17 September 2019

The Bolt(on) Cutter

I'd applaud the President's dismissal of National Security Advisor Bolton more enthusiastically if I weren't still questioning his hiring of the man in the first place. To be honest, I think I know what Trump was thinking. Having a notorious neocon hawk like Bolton on his team was no doubt meant to signal to hostile powers that neocon options like regime change were still on the table in the Trump administration. It should have been clear to Trump early, however, that Bolton was unlikely to see his preferred course of action merely as one option among many. The problem with Bolton was that he didn't represent simply one option for action but a worldview most likely radically different from Donald Trump's. While Trump seems to see competition among nations as inevitable, especially in the economic realm, he seems less inclined to see relations between the U.S. and any other country, with the possible exception of Iran, as inherently or existentially adversarial. The President most likely doesn't see regime change as the ideal goal in his dealings with any other nation. He's probably too convinced of his own ability to make deals with anyone to think it necessary to replace anyone. His acceptance of competition as the norm and his willingness to criticize allies close him off from the idealistic neocon vision of harmony (and free trade?) among democracies. Meanwhile, while he may have hoped that hiring Bolton might frighten hostile governments, Trump probably realizes by now that his counterparts around the world don't scare so easily. Bolton more likely inspires loathing rather than fear among foreign leaders and diplomats. If anyone in the White House inspires anything like fear abroad, it's most likely Trump himself on the Nixonian "madman" principle. And then the fear is not so much that he might change a country's government, but that he might destroy that country outright in a fit of pique. He probably inspires less fear by now than he thinks he does -- among foreign leaders, at least, -- but he's still more suited to the "bad cop" role in his own foreign policy than Bolton ever could have been.

11 September 2019

Are all fanatics the same?

Inspired by Dostoevsky, David Brooks imagines in his latest column that extremists on the American "alt-right" and their equivalents on the far left are fundamentally, or at least temperamentally, the same. Both are -- or both see themselves as -- "sick," "spiteful" and "unattractive." Their "rage is intertwined with psychological fragility" and their "anger at real wrongs is corrupted [by narcissistic] existential panic." Those "who fill the air with hate" were alike "raised without coherent moral frameworks" and "in that coddling way that protects you from every risk except real life." Always uncertain of their place in the world or the social order, yet assured that "you can be anything you want to be," they yearn for order based on "blunt simplicities" and "Manichean binaries." Inevitably drawn to politics, they "make everything political." The column goes on and on in the first person, aping the narration of Dostoevsky's underground man. Brooks's own narrative is centrist and shallow. It's also a conservative temperament of an old type, distrustful of all other "isms" and inclined to see "fanaticism" as a type unto itself that defines fanatics of all kinds more than their individual beliefs. It's also distrustful of "the political" or the tendency to politicize things presumably outside the realm of elections or legislation. From a perspective self-consciously distant from that politicizing tendency -- even though declaring anything outside politics is arguably an ultimate political act -- political fanaticism tends to blur into a spectral singularity, especially when you're trapped in a bipolarchy in which both major parties seem increasingly controlled by fanatics. From a different perspective, neither partisan nor centrist, the two factions Brooks abhors don't look so alike. You needn't believe that one is better than the other to recognize differences that remain arguably more important than the traits shared by "fanatics." Without underestimating anger on the alt-right, it still seems to me that those people are less angry than their counterparts in antifa or elsewhere on the far left. That may be for the simple reason that alt-right types now feel secure in a group identity while leftists as individuals remain in relative existential crisis. Whether that's so or not, I still work under the assumption that the 21st century American right takes a more amusedly fatalistic attitude toward life (i.e. "everything's a joke") than the perpetually-outraged part of the left. Maybe I simply see more trollishness than pure rage on the right based on what I look at, but whatever a rightist's mood there most likely remains a definitive difference in expectations between right and left grounded in the proverbial assumption, on the right, that the world doesn't owe you a living, and the left's insistence that a civilized (or "just") world actually does.  The right-wing opinions I encounter seem less driven by fear of the Other then by contempt for certain personality types regardless of ethnic or cultural origin. I don't want to suggest that there's no fear on the right -- economic and social insecurity fuels extremism across the board -- but I do think that fear is stronger, for whatever reason, on the left. There probably are ways to test these hypotheses, but my main point here is to suggest that it remains more useful to probe the differences between right and left, or between the  "alt" versions of each, than to dismiss them as a single psychological type, as Brooks does. Such thinking could lead people to think that both extremes can be purged from American life more easily than is probably the case.

02 September 2019

The end of the democratic mission?

David Brooks lamented in a column last week that Americans seemed uninterested in the Hong Kong protest movement. Neither major political party "any longer sees America as a vanguard nation whose mission is to advance universal democracy and human dignity," he writes, though he hopes that the Hong Kong protesters will "rekindle the sense of democratic mission that used to burn so forcefully in American hearts." Brooks has an explanation for the apparent indifference of the American left; their unforgiving emphasis on "slavery and oppression" keeps them from seeing the U.S. as "a beacon or an example." He offers not even that brief an explanation for why "the American right no longer believes in spreading democracy to foreigners." If pressed, his explanation most likely would have something to do with Donald Trump, but it's more likely that whatever explains the attitude of the right, if Brooks perceives it correctly, also explains Trump. The right's objections to pro-democracy interventionism are more likely cynical than ideological. American adventurism in the Middle East since the turn of the century probably has disabused many of Trump's constituents of the idea that the mere existence of dictators is an existential threat to the American homeland. The "Arab Spring" in particular put into question whether greater democratization in some places was beneficial to the U.S. Taking a wider view, to the extent that the democratization narrative was tied to narratives of globalization and economic liberalization, it shouldn't surprise us to see Americans grow different to foreign struggles for democracy. 21st century Trumpian nationalism is more concerned with economic than ideological threats to the nation. These nationalists see Hong Kong's Chinese overlords as antagonists, but they don't necessarily believe that unfair Chinese trade practices follow necessarily from China's form of government. Dictators don't threaten us in our pocketbooks, where many Americans feel threatened today. The Chinese threat would seem little different to many Americans, probably, were China a de facto democracy like Japan. If anything, if Americans remember the neoliberal/neoconservative argument that economic liberalization would lead to greater democracy and a stronger economy for former tyrannies, they might well welcome any relapse into tyrannical practices by a major economic competitor like China. Whether Trumpets or others are right to see China primarily if not exclusively as an economic threat is a debate for another time, but while they see China that way what happens in Hong Kong won't make much difference to them -- unless they see it as an opportunity to hurt China's economy with sanctions. If that happens Brooks may see things that look like a rekindling of the old democratic mission, but he shouldn't be fooled by them -- though he probably will be.

05 August 2019

Tragedy reenacted as farce

Just to set up a little story, let me explain that I lost my old newspaper job this spring (no hard feelings) but have landed a new position elsewhere after coasting on severance pay awhile. There was an orientation session for new hires today, and part of the program covered what was to be done in the event of an active shooter in the workplace. The instructional video pulled few punches, showing what a live instructor aptly called a "Vin Diesel type" clad in militant black marching into a building, producing a shotgun and blowing away several people. The surviving workers demonstrated recommended methods of escaping, hiding or, if necessary, fighting the attacker. Unfortunately, the video's budget didn't allow for the use of master thespians, as became clear when characters attempted to emote. So maybe bad acting can ruin any mood or disrupt any purpose, or maybe there was a certain mood in the room two days after the incidents in El Paso and Dayton. All I can say definitely is that whenever one of the fictional employees was shown panicking, there was a lot of laughter in our orientation room.  I've long noticed that lots of people look for any excuse to laugh at something seemingly serious onscreen, and not only because that something has turned out unintentionally funny. For some, that impulse expresses a preference to treat everything in life, if not life itself, as a joke, in order to not look weak or like a whiner. Others may have other reasons for laughing and needing to laugh. And if people, for whatever reason, can laugh at a sincerely-intended instructional film about surviving a mass shooting within 48 hours of the real thing twice over, that impulse must be irrepressible. Whether that's a good or bad thing, I'm not quite sure.

03 August 2019

Amoklauf at Walmart

Investigators in El Paso are hoping to learn the motive behind today's slaughter of 20 people in a local Walmart, and the wounding of many others, from both alleged online writings of the shooter and interviews with the shooter himself, who reportedly surrendered to police without a fight. Words are merely rationalizations, however; all that really matters is that this person felt entitled to mass murder. You can believe any garbage you please without feeling such an entitlement. Not everyone learns the desire to kill from books or sermons or online ravings. Some no doubt turn to ideology or religion simply to find an excuse that fits their mood. It remains all too easy for people like this, whatever their beliefs, to kill others. Neither left nor right has the answer for this murderous sense of entitlement. The actual ideologues on both sides no doubt sincerely deplore the senseless sort of violence we've seen today; some actually may believe that specific people or sorts of people should die, but randomly motivated violence, as this most likely was, serves no purpose for them. There is, of course, an ideological predisposition on one side against limiting the ability of degenerates like the latest shooter to kill by limiting the availability of many firearms, just as there's an unjustified optimism on the other that greater gun control will end mass murder. There are also persistent assumptions that old forms of mental or emotional discipline will overcome this murderous sense of entitlement, as well as theories that eliminating certain "dehumanizing" stimuli will abort the murderous impulse. But the impulse to commit mass murder probably predates all philosophies and religions and pop culture. Yet the impulse seems stronger in our time, and not just in the gun-happy U.S. as various bladed rampages in Asia attest. City and state officials in El Paso are calling on the people to unite after today's atrocity, though they were predictably reticent about addressing the problems of gun violence and mass murder specifically. If people are to unite for a solution, however, they must be willing to address all possible solutions, or else the coming together will be merely a show. It's hard, after all -- or it should be -- to imagine a solution worse than this problem. The suspicion that some solutions might be worse may be as much a problem, if not as great a danger, as the entitlement to kill.

