27 March 2019

'Free inquiry is an essential feature of our nation's democracy'

The above was written in the name of President Trump in the text of his controversial executive order regarding First Amendment protection on college campuses. Somewhat less than half of the text is devoted to federal guarantees of "free inquiry" on campuses; more is dedicated to mandating a system that allows applicants for admission and their families to judge colleges on the basis of graduate earnings and loan repayment rates. The news, however, was that Trump presumably wanted to force alt-right speakers into campuses across the land, using the threat of federal sanctions to make academia safe for his presumed rhetorical champions.

The overall language of the order is inevitably vague, and it reads more like a set of recommendations than a set of commands. Whether it can get to the heart of the matter, as far as most conservatives most likely are concerned, is unclear. The problem lately is the threat of antifa types disrupting talks, sometimes violently, by those they designate as fascists and/or bigots. To solve this, the order would need to make school administrations responsible for the actions of students in a way that may not be fair. It would seem to require schools to take all steps to protect controversial speakers, yet in a way, as consistency requires, that would not compromise the First Amendment rights of those who want to express their disapproval of political provocateurs. To guarantee the provocateurs' safety, will demonstrators need to be relegated to the dreaded "free speech zones?" Should violence break out, how exactly are schools to treat the violent to satisfy the Trump administration? All of this will have to be worked out by the relevant federal departments, but so long as it's all done evenhandedly there should be no cause for alarm in the executive order. It's worded with appropriate vagueness to implicitly guarantee safe space on campuses for the entire range of political opinion, and in any event that sort of safe space is needed more urgently than some that have been erected lately. I could go on about how people should be willing to hear their beliefs challenged, but it would really be irrelevant, since nothing in the order compels students to hear speakers they find abhorrent.

If anything, Trump and his writers could be clearer on the really relevant point, which is that ideology neither licenses anyone to physically attack anyone else, nor makes anyone liable to physical attack. The federal government is under no obligation to respect, and in fact has a duty to dispute the pretense that so-called fascists have no right to a platform in our society. I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the argument that not every question of political philosophy needs to be rehashed perpetually, but the liberal tradition under which we live allows no one to claim authoritatively that any question is so firmly settled that further debate can only be harmful. That's probably still a good thing given the common tendency to confuse genuine free inquiry with the allegedly settled questions of fascism, marxism, racism etc.  While we still live in a sociocultural environment in which nearly everyone identifies disagreement with his point of view with "hate," free inquiry probably needs stricter safeguards regulating those institutions that normally should foster it than is normally necessary. These might be exploited cynically by right-wing provocateurs who feel deprived of the platform to which they feel entitled, but as long as the language of the order doesn't favor them explicitly or exclusively that same cynical option is open to everyone from fascists to Stalinists, from the hardcore Christian right to NAMBLA. If one campus is to be sullied, supposedly, by speakers who don't represent the majority of students or faculty, the only real remedy may be to sully them all.

18 March 2019

Everyone's a bigot

Typical American madness in 2019: the other day Chelsea Clinton visited a vigil for victims of the Christchurch massacre to pay her respects and make a show of solidarity with the victims of Islamophobic bigotry. At the vigil, Clinton was confronted by two NYU students, one Jewish and the other Muslim, who accused her of complicity in the massacre.

Here's how the students got there. A few weeks ago, Clinton got involved in the controversy over Rep. Omar of Minnesota's remarks about the "allegiance" of some American politicians toward Israel. Omar was accused of anti-semitism because the charge of "dual loyalty" goes back among anti-semites to before there was a Jewish state. Allegiance, apparently, is a loaded word. The dictionary defines it as loyalty to a group or cause, though it also has a context of subordination that partly explains the outrage. Historically, however, Omar can be compared to Irish-American politicians of a century or more ago who probably accused American politicians and other prominent people of allegiance to Great Britain when those people failed to support the cause of Irish independence. No one would have accused those Irish orators of bigotry, and those who defended Omar are right to question why she was accused of bigotry merely for questioning the congressional consensus on Palestine. The answer, so the NYU students tell us, is that critics of Omar are bigots themselves. It is not merely an exaggeration or a slander to call critics of American support for Israel anti-semites, they say. In particular, when the critic is, like Omar, a Muslim, it is bigoted and specifically Islamophobic to call her an anti-semite. Putting it another way, we've reached the point where calling someone a bigot is itself bigoted, depending on who's accusing and who's accused.

