What is the point of having political opinions?

The other day, I saw a rather stinging tweet:

To which I responded:

What I was thinking of there were the op-ed pieces I’ve read in major newspapers focused on one or another high official, with speculation as to what options that official was likely to be considering in the face of some event in the news. Those pieces might be interesting if you are that guy, or if you are likely to succeed that guy in his post, or if that guy is likely to seek your advice. If none of those descriptions applies to you, an interest in pieces like that may expose something embarrassing about your fantasy life. Strangely, not only do papers keep publishing those pieces, but lots of people whom I know personally and regard as otherwise intelligent and well-adjusted avidly share them and enjoy talking about them, both on social media and face-to-face. It makes those conversations more bearable to think of them as “a PornHub comment about what you’d do if you were that guy,” so that’s one reason I’m grateful to B. D. Mathews for posting this.

Another reason I’m grateful for the tweet is that it has prompted me to think of ways of having political opinions that do not reduce to the moral equivalent of such a comment. Today I saw something good in the Weekly Standard, if you can imagine such a thing. Ian Marcus Corbin, in an essay prompted by a recent book on Nietzsche and Heidegger, argues that our social-media-driven age has prompted many of us to obsess over political  opinion-having. He concludes: “Politics may be a necessary evil—but talking incessantly about politics and viewing your countrymen solely through a political lens is an evil that we’re actively choosing, day by day. We should stop.”

The phenomenon Mr Corbin discusses is not morally equivalent to a PornHub comment about what you’d do if you were that guy; it is much worse. While the existence of pornography as an industry does represent a threat to human dignity, no one comment on such a site is particularly likely to lead anyone to hurt another person, or to degrade anyone, or to lead anyone to betray a trust.  Obsessive political partisanship routinely does lead people to do all of those things, and it makes it harder to repair the damage that follows doing them.

Nietzsche himself gave a good reason for having political opinions. In The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche wrote that a population which takes liberal institutions for granted will distinguish itself among the peoples of the world in its uncommon stupidity, a stupidity that no amount of schooling will cure. However!

As long as they are still being fought for, these same institutions produce quite different effects; they then in fact promote freedom mightily.  Viewed more closely, it is war which produces these effects, war for liberal institutions which as war permits the illiberal instincts to endure.  And war is a training in freedom.  For what is freedom?  That one has the will to self-responsibility.  That one preserves the distance which divides us.  That one has become more indifferent to hardship, toil, privation, even to life.  That one is ready to sacrifice men to one’s cause, oneself not excepted.  Freedom means that the manly instincts that delight in war and victory have gained mastery over the other instincts- for example, over the instinct for “happiness”… How is freedom measured, in individuals as in nations?  By the resistance which has to be overcome, by the effort it costs to stay aloft. (from section 38, as translated by R. J. Hollingdale in the Penguin Classics version)

As usual, Nietzsche expresses himself in an idiom which some will find ridiculous and others will find terrifying. But his point is not so very different from that which a self-consciously civilized man like James Madison makes in that classic of liberal political theory, the tenth Federalist paper. For Madison, it is the adversarial structure of civic life and the mutual jealousies of competing factions within it that make it possible for a community to thrive:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. Shall domestic manufactures be encouraged, and in what degree, by restrictions on foreign manufactures? are questions which would be differently decided by the landed and the manufacturing classes, and probably by neither with a sole regard to justice and the public good. The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice. Every shilling with which they overburden the inferior number, is a shilling saved to their own pockets.

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

In a society where governments are formed and dismissed as a result of popular elections, the clash of interests cannot balance itself sufficiently to regulate the state unless large numbers of people attach themselves passionately to political opinions. These opinions may not rest on any very firm rational basis; think for example of the dispute between advocates of the Gold Standard and advocates of Bimetallism that dominated US politics in the late 19th century, a dispute in which neither side espoused a view that can stand up to one moment’s scrutiny from modern economic analysis, but which did as much to revitalize American civic life as did any of the more intelligible debates of other years. It pulled Americans out of an era of backward-looking regionalism to engage with politics on a frank basis of economic class interest. You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that as a step towards reality.

I read Mr Corbin’s article, then turned immediately to Counterpunch. While the Weekly Standard is the most reliably pro-war rightist of major US publications, Counterpunch has long been the most reliably anti-war leftist of the same group. These publications are opposites of each other in those ways, and fittingly enough Counterpunch today features an article that is the converse of Mr Corbin’s.  Bruce Levine’s “Another Reason Young Americans Don’t Revolt Against Being Screwed” argues, not that too many people are too focused on political expression, but that too many people are effectively prevented from expressing or even forming political opinions.

