Yesterday’s gone

Last night, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel denounced Donald Trump, whom I call Don John of Astoria, for his failure to distance himself from pro-Nazi groups which were at the center of Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

One particular section of Mr Kimmel’s statement struck me as typical of a particular kind of less-than-ideal response to the consistently horrid and ever-more surreal events that have characterized Trumptime. As reported on Slate:

But you’ve been trying to ignore it, because you don’t want to admit to these smug, annoying liberals that they were right. That’s the last thing you want to do. But the truth is, deep down inside, you know you made a mistake. You know you picked the wrong guy. And it isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse. So you can do one of two things. You can dig in like Chris Christie at a Hometown Buffet, or you can treat the situation like you’d put Star Wars wallpaper up in the kitchen. “All right, I got caught up, I was excited, I made a mistake. And now it needs to go.”  Well, now he does need to go. So it’s time for you, especially you who voted for him, to tell him to go.

Now it may well be the case that most of the people who voted for Don John in 2016 believe that he was a bad choice and that he is a bad president now. Indeed, the majority of his voters may, deep down inside, have disapproved of him even before they cast their ballots. The one segment of the electorate with which he did best in November of 2016 was voters who thought that neither he nor Hillary Clinton was fit to be president.

That behavior is sufficient to show that believing that Don John is a bad president is a very different matter from believing that it was a mistake to vote for him in 2016, as opposed to voting for one of the other candidates who were on the ballot in that year. Third-party supporters like me may want to put our fists through our straw hats when we think of lesser-evil voting, but that is the norm in US general elections, and most voters seem to think that they are wise to engage in it.

Framing the question as “Who was the better candidate in 2016?” also impedes any attempt to focus on Don John’s particular shortcomings, however egregious those shortcomings may be. So, if we say that when a white supremacist rally dissolves in violence and homicide, a US president’s first public statement about it ought to include an unequivocal condemnation of white supremacist activism, we are likely to meet with widespread agreement across the political spectrum. If we say that Don John’s failure to respond to Charlottesville in that way is a sign that he is a worse president than Hillary Clinton would have been, we invite Trump supporters (even a Trump supporter so ambivalent as to refer to an adversary as a “Trump-like blowhard self-promoter using a current event to promote her for-profit business“) to argue that making appropriate statements in the immediate aftermath of atrocious public events is a political skill which Ms Clinton conspicuously lacks.  Sticking to the question, “Is Don John an acceptable president?,” discussion of the weaknesses of Ms Clinton or any other political figure who is not currently serving as US president can be dismissed as irrelevant.

To make the same general point in a less-inflammatory historical context, by August of 1974 President Richard Nixon had lost the support of so many Republican voters that Congress could no longer avoid impeaching him and removing him from office. If the Constitution had worked out as it was intended when it was first written, the vice president would have been the person who came second in the 1972 general election. Mr Nixon’s removal, under those circumstances, would have put Senator George McGovern in his place. In that case, the question before the people would indeed have been whether they were right to vote for Mr Nixon in 1972, or whether they ought to have voted for Mr McGovern in that year. Presented with that choice, I suspect that very few Republicans would have decided that Mr Nixon’s misdeeds warranted his removal from office.

I would emphasize that point with reference to the remark below:

If that primary season were a rerun of the primary season Republicans actually faced in 2016, with Mr Trump facing Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, etc, then of course he would still win, probably by a much wider margin. Had the Republican primaries of 1972 been replayed in the summer of 1974, I suspect that Richard Nixon would still have beaten John Ashbrook and Pete McCloskey. Mr McCloskey’s denunciation of US bombing in Vietnam as morally unacceptable made him impossible for most Republicans to support in that year, while the entire premise of Mr Ashbrook’s campaign was that the president ought to be renominated, but only after the right wing of the party had had its say. So long as those were his only opponents, it was only notionally possible for President Nixon to lose the primary contest.

Of course, those two backbench Congressmen would not have been the only challengers to the president had the Republicans actually staged a primary contest in 1974. Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller, and several other candidates would likely have stepped forward. And the fact that the original scheme of presidential succession had been replaced, first by the formation of national parties that chose separate candidates for president and vice president, then by the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution that formalized this process, and finally by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment that allowed Congress and the President to appoint a replacement when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned his office amid corruption charges in 1973, meant that the choice in 1974 was not between Richard Nixon or George McGovern, nor between Richard Nixon and some other candidate in a Republican primary, but between Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Likewise, the choice now is not between Don John of Astoria or Hillary Clinton, nor between Don John and the Republican primary field of 2016. If the question is about impeachment, the choice is between him and Vice President Michael Pence. If the question is about something short of that, the question is about the balance of power between the president and the Congress. There’s a reason why the powers of the Congress are described in Article One of the Constitution, and the amendments making up the Bill of Rights tell us that “Congress” shall not do particular things- the Congress is supposed to be, and for most of the nineteenth century clearly was, the dominant partner in the federal triad. Even now, old Washington hands are fond of the adage “The president proposes, the Congress disposes.” The Congress does in fact have the power to rein a bad president in. Wishes that last year’s election, or some other event of the past, had turned out differently do not have much power at all.

We’re looking for a few intolerably bad men

Two recent tweets of mine:

All I would add is that the heads of these agencies should be not only unpopular outside the president’s inner circle, but also wily enough that they are not merely figureheads, with senior career officials actually wielding power behind the scenes. So it wouldn’t do for a president to appoint his idiot son-in-law to be head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, since the top person among the Special Agents is surely the sort of person who would easily take effective control of the Bureau from him and would lull Congress and the public out of the vigilance necessary to keep a police force or a spy agency within decent boundaries.