02 August 2019

Bullying at the Democratic debates?

Senator Warren of Massachusetts showed herself "an effective bully" during the latest round of Democratic debates, according to New York Daily News columnist S. E. Cupp. Warren's bullying, Cupp writes, consisted of questioning the courage of more moderate candidates who refuse to endorse the "Medicare for all" idea. In her own words, "We're not going to solve the urgent problems we face with small ideas and spinelessness." Cupp equates this with questioning the manhood of those contenders -- all male from Cupp's account, who don't share Warren's vision. To call them spineless is insulting, certainly, but is it bullying? Hardly. For the progressives to call the moderates spineless is no more bullying than for the moderates to claim that the progressives effectively are handing the 2020 election to President Trump. Perhaps personal factors account for Cupp's reading of the debate -- she writes as if her own honor as a moderate Democrat has been besmirched by Warren -- but as far as I know the debates will continue with the moderates unbowed. Cupp's real complaint seems to be that Warren is unwilling to meet the moderates on the ground they prefer. They argue that "Medicare for all" is impractical and impolitic and claim, in Cupp's words, to be "strategic and realistic" about that. Whether they are right hasn't been shown yet. Unfortunately for them, they're up against a mindset that treats assertions of limits with angry skepticism. Progressives seem too ready to believe that all limits -- except those of the planet's resources -- are man-made. If someone tells them some pet project of theirs can't be done, they assume the skeptic means simply that he doesn't want it done for some selfish reason or another. At their most reckless, they assume, as did generations of tragic fools during the 20th century, that all obstacles can be overcome by political will. To their minds, it's the moderate belief that "Medicare for all" won't work, not any inherent flaw to the idea, that keeps it from becoming a reality. Again, I'm not learned enough on the subject to say whether it can be done, although it is clear that in any nearly evenly divided legislature passing the thing will be supremely difficult. But that's why we need more than assertion and counterassertion in the debates, though there probably isn't time for much more than that given the bloated field of candidates. Moderate observers like Cupp may feel that progressives like Warren are trying to cut off debate in a bullying way by questioning the courage of skeptics, but moderates should be careful not to use "it can't be done" as yet another method of cutting off debate. And for what it's worth, I would have expected the moderate Democrats to be less likely to accuse opponents of bullying than the presumably more sensitive or p.c. progressives. But when moderates are accused of spinelessness from both left and right in our time, I suppose Cupp's lament is sadly unsurprising.

31 July 2019

The appeal of "socialism"

This week's Democratic debates may refocus the President's mind on the threat of socialism, since they put Bernie Sanders back in the spotlight. Until someone finds a way to say that denouncing socialism is inherently racist, Donald Trump should be on safer ground targeting Sanders, though my feeling back in 2016 was that, had Sanders won the Democratic nomination, Trump's likely ranting against socialism during the general-election debates would have left him looking like the archetypal old man yelling at the cloud. It would have made Trump look irrelevant, since he would have seemed to be fighting Cold War battles that no longer mattered much to many people. I'm not sure that approach would strike people the same way in 2020, if only because, for good or ill, the socialism issue fuels the Trump narrative that opposition to himself and his causes is essentially un- or anti-American. "Socialism" may be what you trot out when you can't tell an old white guy to go back where he came from. How such a line of attack will play with younger voters remains unclear. There's been a lot of hand-wringing in recent years about young people's openness to socialist ideas. They're too young to see "socialism" in practice, some say, identifying "socialism" with the worst of the Soviet Union. That may be looking at the problem from the wrong angle. How much of the enthusiasm shown for Sanders and his rivals on the left wing of the Democratic party results from naivete about the history of Marxism, and how much is fueled by increased disdain for capitalism? For all intents and purposes the liberal Democratic ideal of capitalism -- the belief that if you worked hard, you would do well -- is dead. Fewer people are reconciled to the contingency of modern work. Many no doubt ask: why should my life depend on being useful to someone who doesn't have to give a damn about me? To the extent that they saw capitalism as a kind of social contract that delivered security in return for work, they want to make a similar deal, but preferably with the state or "the people" and with no profit motive involved. Refute Marx or any socialist thinker as thoroughly as you can and there'll still be a demand for an alternative to capitalism. Rail against socialism all you want, yet you won't get to the bottom of this widespread discontent. For that reason, an anti-socialist campaign can only have limited appeal, especially if the campaigner stakes everything on identifying socialism completely with Marxism and Leninism. A deeper argument will be necessary to reconcile people to the current economic order -- if that's your goal, that is -- whether by persuading them that no alternative is possible or telling them that their objections are immoral. I don't know if capitalism's most vocal defenders today are capable of that sort of deeper argument -- but then again, I don't know if that'll be necessary next year....

28 July 2019

Hong Kong's long hot summer

The immediate provocation of this year's pro-democracy protests in the special autonomous region of Hong Kong is a proposed extradition law reportedly allowed for the transfer of local defendants to the mainland for trial. This was seen by opponents as a way for the Chinese Communist Party to deal with local dissidents on its own terms rather than those set by the treaty that transferred control of Hong Kong from Great Britain to the People's Republic. The treaty lets Hong Kong retain its own political and legal system, with extensive civil liberties absent on the mainland, until at least 2047. For all intents and purposes, Hong Kong dissidents are protesting, sometimes violently, against the inevitability of greater control by Beijing and its Communist regime. But if anything, the extent of the protests, which have included vandalism of the local legislature and demonstrations targeting mainland tourists -- who will probably get in trouble with their government merely for being victims of circumstances -- could hasten that day. 1989 taught the world that Beijing abhors "turmoil," and there's hardly a better word to describe what's been going on in Hong Kong. One person's turmoil, of course, is another person's dissent, and inevitably the Hong Kong protesters have had many sympathetic observers outside China. Even though the extradition bill is a creation of Hong Kong's own legislature, the protests are widely perceived to be against the mainland. That perception legitimizes them in many eyes, even though Hong Kong is at least theoretically a liberal democratic entity. One wonders whether all the Americans cheering on the protesters would cheer as loudly for demonstrations of similar size and intensity against some new policy of their own president or some new measure from their lower house of Congress. The simple answer is that some would and some wouldn't depending on who's being protested. Legitimacy is relative -- and meanwhile, foreign support for the actual protesters feeds the Chinese Communist narrative that the protests are, to use an American term, astroturfed, fueled by foreign money if not by foreign governments. None of this means outsiders should express solidarity with Hong Kong dissidents concerned over the ultimate loss of their civil liberties. But we had better understand that people power will not prevail there. Beijing doesn't care how repression might look to the rest of the world as long as the Communists control what their own subjects see of it. Hong Kong has no chance of becoming an independent state, and not even terrorism will deter Beijing from consolidating its power there when the time comes, if not before. China has experienced terrorism, and has answered with mass re-education camps. If people in Hong Kong want to escape that fate -- if they value their right to complain more than anything the mainland can offer them -- they should plan to be elsewhere in 2047, if a barricaded world will have them.

26 July 2019

Is individualism racist?

In the U.S., individualist thought is identified with a "conservative" economic and social policy, which prioritizes individual rights to property and free enterprise over so-called "social rights." The assumption is that upholding social rights -- positive entitlements owed to all human beings -- compromises individuals' freedom of action, or their ability to enjoy all the fruits of their labor. Although individualism also fits quite well with hedonist notions prevalent on the U.S. left, the constant appeals to individual liberty by corporate types and their Republican defenders have soured many leftists on individualism as the basis of rights in a democratic society. In the July 29/August 5 Nation, Greg Grandin praises Bernie Sanders for "waging practically a one-person crusade to legitimize social rights" and "striking at the core cultural belief that holds the modern conservative movement together." For Grandin, the concept of social rights dates at least as far back as the 18th century, when the pre-revolutionary French philosopher Montesquieu wrote that that states owed their citizens "a certain subsistence, a proper nourishment, convenient clothing, and a kind of life not incompatible with health."  For what it's worth, Montesquieu also wrote that the "spirit of trade and industry," as opposed to an indolence encouraged by some charitable entities, like the monasteries of pre-Reformation England, was a precondition for a state's ability to uphold those social rights. That's not inconsistent with the familiar Democratic argument for capitalism with regulations and taxes for the common good, but Grandin seems to have something more radical than that in mind.

