What would-be cyberbullies did in the 1930s

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William Joyce “was a tiny little creature and, though not very ugly, was exhaustively so.” 

Lately I happened upon a copy of Rebecca West’s 1945 book The Meaning of Treason. Most of the book is about William Joyce, a British fascist rabble-rouser of the 1930s, who became famous during the Second World War when his propaganda broadcasts from Germany earned him the moniker “Lord Haw Haw” and led him to death on the gallows at Wandsworth Prison shortly after the war’s end.

The book is largely composed of reprinted articles that West wrote for The New Yorker while covering Joyce’s trial; this has its unfortunate results, as the book is weighed down both by the repetition of elements that are reintroduced for readers who had missed a previous week’s issue and by lengthy arguments about points that have not retained their interest over the decades. Still, there are marvelous bits; for example, when she describes seeing Joyce for the first time in a courtroom: “The strong electrical light was merciless to William Joyce, whose appearance was a surprise to all of us who had not seen him before. His voice had suggested a large and flashy handsomeness. But he was a tiny little creature and, though not very ugly, was exhaustively so.”  (Page 4, Rebecca West, The Meaning of Treason, Viking Press, 1945, 1948 [4th Printing])

The core of the book is contained in two long paragraphs towards the middle. I will quote those in their entirety, since they reflect not only on what William Joyce did between leaving Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in 1937 and defecting to Germany in 1939, but also on what a great many people who are more like him than they would perhaps care to admit spend their free time doing today:

Joyce, working alone, worked frantically. He spoke to every society that would let him inside its doors, in the warmer weather he had an open-air meeting every day, and sometimes several in one day. It was as if he were trying to leave an impression on the public mind that could be counted upon to endure; and indeed he partially succeeded in this aim. An enormous number of people in the low-income groups heard him speak, some during the years when he was with Mosley, and even more during the period when he was his own master. Many people in the higher-income groups had also their contact with Joyce, but they did not know it. Anybody who was advertised as a speaker at a meeting appealing for funds or humane treatment for refugees from Nazi persecution would receive by every post, for many days before the meeting, threatening messages, couched always in the same words, and those words always so vague that the writers of them could not have been touched by the law. They were apt to come by the last post, and the returning householder, switching on the light, would see them piled up on the hall table, splinters from a mass of stupidity that might not, after all, be finite and destructible, but infinite and coterminous with life. Their postmarks showed that they came from Manchester, Bristol, Bournemouth, Bethnal Green, Glasgow, Colchester. All over the country there were those who wished that the stranger, being hungry, should not be fed, being naked should not be clothed. Goats and monkeys, as Othello said, goats and monkeys; and the still house would seem like a frail and besieged fortress.

This device was the invention of William Joyce. The people who heard him in the streets sometimes saw this alliance with crime displayed. A number of his meetings were provocative of the violence he loved; he was twice tried for assault at London police courts during the year preceding the outbreak of the war, though each time the wind that sat in so favorable a quarter for Fascists blew him out with an acquittal. But at many others of his meetings he used all his powers, his harsh, sneering, cajoling, denatured, desperate voice, his quick and twisting humor, his ability to hammer a point home on a crowd’s mind, to persuade the men and women he saw before him of the advantages of dictatorship, the dangers of Jewish competition and high finance, the inefficiency of democracy, the greatness and goodness of Hitler, and his own seriousness. His audiences were not much interested in his arguments and were shrewd enough in their judgement of him. Many remembered him seven years afterwards. Only a very few said, “I liked him.” Most said, “He has the most peculiar views, but he really was an extraordinary chap,” or some such words. “Extraordinary” was what they called him, nearly all of them. This impression might not have served Joyce so ill had the days brought forth what he expected. If the Germans had brought him with them when they invaded England and had made him their spokesman, many Londoners might have listened to him with some confidence because he was a familiar element in a scene that conquest would have made terrifying in its unfamiliarity; and they might have felt awe, and perhaps, still more, confidence, because there was something of the wizard in the little creature.

(Pages 98-100)

What a marvelous way of expressing the effect of being a target of a campaign of harassment: “splinters from a mass of stupidity that might not, after all, be finite and destructible, but infinite and coterminous with life… and the still house would seem like a frail and besieged fortress.” And what effort and organizational ability it must have taken William Joyce and his fellows to inflict this on people in the days before the Internet. West’s description of the menacing letters “piled up on the hall table” suggests that the target of the threat has servants who bring her mail in for her, as the variety of postmarks indicate that Joyce had associates in his “National Socialist League” who helped him produce and distribute the letters. Nowadays, of course, Twitter has taken over all that work, acting as mailroom staff both among those issuing and those receiving threats.

2020 Visions

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Eugene MCarthy in 1956, two years before Minnesota elected him to be one of its Senators

The 22 February 1988 issue of The New Republic carried a piece by former US Senator Eugene McCarthy. An adapted version of this piece appears under the title “Standards and Guides for Picking Presidential Candidates” in McCarthy’s 2004 book Parting Shots from My Brittle Bow. McCarthy provided lists of characteristics which should be considered disqualifying for potential US presidents. This list would rule out, not only every candidate who was running in the 1988 election, but everyone who had ever served as president. Since McCarthy did not share my conviction that the US presidency ought to be abolished, I believe that at least some of the characteristics  were included tongue-in-cheek, as a way of ensuring a transparently false conclusion.

Nonetheless, I’ve spent a fair bit of time these last 30 years thinking about McCarthy’s lists. The first list rules out prospective candidates on the basis of the jobs they’ve held. Among them are “governors and former governors, unless they have had experience with the federal government, either before or after their governorships.” Governors-turned-presidents come into office thinking that “they can handle the Pentagon… because they have reorganized a state highway department.”  Also excluded are vice presidents and former vice presidents, not only because vice presidents are usually chosen for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to assume the top job, but also because service as vice president is a demoralizing experience that “is likely to weaken and confuse character.” Third, clergyfolk, their offspring, and “leading lay persons,” because “religious judgment and commitment is fundamentally different from that of the political-secular order.” Number four, generals and admirals, and number five, heads of big businesses, in both cases because they are accustomed to giving orders and having them carried out, experiences a president rarely knows.

The second list focuses on the conditions under which a person announces his or her candidacy. Announcements in February are disqualifying, since the ancients knew that February was a month fit only for “the worship of the dead and of the gods of the underworld.” Announcements made in the company of family members are a bad sign, as are any in which the candidate claims to be the representative of a particular generation or other demographic group. At no time should the candidate overshare medical records; McCarthy expresses his strong disapproval of “Jimmy Carter’s statement in 1976 that he was allergic to beer, cheese, and mold, and that he sometimes suffered from hemorrhoids” as tantamount to “indecent exposure.”  Nor should the candidate betray signs of actually wanting to be president rather than merely willing to accept the post; this renders suspect any aspirant who enters the race before attaining the age of fifty.

The third list lays out five “subtle signs of demagoguery.” Three stand out from this list. “Does the candidate now- or has he in a past campaign- call himself William (Bill) or Robert (Bob) or Patrick/ Patricia (Pat)? Or does the candidate, known previously as John III or IV, drop the III or IV for the campaign, thus in effect repudiating father, grandfather, and possibly great grandfather?” Apparently the senator would have preferred the volunteers for his 1968 presidential campaign go “Clean for Eugene” rather than “Clean for Gene,” but he missed his chance to do much about that.

It is also a “subtle sign of demagoguery” for a candidate to be “so heavily into physical fitness” that s/he might “walk or bicycle across a state.” One must be wary of such health fanatics. “These actions are marginally acceptable in campaigns for governor, but not for the presidency or even the Senate.”

Crying in public might be all right, provided two conditions be met. First, the occasion must be appropriate. Second, the candidate’s lacrimal productions must meet a certain aesthetic standard.  We mustn’t be satisfied if “the eyes just well up.” On the other hand, if the candidate cries “straight down the center of the lower lid, as Bette Davis did,” perhaps s/he might be suitable to be head of state.

A fourth list “involves more subtle physical, psychological, and political distinctions.” One might have thought that the ability to match the graciousness of Bette Davis’ tear ducts and to avoid making announcements in months known by Numa Pompilius to be of ill omen would be subtle enough for anyone, but McCarthy demands still more of a potential president.