That someone who is unpopular and incompetent can be supplanted by nominal subordinates who are competent is one reason why Don John of Astoria’s presence in the Oval Office is not a sign that the Imperial Presidency is about to be rolled back and the powers of Congress restored. As writers like Noah Millman have pointed out, it would be all too easy for permanent bureaucracies such as the military and the spy agencies to shut the president out of decision-making, as the last dozen presidents have shut Congress out of decision-making in regard to war powers, and to establish a praetorian state in the USA.

However bad Don John may be, that event would be catastrophically worse. With elections reduced to irrelevance, any opportunity those who are neither officials of the security services nor among the 400 richest people in the USA now have to influence the making of national policy would be gone forever; whatever hope there might be that a new political movement might counteract the rise of oligarchy would die with it. With generals, top spies, and defense contractors relieved of any need to treat elected officials as their superiors, there would even less institutional brake than there is now on the USA’s endless and ever-more-obviously pointless military rampages around the globe. And when that government loses its ability to hold onto its position, there will be no mechanism in place for a peaceful transfer of power.  A coup against Don John today would condemn a future generation to a civil war.

So I hope it doesn’t come to that. Meanwhile, I’m hoping that Don John will appoint Ann Coulter as head of the FBI; she has the brains and the strength of character to keep whoever plays the role of Sir Humphrey among the G-Men off guard, and she is widely hated. Former Connecticut senator Joseph I. Lieberman has been mentioned for the job, and he certainly is disliked by a sufficiently large swath of the public and of Congress that his presence would prevent any more legislation expanding the FBI’s powers passing Congress. Mr Lieberman’s star seems to have faded quite a bit since it came to light that he has been one of Don John’s personal lawyers, however. If Ms Coulter is unavailable, maybe Don John will turn to Pat Buchanan, he’s a Trump loyalist and is highly skilled at alienating people. Then there’s always Milo Yiannopoulos, who really knows how to turn people off. Any of those four people would suffice to make it clear to the electorate that the agency s/he heads must not be trusted with any more power than absolutely necessary.

The best case would be for one of them to head the FBI, one the Central Intelligence Agency, one the National Security Agency, while the fourth would be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Which countries have the most influence on the US political system?

Recent controversy about alleged ties between US President Donald Trump and Russia, and the publicly attested reality of Mr Trump’s deep entanglement with and indebtedness to state enterprises in the People’s Republic of China, have me wondering which countries have the most influence on the US political system. What I would really like to see is a table ranking the countries of the world by a composite score calculated based on considerations like these:

  • How many serving and retired political figures, senior military officers, top Washington staffers, etc, have received payments in the form of lobbying fees, consulting fees, speaking fees, and so on from sources that are connected to the political leadership of that country?
  • How high do those receiving such payments rank in the US political hierarchy? Clearly payments to an ex-president should give a country more points than payments to an ex-assistant secretary.
  • How many US lobbying firms are registered as agents of that country?
  • How deeply are leading US business interests involved with the interests in that country? What major interests desire a more accommodating attitude towards its leaders? What interests desire a more hostile attitude towards them? How powerful are these interests relative to each other, and how urgent are their desires?
  • How extensive are that country’s espionage activities, both verified and likely, in the USA?
  • How many ways does that country have to get its message into American mass media?
  • How effective are that country’s efforts in hasbara and other nontraditional means of propaganda?
  • How sympathetic is the US public to that country’s cause? Are politicians afraid of a backlash in public opinion if they are perceived as unfriendly to that country?  Are they afraid of backlash of they are perceived as friendly to it?
  • How often does that country in fact get its way in the formulation and implementation of US national policy?

I would guess that if such a table were calculated intelligently, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states would cluster near the top, along with Germany, Britain, Canada, Mexico, China, Japan, South Korea, and Israel. Russia, even if the most alarmist versions of the stories about the Trump administration from the neo-John Birch wing of the Democratic Party are proven true, would surely be very far down this list, perhaps last of all the big countries.

It is impossible to form an intelligent opinion as to whether the allegations of Russia’s efforts to influence the election are true. No evidence has yet been produced in support of them; stories in the press have cited unnamed sources in the spy agencies, and General James Clapper has effectively asked us to take his word for it that there is something worth investigating. General Clapper’s word, however, is valueless. In 2013 General Clapper testified under oath to the US Congress that, contrary to media reports that had been circulating in various forms since the disclosure of the ECHELON program in 1988, the National Security Agency was not engaged in mass surveillance of US citizens. That was the lie that Edward Snowden sacrificed everything to expose. Indeed, the so-called “intelligence community” (a phrase that has been a punchline for over 40 years, already an object of mockery in the 1975 movie Three Days of the Condor) is among the world’s least credible sources, as General Clapper’s continuance as Director of National Intelligence for three and a half years after his perjury was exposed demonstrates.

On the other hand, Russia had a very strong incentive to try to influence the 2016 US presidential election. The USA openly interfered in Russia’s 2011 legislative elections, culminating in then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly deriding the elections as rigged and endorsing street protests against them. This has poisoned US-Russian relations ever since. HRC’s longstanding support for NATO expansion into areas traditionally coveted by Germany, including a number of former Soviet Republics, coupled with her advocacy of trade sanctions against Russia and her threats to shoot down Russian warplanes in Syria would suggest to any Russian leader that, were she elected president, the US would soon push Russia into a position where it would be forced either to submit to treatment of a sort no sovereign state could be expected to find tolerable, or to issue an ultimatum threatening nuclear war against the USA.

