by many people. History shows that, in theory, a Trumpist majority could attempt to force unanimity by criminalizing acts of passive dissent. The question for our time is whether they're actually tempted to use that historical power, and whether they can resist the temptation.
16 August 2018
Governor Cuomo the Younger of New York may have snuffed his already flimsy presidential ambitions after giving remarks this week in which he said, in contrast to President Trump 's "Make America Great Again" sloganeering, that the United States was "never that great" in the past the President apparently pines for. For Trump and his worshippers, that will prove that Cuomo doesn't really love his country and perhaps, like all others whose love isn't unconditional, should find another. While it was impolitic to rile the yahoos, it was also understandable for someone with unfinished ambitions within the Democratic party to talk this way, whether or not it will prove wise in the long run. In the long view, it reminds us that the real debate between the MAGA crowd and their detractors is over the criteria for judging American greatness. Cuomo's comments remind us that for progressives (whether or not you see him as one) the only criterion for greatness is an egalitarian one by which the U.S. will be found wanting until recent times. For the MAGA crowd (MAG-its?) this is an overly narrow if not utterly mistaken standard of judgment. For them, the nation that won the world wars and the cold war and has long been the world's richest has been self-evidently great for a long time, if not for always, and only a fanatical tunnel vision or a personal bias that puts one's national loyalty into question can deny that. Can only a white person believe in the country's historical greatness? Certainly, but can a non-white person (or a homosexual, or even a woman) affirm it without being denounced as some sort of Uncle Tom? Perhaps not now, but for the time being any aspiring progressive will have to learn to thread a very narrow needle to get those working class white thought that apparently are still needed to put a national candidate over the top. The wise politician will need to say two things: first, that America had a great past in spite of many enduring injustices that still need to be enumerated; and second, that progressive policies, not Trumpian reaction, will make America greater by anyone's standard.
15 August 2018
Even when the President is self-evidently trying to edit his Twitter impulses, he can't catch a break from his critics. Kathleen Parker, an anti-Trump Republican, sees his labeling of former aide Omarosa Managault-Newman, a sort of Frankenstein monster of his going back to The Apprentice, as a "dog" for releasing clandestine recordings as of a piece with insults aimed at LeBron James, Don Lemon, Maxine Waters and others. In other words, to call a black woman a dog is worse than if he had used the word to describe a white woman or man -- critics of that complexion are usually dismissed as losers or failures -- because "dog" dehumanizes the person thus labeled. The sad thing about this tirade against Trump is how obviously "dog" isn't what he really wanted to say. Unless the President has read a lot of comic books or pulp fiction, "dog" is not an epithet that's going to flow naturally from his tongue or fingers. Do I need to spell it out further? I'll do so only to ask whether Trump would get in worse trouble had he used more natural and characteristic language and called his nemesis a bitch as he probably wanted to. Parker probably still would have gotten a column out of it, calling Trump a sexist instead of a racist, but who can say what the final score would have been? The President is much admired in some quarters for talking back to his critics, but in a time when criticism is mistaken for hate on all sides, he only guarantees more hate for himself by doing so.
09 August 2018
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.