The first pair of disqualifications on this list are excessive enthusiasm for numbers and for administrative detail. Such an enthusiast can “fail to consider the significance of what is being numbered, or so intent on watching for small mistakes that the big mistakes are likely to go unchallenged and unnoticed until too late.”  McCarthy illustrates these failings with the names of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War; David Stockman, head of the Office of Management and Budget during the recession of the early 1980s; and Jimmy Carter, a Democratic president whose administration was such a cavalcade of disasters that the old liberal lion Eugene McCarthy endorsed Ronald Reagan for president rather than acquiesce in his reelection. Mr Carter also figures in McCarthy’s caution against speed reading as a direct route to stupidity. As Mr Carter spent his nine years in the Navy as an officer in the submarine service, McCarthy may have had him in mind again when he warned against anyone who may have “survived on artificially supplied oxygen for long periods of time,” a stricture which he applies to submariners, astronauts, scuba divers, and mountain climbers.

Last on this list is the requirement that the candidate know the difference between herding cows and herding pigs. The president’s work is largely with Congress. The members of the House of Representatives, like a herd of cows, have to be started into motion at a barely perceptible rate of speed, accelerated very gradually to a steadier pace, and then stampeded at a blind run into the corral or the slaughterhouse. The members of the senate, on the other hand, resemble so many pigs. They can only be started to move at all by working them into a full-on panic, and can be brought to achieve legislation only by slowly easing them into the illusion, not only that they know where they are going, but that it was their own idea all along to go there.

The conclusion may strike some as cynical, but I found it rousing:

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As candidates enter the 2020 presidential campaign, some of McCarthy’s strictures seem to apply. Several governors and former governors are considering bids. Four of these have no substantial experience with the federal government: Steve Bullock of Montana, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, and Larry Hogan of Maryland. I suspect McCarthy’s warning against governors and former governors would apply equally to mayors and former mayors who have not taken part in federal policymaking. In addition to Mr Hickenlooper and Mr Ventura, this category includes Peter “Pete” Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, Warren Wilhelm, junior (alias “Bill de Blasio”) of New York City, and Michael Bloomberg, also of New York City.

One former vice president, Joseph Biden of Delaware, is also making an effort to run. His vice presidency doesn’t seem to have weakened or confused his character beyond its condition as of 20 January 2009, though some may doubt that he had much character left to weaken or confuse at that late date, after 36 consecutive years in the US Senate.

As for religious leaders and their offspring, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawai’i is the daughter of a man who has been prominent in a group that arose from the Hare Krishna movement and author Marianne Williamson has been a spiritual adviser to many people. With 47 candidates on the currently active list,* there may well be others of whom I am not aware who fall into these categories. [UPDATE: Dario Hunter is an ordained rabbi. Stacey Abrams, whose parents were both clergy, does not appear below because she had seemed unlikely to run when I prepared that version of the list, but as of 8 February she is making some of the noises candidates make.]

I don’t see any generals or admirals on the list; so far as I am aware, the only veterans are Mr Ventura, Ms Gabbard, Mr Buttigieg, John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. The highest ranking of these is Ms Gabbard, a major in the Hawai’i Air National Guard. Mr Moulton was a captain in the Marine Corps, Mr Kerry and Mr Buttigieg were both lieutenants junior grade in the Navy, and Mr Ventura was a Petty Officer Third Class in the Navy. So I suppose they are all well clear of the hazards the senator saw in flag rank.

Several business tycoons are looking at entering the race. Some of these, such as Mr Bloomberg, incumbent Donald J. Trump, and John Delaney of CapitalSource have held elective office, and so are proof against the senator’s warnings. Others have not: Ms Williamson, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, John McAfee of McAfee Associates, Andrew Yang of Manhattan Prep, and Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks (and many other businesses.)

Cory Booker of New Jersey announced his campaign this month, falling afoul of the senator’s warning against February announcements. Others may well announce before the month is out. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is expected to announce on 9 February.

As for persons who will be under fifty as of Inauguration Day 2021, that includes a dozen prospective candidates: Green Party leader Dario Hunter of Ohio (who will be 37), Mr Buttigieg (39,) Ms Gabbard (39,) Eric Swalwell of California (40,) Justin Amash of Michigan (40,) Mr Moulton (42,)  Mr Yang (46,) Julián Castro of Texas (46,) Akon of New Jersey (46,) Timothy “Tim” Ryan of Ohio (47,) Brian Schatz of Hawai’i (48,) and Robert “Beto” O’Rourke of Texas (48.)

Some of McCarthy’s strictures are easy to disregard; I, for one, am not convinced that the ancient view of February’s nefarious character is especially salient within our political system.  But perhaps his reservations about candidates under fifty years of age are better-founded even than he argues. A person who has risen to a position in which s/he is a viable candidate for the highest office in the land at such an early age cannot have experienced much frustration, disappointment, or humiliation in life. Frustration, disappointment, and humiliation seem to be the staples of a president’s daily routine. It is difficult to predict how any given person will react when immersed in these experiences for the first time. And there are few things more dangerous than a US president whose behavior is unpredictable.

At the time he wrote the article in 1988, McCarthy was a few weeks short of his seventy-second birthday, and still harbored his own ambitions for the presidency. He would wage his final quixotic campaign in 1992. So it is perhaps unsurprising that, while he mentioned the undesirability of presidents under fifty, he said nothing about a maximum age for presidents.

I do think the historical record would support the idea that presidents ought not be much more than seventy. The first president to turn seventy while in office was Dwight Eisenhower. Not only did Eisenhower lose substantial time to major health problems as president, but in his last year of office he gave serious thought to resigning, believing that his botched response to the U2 incident was a sign that he was too old to handle the job. Ronald Reagan turned seventy a year into his presidency, by which time he had stopped making notes on papers that passed his desk and the seeds had been planted for the Iran-Contra affair that would expose his incompetence for all to see. And of course the present incumbent, Don John of Astoria, was already seventy when he took office, and he seems to spend most of his waking hours live-tweeting Fox News.

Several candidates will be over seventy by Inauguration Day. These include Bernard “Bernie” Sanders of Vermont (79,) Mr Biden (78,) Mr. Bloomberg (78,) Mr Kerry (77,) Mr McAfee (75,) William Weld of Massachusetts (75,) Mr Trump (74,) Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York (73,) Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (71,) and Stephen “Steve” King of Iowa (71.)  Several others will turn seventy during the next presidential term. Their ages on Inauguration Day 2021: Mr Ventura (69,) Jay Inslee of Washington (69,) Eric Holder of the District of Columbia (69,) Sherrod Brown of Ohio (69,) Mr Hickenlooper (68,) Ms Williamson (68,) Robert “Bob” Corker of Tennessee (68,) John Kasich of Ohio (68,) Green Party leader Howard “Howie” Hawkins of New York (68,) Mr Schultz (67,) and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island (67.)

If the only problem with septuagenerian or octogenerian presidents were physical health, we might give heavier weight to the years over 70 that male candidates have reached than to those that female candidates have reached. Women do live longer than men on average, after all. We might also award points to conspicuously healthy people like Mr Ventura and deduct them from pudgy fellows like Mr Brown or Don John. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that there might be a correlation between life expectancy and the physical and mental resilience that is required in a highly stressful position like the presidency, resilience that usually declines with age.

But resilience isn’t the only reason age matters. As a willingness to run for president before reaching fifty struck McCarthy as a sign of someone who is overeager for the presidency, so an unwillingness to run until near or after seventy might be a sign of someone who does not want the job passionately enough to do it well. Mr Brown could have run in 2008 or 2016; I, for one, had hoped he would run in both of those years. But he showed no inclination at all to do so, and even this year is not pushing himself forward as hard as are many of the other leading candidates. Mr Sanders made his first bid when in his mid-seventies, after decades as the highest-ranking elected official in the USA to call himself a socialist. That he didn’t want to run in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s led me to be skeptical that he really wanted to run in 2016. He’s working hard this time, but he hasn’t much choice- if he takes a pass on the 2020 election, he will forfeit the national profile that has given him clout in the Senate these last two years.

Others who may have wanted to run in the past did not make it because they couldn’t put together a viable coalition to elect them then; those people probably won’t be able to put together a viable coalition now either, no matter how high their name recognition may be driving their poll numbers. So Mr Biden’s 1988 campaign gained so little traction that a couple of borderline plagiarism incidents were enough to force him to withdraw in disgrace, and his 2008 campaign made no greater impact. To believe that he will do better this time is to believe that a large pool of his potential supporters have been waiting for him to approach eighty before putting him in the White House.

Mr Biden illustrates a third problem with immensely old presidential candidates. He has been a national figure since he was first elected to the Senate in 1972. Already his prospective candidacy has dredged up controversies from the Nixon and Ford years, relating to his stand on court-ordered busing of schoolchildren to achieve desegregation and any number of other issues that have long seemed to be bracketed with jimsonweed, CB radios, and the Pet Rock. Do we really want to relitigate all that antique stuff?

