30 August 2018

The illusion of balance

The President thinks it unfair that a Google search of his name results in a preponderance of "bad" news about him and hints that search engines should be regulated to assure more balanced results. While he may think he's being targeted by the same old elite-media cabal, it was reported that a similar search for "Hillary Clinton" produced similarly "bad" results. Inevitably, Trump's complaint has caused alarm among civil libertarians and progressives, as it echoes generations of conservative demands for "balance"  that, as critics see it, have actually skewed political discourse. The critics think that conservatives have "worked the refs" by demanding a minimum of recognition for views that critics consider objectively unworthy of consideration. Such demands are inevitable in multiparty democracies, but are driven less by an objective commitment to representation for all sides of all questions than by demands for recognition of power. Conservatives want equal representation for their views not because they're simply the other side of important debates but because they're a mass political movement representing millions of people and billions in wealth. Were the demand for balance driven simply by solicitude for all sides of any question, than Marxists would be equally entitled to balanced coverage of economic issues, and white racists equally entitled to balanced coverage of cultural issues. No one would take their entitlement seriously, however, because they lack the conservatives' numbers -- but most would agree that they're not entitled because their views can be dismissed objectively without counting heads or dollars. The progressive argument now is that numbers do not entitle Trumpism to balanced representation in the media because it's self-evidently beyond the pale morally and intellectually. If there's an authoritarian  (or authoritarian democratic) aspect to Trumpism, however, it would include a claim that numbers and the raw fact that Trump won an election entitle him, in fact, to more than balanced coverage, just as the entire nation owes him some deference until the next election. Whether balance is Trumpists' true ideal, or anyone's, is open to debate, and that would be a debate where all sides would deserve to be heard.

26 August 2018

The shadow president

John McCain always looked good next to his major political antagonists, from George W. Bush to Donald Trump, perhaps especially in retrospect, but he never looked good enough to become President. Against Bush and later against Mitt Romney, McCain was the great opponent of money in politics. Against Barack Obama he was the voice of experience and the champion of American global leadership. Against Donald Trump, in a purely rhetorical struggle, he reiterated the nation's commitment to American-style democracy as a global good and spoke truth to foreign power when the President preferred not to. Against Trump's alleged bigotries stood the memory of McCain's great moment from the 2008 campaign when he rebuked one of his own supporters for calling Obama an "Arab." He and Romney may be looked on in retrospect as the last truly ideological Republicans, champions of a Cold War worldview before the GOP declined into a tribal party. Before Trump came along, McCain was distrusted by the populists who would embrace Trump. They distrusted McCain's neocon warmongering, uninterested in democratizing any other part of the world. More than any other group, including the anti-imperialist left, they perpetuated the legend of "Songbird" McCain, the willing collaborator with his North Vietnamese captors. By comparison, Trump's seeming contempt for a soldier who got captured was mere schoolyard taunting. But even if I see him as an ideological conservative, many more ideological conservatives hated McCain as well, mostly for his efforts to regulate campaign donations, which pundits like George Will saw as a self-interested incumbent's interference with the free market of political opinion. And even observers with no dogs in his intraparty feuds saw a sometimes unpleasant streak of self-righteousness in McCain, not to mention a contempt for Romney even more than for Obama, and a tendency  to see his own motives as more pure than those of other politicians. Even in comparison to Trump, whose flattery of authoritarians seems contemptible to many, McCain's relatively knee-jerk kicking at people like Vladimir Putin was not self-evidently the correct approach to foreign leaders. Now that he is gone, McCain will be honored as an anti-Trump, and perhaps remembered by some Republicans as an anti-Obama. His good qualities will be magnified in death, and if they were never enough to earn him the highest accolade in life, people may say that was the fault of the time, not the man. It seems unlikely, however, that the U.S. and the world today would have been much different had McCain beaten Bush and then Gore in 2000; his instincts in reaction to the September 2001 terror attacks were, if anything, more hair-trigger than Dubya's, and we might have invaded Iraq sooner rather than later, with all the same consequences if not more, with President McCain in charge. Of course, people are more likely to remember Dubya fondly when he goes, simply for not being Donald Trump. It doesn't take much nowadays for a politician from the past to be remembered fondly, but let's not begrudge anyone any fondness they feel toward McCain this weekend. The historians will have their turn in time.

