18 April 2018

Everything old is young again

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

14 April 2018

'Mission accomplished '

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

12 April 2018

'Get ready, Russia'

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

11 April 2018

Rightly?

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

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

04 April 2018

Human nature and gun control

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

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

02 April 2018

The meaning of 'fake'

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

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

29 March 2018

Begging the (census) question.

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

28 March 2018

Taking school safety 'seriously'

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

27 March 2018

Jealous lovers of their country

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

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

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

'The second-most dangerous American'

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

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

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

24 March 2018

Think 3 Video News: "Marching for our lives"

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



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



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



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

21 March 2018

'Do Not Congratulate'

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

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

20 March 2018

European vs. American conservatism

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

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

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

19 March 2018

Liberty and Death

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

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

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

14 March 2018

A snapshot referendum on Trump

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

13 March 2018

Moral Hazard

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

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

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

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

12 March 2018

Selective denunciation

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

07 March 2018

"An election is not about self-expression"

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

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

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

05 March 2018

Democratic protectionism

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

01 March 2018

Man of steel

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

The insult of leadership

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

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

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

26 February 2018

An authoritarian fantasy?

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

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

23 February 2018

'The NRA must die'

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

22 February 2018

The gun lobby from another planet

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

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

21 February 2018

Superstar

The late Billy Graham, not to be confused with the bicep-flaunting professional wrestler of the same name, may have been the nearest thing to an American Rasputin. If so, that reflects somewhat well on the United States. Above all he desired popularity as an aid to soul-saving. That led him to repudiate the come-outer tendency of Protestant fundamentalism in favor of a less discriminating, less dogmatic evangelism. It led him to desegregate his revival crusades at a relatively early point and to invite Dr. King to join him in at least one crusade. It led him to seek out and be sought by presidents of both parties, from Eisenhower to Obama. He was always a man of the right by the standards of the left, but seemed to stay aloof from the culture wars, or at least above the fray  in comparison to his virulent son Franklin.  While he appeared contemptible to some as a seeming courtier to power, he was uninterested in converting his popularity into political power or influence for himself. His desire for popularity above all made him probably the archetypal evangelist of American history, his reach unequaled and probably unmatchable, while his ecumenical tendencies, within the constraint of unswerving opposition to abortion, make him a quaintly generic figure in our sectarian age. He would have celebrated his centennial later this year, but he belongs to a past that grows more distant faster than the march of time.

20 February 2018

My two cents on Pence

People are still worked up this week over the perceived insult to the Vice President and his Christian faith perpetrated by one of the regular talking heads on The View, a morning TV show. Having heard second-hand that Mike Pence claims to take orders directly from God, Joy Behar observed that hearing disembodied voices usually indicates insanity. That didn't go over well, of course, and Pence himself has since cited Behar's remark as proof of the media's alienation from ordinary Americans and their values. It was bad form, I suppose, but a historical note is in order lest everyone assume that only a soulless secular humanist could object to someone hearing the voice of God. Our Puritan forebears might not have called that someone crazy back in the day, but they might well have called him a heretic. Their feeling was that God had already said all he needed to say to humanity in Scripture. On that assumption, anyone who claimed that an inner voice spoke to them with divine authority was suspect and subject to expulsion from the community. That Christians in general have come to Pence's defense, in his capacity as a believer if not as a politician, only shows how pervasive Pentecostal belief in regular divine intervention has grown since the controversial original revivals of a century ago. I wonder whether anyone still holds the old view today. The Behar-Pence debate would be much more interesting if someone intervened to interject that the Vice President's belief was un-Christian.

15 February 2018

The St. Valentine's Day Amoklauf

The youth arrested yesterday in Florida is accused of killing more than twice as many people as Al Capone's henchmen mowed down 89 years ago, but yesterday's crime will most likely go down as just another school shooting. The suspect had been expelled after threatening violence but apparently pulled a fire alarm to bring people into his line of fire. Because of his background, the political discussion afterward will most likely focus on screening dangerous individuals rather than on gun control, though all the old arguments remain valid. But while they do remain valid, it becomes increasingly clear that something is wrong with our culture -- something that goes deeper than superficial complaints against violent entertainment will reach. Censoring movies or video games won't get to the problem; the same games are played and the same films screened around the world, after all, without the consequences seen here. It's more likely that mass shootings are as much a symptom of American cultural decadence -- something religion won't cure -- as our increasingly anomic politics and our antisocial media. I don't have time to speculate more expensively on what the problem is, but whatever it is, that, more than any special regard for freedom of conscience, is at the heart of American exceptionalism in its darkest form. 