The article picks up on an earlier piece of Mr Levine’s called “8 Reasons Young Americans Don’t Fight Back.” Fight back, that is, against elites who are cheating them of their future. In today’s piece, Mr Levine argues that the internet has given young Americans several more reasons to disengage from politics. First, young people fear that an online indiscretion will haunt them forever, and so refrain from saying anything controversial in any public forum. Rather than quote Mr Levine’s discussion of this fear, I will insert a recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon making the same point:

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Second, they are debilitated by the low self-esteem which their peers inculcate in them by their own relentless self-advertising:

For other young people, their greatest fear is “FoMo”—the fear of missing out—which is intensified on social media where they are constantly bombarded with images of others doing “cool” stuff. One young woman recently told me, “You don’t know how crazy we are. I saw a party on Instagram that looked really cool, and I had FoMo over it, even though I know the guy who posted it always makes parties look cooler than they really are.”

Many young people tell me that the constant barrage of their peers’ self-promotions on social media makes them feel inferior; and low self-esteem—like fear—debilitates the strength to resist. One young man recently explained to me that millennials are always aware of their “digital selves” which can be measured in metrics such as “likes”; and that comparing themselves to others routinely results in low self-esteem. Of course, some young people do attempt rebellion, but effective rebellion, they tell me, requires completely extricating from social media, which would be an extremely radical action.

Third, online political discussion tends to be dominated by the loudest voices, those of self-righteous extremists on each side. Disengaged from everything but the sound of their own voices, these extremists make the internet a space where there is no exchange of ideas or building of community, “only mutual venom.”

Mr Levine thinks that his generation can help to solve these problems:

The Internet technology need not necessarily be a pacifying force as, for example, the Internet was effectively utilized during the Arab spring to foment rebellion and organize resistance. Similarly, some of the other pacifying forces that I originally detailed need not be pacifying. Teachers could inspire resistance against illegitimate authorities rather than indoctrinate compliance to any and all authorities. And my fellow mental health professionals could embrace liberation psychology rather than pathologize and medicate rebellion.

My experience is that young people, in general, are becoming increasingly pained and weakened by multiple oppressive forces, and older people who give a damn about them can help. The 1% will always attempt to seize powerful technologies and institutions to pacify all of us—especially young people. To manage these technologies and institutions, the 1% needs technocrats, administrators, and guards; thus, what would help is what Howard Zinn called a “revolt of the guards.” However, if technicians, teachers, mental health professionals, and other guards never even admit to ourselves our societal role—as guards who maintain the status quo—then we guards will never consider a revolt. Many older people are guards, and they can choose to revolt and help young people gain the strength necessary to resist injustices.

What Mr Levine envisions is at the opposite extreme from “a PornHub comment about what you’d do if you were that guy.”  While the current relationship of young Americans to the internet is all too aptly illustrated with the image of the socially isolated figure whose only offering to the world are the thoughts he has while masturbating, the relationship that Mr Levine imagines they might construct if their elders would stop enforcing that isolation and take the lead in opposing it is one that would bring people together to form new communities.

If political opinion-having in the online era is not a community-building activity of the sort Mr Levine has in mind, what purpose does it serve?  Daniel McCarthy makes a case that the appeal of ideologies in not in the quality of their ideas, but in the starkness of the contrast they make with rival groups.

Much of the political discussion I see on social media reminds me of what one might hear listening in on a therapy session.  For example, this photo was much circulated a couple of days ago:

 

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I saw this posted both by Trump supporters, who exulted that their man was the rock on which the waves of Western decline break, and by Trump opponents, who expressed dismay that the US president was behaving like a petulant child. I put it another way in response to a contrast between this photo and another taken a few seconds before made by a right-wing news outlet:

The photo that is valuable is the one that will enable people on each side to see what they want to see.

This almost literal political Rorschach test is not unique. Here is another such, occasioned by reports that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was about to be arrested on charges of sexual assault:

The photo of Mr Weinstein and Gwyneth Paltrow with Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to have been taken in 1999, a year when the phrase “Clinton Derangement Syndrome” was much in the air among Democrats exasperated with the apparent willingness of a certain percentage of the US public to believe absolutely any story, no matter how far-fetched that put the then-president and his family in a negative light. Shortly after Mr Clinton left office, Republicans began shaking their heads about “Bush Derangement Syndrome”; since then we’ve heard about “Obama Derangement Syndrome” and “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” These are real things, and they are complemented by equally delusional behavior from people determined to regard the incumbent US president as somehow good.

