21 February 2018


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."

Is anything worth a shutdown?

It's going to be a long weekend for Congress and the President as they face fresh rounds of negotiations after the partial government shutdown took effect at midnight. Today most likely will see a lot of posturing and recrimination. The President has already done his bit on Twitter, taking the predictable line that the Democrats, who denied the stopgap spending bill the necessary supermajority in the Senate, have put the interests of illegal immigrants before everything else by making their support conditional on funding for the DACA or "Dreamer" program. It certainly doesn't look good for one party to be willing to shut down the government over any pet issue, though the Democrats are also demanding more money for a child health insurance program. But for good or ill the Democrats cannot do otherwise, at least for today, since their vision of the nation is at stake. For them, the U.S. will always be, first and foremost, a refuge for the world's oppressed, with utilitarian considerations secondary at best. That's worked for them for nearly 200 years, even as each group they welcomed and integrated into American society over nativist objections eventually turned nativist from fear of the next newcomers. Today's calls for a more utilitarian or meritocratic immigration policy no doubt strike many Democrats as hypocritical as well as bigoted, but as a general observation wisdom acquired with age often seems hypocritical when someone seems to say "do as I say, not as I did." The hypocrisy argument can only go so far, and we'll probably see the limits of it today as Democrats preach to choirs gathered across the country to curse the anniversary of Trump's inauguration. For those audiences Democrats must appear intransigent, but I expect to hear them change once the marchers go home, sine whether they or the marchers like it or not, the optics of the shutdown do not appear favorable to their side. Today might actually be Democrats' best chance to make their position look at least sympathetic if not reasonable, but the temptation to pander to base voters convinced of the opposition's irredeemable bigotry will most likely cost them that chance. The shutdown most likely has already changed the character of today's demonstrations, whether the demonstrators understand that or not. They may expect vindication on the assumption that Republicans usually get blamed for these shutdown crises, but they should also expect yet another reminder that times have changed.

19 January 2018

Objections to conscience?

Once Americans acknowledged the idea of conscientious objection to military combat duty, we effectively surrendered our right to deny conscientious objections to other things, even when, in the case of abortion, many may argue that the patient's reproductive rights should have priority over any doctor's religious scruples. Once admit that you can refuse the state's call to arms on religious grounds, you probably have to allow others to deny that the state's recognition of reproductive rights imposes a duty contrary to a doctor's religious principles. I might like to argue that religious liberty should never override state duties or rights unless the conscientious objector can prove with reference to scripture that his or her salvation is irrevocably at stake, but that has never been the standard for allowing conscientious objection -- and in any event salvation is never out of reach for Christians, no matter what sin  they commit. That leaves no real remedy for the Trump administration's commitment to defend the rights of doctors who refuse to perform abortions (or assist in suicide where state laws permit) as a matter of religious conscience. The only effective remedy might be for whichever body that governs those specialists who might perform abortions to steer people who object to abortion away from  the profession. Such a move probably would be denounced as discrimination against religion, no matter how many professedly devout Christians continue to perform abortions, and even if the state didn't recognize it as such the idea alone would most likely rile up Christianists in counterproductive fashion. The only certain remedy would be for civil society to induce people to learn the necessary specialties in order to ensure a sufficiency of doctors to meet women's needs, but even that will be certain only for as long as the state permits abortion, and that segues to another story. I'll close this one by questioning whether those applauding the Trump administration actually endorse the principle of conscientious objection or merely want privileged protection for their own Christianist biases. Would they support a Muslim doctor, for instance, who claimed a conscientious objection, on the basis of a perceived religious obligation, to treating patients of the opposite sex? If not -- if they argue instead that Muslims shouldn't practice medicine in this country if they have such scruples -- then physician, heal thyself.