14 February 2018

Scarcity and Civilization

David Brooks blames the rise in "warrior" politics around the world on the supplanting of a Reaganesque "abundance" mentality with a Trumpian "scarcity" mentality that's been spreading around the world for the past quarter-century, from the time that the Yugoslav civil war disrupted post-Cold War optimism. Brooks characterizes the scarcity mentality as an "anti-philosophy" that is "incompatible with any civilized political creed." It has demoralized left and right, secular and religious alike, he claims, by encouraging a siege-mentality groupthink intolerant of contradiction. The bad news is that "The underlying conditions of scarcity are only going to get worse." The good news, at least in Brooks's prophecy, is that "Decent liberals and conservatives will eventually decide that they need to break from it structurally." That seems unlikely according to his own deterministic reading of recent history, and his prediction that the break will mean a breakup of the American Bipolarchy doesn't exactly inspire optimism. He's optimistic that it will mean the emergence of a civilized third party, but it could just as easily mean a proliferation of identitarian "warrior" parties. His expectation of a revival of the abundance mentality of optimistic openness in the midst of worsening scarcity reads like wishful thinking, but we might retain some hope if we question Brooks's implicit definition of civilization. His implication that civilized politics depends on an abundance mentality suggests that, like many Americans, Brooks equates civilization with freedom in the Rooseveltian "Four Freedoms" sense that emphasizes freedom from scarcity, fear, etc. Yet I would have thought that, as a conservative, Brooks would more likely take an alternate, older view that equates civilization with discipline, a self-control independent of material conditions. American conservatism has long been torn between the imperatives of freedom and discipline -- and though it may be less obvious, so has the left, where the struggle has left a fundamentally anarchic hedonism ascendant. On the right, Reaganite optimism was a deviation from characteristic conservative pessimism that arguably has made conservatism nearly as hedonistic as liberalism. The real question for the future may not be whether we can revive the abundance mentality but whether we can reimagine a more civilized, more disciplined alternative to the zero-sum tribal populism flourishing today. We may need someone other than David Brooks to imagine it.

08 February 2018

Which God do rights come from?

The President said nothing distinctively obnoxious at this year's National Prayer Breakfast, though more obsessive critics are likely still scouring the transcript for proof that Donald Trump aspires not just to autocracy but theocracy as well. While it was contemptible of him to locate "God's grace" in mothers forced to work two or three jobs to support their children -- that sounds more like human sacrifice to the Market -- his speech consisted mostly of the same pious bromide any president, or at least any Republican president, might utter. That includes the typical nod to natural rights philosophy when Trump said that our rights come from God, not man. An audience consisting mostly of conventional Christians applauded this, but did they or he really understand what they were applauding? They take it for granted that when someone says our human rights come from  God, that must obviously mean the God of Abraham, the God of the Bible. Yet when Thomas Jefferson credits our inalienable rights to the Creator in the Declaration of Independence, he is almost certainly referring specifically to that more recent theoretical construct, "Nature's God." While many Christians assume that there's no difference between Nature's God and the God of the Bible, there's a very important distinction to be made and insisted upon. Deists like Jefferson believed that the existence and attributes of Nature's God could be verified through reason, perhaps with some assistance from the New Testament philosopher Jesus of Nazareth. They likewise believed that human rights, those all political entities were bound to respect on pain of revolution, could be identified through reason and attributed, being natural, to Nature's God. When most U.S. Christians hear the President say that rights come from God, they take that to be synonymous with rights coming from The Bible, but Jefferson in particular found that book often an unreliable guide to God as reason required Him to be. As for human rights, where does the Bible proclaim freedom of speech or assembly, much less freedom of religion, as we understand those concepts? What about the right to vote or the right to jury trial?  How many of these things are affirmed or even considered by Jesus? Ask yourself these questions and you'll wonder why so many people treat assertions of natural rights as vindications of revealed religion, or as something Christians should automatically endorse. Absurd as their assertions are, however, I'll take them any day over the outright Christianist garbage you see in some places that has little if anything to do with real individual liberty.