Grandin affirms the premise, articulated by Franklin Roosevelt, that "necessitous men are not free." In other words, also FDR's, "true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence." However, economic individualism rationalizes efforts to thwart the achievement of mass "economic security" or liberate people from necessity. The ideology of individual liberty, Grandin fears, can't help but perpetuate the inequality that undermines "true individual freedom." In modern times, he argues, that ideology has become actively malevolent. His article -- in which he speaks presumably for himself and not necessarily for Sanders -- leaps from the assumption that individualism = inequality to the more explosive assertion that, through the words and deeds of modern Republican conservatives, individualism has become racialized to the degree that it serves as one of the many "dog whistles" that stir up the rednecks everywhere.  Unfortunately for Grandin, there's more assertion than proof in his article. He claims that American reactionaries began to identify "social rights" with racial equality after World War II, once international bodies increasingly demanded both. "As the 'darker nations' took up the fight to legitimize social and economic rights, the opposition intensified, with individual rights embodying whiteness and social rights exemplifying blackness," Grandin writes. This is too neat a package for its own good. It ignores the fact that during the Cold War, Marxism and communism weren't really identified with "dark" people, but with the Russians and decadent domestic intellectuals, the popularity of nonwhites like Mao and Che notwithstanding. Grandin's deductive reasoning seems to go like this: individualism perpetuates inequality; inequality is largely along racial lines; therefore individualism endorses racial hierarchy. He may as well say that individualists refuse to acknowledge their privilege. "It is impossible to extricate individual rights -- to possess and bear arms and to call on the power of the state to protect those rights -- from the bloody history that gave rise to those rights, from the entitlements that settlers and slavers wrested from people of color as they moved across the land," he insists.

"Individual-rights absolutism is the flywheel that keeps all the cruel constituencies of the modern right spinning," Grandin closes, "Break that wheel, and you break the movement." That would require convincing some of those constituencies that the individualist ideology is as contradictory and self-defeating (or self-serving) as he thinks it is. I don't see that happening soon. For one thing, the modern American right rejects the Rooseveltian premise Grandin admires; for them, the realm of necessity is the realm of freedom, in which no one is owed a living and freedom consists of being able to do what you have to do without interference. For another, a wider swath of American opinion is going to distrust arguments against "individual-rights absolutism" out of concern for an individual right Grandin doesn't discuss that nonetheless is the most important right for many people: freedom of expression. I'm sure Grandin sees very little conflict between "social rights" and individual expression, though he may contemplate more state action to prevent perceived inequalities of access to mass attention than others can accept comfortably. He more likely believes that guaranteeing social rights will allow greater freedom of expression for a wider range of people than the corporate-monopolized media currently allows. But you can't go around saying "individual rights are bad" without making people worry that babies might get thrown out with the bathwater of inequality.  In short, a lot of people will have a lot of different reasons, both good and bad, to balk at breaking the wheel, though they all may be written off as selfish, or worse, by people like Grandin. Inequality will have to grow much worse than it is already before enough people decide there's nothing in it for them in the American ideal of individual rights. That could very well happen, but I'd advise against Grandin holding his breath for too long.

20 July 2019

Liberalism in one sentence?

Albany Times Union editor Rex Smith writes in today's paper: "Dissent is more patriotic than attempting to squelch it." He writes, of course, in response to the President's insinuation that people who "hate" America -- that is, those who oppose his administration -- should find another place to live. The problems with Donald Trump's line of thinking have been widely discussed already. For the sake of argument, let's look at Smith's statement more closely. It reads like an epitome of modern liberalism, for which freedom of expression is among the highest priorities, if not the highest priority. It echoes classical liberalism, which conservatives will recall and embrace again once they're out of power. For Americans in general, the sine qua non for a free society is the right to complain, to the point where some go out of their way to find something to protest, in order to reaffirm their freedom. Appropriately, Smith's statement is unconditional. It recognizes no point at which "dissent" can become less than patriotic. That's probably because "dissent" is by Smith's definition -- which is the consensus definition -- not seditious. Sedition, however, is as much in the eye, or ear of the beholder as it is a legal category.

Most Americans, whether they admit it or not, recognize broad categories of informal sedition -- "dissent" that isn't actionable under the letter of the law but seditious or treasonous on some moral level. These forms of dissent, or counter-dissent, strike many hearers as betrayals of American ideals, culture or identity that require a strong response, be it denunciation, shaming, shunning or worse. The problem with defining anything as "un-American" in order to suppress it is that American ideals, culture and identity remain perpetually open to debate. Having rejected a secular American fundamentalism based on strict fidelity to the Founders' values, no faction can expect to claim to represent the "true" America without challenge; they'll have even less luck claiming a right to squelch dissent that seems to betray the "true" America. Liberalism simply assumes that no idea articulated by an American can be an un-American idea. It can be a bad idea, possibly, but no idea is so bad that it can't be aired out safely for public scrutiny. So, at least, went a liberal consensus still familiar to us, but not necessarily still in effect. Liberals themselves, or at least the harder leftists in their midst, are constantly accused of squelching forms of dissent, particularly dissent aimed not so much at the political order but at a socio-cultural order still seen as under liberal dominance. Those who bristle at anyone characterizing their opinions as un-American are perfectly willing to describe opposing views that way. There's evidence of that in Rex Smith's column, which cites a poll in which 59% of respondents describe Trump's recent comments on the "Squad" as "un-American." It may seem hypocritical for one side to say, "don't ever call us un-American" while saying, "you're the real un-Americans," but at least the majority in the poll isn't telling the other side, as far as we can tell, to go live somewhere else. That might be the one point on which today's self-styled liberals have the moral high ground. They might occupy that ground more securely if they affirmed the essential patriotism of a wider range of dissent more consistently, but that may grow more difficult as the privileging of an inviolable category of theoretically harmless "dissent" comes increasingly under question from all sides.

17 July 2019

"Love it or leave it"

One of the few places in the U.S. where you can't call someone a racist is the U.S. Capitol Building -- or at least the congressional chambers there. The Speaker of the House was rebuked by a member of her own party earlier this week for making the commonly-heard assertion that the current President of the United States is a racist. That's because congressional rules dating back to the time of Thomas Jefferson forbid personal attacks on the President and other politicians. It  likewise forbids our representatives and senators from calling the President (or each other) a traitor, and it presumably also discourages disparagement on the basis of ethnicity, religion, gender, etc. We may assume that, were Donald Trump a congressman, he would be ruled out of order for telling the four women known as "The Squad," in effect to go back where they came from. The remark that started the current trouble really demonstrates Trump's ignorance of detail more than anything else, if he made it on the assumption that all four women, not only one of them, are immigrants. The President has since revised his opinion, falling back to the typical reactionary position that people who, in his opinion, hate this country (and Israel, apparently) should leave it. On this ground the "ideas" idealized by ideological Republicans become the unalterable "culture" revered by populist Trumpists.

Dissenters hold that the nation's guiding ideas can and sometimes should change; they deny that the nation would be less "America" as a result. While the right debates whether "ideas" or "culture" define the country, some on the left take a more populist position, to the extent that their first loyalty is to "people" rather than ideas. They argue for the people's right to define the nation's ideas  without constraint from existing ideas or culture. To them, there's no such thing as an "un-American" idea -- except, paradoxically, for those bigotries some see as originally and damningly American. To them it's almost the greatest insult to be told you should leave the country for wanting to change it. They would deny that wanting to change the country, however fundamentally, means that they hate it. At the same time, of course, the other side would deny that making a "love it or leave it" demand, or even a "go back where you came from" demand of dissenters is hate speech.

Few people define themselves as haters, but just about everyone, it can seem, is seen as a hater by someone else. If you oppose Trump you hate the country. If you support him, you hate humanity, or at least large portions of it. All of this predates Trump and will persist after him. It's the slow death of a certain kind of liberalism embodied in that quaint congressional rule, which expects political differences not to be grounded in hatred. That liberalism assumes, perhaps naively in the final analysis, that the stakes in politics aren't high enough to justify hate or offensive name calling. Too many people feel differently now, and many chafe under the old rules of civility where they still apply. They may deplore a rule that seems to forbid speaking "truth" to power, but how many are ready to hear every asserted "truth?" Each of us may assume that his ideas are true, but not all truths are equally self-evident. That may grow only more apparent over time.

15 July 2019

Culture vs Ideas

Michael Gerson is a neocon who was an advisor to the George W. Bush administration. He's a champion of American exceptionalism, which fuels his opposition to President Trump. He dislikes that Trump sees the United States as, in Gerson's phrase, a "normal" nation. Listening to the President's July 4 address, Gerson laments that "Trump presented America as a strong country, but not a country with a special historical role that grows out of certain moral commitments....He seems to love America because it is his country and a powerful country, but not because it is a country with a calling." Is a country without a calling not worth loving? Gerson probably wouldn't go that far, but such a country is only a "normal" country and limited by that normalcy. A true American patriot, Gerson implies, believes that "America somehow embodies the best and highest of human aspirations -- separate from culture and ethnicity." He traces the familiar line separating "blood and soil" nationalism from patriotism based on ideas, but also draws a sharper distinction, perhaps more crucial at this moment, between "culture" and "ideas" "Normal" nations are defined by culture in a way that makes them closed systems. As Gerson writes, a "normal nation" sees itself as "united by a common culture [that is] diluted by outsiders and weakened by diversity." But a nation defined by ideas offers "hope of mutual progress" for natives and newcomers alike.