22 August 2018

Will Trump take us back 100 years?

NFL football season is approaching and with it, in all likelihood, fresh controversy over the proper reception of the national anthem. New league rules are meant to discourage players from making a public show of their refusal to stand for the song, but some players have already made their dissident intentions clear during the pre-season, while the President continues to agitate for harsher measures against the recalcitrant. I wonder whether, for all his nostalgia, Donald Trump knows that there was a time when refusing to stand for the anthem was at least theoretically illegal. In 1918, during World War I, the Sedition Act of 1918 made it a federal crime to treat the flag in a disrespectful manner. For that reason, in August of that year the Bullis brothers of Amsterdam NY were brought before a federal court. Workers at the Watervliet Arsenal, they had refused to stand when the anthem was played at a theater in nearby Troy. They were nearly mobbed by an angry audience until they were marched to the nearest police station. While they had to face a federal commissioner, ultimately they were sentenced in a local court for disorderly conduct. It was clear, however, that the brothers, who lost their jobs before they were sentenced, could have been tried under the Sedition Act. That statute was repealed in 1920 but has never, to my knowledge, been found unconstitutional. It was part and product of an unprecedented mass-media propaganda campaign to keep Americans in a war frenzy, and without a state of war existing it's unlikely that Trump or like-thinking superpatriots could enact a 21st century version of the measure. But from that quarter comes a similar demand for unconditional solidarity, whether with the troops or with themselves, and for an unconditional love of country. It's naive for anyone to take standing and holding your hand over your heart as conclusive proof of unconditional love, but I suppose it's also naive to think that refusing to do that for whatever explicit or implicit reason won't insult some people. Should people pay for the insult? The issue is complicated by the President's interventions, which only harden the hearts, so to speak, of those who claim the right to use the playing of the anthem to protest current conditions. Trump's insistence on "respect" will only make standing and saluting look more like a personal loyalty oath to Trump himself to those who loathe him, but I don't think Trump himself sees it that way. I think he sincerely believes that occasions like the playing of the anthem should transcend partisan politics, and that Americans should show that they love their country regardless of who's in charge or what you think of his policies. If he seems to admire authoritarian nations, it may be because he sees in those places the sort of unconditional, unanimous love of country he wants to see here, however artifical and compulsory it may actually be over there. But as long as unconditional love of country is equated by anyone with acquiescence in the way things are now, so long as the Trumpist message to the rest of the country is, "You can't change us, but you have to love us," he will not see that sort of unconditional unanimity here, and he will most likely remain enraged by the willful refusal of it by many people. History shows that, in theory, a Trumpist majority could attempt to force unanimity by criminalizing acts of passive dissent. The question for our time is whether they're actually tempted to use that historical power, and whether they can resist the temptation.

16 August 2018

Never that great

Governor Cuomo the Younger of New York may have snuffed his already flimsy presidential ambitions after giving remarks this week in which he said, in contrast to President Trump 's "Make America Great Again" sloganeering, that the United States was "never that great" in the past the President apparently pines for. For Trump and his worshippers, that will prove that Cuomo doesn't really love his country and perhaps, like all others whose love isn't unconditional, should find another. While it was impolitic to rile the yahoos,  it was also understandable for someone with unfinished ambitions within the Democratic party to talk this way, whether or not it will prove wise in the long run. In the long view, it reminds us that the real debate between the MAGA crowd and their detractors is over the criteria for judging American greatness. Cuomo's comments remind us that for progressives (whether or not you see him as one) the only criterion for greatness is an egalitarian one by which the U.S. will be found wanting until recent times. For the MAGA crowd (MAG-its?) this is an overly narrow if not utterly mistaken standard of judgment. For them, the nation that won the world wars and the cold war and has long been the world's richest has been self-evidently great for a long time, if not for always, and only a fanatical tunnel vision or a personal bias that puts one's national loyalty into question can deny that. Can only a white person believe in the country's historical greatness? Certainly, but can a non-white person (or a homosexual, or even a woman) affirm it without being denounced as some sort of Uncle Tom? Perhaps not now, but for the time being any aspiring progressive will have to learn to thread a very narrow needle to get those working class white thought that apparently are still needed to put a national candidate over the top. The wise politician will need to say two things: first, that America had a great past in spite of many enduring injustices that still need to be enumerated; and second, that progressive policies, not Trumpian reaction, will make America greater by anyone's standard.

