It’s more than you did

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I assumed I would join the US military, probably the army.  All of us at my high school who expected that of ourselves were deeply interested in stories about US servicemen who had been taken prisoner in Vietnam.  We read and reread books about their time in captivity, followed the postwar careers of ex-POWs like Admirals Jeremiah Denton and James Stockdale, and even developed our own tap codes to communicate with each other at odd moments around school.

One day my father asked me why we were so hung up on those guys.  “They’re heroes!” I exclaimed.  “What makes them heroes?”  he asked.  “Well, they were, uh, captured, and, uh, they, well, they held up pretty well under torture, some of them.”  My father explained that when he was in the army in the 1940s, they used a working definition of “hero” that included taking enemy troops prisoner, but did not include allowing oneself to be taken prisoner.  The clip from The Simpsons embedded above (in Portuguese) reminded me of that conversation.  Speaking of Timmy O’Toole, whom they believe to be a boy trapped in a well, Homer says “That little Timmy is a real hero.”  “How do you figure?” asks Lisa.  “He fell into a well and now he… can’t get out.”  “How does that make him a hero?”  “It’s more than you did!”

Anyway, in the USA in the post-Vietnam era, conventional military heroism, of the sort that actually involves engaging the enemy and destroying him, was heavily problematized.  It was already that way in the later years of the USA’s war in Vietnam, which may explain why public statements from the Nixon administration about the criteria that a peace deal would have to satisfy focused so heavily on the status of American POWs that critics claimed that an observer whose knowledge of events in Southeast Asia came entirely from those statements would conclude that the war began when North Vietnam attacked the USA and abducted a number of American military personnel.  That focus distracted both from humanitarian objections to the manner in which the USA was waging war in Vietnam, and to broader objections to the fact that the USA was waging war in Vietnam.  By turning attention to the evidence that the North Vietnamese were mistreating American POWs, the administration stirred Americans’ sympathy for their imprisoned countrymen, a sympathy which had the effect, for many Americans, of pushing aside the concern that objectors to the war had expressed for the sufferings that US actions were inflicting on the Vietnamese people.

The idea that the USA was fighting in Vietnam to rescue the Americans who had been taken prisoner in Vietnam while the USA was fighting in Vietnam, unintelligible though it may seem now, was still pretty strong in the popular culture of the 1980s.  So in those years Hollywood released a whole slew of hit movies about fictional missions to extract American POWs from Vietnam, movies with titles like Rambo: First Blood Part Two and  Missing in Action.  Those particular movies traded on the idea that the Hanoi regime so intensely craved the presence of American POWs that it kept a bunch of them around after the war was over.  This may be another idea that is unintelligible to people who did not spend the years from 1970 to 1990 in the USA, but I assure you it was everywhere in this country in those years.  The “MIA flag,” symbolizing this belief, is still prominently displayed in many parts of the USA.

This is an actual picture of the MIA flag over the White House taken in September of 2011

All of this is to explain that Americans in general tend to have strong feelings about those of their countrymen who were held as prisoners of war in Vietnam, and that these feelings are precisely contrary to those which would be prescribed by the usual code of warriors throughout the ages, who have regarded it as their duty to fight to the death rather than offer their surrender to the enemy.  I teach Latin and Greek in a university deep in the interior of the USA; I used to assign my students Horace‘s Ode 3.5, in which the Roman general Regulus, captured by the Carthaginians, advises the Senate to refuse to make any deal to secure his return or that of his men, saying that it would be a disgrace to give up any of the gains Roman arms had won to ransom men who had forever lost their manliness by allowing themselves to be taken prisoner.  My students were shocked by Horace’s disdain for prisoners of war, and by the fact that with this disdain he was expressing the standard Roman view of the matter.  They often exclaimed that prisoners of war are heroes.  “How do you figure?” I would ask, and an interesting, unpredictable conversation would always follow their attempts to answer.

What brings all this to mind are some recent remarks by New York real estate heir turned presidential candidate Don-John “Donald” Trump.*  Mr Trump said that John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war does not in fact qualify him as a war hero.

This statement has attracted a great deal of criticism.  One difficulty Mr Trump would face, were he to try to retract it, is that he might then have to explain why being captured makes a warrior a hero.  Another difficulty is that Mr McCain’s record is not in all respects comparable to that of a hardcore resister like Jeremiah Denton or James Stockdale.  Some of the less appealing sides of Mr McCain’s record can be found delineated here, here, and here.  I don’t want to dwell on these matters, because I know myself well enough to find it impossible to be sure that I would have acted any better than Mr McCain did were I subjected to the same pressures, but I do think that, on the one hand, respect for those personnel whose conduct did in fact meet a higher standard and, on the other hand, a habit of the accurate use of language prohibits calling Mr McCain a “war hero.”

*In fact, Mr Trump’s legal name is and always has been “Donald John Trump,” but his campaign is a means by which he has been enjoying himself hugely while being grossly unfair to other people.  So I choose to enjoy myself slightly by being mildly unfair to him.  “Don-John” it is!

The New Inquisitors

Here’s a series of tweets Alastair Roberts recently posted:

To which I replied:

I realize my response may seem a bit flip; given the fact that I support gender neutral marriage and Mr Roberts opposes it, it may seem natural to take it that way.  But in fact I’m quite sincere.

I first became aware of Mr Roberts’ through his 2012 blog posts (five of them: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, but especially 4) on the peculiar social conditions necessary to permit people to engage in “heterotopic discourse,” discussions in which stark disagreements are received, not as personal affronts, but as a part of a process that can move towards truth.  This is something like the distinction between a fistfight and a dance.  People have to feel safe with one another if, when they do not want a fistfight, they are to engage in footwork of a sort that could be useful in a fistfight.  And they have to see that there is some value in that particular form of footwork, that it adds up to something, if they are to cultivate it to the level where it becomes a substantial pursuit in its own right.  Likewise with debate.  People have to be confident that those with whom they are reasoning are not going to trick them or to insult them if they are to engage in debate, and they have to see a way that the debate can lead to a fresh truth if they are to give that debate the time and attention it needs to get there.