In view of those facts, the Putin government would have been derelict in its duty, not only to Russia, but to world peace, if it failed to do everything it possibly could to promote the candidacy of Don John of Astoria. While Don John may be an ignorant fool with no relevant qualifications for the presidency, who is surrounded by hawkish advisers of the worst sort, and whose temperament is unlikely to lead him into anything but a series of calamitously bad decisions, at least there was a chance that he would, in his incompetence, stumble into some kind of detente.  Compared to a political figure whose decades of experience in high office have led her to calmly and consistently advocate policies that would likely lead to thermonuclear conflict, Don John must have seemed like the better bet.

As for the question of whether Don John or people close to him crossed the line into an improper relationship with Russian intelligence, this is again prima facie possible. He is very unwise and inexperienced, and is surrounded by people who are similarly unimpressive. So it would seem likely that he might be relatively easy prey for a savvy intelligence service. However, no evidence at all has been released indicating that this in fact happened. In theory an investigation of the question might be a good thing provided that it took place in the context of broader investigations into the efforts of other countries to influence the election and into the political activities of the spy agencies during this whole period. Otherwise we would run the risk of further empowering both the spy agencies and countries such as Saudi Arabia and Germany. Not only are these agencies and these countries far more influential in US politics than is Russia, but they stand to gain a great deal if the USA maintains a policy of confrontation towards Russia, while the USA overall stands only to lose by such a policy.

What if people actually are good judges of their own best interests?

Conservative intellectuals often argue that liberalism and social democracy depend on norms and institutions that liberal and social democratic policies could not create. They usually go on from that claim to assert that particular policies favored by liberals or by social democrats in fact undermine norms and institutions without which those policies could not function.

We hear this kind of argument when conservatives oppose reforms aimed at helping individual people succeed outside the structure of the patriarchal family. Programs that provide financial assistance and particular services to households headed by single women, laws that prohibit discrimination against women and members of sexual minority groups, educational facilities independent of traditionalist religious groups, and other such efforts are often attacked on the grounds that they can succeed only in a society in which patriarchal families are the norm and in which the common identity and habit of discipline that people supposedly gain as members of patriarchal families makes it possible for them to operate as intended. Without this common identity and habit of discipline, conservatives claim, no society could make a success of such ambitious programs. Inasmuch as reforms that help individual people succeed outside the structure of the patriarchal family weaken that structure on a societal level, such reforms are ultimately self-defeating.

This is also one of the reasons why conservative arguments that may have begun as a defense of monarchy, the established church, and the landowning aristocracy against the claims of the rising bourgeoisie need not change very much to be repurposed as a defense of the bourgeoisie against proposed reforms not altogether dissimilar from those the original conservatives may have supported. The market is another of the institutions that conservatives claim could not have been created by liberalism, even by the right-wing versions of liberalism that have come to dominate most right of center parties in the West. Reforms that left-wing liberals support on the grounds that they will put limits on the power of private interests, and that right-wing liberals oppose on the grounds that they will remove limits from the power of government, conservatives oppose on the grounds that they are dependent on the success of an institution which they undermine. Higher taxes, stronger regulation, a more generous welfare state, etc, all attract this criticism. Socialists often echo this criticism, arguing that it is a mistake to be content with raking off a percentage of the capitalists’ winnings when the proper business of politics is to replace the rule of the capitalists with a workers’ republic and capitalism with a different system altogether.

I bring all this up because of an article I read a few weeks ago. It was originally published last July; I can’t claim to be up to date on everything everyone writes! It is a blog post on which Professor George Lakoff of Berkeley offers a partial explanation for last year’s US presidential election. Professor Lakoff addresses the question that perennially vexes left-leaning observers of the US electoral scene: why do working class people vote against their own economic interests? Survey data shows that clear majorities of Americans do agree that such policies favored by the left as single payer health care, improved protections for the rights of labor, etc, are good things and that they personally would stand to benefit from their implementation, while politicians who oppose every one of these policies routinely win elections. Indeed, 70% of all elected offices in the USA, including the presidency, majorities of both houses of Congress, most state governorships, and majorities in most state legislative chambers, are now held by the Republican Party. If people actually do want the precise opposite of everything the Republicans stand for, why do the Republicans keep winning?

Professor Lakoff argues that it is because the relatively rational thought people exhibit when considering particular issues is overpowered by something they have adopted far less rationally, a metaphorical framework that leads us to understand the nation on the model of our families of origin. Professor Lakoff writes:

[W]e tend to understand the nation metaphorically in family terms: We have founding fathers. We send our sons and daughters to war. We have homeland security. The conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country can most readily be understood in terms of moral worldviews that are encapsulated in two very different common forms of family life: The Nurturant Parent family (progressive) and the Strict Father family (conservative).

What do social issues and the politics have to do with the family? We are first governed in our families, and so we grow up understanding governing institutions in terms of the governing systems of families.

In the strict father family, father knows best. He knows right from wrong and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, which is taken to be what is right. Many conservative spouses accept this worldview, uphold the father’s authority, and are strict in those realms of family life that they are in charge of. When his children disobey, it is his moral duty to punish them painfully enough so that, to avoid punishment, they will obey him (do what is right) and not just do what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world. What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty. This reasoning shows up in conservative politics in which the poor are seen as lazy and undeserving, and the rich as deserving their wealth. Responsibility is thus taken to be personal responsibility not social responsibility. What you become is only up to you; society has nothing to do with it. You are responsible for yourself, not for others — who are responsible for themselves.