17 January 2018

No enemies of the people

In his latest philippic against the President, Senator Flake condemned him for describing the news media as the "enemy of the American people" in February 2017. "Enemy of the people" is a Stalinist phrase, Flake argues, and the sort of slander only someone of a despotic mindset would use. The context of Trump's complaint is, if not entirely dismissed, effectively minimized by the Arizonan orator. As he sees it, the President lashed out at critics because he can't stand criticism. By Flake's standard, that pretty much disqualifies Donald Trump from any role in American politics.

Any of us who have spent time in public life have endured news coverage we felt was jaded or unfair. But in our positions, to employ even idle threats to use laws or regulations to stifle criticism is corrosive to our democratic institutions. Simply put: it is the press’s obligation to uncover the truth about power. It is the people’s right to criticize their government. And it is our job to take it.

In other words, the media must be given the benefit of the doubt, not by presuming them innocent or always truthful but by allowing them to err on the side of vigilance against encroaching tyranny. Better to let them fudge the facts, or perhaps even to lie -- I do not claim that this is how the media actually treats Trump -- than to let the leader use "fake news" as an excuse to suppress dissent. Flake claims, cluelessly I think, that the President's "fake news" rhetoric has emboldened authoritarians around the world to crack down on dissent in their own ranks. While some may have added the phrase "fake news" to their propaganda arsenals, I otherwise doubt whether the leaders cited by the senator need any instruction from America on how to suppress dissent.

For Flake, "despotism is the enemy of the people," while "The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy." Given his visceral reaction to the phrase "enemy of the people," it seems fair to assume that Flake doesn't believe that there is, or can be, an "enemy of the people" among the people. As a libertarian-leaning Republican, his base assumption more likely is that state power is the root of all danger. For the sake of argument, let's question this premise. Can there be no "enemies of the people" among the people (i.e. within the "private sector" or "civil society") in a liberal democracy? Does the senator believe that there is such a thing as treason? Most likely he does. What, then, is a traitor? Is he merely an "enemy of the state," or may one call him by extension, in a democracy, an "enemy of the people?" The terms should be synonymous, yet "enemy of the people" somehow sounds more sinister to some ears. That may be because "the people" whose enemies are denounced by dictators or demagogues is often defined in a partial or partisan way. It's often assumed that "the people" is used dishonestly, whether by the purportedly populist and allegedly racist President,for whom only certain Americans really count as "the people," or by totalitarian partisans for whom "the people" only exist through or by the grace of their party.

From an ideologically pluralist or individualist perspective, the mere idea of a "people" in a liberal state may be suspect, a threat to individualism or pluralism. It doesn't follow, however, that either "the people" or "enemy of the people" should always have menacing connotations. If populists, for instance, are only materialist conservatives, concerned with the welfare of the actually existing people of their nation instead of "human rights," one can be an "enemy of the people" in their eyes simply by harming or threatening to harm the material interests of those people. While one could see businesses as "enemies of the people" (though libertarians would rather not) in a number of ways, whether by taking jobs away, polluting the environment, operating unsafe workplaces, etc., it's hard to see how the media can be "enemies of the people" unless they are literally treasonous in the uncontroversial sense of the word, and not even Trump has accused them of that, to my knowledge. Nevertheless, that possibility always exists, if not in the media as a class than among individual media entities. For that reason, calling the media the "enemy of the people" may be a lie or a tantrum, but it shouldn't be treated as the blasphemy Flake condemns in his speech. Simply put, if the other side can portray Donald Trump -- or, for that matter, media entities like Fox News and Breitbart -- as an enemy of the people, as many clearly feel that he is, then turnabout is no more than fair play, so long as neither side uses the claim to circumvent the rule of law and people's constitutional rights. Donald Trump may be violating some unwritten rule by talking back to his critics rather than simply "taking it," but he's only exercising the same right that his critics exercise. As long as they all have the same right, let 'em fight.