That old candidates carry the baggage of old controversies should be an especially piquant topic for the Democratic Party in 2020. Every nominee representing a party whose incumbent president is being term-limited out of office is stuck with the same implicit slogan: “Eight More Years.” For a while in 1960, Richard Nixon used that as his actual slogan, an intelligent decision to embrace and make the most of the theme he couldn’t help but run on anyway. In 2016, Ms Clinton was not only a former Secretary of State in the outgoing Obama administration, but also had been the single most famous Democrat in Washington throughout the George Bush Junior administration, and before that First Lady in the Bill Clinton administration. Her implicit slogan was “Twenty Four More Years.” That she managed to win the popular vote and almost win the electoral vote while carrying the burden of all that history is a remarkable testament to her political abilities. Having lost the last election with a too-long familiar candidate, it would be very odd if the next person the Democrats nominate were someone else deeply shadowed by a long and complicated past.

*Here’s is that currently active list, sorted alphabetically by the candidate’s first name and the party the nomination of which the candidate is likely to seek. I’ve checked these columns for accuracy as of 6 February 2019. There are more columns on the spreadsheet I’ve created to keep track of the candidates, these are just the ones I’ve checked for accuracy:

NAME PARTY Home State Age as of 20 January 2021
Amy Klobuchar Democratic Minnesota 60
Andrew Yang Democratic New York 46
Bernie Sanders Democratic Vermont 79
Brian Schatz Democratic Hawai’i 48
Cory Booker Democratic New Jersey 51
Elizabeth Warren Democratic Massachusetts 71
Eric Holder Democratic DC 69
Eric Swalwell Democratic California 40
Hillary Rodham Clinton Democratic New York 73
Jay Inslee Democratic Washington 69
Jeff Merkley Democratic Oregon 64
John Delaney Democratic Maryland 57
John Hickenlooper Democratic Colorado 68
John Kerry Democratic Massachusetts 77
Joseph Biden Democratic Delaware 78
Julian Castro Democratic Texas 46
Kamala Harris Democratic California 56
Kirsten Gillibrand Democratic New York 54
Lincoln Chafee Democratic Rhode Island 67
Marianne Williamson Democratic California 68
Michael Bennet Democratic Colorado 56
Michael Bloomberg Democratic New York 78
Peter “Pete” Buttigieg Democratic Indiana 39
Robert “Beto” O’Rourke Democratic Texas 48
Seth Moulton Democratic Massachusetts 42
Sherrod Brown Democratic Ohio 69
Steve Bullock Democratic Montana 54
Terry McAuliffe Democratic Virginia 63
Tim Ryan Democratic Ohio 47
Tulsi Gabbard Democratic Hawai’i 39
Warren Wilhelm (alias “Bill de Blasio”) Democratic New York 59
Dario Hunter Green Ohio 37
Howie Hawkins Green New York 68
Jesse Ventura Green Minnesota 69
Akon Independent New Jersey 47
Howard Schultz Independent Washington 67
Mark Cuban Independent Texas 62
John McAfee Libertarian Tennessee 75
Vermin Supreme Libertarian Kansas 59
Ann Coulter Republican Florida 59
Donald Trump Republican New York 74
John Kasich Republican Ohio 68
Larry Hogan Republican Maryland 64
Robert “Bob” Corker Republican Tennessee 68
Steve King Republican Iowa 71
Justin Amash Various Michigan 40
William Weld Various Massachusetts 75

Big beasts paw the ground, not needed in the hunt, not ready to sleep

ex-officio-coverIn 1970, Donald Westlake used the pseudonym “Timothy J. Culver” to publish a novel called Ex Officio. Even Westlake’s most devoted fans consider Ex Officio to be an overlong, tedious mess. But if you dig beneath the elaborate descriptions of drably furnished rooms in which nothing happens and bypass the occasional rants about political issues that stirred few passions even at the time, it is possible to find the kernel of an interesting story.

The main character is a man named Bradford Lockridge who finds himself bewildered and frustrated by his role in life. For the first 60 years of his life, Lockridge was the center of attention in every room he entered, and for the last four of those 60 years he was president of the United States. All that dynamism and challenge came to an abrupt end when he was defeated in his bid for a second term. Now Lockridge is 70 years old, still vigorous, still feeling like the man who once held the fate of nations in his hands, but unable to find any way back to the center of events. The novel was supposed to be an airport thriller, so Lockridge comes up with a wacky idea and precipitates a crisis that unfolds outside public view, among political leaders and intelligence operatives.

Lockridge and Ex Officio came to my mind recently when I heard that the former boss of the Starbucks coffee chain, Howard Schultz, had announced that he was planning to mount an independent bid for the presidency in 2020. The only reaction I heard from anyone was derision. It is very difficult to see who Mr Schultz imagines his constituency will be. As a public figure, he has associated himself with the hard-charging style of entrepreneurs like Ray Kroc and Harland Sanders, and his company with the progressive attitudes on gender and race that characterize its hometown, Seattle. If the 2016 election had turned out differently, with Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders defeating Republican nominee John Ellis Bush; if the Sanders administration had become very unpopular; if the Democrats were nonetheless set on renominating President Sanders; if the Republicans were condemned to nominate loudmouth landlord Donald J. Trump as his opponent; why then, suburban moderates might lead the electorate to a Schultz presidency.

But none of those things happened. In our universe, the presidency of Don John of Astoria has driven record turnout among Democrats in midterm elections and will likely drive such high levels of participation in the 2020 primaries that the Democrats are unlikely to nominate anyone who does not have broad appeal among the constituencies Mr Schultz might have hoped to reach had the scenario above played out. The nominee may not be an advocate of the Finance First economic policies that the Democratic Party has espoused since the emergence of Bill Clinton in the early 1990s, or of the omnibelligerent foreign policy it has endorsed throughout that same period, but if s/he does not, it will be because those policies have lost the support of the voting groups that are going to decide the election. If Mr Schultz plans to wed himself to those views, his base of support will be as fictional as President Lockridge.

It certainly is possible that, with such a large number of Democrats seeking the party’s nomination, the eventual winner will be someone who is unacceptable to a great many voters. But I don’t see any significant number of those voters plumping for Mr Schultz. For example, late last year Senator Kamala Harris of California allowed herself to be identified with an attack on the Knights of Columbus, portraying the 2 million members of that fraternal service organization as dangerous extremists unfit for public office. Those guys all vote, and most of them have large numbers of relatives who vote, and if Senator Harris doesn’t find a way to distance herself from that boneheaded stunt none of them will be voting for her. But that doesn’t mean they will be voting for Mr Schultz. They might consider him if he were the public face of a brewery based in Wisconsin, but a coffeehouse based in resolutely secular Seattle is not K of C territory. Rather than back Senator Harris, those Knights of Columbus who don’t want Don John back for a second term will probably just skip the presidential line on the ballot altogether.

At any rate, Mr Schultz does make me wish Ex Officio were a better book. It must be very hard for Mr Schultz, after decades of intense work and fantastic success at the helm of Starbucks, to find himself at loose ends. Some years ago, Starbucks reached a point where its founder’s daily presence in the office was inhibiting the rise of a new generation of executives who could bring the new ideas the company needs if it is to seize its opportunities in today’s markets. Mr Schultz has recognized that, stepping back and looking for other opportunities. He tried his hand at the big-time sports business, spending five years as owner of the National Basketball Association’s Seattle franchise. During those years I was a frequent visitor to Seattle, and I have to admit Schultz’ handling of the team was a substantial convenience for me personally. Under previous owners, downtown traffic jammed up pretty badly on game days, but by the time he gave up and sold the team to a group who moved it to Oklahoma, so few people were bothering to attend the games that it was no problem at all. Nor has he managed to make much of an impact doing anything else lately. After so many years of success, still only in his mid-60s and in fine health, of course Mr Schultz is looking for another challenge. If not for the hundreds of pages of nothingness that pad out Ex Officio, someone could give him a copy of the book, hoping that he would see in it, first, that someone understands his frustration, and second, that a vanity campaign for the presidency is not a promising way to relieve it.