For my part, I grew up in what Professor Lakoff would call a Nurturant Family; my parents divided responsibilities and shared authority equally, and explained their basic approach to parenting as one driven by curiosity as to how my siblings and I would turn out, rather than by any intention to fit us into any preconceived mold. I do incline to support left-liberal and social democratic policies, as Professor Lakoff’s theory would predict, and I would be gratified if it turned out that the conservatives were wrong in all of their criticisms of those policies.

On the other hand, I am willing to consider that they may not be entirely wrong. Maybe the reason so many Americans support each particular proposal of the liberal and social democratic left, yet vote for the far right, is that they have observed that while any one of those proposals would likely be helpful to them if enacted, people like them tend to have better outcomes in places where the Strict-Father Family reigns supreme, even if stingy or nonexistent welfare states, ferocious law enforcement, and unfettered corporate power mean that the price of failure is extremely high. Maybe it isn’t true that areas where the Strict-Father Family is in all ways dominant are places where working people are likelier than average to do well. I hope it isn’t! But maybe it is, in which case we would be faced with the unpleasant prospect that people in general actually know what is good for them.

Popin’ ain’t easy

youngpope-2-6-17

(Not the actual pope)

I’ve always been interested in what happens when there’s a disconnect between an elite and the group it is supposed to lead. So the one thing I understood correctly about the 2016 US presidential campaign while it was going on was that the vast majority of Republican primary voters (93% in one survey) wanted to see immigration policy made more restrictive, while most of that party’s senior leaders were committed to initiatives that would make immigration policy less restrictive.  That kind of disconnect is simply not sustainable, not on such an important issue.  So while I did not expect that Donald J. Trump, a.k.a. Don John of Astoria, would win the Republican nomination, I expected him to lose to someone like Wisconsin governor Scott Walker or Texas senator Ted Cruz, who would adopt a hard-line restrictionist immigration policy and pass Don John on the right on that issue.

 

Recently I’ve read some articles about Pope Francis that make me wonder if he is not

pope-poster

(Not actually Jude Law) 

finding himself in a position in the Roman Catholic hierarchy analogous to that which Republican politicians like John Ellis Bush occupied in their party in 2015-2016. Here’s one explaining that many people in the Vatican, and probably most of the younger priests everywhere, are so frustrated with Francis’ way of raising the hopes of progressives that the next conclave might choose a pontiff as ferociously reactionary as the fictional hero of HBO’s absurdist miniseries The Young Pope.  Some say that the pope is excessively loyal to his friends and their friends, including those who are child molesters; some say that he has surrounded himself with a tiny group of intimates, and listens to no one else.

Now let me hasten to say that this question is none of my business, in that I am not and never have been a Roman Catholic.  What brought it to mind was an exchange I had last night and this morning on Twitter with scholar and beagle lover John Zmirak.  Mr Zmirak, a very conservative Roman Catholic, is quite pessimistic about the likely consequences of Francis’ pontificate.  In response to a tweet of his about how some pro-choice advocates had expressed pleasure with the “direction Francis is taking the Catholic Church,” I responded:

He answered:

(I should mention that I habitually refer to the two most recent Roman popes by their original surnames, in part because I’d been aware of Cardinals Ratzinger and Bergoglio for years before they ascended to the papacy, and in part because I am a dyed-in-the-wool republican who dislikes all monarchical pretension. As an Anglican, I rather wish the Roman Catholics would adopt our traditional styles so that I could introduce Francis as “the Most Rev’d Mr Bergoglio” and call him simply “Mr Bergoglio” thereafter, but I doubt they will.)

Mr Zmirak’s reply, and mine:

And his final word:

Mr Zmirak seems to be quite firmly convinced that anything could happen in the immediate aftermath of the next conclave. He knows more about it than I do, and has a personal investment in the topic. All I can offer is uninformed speculation.

Which is precisely what I will now offer.  If Francis is indeed as bad as the articles I’ve linked above suggest, and if the tendencies he represents are as much on the decline on the Roman Catholic Church as the authors of those pieces seem to believe, then I can imagine a scenario in which the conclave that picks his successor will end in a split. If those conditions obtain now, and if they continue to intensify for another 10 or 12 years, then a situation might arise in which a Bergoglian faction might be very strong in the upper reaches of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and very weak everywhere else.

Isolated elites sometimes grow reckless, realizing that they have everything to lose if new leaders should rise within the institutions atop which they so uneasily sit.  Rather than than trying to find common ground with its critics, such an insecure elite might be quick to silence them, making examples of prominent individuals and well-established groups that have not associated themselves with the current leadership.  Rather than allow the circulation of talent that might create rivals whom they could not contain, an insecure elite might try to stifle the normal processes of institutional life.

If that were to happen in the Vatican, then this hypothetical Bergoglian faction might resort to some kind of desperate measures to elect one of their own at the next conclave. If such an effort were successful, and if the desperate measures were irregular enough, anti-Bergoglian conservatives might regard the result as illegitimate, perhaps openly declaring its winner an antipope. If it were to be unsuccessful, the defeated Bergoglians might conclude that they had nowhere to go within the existing structure of the Roman Church, and so they might walk out and declare one of their own to be the true pope.

As I said to Mr Zmirak, it is difficult for me to believe that the situation in Rome has in fact come to so desperate a pass. Surely the bulk of the leadership is going to be committed to trying to make the thing work, whoever the pope is. I don’t even know whether the descriptions of Francis’ troubles that I’ve read are a fair representation of the situation, since they’ve all been brought to my attention by Roman Catholics like Mr Zmirak who are convinced that Francis has gone round the bend and is doing a terrible job. Most of the moderate and liberal Roman Catholics of my acquaintance don’t seem to be spending a lot of time thinking about the papacy right now, except for those who are fans of The Young Pope, and their only opinion about Francis seems to be that he isn’t as handsome as Jude Law.