While the students aren't so stupid as to suggest that Clinton's comments, among so many criticizing Omar, had a causal effect on events in Christchurch, they do insist on their prerogative, if not their obligation, to confront anti-Muslim bigotry wherever they find it. Chelsea Clinton was a target of opportunity, but she also shares responsibility, as far as the students are concerned, with "enabling" Islamophobia by criticizing anti-semitism. It was necessary to confront her, they say, because Clinton, like nearly all critics of Omar, has failed to apologize to the congresswoman. In effect, they say that you cannot criticize Omar on the subject of Palestine without being a bigot yourself or contributing to global Islamophobia.

What we have here, basically, is tit-for-tat tactics in the anti-Zionist camp. Having heard ad nauseam that criticism of Israel is anti-semitic, they now claim, for all intents and purposes, that criticism of the Palestinian cause is Islamophobic. What, then, if you don't think that Omar deserved all the criticism she received -- that she was within her rights as an American and member of Congress regardless of the thin skins of Zionists, but that her self-appointed defenders at NYU are idiots? They're women and I'm not, so maybe that explains it. They're Jewish and Muslim and I'm more or less an atheist, so maybe that explains it. It can't just be because one fine day they did something that can be described objectively as really stupid and self-defeating, could it?  Of course not. This is America, where people only disagree with you if they hate you and, accordingly, everyone hates everyone else....

17 March 2019

In defense of 'Islamophobia'

This week a self-described fascist murdered 50 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In the aftermath, President Erdogan of Turkey attributed the atrocity to a global Islamophobia that had been allowed to spread unchecked. His implication was that something should be done to check or suppress it. Denunciations of Islamophobia and white nationalism have filled the weekend, naturally enough. Ironically enough, they echo the American protests against the 2001 terror attacks on the U.S. In both cases, bereaved groups claimed that people were being targeted more for who they were than for what they might have done. To a certain extent that's correct, since each case was to a great extent a revenge attack.

The Christchurch shooter apparently claimed revenge for a motive in a manifesto, claiming a right to avenge the victims of Muslim terrorists and criminals in Europe, just as the September 2001 hijackers claimed to avenge the Muslim victims of American foreign policy. By the logic of revenge, if you can call it that, anyone who shares an identity with actual killers and oppressors is liable to revenge, whether they consciously endorse or collaborate in oppression or not. Osama bin Laden theorized that all citizens of a democracy can be held accountable for the democracy's actions. Likewise, the Christchucrh shooter feels entitled to avenge crimes carried out in the name of Islam on anyone who espouses Islam. And just as anti-imperialists in the west insisted on a historic context for the 2001 attacks that included numerous provocations and apparent injustices, so it can be argued that the Christchurch massacre did not occur in a vacuum occupied only by someone's irrational or innate hate.

In neither case, of course, did innocent people deserve what they got, and in each case it should be indisputable that the victims were innocent.  Few Americans wanted to hear about American misdeeds in 2001, but that gave them no right to suppress anti-imperialist or simple anti-American opinion. Likewise, today is no time for a blanket suppression of "Islamophobia," or to confuse it with ethnic bigotry. While some people want Islam or any religion to be treated as a form of identity entitled to the respect of civil society, it and all religions are collections of value judgments and quasi-factual assertions that remain subject to critical appraisal from any thinking person.  At a minimum, civil society should allow people to claim that Islam or any other religion is fundamentally false -- to deny that Muhammad received a revelation from God, or that there is a god. Religions are also subject to criticism in their particulars, though critics should be careful to do more than read scriptures in isolation if they want to understand how religions actually function. The modern resurgence of what might best be called shariaism after 20th century experiments with secularism has complicated matters, since the shariaists have succeeded in convincing much of the non-Muslim world that Islam inherently tends toward political tyranny when in fact the necessity of political government by sharia remains hotly debated by Muslims themselves. Educated people of all viewpoints can take part in that debate, which should not be inhibited by fear of either hurting violent people's feeling or inspiring other violent people to commit mass murder. We don't need to write off the Christchurch shooter as some lone madman in order to affirm that his crimes are his alone. We don't really want anyone saying Muslims should be killed wherever they're found, but we should not equate all criticism of Islam with incitement to murder. If people push too hard or too far against "Islamophobia" they'll probably only generate more of it.