12 January 2018

'The least racist person that you've ever met'

So the President of the United States once described himself, with characteristic hyperbole and, many now reiterate, with characteristic dishonesty. Donald Trump's self-assessment seems belied by his questioning yesterday, in words the White House hasn't bothered denying, why the U.S. should take in more people from "shithole" countries in Africa or like Haiti. No denial may seem necessary (though since I started writing, the radio has reportsd that Trump has tweeted a denial) because Trump assumes that his supporters get what he means, while the opinions of those who take his words to be racist don't matter. His real meeting, his stooges insist, is that the U.S. should only take in people prepared to make immediate contributions to the economy, as Norwegians, to use the President's example, presumably are. Of course, that he immediately cited a Scandinavian country after disparaging black-clad countries only damns Trump further in the eyes of those who have assumed all along that skin color (or 'culture') is his primary concern. Had he a quicker wit, he might have named some Asian country if he did not want to be thought of as racist. As it is, even now liberals are overreacting to Trumpian boorishness and most likely guaranteeing themselves more lulz from his supporters. It can be argued, after all, that many nations are shitholes. Many liberals might consider Russia a shithole, for instance, for a variety of reasons, though for them that would be reason to welcome Russians seeking to escape their national shittiness. There are two real questions raised by the President's own designation of shittiness. Does the state of any given country effectively disqualify its citizens, as Trump seems to imply, from even the potential of contributing to the American economy or culture? How much does any nation's shithole status have to do with its racial makeup? To deal with the latter question, Trump should try to identify African nation's that are not shitholes, and if he can't, he should try to explain what, if anything besides black rule, makes them shitholes. As for the question of usefulness, there's no getting around the fact that Trump applies a utilitarian standard that represents a departure from past policy and liberal tradition. The fact that Ireland was a shithole in the 1840s didn't stop the U.S. from accepting Irish immigrants, despite cultural objections from the Know-Nothings; nor did the fact that much of Europe remained a shithole later in the 19th century stop us from welcoming people from Eastern Europe and Italy, despite more cultural objections. In each case, the nation's best years were still to come despite the inclusion of people who seemed as alien to WASPS then as Africans may seem now. In all past cases, it was not required that immigrants immediately prove their ability to contribute. It should be possible to argue that circumstance here are sufficiently different to justify applying a different standard without the new standard reflecting on other countries. It just doesn't seem possible for this President to make that argument or articulate that standard in a diplomatic or even civilized way.

10 January 2018

Would you like to see my French postcards?

Unfortunately, I have none. Instead, I want to comment briefly on the remarkable letter that appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde this month and has now been translated into English. Attributed in the American press to the actress Catherine Deneuve, who is actually only a signatory but is the one best known here, the letter represents a perhaps distinctively European backlash against the perceived witch-hunt mentality toward alleged sexual harrassers in the U.S. More sweepingly, it's a critique of the "triggered" mentality that seeks to purge the public sphere of anything that might disturb it. The letter has attracted considerable attention here, and probably considerable sympathy from the American right, because it attacks what it describes as an anti-harrassment "puritanism," exemplified by the #MeToo meme, that unfairly seeks to suppress any expression of male sexual desire. It's not intended as a defense of Harvey Weinstein, whose fall from grace began the current reign of terror -- just this week, men ranging from James Franco to Stan Lee have joined the ranks of the accused -- but a warning against the blanket indictment of every man who's ever "bothered" a woman. For the authors, the right of men to "bother" women is as "indispensable to sexual freedom" as the right to "offend" is to artistic creation, not to mention political expression. They deplore a mentality unable "to tell the difference between an awkward attempt to pick someone up and what constitutes a sexual assault."Such a mentality reduces womanhood to victimhood and encourages "a hatred of men and sexuality." The authors argue for a more sophisticated feminism that recognizes that "sexual impulses are, by nature, offensive and primitive," but refuses to reduce sexuality to a perpetual power struggle.

A woman can, in the same day, lead a professional team and enjoy being a man’s sexual object, without being a "whore" or a vile accomplice of the patriarchy. She can make sure that her wages are equal to a man’s but not feel forever traumatized by a man who rubs himself against her in the subway, even if that is regarded as an offense. She can even consider this act as the expression of a great sexual deprivation, or even as a non-event.