Never attribute to strategic thought what can be adequately explained by mindless impulse

In the USA, physical attacks on such right-wing figures as Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Gavin McInnes and their supporters have brought those men so much publicity, and have done so much to embarrass and divide their left-wing opponents, that many suspect that the ostensible targets of these attacks in fact arranged them. Former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has expounded this theory on his blog and on television:

Many degrees to Mr Reich’s left, Mike Whitney of Counterpunch considers the theory that the Berkeley incident was a set-up and is more cautious. Mr Whitney’s concern is that these events, whatever their origin, may provide just the cover our new philosopher-king needs to install an authoritarian state:

Trump’s governing style… is geared to deepen divisions, increase social unrest, and create enemies, real or imagined.  In this view, Berkeley was just a dry run, an experiment in perception management orchestrated to sharpen Trump’s image as the hair-trigger Biblical father who will intercede whenever necessary and who is always ready to impose justice with an iron fist.

So the masked rioters actually did Trump a favor, didn’t they? They created a justification for presidential intervention backed by the prospect of direct involvement. One can only wonder how many similar experiments will transpire before Trump puts his foot down and bans demonstrations altogether?

Of course, that may very well be the objective.

It is true that Mr Yiannopoulos, as an editor of the website for which Don John of Astoria’s Chief Strategist was for several years the Executive Chairman, is associated with people whose favorite tactic is tricking left of center types into saying horrible things, and plenty of left of center types have responded to these events by going on social media to gloat about a woman being pepper-sprayed in the face, a Starbucks being demolished, etc. So there is at least a measure of plausibility to the idea that the masked men who did those things when Mr Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak may have been his agents, and even to the idea that they may have been dirty tricksters with links to the White House. Plausibility isn’t evidence, so we oughtn’t to get excited, but it’s an idea to take note of.

As for Richard Spencer, someone who will do and say the kinds of things he has been doing and saying for the last nine years might do pretty nearly anything to get attention. Arranging to have himself punched in the face on television might be a pathetic cry for help, but a considerably less extreme version of the pathetic cry for help than was, for example, his decision to publish articles dwelling on the potential upsides of killing all black people. And Mr Spencer was also rewarded with vast publicity and confusion among his opponents for his minor discomfort. So again, while there may not be evidence or even presumption of evidence that Mr Spencer and his assailant may have been acting in collusion, neither is there a strong prima facie case against the idea.

I would put Gavin McInnes is a different category than Mr Yiannopoulos or Mr Spencer. Despite his efforts to market the phrase “Proud Boys” as a label for his followers, I do not believe that Mr McInnes actually has any followers. Readers, yes, he has many of those; I regularly read him myself, since he’s as funny as he is nasty (that makes him very funny.) But 11 people were arrested last week at the scene of the disturbance at New York University where Mr McInnes was pepper-sprayed in the face and several other people were assaulted; none of those people seems to have been likely to take direction from him, or for that matter from Mr Yiannopoulos or any other right-wing trickster, and I do not believe for one second that there are 11 people in the world who would agree to be arrested for Mr McInnes’ sake, let alone that he could assemble that number in one place.

If the goal of those who perpetrated these acts of violence was to trick left-leaning people into cheering them on, thereby making them look ridiculous and disgusting, they succeeded. Video of Kiara Robles being pepper-sprayed in the face while she tried to assemble her thoughts in defense of Mr Yiannopoulos’ appearance was shared many thousands of times on social media, often with gloating remarks. I’ve been surprised at people I know, who last year were lecturing everyone in sight about the terrible dangers that would face the social order if we rejected the preferred presidential candidate of Goldman Sachs and the CIA and embraced such wild-eyed revolutionaries as Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein, who today are extolling the virtues of the Black Bloc and jeering at those who doubt the necessity of political violence.

Nor is it only those on the left who are willing to believe that these actions will damage the causes that men like Mr Yiannopoulos, Mr Spencer, and Mr McInnes promote. As those who openly gloat over this violence and call for more of it are showing us the power of the hormonal rush that comes to fans when they watch their team attack the opposing team in their favorite sport, so there are those on the far right who believe that their failure to make the world work the way they think it ought to work is a symptom of the left’s use of such tactics. Steve Sailer has catered to this sort of thinking in several blog posts (for example, here and here,) though he himself has been careful to limit the number of factual claims to which he commits himself.

Paul Gottfried, a distinguished scholar who had the misfortune to be associated with Richard Spencer before Mr Spencer decided to go Nazi, suspects that violent efforts to suppress far-right speech may succeed, not in ending the careers of its ostensible targets, but in creating a general sense that the country is going out of control and thereby undermining confidence in its elected leaders, most of whom are right of center. While Mr Gottfried, unlike his least-favorite former student, is someone to be taken seriously, I would argue that he too has fallen prey to the thrills of partisanship. There was far more unrest on college campuses in the USA during Richard Nixon’s first term as president than there was during the Johnson-Humphrey administration; that unrest not only failed to stop Mr Nixon gaining a second term in one of the most lopsided election results in history, but it may well have contributed to that win. Indeed, incumbent governors and mayors whose jurisdictions saw heavy unrest did well throughout those years, provided they were seen as taking the toughest possible law and order stand. California governor Ronald Reagan, Maryland governor Spiro Agnew, Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty, Chicago mayor Richard Daley, and Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo all benefited enormously from this kind of thing. Mr Gottfried knows this history well, and I can only suspect that his wish to cheerlead for dynamic action by his side has blinded him to its lessons.