I value this sort of thing very highly, and am continually disappointed when issues that have the potential to make outstanding thought experiments in philosophy get bogged down in emotionalism and political point-scoring.  I suppose emotionalism and political point-scoring are the main things the higher functions of the brain evolved to do, while philosophy is a fairly marginal pursuit in the grand scheme of things, but I still think it’s a terrible shame.

Anyway, Mr Roberts replied to my tweet with a remark about how different forms of intelligence represent different levels of danger in different sorts of bullies, with which I agreed.  But it wasn’t quite what I had in mind.  Mr Roberts is a theologian, soon to be known as Dr Roberts, and I was thinking of members of his profession who have over the years, in the midst of their academic pursuits, taken active part in efforts to uphold the orthodoxies of their faiths.  Some of these efforts have been pretty gruesome, by our standards, but I’d still rather read a first-rate treatise by someone who did something ghastly than have to deal with the sort of person Mr Roberts has in mind as the enforcers of the nascent orthodoxies of niceness.  So I wrote:

An impossible balance?

Yesterday, I posted this on tumblr:

I don’t exactly agree with what I said there, that we must not remember the twerp or his cause.  It’s really more that we have to strike a balance, and that balance is nearly impossible to achieve.

On the one hand, terrorists kill because they want to become famous and to gain publicity for their cause.  Therefore we should ignore them.  On the other hand, terrorists kill because they want to blind us to the humanity of their victims and to isolate the group of people to which the victims were targeted for belonging.  Therefore we ought to raise our voices and cry out about the violence, to remember what was done, why it was done, and face the facts which make it likely to be repeated.

So, we have to simultaneously ignore El Twerpo and examine him deeply, simultaneously dismiss his loathsome beliefs and search for their roots in our social order and their echoes in our own minds, simultaneously equate him with all that is weak and contemptible and recognize the bleak power that broods behind him.  How can we strike this balance?  The hell if I know.  But I am sure it must be done.

“Saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.”

A century or so ago, G. K. Chesterton said “Journalism consists largely of saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.”  Social media has made that sort of journalism a pastime in which all of us may share.

On 12 June, the president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a part-time college instructor named Rachel Dolezal, a person whose name, up to that point, may perhaps have been known to as many as 200 people outside the Spokane area, was revealed to be a white person passing for African American.  Suddenly, Ms Dolezal became the most discussed person on Twitter and Facebook.  Melissa Harris-Perry conducted a not-unsympathetic interview with Ms Dolezal, setting off a secondary social media firestorm from people upset with her for granting Ms Dolezal a platform.   Countless right-wing voices equated Ms Dolezal’s “transracialism” with the lives of transfolk; some right of center pundits showed themselves surprisingly perceptive in critiquing this equation.   Lefties objected that Ms Dolezal’s behavior trivialized the oppression that African Americans suffer.  Some expressed that objection in a gentle way (see Keith Knight’s cartoon on the subject,) some in an angry way (see Tak Toyoshima’s cartoon,) and some with frank mystification (see Andrew Stewart’s essay.)  Left, right, or center, gentle, angry, or confused, no one seemed to be able to keep quiet about this person who had been so obscure so short a time before that some commentators who had already said a great deal about her had the sudden, uncomfortable realization that they’d never actually heard her name spoken aloud.

One of the reasons so many rightists were eager to make a connection between Ms Dolezal’s racial passing and transgenderism was that the same US media that suddenly filled with Ms Dolezal’s story last week had, the previous week, been dominated by coverage of Caitlyn Jenner’s announcement that she no longer wished to be known as Bruce.  Most of this coverage had been quite celebratory of Ms Jenner as an individual and ostentatiously supportive of transgenderism in general.  Many social conservatives were upset that something which they regard as so unwholesome was receiving so much favorable publicity.  What struck me as strange was the fact that the long-retired athlete formerly known as Bruce Jenner was receiving so much publicity.  After all, the last newsworthy thing she did was win a track and field competition in 1976.  I suspect that if you had asked a thousand Americans, a couple of months ago, what Bruce Jenner was up to, the most common reply would have been “Who’s Bruce Jenner?”  Certainly everyone under 40 would answer that way, unless their parents were antique dealers specializing in old Wheaties boxes.  The second commonest reply would probably have been “Didn’t he die years ago?”   All I can figure is that someone decided it was time to have a major transgender celebrity, and if the best they could come up with was a minor celebrity from decades ago, they would build that person up with all the force they could muster.

Day before yesterday Ted Rall wrote an essay on this general topic of “celebritization.”  It begins: “Even if you’re a news junkie, you probably never heard of Dave Goldberg or Beau Biden before they died. Yet both are at the center of a national mournathon.”  That’s a bit of an exaggeration; as a military lawyer, Beau Biden was deployed to Iraq in October 2008, while his father was running for vice president, and that was very big news at the time.  Granted, that was almost seven years ago, but I think most people who were paying attention to that campaign would remember it.  Certainly it would be at least as fresh in the public memory as the 1976 Summer Olympics!  And Dave Goldberg’s firm SurveyMonkey, which Mr Rall calls “a relatively obscure Silicon Valley startup,” has been a significant part of life in the Acilius household for several years, since Mrs Acilius is a sociologist who uses SurveyMonkey all the time.  Still, it’s true that not a particularly large percentage of the US population were in a position to have experienced the deaths of either Beau Biden or Dave Goldberg as a personal loss.