Mr Schultz is not the only real-life Bradford Lockridge weighing a presidential bid. Septuagenarians Bernie Sanders (who will be 79 by inauguration day 2021,) Joseph Biden and Michael Bloomberg (who will both be 78 by that date,) and John Kerry (who will be 77,) are obvious examples. But so too are other, much younger candidates. The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Peter “Pete” Buttigieg, will turn 39 the day before the 2021 inauguration, so that if he were elected he would be the youngest person ever to ascend to the presidency. But why on earth is he running, seeing that his educational attainments as a graduate of Harvard University and Pembroke College, Oxford, and his military experience as a combat veteran of the war in Afghanistan, would seem to promise that he might in future years rise to a higher perch from which to start than the mayoralty of a town of barely 100,000 people. Perhaps Mr Buttigieg is trying to vault directly to the top because Indiana is a rather  conservative state, and as an openly gay man he doubts that its voters will back him for governor or senator. And maybe they won’t! But there are a lot of states that are as conservative as or more conservative than Indiana, and some of those are likely to be in play in next year’s presidential election. If he is tacitly admitting that can’t compete for statewide office in his home state, he will start the presidential campaign having conceded North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Arizona, in all of which the Democrats are likely to show enough strength at least to force the Republicans to commit major resources. So the Buttigieg presidential campaign looks to me very much like a Lockridge-style attempt to escape from personal frustration, not like a serious bid for high office.

Taxes and Tyranny

One of the very first bits of political writing I ever read on the World Wide Web was this 1996 column from a British libertarian named Jan Clifford Lester. Professor Lester argues that only taxpayers should be allowed to vote. After discussing the slogan “Taxation Without Representation is Tyranny,” he goes on:

This then prompted me to consider the converse proposition: Representation Without Taxation Is Tyranny. It would, of course, be a fallacy to think that this is entailed by the first proposition. But surely it is just as reasonable. It was accepted by most people as a fair limit on the franchise in the mid-nineteenth century. Why should people who are not taxpayers be allowed to vote money away from those who are? If we must have state services, it should at least be for those who pay for them to vote for which services they want and how much they wish to pay. To allow those providing, or living off, the services to vote is like allowing a shopkeeper to vote on what you must buy from him, or a beggar to vote on what you must give him. Naturally, I hear you say, but doesn’t everyone pay tax, at least on goods and services? And so is it not trivially true, insofar as morals can be ‘true’? No, they do not and it is not. Not by a very long chalk.

Professor Lester then differentiates state employees, who are paid out of taxes, from others who are not:

To take a clear case, when a direct state employee, such as a civil servant, receives his salary cheque there will be an apparent deduction for the amount of tax that he pays. As a matter of fact this is a mere book-keeping exercise designed to keep up the pretence that he is a taxpayer along with everyone else. Abandoning this pretence of taxpaying and simply paying him less in the first place would save taxpayers’ money in administration and make the political reality clearer to all.

If a “direct state employee” is merely “a clear case,” what other cases are there?:

So who does not pay taxes and so ought not to have an electoral vote? Judges, state-school teachers, all in local government, state policemen, all in the armed forces, all in prison, all in the NHS, all in the civil service, all employees of the BBC, all the unemployed, all in academia (except, perhaps, in the University of Buckingham), some farmers, some solicitors, maybe some barristers, any employed in businesses that receive tax-subsidies in excess of their tax-payments, and MPs with insufficient taxed market-incomes to cover their salaries. I cannot list them all, but you see the size of the problem. You can also see that there is no class conflict in any quasi-Marxian sense here.

Who, then, does pay taxes? Well — anyone who is left. If you are in any doubt as to which category that you are in then the simple test is to ask yourself whether, in your current position, you would have more purchasing power or less purchasing power if taxation were completely abolished.

That is rather a sweeping list- denying the franchise to “any employed in businesses that receive tax-subsidies in excess of their tax-payments,” for example, would mean that a great many people would have to wait for the results of quite a thoroughgoing audit of their employers before they would know whether they would have a place at the ballot box. And if we take Professor Lester’s “simple test” at face value, no one would be qualified to vote. If “taxation were completely abolished,” taking with it all enforcement of laws, one might expect new obstacles to be put in the path of wealth creation.

Professor Lester reaches his conclusion:

There are some who are on the periphery of net tax-receiving and whom it will not be possible to distinguish with certainty. These people receive most of their income from purchases by state institutions or state employees. The latter is especially hard to be sure of. For instance, those working for The Guardian and New Statesman &Society might just fit this category. But if it is too hard to prove then they might have to be given the benefit of the doubt. Though if the state sector shrinks, due to a new Taxpayer Democracy, then enterprises will decline to the extent that they necessarily depend on indirect state patronage. In the case of the latter two publications I would expect such journals as The Times and The Spectator to expand to replace them.

In view of the percentage of economic activity in modern societies that “purchases by state institutions and state employees” represent, one rather doubts that even The Spectator would pass this test.

And why stop there? If the employees of The New Statesman are disfranchised because most of their subscribers are net tax recipients, why should employees of the bar across the street from the offices of The New Statesman retain the right to vote? And if those workers are classified as net tax recipients because most of their income is derived from purchases made by net tax recipients, shouldn’t any purchases they make, and any purchase the bar makes, also be classified as a transfer of tax monies? Follow those knock-ons far enough, and again we come to a scenario in which voting is abolished altogether.

Moreover, while there are various schools of thought which propose that in a well-ordered society the laws defining those relationships among people which we call “property” could be written in a way that would reflect some moral reality given in nature, the radicalism of Professor Lester’s proposal would suggest that he does not believe that the UK has attained a particularly high level of justice. So, how can he consider any corporation chartered and regulated by the British state, even if the voting shares of that corporation’s stock are held by private individuals, to be less than suspect?

And what of tax recipients in other countries?  To return to his examples of The New Statesman and The Guardian, while it may in 1996 have been the case that both of these publications derived most of their revenue from net recipients of UK taxes, two thirds of  The Guardian’s revenue now comes from readers outside the UK, half of them in the United States. Few of these readers are in the pay of the British state, but it is possible that most of them are net tax recipients in their own countries. If so, would employees of The Guardian still be disqualified from voting in Britain because they are indirect recipients of US tax dollars?

Nor is that the only implication. Professor Lester is surely right that our conception of taxpaying is too narrow if it is simply limited to figures that appear on ledgers. I would not defend the idea that the line on a state employee’s pay stub indicating that some number of pounds or dollars has been deducted from his or her gross pay represents actual taxpaying. On the other hand, his conception of tax-receiving is just as narrow as this. So in the USA, profitable corporations pay their shareholders far less in dividends, and their executives far more in compensation, than do their counterparts in other advanced countries. This is largely the result of the US corporate income tax, under which companies pay taxes on money they distribute as dividends but not on money they pay to executives. Therefore, a rational analysis of taxes in the USA should classify as tax payments all compensation executives receive in excess of what their counterparts receive in countries with different tax regimes. That analysis would reveal that many of the individuals who are in the habit of regarding themselves as the USA’s greatest taxpayers are in fact net recipients of tax dollars. Professor Lester would have to deny them the franchise as well.

In fact, Professor Lester’s proposal might have some rather amusing consequences if applied to the USA. Not only executive compensation, but interest payments are also deductible from the corporate income tax. That encourages US firms to take on far more debt than do their counterparts in other countries. Those debt levels in turn give rise to the private equity sector, the “corporate raiders” who sometimes make such a big splash in the business pages. If we classify them as net tax recipients and on that account deprive them of the vote, we would suddenly have a bunch of disfranchised billionaires and centi-millionaires running about. I confess that I would find it difficult to refrain from laughing out loud if corporate raider-turned-politico Willard “Mitt” Romney were to lose the right to vote.

What brought this old column to my mind was an essay that popped up in my Twitter feed this morning, a 2017 piece by philosopher Philip Goff. Professor Goff begins with the observation that right-wing libertarians who denounce all taxation as theft are only the most extreme advocates of a widespread notion, the notion that what is listed on pay stubs and other accounting instruments as a payee’s pre-tax income is property to which that payee is morally entitled.  Again, this is the fallacy that Professor Lester identified, equating taxpaying with ledger items rather than with the actual allocation of resources.

Professor Goff writes:

Your gross, or pre-tax income, is the money the market delivers to you. In what sense might it be thought that you have a moral claim on this money? One answer might be that you deserve it: you have worked hard and have done a good job, and consequently you deserve all your gross income as recompense for your labour. According to this line of reasoning, when the government taxes, it takes the money that you deserve for the work you do.

This is not a plausible view. For it implies that the market distributes to people exactly what they deserve for the work that they do. But nobody thinks a hedge-fund manager deserves many times more wealth than a scientist working on a cure for cancer, and few would think that current pay ratios in companies reflect what philosophers call desert claims. Probably you work very hard in your job, and you make an important contribution. But then so do most people, and the market distribution of wealth patently does not reward in proportion to how hard-working people are, or how much of a contribution they make to society. If we were just focusing on desert, then there is a good case for taxation to correct the amoral distribution of the market.