The letter draws a distinction similar to the one I find increasingly definitive between left and right in the U.S., if not around the world. The right sees the world as tough while the left sees it as cruel.  For the right, the answer to toughness is toughness; one must adapt and discipline oneself to deal with the world as it is. For the left, the answer to cruelty is revolution or, on a smaller scale, litigation; the world (and its cruelest people) must be tamed so we can be what we want to be or were meant to be. In the French context, the authors, Deneuve and the other signatories are basically asking American women, and those influenced by them in Europe, to toughen up and deal with sexuality as it is, in all its offensive primitiveness, instead of trying to purge the primitive from the arts or the arts community.

The obvious riposte from #MeToo types will be that the French women are, ironically misogynist in their implicit assumption that men can't be better, or can't be made better than they are. Whatever the truth on that point, the Americans certainly will reassert their right to demand better, as well as their contempt for anyone who questions their demand. The perception of world cruelty is linked to the belief that the world, or at least human nature, can be changed without limit; a cruel world would not seem so unacceptable if we didn't assume that it didn't have to be that way. In any event, I don't think the French women are saying it "has to be that way." Their argument is that #MeToo is forcing the sexual world into a rigid "that way" position in which men are always predators, women always prey, objectification is always evil, and the only remedy is a sexual police state, while their own perspective recognizes a wider range of give-and-take. The #MeToo view seems to the French writers too close to a truly anti-sexual attitude that #MeToo would consider antithetical to their own, but is, in the French view, the grim and more likely alternative to sexual freedom and its irreducible messiness.

This frenzy for sending the "pigs" to the slaughterhouse, far from helping women empower themselves, actually serves the interests of the enemies of sexual freedom, the religious extremists, the reactionaries and those who believe — in their righteousness and the Victorian moral outlook that goes with it — that women are a species "apart," children with adult faces who demand to be protected.

#MeToo certainly will protest this dystopian portrayal, if it hasn't done so already, if only because it exists to protest. That's only fair, though, since I don't think the French letter is the last word on the subject. It is, however, an intervention that should not be dismissed as readily or contemptuously as some would like.

Decline is relative

"Anti-Trump movement in decline" is how one local paper headlines David Brooks's latest column. That looks counterfactual given recent Democratic successes at the polls and the media frenzy over the Fire and Fury book, but Brooks is actually writing about what he perceives as the opposition's intellectual decline. "It seems to be settling into a smug, fairy-tale version of reality that filters out discordant information," he writes, "The movement also suffers from lowbrowism  [which] ignores normal journalistic or intellectual standards [that] makes you think and notice less." Brooks sees this as a regrettable but inevitable development, since "In ever war, nations come to resemble their enemies." That's a new one that our nonagenarian "Greatest Generation" survivors might be interested to hear, but the observation probably is more true for civil wars and milder levels of factional strife. My problem with Brooks's assertion of decline is that it makes him look very slow on the uptake. The anti-Trump movement on the street and social-media levels has been like this all along. It has done little other than demonize and caricature Trump and his movement in "fairy-tale" fashion. What Brooks seems to be missing now, to provoke his decline claim, is the moderating  presence of anti-Trump Republicans like himself, now that the GOP has gotten what they wanted from Trump: tax cuts and regulatory rollback. There's still a lot of anti-Trump opinion among conservative columnists, but with most of the leading anti-Trump elected officials preparing to leave office, a "deplorable" lowbrow left has come to define the opposition in Brooks's eyes. This is too "insular" an opposition for him, unfamiliar or simply unwilling to communicate reasonably with anyone who supports Trump. Brooks still holds out hope that a revival of civility resulting from some escape from insualrity on all sides can reverse the overall decline in political discourse, but I don't yet see what can bring that about, so long as all sides demand respect as the precondition of civility while each equates respect with surrender. Trumpism and its opposite continue to be driven by the perception that one group refuses to respect the other. Mutual respect will require some compromise, as civility always does, but few see so far what might make that worth their while. We probably have more decline to endure before that changes.