Mr Rall goes on:

What’s weird – and make no mistake, it really is strange – is to see the deaths of unknown people elevated to national events simply due to their relationship with the rich and famous. If Biden died, I’d expect a state funeral. Sandberg merits an eighth of a page obit. Biden’s son and Sandberg’s husband? Not so much.

Until 2014, high profile deaths followed high-profile lives. Now, you don’t have to accomplish anything, at least anything that makes a public impact, to be grieved by the public.

[snip]

If you want to be sad about someone you never knew about, much less knew, that’s your business. But I’ve got a question for you: when the celebrities go on and on and on about how fabulous the dead man or woman in question was, how on earth do you know if any of it is true?

I’d put the sudden celebration of the, until then, long-forgotten Ms Jenner and the outrage over the, until then, totally obscure Ms Dolezal in the same category as the mourning over Messrs Goldberg and Biden.  I’m inclined to be happy that so many people responded to Caitlyn Jenner’s introduction of herself to the world with warm expressions of support for transfolk, but how can we take those expressions seriously when they are bound up with the patently false idea that Bruce Jenner was still famous as late as this year?  I’m inclined to share the concerns that left of center commentators have expressed about Ms Dolezal’s performance of race, but how seriously can we hope that public understanding of those concerns will deepen when they are attached to a figure whose prominence is so obviously ephemeral?

The clean and the unclean

A few days ago, I left a long comment on Chris Dillow‘s blog “Stumbling and Mumbling.”  Mr Dillow had posted about a controversy that began when someone participating in a march protesting the results of Britain’s recent general elections (results which I predicted with less than total accuracy) added these words to a war memorial:

The controversy took on a life of its own after journalist Laurie Penny tweeted about it:

The furore that greeted Ms Penny’s remark reminded Mr Dillow of a book that I happened to have read just the other day: The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt.  I’d heard about this book more or less continually, from various people, since its original publication three years ago, and had been meaning to get round to reading it ever since. Professor Haidt, a social psychologist, argues that moral reasoning is best understood not as any one thing, but as a network of six interlocking systems.  These systems are the ways we have learned to differentiate between Care and Harm, Fairness and Cheating, Sanctity and Degradation, Loyalty and Betrayal. Authority and Subversion, and Liberty and Oppression.  According to Professor Haidt and his fellow advocates of “Moral Foundations Theory,” analyzing the opinions people express about what is right and wrong in terms of these six systems and of the relationships among them enables researchers to give more accurate accounts of the concerns of people who differ from them in class and culture than do other models, especially models drawn from reductionist philosophical projects such as utilitarianism.

Excerpts from Mr Dillow’s post:

The left and right don’t understand each other’s conceptions of morality, and don’t even try to do so. This is the message I take from last night’s row about Laurie Penny’s reaction to the vandalism of a war memorial….

“Destruction” isn’t entirely hyperbole. The Tories’ proposed £12bn cut in welfare spending is equivalent to £45 per week per working age benefit recipient. That would impose horrible hardship upon many.

Instead, Laurie’s mistake consists in doing exactly what Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind accused the left of: she’s seeing morality as comprising just one idea whereas the right sees others.

Haidt and his colleagues claim that there are (at least) five foundations of morality: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. The left, he says, stresses the first two of these but underweights the last three.

And this is just what Laurie was doing. She was emphasizing the care principle, whilst being blind to the sanctity principle – to the idea that we believe that some things, such as vandalizing war memorials, are wrong because they break taboos even if they don’t do material harm to anyone…

Which brings me to the problem. Far too many – on left and right – are so wrapped up in their own narcissism and so quick to condemn others that they fail to understand (or even try to) where others are coming from: the virtue of Haidt’s framework is that it facilitates such understanding.

What’s being lost in all this is Mill’s classical liberal idea – that there is a strong case for cognitive diversity. For me, Laurie’s voice is a welcome contributor to this diversity. If the herdthink that rushes to condemn leads to her being more inhibited, something valuable will be lost.

My comment was largely directed at earlier commenters who were too fired up about the issue to address the material about Professor Haidt’s theories that Mr Dillow had raised, and so consisted largely of an elaboration on some points Mr Dillow had already made:

Just the other day I finally got round to reading The Righteous Mind, and here you bring it up.

I think Professor Haidt gives us a very clear vocabulary for explaining, among other things, why religious freedom is so hard to maintain. Different religious groups have different conceptions of sanctity. What one person sees as deeply holy another person might see as purely functional, so that Laurie Penny’s comparison of the welfare state to a war memorial might be unintelligible to someone who regards the welfare state simply as a set of policies and institutions to be evaluated by their effectiveness at helping poor people get on, rather than as a transcendent force that sanctifies society. Likewise, the depth of horror that many people feel when a war memorial is vandalized is unintelligible to those who regard that memorial in purely functional terms; clean it up, and it sends the same message it sent before. The uncleanness that bothers those who are most horrified is a ritual impurity, not the marks that bleach or acetone can remove.

What really makes it difficult for people with different senses of the sacred to share a homeland is that something which one group regards as the most sanctified of all things might strike another group as the vilest of all pollutions, and vice versa. Go to an old church and look at the niches from which the Puritans tore the visual artwork during their days of iconoclasm, and think of all the other religious conflicts in history.