15 August 2018

Gone to the dog

Even when the President is self-evidently trying to edit his Twitter impulses, he can't catch a break from his critics. Kathleen Parker, an anti-Trump Republican, sees  his labeling of former aide Omarosa Managault-Newman, a sort of Frankenstein monster of his going back to The Apprentice, as a "dog" for releasing clandestine recordings as of a piece with insults aimed at LeBron James, Don Lemon, Maxine Waters and others. In other words, to call a black woman a dog is worse than if he had used the word to describe a white woman or man -- critics of that complexion are usually dismissed as losers or failures -- because "dog" dehumanizes the person thus labeled. The sad thing about this tirade against Trump is how obviously "dog" isn't what he really wanted to say. Unless the President has read a lot of comic books or pulp fiction, "dog" is not an epithet that's going to flow naturally from his tongue or fingers. Do I need to spell it out further?  I'll do so only to ask whether Trump would get in worse trouble had he used more natural and characteristic language and called his nemesis a bitch as he probably wanted to. Parker probably still would have gotten a column out of it, calling Trump a sexist instead of a racist, but who can say what the final score would have been?  The President is much admired in some quarters for talking back to his critics, but in a time when criticism is mistaken for hate on all sides, he only guarantees more hate for himself by doing so.

09 August 2018

The Anti-Trump Persuasion

Michael Massing's cover story in the August 13 Nation is surprisingly critical of the anti-Trump media, given its placement in one of the most anti-Trump magazines. Massing isn't out to defend Trump himself, but makes a reasonable argument against demonizing or gratuitously insulting the President's supporters. He's not the first writer to offer such a critique, and he recognizes that he risks the same backlash for making it that other writers have experienced merely for suggesting, as Nicholas Kristof did, that "Trump voters are human, too." Kristof and Massing agree that electoral success for liberals or progressives in the immediate future still depends on winning over some non-compete whites in "fly-over country." Those people have to be persuaded that they've made a mistake by supporting Trump, but as Massing notes, calling them stupid bigots is virtually guaranteed not to work. He recommends consideration of the economic vulnerability this demographic still feels after the 2008 recession, on the assumption that they can be convinced that Trump isn't acting in their economic interests. The problem with this recommendation is that the liberals and progressives Massing criticizes are not convinced that economics were the primary motivator for any Trump vote by non-compete whites in 2016. You can see why they would think that. Unless these voters embraced Trump specifically so he could institute protectionist trade policies, you would have to conclude that they voted for the same standard Republican policies that did not work for Mitt Romney in 2012. Was there a critical mass of protectionist sentiment in the 2016 swing states? Exit polls might confirm that, but it's easier for progressives to believe that swing-state voters were won over by Trump's reactionary nostalgia, which progressives find inseparable from some sort of white supremacism.