This distinction begs a question: what's the difference between "ideas" and "culture?"  Do the principles or values we identify as American fall into one category or the other? I suspect not. The "blood and soil" and "idealist" camps almost certainly share many values and principles, but they may disagree over where these come from. Leaving out those racists who may think that certain people are incapable of comprehending, let alone embracing American values, the real disagreement may be over how those values are inculcated. Yet when Gerson favorably quotes George W. Bush's assertions that "Every child must be taught these principles" and "Every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American," he doesn't seem to be saying anything the "blood and soil" school might dispute -- unless, again, some of that school are racists. Yet Gerson cites Bush's sayings as implicitly opposite to Trumpian "cultural" conservatism. He does so, I think, because he assumes that the "culture" camp believes that values are transmitted to newcomers or new generations by means other than education in schools -- through families, churches, or even social media -- or acquired by means other than reason. He may assume this because he's familiar with right-wing distrust of the public school system, but the other side most likely believes that, if public schools have any role, it's to inculcate American values. From their perspective, the problem today is that immigrants are not embracing the crucial ideals, that children aren't learning them -- or, worse, teachers aren't teaching them. This is the familiar complaint against a perceived refusal to assimilate, compounded by suspicions of treachery within a decadent educational system. The complaint has a factual basis in opposition to some ideals, once considered uncontroversial but now seen as essentially "white," "male," "straight" and, above all, self-serving.

To an extent, the "cultural" backlash we see today is a response to the postmodern idea that "American" values actually aren't universal, as neocons like Gerson insist, but culturally specific to an oppressive degree. What's actually going on, arguably, is a vetting of American culture to preserve whatever is seen as good while eliminating the bad. Disagreement over what should go is inevitable, especially when one side assumes that the other rejects such simple yet fundamental ideas as "the world doesn't owe you a living." Is that an idea based in reason that can be taught, or is it a cultural meme one accepts on faith or as a matter of custom? In the complexity of this historical moment, it actually may be in transition from one state to the other. As a Republican, Gerson probably sees it as an eminently reasonable idea, but when some people seemingly refuse to listen to reason, it's unsurprising for others to begin to see it as something some will never get, no matter how educated they think they are. The distinction between "ideas" and "culture" may not be as stark as Gerson assumes, and it's likely to grow murkier, not clearer, in the immediate future.

10 July 2019

Politicians and anti-social media

An appeals court has ruled that the President of the United States has less rights, in at least one respect, than ordinary citizens. The court ruled that President Trump violated the First Amendment whenever he blocked Twitter users from commenting on his own account. While you or I might block a troll from defacing our own accounts with obnoxious comments, the court holds that the President's account has an official, public character -- he sometimes uses it for the first announcement of new policies, for example -- and thus should be a public forum, with no restrictions, apart from those imposed by Twitter itself, on other users' ability to comment. This is not the first such ruling against a politician, and it certainly won't be the last judicial opinion on the subject, since the Justice Department plans to appeal. I suspect that the appeals process ultimately will deliver Trump a favorable ruling, and not just because the Supreme Court has a Republican majority. While I sympathize with the thinking behind this latest ruling, I'm not sure it can withstand constitutional scrutiny. It's widely understood that the current President uses Twitter as his primary medium of direct communication with his supporters. His account is widely perceived as a propaganda platform. It's obviously feared that, by blocking critics, Trump can create an illusion of overwhelming if not unanimous agreement with his opinions and policies. Civil libertarians may think that a public official, when expressing opinions ex cathedra, as it were, has no more right to block critics from posting comments than the President has to drive peaceful protesters from the White House fence. They may insist that Twitter is actually the most direct and peaceful way for dissidents to get in the President's face. But none of this necessarily explains why the President, or any other elected official, should have less right to block people than anyone else. If that proposition depends entirely on the idea that the President's Twitter account is official, then it has to be explained what makes it so. Trump's account predates his presidency; it was not assigned to him after his election. He has issued no executive order making it "official;" nor has Congress. It may be nothing but a propaganda platform, but in this country propaganda itself has rights. The President has no more obligation to grant "equal time" on his account to his opponents than he would to reserve part of the time his campaign committee buys for advertising for opposing points of view.  In short, politicians have as much right to use their social media accounts to make themselves look popular as private citizens have. This, I suspect, is how the ultimate court will rule, but such a ruling will fall well short of silencing the President's critics. If they still want to get in Trump's face, or in the faces of his fans, there are any number of hashtags that can be employed to get their attention -- and it wouldn't surprise me if Trump himself checks all of them.

08 July 2019

Authoritarianism in America?

President Trump's voter base appears to consist of about 40% of the voting population, according to many polls. Some measurements detect a hard core within that base, making up as much as a quarter of the electorate, that shows a few alarming authoritarian tendencies. As always, we should be mindful that questions shape responses, but there's little ambiguity to the findings of the Ipsos poll cited in a recent local editorial. It asked whether people agreed with the idea that the President should have the power to "close news outlets that engaged in bad behavior." 26% of respondents agreed, including 43% of those identifying themselves as Republicans. On one hand, this is an understandable plea for accountability in the face of constant accusations of "fake news." On the other, this is advocacy of executive usurpation of what should, under any circumstances, be a judicial responsibility. To be fair, the question is inevitably vague about how the President should go about closing news outlets, buy even granting the executive the initiative is worrisome. More worrisome are the 13% of poll respondents who agreed with the specific proposition that "President Trump should close down mainstream news outlets, like CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times." The question suggests no specific reason for Trump to do so, but the implicit reason is that these entities spread "fake news" and perpetuate various "witch hunts" against the President. At this point, too, we must concede that the question doesn't suggest that Trump seek legal redress. We can assume instead that this hardest core -- which also includes 8% of self-identified Democrats -- would be perfectly happy if Trump could shut down these institutions by executive fiat. You can still say that they simply want some form of justice for presumed liars and slanderers, but you can also say with some safety that they want something closer to dictatorship than most Americans as yet are comfortable with. Even closer to home, in blue New York, a local poll has found that a quarter of respondents are, in the editor Rex Smith's words, "somewhat in accord" with the proposition that "it is un-American to protest against the actions of the government." It's more un-American to say such a thing, obviously, but it may seem that way only to those who see loyalty to America as loyalty to the Constitution first. Others, we can be fairly certain, define loyalty to America differently. They may be the authentic authoritarians in our midst.

05 July 2019

Are liberals moderates?

Like many a writer for The Nation, historian David A. Bell is impatient with self-described liberals who seem to hesitate at some of the radical measures proposed by self-described progressives within the Democratic party. Reviewing a new book by Adam Gopnik in the July 1/8, Bell presents him as a representative specimen who exemplifies the problem with liberalism. Historically, but perhaps more than ever now, liberalism as described by Gopnik and Bell is more a temperament than an ideology. That temperament is cautious and increasingly centrist in an increasingly polarized political environment. Liberals, according to Bell, have a bad habit of staking out a middle ground between perceived extremes, with the implication that opposite extremes are equally bad in some important ways. To Bell this is "false equivalence," resulting in misguided attempts at "balance." This is the crucial liberal failure in the reviewer's opinion; by substituting the superficial category of "extreme" for rigorous analysis of conditions, liberals mistake "extremism" for the real crisis for which, Bell insists, "both sides" are not equally to blame.

For Bell, the real crisis is that the American political order has been broken by an oligarchic drive for power that relies on right-wing media, unlimited campaign spending, and lumpen prejudices to thwart genuine democracy in America. Progressives argue that the crisis requires radical remedies, possibly to the point of breaking the current system, to prevent their populist-oligarchic nightmare from becoming a reality.  While insinuating this, Bell tries to remind Gopnik that the remedies proposed by today's leading progressives, from "Medicare For All" to the "Green New Deal," actually are relatively moderate compared to the measures taken, for example, by the British Labor party when they first took power in 1945. Why, then, should they disturb liberals like Gopnik? According to Bell, it's because Gopnik, at least, still believes the system can achieve egalitarian goals, while progressives strike the author as absolutist, historically uninformed and, worst of all from a liberal perspective, uncompromising. Liberals, to the extent that they promote moderation, promote compromise. To that extent they're typically American, but progressives worry that liberals make a fetish of compromise when conditions should not require equal concessions from either "extreme." It can be argued that they fall easily into a peculiar trap that leaves them demanding more compromise from progressives the more the oligarchs refuse to compromise. If anything infuriates progressives about liberals, it's the assumption that the burden of compromise falls on progressives more than on the oligarchs. This is mainly because liberals and progressives are engaged in a debate over the future of the Democratic party, in which liberals, acting as moderates, insist that progressives compromise to make Democratic candidates more electable among presumably centrist swing voters. But it's also because liberalism really is a matter of temperament. American liberalism is concerned more with means than ends -- liberals are the ones most likely to say that ends don't justify means -- and tends to see compromise as a means that is an end unto itself. As noted here often, liberalism also abhors the very idea of crisis because it drives people to put emergency ends ahead of conventional means, raising the specter of unconstrained power. Their reluctance to acknowledge crises or emergencies makes liberals appear increasingly detached from reality from the vantage point of left-wing progressives and right-wing populists alike. The right condemns liberals for failing to perceive and respond appropriately to a different set of crises. If they offend both camps, liberals will of course be tempted to assume they must be doing something right. Whether you identify as progressive, rightist, populist or other, Bell's review article should give you an intellectual basis for challenging that perhaps-characteristic liberal complacency.