War memorials are very much part of this kind of thing. They appeal to Professor Haidt’s Loyalty and Hierarchy axes, but to Sanctity as well. So, if you regard a particular war as an abomination, a particular cause as hideously unjust, then a memorial commemorating those who died to advance that cause may strike you not only as a symbol of disloyalty and subversion, but also as a pollution of the space it occupies. Imagine if a memorial to the Kouachi brothers were erected outside the front window of the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Would it be enough to drape that memorial with a cloth so that no one could see its message? Would it be enough to remove it quietly and replace it with a flagpole flying the Tricoleur? Or would you feel an urge to destroy the memorial as noisily and dramatically as possible and to put some object on the site to which the Kouachis would have objected (perhaps an obscene image of Muhammad)? Indulging that urge would hardly be necessary to display one’s loyalty to France, and would likely involve violation of the hierarchy of the French state. It would make sense only as an attempt to exorcise the ritual impurity that association with the Kouachis would bring upon the site.

Now, the protestors who scrawled “Fuck Tory scum” under the words “Women of World War Two” were probably not objecting to the women of World War Two, not even to those among them who took Tories with poor hygiene as lovers. Still, to the extent that the war memorial is a symbol of the state and the Cameron government has come to be identified with the state, presumably they would have seen the memorial as an unclean thing and their graffiti would be an attempt to purge its uncleanness.

In fairness to Ms Penny, I should probably mention that she does seem to be more aware of these issues than either Mr Dillow or I have implied in the remarks above.  So the first tweets she posted after the one that caused all the trouble describe her grandmother’s contribution to the United Kingdom’s efforts in the Second World War and the role that the postwar development of the welfare state played in improving her lot.  Ms Penny tells us that her story and those of women like her consecrate the welfare state as a monument to the memory of the “Women of World War Two,” and that the Cameron government’s policies are a desecration of this monument:

So Ms Penny explicitly acknowledges the importance of the Sanctity/ Degradation axis as part of moral reasoning.  For her, that axis may be subordinate in its importance to the Care/ Harm axis and the Fairness/ Cheating axis.  But those who responded to her tweet in ways like this:

don’t seem to be treating the Sanctity/ Degradation system as an independent thing either- calling Ms Penny a “cunt,” libeling her late grandmother, etc, are not obvious ways of increasing the overall holiness of Twitter.  For these tweeps, Sanctity seems to be a function of Loyalty and Authority, Degradation a function of Betrayal and Subversion.  Perhaps healthful dialogue between people who disagree on moral questions requires, not only that we all acknowledge the full spectrum of moral concerns, but that we respect each of the six systems on its own terms, not trying to reduce the concerns of one to the terms of another.

Alison Bechdel is pretty great

Putting everyone in the picture (click for source)

Cartoonist, memoirist, and Broadway legend Alison Bechdel has found herself involved in the controversy over PEN’s decision to give an award to Charlie Hebdo.  She explains her mixed feelings about this situation, and why she took the action she took, in this blog post.

I added a comment to that post, in which I expressed my admiration for Ms Bechdel (she really is quite admirable!) and briefly rehearsed some of the points I made in posts here and here.

My guesses about the upcoming UK general election

Might look slightly different in a few weeks.

Brian Barder, a retired diplomat who has been Britain’s senior representative in five countries (as Ambassador in Ethiopia, Poland, and Benin, and High Commissioner in the Commonwealth nations of Nigeria and Australia,) maintains a blog on which he has recently been sharing his thoughts about the general election that will be held in the United Kingdom on the seventh of May.  A while ago, he gave his opinion that the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party (or SNP, as it is known) were likely to form an agreement after this election under which Labour would conduct a minority government with the SNP lending its support when needed to pass relatively controversial legislation.  In two posts (here and here,) Ambassador Barder* recommended that Labour and the SNP should negotiate the terms of this agreement before the election, ideally in public, so that the electorate would know what it was being offered.

I believe that such public negotiations would be unwise.  At election time, parties ask activists to volunteer a great deal of time, do a lot of hard work, and present themselves to the public at a considerable risk of rejection and abuse, all without monetary compensation.  Their motivation is their belief in their party’s destiny and the opposing parties’ wickedness,  Public negotiations based on the premise that Labour will not win a majority, but will do a deal with one of its fiercest opponents, would demoralize Labour’s activists and energize supporters of the other parties.  Here is the first comment I offered in response to one of Ambassador Barder’s posts on this topic:

Surely if substantive conversations are going on between Labour and SNP, we won’t know about them for many years. No political party would be well-advised to publicly concede, prior to an election, that it does not expect to win a majority and is planning to govern in concert with a party whose chief commitment is deeply at odds with its whole outlook and tradition.

“To empty chair” is indeed an awkward construction.** “To graveyard whistle” has at least the benefit of being intransitive, so it doesn’t drop a direct object thudding onto the end of the phrase. And I do suspect you are engaging in a bit of graveyard-whistling in this post. If Scootland (sic) does vote as overwhelmingly for SNP as now seems likely, and if as a result of that vote SNP becomes a powerbroker at Westminster, the Scottish branches of the other parties will likely go the way of their counterparts in Northern Ireland. A Scotland where politics is a contest between the SNP and two or three Scottish Unionist parties without formal affiliations south of the border may not lead to the breakup of the UK, but it’s hard to see how it doesn’t advance the ghettoization of Scotland in the same way that such a party system has contributed to the ghettoization of Northern Ireland.

Ambassador Barder responded to this as he customarily does, with unfailing promptness and consideration.  He enlarged on his idea that Britain has entered a period of “New Politics,” in which an honest admission that multiparty politics have come to stay is likelier to help a party than to hurt it.

I cannot say that I was convinced by this argument, admirably though Ambassador Barder stated it.  I did raise another concern in this followup comment:

“enough LibDems and some other fence-sitters might be tempted, or bribed, to vote for the status quo to rob Labour of its opportunity to take office.” Difficult as it is to predict first-past-the-post races where the polls show so many parties receiving 5-10% support, I can’t really imagine the LibDems winning enough seats this year to hold the balance of power. They have enough strongholds now that they are unlikely to be wiped out completely, but they look to be headed for disaster.

