30 April 2018

'Genuine conservatism'

Michael Gerson distinguished between the Trump movement and "genuine conservatism" in his latest column. Trumpism, in his view, is a movement of cultural nostalgia (and international revanchism following a perceived loss of status under President Obama) that "will eventually lose in a nation growing more diverse and progressive." Genuine conservatism, meanwhile, strives to "accommodate inevitable change in a way that honors the best of the past." Its purpose is "not to undo change, but to humanize it, and to root our shifting way of life in ultimate things." When he writes of "the best of the past" and "ultimate things," Gerson makes a implicit distinction between culture and values. He wants values preserved, e.g. "individual responsibility,family commitment, patriotism and a concern for social order," but doesn't believe them to be inextricably dependent upon a particular culture or religion. I presume that he believes these values can be arrived at and agreed upon through reason, but each of his values is arguably subject to reasonable debate over its definition. In particular, "social order" is probably seen as something desirable by everyone, but other everyone will agree on what social order looks like. Gerson himself has nothing to say about that here beyond appealing for a pluralism that accommodates traditionalism. He most likely takes for granted that right and left will continue to disagree about the meaning of these things, but he wants the right to agree that their values aren't dependent on specific religious, linguistic or racial traditions. Above all, I think, he doesn't want conservative values to be identified as "white" values. It may be too late to prevent that, given first how nearly exclusively white the Trump movement is, and secondly how, to all appearances, that movement does embrace the values Gerson values along with all the stuff he abhors. At the same time, the more the left opposes the entire Trumpist package and reduces all of it to white Christian chauvinism , the more Trumpists themselves are likely to see the whole package as  a culture rather than an idea.  Perhaps it could not turn out otherwise because of American history, but the outcome is still to be regretted. You may not care much for American conservatism, but we all should agree that it should be possible to debate policies and values without it all coming down to conflicting or irreconcilable cultures. On the other hand, as our debates appear increasingly irreconcilable, maybe we're learning something about not just the persistence of cultures, but where cultures come from.

27 April 2018

Political segregation

More than a decade ago, it was a scandal in Albany, where I live, that a man was thrown out of a shopping mall for wearing an anti-war shirt. The mall management could get away with this because it was private property and not, as many believe, a public space. The consensus was that it was still a terrible thing for the mall to do, and I remembered that feeling when I read this week about a man suing a New York City bar that had thrown him out for wearing a MAGA cap -- the red headgear with the "Make America Great Again" legend identifying the wearer as a supporter of Donald Trump. He lost his suit because anti-discrimination laws don't forbid the refusal of service on the basis of political opinion.  Not even the man's lame attempt to describe his choice of head covering as a religious observance -- he had just visited the 9/11 memorial -- swayed the court. This decision may be lawful, but it's also bad news. Inevitably you'll hear of somebody getting thrown out of someplace for wearing anti-Trump gear, or pro-Trump gear again, and it will be further proof of an accelerating segregation of the country along partisan lines. Are the stakes really so high right now that people should be ostracized for wearing their politics on their sleeve, or their heads? I'd like to think not, but I suspect that this decision, however lawful, will only raise the stakes by exacerbating feelings of persecution on all sides, once the inevitable tit-for-tat incidents occur. If the laws permitted this result then they need to be amended before people decide to defend their right to political expression in all-too American style by shooting up a place.

25 April 2018

Intolerance of intolerance

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

23 April 2018

The true faith?

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

18 April 2018

Everything old is young again

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

14 April 2018

'Mission accomplished '

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

12 April 2018

'Get ready, Russia'

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

11 April 2018


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

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

04 April 2018

Human nature and gun control

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

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

02 April 2018

The meaning of 'fake'

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

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