03 July 2019

Moderates and markets

For David Brooks, to be a moderate is to embrace the free market. In his latest column Brooks contrasts the moderate favorably with the economic nationalists who support President Trump and the "progressives" who threaten to dominate the Democratic party. He spends most of his space attacking progressives, who allegedly want to "create a government caste that is powerful and a population that is safe but dependent." They're too willing to "coddle" people, while moderates "want to help but not infantilize." Progressives, as ever, seek to centralize things, while moderates "are always aiming to make responsibility, agency and choice as local as possible." These comparisons may leave you wondering what makes Brooks' heroes moderates rather than conservatives. His own answer would be that moderates support "a bigger role than before" for government in preparing citizens for a competitive global economy. Yet these moderates can't help looking conservative from the progressive standpoint, since they accept a number of premises about the world that progressives challenge. Progressives certainly would protest Brooks's use of (to them) pejorative terms like "coddle" and "infantilize" when they most certainly see themselves as liberating people so they can become their true selves, and not what the market demands them to be. Whether  Brooks is moderate or conservative, he presumably uses these words because he suspects progressives of poorly preparing people for conditions that are subject to neither debate nor a vote. Opponents of 21st century progressivism argue that the world simply can't be the way progressives want. Historically, that's been a conservative argument, but when self-styled conservatives in the Trump movement also seem to want a world that can't be, the moderate may well be the person who rains on both parades. If the 21st century moderate is primarily a realist, and not someone simply seeking the middle ground between extremes, he may have a useful contribution to make, but he will have to explain and defend his overall view of the world more forcefully than Brooks does here.

02 July 2019

Hillary's curse

The consensus seems to be that two women, Senators Harris and Warren, did the best at last week's panels of Democratic presidential candidates, but columnist Michelle Goldberg warns against a pessimism about female candidates that could hurt their chances in primary season. Numerous women have told Goldberg that they like Harris or Warren best of all the many candidates, but don't think a woman can be elected President in 2020. Goldberg traces this pessimism to a perception that voters in swing states in 2016 rejected Hillary Clinton because she was a woman. "The more you think that misogyny undermined Clinton, the less inclined you might be to support another female challenger," she writes. If that's the case, it should be imperative to refute the misogyny narrative, yet Goldberg can't bring herself to do this. "Without the handicap of sexism, Clinton probably would have won a race that was essentially decided by a rounding error," she opines.

Loyalty to a woman whose political career is over could sabotage the candidacies of arguably more viable female candidates. To insist that general misogyny rather than specific criticisms and suspicions about a specific woman undermined the Clinton campaign in crucial places is to invoke a potentially paralyzing handicap that may not even exist. Feminists like Goldberg do the women of 2020 no favors by continuing to portray Clinton as a victim rather than a failure.

Since Goldberg regards Harris and Warren as, presumably, the best potential presidents, she encourages voters to overcome the perception that misogyny will cripple any woman candidate. In doing so, she adds a twist to the 2016 narrative, suggesting that Clinton fell short in part because people felt inhibited about supporting her openly. "Voters passionate about Clinton but wary of online harassment hid in private Facebook groups, which made it seem like there was no real enthusiasm about her candidacy," Goldberg writes, "countless women who voted for Clinton ... regret their failure to be public in their zeal." She then says, "It's hard to imagine that Warren or Harris would have this problem in 2020." But why should it be hard if the problem was misogyny. If misogyny drove the online harassment of Clinton supporters in 2016, why shouldn't misogynists in 2020 treat supporters of Harris or Warren the same way? Goldberg doesn't say, apart from observing that "most women don't want Trump to be president," but it's the closes she comes in this column to acknowledging that there was something different about Hillary Clinton that wasn't just a matter of misogynist perception.

01 July 2019

The treason of the evangelicals?

Every few months, it seems, Michael Gerson publishes a column bemoaning what he perceives as increasingly uncritical support for President Trump among evangelical Christians. This time, at least, Gerson performs a sort of public service by reminding us that Ralph Reed is alive. The columnist takes Reed's recent remark that no President has "defended us" or "fought for us" more than Trump as proof that evangelicals have become "primarily concerned with the respect accorded to their own religious community" at the expense of a historic commitment to "the oppressed and vulnerable." Their embrace of Trump as their defender threatens to stigmatize them as "old, white Christians who want to restore lost social status through political power," but at the expense of Christianity itself, as Gerson understands it. As a reminder, Gerson is a Republican, and something of a neocon, who sees Donald Trump as a depraved bigot. Neither Trump nor his supporters match Gerson's ideal for Republicanism. But in appealing to an idealized past for both Republicans and evangelical activists, Gerson engages in selective history, or else he exposes his own blind spot. If he's trying to say that evangelicals never indulged in bigotry or chauvinism before Trump, he can't be taken seriously. At the same time that evangelicals cited admiringly by Gerson agitated against slavery, other evangelicals -- and in some cases, almost certainly, the very same evangelicals -- took a very Trumpian position on immigration. Who were the Know-Nothings of the 1850s, after all, but evangelical Protestants fearful of a suspected Catholic takeover of the United States through unlimited immigration from Europe? If anything, evangelical Trumpism is consistent with a historic evangelical tendency to see themselves as the authentic American people. The major difference between then and now is that many Catholics today take the same side as these evangelicals, now that both see ethnicity rather than sectarianism as a threat to American identity. This is all very un-Christian and historically inconsistent to Gerson, but it may not seem so to those with a clearer view of American history. Gerson warns that by embracing Trump evangelicals risk alienating themselves from a younger generation that is growing less religious according to the measure of church attendance. Perhaps Gerson risks alienating himself from that younger generation by insisting that some sort of Christian renaissance is the solution to Trumpism.

30 June 2019

'the liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done.'

In the past I've been skeptical toward the fearful belief of neocons and globalist liberals that Vladimir Putin is deliberately advancing an anti-liberal agenda worldwide. I'm now compelled to address an interview Putin gave last week to the Financial Times newspaper, in which he said that "the liberal idea has become obsolete." The first thing to make clear is that he's not advocating the abandonment of liberalism by any country, except possibly for the United States. As always, in keeping with his principle of respecting sovereignty unconditionally, Putin claims not to interfere with the domestic affairs of any other country. In each country, he says, the people must decide their own future. Of course, Putin has a habit of uncritically equating "the people" with the regime or ruling party, as if every dictatorship is its people's choice in some sense, if only in the sense that it's not some other people's choice. To make his point more clear, he goes out of his way to state that he does not endorse the domestic policies of President Maduro in Venezuela, implying that much could be done better there. Putin doesn't support Maduro against his opposition because he likes Maduro or his policies. As was the case with Hugo Chavez, Putin works with Maduro "because he [is] president ... not ... as an individual." If he prefers Maduro to the opposition, it's because he abhors the chaos he takes, with Libya as his model, to be the inevitable consequence of regime change driven by ideologically motivated international pressure. No country or part of the world has the right to impose its ideology or values on any other, Putin says. While we in the U.S. identify that habit of imposition with the neocons within the Republican party, liberal Democrats have been just as eager, as in Libya during Obama's administration, to force democratization where the soil doesn't seem to be ready. From Putin's outsider perspective, this may be part of the global "liberalism" he rejects. While he's often critical of Donald Trump in the interview, he interprets Trump's "America First" attitude as a kind of normalization of American foreign policy. "I don't think his desire to make America first is a paradox," Putin says, "I want Russia to be first, and that is not perceived as a paradox; there is nothing unusual there." He sees Trump's election as an uprising against a globalization process that seemingly has done Americans more harm than good, but he warns against an overreaction against globalization that could disrupt global order.

What is "liberalism" in Putin's mind? In the interview, he implicitly equates it with multiculturalism and suggests that the global migration crisis has proven an unconstrained multicultural approach "untenable." Taking what might be called a "populist" stance, the Russian argues that governments must look after "the interests of the core population" first. It's unclear what "core" translates, whether Putin simply means the majority of any country or is asserting some sort of ethnic essentialism implying that some people are more of the body than others. He also contrasts liberalism, more predictably, with "traditional values." He tries to have it both ways during the interview, denying that Russia is officially homophobic in any way while scoffing at modern notions of gender diversity. "Some things appear excessive to us," he says, "Let everyone be happy ... But this must not be allowed to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population." Are homosexuals not part of the core population? It's hard to tell in translation, but Putin also says that "Russia is an Orthodox Christian nation" and that "traditional values are more stable and more important for millions of people than this liberal idea."