If we have a moral claim on our gross income, it is not because we deserve it, but because we are entitled to it. What’s the difference? What you deserve is what you ought to have as a result of hard work or social contribution; what you are entitled to is the result of your property rights. Libertarians believe that each individual has natural property rights, which it would be immoral for the government to infringe. According to Right-wing libertarians such as Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard, taxation is morally wrong not because the taxman takes what people deserve, but because he takes what people have a right to.

Therefore, if taxation is theft, it’s because it essentially involves the violation of people’s natural rights to property. But do we really have natural rights to property? And even if we do, does taxation really infringe them? To begin to address these questions, we need to think more carefully about the nature of property.

Professor Goff distinguishes between three schools of thought. Right libertarians hold that all things that have value to humans gained that value because someone discovered those things and by his or her labor created that value. For them, it is a truth inherent in the structure of the world that each individual has inalienable right to possess the fruits of his or her labor. Property law represents an attempt to tease out the moral facts that make up this truth. Property law must therefore recognize ownership as a relationship between a particular person and a particular object, and it must prohibit all other persons from interfering with this relationship.

Left libertarians agree that property law is just if and only if it teases out moral facts about the relationship between people and things. However, they do not accept that these facts are as Right libertarians say they are. Rather, they believe that it is unjust for any one person to lay exclusive claim to nature. At its most extreme, Left libertarianism proscribes ownership of anything other than one’s own body. At its most modest, it lays down rules enjoining requirements for sharing what one does own, and insisting on joint responsibility among members of a community for the use of the resources under their control.

Opposed to both varieties of libertarians are the social constructivists. Professor Goff summarizes their views thus:

Libertarians believe that property rights are natural, reflecting basic moral facts about the world. Others hold that property rights are merely legal, social constructions, which are created by us and can be shaped to suit our purposes. We can call the latter view ‘social constructivism’ about property. (Please note, our focus here is specifically on social constructivism about property; we are not considering a more general position according to which morality as a whole is a social construction.)

To bring out the difference, ask yourself: ‘Which comes first: facts about property or facts about property law?’ For the social constructivist, the right to property is not some natural, sacred thing that exists independently of human conventions and legal practices. Rather, we create property rights, by setting up legal institutions to ensure that people have certain legal rights over the material world. For the libertarian, in contrast, facts about property exist independently of human laws and conventions, and indeed human laws and conventions ought to be moulded to respect the natural right to property.

This distinction is crucial for our question. Suppose we accept the social-constructivist view that property rights are merely legal. Now we ask the question: ‘Do I have a moral claim on the entirety of my pre-tax income?’ We cannot argue that I am entitled to my pre-tax income on the basis of my natural property rights, as there are no such things as ‘natural’ property rights (according to the social-constructivist position we are now considering). So, if I have a moral claim on my entire pre-tax income, this must be because it is exactly the amount of money I deserve for my hard work and social contribution, presumably because in general the market delivers to each person exactly what they deserve. But we have already concluded that this is not a plausible claim. Without the belief in natural property rights, existing independent of human laws and conventions, there is no way to make sense of the idea that the deliverances of the market are inherently just, and hence no way to make sense of the idea that each person’s gross income (which is just the income the market delivers to them) is hers by right.

Here’s where we’re up to: to make sense of the idea that taxation is (moral) theft, we have to make sense of the idea that each person has a moral claim on the entirety of her gross income, and this can be made sense of only if property rights are natural rather than mere human constructions.

Further:

As already discussed, social constructivists do not deny the existence of property rights, rather they take them to be social or legal constructions, which humans are free to shape to reflect what they deem valuable. Jesus declared that ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.’ Analogously, for the social constructivist, property rights are made to serve human interests and not vice versa.

It is plausible that human flourishing requires certain legally protected rights to property, and hence most social constructivists will advocate a system of property rights. At the same time, there are other things of value – perhaps equality, perhaps reward for hard work and/or social contribution (which as we have seen is not well-protected by the market) – and in order to promote these other values, most social constructivists propose making property rights conditional on the payment of taxes. In the absence of pre-existing natural property rights, there is no moral reason to respect the market distribution of wealth (there will of course be pragmatic, economic reason, but that is another matter).

Professor Goff argues that Right libertarianism fails at two points. First, it cannot answer the basic claims of Left libertarianism, and so fails at the outset. Second, even if we choose to overlook this failing, it can defend the idea that gross income is a measure of special moral importance if and only if it can demonstrate that the market is operating in its best possible state, in no way distorted by political intervention. As this claim would leave Right libertarians without much of anything else to say, they would seem unlikely to adopt it.

I would like to add one point to Professor Goff’s description of social constructivism. Many years ago, I studied the legal codes of ancient Rome. I can’t say that much stuck with me from that study, but one thing I remember very clearly is that every time the ancients said they had “rights” they specified against whom they had those rights.  That is to say, rights were definitions of what was and what was not allowed in particular relationships among people. The concept of rights is simply not relevant to relationships between people and inanimate objects.

A property right describes, not what may happen between a person and a thing s/he owns, but among various people who might encounter that thing. That’s why I can’t kick your door down, but a police officer with the proper warrant can. Your ownership of your door gives you rights against me that it doesn’t give you against the agents of law enforcement. Likewise with the various actions allowed a tenant and a landlord with regard to the same location. Or for that matter, with regard to the right of free speech a citizen may have against the state, as opposed to the rights that same citizens might have against the owners of a social media platform with terms and conditions specifying that they can “terminate your account at any time, for any reason or no reason.” You may be able to challenge their particular exercise of that right in court, but if so it isn’t because you have the same right against them that you have against the state. Rather, it is because there are rights built into the law of contract that sometimes override particular provisions parties may write into a particular agreement.

It seems to me that the social constructivist view of property law is obviously right, and that the both varieties of libertarian are simply being childish. If you disagree, well, there is a comment section.

Our old “Politics” links page

I just looked at our page of links under the title “Politics” and found that it hasn’t been updated since August 2016. There are a number of sites linked there that have been deleted, many that have stopped updating, some that were maintained by people who have since died (Rest in Peace, Will Grigg and Sir Brian Barder.) So I don’t suppose there is much point in leaving it as a page. Here is its final state:

Politics

(This page was most recently updated 3 August 2016)

Feel free to use the comments to suggest other sites we should link on this page, especially to lighten the heavy predominance of USA-focused sites.

Political science and campaign news:

  1. 538, statistical analysis of poll results and sporting events;
  2. The Monkey Cage, political scientists maintain a group blog at The Washington Post;
  3. Politico, news and speculation from the USA’s campaign trail;
  4. Real Clear Politics, indispensable aggregator of US campaign news;

Left:

  1. Abagond, 1966-style black nationalist;
  2. The Angry Arab News Service, “a source on politics, war, the Middle East, Arabic poetry, and art”;
  3. The Arabist, what’s going on in places where Arabic is the main language;
  4. The Baffler, which doesn’t want you to be a sucker;
  5. Box Turtle Bulletin, what happens when members of sexual minorities demand their rights;
  6. Carolyn Gage points out that sexual violence does in fact matter in the lives of women and in the structure of society;
  7. Center for a Stateless Society, anarchists who say that treason is no crime, but war is;
  8. Counterpunch, tells the facts and names the names;
  9. Crooks and Liars, tells you that’s what right-wing politicians are, crooks and liars, all of them;
  10. Current Affairs, which has “two missions: to produce the world’s first readable political publication and to make life joyful again”;
  11. Digby’s Hullabaloo, an outlet for Americans frustrated that the center-left isn’t particularly effective in US politics;
  12. Eschaton, the venerable;
  13. Evonomics, argues that economics is a field in transition, and that the new economics will be attuned to reality than was the old;
  14. the Field Negro, for whom “silence is never golden”;
  15. The Intercept, unmasking militarism;
  16. Juan Cole, “Informed Comment” on the Middle East and Central Asia;
  17. Mondoweiss, mostly about Israel/ Palestine;
  18. More Crows Than Eagles, where Anne Amnesia tells the truth about not getting by in America;
  19. Naked Capitalism, left-wing economic views;
  20. The Nation, premier magazine of the US left;
  21. Sadly, No!,  showing that political satire is not necessary when you can just quote American rightists;
  22. Secretly Radical, calls for the abolition of gender;
  23. Spectre, “as Radical as Reality”;
  24. Spocko’s Brain, which is not Morg, and is not Eymorg (or so I would advise youse);
  25. Stop Imperialism, “stands in opposition to the forces of empire and finance which seek to dominate the word through both overt and covert means”; 
  26. ThinkProgress, popular center-left news aggregator;
  27. TomDispatch, “a regular antidote to the mainstream media”;
  28. Truthdig, “drilling beneath the headlines”;
  29. the Utne blog
  30. War is a Crime, say David Swanson and his friends