Be that as it may, my greater concern is not so much with the Westminster parliament beginning this year as with subsequent parliaments in Westminster and Holyrood. If SNP comes close to the level of success the polls are now predicting, it will be very difficult for any ambitious Unionist politician in Scotland to support Scotland’s current party system. A party that represents none but Scottish interests and that can point to a time when the UK government depended on its support for its continued existence will have a credibility that no local branch of an all-UK party will be able to claim. To compete with that kind of appeal, Scots Unionists will have to form their own party, matching the SNP’s independence from London and erasing divisions among the old parties. That would be a new politics, all right, but the experience of Northern Ireland shows that it would likely be a dead end that would leave the UK longing for the old politics.

I must also say that you seem to have made rather a damaging admission when you say that “there isn’t necessarily anything substantive” for Labour and the SNP to discuss. If all the agreement that’s needed is on the sort of points that can be settled with a smile and a nod, then what is the need for these Labour-SNP talks you keep proposing? As for the pig-in-a-poke argument, who doubts that if Labour and SNP combine for a majority of seats they will arrive at just such a confidence and supply arrangement as you propose? And if they don’t combine for a majority, well, who cares what the eventual losers planned to do had they won an election?

Ambassador Barder added his reply to these concerns as a note within the original comment, saying that SNP would not actually have much power were it to enter a confidence and supply arrangement with Labour, since its supporters so hate the Tory Party (also known as the Conservatives) that they could not credibly threaten to throw their support to it.  This made me wonder why SNP would enter an arrangement that did not give them new power.  They are a political party, after all, power is their business.  But I did not want to drag the discussion out, so I left it there.

A few days ago, Ambassador Barder posted his reflections on the televised debate held last week among the leaders of the seven parties contesting multiple seats in Britain.***  Ambassador Barder indicated his overall assessment of the debate with the title “Ten Depressing Things About the Seven-Leader Election Debate Last Night.”  Several of the depressing things had to do with Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s not-very aggressive approach to his Tory counterpart, British premier David Cameron; another had to do with Liberal Democratic Party leader Nicholas Clegg’s focus on deficit reduction.  The non-depressing things were to be found in the fine performances of the three women on stage, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, and Plaid Cymru (viz, Welsh nationalist) leader Leanne Wood.****

In the weeks since that earlier post, I’d thought more about the election, and Mr Miliband’s behavior in the debate, like Ms Sturgeon’s and Mr Clegg’s, seemed to be quite reasonable.  In a comment, I began to explain:

I’m beginning to suspect that the likeliest outcome is a grand coalition. I know that all the insiders keep saying that the SNP vote won’t be nearly as high on the night as the polls are suggesting, and they may be right, but there is still likely to be a parliament in which SNP, plus either Labour or the Tories, would have a majority. I can’t imagine Labour doing anything that would help SNP present itself to Scottish voters as a serious force in national politics, and Tory backbenchers are all going to be such in a cold sweat if the UKIP vote swings even a dozen seats from Conservative to Labour that any leader who wanted to make a deal with SNP would be ousted immediately. So that leaves a grand coalition as the only available outcome. Unless, of course, the SNP vote collapses more dramatically than anyone is predicting while UKIP surges more dramatically than anyone is predicting, in which case Labour may squeak in with a narrow majority,

So perhaps what we saw in the Miliband-Cameron exchanges was a phase in what you’ve been calling for, a semi-public discussion between potential coalition partners, and not a debate between opponents at all.

Ambassador Barder’s response to this was rather incredulous.  I quote it in full:

I don’t believe that a ‘grand coalition’ of the Conservatives with Labour is conceivable or desirable. I can’t imagine that Ed Miliband, brought up from infancy in the heart of the Labour party, would consider it for a second: I’m convinced that he would resign as leader without hesitation in the unlikely event that his party colleagues tried to steer him into it. It would split the party in a way that would make the defection of the Gang of Four seem like a minor disagreement among friends. The echoes of Ramsay MacDonald, the great betrayer, would be defeaning. A huge proportion of Labour party members (certainly including me!) would resign from the party in anger and disgust if the Labour leadership were to go into a partnership with the most reactionary, anti-social, inhumane, chauvinist and incompetent Conservative party of our lifetimes. Conflicting attitudes to Europe and to the welfare state alone make any such collaboration unthinkable. I guess that the Conservatives would be equally deeply split. It’s not as if the country faces the kind of existential threat that made an all-party national government essential in 1939-40: we face grave problems but there are clear remedies for most of them readily available — and almost no consensus between the two major parties about what the remedies should be. And, finally, it’s unnecessary. As experience in Scotland and continental Europe has demonstrated, a minority government can function quite satisfactorily in a multi-party parliament provided that it can forge temporary ad hoc alliances on specific issues at different times to enable it to win parliamentary support for at least some of its programme.

To which I responded:

The makeup of the next government all depends on what the state of parties is after the election, of course. If, let’s say, Labour win enough seats that they can put together a majority by agreement with either the LDP or SNP or a combination of other small parties, then there will be a chance of a government based on “temporary ad hoc alliances on specific issues at different times.” If, however, it turns out that Labour and the Tories are each separated from an overall majority by fewer seats than SNP hold, that will be impossible.

Granted Labour voters are deeply hostile to the Tories, and would hate a Grand Coalition almost as much in 2015 as they did when Ramsey Macdonald tried it in 1931. But that does not mean that a party split would be on the cards, as it was then, if Ed Miliband were to form such a coalition as a way of keeping SNP on the fringes of UK politics. Labour politicians may share some measure of their supporters’ antipathy to the Tories, but in the SNP they see a direct threat to their own personal ambitions. A Labour-SNP pact would risk putting the SNP in a position of dominance in Scotland in decades to come comparable to that which the Ulster Unionist Party held in Northern Ireland half a century ago, and no Labour politician can fail to see how dramatically that outcome would reduce his or her chances of ever being a senior figure in government. And if no Labour MPs bolt the party, there can be no party split, no matter how unhappy the rank-and-file may be.