Putin says something else interesting about liberalism as he sees it. The problem with liberalism isn't just that it embraces multiculturalism to an excessive extent, but that "nobody is doing anything." Specifically, they're not doing anything about migrant crime. Echoing Trump, Putin tends to identify unlimited migration with crime, and he definitely sees it as a crisis. However, "the liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done." Putin believes that liberals "say that all is well, that everything is as it should be." The sort of solutions Putin might employ -- he's careful not to endorse Trump's plans for border walls and punitive tariffs -- strike liberals as worse than the problem, presumably because they violate liberal ideals of human rights. "They say this is bad and that is bad as well," Putin protests, "Tell me, what is good then?" Echoing Trump or any number of European populists, he complains that "the migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants must be protected." Whatever his views on migrant crime, Putin echoes a general point I've made about liberalism. Being uncomfortable with states of emergency or exception, liberals are loathe to acknowledge crises. Their constitutional ideals depend on the absence of crisis or any existential stake in politics. To liberals, a crisis -- or at least a crisis declared by the wrong people -- is the first slippery step toward a state of emergency and dictatorship. In this context, to be anti-migrant is to be authoritarian. This belief has much to do with an ad hominem notion of politics I've discussed elsewhere, which trusts no one to exercise emergency powers or even propose measures that might increase human suffering. If liberals can't seem to answer Putin's question, "what is good?" it may be because 21st century liberals have lost the ability or will to think in a utilitarian way. You may not agree with however Putin defines his "core" population, or how an American politician might define his, but it may still prove necessary for leaders in any country to calculate the greatest good for the greatest number, even when that number isn't "all." If liberals can't bring themselves to do this, they may find it more difficult than they think to prove Putin's claims of obsolescence wrong.

27 June 2019

'the Constitution does not require proportional representation'

While a surprising number of cases decided in the current Supreme Court term have seen justices crossing party or ideological lines, the decision announced today in the case of Rucho v. Common Cause saw a more typical partisan split. Plaintiffs, including both Democrats and Republicans, wanted the Court to curtail the practice of so-called partisan gerrymandering by state legislatures, through which partisan majorities redraw districts with the idea of ensuring maximum representation for their own party. The Republican-appointed majority of justices, led by Chief Justice Roberts, decided that they have no authority to intervene, since gerrymandering does not violate the "one person, one vote" principle that justifies other forms of judicial intervention. In a summary of his opinion, Roberts makes the significant observation that "one person, one vote" is not synonymous with proportional representation, the implicit standard of fairness allegedly violated by gerrymandering. He states bluntly that "the Constitution does not require proportional representation." While "each person is entitled to an equal say in the election of representatives," it "hardly follows from that principle that a person is entitled to have his political party achieve representation commensurate to its share of statewide support." In short, political parties are not entitled to proportionate representation. That fact should be self-evident from the territorial principle of representation, since partisanship is unevenly distributed geographically. Roberts is careful to deny that he or the majority "condones" partisan gerrymandering, but observes that the remedy lies elsewhere than in the Court. As some instant critics of the ruling have observed, it really reinforces the necessity of defeating parties that abuse their power through gerrymandering at the polls, or thwarting them by amending state constitutions.

In dissent, Justice Kagan expresses impatience with the majority. If they concede that "gerrymandering is 'incompatible with democratic principles,'" Kagan assumes a self-evident duty of the Court to respond. She roots that obligation in the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which is violated by "the devaluation of one citizen's vote as compared to others." She points out that federal courts have intervened against partisan gerrymandering at the state level without appealing to the proportionate-representation principle, rendering Roberts' objection to that irrelevant. Instead, Kagan claims, these courts hold states to their own constitutional standards as well as the nation's. Alas, one must presume that the high court overrules the lower courts. The ultimate problem, it seems, is whether the equal-protection argument can be separated from what Roberts perceives, and rejects, as an entitlement claim by political parties in place of people.  The Chief Justice sees no essential rights violation when one's party isn't represented in a legislature in the proportion to which partisans may believe it entitled. This perception misses what Kagan takes to be the real issue: partisan gerrymandering is partisan politicians "entrenching themselves in power by diluting the votes of their rivals' supporters." In short, partisan gerrymandering is cheating. But Roberts presumably ignored rather than missed this point, since he doesn't see partisan cheating as an actionable violation of individual rights. It's not surprising that the minority sees the majority opinion as undemocratic, since it appears to acquiesce in a practice widely seen as tantamount to the sort of vote-rigging that alleged authoritarians practice around the world. To be fair to the minority, I can well imagine some of those supposed authoritarians -- those that actually rig elections, as the reputed authoritarian Erdogan apparently neglected to do in Istanbul last week -- echoing the inference that an individual's voting rights are not harmed no matter how badly the rules screw over his party. Unfortunately, democracy at the macro level is diluted by every division of power along geographic lines. The Electoral College arguably violates the equal-protection principle advanced by Kagan more egregiously than any state's gerrymandering, yet it is the supreme law of the land. Roberts may be a killjoy when he points out what the Court can't do about such things, but despite Kagan's disparagement, he did point to alternate remedies. A real test of our democracy may come should partisan gerrymandering or other forms of election-rigging prove capable of thwarting those remedies, but then it will be the people's responsibility, not the courts', to respond.

22 June 2019

Think 3 Video News: Reproductive Rights March on Lark Street, Albany NY, June 22, 2019

By the standard set by the early marches against the Trump administration, the June 22 demonstration for reproductive rights in Albany was a small-time affair. That may be because there's little sense of urgency about abortion rights here. Today's march was mainly a protest against anti-abortion measures taken in other states, but even if those result, after legal challenges, in a Supreme Court overturn of Roe v. Wade, New York State seems unlikely to ban abortions. It's nice to feel compassionate about women elsewhere, but maybe it was just too nice out on the first Saturday of the summer.

This group started outside the State Museum at the Empire State Plaza and marched around the Center Square area until I caught them on Lark Street. You're not seeing the whole lot here, though you do get to see Rep. Tonko, the local congressman, tagging along. You aren't seeing the woman who showed up in a Handmaid's Tale costume to signify that denying women reproductive sovereignty was tantamount to reducing them to patriarchal servitude. That line of argument still impresses many people, at least in these parts, but it arguably reduces all opposition to abortion to one obnoxious impulse. It's been effective in the past to pose a stark abortion vs. fundamentalist tyranny dichotomy, but I wonder whether changes in the national mood recently have altered that dynamic. I also wonder whether any rational resolution to the long debate is possible, when there are moral absolutes impervious to reason on either side.

I tend toward the view that consistency requires the "pro-life" camp to prove its regard for life by providing for the living, on the premise that if the state has an interest in anyone being born, it should have an equal interest in keeping everyone born alive. But that doesn't necessarily follow for anti-abortion people, who may believe instead that people are entitled only to a "chance" and are obliged eventually to rise or fall on their own. They may see abortion as intolerable cruelty, but their opposition may not mitigate their endorsement of rules of life that seem cruel to many others. It's also inconsistent, I suppose, for a movement driven so much by hedonism to relegate the ultimate helpless entities to the mercy (or simply the prerogative) of their biological landlords, but like other forms of populism the pro-choice movement is "here and now" oriented and resistant to more theoretical appeals to solidarity -- especially if they compromise the movement's sense of sovereignty. You will look for seamless garments in vain in this debate. The one thing you can be sure of is that whatever the states or the courts say, abortions will continue as they always have. Whether people will continue to care once the procedure no longer enjoys an offensive official sanction, only time can tell.

19 June 2019

The Reparations Debate

The House of Representatives is considering legislation to empower consideration of paying reparations to the descendants of slaves. At a committee meeting today, black authors spoke on both sides of the question. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote a best-selling book a few years ago advocating reparations, focused on Senator McConnell's recent argument that Americans in 2019 can't be held responsible for offenses from more than 150 years ago. Attempting to refute McConnell, Coates resorted to a number of analogies to cases in which the U.S. recognizes and honors obligations dating back generations or centuries. Comparing reparations to treaty obligations or long-term Civil War pensions is questionable, however, since those involved formal commitments made to be binding indefinitely or well into the future, while Coates wants legislators only now to acknowledge an old moral debt. This sophistry aside, Coates asserts a principle of collective responsibility similar to the citizens' obligation to pay tax regardless of our individual personal responsibility for government policies. In his view, citizenship binds us to "a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach." In practice, this means that citizens today remain responsible for unpaid moral debts of the past. Presumably anticipating those who argue that the Union dead of the Civil War paid that debt, Coates argues that the debt only grew during the Jim Crow era, which extended into the lifetimes of McConnell and others who disclaim responsibility for racist injustice. I haven't read Coates' book, but the impression I take from his testimony today is that he may be less interested in a monetary payout than in some sort of national humbling. It seems at least as important to him that Americans acknowledge the debt as that they pay it. For him, I suspect, the reparations debate itself serves as a corrective to a perceived moral arrogance among Americans, from which, Coates may believe, follows a sense of exceptional entitlement in the wider world as well as a chauvinism at home that inevitably takes on a divisive ethnocentric character.

Coleman Hughes lacks Coates' cultural pedigree, having neither won a Pulitzer Prize nor written for Marvel Comics. The report of today's hearing identifies him mainly as a contributor to Quillette, an online magazine known for opposition to political correctness. Hughes himself makes a point of informing the congressmen that he consistently votes Democrat, while predicting pessimistically that he'll be branded as a Republican stooge for opposing reparations. Some observers may think that his declaration of partisanship is belied by his resort to a common Republican talking point: the repudiation of victimhood. One of his arguments against reparations is that it will somehow stigmatize the recipients as historical (and permanent?) victims, but that argument is pointless against those who genuinely believe that they as a people have been historically victimized and feel empowered by asserting what they see as self-evident truth. Hughes may think that the claim of permanent victimhood will contribute to what he predicts will be a further division of the country resulting from reparations. While Coates is careful to say that reparations are a national obligation, Hughes states bluntly that it will be perceived as a penalty imposed on white people, reducing race relations to "a lawsuit between plaintiffs and defendants." Somehow, however, he seems to think it would be less divisive to pay reparations to living victims of Jim Crow injustices. While that sounds unlikely, Hughes does think it more fair since it presumably would target true hardship, as would better legislation to address urban crime, whereas reparations for slavery would indiscriminately reward well-off people like himself who neither need nor want a payout from the government. Reparations for slavery may once have been a good idea, he argues, but regardless of what Coates thinks about enduring obligations, Hughes believes that the time when they would have been practical and effective passed long ago. Something should have been done immediately after the Civil War, he claims, arguing implicitly for a more draconian Reconstruction policy that seemed politically viable at the time. My own view is similar, but you still have to wonder how draconian it could have been to avoid an even worse reign of racist terror than the South actually saw in those years. Americans simply aren't that draconian as a rule, but perhaps a really useful discussion of race relations and mutual obligations could start by getting the Mitch McConnells of the country to concede that the Confederacy deserved worse than it actually got. There's no guarantee that anything meaningful would follow from such a concession, but it would still be an interesting national conversation....