08 January 2018

Think 3 Video News: "Life is Good."

It's the morning of January 8 at the corner of Swan and Washington in Albany, across from the Alfred E. Smith building. The view is from inside a recently redecorated CDTA bus shelter.

The man across the street has been working that corner for months, at least since last summer. His little cardboard sign asserts that he's a drug-free military veteran. Sometimes a driver stopped at the light will call him over. Like most people, I assume he had the weekend off. I hope so, at least, because it was below zero Saturday, and his spot is one of the worst in town on a cold day, the way the wind whips around West Capitol Park. Sometime that weekend, I assume, an artist did his thing with that health-insurance ad. Who knows what his inspiration was.

The night of the dull knives

Can anyone still believe that President Trump is a fascist, or that his is a fascist movement, after the controversy over the Fire and Fury book? People may still feel that Trump has authoritarian tendencies, and they may be disturbed by the way Steve Bannon is groveling to get back in the movement's good graces, but howevermuch he and other sources now claim to have been misrepresented in the book, it seems clear that Donald Trump simply isn't and never will be the sort of leader historical fascism has produced. Mussolini and Hitler were know-it-all, at least in their own minds, fond of bloviating on a wide range of topics, while Trump seems to be a literal know-nothing outside his specialized business realm, but is no more modest for that. More significantly, the World War II dictators impressed their followers as visionaries rather than reactionaries, while Trump has little more vision than "Make America Great Again" and far less ability to articulate or dramatize what vision he has. For all that he demands praise, he clearly lacks the awful charisma that made even insiders worshipful toward the authentic fascist leaders; he lacks the stuff from which a fuhrerprinzip can be made. Of course, people can still remind me that someone said that American fascism will look different from the European originals, but that would only start a debate over the meaning of fascism that they most likely wouldn't win. Suffice it to say that Trump and his movement are bad enough as they are, while his voters were "fascist" only insofar as they were hoping for a punitive presidency on the model of The Apprentice. There is danger enough, depending on your perspective, in many Americans' desire to see many other Americans "fired" without accusing them of wanting something that very few, if any, actually do. And if more really want a more authoritarian or even totalitarian nation, it should be clear by now that Donald Trump isn't going to be the one to bring it.

03 January 2018

What's the matter with Iran?

The American and Iranian republics may be irreconcilable  antagonists right now, but they have at least one noteworthy thing in common. Each sees hotly contested elections among a limited range of candidates over a limited range of issues. In the U.S. no candidate is credible outside the two-party system; Donald Trump probably would have fared little better than Ross Perot had he not committed himself to seizing a major-party nomination. In Iran no candidate can even run without the sanction of the Supreme Leader. In either case, critics from outside the mainstream can complain that there isn't a dime's worth of difference between or among mainstream candidates, but things look different from within the mainstream. In Iran the ayatollahs presumably could limit the field exclusively to rubber-stamp candidates congenial to the clerical elite, but the bitterness with which elections are contested and issues debated suggest that this isn't the case -- unless you believe that the continuance or necessary abolition of the Islamic Republic and the vilayet-e-faqih principle are the only issues worth debating. American politics is open to similar criticism from those who believe that the most important issues facing our country are not only ignored but actively excluded from national debates. Americans can claim that the people, not the fringes, decide what the real issues are, but only the most complacent apologists for bipolarchy really believe that. Regarding Iran, Americans tell the world that the Iranian  people have no say in what the issues are so long as the Supreme Leader retains his power and the basijis enforce it, but that isn't quite right, either. 2018 has begun with mass protests in many Iranian cities in an echo of the American anti-Trump protests  of January 2017. The Iranian demos seem to have started in protest against President Rouhani economic policies, the economy being the major issue in Iranian elections, but have evolved, in some instances, into protests against clerical rule itself. Some accounts suggest that this is instant blowback insofar as the original protests were orchestrated by the Supreme Leader's men to embarrass Rouhani, who has never been Ayatollah Khamenei's favorite. Some Iranians apparently blame the overall system for their economic woes, citing systemic mismanagement and corruption or, as American observers would have it, the squandering of national wealth on international adventurism in Syria, Yemen or elsewhere. In response, Rouhani has affirmed the right to assemble while warning against violence, while the Supreme Leader's men blame the escalation of protests on foreign enemies,no doubt citing President Trump's cheerleading tweets as sufficient proof. Americans inevitably are tempted to see the 2018 demonstrations as the beginning of an "Iranian Spring," a new "color revolution" or a "people power" moment. Such perceptions assume that the Iranian regime is systematically repressive, undemocratic and illegitimate. The Islamic Republic is often more blatantly and violently repressive than the U.S. has been in a long time, but if Americans accept the premise that Iran surrenders legitimacy by denying real choices and thus real power to the people, they should be prepared to judge their own government by the same standard. Most will no doubt give their own country a passing grade because they see real differences between the major parties. They would not agree that any number of protesters in the streets can override the presumed majority verdict. With that in mind they might withhold judgment on Iran as a republic, if not as a geopolitical antagonist, for the time being.