If there are thousands, even millions, of people who are so caught up in the Go Blue! Go Red! cheering match to think that these actions somehow hurt the far right, then it is hard to doubt that there are a couple of dozen who are ready to put their fists and their Bear Mace where their Retweet buttons are. I am reminded of “Hanlon’s Razor,” the rule of analysis dictating that we should “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.” Of course the acts of violence against Ms Robles, Mr McInnes, etc, are malicious deeds, but we are not justified in assuming that the people who perpetrated those deeds were thinking strategically. Therefore we are not justified in believing that those perpetrators realized that their actions would help the far right and harm those whom the far right targets, however obvious that fact may be to everyone who isn’t carried away with left/ right team spirit. That’s why, in the title of this post, I rephrase Hanlon’s Razor as “Never attribute to strategic thought what can be adequately explained by mindless impulse.”

What is a “political opinion”?

On the radio yesterday, I heard a man interviewed who had recently lost his job at the US Department of State. The man said that “It is not the job of the State Department to give political opinions.”This struck me as an odd thing to say; after all, the State Department’s primary function is to provide channels of communication between US policymakers and their counterparts in other countries and to augment its reports to US policymakers with expert knowledge preparing them to respond to decisions their counterparts are likely to make. That sounds like activity that falls entirely within the realm of “giving political opinions.”

Now in fairness, it is the case that the phrase “political opinion” has several senses. I’ve divided these into a few subcategories and listed several under each subcategory:

A. Affiliation signals:

  1. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to intimidate members of other groups into silence.
  2. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to persuade members of other groups to join that group.
  3. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to invite members of other groups to negotiate a new relationship between the groups.
  4. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to reassure members of other groups that the speaker is content with the existing relationship between the groups.
  5. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to confront members of other groups with the speaker’s willingness to support increased hostility towards their groups.
  6. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to offer that group’s surrender to another group.
  7. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to request membership in another group.
  8. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to offer him/herself as a mediator between that group and another group.
  9. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to indicate that s/he would like to be recruited for membership by multiple other groups.

B. Ideological confessions

  1. A statement meant to explain the speaker’s ideological commitments to an audience who may not be aware of them.
  2. A statement meant to persuade the speaker’s audience to adopt the speaker’s ideological commitments.
  3. A statement made by a person who is unaware that his or her ideological commitments are specific to people of his or her historical description, and who believes that the statement is just plain common sense.

C. Game analysis

  1. A statement forecasting the likely outcomes of a given conflict.
  2. A statement listing the considerations that votes or policymakers are likely to take into account as they reach their decisions, and predicting the relative importance they are likely to attach to each of these considerations.

D. Historical discussion

  1. A statement identifying one past situation as a better analogy than another for illuminating a given situation in the present.
  2. A statement affirming the familiar interpretation of a past situation that has been admitted as an analogy for illuminating a given situation in the present.
  3. A statement challenging the familiar interpretation of a past situation that has been admitted as an analogy for illuminating a given situation in the present.

What I first thought of when I was listening to the recently unemployed career diplomat were political opinions in categories C and D. If the State Department isn’t giving policymakers opinions of those kinds, it’s time to wind the whole thing down and save the taxpayers a lot of money.

I suspect what the man had in mind were categories A and B. Indeed, category A statements should never be necessary; any policymaker worth his or her salt should be able, in  a few minutes, to discern without being told what group affiliations and ideological commitments are likely to inform a given speaker’s thinking, especially if that speaker belongs to a type that is as familiar as the career foreign service officer.

Category B statements should be necessary only in those cases where the world situation is changing so rapidly and comprehensively that the established doctrines have become irrelevant and new doctrines are needed in short order; the classic example would be the “Long Telegrams” that George Kennan and Frank Roberts sent at the inception of the Cold War.

What I couldn’t help but suspect, however, is that the man on the radio had been on the job too long. I’m sure the leaders of the new administration in Washington thought so. While those leaders are people in whose judgment I would normally place absolutely no confidence whatever, the longer I listened to him the more strongly I found myself wondering whether they might be right in this case, whether he might be offering statements of type B3 (“A statement made by a person who is unaware that his or her ideological commitments are specific to people of his or her historical description, and who believes that the statement is just plain common sense.”) If, as it seemed, he had spent his entire youth preparing to work in the foreign service, then had spent his entire adult life actually in the foreign service, it would hardly be surprising if he were to believe that he was expressing the common sense of humanity when he was in fact presenting views peculiar to that profession.

 

 

 

At war with the Gray Goo

Several days ago, a man named Richard Spencer was on camera, finding artful ways to respond to questions as to whether he is an advocate of genocidal violence against black people (by the way, he is very much an advocate of genocidal violence against black people.)  While he did his shtick, a masked person ran up, punched him in the face, and ran off.

punch.gif

You might think that a minor physical assault on a minor public nuisance would figure in the news as, at most, a single line on the police blotter. Yet people are still talking about it. Today, Freddie deBoer, Rod Dreher, and The Nation magazine all weighed in on this incident.

I tweeted about it the other day:

And pretty healthy odds at that; Spencer’s only job is to get publicity, and with this incident he has gained a tremendous amount of that, as he recently gloated when reached for comment by The Independent.