Did racial thinking (or misogyny disguised as distrust of Hillary Clinton) decide the 2016 election? What if it did? Massing, I suspect, would still argue for persuading Trump voters that they were wrong on that front, but many progressives seem to regard that task as beneath them. They act as if it's up to Trump  voters to renounce whatever bigotries motivate them before dialogue can even begin. They may believe that anyone who thinks that minorities has anything to do with what ailed America in 2016 is hopelessly irredeemable, even if thinking so condemns them to defeat at the national level. Obviously there's no convincing people who think non-white races or women to be inherently inferior beings, or those with a simple atavistic loathing of diversity. But what if some Trump voters don't hate blacks or others for what they are, but for what they (are thought to) do, or think. I don't mean perceptions of criminality, but a belief that blacks or other minorities, as a bloc, have mistaken ideas about the national interest or the common good due to their association with the Democratic party, the liberal media, etc. Can liberals address such perceptions without making it an existential debate about group identity?  Can they answer the charge that, for instance, black people in general are wrong on this or that issue without falling back on a some claim that blacks are entitled to their own beliefs without whites judging them? If we aren't going to let any group of self-conscious white people have their own beliefs without challenge, then the same rule must apply to everyone. Before there can be persuasion, it may prove, there must be recognition of an actual debate, not a demand for unconditional surrender.  Again, that's not the case if your antagonist's argument is simply that black people are disgusting, but where there is disagreement along demographic lines about political ends and means, neither side should have to acquiesce in the other's entitlement to its own ideology. In short, before you can change anyone's mind you have to hear what's actually on his mind without automatically branding him a heretic or a retard. Progressives may be too wedded to a civil-disobedience model that depends on breaking an antagonist's will by means other than debate to recognize this. They may need to see that model fail a few times more before trying something else, but let's hope not.

06 August 2018

Stupid is as stupid says

In predictable sequence the President overreacted to celebrity criticism and others overreacted to his criticism. Disliking what he heard in an interview given by the basketball player LeBron James, Trump tweeted that the CNN interviewer was the dumbest man on television and so made James look intelligent, which was hard to do. Since both James and the interviewer, Don Lemon, are black, many quickly decided that it was racist of the President to call them stupid. That was as ridiculous as Trump's need to call every critic a failure or otherwise insult them. Donald Trump most likely thinks that anyone who disagrees with him is stupid, and while that's an awful way to think it's not a bigoted way of thinking. I hope we're not at a point where white people aren't allowed to call any black people stupid. Democracy requires mutual accountability beyond the "speaking truth to power" paradigm. The majority has a right to criticize minorities, the rich have a right to criticize the poor, men have a right to criticize women, and so on, so long as the reverse in each pairing is also true. Donald Trump has ever right to think that LeBron James is stupid, even though it's beneath the dignity of his office to state his opinion so crudely. More importantly, LeBron James has every right to his opinion of the President and should not be bullied off the public stage for expressing it. The problem with debate via insult is that sensitive people can lose track of the scope of the insults and misunderstand what's being insulted. On some level Trump's presidency is an insult to all of us, but the reaction to it has arguably become the same thing.

03 August 2018

We have met the enemy ...

If a partisan press is "the enemy of the people," then what was Fox News during the Obama administration? If apologists for the Trump administration can answer that question objectively, their own "enemy of the people" rhetoric might not provoke such alarm. Yet conservative Republicans have really claimed a special entitlement when they have appeared to demand fairness or balance from the media. Their ideology, they feel, is uniquely entitled to representation, not because it's the view of a major political party and millions of people but because, with no pun intended, it is right. Only on that basis can they claim that Fox News is not as partisan as MSNBC, much less recommend Fox to the public as the President does. Even acknowledging the existence of some form of Trump Derangement Syndrome, objectivity requires recognition of an Obama Derangement Syndrome and an earlier Clinton Derangement Syndrome that resulted in exactly what Trump supporters fear today. Derangement syndromes are an unhappy fact of modern political life, and while their irrational excesses are to be deplored we need to make sure that we don't imply that all opposition is deranged. If it was wrong, as Republicans always insisted, to say that all resistance to Obama was racist,  Trump and his spokesmen should recognize that it's just as wrong to claim that all resistance to Trump is unpatriotic. If they don't want to be seen and treated as incipient authoritarians, they need to affirm the right to dissent along with their right to answer it.