An historical comparison that comes to mind is the aftermath of the February 1974 General Election. After his meeting with Ted Heath, Jeremy Thorpe announced to the press “He offered us nothing.” Well, of course Heath offered Thorpe nothing. Moderate, pro-Common Market, anti-Powellite Tory MPs- precisely that faction of his party who formed the core of Heath’s support- tended to represent moderate, pro-Common Market, anti-Powellite constituencies which were the most responsive to Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberal Party, and so those MPs saw in the Liberals an immediate threat to their ability to hold their seats. By approving a deal that would have made the Liberals a serious party of government those MPs would have been signing their own political death warrants. Far better to let Harold Wilson form another government and to oppose that government than to make a bargain that involves the end of one’s own career.

Continuing with the scenario in which SNP could provide a majority to either Labour or the Tories, we can rather safely rule out the idea that one of the major parties might carry on for more than a few months as a minority government with a confidence and supply arrangement with the other. That arrangement would give the official opposition all the power and none of the responsibility in the policy-making process. Assuming neither Labour nor the Tories want to call a second election before the year is out, that means a Grand Coalition.

Again, that is only one possible scenario. I notice that 538 dot com is now***** predicting that the new parliament will be made up of 287 Tories, 271 Labour, 42 SNP, 27 LDP, 17 from the Northern Ireland parties, and 6 others. If that comes true, there would be almost as little prospect of a Labour government sustaining itself by the sort of shifting alliances you describe as there would be if (let’s say) Labour and the Tories tied at 287 with SNP holding 42 seats and a majority for either. Labour would need the SNP and virtually everyone else any time they faced Tory opposition, a situation that could well require the party not only to give up on Scotland but to write off seats wherever the LDP or Plaid Cymru were strong. Even if Ed Miliband’s upbringing had instilled in him a genuinely fanatical hatred of the Tories, he would have to match that hatred with an equal hatred of the Labour Party to try that course.

As for the Tories, under the 538 dot com scenario they too would be stuck with a Grand Coalition. As I mentioned in my first comment, UKIP doesn’t have to win a single seat to scare Tory backbenchers into demanding that their party turn further to the right. They just have to receive, in a handful of constituencies, more votes than separated the Tory candidate from the winning candidate. That will tell Tory backbenchers that if they do not appease UKIP voters they might lose their seats. So a Tory deal with SNP would not only be unpopular in Scotland, it would be a non-starter in the parliamentary Tory party. Likewise a renewed pact with the LDP, even if the LDP had the votes to give the Tories a majority. The only government the Tories could enter, on 538 dot com’s projection, would be a Grand Coalition, as indeed the only government Labour could enter on that projection would be a Grand Coalition.

When so many voters are leaning to minor parties, polls are particularly tricky to evaluate, so it is certainly possible that one of the major parties could emerge with a majority, or that LDP might bounce back and be in a position to give Labour a majority, or that multiple small parties will break through and it will become possible to have the a government by ad hoc, informal agreements. At the moment, however, the likeliest outcome of next month’s general election would seem to be a Grand Coalition. Mr Miliband’s debate performance, the aspects of it that puzzled you, might then be best understood as a stage in the negotiations to set that coalition in place. For that matter, both Ms Sturgeon’s glittering performance in the debate and the peculiar controversy that has sprung up about her since then might be evidence that she too expects such a coalition to emerge, and is taking advantage of the freedom it gives her to attack both Labour and the Tories as the tactical exigencies of the moment may require.

As this comment was already quite unreasonably long, I did not add that Mr Clegg’s focus in the unpromising topic of fiscal rectitude might make quite a bit of sense if he expected his party to be in opposition to a grand coalition in the next parliament.  Before they became a party of government by entering the present ruling coalition with the Tories, the Liberal Democrats tended to be something of a clean government lobby, hectoring whichever party was in power about administrative irregularities and, especially, about cloudy statements from the Treasury.  Perhaps Mr Clegg is preparing the Liberal Democrats for a return to this role.

Ambassador Barder, in his reply to this, expressed admiration for my “ability to marshal such a weight of argument and evidence in support of such an inherently improbable proposition.”  He went on to defend his view that a grand coalition is still overwhelmingly unlikely to be the result of the election, pointing out that the manifestos of SNP, the Greens, and Plaid Cymru are so much closer to what Labour voters want than are the policies of Labour’s own leadership that Labour would be risking a massive revolt if it did not strive to make a deal with them.  He closed with “We shall see!,” a nice way of asking for respite.

My reply started with a pleasantry, to assure Ambassador Barder that I appreciated his time and efforts, and proceeded to another bland remark that I hoped would allow us to part in good spirits:

Thanks very much for your replies. You are not only consistently informative and thought-provoking, but may well be the most courteous blogger on the web.

Certainly, in view of Labour’s history, a grand coalition is an “inherently improbable proposition.” But the very thing that makes politics so fascinating is that yesterday’s inherently improbable proposition can occasionally become today’s sole viable alternative, and tomorrow’s tediously settled reality. Who knows, perhaps the next parliament will feature something even harder to imagine than a Labour-Tory coalition. Indeed, we shall see!

*Brian Barder would more properly be referred to as “Sir Brian,” since he is a Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George.  Those sorts of titles strike me as impossibly silly, however.  Since he is an extremely polite person, I will not call him simply “Barder.”  So “Ambassador Barder” it is.