02 January 2018

Is there a cure for outrage?

At the end of the year Hugh Hewitt, an anti-Trump conservative, diagnosed a nationwide addiction to outrage. He describes it as "the state of being perpetually offended, ... the need not only to be angry at someone or something, or many people and issues, but also to always and everywhere be, well, hating." Addicts, Hewitt writes, see their outrage as a sign of life. He blames social media for the condition he identifies across the political spectrum, but social media and the smartphones that allow us to take part in it everywhere at most facilitate, or at worst accelerate a decadence arguably latent in the American character.  The American ideal of personal liberty became decadent once a critical mass of Americans decided that their ability to dissent, protest or simply bitch was the only proof available that this was still a free society. The Founders may have regarded the right to dissent as a necessary safeguard against tyranny, but I'm less sure that they saw it as the essence of liberty itself. That it has become that probably proves the death of the American Dream in which the ability to do whatever you dreamed of, as long as it was profitable, was the essence of liberty. Now that opportunity seems stagnant and few see tax cuts or other supply-side measures as a liberating force, the right to outrage -- to express it and to provoke it in others -- is the only freedom, thanks to social media, that almost everyone can exercise. The last meaningful vestige of egalitarianism is the ability to "speak truth to power" or tell power, and its constituents, to fuck themselves. When this freedom is all we have, or the one thing that distinguishes us or elevates us above other powers, many of us inevitably will seek out things to be outraged over, to remind ourselves that we are still free after all. Having a President who, his reasonable complaints about media bias notwithstanding, has a bad habit of demanding praise from everyone for everything, only makes things worse lately. If the alternative to outrage is to think positive or look on the bright side, many will find the cure worse than the disease, or perhaps as a North Korean import. Fortunately, there is another alternative. The happy medium between compulsive outrage and dutiful affirmation would be a kind of enlightened cynicism grounded not in misanthropy but in modest expectations for the world and the people in it and, perhaps most importantly, a modesty about one's own feelings and opinions. Such an attitude would replace hate with a milder mockery ideally nonpartisan in its scope, based on a recognition that, just as my utopia is never going to happen, neither is my worst dystopian nightmare. This will be a tough sell, of course, since imagining the worst delivers the same kick as partisan outrage, but persistence may reward modest mockery by making it cool the way H. L. Mencken's cynicism became improbably cool in the 1920s. Promoting mockery may seem to fly into the teeth of the storm given the rage for respect that unites antifa, the alt-right and much in between. Even at this late hour, however, many of us still want to be cool, however problematic coolness itself is,and the compulsive outrage Hewitt decries will simply never be cool. If that were our ultimate safeguard against  outrage as a way of life, how cool would that be?