That’s where the image of a therapy session comes in. The US presidency is a powerfully evocative symbol. That’s part of the point of it. For example, in 2008 many supporters of Barack Obama hoped that the election of an African-American president would call forth a version of the USA free of the old racial tensions; in 2016, many supporters of Donald Trump hoped, as many of his opponents feared, that his election would call American men to a more assertive masculinity. But as time wears on and those cultural transformations fail to take place, what the symbol actually calls up are the feelings individuals have about male authority figures in their lives. A president of your own party merges with all the images you carry of what might have been or what might yet be in your relationships with powerful men, while a president of the opposing party merges with all the men who’ve let you down. Discussions of presidents therefore rarely maintain any connection to questions of national policy for any length of time.  I suppose those discussions serve a therapeutic purpose for those who engage in them.

 

 

 

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Presidential line of succession

Today’s xkcd:

Ties are broken by whoever was closest to the surface of Europa when they were born.

I agree that the 1947 Presidential Succession Act is a disaster waiting to happen, and that at times it has waited rather impatiently.  In the case of the first vacancy to occur in the presidency while the act was in effect, it might very well have triggered a world war.

Before dawn on 23 November 1963, Secret Service Agent Gerald Blaine was assigned to guard President Lyndon Johnson, who had a few hours before been sworn in as successor to the assassinated John F. Kennedy. In his 2010 memoir, Mr Blaine admitted that he came within a fraction of a second of killing President Johnson that night. As a member of President Kennedy’s security detail, Mr Blaine had grown accustomed to that president’s scrupulous habit of notifying his guards every time he was about to go outdoors. When Mr Blaine saw a figure roaming about in the darkness on the grounds of President Johnson’s Washington-area home that night, therefore, he assumed it must be an intruder, and being as he was on highest alert he prepared to shoot the figure on sight. His finger was on the trigger of his submachine gun, about to squeeze, when a beam of light fell across the familiar features of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Had Mr Blaine squeezed that trigger, the presidency would have fallen to the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, John W. McCormack, Democrat of Massachusetts. Here is a photograph from the holdings of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, showing John McCormack in conference with President Kennedy:

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In November of 1963, John McCormack was a 71 year old man with no national following, who was known on the world stage solely for his family’s longstanding and often bitter feud with the Kennedys. For example, in 1962 John McCormack’s nephew Eddie McCormack had been Edward M. Kennedy’s opponent in the Democratic primary for the US Senate from Massachusetts, a race in which Eddie McCormack had said some rather hard words about the president’s kid brother.  Had a man with that profile succeeded to the presidency as the result of two shootings within hours of each other, the first committed by a person or persons at that point still unknown, the other committed by a member of the late president’s own bodyguard, it would have been natural for the world to assume that the shootings were part of a bloody power struggle in Washington. Some people, particularly the people in charge of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, would have been required to take substantive action based on that assumption. Because the early 1960s were the most perilous phase of the Cold War, it would have been dereliction of duty for the leaders in the Kremlin to have regarded them as anything else.

The USA had gone through many peaceful transfers of power by 1963. Foreign observers, operating under the assumption that a violent coup was in place, would therefore have to make the further assumption that the coup-makers were acting from desperation. If the USA were a country where groups routinely succeeded each other in the seats of power by means of assassination, the motive might have been relatively humdrum. Since the USA was in fact at the opposite pole, where a bloody power struggle was a radical departure from the norm, the motive must itself have been radical.

What could that motive have been? Starting in the early 1950s, a powerful faction within the US military, led by Air Force General Curtis LeMay, had been advocating a massive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, a preemptive strike known to its advocates as the “Sunday Punch.”  General LeMay’s idea was widely enough known to the Washington press corps that when he emerged as a candidate for vice president a few years later, they were ready with questions about it, questions which he answered in a rather terrifying way. Surely Soviet intelligence must have been aware in 1963 that there was a faction in the Pentagon that had long been making this proposal, and that its leaders included Curtis Lemay, who at that time was the Air Force Chief of Staff. If a group were so hardened to violence as to be ready to launch a nuclear first strike against the USSR, killing hundreds of millions of people, perhaps that same group would reconcile itself to adding two more murders to their scheme. Seeing John McCormack emerging from the bloodstained chaos, the Soviets might well have concluded that he was a stooge of the victorious Lemay faction, and that their only chance of survival lay in hitting the US and its nuclear arsenal with all the forces they could muster.

Now, rerun the scenario without the 1947 act. Before that law was passed, the 1886 Presidential Succession Act had placed the Secretary of State second in line of succession behind the Vice President. Under no circumstances would it have been easy to believe that the shooting deaths of two presidents within 24 hours had resulted from the actions of a lone gunman and a panicked security man, but at least with the advent of President Dean Rusk the prospect of world war would not have been greatly heightened. Though he was not a particular favorite of President Kennedy’s, Secretary of State Rusk was an appointee of his, had represented his administration faithfully, and had been a familiar figure in world capitals since the early months of the Second World War. Though the Kremlin would still have assumed that the deaths of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were part of a violent power struggle, Rusk’s ascension would have been evidence that the faction loyal to President Kennedy had won that struggle and prevented an immediate nuclear attack on the USSR. Certainly it would have been rational for the Soviets to approach a Rusk administration cautiously and to refrain from any irrevocable actions.