Right:

  1. Acculturated, young right-of-center authors, most of them apparently Roman Catholic, all of them clearly exasperated that Western pop culture is dominated by people who refuse to grow the Hell up;
  2. Ace of Spades, where they’ve decided they’re done caring about things so they’re just going to root for Donald Trump;
  3. American Affairs, what Trumpism might become if thought through with patience and wisdom
  4. The American Conservative‘s blog section;
  5. Anti-Gnostic, who is at least as fiercely reactionary in his opinions on politicsreligion, and economics as was his hero, philosopher Eric Voegelin, but is much more readable than Voegelin ever was;
  6. The Beacon, a group blog from the libertarian Independent Institute;
  7. The Federalist, center-right web magazine;
  8. Front Porch Republic, sets out to build a sane conservatism based on the virtue of “placefulness”;
  9. William Norman Grigg’s Pro Libertate, libertarianism with a distinctly African-American inflection;
  10. The Imaginative Conservative, “a forum for those who seek the True, the Good, and the Beautiful”;
  11. Justin Raimondo, libertarian editor of antiwar.com, inhabits the place where the Old Right meets the New Left;
  12. Kathy Shaidle, right-wing Canadian, is Five Feet of Fury;
  13. Mapping the Dark Enlightenment, links to the most influential neoreactionary sites;
  14. Michael Brendan Dougherty at The Week; 
  15. The Mitrailleuse, libertarians all of whom value and most of whom practice religion;
  16. The New American, voice of the John Birch Society, a group so conspicuously crazy that it can occasionally get away with being inconspicuously sane;
  17. Peter Hitchens is convinced that British voters would rally to support a conservative party, if only the Conservative Party would disband;
  18. Public Discourse, right-wing Roman Catholics;
  19. Social Matter, which says it is “Not your grandfather’s conservatism,” though some of us had some pretty weird grandfathers…
  20. Spiked, hard-edged libertarians with a technophile side;
  21. Spotted Toad, wishes the bourgeoisie would stop sowing the seeds of its own destruction;
  22. Steve Sailer– I know, I know, but he posts lots of interesting stuff;
  23. Street Carnage, from Gavin McInnes and others;
  24. Taki’s Magazine, if you’re a bien-pensant sort, you’ll need your smelling salts handy if you take a look at it;
  25. Twitchy, a poorly designed homepage, badly thought through politics, brilliantly funny about exactly the forms of left-wing behavior that lefties themselves find exasperating

Center:

  1. The Archdruid, who doesn’t see a future in industrial capitalism or the conventional Left that claims to oppose it;
  2. Brian Barder, a retired diplomat who may well be the most polite blogger on the web;
  3. Club Orlov, where “collapsitarian” Dmitry Orlov explains why the modern world is doomed and wonders why the very people who are doing the most to hasten its collapse are the ones who are least willing to admit that their efforts are bearing fruit;
  4. Clusterfuck Nation, by James Howard Kunstler;
  5. Crooked Timber, by authors who may all be of similar political persuasions, but whose academic research leads them in surprising directions;
  6. Damon Linker of The Week;
  7. Duck of Minerva, “world politics from an academic perspective,” and sometimes academic politics from a global perspective;
  8. Ernest F. Hollings, Acilius’ favorite former US Senator (formerly his favorite US Senator);
  9. Fredrik deBoer, wants a “Left that can win,” which means he’s a persistent critic of the Left we seem to be stuck with;
  10. Head of Legal, the UK’s Carl Gardner tells us what the law says about various controversies of the day;
  11. Heterodox Academy, argues that American academics have become so uniform in their political views that the prevailing ideology is now a severe impediment to their intellectual lives;
  12. Language Log‘s section on “Language and Politics“;
  13. LobeLog, “investigative journalism and critical expert perspectives on US foreign policy, especially regarding Iran and the greater Middle East”;
  14. Pat Lang, a retired colonel who knows a lot of stuff;
  15. The Saker, who declares that “Russia Stands for Freedom!,” which I suppose is why he lives in Iceland;
  16. Slate Star Codex, skeptical about the power of reason in human affairs;
  17. Stumbling and Mumbling, in which Chris Dillow claims to be “an extremist, not a fanatic”;
  18. The Volokh Conspiracy, a project begun by right-wing legal scholars, has moved to the Washington Post and lost some of that focus

Democrats and Republicans:

  1. David Stockman‘s Contra Corner;
  2. Echidne of the Snakes, diehard Obama loyalist with a formidable blogroll;
  3. The Huffington Post, founded by someone who named her cat “Puffington Huffington” and made a vast fortune off people’s willingness to give her content for free; 
  4. Kevin Drum, who beats steadily for the Dems;
  5. Michael Barone, Republican political analyst;
  6. Mickey Kaus, who dislikes unions because they drive up wages, and dislikes immigration because it drives down wages;
  7. Pollways, political scientist Amy Fried analyzes opinion trends in and out of the state of Maine ;
  8. Vox‘s “Policy and Politics” section;
  9. The Weekly Standard‘s Daily Standard;
  10. Wonkette, politics for people with dirty minds

 

Can the US Supreme Court be replaced with something honest?

elephantThe US Supreme Court has been much in the news lately, due to allegations of violence by its newest member against girls and women he knew in his youth.

Certainly Mr Kavanaugh is not someone I would like to see in a position of authority. But he is far from the only problem. Supreme Court Justices are accountable only to each other; the federal Code of Judicial Conduct does not apply to them, and Congress has never exercised its power to impeach and remove a Supreme Court Justice. Since they are a group of only nine people, who are thrown together for life, and their professional goal is to secure the agreement of a majority of their colleagues, it is hardly surprising that they are cozily tolerant of every kind of bad behavior on each others’ parts. The last time the New York Times checked, every Justice had taken fancy vacations paid for by private organizations. Those organizations, in their turn, were often funded by individuals and corporations with business before the Court. Justices also collect speaker’s fees that are sometimes out of proportion to the audiences they draw, and author’s fees that are sometimes out of proportion to the number of copies their books sell.

The beneficiaries of this largess include Justices associated with both political parties. Admirers of bipartisanship wax sentimental about the friendship between liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her late colleague, far-rightist Antonin Scalia. There is even a comic opera called Scalia/ Ginsburg.  Their friendship is often commemorated in the media with a 1994 photograph of the two of them riding an elephant on a trip to India. Lost in all the gush is the still-unanswered question of who paid for that trip and what they received in return. And why should the Justices feel obligated to answer such questions? No Republican member of Congress would dream of bringing articles of impeachment against their party’s idol Scalia, and no Democratic member of Congress would dream of bringing articles against their party’s hero, “the notorious RBG.” With no prospect of punishment, in time it becomes impossible for the Justices even to see that what they are doing is corrupt.

Even if the Justices weren’t all on the take, the Supreme Court would still be a catastrophically ill-designed institution. Jedidiah Purdy alluded to a few of its flaws some months back:

What would be better? I would suggest looking to the ancient Athenians for a model around which to design a replacement. Instead of nine people who serve for life, I would suggest a pool of 6000 people. Unlike the Athenian Council of 500, which had a one year term, each of our 6000 would have to remain in the pool for twenty years. They would need some measure of expertise in constitutional law and other topics of jurisprudence, and there simply are not that many people with such qualifications.  Indeed, it might only be with the creation of this system that the number of lawyers who would demonstrate such qualifications would rise to the figures necessary.

Each state would have a number of slots to fill proportionate to its share of the population. So, with 12.1% of the US population, California would fill 12.1% of the slots in the pool (726/6000); with 0.18% of the population, Wyoming would fill 0.18% of the slots in the pool (11/6000); and so on. The twenty-year terms for these slots would end on a staggered schedule, so that every year 300 seats would be filled. We would fill them as the Athenians filled slots on their councils and commissions, by a process of “selection from the elected.” The lawyers in each state would nominate, let’s say, half and again the number of people that the state was allotted slots for that year. So if, in a given year, California had 36 slots to fill, the names of 54 Californian lawyers would be sent forward by that state’s bar association. A random drawing would decide which 36 of these would be entered in the pool.