**In that same post, Ambassador Barder had complained about this ungainly neologism.

***Leaders of parties contesting seats only in Northern Ireland were not included, nor were leaders whose parties were not likely to keep their deposits in more than one constituency race.

****Nigel Farage of the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) struck Ambassador Barder as “the most shameless,” an unsurprising assessment given Mr Farage’s low opinion of the institutions to which Ambassador Barder has devoted his life’s work.

*****That’s what 538 was predicting when I wrote that comment.  It’s adjusted the prediction a bit in the hours since.  Now, Labour are down to 270 and SNP are up to 43.

Indiana becomes the center of the universe, for a little while

This is where Indiana is, in case you’ve been wondering.

Last week the state of Indiana made the national news by passing a law whose sponsors named it “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Opponents of the claim that this name is misleading, both because it does little to promote religious freedom and because it is significantly different from the US federal law known by the same name and from the laws modeled on that federal law that are on the books in many other states.  Because the law is expected to protect businesses that refuse to serve members of sexual minority groups, advocates of the rights of such groups have protested vigorously against it.

The two things about this controversy I’ve read that I’ve found most helpful are an essay posted on Facebook by lawyer Carolyn Homer Thomas and a blog post by Eve Tushnet.  As the weeks pass, I’ll probably see good things in print, but for now the story is fresh enough that the internet is the richest source.

Carolyn Homer Thomas writes that Indiana’s law differs from the federal law in two key ways:

First, SB 101 expressly recognizes that for-profit businesses which “exercise practices that are compelled or limited by a system of religious belief held by…the individuals…who have control and substantial ownership of the entity” qualify for religious exemptions. This means that there is NO Indiana regulation that a business cannot theoretically trump by saying their religion forbids compliance. What’s rightfully getting the most attention (because of the gay rights movement) is the risk that businesses will try to trump non-discrimination and employment laws. This is because, until the Hobby Lobby case, most people had understood the earlier federal and state RFRAs to only protect individuals or non-profit religious institutions, like churches and charities. But the Indiana RFRA now allows even for-profit corporations to exercise religion.

“This means that there is NO Indiana regulation that a business cannot theoretically trump by saying their religion forbids compliance.”  A statute that, interpreted by its plain language, would dismantle the entire civil law system of one of the fifty states would seem to pose a threat to every law-abiding citizen of that state.  I can see that members of sexual minority groups are among those who are especially vulnerable that threat, and so it is reasonable that they should be among the major focuses of attention as Hoosiers* try to figure out how to get themselves out of the mess their state legislature and governor have landed them in.

Carolyn Homer Thomas goes on to identify another major problem with the Indiana statute:

Second – this is the most fascinating aspect of the whole thing to me as a religion law geek – SB 101 only protects a business who is actively “exercising” a practice that is “compelled or limited by” religious belief. This means that the religious belief cannot just be a preference — it has to be theologically mandated. So, a business who suddenly changes course, or comes up with a fairly weak theological reason for its action? That is a ground in court to reject their exemption. By contrast, SB 101 protects ANY “exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief” for individuals and non-profits. So it will be harder for businesses to get exemptions than individuals. Indiana will require a much higher showing of religious conflict before it will protect businesses. (I am going to bracket the fact that this difference presents its own Constitutional problems – courts aren’t supposed to, under the Establishment Clause, evaluate theology.)

Giving state courts the power to decide what does and does not count as a worthwhile religious belief would seem to be a pretty big drawback in something called “the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

Eve Tushnet, as a conservative Roman Catholic and an out (albeit celibate) lesbian, has a unique perspective on this issue.  Because of her religious beliefs, she understands the scruples of those whose consciences won’t allow them to participate in same-sex weddings:

1. Cooking is an art, cakes are art, compelled creation of beauty is compelled speech. I feel like the denial that cakery is/should be expressive, that food bears meaning, is somehow Gnostic and class-biased (or sexist? if your grandma could do it, it must not be art?), but maybe that’s self-parody on my part. Anyway beauty + meaning, to me, pretty clearly = art. And photography is even more obviously art, right?

At the same time, because of her sexuality, she also understands dimensions of the issue to which other social conservatives are blind:

2. Still… I wonder how different this debate would look if more gay people felt confident that Christians know how common discrimination, harassment, and violence are in our lives. I mean I didn’t really know this myself for a long time. I was very sheltered. The past few years, in which I’ve gotten to know lots of gay people from different backgrounds (mostly Christian, mostly celibate, it turns out this doesn’t protect you–not that any of my friends asked it to), have been eye-opening for me.

And quite often I find straight people are even more surprised than I was to hear about the frequency and sordid creativity of anti-gay acts. I hope I’m remembering this right, but at a retreat I was at, the leader asked how many of the non-straight participants had either experienced violence as a result of sexual orientation ourselves, or had close friends who had experienced this violence. And I think all of us had. (Close friends, in my case.) And the straight people were shocked. When I tell this story now, people’s eyes widen–I mean, straight people’s eyes widen.

The support major corporations and prominent media figures have given to the protests against Indiana’s law has convinced social conservatives like Rod Dreher that America’s power elite is solidly in favor of the rights of sexual minorities, and that he and his fellow dissenters are headed for a future on the margins of society.  Mr Dreher writes, “On this issue, the left has the media, the academy, much of the legal profession, and corporate America on its side. That’s a powerful coalition. It is the Establishment. And you will not escape its view.”  At The Federalist, Robert Tracinski goes even further, declaring that “The Left Has No Concept of Freedom,” and that those leading the charge against the Indiana law portends a “law of the state [that will] expand so much that it leaves the individual no space in which he may determine his own private principles of action.”