He loves a parade

Credit the President with at least the smarts to emphasize consistently that his desire to stage a military parade in Washington DC was inspired by last year's Bastille Day event in France. While I dimly recall him expressing a desire for such a parade earlier than that, citing the French republic as his model is an implicit preemptive strike, for all the good it'll do him, against the charge that he wants the kind of show that dictatorships and authoritarian regimes put on. It does him only limited good because I've already seen headlines claiming that his itch to hold a parade proves his desire for militant despotism. This was inevitable and unsurprising. The bellicosity of such displays is sure to turn off many Americans who claim to pride themselves on what the country stands for, rather than its raw military might. Just as inevitably, complaints about the parade will play into the President's hands. He will no doubt say, if he hasn't already, that critics of his idea "don't love" Our Troops. Regardless of what he says, most Americans simply aren't going to be reminded of Kim Jong Un or Red Square by the sort of show Trump proposes. They'll more likely just find it cool, and his supporters in particular probably pride themselves more on the country's raw might than on what the country stands for (i.e. them). My advice to the opposition would be to swallow their aesthetic distaste for the would-be spectacle and their suspicions toward what it might represent. If you're an elected official and you're invited to a reviewing stand, be there. If you're an ordinary citizen, exercise your right to ignore the event. Either way, it won't be as bad as you think, and you may look worse making a stink about it.

06 February 2018

'Can we call that treason?'

Yesterday I mentioned in passing that the President has suggested that Democratic congressmen who refused to applaud his annual message to Congress were treasonous. To clarify, Trump cited unnamed others who gave him the idea, and asked, 'Can we call that treason?Why not?...They certainly didn't seem to love our country very much.'  This could very well be the most despicable thing Trump has said as president so far, and he was instantly flamed by both Democrats and dissident Republicans like Sen. Flake, who preemptively shot down the inevitable, 'he was joking' defense by saying, 'Treason is not a punchline.'  Nevertheless, you can still see where Trump is coming from. He believes credit is due him for objectively verifiable improvements in the American economy since his inauguration. He presumably sees the Democrats' refusal to praise him as a refusal to acknowledge that the nation is better off than it was in January 2017. It follows, for Trump and his supporters, that Democrats are less interested in the state of the Union than in expressing their disdain for Donald Trump. Of course, Democrats will dispute whether the country is better off, no doubt mindful that the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the unemployment rate improved steadily over a period characterized by Trump as a time of hardship and 'carnage.'  It can't be denied, however, that there is an irreducible element of ideology and prejudice to Democratic perceptions, just as there is to Republican perceptions. Regardless of whether supply-side economics show the best results by some objective standard, it's clear that Democrats don't want the economy to be governed by supply-side policies that appear to give CEOs and stockholders priority over the working class. Whether or not the world works that way, they don't want it to work that way, just as Republicans refuse to acknowledge even the possibility that collective cooperation might work more efficiently and fairly than competitive individualism because they prefer to live in a competitive, individualistic society. It can be said that the true patriot should embrace whatever works for the nation regardless of ideological prejudices, but that only begs the question of what the nation and the national interest are. President Trump no doubt would like to be seen as a non-partisan, non-ideological, pragmatic patriot, but whether he likes it or not he gave up any claim to be seen that way when he made common cause, in however heterodox a  fashion, with an ideological party. That doesn't mean that anyone else is automatically more patriotic than he is, the inevitable carping from the likes of Sen. Duckworth over his lack of military service notwithstanding. Nor does it absolve anyone from thinking him incapable of objective patriotism by virtue of his social class or line of work. It's a paradox of democracy that it ought to be easy to say what such a nation is and what patriotism means, but because we're a democracy -- or a democratic republic, if you insist, or simply a free country -- it is not.