Since people are still talking about this, I’ll add a bit to that tweet. Street-fighting is one area where Nazis have consistently enjoyed success. To meet them on that ground is to play to their strengths.

That isn’t to say that Spencer commands a street-fighting force; he doesn’t. His followers are guys on the internet, the proverbial fat guy living in his mother’s basement.  “Failsons,” as Chapo Trap House calls them.   Those guys aren’t likely to be much use in a street fight. Nor can they attract support from people who have not already given up on life.

The threat they pose is like the danger people used to talk about regarding nanotechnology.  One tiny machine might impose only a very small ecological cost, but as the number of these in use multiplies, it becomes conceivable that they might collectively cause a very large amount of environmental damage.  In a worst case scenario, a vast number of nanobots might coalesce into a “Gray Goo” that would render the surface of the earth uninhabitable. The Failsons at their keyboards have, figuratively speaking, coalesced into blobs of destructive goo.

Failson blobs floating around a bloodthirsty racist like Spencer stink up the comments sections of blogs and other social media platforms. That isn’t such a problem in itself; it’s easy enough to ban commenters, as I have had occasion to demonstrate to some of you.  Where Spencer’s following has the most potential to do harm is illustrated by something like Gamergate. A few years ago a Failson blob of gamers set out to harass three or four women who had been making a marginal living writing online about video-games. They succeeded in making their lives miserable, and probably did a great deal to discourage other women from getting into gaming journalism. Spencer’s crowd would certainly be capable of targeting particular members of groups they don’t like (blacks, Jews, women, Muslims, etc, etc, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseam) and doing the same damage to their lives that the gamers did to Zoë Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian, while intimidating other members of the same groups into silence.

To stick with the Gamergate analogy a moment longer, “Gray Goo” isn’t just a pejorative in discussing them. Supporters of the harassment of Quinn, Wu. and Sarkeesian called themselves a variety of names, including “the Grey Rebellion” and, most commonly, “Shitlords.” So if I were talking only about them, I might use the phrase “Gray Shit” rather than “Gray Goo.”

Punching people in the street isn’t going to drive the Failsons into hiding; as the trope about them living in their mothers’ basements indicates, they have been in hiding their entire lives. However, it will give Spencer and people like him an opportunity to recruit guys who like to express their hostilities, not by persecuting people from behind a computer screen, but in physical combat. Once they get a group of street-fighters going, that’s a whole new population from which they can draw support. And while street-fighters are as much a low-status population as are the couch-bound Failsons, physically violent people attract a following in ways that people whose aggressions are electronic do not. That’s why skinheads were a thing thirty years ago, to the point where there were anti-Nazi skinheads who would spend Friday nights fighting pro-Nazi skinheads.

The original Nazis, remember, kept going throughout all their electoral ups and downs in the 1920s as a street-fighting group. When the global economy collapsed at the end of that decade, Germany’s elite found that the only way they could restore public order and keep their positions was to put Hitler in charge. Hitler’s ascent had many pre-conditions; Germany’s defeat in World War War One, the mindlessly vengeful policies the victorious powers inflicted on Germany from November 1918 to January 1933, and the Great Depression were all bigger contributors to his rise than was the fact that he had an effective street-fighting force at his disposal. But that street-fighting force was certainly one of the contributors, and when I see leftists expressing pleasure at an event which, if it to have any consequence at all, can only have the consequence of building a street-fighting force loyal to Richard Spencer, I hope that the Trump years will not bring the kind of misery to the USA that the years of the Weimar Republic brought to Germany.

Tyrannos

A tweet from this morning:

Here’s the video I’m talking about:

The biggest howler comes right at the beginning, when he says that Plato’s Republic is “the first book about politics ever written.” In fact, The Republic wasn’t even Plato’s first book about politics, never mind the first one ever written. That’s an ironic mistake, since the passage of the Republic summarized in this video includes a significant reworking of material from a political tract that predates the Republic by at least 40 and more probably 60 years, the so-called “Constitution of the Athenians” by an unknown author who may or may not have been named Xenophon (though he certainly was not the famous Xenophon, as once was thought.)  The text and its author are customarily referred to as “the Old Oligarch.” The Old Oligarch is very probably oldest surviving specimen of Greek prose, though even it is very unlikely to be “the first book about politics ever written”- the vast majority of written works produced in the mid-fifth century BCE must have been lost sometime before the fourth century BCE. The likelihood that any given work written in those days would survive until 2017 CE is trivial.

At any rate, the Old Oligarch is a quick read; it takes about 10-15 minutes to read the whole thing. When I was in school, my Greek professors were at something of a loss to think of a contemporary critic of democracy with whom they could compare him, someone who combined his extreme opposition to popular government with his concise and witty writing. They usually ended up going back several decades and comparing him to H. L. Mencken.  Nowadays the internet has brought us the anti-democratic bloggers who call themselves “Neoreactionaries” or “the Dark Enlightenment”; those writers may sometimes be witty, but they are rarely concise.  And frankly, few of them have much to say that the Old Oligarch didn’t say in those 15 minutes sometime around 445 BCE.

 

Power keeps faith with power

The recent death of longtime Cuban despot Fidel Castro has led many to remark on the admiration Castro received from many who might have been expected to find in him an enemy. For example, Roman Catholic blogger Mark Shea wrote a post remarking on Castro’s brutal repression of the Roman Catholic church in Cuba; his commenters responded by pointing out that leading members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, including the past three popes, have made many signs of friendship towards Castro. Rod Dreher documents the complicity of Roman Catholic bishops in Castro’s regime in some detail; Mr Dreher is not Roman Catholic, but Russian Orthodox. However, in the same post he reports on a statement made by his own chief pastor, the Patriarch of Moscow, in praise of Castro, showing that his church is in no better a position.