Ms Tushnet has a response ready for Messrs Dreher and Tracinski:

We have a sharply bifurcated culture, where like Glee is on tv and Tim Cook is a gazillionaire, and yet countless kids are being harassed, berated, and thrown out of their homes for being gay.

I am not convinced most straight people know that stuff, and think it’s awful. I am definitely not convinced that most gay people trust that our heterosexual brethren know and reject that stuff. That’s some of what you’re hearing in the “slippery slope” arguments, Can they refuse to carry us in the ambulance? Can they kick our family out of the restaurant?

Those slippery slope arguments are pretty hard to forget when you think about small towns and rural areas of a sort that do exist in Indiana, places where public space consists of a handful of businesses, a few fundamentalist churches, and a couple of government offices.  If you live in one of those areas and the people running those businesses decide that it isn’t worth their while to be seen with the likes of you, your life could become very tightly circumscribed very quickly.

I’ll conclude with a very clever tweet from Michael Brendan Dougherty.  Mr Dougherty, who has taken a rightist stand in this debate, posted this:

Well of course they do.  That’s why mainstream political discussion had so little room for the rights of sexual minorities until recent times; most people can’t really imagine themselves wanting to exercise the right to form a same-sex relationship, or to be transgender, or to live any of the other lives that we now group together under the LGBTQI banner.  And it’s also why every other minority group, including religious minority groups, has a hard time finding a hearing from the general public.   I consider this tweet to be very clever because, in a single rhetorical move, it creates a category into which both the same-sexer who has to wonder whether the paramedics will refuse to put her in the ambulance and the photographer who has to wonder she’ll be sued out of business if she declines to take pictures at a same-sex wedding naturally fall.  So he, like Ms Tushnet and Ms Thomas, manages to open a space in the debate for a human voice.

*That’s what people from Indiana are called, “Hoosiers.”  No one knows why, though there is some evidence supporting a theory connecting it with an early-nineteenth century slang term from Yorkshire, “howzher,” which meant “oaf.”  Anyway, though the word may have originated as an insult, people from Indiana insist on being identified as “Hoosiers,” and if you call them “Indianans” they genuinely do not understand what you mean.

RIP Leonard Nimoy

Here are some links people have been sending me since Leonard Nimoy died:

1. Sugar Smack Spock

It is illogical to suppose that you can touch my Sugar Smacks and live

2. 20 Cool Things Nimoy Did Other Than Star Trek

3. Her heart belongs to Beard Spock (nsfw)

4. A Star Trek comic book that never existed:

5. Leonard Nimoy was definitely my favorite member of the original cast of In Search Of…, and here’s one of the most endearing episodes:

My wife and I have some connections to the Episcopal Church, and one of the things that first attracted me to that institution was this In Search Of… episode about the tragic life of Bishop James Pike.  All the remarks from clerics reminiscing about the efforts they made over the years to keep their friend Jim out of trouble showed me that, whatever its faults, it was an organization in which there was an abundance of clear heads and warm hearts:

5. When I was about twelve years old, my brother gave me an LP I still have.  I should say “the LP I still have,” since I haven’t had a record player for 20 years and got rid of all the others long ago.  This one is The Touch of Leonard Nimoy, and it’s a prized possession.  Here’s my favorite track:

6. There are a couple of outstanding made-for-TV-movies Leonard Nimoy was involved in that I haven’t seen mentioned in any of the tributes.  One is 1991’s Never Forget, in which he played Holocaust survivor Mel Mermelstein, who in the 1980s found a way to fight Holocaust deniers in court.  The movie makes it clear that Mermelstein is Good and the denialists are Bad, of course, but there’s a lot more complexity and humanity in the film, as it explores Mermelstein’s relationship with his family and shows how the consequences of the Holocaust continue to play out in all of their lives.

Another is 1971’s The Assault on the Wayne, where he plays the commander of a nuclear submarine against which enemy agents are hatching evil schemes.  He’s the good guy, but watching him I’m very glad I am not a sailor- it would be quite exhausting to serve under a commanding officer like that, especially in the confined world of a submarine.  His first encounter with his supply officer is terrifying:

7. Many dolls of Mr Spock have been brought to market over the years, and I’ve never wanted any of them.  But I may one day be unable to resist buying this Leonard Nimoy action figure, based on his appearances in two episodes of The Simpsons (the one with the monorail, and the one that spoofed In Search Of…):

“You didn’t do anything.” “Didn’t I?”

8. And no tribute to Leonard Nimoy would be complete without a remembrance of this, the definitive dramatization of the work of J. R. R. Tolkien:

And a comment thereon:

Who is qualified to say, “That is not Islamic”?

I’ve always found it alarming that so many American politicians are quick to declare that particular groups are or are not Islamic.  I’m referring to the sort of thing that reached dizzying proportions in late 2001, when such figures as George W. Bush and Charles Krauthammer and Madeleine (Not-At-) Albright went on television not only to declare that the terrorists responsible for that year’s attacks on New York and Washington were not true Muslims, but to tell the world the true meaning of the word “jihad,” and in Professor (Not-At-) Albright’s case to go on at length about the concept of “reopening the gate of ijtihad,” which they apparently regarded as a necessary step in the revival of true Islam.  No one in the media in those days seemed inclined to ask who had appointed these people as imams and asked them to issue such monumental fatwas.

Anyway, Elizabeth Stoker Bruening seems to feel the same way I do about this kind of thing.   Juan Cole is more sanguine, arguing that it should be possible for a reasonably well-informed outside observer to figure out where the “center of gravity” is in a religious tradition and to recognize that this group or that is very distant from that center.  Professor Cole may be right, though I suspect he would agree with me that the Bushes and Krauthammers and (Not-At-) Albirights of the world would be well advised to be more circumspect in their commentary.

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