Power is guilty

In some sort of grand irony, the actor Alec Baldwin, who has regained fame portraying Donald Trump as an insensitive boor on Saturday Night Live, is being criticized for his boorish insensitivity to a crucial issue of our day.  Baldwin has a record of boorishness of his own for such offenses as making harrassing phone calls to his daughter and calling for a congressman's home to be burned by a mob. His latest offense is to hold back from  the rush to judgment on some former collaborators, most notably Woody Allen, who have been accused of different degrees of sexual assault by different women. Worse, from a certain perspective, he has criticized some of the accusers, most notably Allen's erstwhile stepdaughter. The way in which some critics define Baldwin's offense is telling. A New York Times piece quotes a writer from the feminist Jezebel website who said, "It seems like he is aligning himself with the more powerful people in these situations -- not the accusers but the accused." This stance takes the "speaking truth to power" idea a bit too far in that it implicitly refuses to presume "power" innocent and impugns those who dare do so. According to this particular form of political correctness, the power imbalance itself seems to be as great a crime, as much a form of violence, as the sexual or sexualized abuse that sometimes  results from it. The "powerless" are owed the benefit of the doubt, especially when they are not white or male and the "powerful" are. Not to believe the accusers and presume the "powerful" guilty is, as a TV writer puts it, "overlooking and underestimating women while overvaluing the men." There's something vaguely Maoist about this, as if what counts in the eyes of the law should be what class you belong to, not the plausibility of your accusation or your defense. For what it's worth, I haven't looked into any of these cases enough to have reason to doubt any of the accusers, but I still believe in the presumption of innocence, as should anyone who doesn't ever want to be found guilty by association, or guilty by identity. Private citizens aren't under the same constraints as the courts, of course, and it's their right to call each case as they see it, so long as they realize that that goes for everyone else, including those who may find you intrinsically guilty of some crime against the nation, humanity, or the common good. In other words, if you don't like being called a "traitor" by some Trumpian yahoo, perhaps you should consider the Golden Rule before you call every accused celebrity, no matter how powerful he may be, a rapist.
Now, if you see anyone say that the presumption of innocence privileges the powerful and marginalizes the powerless, it's probably time to give up and let the bombs drop.

05 February 2018

Black Monday?

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by 1175 points today. This is the worst drop in the stock market's history in raw numeric terms, but it's nowhere close to the market's worst day. On the original Black Monday in 1929, the market lost nearly 13% of its value, while it lost only 4.6% today. The drop is blamed on that old bugaboo, "uncertainty," as the arrival of a new Federal Reserve chairman during a continued decline in unemployment raises the possibility of increased interest rates. While this may look like too big a drop to blame on mere uncertainty, the time may have come for a correction after a surge in the Index during President Trump's first year in office. On the other hand, the timing of a decline that began last week may start looking suspicious to the President's most rabid or credulous supporters. From their perspective, the sell-off may appear too precisely timed to discredit Trump's boasting of economic growth during his annual message to Congress. I can imagine some of them imagining that hostile market players (e.g. Warren Buffett? George Soros?) would want to undermine a Trump boom simply to spite Trump or aid his domestic enemies going into the midterms. We won't have to worry about this if the market rights itself, as it should if uncertainty alone is to blame for today's losses. If the past week signals the return of a bear market, however, politics could get uglier than ever very soon. If Trump himself seems to think it borderline treasonous for Democrats not to join in the stormy applause for his annual message, imagine how his fans will react should anyone seriously suggest that political enemies have sabotaged the economy. The reaction wouldn't be "fascist." It would be downright Stalinist.

