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.