06 March 2019

How exceptional are we?

It's common in the U.S. to think of ourselves as an exceptional nation in some way or another. In some cases, it seems, we're so exceptional that the experiences of other nations offer no examples for us to learn from or models to emulate. David Brooks observes that "The Brits and Canadians I know certainly love their single-payer health care systems," but goes on to devote a column to his inability to imagine how Americans could get something similar. "The trick is in the transition," he writes, and so it must have been in Canada or Brit-land or anyplace else that has adopted a single-payer system, which some Americans would translate as "Medicare for All." There had to be resistance and fear in all those countries, but Brooks seems to imply that it was easy everywhere else, while the U.S. is the inevitable exception. He falls back on national stereotypes to excuse his analytic laziness. "Americans are more decentralized, diverse and individualistic than people in the nations with single-payer systems," he writes, "They are more suspicious of government and tend to dislike higher taxes." Elsewhere, you see, tax-collection day is a public holiday with concerts, face-painting and bounce houses. Only Americans hate taxes; only Americans fear centralized authority -- but this is so much bull, just like Brooks' resigned conclusion that "the easiest way to get to a single-payer system would probably be to go back to 1776 and undo that whole American Revolution thing." Who doubts, however, that in any nation that is not a dictatorship where single-payer is proposed, people sincerely reactionary or simply well-financed, doctors and patients actual and potential, cried "socialism!" and warned of the end of individual liberty? Wherever such resistance, rhetorical and institutional, was overcome, there is a model for overcoming resistance in the U.S., if you actually want single-payer. It's easy for someone who probably doesn't want it to abandon hope, but the way that Brooks so complacently abandons hope only leaves the impression, not that Americans are hopelessly exceptional, but that we're exceptionally hopeless.

03 March 2019

The ruling class

At the CPAC conclave this weekend,  the President said: "Socialism is not about the environment, it is not about justice, it is not about virtue. It is about only one thing -- it is called power for the ruling class." While it's unlikely that he came up with that line himself, it most likely reflects his identification of socialism with the rule of Communist parties like those he deals with in North Korea or China, or similarly authoritarian parties in places like Venezuela. Interpreting it more broadly, one wonders whether Donald Trump feels the same way about ruling classes everywhere, regardless of economic systems. It's a very populist thing to say, after all. In effect, he means that ruling classes are out for themselves, interested only in perpetuating their own power. Looking at Leninist or Lenin-inspired regimes that make rule by the vanguard party the precondition of all other goods, this is practically a self-evident truth, though you have to have at least a vestige of liberal aversion to ends justifying means to get worked up about it. Populists everywhere see ruling classes putting their own interests before the public interest, but the range of populist scrutiny varies from place to place, and over time.

From a different but still arguably populist perspective, Donald Trump has been part of the ruling class since before he was President, by virtue of his wealth. From that perspective, Donald Trump is not about making America great again; he is about one thing -- power for Donald Trump. The President himself no doubt sees things differently, and I could believe that he'd sincerely deny belonging to a ruling class. Nevertheless, the Trumps of the world were the targets of the original populist movements in the U.S., and the Trumps or  Kochs of today remain the targets of those who long for a populism of the left. Much has changed since the 1890s heyday of OG populism, most notably the power of the state over the economy, so that it's at least not fantastical to focus on the political class rather than the upper class as the ruling class. It's more fantastical, however, to act as if the upper class isn't still part of the ruling class by virtue of their wealth, their control over jobs, access to politicians, etc. -- all of which is not about freedom or prosperity for all but about the power (and wealth) of the upper class. In short, every movement has its blind spots, and every movement is out for itself -- though not necessarily exclusively or at everyone else's expense. Any ruling class or segment of a ruling class will be an object of suspicion so long as power itself is an object of suspicion in historically liberal societies. But just as power is a necessity, a jealous consciousness of a "ruling class" may be inevitable. Where each person sees the ruling class, and how jealous or fearful you feel toward it, probably depends on each person's ambition, and the sort of power you want to have in the world.