11 June 2019

The business of America is ...?

The President's comments on the Federal Reserve in a CNBC interview this week have come under the typical scrutiny from those looking for authoritarian tendencies in Donald Trump. For instance, a New York Times reporter wrote that Trump "seemed to lament that the Fed, which is independent of the White House, did not operate like China's central bank, which is largely subservient to the government." The reporter correctly quotes the President saying, however facetiously, that Xi Jinping was "head of the Fed in China," adding Trump's explanation that on questions of interest rates and related matters Xi "can do whatever he wants." He described what he perceives as a competitive advantage enjoyed by China, where financial policy can be manipulated, as Trump claims, to soften the impact of the tariffs his administration has imposed on the People's Republic. If the Fed has a problem from Trump's perspective, however, it's not that its board of governors retains a degree of independence from politics -- their 14-year terms outlast the presidents who appoint them -- but that the board doesn't necessarily share Trump's view of economic policy in general as an extension of national-security policy.

The President opened the interview with a chiding of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, normally loyal to a fault to Republican presidents, over its opposition to his tariff policies. There was no simpler way for Trump to differentiate himself from conventional Republicanism than by differentiating American interests from those of the Chamber of Commerce. Before, the typical (or perhaps the stereotypical) Republican might not have recognized any difference of interests. By opposing tariffs, however, the Chamber, in Trump's view, puts the interests of its constituent corporations, many of whom manufacture products abroad, against the American interest as the President understands it. For nearly a century, Calvin Coolidge's observation that "the chief business of America is business" has been Republican orthodoxy. It has been interpreted to render protectionist trade policy, once the defining Republican platform plank, a heresy against free enterprise. By no means, of course, is Donald Trump against free enterprise, but he clearly has, to say the least, a heterodox vision of America's "business" that transcends the momentary bottom-line interests of American businesses. For him, trade is inescapably a matter, at least in part, of national security. The American economy, for him, is a weapon. His complaint against the Fed is basically that they fail to see this. He sees their job as manipulating interest rates and other powers within their purview to maximize the nation's advantages in trade negotiations or, if necessary, trade wars. So long as he assumes that other countries use their "Feds" that way, he will expect the American Fed to respond accordingly. In his interview, he's wishing not so much that he had more control over the Fed, but that the Fed saw things more as he does. His complaint extends to the Chamber and to an extent to the Republican party itself, which has long contemptuously equated a nationalist trade policy with the anti-market and purportedly anti-competitive practice of "picking winners." The current GOP orthodoxy sees businesses seeking protection from allegedly unfair foreign competition as "special interests" who'd benefit more from protectionism than the price paid by consumers can justify. Trump's heresy, interpreted generously for argument's sake, sees no employer as a special interest -- unless, to be less generous, that employer speaks ill of him -- and is interested only in picking the nation to win. Whether Trump deserves this generosity for long remains to be determined, but he's doing more to challenge Republican orthodoxy on some fronts than Democrats have in some time, and at the least that's not a bad thing.

09 June 2019

The end of a tradition?

Albany held its annual Pride parade today. The event held special significance because the gay community and its sympathizers are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riot this year. I can hear the parade, and the arrival of the crowd anticipating it, from my house a block parallel to the parade route. I've taken video of the parade for the past couple of years because I liked the juxtaposition of the celebrants with the archaic rage of the handful of religious-right protesters who showed up yearly to heckle the march. They used to set up with their signs and their megaphone in front of a gas station along the route, facing the marchers just as they turned right from Lark Street (the self-styled Greenwich Village of Albany) onto Madison Avenue. Last year, the hecklers moved (or were moved) to the Dana Park pedestrian island. It was only a short distance from their old spot, but it presumably kept enough distance between the hecklers and the spectators to discourage potentially dangerous confrontations. It also put the hecklers behind the police line that diverted traffic away from the parade route. This year I saw no hecklers either in front of the gas station or at Dana Park. I walked along Madison to the entrance to Washington Park, where Pride celebrations would continue after the parade, and found no hecklers. Unless they set up shop somewhere on Lark, I have to guess that they simply didn't show. That leaves me wondering whether they simply gave up or were somehow discouraged from making their annual appearance. Either way, their absence probably looked like a victory to those who remembered and resented their presence in the past. I confess that their disappearance stripped the event of much of the drama that made it entertaining for me. On the other hand, the annual event was never supposed to be the Drama parade, and if the lack of hecklers made things more enjoyable for the majority of spectators, any regret I have would be petty, especially when I most likely share the majority's opinion of the hecklers. Progress inevitably will render many dramas less dramatic, and history inevitably will start new dramas as it continues on its way.

06 June 2019

Reign of tariffs

Republicans in Congress are predictably unhappy with the President's adoption of tariffs as a tool, if not a weapon, of foreign policy -- effectively as a form of economic sanctions. Trump has warned Mexico that its exports to the U.S. will be subject to escalating tariffs until its government takes more effective action to stop the flow of migrants across its northern border. In warning of dire consequences from this policy, Trump's Republican and Mexican critics to an extent confirm the President's much-disparaged claim that countries targeted by his tariffs, and not American consumers, will "pay" for them. The critics warn that tariffs, by further disrupting the Mexican economy, are likely to increase the northward flow of migrants, thus exacerbating the problem Trump wants to solve. It's unclear how badly the tariffs would exacerbate the situation, since many of the migrants headed for the U.S. are actually migrants from other countries into Mexico, but the critics clearly presume that the Mexican economy will suffer. Since the state of the Mexican economy doesn't factor into Trump's insistence on Mexico's responsibility for controlling migrants, however, no worsening of their economy will mitigate their situation in his eyes. Their responsibility will remain the same, and in his eyes Mexico will have only itself to blame if it becomes more difficult for them to meet his demands. Trump will remain unmoved by arguments like this so long as he denies that economic conditions entitle people to cross national borders in search of opportunity or relief. That leaves the argument that American consumers or companies will suffer. Republicans, especially in the right-wing punditocracy, often treat this as an unbeatable argument, but Trump's base may think differently. My evidence for that is minimal so far, but a few weeks ago one of his loyalists wrote to a local newspaper recommending a spirit of sacrifice in deference to the President's determination of national interest on trade issues. For them, trade war may be a moral equivalent of war. That feeling may well leave many Republicans baffled or even frightened. While once upon a time the GOP was the tariff party, the cult of the Market has been Republican orthodoxy for generations now. It demands no interference with markets and presumes that Americans, seeing themselves primarily as consumers, demand the right to buy from wherever products are cheapest. That assumption is the Republican equivalent of the homo economicus thinking that always leaves Democrats wondering why working-class Americans vote for the perceived party of plutocracy instead of in their more obvious-seeming economic interest. It may be time for Republicans themselves to figure out why people don't always vote the way their pocketbooks should seem to dictate -- and in their case it may be a much simpler question. No individual person or household is the whole American economy, and inevitably there are many Americans who don't anticipate hardship for themselves resulting from tariffs on Mexican imports. If that's how they think, why won't they, presumably sharing the President's antipathies, jump at another opportunity to stick it to Mexico? Free-trade think tanks may be able to demonstrate how a large percentage of Americans would suffer from those tariffs, but that would only force the test, presuming that Trump's fans don't reject that evidence as fake news, of patriotism's priority over the pocketbook. While clashes pitting Trump and Trumpets against Democrats get the most media attention, disputes within the ruling party between Trump and the GOP establishment may provide clearer hints of how new, different or dangerous the Trump movement is.

04 June 2019

'I really don't like critics...'

