20 October 2018

The Khashoggi Mystery

According to the Saudi government, dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed after getting into a fight at the Saudi consulate at Istanbul. Their story is meant to end suspicion that Khashoggi's death was the result of a deliberate attack condoned if not ordered by the power behind the throne. The distinction won't mean much to liberal observers worldwide, who even if they believe the official story will still see the affair as of a piece with authoritarian efforts to silence dissent outside their borders. The Saudi hope is that their story will suffice to mollify the Turkish and U.S. governments. The Turks raised the initial stink, resenting that it was done on their soil, even though a consulate is technically Saudi property, and presumably sympathizing with the dead journalist as a democratic Islamist of the Muslim Brotherhood sort. On the American side, President Trump has been under pressure to chastise the Saudis,in part because Khashoggi can be seen as an American journalist, having written recently for the Washington Post. He's more concerned with finalizing the latest arms sale and no doubt cares little for a journalist who was another country's problem. In recent days the Post has reported a posthumous smear campaign against Khashoggi, the argument being that the victim was unworthy of American sympathy because of his presumed ideological leanings. One of their own columnists, Cal Thomas, split the difference by denouncing both Khashoggi and the Saudis while whining about being labeled an Islamophobe. My own view is that so long as Americans remain free in this country  to denounce tyranny and violence against freedom of speech anywhere, the U.S. government should not make radical changes in diplomacy based on the fate of one person. While doing otherwise appeals to the moral sense of many people, it isn't wise in a practical utilitarian sense. It's deplorable when foreign governments take action to silence dissidents in exile, but 'twas ever thus and will be unless something like the sort of "world government" that Americans themselves fear can effectively enforce the rights of exiles. We still need to resist the hysterical narrative, endorsed by neocons and liberal Democrats alike, that every such incident as Khashoggi's killing is an advance for authoritarianism in its spread across the globe. If you must be outraged against a foreign  government, why not bother the Chinese, who reportedly are jailing relatives of naturalized American citizens in an effort to intimidate them into silence about the mass internment of Uighurs in re-education camps? The reason why not, I suspect, is that Americans doubt their ability to influence China, despite the President's efforts to change their trade policy, while there persists a sense of Saudi dependence on American power, as well as a hate for Islam greater than any antipathy toward China. But if you're looking for a threat to American freedom in foreign lands, it's not clear that critics of Saudi Arabia are looking in the right direction.

18 October 2018

The "White Civil War"

White people are to blame for extremism at both ends of the American political spectrum, David Brooks has learned. He learned it from a recent survey that purports to describe the nation's "Hidden Tribes." These tribes are defined along ideological lines, and at the extremes are found the "richest" and "whitest" of seven groups. At one extreme are the "Devoted Conservatives," nativist, Islamophobic, dismissive toward charges of sexual harassment and interested less in creativity than in good behavior. Their opposite numbers are the "Progressive Activists," to whom Brooks attributes an anarchic "darkened Rousseauian" worldview that idealizes human nature while blaming the bad things in life on hierarchical social structures. Both groups are characterized by "cult conformity" on their issues of interest, while all the groups in the middle, who go undescribed by Brooks, are more flexible in their thinking. This typology appeals to Brooks because it seems to refute the popular notion that "populism" drives our current political conflicts. Instead, the Hidden Tribes thesis suggests that ideas still drive conflict.

It seems unconvincing, or else Brooks makes a poor case for it, but the one thing that rings slightly true is its attention to what might be called alienated or non-conformist whites as a crucial part of an anti-Trump constituency that might otherwise be thought of as a coalition of minorities based on identity politics. These whites abhor identity politics, at least as practiced by other whites, because they reject the idea that whiteness imposes any particular cultural, spiritual or ideological obligations on them. They despise the perceived cultural populism of the Trump movement or the alt-right precisely because they are non-conformists for whom the appeal to cultural solidarity is a demand to conformity diametrically opposed to their own quests for self-definition. There probably is an elitist element to this, as Brooks suggests, to the extent that these people stereotype the opposition, contrary to the Hidden Tribes survey's finding, as white trash. But where are the "trash" in the nation of Hidden Tribes? Brooks implies that they're part of an "Exhausted Majority" that has no ideology of its own but isopen to persuasion. Trump won these people over with a more persuasive "threat narrative" than that peddled by Hillary Clinton, but Brooks believes they can be won away from Trump by a narrative of "gifts" that focuses on "the assets we have and how we can use them together." I don't know. Regardless of any survey, it seems obvious that most Americans need to see a threat or an oppressor crushed before they'll be ready to share their assets and work together, and it seems naive to think, as Brooks seems to, that there is no threat to the Republic other than those who see threats. He may think that the real threat will be over when both extremes lose, but they may be no more than blind men arguing over the attributes of an elephant that will remain  in the room after they're gone.