02 February 2018

The memo

The dreaded "Nunes Memo" was made public today by the House Intelligence Committee, with the approval of the President and over the protests of many in the FBI and the Democratic party. Having skimmed the thing over, it struck me that there really was little for anyone to worry about. It protests against a single incident that on the evidence given definitely deserves scrutiny, but can hardly be said to discredit the entire investigation into Russian ties to the 2016 Trump campaign. The specific complaint is that a surveillance warrant was sought against a Trump campaign worker on the basis of the so-called Steele dossier -- that's the one that inspired ribald speculation about the President's kinks last year -- without the application acknowledging that Christopher Steele had an avowed political bias against Donald Trump. As I understand it, critics of the Nunes Memo contend that it misrepresents the application, and that the Steele dossier was the sole basis for suspicion of the campaign worker. For all I know they may be correct, but even if that's a conscious omission by the committee chairman it would not justify the hysterical reaction against the Memo any more than the Memo itself justifies the hysterical claims from the Trump camp that it obliterates the entire rationale for the Mueller inquiries. In simplest terms, it claims that the Bureau fell short of due diligence on one front in a way that regrettably shouldn't surprise us. First, this is the FBI we're talking about. Second, the widespread perception that the Trump movement is evil certainly has inspired a "witch hunt" in terms of rushed and sloppy intensity if not in terms of ultimate baselessness. History has shown us what can happen when the FBI jumps too quickly to conclusions on perceived conspiracies, and none of that suddenly becomes OK just because today's alleged conspirators are hateful poltroons rather than social revolutionaries. Americans of all persuasions have a long-term interest in discouraging the FBI from overreach that outweighs anyone's short-term interest in proving Trump a villain. Many Americans clearly see reason for suspicion that Trump or his people colluded in some inappropriate way with foreign interests, but as Thomas More says in the play, you don't want to chop down all the trees in the forest to get at the devil, only to have none left to hide behind when he turns on you. Beyond that, I think too many in the opposition still see this line of inquiry as a shortcut to discrediting the Trump movement preferable to the hard work of persuading working-class voters that Trump isn't the answer to their legitimate grievances. If Democrats are hoping that Robert Mueller will win the midterms for them with little extra effort on their own part, they may be in for a rude surprise this November.

01 February 2018

Historical hypocrisy?

The current New Yorker has a "Talk of the Town" piece about a genealogical researcher who's gained a large Twitter following for exposing the apparent hypocrisy of many modern immigration restrictionists. Using census records, she shows not only the obvious fact that most of these people are descended from immigrants, but also that many of their ancestors would not have met the criteria the restrictionists insist on today. In some cases, their ancestors arrived jobless, without skills or prospects. In others, they were very slow to learn English. The implicit question is: what's different now? There are two possible answers. The answer from the left is that immigrants today are more likely to be non-white, and the standards restrictionists seek to impose on them are discriminatory in the worst way as well as hypocritical in historic context. The answer from the restrictionist side -- which is not the right as a whole -- is that the nation's economic condition has changed in a way that requires us to be more discriminating in a non-racist way. There 's bad faith on both sides of this argument, in both the left's claim that all restrictionists are racist and the restrictionists' defense that none of them are.  But even if all restrictionists were racist, that wouldn't make them hypocrites in the common sense of the word. A hypocrite is someone who insists on a general rule of conduct here and now while breaking that rule himself, or someone who is deliberately inconsistent in applying or enforcing standards here and now. An immigration restrictionist is not hypocritical (though he may still be racist) if he argues that there was no reason 150 years ago for the restrictionist policies he recommends today. This may not impress someone who believes that the right to migrate in search of a better life, and the right to be welcomed wherever you go, are unconditional absolutes independent of historical circumstances, but exploring that position further would take us in another direction for a longer journey. It's enough to note here that American politicians, and politicized Americans, like nothing better than to call each other hypocrites, but as far as the immigration question is concerned, as in many other cases, that course only leads to a dead end.