That the leaders of the largest theistic organization in the world would make themselves so useful to the leader of a regime that has oppressed the adherents of that organization so fiercely ceases to seem strange if we take this as the first rule of analysis: Power keeps faith with power. If a common ideology or common social identity ensured loyalty, the hierarchs of Rome and Havana would stand with the laity, the religious, and the parish priests who have been imprisoned for their faith; yet they rarely mention these persecuted, happily consorting with their persecutors. The only ideological consideration that moves those in power to act is the belief that the institutions which maintain their position should continue to operate, which means that those who are in a position to help or hinder those institutions in matters affecting their survival must be brought on board. The only identity that influences the actions of the mighty is their identity with each other; the powerless, even the powerless among their own supporters and putative fellows, are abstractions whom they rarely encounter in person, but see primarily as figures on revenue statements, opinion surveys, and other ledgers.

Flagrantly corrupt organizations like the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban Communist Party are easy targets for this sort of analysis. But the same principle applies everywhere. So the policies by which USA has opposed the Castro regime are unintelligible except as a case of power keeping faith with power, betraying every other trust. The two chief prongs of the economic warfare that the USA waged on Cuba throughout virtually the whole of Castro’s time at the head of the regime there were, on the one hand, a highly restrictive policy on trade between the USA and Cuba, and on the other a highly lax policy on immigration from Cuba. The trade embargo has been greatly eased in recent years, but only after it had consistently failed to weaken Castro’s grip on power for a half-century. And the “Dry Foot” immigration policy remains in effect. Though the Dry Foot policy has certainly helped to immiserate the people of Cuba by accelerating the Brain Drain of skilled professionals and other highly productive individuals from the island, it has probably strengthened the regime’s grip on power, by luring to Miami and points north the people likeliest to lead a revolt .  Both halves of the economic warfare policy were worse than useless to those who were ostensibly supposed to be its principal beneficiaries; that the embargo persisted for so long, and the Dry Foot policy persists still, is explicable only in terms of the powerful interests in the USA who benefit from their continuation, and from power’s tendency to keep faith with power.

Remembering that power keeps faith with power, we see what people may be getting at when they deride “identity politics.” Writing in Slate, Jamelle Bouie argues that Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” of the 1980s, inviting disenfranchised white working people to identify with people of color and other minority groups, is a better model for a revival of the American Left than is Senator Bernard “Bernie” Sanders’ vision of a politics that puts class first. Mr Bouie sums up his case thus:

But the history of the Democratic Party contains a model for moving forward, with an approach, honed by Jesse Jackson, that bridges the divide. And thinkers in the political and policy world have crafted solutions that reflect this approach. It respects the reality of the modern Democratic Party: a formation that represents—and depends on—the votes of women, young people, and people of color.

Mainstream Democrats have set their sights on white voters. But the path forward—the way to win them and energize those voters of color who didn’t come to the polls in 2016—might lie in the insights of black voters and black communities and a larger appreciation of how and why identity matters, in a politics of we kin, blackness in many shades. Against a political movement that defines America in exclusionary and racial terms—as a white country for white people—a renewed Rainbow Coalition is the only defense worth making.

As far as it goes, this is unexceptionable. When we get to “the reality of the modern Democratic Party,” though, we see a big trap door about to open under our feet. The Democrats can get the votes of 60,000,000 or more people in national elections, roughly half the electorate, yet hold fewer than 30% of all elected offices in the USA. Part of this can be blamed on institutional quirks such as the boundaries of the states, gerrymandering of electoral districts within states, the advantage that Republicans derive from their greater financial resources, etc.

Other parts of the problem derive from a vulnerability inherent in the structure of “the modern Democratic Party.” The great majority of African Americans may vote for Democrats, but the voices heard in the councils of the party are not those of that majority, but of the professional politicians who presume to speak for black people. Likewise for each of the other groups that make up the Democratic coalition. Often the spokespeople will come reasonably close to the views of their constituents, but even then there is an Achilles’ Heel- voters know from long experience that power, including the relatively modest power to draft portions of the Democratic Party platform and to have a say in who will be appointed as Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development under Democratic presidents, keeps faith with power.

Nonblack voters thus hear invitations to identify with blackness, when they come from the Democratic Party, not as invitations to identify with their African American neighbors, but as invitations to go along with the policy positions of the Congressional Black Caucus and similar groups. Those groups may do a fairly good job of speaking for the people they claim to represent, but are made up of human beings, and are therefore ships tossed on the rough seas of politics. As such, they are as likely, given time, as the US foreign policy establishment or the Cuban Communist Party or the Roman Catholic church to find themselves making common cause with the deadliest enemies of anyone who is so incautious as to trust them without reservation. That leaves whites open to the appeal of the ethnic bloc voting that they have long practiced in the South and that they increasingly display in other parts of the country where their numerical majority is as weak as it is in the South, perhaps less because they prefer the leaders of the Republican Party to those of the Democratic Party than because they can see a clearer path to influencing the leaders of a party that depends on them for its core support than they can see to influencing the leaders of a party that depends on everyone but them for its core support. When an ethnic group votes as a bloc, it is a power within the party it backs, and the other powers within that party dare not betray it too obviously.  When the members of a group scatter their votes, that group is no power, and its role is to be betrayed at every turn. So, in the absence of a labor movement or other force uniting people on a basis other than race, white voters are no more likely to identify with blackness than African American voters are to identify with whiteness.