14 October 2018

Democracy Wall

Inside a bus shelter in front of the state capitol in Albany. The advertiser is reminding people of the recent Supreme Court decision making union dues no longer mandatory on all workers. Union sympathizers offer their own contributions.


09 October 2018

Is a spectre haunting the U.S.?

Long ago, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote that the "spectre of communism" was haunting Europe. Today, op-ed writer James Rothenberg writes that "Small signs of nervousness have begun to appear now that many of our citizens are able to mouth the word 'socialism' and not get sick to their stomachs." Rothenberg argues that this is capitalism's own fault, due to its perceived failures, but he also acknowledges that socialism is still "far off in the distance." That's because capitalists write the rules of law and politics, he claims, so that the working class accepts its subordination complacently in the name of  "respect for the law."At the same time, Rothenberg can't avoid the fact that socialism still has a bad name by association with twentieth-century tyrannies. He writes those off by arguing that if it isn't democratic, it isn't socialist. Since the U.S. is democratic, he argues that socialism should succeed here without the tyranny seen elsewhere. That depends on why socialistic tyranny exists. In many cases it's because socialism or communism is imposed by armed revolutionaries who think it necessary to impose revolutionary discipline on the whole population. But it might be argued that all socialists will resort to violence to cover up socialism's supposedly inevitable economic failures, blaming them on scapegoats who can be treated as "enemies of the people" rather than admitting any error. As a socialist, Rothenberg seems to take for granted that socialism will work and so doesn't address this possibility. To the extent that Americans already identify a socialist revival, fairly or not, with the excesses of antifa, socialists will need to come up with a more convincing refutation of the "tyranny" libel. It shouldn't really be that hard to argue that the mistakes of individual socialists shouldn't discredit socialism in general, but the best way to do that would be for socialists in power to admit error personally and admit that socialist policy isn't immune to error. You see the problem. The right kind of socialists have to win power somehow, and they have to admit from the start that they may not be able to solve all problems or get everything right the first time. Decide for yourselves which is the more likely event.

05 October 2018

It takes two...

Thomas L. Friedman worries that the U.S. is spiritually closer to civil war today than at any time since the actual Civil War ended. While admitting that this hasn't been the most violent time domestically since then as far as politics is concerned, he's troubled by the increased, unprecedented tribalism of American politics, which he, following the political scientist  Norman Ornstein,  defines less as identity politics than as an uncompromising "rule or die" sentiment. Friedman appears to agree with Ornstein that Republicans are primarily to blame, going back to Newt Gingrich's ascendancy. That doesn't sound right, somehow. Republicans had been denouncing liberal Democratic policies as dangerously un-American long before Gingrich came along, and to focus on the 1990s is really to deplore the new ability of Fox News and radio talkers like Rush Limbaugh to amplify that familiar message. But while Friedman resists what he calls a temptation to blame both parties, we wouldn't be where he sees us at if not for a hardening of attitudes on the left. If Republicans since the Cold War increasingly have treated Democrats as surrogates for their ideal Communist enemy, Democrats have found Republican rule increasingly unacceptable and even illegitimate. Republicans may have provided the original provocations, but Democrats arguably take the "rule or die" attitude to a greater extreme than Republicans, since it's their belief, infuriatingly rejected by Republicans, that politics is primarily a means for keeping people alive. Democrats seem more likely than Republicans to believe that government policies literally can condemn people to death, or to take the "tribal" viewpoint that taking power means "It's our turn to eat." If things seem worse now than in Gingrich's time, it's because Democrats, increasingly inclined to attribute conservative politics entirely to bigotry, are starting to abandon that acquiescence in defeat that's actually a necessary attribute of liberalism as a political system. The liberal order remained stable so long as acquiescence in defeat remained the norm, but now that neither party seems interested in acquiescence Friedman senses danger. He wants us all to step back to a point when compromise wasn't seen as a sin, but that will require both sides to concede that they can't have everything they want at a time when it's unclear that either side can do so -- not when your liberty, your identity or your very life seems to ride on the outcome of each election. If anything, we may all need to take politics less seriously. You'd think having someone like Donald Trump in the White House would make that easy, but reality shows us that the problem Friedman perceives is bigger than he admits.

04 October 2018

Dignity without Honor?