30 January 2018

The Market is the Nation

Recent tariff announcements reminded many Republicans of why they don't like President Trump. In recent days I've seen George Will and Jonah Goldberg rehash their arguments against protectionism, and while Goldberg in particular stresses that free trade is the right way for anti-statist conservatives, so opposed to the materialist conservatism who've embraced Trump, the real argument from both men is that the right of the consumer to the most choices àt the lowest prices is more important than any number of American jobs. While this position is at least superficially democratic, since the consumers of any product outnumber its producers, it's essentially meritocratic in a collectivist way in its indifference to individual fate, compared to the President's theoretical commitment to preserving jobs at all costs. Most significantly, it entitles consumers to indifference to whether their decisions lead to fellow Americans losing their jobs. On this point an important distinction emerges. Many of the same ideologues who implicitly champion this indifference to individual consequences in the realm of commerce will reflexively condemn any attempt by democratically elected representatives to increase the minimum wage, because doing so, they claim, inevitably will cost jobs. But if the electorate decides that workers should be paid more, why should they care any more about the fate of the individual worker than they do when they buy cheap imports with the wholehearted endorsement of free-trade Republicans? The answer, from the vantage of those Republicans, seems to be that consumerism is a more authoritative, more legitimate expression of democracy than voting, that the consumer has legitimate power of life and death over jobs while the voter doesn't. They often object that electoral democracy entitles people to decide on issues despite their hopeless bias or outright ignorance, yet the judgments of the Market, the true voice of the people, are true and righteous altogether. That helps explain how both major parties can talk about democracy sincerely and mean two different things, and how even one major party can contradict itself. Republicans are now debating amongst themselves whether the democracy of voters or the democracy of the market has their first loyalty.

24 January 2018

Existentialist Trumpism

More proof that the Trump movement has driven some people nuts is Greg Grandin's think piece in the January 29 Nation. Grandin, a leftist historian, describes Trumpism as a death cult. Allegedly driven by a fear of death -- we'll get to that in a moment -- the Trump campaign "transmute[d] the fear of death into a drive unto death," willing a mad President to bring civilization crashing down in order to "finish the job of deregulation."  The regulated economic order identified with the Democratic party had grown increasingly unbearable to these cultists, reared on dreams of "freedom  as infinity," as ecological and other limits asserted themselves. "The promise of endless growth can no longer help organize people's aspirations, satisfy their demands, dilute the passions, contain the factions, or repress the extremes at the margins," Grandin writes. The breaking point that unleashed Trumpism was the Obama presidency, attended by increased (yet increasingly unsustainable?) assertiveness by minorities.

"And now, as we are falling back to a wasted earth, the very existence of people of color functions as an unwanted memento mori," Grandin essays, "a reminder of limits, evidence that history imposes burdens and life contracts social obligations." By some perverse math, white reactionaries equate social justice with death because they can only think of it as limitation. This, Grandin argues, is the psychological truth behind the "death panel" libel against Obama care. Trumpism at heart is "an enraged refusal of limits, even as those limits are recognized."

Grandin may be wiser than he knows, or at least more so than he cares to reveal to a progressive readership. The best proof that he may be on to something, if not on exactly what he suspects, is that much of what he says can be applied equally to the anti-Trumpists. Recall his reference to "the extremes at the margins," and note Grandin's claim that the Trump cult "has proved so confounding ... because what came before was also a death cult." He refers to America's disproportionate and irresponsible wasting of the world's resources, our refusal to share them properly with all nations and people's. But he could just as easily be referring to the dreams and fantasies of the left that have also been infuriatingly belied by intractable natural limits. While Trumpism, in Grandin's account, rails against the Other's claim to a just share of what remains, regardless of whether or not they deserve it by Trumpist standards, its opposite number -- something more than the obvious "death cult" of antifa -- rails against the Man, if you please, for refusing to share. If a Trump voter feels that we'd be better off today if not for so many freeloaders, the hardcore anti-Trumpist feels that we'd be better off if so many rich white men weren't so greedy, or so many poor white men so selfish. It probably becomes as increasingly intolerable for leftists to have to share the world with angry white men in our interesting times as it is for angry whites to have to share it with those who think they're the devil. Either way, Grandin's rant reminded me of that line from  Jean Paul Sartre's existentialist play, "Hell is other people." Sartre's play was set "literally" in Hell, and attempted to express a universal anxiety about humans' inability to truly comprehend each other. In 2018 America, partisan polarization has nearly reached the point of mutual incomprehensibility, making us ever more strangers to each other even as we scramble to form new tribes or reclaim older bonds. Grandin probably doesn't see this afflicting the left as much because his own leftism recognizes no problem that can't be solved by more sharing, but the increasingly intolerant tone of many on the left tells a different, more troubling story. Grandin put a lot of analytical imagination into his essay, but David Bromwich tops him elsewhere in the magazine by writing, "The Democrats are not heartless -- Trump could never have been their candidate -- but they have not yet begun to think."