At the beginning of each year, 600 would be chosen by lot from the pool of 6000. These 600 would be divided by lot into twelve groups of 50 each.  At the beginning of each month, there would be a drawing of lots to determine which group of 50 would provide that month’s Supreme Court Justices. Once their month is over, the 50 will be discharged for the year. Throughout their month, the 50 would be sequestered at a campus where one of the buildings would house the Supreme Court. At the beginning of each week, the names of nine of the 50 would be chosen. For that week, these nine would sit as the Supreme Court. No one could serve on the Supreme Court more than twice in a lifetime.

Federal appeals courts could be staffed from the same pool of 6000, again with restrictions to ensure that no one person sits as a judge on any one court for more than two weeks in a lifetime. Trial courts are a different matter; trials often last for long periods, so that the judge cannot have a term of less than a year. In situations like that, the Athenians resorted to a method proper to oligarchy, but which democracy could tolerate if not indulged to excess: they had popular elections. So I suppose, if we can’t have a truly democratic way of staffing the federal district courts, we will just have to elect those judges.

Secret Agent Pope: An idea for a novel

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about the scandals and controversies in the Roman Catholic Church. I’ve never been a Roman Catholic myself; I was an agnostic from childhood until a few years ago, and am now a moderately progressive Anglican.

Not being Roman Catholic, it doesn’t matter to me who the pope is, who his friends are, or what policies they favor, not any more that it would matter to a Roman Catholic who is elected to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church or what measures that Convention adopts. I’m against popes as such, even as Roman Catholics are unimpressed by the General Convention as such, and so no particular pope is going to change my position on the basic issue that divides us. Now, there are other concerns that justify paying attention to these matters. The Roman Catholic Church does command the allegiance of half the world’s Christians, and so all of the rest of us do have to take note of what happens to that institution. And I am a Latin teacher by occupation, so I hope that whoever comes out on top will revive the Vatican’s efforts to keep up interest in that language.  Also, in the 1980s I used to watch Insight, a TV show produced by the Paulist Fathers; I wish they’d make that show more widely available, maybe posting all of the episodes in some streaming format. It’s uneven in quality and very much a product of its time, but the best episodes hold up really well. I would also point out that a lot of popes give themselves funny names, and whenever they elect a new pope I hope he’ll hang a moniker on himself that will give the world a much needed belly laugh.

The most serious reason for a non-Roman Catholic to care what happens in the Vatican is that the four distinct but closely interrelated scandals now coming to light involve great evils that everyone should oppose. We are learning more about the the already long familiar epidemic of sexual abuse of children by priests. We have been introduced to the topic of sexual harassment of young clergymen by their superiors, initially in connection with ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who apparently treated the seminarians and young priests under his authority the way Harvey Weinstein treated actresses whose careers he could make or break. We’ve also started to hear solid information about blackmail as a means of advancement within the hierarchy.  Perhaps most serious of all these scandals is to be found in the concerted efforts by church authorities to conceal those misdeeds and to shield their perpetrators from punishment. So I want those four things to be stopped.

Not that scandal is unique to the Roman Catholics. We have our share of scandals in Anglicanism too; the Anglican Church of Canada had to declare bankruptcy in 2000 because so many survivors of sex abuse by priests had already proven their cases against it in court. I’ve mentioned that bankruptcy several times in discussions of what’s happening with the Roman Catholics. In 2000, the Anglican Church of Canada had never had a celibate clergy, it had been ordaining women for decades, and was notably friendly to sexual minority groups. So when my liberal Roman Catholic friends say that letting priests marry, ordaining women, and dropping the official anti-gay line will be sure to solve the problem, I have to caution that, while those actions may have good effects and they may be desirable in themselves, they may not accomplish what you think they will accomplish. Still, the sheer size of the Roman Catholic Church, its power and wealth, may have something to do with the scale to which these abuses have grown. It is natural to want to sweep problems under the rug, and when you have the world’s biggest rug whatever you sweep under there can grow to massive proportions.

One of the main things I’ve been looking at for news about the scandals has been Rod Dreher’s blog. He has something about it almost every day. His biases are very clear, but he is a professional journalist and does retract stories that have been proven false, which puts him in the top .0001% of people* who write about this topic on a regular basis. Yesterday I wrote a comment there which, as I think about it, includes the kernel for a novel someone might write. The novelist should be Roman Catholic, well-connected in the Vatican, an experienced journalist, and with some expertise regarding international espionage.  I am none of those things, so I shouldn’t write it myself. But here is the comment, for what it’s worth:

@Siarlys Jenkins: “I don’t include Argentina, because no American intervention was needed, and I’m not sure the CIA knew who they really wanted to support there.”

I often think of something by a CIA veteran (Philip Giraldi?) I read some years ago in the pages of the magazine that maintains this website. Reviewing the CIA’s policy of paying bonuses to officers who recruit local informants, the author argued that the policy produced a large number of agents whose main qualification was that they were easy to recruit. He summed his point up by saying, not only that there ought not be the same bonus paid for recruiting an African police chief as for recruiting an agent who is placed in a genuinely sensitive post, but that there ought to be no bonus paid for recruiting an African police chief.

What brings this to mind is that what is true of African police chiefs might very well be true of Latin American bishops. They are generally pretty cozy with the same elements of the local elites who are most comfortable with overt US intervention, most of them are hated by the same people who most worry the CIA, and, as we’ve seen from all these scandals, bishops are not, as a group, entirely averse to associating with people who are in a position to provide them with a pleasant life.

So, it may not be unreasonable to wonder whether the situation at the top of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Latin America is altogether alien to the situation in the Russian Orthodox Church. If there is an analogy to be drawn there, even if Bergoglio was never a CIA agent himself, he would likely have been exposed to a great deal of information about his fellow bishops that he would find it more convenient to forget as completely as possible than to spend any time analyzing for its obvious implications.

Considering the ever-growing mountain of evidence that he and his henchmen have cultivated a habit of ignoring and forgetting information about the sexual proclivities of their fellow prelates, it would not be difficult to suppose that her and they have applied the same habit to other forms of compromising behavior they have reason to believe exists. Should it ever be proven that the CIA has deeply penetrated the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Latin America, it would raise a whole new dimension of doubt about Bergoglio’s motives.

This is an idea for a novel, not a proposal for an investigation, because I have no reason at all to suppose that it is true. As I put it in a follow-up comment, “there are these two secretive organizations that have, for their own reasons, created a vacuum of information that is big enough that a story like that could fit inside it without contradicting anything we do know.”

One sub-plot I would like to see in this novel would be a workplace sitcom set in the Oval Office of the President of the United States. The CIA is a headache for the president to deal with even when they are on a losing streak. One day in the early 2010’s he is informed that an asset of theirs has been elected pope. Ugh, thinks he. Now I’m in for it. And indeed the Director of Central Intelligence makes himself well-nigh intolerable around the uppermost echelons of the US national security state from that point on.

Perhaps the main character should be a liberal journalist who has been covering, let’s call him Cardinal Bocchini, for the several years he has been Archbishop of, let’s say Santiago de Chile. When Cardinal Bocchini is elected the first pope from the Western hemisphere (though his parents were born in Italy, and he has been an Italian citizen all his life, and he spoke Italian before he spoke Spanish, and his family has maintained such close connections to Italy that his sister settled there, his residence in Chile allows him to be presented to the press as a non-European pope,) she is apprehensive. He has made very harsh remarks about sexual minorities, leading a campaign identifying gender-neutral marriage with Satan. And he has made strongly nationalistic remarks supporting Chile’s territorial claims against its neighbors, remarks timed to heighten tensions between Chile and Peru and reflective of Bocchini’s connections with some rather dark elements of the Chilean military and security services. Bocchini also has a notably bad record on sex abuse; virtually alone among the world’s major archdioceses, Santiago has not publicized a single case of clerical sex abuse in the previous fifteen years. While some of Bocchini’s most fervent supporters say that this is because the Holy Spirit has protected Santiago to leave no doubt that Bocchini is the man to lead the Roman Catholic Church out of the era of scandal, the heroine’s investigations as a journalist reporting on the church have led her to believe that Bocchini is simply the most skilled of the hierarchy’s cover-up artists.

Bocchini is not only the first pope to have lived most of his life in the Western Hemisphere; he is also the first Jesuit pope. He takes the name Ignatius to honor both the founder of his order and Saint Ignatius of Antioch.  The heroine is assigned to Rome to cover Pope Ignatius.