In the other situation when the provisions of the 1947 act might have come into effect, the stakes were less desperate, but still considerable.  That was in 1973, when Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign after he was caught taking bribes. In an unrelated scandal coming to light at the same time, the so-called “Watergate” affair, President Richard Nixon was facing the ever-increasing likelihood of removal from office for his own criminal exploits. Congress was reluctant to act against President Nixon for many reasons, not least that removing him while the Vice Presidency was vacant would have meant that after an election in which over 60% of the people had voted for a Republican president, the 1947 act would then have elevated a Democratic Speaker of the House to the presidency. Indeed, the selection of Congressman Gerald R. Ford to replace Agnew paid a sort of homage to the 1947 act, since Ford was the man the Republicans would have installed as Speaker had they held the majority in the House of Representatives.

As for Randall Munroe’s suggestions in the comic above, slots 1-6 look pretty good to me.  I would suggest that the Secretary of the Treasury should be on the list, no lower than right behind the Secretary of State. The Secretary of the Treasury is the only official who is a first-rank player in both domestic policy and foreign policy, and is certainly as familiar to policymakers around the world as is any appointed official other than the Secretary of State.

Number 7, “Five people who do not live in Washington, DC, nominated at the start of the President’s term and confirmed by the Senate” sounds logical, though I’d need some specifics before I endorsed the idea. Would these be people who already hold office under the federal government? If not, how would they be paid, how would they be kept informed of the things a president ought to know, and how would they be kept from involving themselves in matters with which a president ought to have nothing to do?

Number 8, Tom Hanks. Well, I remember Bosom Buddies as fondly as the next person (assuming that the next person didn’t like the show either,) but I don’t think he’s quite the person I’d like to see taking charge in a crisis so extreme that all those senior officials had died or otherwise become unavailable. I used to mistake Tom Hanks for Tim Robbins, and Tim Robbins used to be partnered with Susan Sarandon. So I’d suggest putting Susan Sarandon in that spot.

Number 9, “State governors in descending order of population at the last census,” is no good. One of the problems of the 1947 Act is that many legal experts believe that the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches may well preclude members of Congress, such as the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate, from being listed in the line of succession. No less important to the constitutional order than the separation of powers between the branches of the federal government is the division of powers between the federal government and the states. Including governors would violate this principle as surely as including members of Congress violates the other.  Moreover, sorting them by the population of their states would revive a contention between large states and small ones, a contention which the Constitution did so much to resolve.

Number 10, “Anyone who won an Oscar for playing a governor,” might encourage Hollywood to make prestige movies about state government.  That’s a cause I can get behind, so I’ll endorse that.

Number 11, “Anyone who won a Governor’s Award for playing someone named Oscar,” will only encourage remakes of The Odd Couple, an intolerable prospect.

Number 12, “Kate McKinnon, if available.” I assume that means that Mr Munroe hopes that, in the dark day when the country finds itself going so far down the line of succession, Ms McKinnon would stop trying to be funny. I can think of any number of comedians whose efforts are far more tedious than hers, so I would put them ahead of her.

Number 13, the Billboard Hot 100 artists. Sure, why not? Considering the current president’s show-biz background, it’s probably just a matter of time before that population starts to dominate the presidential sweepstakes on its own.

Number 14, US astronauts, no. I’ve always loved astronauts, but they are strongly biased against sending robot probes into space to do actual science. We don’t need more studies about the damage gravity deprivation does to the human body, but we do need multiple rovers on the Moon and other instruments that can answer serious questions in astronomy and planetary science.

Number 15, Serena Williams, and Number 16, champions of the biggest ticket team sports. That’s a juicy idea…

Number 17, Bill Pullman and his descendants. That would require a legal method for distinguishing between Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. Since descendants are involved, Bill Paxton’s death does nothing to surmount this impossible challenge.

Number 18, the entire line of succession to the British throne. Judging by the percentage of the US population that swoons when British royals are in the news, this might be a popular idea. And it does make since that there should be a sense of kinship there, since many Americans are proud to trace their lineage back to hardworking families of German immigrants who made good.

Number 19, the current champion of the Nathan’s hot-dog eating contest. This one should rank much higher, behind the Secretary of the Treasury and ahead of the Secretary of Defense.

Number 20, “All other US citizens, chosen by a 29 round single elimination jousting tournament,” would leave the winner free of most of the usual problems of political leadership, since virtually all of the surviving population would be severely incapacitated by its wounds. After issuing urgent appeals to the other countries of the world to send medical assistance, s/he would have plenty of time to work on his or her hot-dog eating skills.