22 January 2018

Morality, sovereignty and abortion

Michael Gerson wonders why abortion remains a hot-button issue in American politics. In his latest column, he suggests that the abortion question pits two stongly-held contemporary values against each other. The pro-choice movement appeals to our desire for autonomy, understood as freedom of choice, while the pro-life position (note: for what it's worth my Samsung keyboard app autocorrects "pro-life" to "proliferation," as if recognizing a historic pun) appeals to the same spirit of inclusiveness, Gerson claims, that fuels the gay-rights movement. That doesn't read quite right. The contexts within which homosexuals demand recognition as equal citizens and pro-lifers demand recognition of fetuses as rights-bearing human beings are very different, the former asserting a right to participation in civil society, the latter defending a mere right to exist. Gerson  must realize, too, that many gay-rights advocates are pro-choice on the abortion question in a way that would seem inconsistent were "inclusion" at stake. A more plausible comparison might be made to the debates between those who seek to apply universal standards of human rights worldwide and those who argue not for the autonomy but for the sovereignty of nations. The essential conflict is between a morality that recognizes no boundaries and those who assert the sovereignty of women's bodies. Just as most nations claim that their governments' treatment of their citizens is no other country's business, so pro-choice insists that what happens inside a woman's body is no one else's business, regardless of any notion of human rights. As most countries treat assertions of universally applicable and enforceable human rights as an existential threat to their independence, so pro-choice women see the assertion of enforceable fetal rights as a threat to their personhood. In general, assertions of universal (or "natural") human rights are seen by their critics as rationalizations attempting to justify unwarranted power grabs. In our age of ad hominem skepticism, universalist claims are regarded as no less self-serving than the counterarguments of sovereign critics, with the tie going to those making existential claims (for sovereignty) over those resorting to ideological sophistry. The distinction between existential and ideological right is essential should pro-choicers be asked why their sovereign rights should be respected: sovereignty becomes the necessary basis of inviolable individuality. The gay rights movement is a similar assertion of sovereignty available to some men, while a right to intoxication or a right to smoke might be a question of sovereignty for the rest, though none of these raise the same red flag of power over a helpless other that abortion does. Since the competition of morality and sovereignty is a constant in the history of civilization, the persistence of the abortion question shouldn't surprise us. Thinking of autonomy, Gerson appeals to compassionate solidarity as the remedy for its excesses. Sovereignty marks the limit of solidarity and of what society can demand from the individual, or what the world can demand from any nation, but the border it draws is no more permanent than any on earth. Gerson concludes resignedly that the abortion question and the "enduring divide" that underlies it can "only be managed, not settled." I call him resigned rather than pessimistic, since I suspect that he suspects that a real settlement might be a cure worse than the disease.

20 January 2018

THINK 3 Video News: Unhappy Anniversary

One year ago today, Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States. One day later, massive protests against him took place across the country. Today, to commemorate both events, and in the shadow of the latest government shutdown, anti-Trump activists gathered again to reenact their outrage and energize themselves for a crucial congressional campaign season.

In Albany, the weather wasn't as unseasonably favorable as it was last year. We had a decent snowfall last Wednesday, but on Thursday there were work crews clearing the stuff from West Capitol Park to accommodate the expected demonstrators. City and state government support their cause so the courtesy was inevitable. As it turned out, at least by my estimate, today's event drew about a third as many people as last year's demonstration. That still translates to an impressive couple of thousand people, but despite the shutdown and a year's worth of outrage most people couldn't feel the same angry urgency the felt on the occasion of Trump's inauguration. Here are a couple of videos I took of the event.



What would a protest like this, almost lily-white, be without a folk song?



Finally, here are some stills of signs and sign-holders.


For what it's worth, the most common slogan I saw was "Make America Kind Again."