In a recent book philosophy professor Tamler Sommers attempt to explain Why Honor Matters, or at least why he thinks it should matter more than it seems to in the modern U.S.  In this country, he argues, honor has been sacrificed to the idea of dignity. Honor differs from dignity, according to Sommers' definitions, in its essential dependence upon other people's opinions. Dignity is non-negotiable by comparison; it is a presumption of inherent worth independent of personal opinions. It does not need to be proved to anyone, but in practice must be upheld by the authority of the state. It is claimed by those who demand to be accepted as they are. For Sommers, a preoccupation with dignity leads to an atomized and cowardly society in which people call a cop, so to speak, instead of standing up for themselves or for what is right. In more honorable societies, the more strongly felt need to earn the respect of others inspires heroic or simply more civic-minded action. Sommers is all too aware that modern culture equates honor with violence, but argues that "honor groups" often limit the scope of violence through codes of conduct, and that a modest amount of violence (certainly non-lethal) sometimes is an appropriate response to bullying or deeper forms of oppression. We would all respect each other more than we seem to now, he suggests, if we all understood that we were all willing to stand up for ourselves and what we believe in, even at risk to ourselves. In one extreme moment, Sommers remarks that people value their own lives too much these days, but since he isn't really concerned with honor's expression in war he doesn't really follow up that provocation.

Sommers is also well aware that honor is seen as a conservative value. He makes a point of distancing himself from many conservative positions and makes a special point of saying that white nationalism is not the stuff of which honor is made. He claims that appeals to honor could bolster some liberal or progressive positions, though some of his examples, e.g. claiming that a refusal to accept refugees is cowardly, sound merely sophisticated rather than honorable. He can't help conceding that honor has a populist if not nativist tendency due to its basis in group identification compared to dignity's basis in abstract or generic humanity. When decentralization is advisable, when localism is preferable to appeals to impersonal central authority, that sort of honor can be helpful. But for all that he criticizes the preoccupation with dignity at honor's expense, his own commitment to an essentially irreducible idea of individual human dignity is apparent in his recommendations for "containing" honor and preventing such excesses as "honor killings." He's really arguing for some moderate golden mean between extroverted, aggressive honor and introverted, passive-seeming dignity, but "honor" and "dignity" may be terms too dramatic to address the problems Sommers perceives.

That we should all be accountable to each other isn't necessarily a matter of honor or dignity, but it is a matter of democracy. A mere opposition of words doesn't tell us much about how American democracy has declined to the point where many people feel that they don't have to listen to people with different views, and where even more people hear "You're wrong" as an expression of hate. The worst flaw of Why Honor Matters is its lack of much sense of history, its failure to explain the shift from honor to immoderate dignity in any substantial way. Without that, whatever valid points Sommers has are lost in mere wordplay. Before he can hope to persuade people to trade some dignity for more honor, he needs to show that he understands why people rejected honor for dignity in the first place. Doing so may be outside the scope of his project, but that only means that this would-be philosopher has more work to do.

03 October 2018

Patriotism vs Liberty

Listening to the President's UN speech last week, Jonah Goldberg was less disturbed by Trump's laughable boasting than by his assertion of a "doctrine of patriotism" at odds with Goldberg's own "doctrine of liberty." Trump himself opposed patriotism to an "ideology of globalism," but Goldberg sees Trump's patriotism as a sort of individualism of nations while warning readers that individualism can mean profoundly different things depending on the beliefs or interests of individuals. Even liberals are individualists, this conservative observes while insinuating that liberal or progressive individualism doesn't quite jibe with conservative ideals of individual liberty. Trump's invocation of a doctrine of patriotism at the world body was grounded on an assertion of each nation's cultural uniqueness. That sounds unproblematic, except insofar as it implies that each nation really has a single, commanding culture that can compel conformity, but Goldberg worries that Trump may excuse other nations' offenses against liberty as expressions of distinct cultures that neither he nor we have the right to judge. He must have missed the part where Trump condemned communism, but Goldberg is clearly worried less about Marxism as such than about the threat of nationalist strongmen, regardless of ideology, with whom Trump seeks strong personal relationships.

Toning down his neoconservatism, Goldberg concedes that free nations have neither the obligation nor, implicitly, the right to "crush [barbaric] customs at gunpoint," but insists on their moral obligation to "bear witness to evil" in such places as the UN. He believes that "countries such as North Korea, China, Rusia" and even Iran, which Trump condemned in no uncertain terms, we're "Happy to hear the leader of the free world champion the 'doctrine of patriotism' instead of the doctrine of liberty." That reads as if Goldberg, not hearing what he wanted to hear, didn't hear what actually was said. It's remarkable how many people haven't gotten their heads around the idea that Trump refuses to treat any nation, except maybe for Iran, as an existential enemy or, with the likely exception of Israel, as an unconditional friend on the basis of ideology.  They miss the ways in which Trump has, if anything, intensified our rivalry with Russia, because he doesn't talk about Putin the way they want. His approach certainly isn't guaranteed to strengthen our position in the world or, as seems to be his primary goal, bolster the American economy, but it's hard to take Goldberg and other critics of his foreign policy or his alleged doctrines seriously when they can't even describe it in any way that resembles reality.