Americans really need to grow thicker skins these days, but don't expect leadership on this issue by the President of the United States. Donald Trump might strike you as the sort of person who'd advise just that considering how easily people seem to be offended by him, but it shouldn't take anyone long to realize that he's as thin-skinned as anyone here. In London today, while characteristically downplaying protests against his visit and talking up the numbers who've cheered him, the President said, "I really don't like critics as much as I like and respect people that get things done." Some will find that quote further proof of Trump's authoritarian tendencies, since "getting things done" over objections, principled or otherwise, is what authoritarians claim to do, or at least admire. What's more clear here, however, is the implicit assumption that the critic only criticizes and never gets anything done. In Trump's mind, we can assume, "getting things done" means making deals, while the critics he most resents are those he presumes unwilling to deal with him, those he referred to today as "negative forces." While there probably are critics who prefer only to criticize, either because they want nothing or something else done, there are others who criticize in order to establish the position from which they'll negotiate, e.g. the diplomats of those countries who criticize the President's tariff policies. Trump probably recognizes this distinction himself, but you wouldn't necessarily deduce that from his statements in London. Reflexively he makes a form of ad hominem attack on any critic, most likely repaying them in kind as far as he's concerned. Almost invariably those who criticize him are "failing" or, in the case of the mayor of London, a "stone cold loser." We may have more insight now on why he says this -- if he sees critics as losers because they do nothing but criticize -- but it may simply be an intimidation tactic. How sincerely he means the insult certainly depends on its target, but to criticize critics constantly suggests a certain emotional hypocrisy, at the minimum, when an above-the-fray attitude might be more appropriate. That attitude is clearly what the media establishment expects of politicians, yet to be fair there's plenty of reasons for Trump to take much of the criticism directed at him personally. He might not be able to distinguish reliably between principled and ad hominem criticism, but the rest of us should recognize the difference between principled criticism and the "orange man bad" sort that is all too common. Having acknowledged that, however, you probably could still concede that, with his attitude toward critics of any sort, Donald Trump probably picked the wrong country to govern -- but then again, as all critics should remember, he didn't pick himself to govern it.

23 May 2019

Right of Trump?

A few columns ago Thomas L. Friedman expressed a hope that someone would run to Donald Trump's right in the 2020 presidential election. The person who does that, Friedman expects, will be a libertarian. His expectation presumes that a politician's position on the left-right axis is determined by his stance on limited government, the rightmost candidate wanting the least government. Look at libertarians any other way, especially when you consider their overall permissiveness, and it's hard to visualize them to Trump's right. The way Friedman looks at them is peculiarly American, and peculiarly a product of the New Deal and Cold War eras. It defines "right" or "conservative" as a tendency to limit government. In the 21st century, however, the American equation of conservatism with limited government may seem increasingly like a historic aberration, an exceptional reaction to the rise of socialism and Leninism.

Before the 20th century, conservatives were the party of state power exercised on behalf of king, church and army. They were committed to conserving a socio-cultural order, often by all means necessary. Trumpism in the U.S. may represent a revival of this style of conservatism, not by or on behalf of the chimerical 1%, but by a more democratic (or "populist") constituency at least momentarily more interested in conservation than in the 20th century battle cry of freedom. Elements of 20th century conservatism like an aversion to taxes and an idolization of entrepreneurship will persist, but its skepticism toward "big government" may wither as the new conservatives feel the need for protection from various hostile or impersonal forces more urgently.

Libertarianism's historic position is to the left of this sort of conservatism, dating back to an era when commitment to individual liberty, including freedom of enterprise, put one to the left of conservatism in defense of custom. To the extent that 21st century libertarians support free trade and personal liberty on many fronts, they must appear, in the longer view, to the left of Trump or his constituents, many of whom are more culturally conservative than the President. What, then, might be found to Trump's right? Vice-President Pence might give some clues, but in general we might expect someone more systematic and dogmatic than Trump ever will be, or someone less likely than Trump to see politics as a matter of constant back-and-forth, hot-and-cold, carrot-and-stick negotiation. The future leader to Trump's right may not see his priorities as subject to negotiation at all. 

17 May 2019

Anti-Vaxxers: populism in pure form?

Reporting on an anti-vaxx demonstration in Albany this week, a local reporter noted an unusual convergence of left and right in the opposition to public-health measures proposed in the face of a downstate measles outbreak. He wrote that suspicious attitudes toward vaccinations should not surprise us, because of the near-universal vilification of "Big Pharma," even among some conservatives, or at least some Trump supporters. The latter group, and their idol, often complain about how the pharmaceutical industry overcharges or otherwise rips off American consumers, and they, as a group, not counting their idol, are probably more likely than ideological conservatives to agree with the left that greed is a harmful force in national life.  At the same time, anti-vaxxers on the left have suspicions of their own about the state, to the extent that it can be co-opted by the rich and powerful who then, so the assumption goes, exploit the state's compulsory power for their own profit. This convergence of left and right, fringe dwellers though both may be, may make the anti-vaxx movement a textbook example of populism as a force that transcends ideology and partisanship. I don't intend to identify anti-vaxxism as populist to denigrate populism or imply that populists are ignorant, even if such a conclusion could easily be drawn. What actually seems to make the movement paradigmatically populist is the profound mistrust of institutions that motivates it. The ultimate objects of mistrust may vary by individual, but anti-vaxxers in general combine mistrust of corporations, presumed unscrupulous in pursuit of profit, and mistrust of the state as an inherent and persistent threat to individual liberty. Both are institutions with presumed institutional motivations at odds with the true public good. Populists, I suspect, hope for a democracy uncompromised by self-interested institutions, and tend to suspect any institution of self-interest. Ironically, of course, they too often focus their hopes on charismatic "outsiders" whose presumed affinity with "the people" should immunize them from self-interested or institutional motives. Populists seem to be less mistrustful of individuals than of institutions, and if you think about it, we didn't have this same degree of mistrust back when vaccines were identified with heroic individual scientists like Jonas Salk. Of course, that's most likely because today's vaccines are more collective products, or else the research culture discourages anyone from claiming the spotlight as the heroic inventor. Perhaps it would make vaccines easier to take, so to speak, if such heroic figures could be identified and promoted, but forms of skepticism separate from populist impulses probably make that impossible. One can only hope that this form of populist paranoia remains a minority phenomenon, but we should also deny paranoid minorities any veto over public health. Having your shots doesn't make you a slave, nor will it send you to hell. Left and right should be able to agree on that as well.

06 May 2019

Fear of freedom?

A strange stalemate prevails in Venezuela, where another coup attempt failed last week, yet its instigator remains a free man and continues to agitate against the country's president. The opposition admits to underestimating military loyalty to the president -- whom the opposition claims is illegitimate due to alleged election improprieties -- and it's probably also fair to say that they underestimated popular support for the ruling party, despite the grim state of the Venezuelan economy. Why might so many people stick to an apparently incompetent leadership with alleged authoritarian tendencies? The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, a Nobel laureate who became an unsuccessful center-right politician with libertarian tendencies, might blame it on what he calls a "fear of freedom that is a legacy of the primitive world." Vargas Llosa was a leftist who turned right after a disillusionment with Fidel Castro and came to see communism as a threat to civil liberty.  Reviewing a recent collection of his essays, Patrick Iber takes issue with Vargas Llosa's apparent blind faith in the Market and calls for a more sensitive explanation of so-called "left populism" in Latin America. Presumably free of the bigoted elements of "right populism" in Europe and the U.S., "left populism" seems to be defined by a disdain for traditional politics and a dissatisfaction with a formal democracy that often seems to serve only to consolidate inequality. It may as well be synonymous with the sort of "radical democracy" according to which democracy only exists when the people can redistribute wealth and property. Iber's own position is that liberals and libertarians are wrong to believe that formal democracy -- regular contested elections, rotation in office, etc. -- is all citizens are entitled to ask for.

"Confined merely to the field of politics, 'democracy' can lead to undemocratic outcomes in the economy and society that ultimately result in oligarchy," Iber warns, "Likewise the achievement of human freedom is a complex goal -- one that will never be attained through markets alone." In other words, what Vargas Llosa sees as "fear of freedom" is actually an aspiration toward freedom, albeit a kind of freedom libertarianism (if not liberalism) doesn't recognize as such. Iber may mean something like the "realm of freedom" that Karl Marx hoped would replace a "realm of necessity," while libertarians see no contradiction between "freedom" and "necessity." To them, "necessity" is an unquestioned and unquestionable given within which freedom is possible, i.e. the freedom to do what you have to do without interference, while the left traditionally has aspired to securing for everyone the freedom to do what you want. From a libertarian perspective, to seek the overthrow of the realm of necessity, for them the one and only reality, can easily seem like "fear of freedom," especially if the overthrow requires the creation of an overwhelming power with its own new necessities. It must seem like cowardice to some, a refusal to deal with the world as it is when it can't be otherwise. But from the opposite perspective, it is nothing other than a moral demand, a demand for guarantees for life contrary to traditional or bourgeois morality's definitions of when life or other goods are not deserved, according at least in part to rules of necessity. If left populism or radical democracy is a form of moralism, it can provide a kind of spiritual satisfaction that can compensate for material shortcomings. Isn't it possible that however wretched the state of Venezuela's economy, no matter how badly it's been managed by the leftist government, people will remain loyal to the moral idea behind the whole project, happy to be right rather than prosperous -- especially when the government tells them that hostile foreign powers are really to blame (by withholding trade) for the poor state of the country. Theirs wouldn't necessarily be a rational viewpoint, but the other side's opinion isn't necessarily rational either, and some might rather run the country back to the ground than turn it back over to the people they turned against long ago. To persist so stubbornly on principle and in spite of material needs might be the opposite of "fear of freedom," the sort of acte gratuit that defines freedom in a more existential, if not a more pragmatic sense. But if you think you're free, who can question you? Anyone, of course, but you get the idea. As long as people in South America or anywhere else still feel free to demand from the world things libertarians or conservatives consider impossible, the debate over which is the real party of freedom will continue.