At first, she is pleasantly surprised by his apparently relaxed attitude toward sexual minorities and relieved that, having become a world figure, he has backed off his Chilean irredentism. She is swept up in the new pope’s popularity, and emerges as a favorite of his, frequently among the first reporters recognized in the impromptu press conferences he gives aboard airplanes. She allows herself to be drawn in sufficiently that she cleans up some of the remarks he makes in these notoriously freewheeling sessions. With every favorable story she sends out, she gains more and more access to the pope and his inner circle.

As time goes on, she notices more and more things that don’t fit with the benevolent image she has been helping to project. Five years into his papacy, scandals begin breaking all around Pope Ignatius.  The pope’s inner circle turns to the heroine in the first rush of these scandals, hoping that she will spin them as effectively as she has spun so many of the pope’s indiscreet airborne comments. They are quickly disappointed in her, however. From her vantage point, she had seen all those scandals brewing, and had reached the conclusion that the pope was not committed to correcting the abuses at the heart of them. What’s more, her proximity to the pope and his top advisers has led her to suspect that he has a relationship with the CIA.

She presses her investigations as far as she can within the Vatican. She loses favor with the pope and his men, and finds herself called back to Santiago. Her paper assigns her to cover farm news. In between trips to chicken farms and agricultural board hearings, she continues to look into the pope’s past, and turns up information that is far more explosive than she had thought possible.

So, that might make a fat little paperback that will induce a lot of frequent flyers to part with their money in the bookstores at the airports.

*A rough estimate.

Russia! RUSSIA! RUSSIA!!!!!!

Here is the cartoon Matt Bors posted at Daily Kos today, under the heading “Choose Your Own Conspiracy“:

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I don’t believe that it is necessary to accept any of the items on this menu.

Unlike the speaker in the panel on the reader’s upper left, I think we ought to accept the possibility that there is something worth investigating in the Trump/ Russia stuff. Russia, like virtually every other country in the world, wants to have an influence on the US electoral process. While countries like China and Saudi Arabia were able to have massive influence on the 2016 presidential election, by means including but not limited to large cash gifts to the leading candidates, Russia is a poor country that has few friends among the US elite, a country which is stigmatized in US public opinion by the memory of the Cold War, and which is a traditional adversary of several countries which are extremely well-connected in the USA.  Therefore, it is to be expected that Russia’s attempts to advance its interests in the US political arena will tend to appear on a small scale and to proceed through unusual channels, many of them illegal.

Moreover, Don John of Astoria’s 2016 presidential campaign was conducted on the cheap, with a budget less than half that of his leading rival. Among the expenses which he spared were the hiring of experts. This suits his character, as he is a remarkably lazy and incurious man who famously refuses to read the briefing papers prepared for him. Don John was in 2016 a newcomer to the political stage, without the background that had taught other candidates to be wary of the intricate body of laws which delineate acceptable from unacceptable contacts between US officials and representatives of foreign powers. It would therefore be no surprise if his campaign had stumbled into violations of election laws regarding contacts with Russians.

The speakers in the panel on the reader’s lower left do make a good point- where investigative agencies are corrupt, it really is difficult to know anything about any particular crime. That is certainly the case in the current matter, where the Shitlord-in-Chief of Russiagate (“Actually, it’s about ethics in campaign communications”) is Robert Mueller, who was as brazen a liar as any of the high officials who peddled false stories in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Perhaps Mr Mueller has turned over a new leaf, and his recent untestable claims about Russian military intelligence activities deserve more credence than did his sworn testimony to the US Senate. People can change, after all. On the other hand, they can also remain the same, especially when they have paid no penalty of any kind for their prior misconduct. As long as Mr Mueller and men of his ilk are in charge of the investigation, therefore, it behooves us to be deeply skeptical of it.

Deep skepticism, however, need not preclude eventual agreement. Each proposition the investigators put forward will have to be tested severely by independent observers if it is to be regarded as credible. Any propositions that can pass such tests, even though they come from so unreliable a source as Mr Mueller, may ultimately be accepted. After all, in his day Saddam Hussein was no more credible a source than Mr Mueller is now, yet we now know that Saddam was telling the truth when he said in 2002 that he had dismantled his programs to develop weapons of mass destruction and that he had no association with al Qaeda, even as we know that Mr Mueller was deliberately lying when he contradicted those statements at the time. If history could vindicate some of Saddam’s statements, perhaps it will someday vindicate some of Mr Mueller’s.

The “Agent Drumpf” theory advanced by the speaker in the upper right panel is so obviously insane that I cannot believe it is necessary to say anything at all about it. Don John has made occasional public remarks calling for world peace, expressing reluctance to believe unsubstantiated claims from the USA’s clownishly inept spy agencies, and acknowledging the absurdity of responding to events of recent centuries by maintaining an eternal and indissoluble military alliance with Germany against Russia. Even if one were to believe, as it seemed from what I saw on social media yesterday a great many Americans and Britons do believe, that such remarks constitute “treason,” one would still have to face the fact that Don John has made no substantive policy initiatives consonant with the view of world affairs that they reflect.  Indeed, to the extent that he has done anything to change the policies he inherited from his predecessors, he has joined in even more wars, yielded even more power to the spies, and actually expanded the membership of NATO.

The hypothesis dramatized in the lower right panel, that the outcome of the election was a surprise even to Don John himself, also seems unlikely to cover the whole truth. True, Don John spent very little of his own money on the campaign and spared himself most of the pains presidential candidates usually take to ensure that they are prepared to take office. As I noted above, however, he still spares himself those pains even now that he is in office. He is a man whose attention can be aroused only by narcissism and cruelty. The only actions to which he can be stirred are those which bring glory to him or suffering to someone else, and which bring them without delay. So, whether he expected to win or not, it is not likely that Don John would have devoted more of his time and money than he in fact did in 2016 to assembling a shadow government and establishing himself as its leader. Nor is it likely, given his sensitivity to humiliation, that he would actively have preferred defeat. Besides, while Don John may not have maintained a policy shop or paid for much of a ground organization or spent any money running up his popular vote totals in non-competitive states, his campaign did indirectly involve him in one great financial expense. His principal source of income since the 1980s has been licensing the use of his name, and the controversial public profile he had acquired by the end of the campaign reduced the value of that asset to the point where he would likely have found himself in a gravely straitened condition had he lost.

So, what is the point of the Russiagate story, a.k.a. “Russia! RUSSIA! RUSSIA!!!!”?  It does advance many interests. The same people who wanted Mr Mueller to lie to the Senate in 2002 to facilitate the invasion of Iraq today want to ensure the smooth running of the gravy train of military spending that has enriched them for several decades. That the Soviet Union has not existed for more than a quarter of a century and today’s Russia is an impoverished country with no allies, a barely functional military, and an official ideology that cannot be explained to foreigners, let alone exported overseas, is in their eyes no reason why the USA should not spend trillions of dollars and build an ever-more rigid network of alliances to contain the Kremlin’s power. Russiagate gives such people a stick to beat their opponents with, and draws people who in the past might have opposed their agenda into making public statements equating love of country with willingness to swallow whatever tales the CIA, FBI, and other such outfits choose to spin.

It also advances the interests of Don John himself. In among the shrieks of “treason!” that I saw from otherwise reasonable people online yesterday were a few stories about conversations involving people who are not Extremely Online, and who regarded claims that the US president is a traitor as evidence that the person making the claim is having a psychotic break. I saw enough shrieking from enough people to be sure that everyone who is in touch online with more than a handful of supporters of the Democratic Party or of the British Labour Party will also have seen it from people whom they had previously regarded as more or less all right. Unless Mr Mueller comes up with something pretty extraordinary, that impression is going to hamper the opposition to Don John for quite some time to come. When the 2020 presidential campaign begins in earnest next year, Democratic candidates will have a very tricky job simultaneously placating the sizable fraction of their primary electorate who will still be devout Russiagaters and avoiding the sound of General Jack D. Ripper talking about the need to keep the Russkies from corrupting our precious bodily fluids.

The greatest beneficiary of them all is doubtless Vladimir Putin himself. Mr Putin’s public support rests largely on the idea that Russia is surrounded by hostile powers and that he is uniquely suited to leading its opposition to those powers. Every time major media outlets and high public officials in the West spend hour upon hour assuring the public that Mr Putin is a supreme grandmaster of geopolitics who decided the results of a US presidential election and imply that the US is or ought to be at war with Russia, this idea receives overwhelmingly powerful reinforcement. It is difficult to imagine a more generous gift US elites could possibly have given Mr Putin than this story. He can be expected to do everything in his power to keep it alive for as long as possible.

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.

 

 

 

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:

mccormack jfk

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.