The Nation looks at the Green Question

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Click here for the issue

In 1999, I toyed with the idea of setting up a website called “The Nader Question.” It would have asked whether Ralph Nader ought to run as an independent candidate in the 2000 US presidential election, and have featured short statements pro and con by various commentators, as well as giving readers the opportunity to post their own replies. If it were a hit, after the election this site would morph into “The Green Question,” a forum set up along similar lines devoted to presenting contrasting views on whether US nationals who find the Democratic Party consistently too cozy with the Power Elite to merit their support ought to coalesce behind a new party under a “Green” label.

“The Nader Question” would have been in many parts. For example, should the Democrats have moved left, and if so was such a run a logical step in an effort to push them left?  The first question could have been answered negatively by someone wanting the Democrats to move further to the right, to continue on their Clinton-era course, or to go out of business altogether.  The second could have been answered negatively by someone regarding campaigns by candidates outside the two major parties as pointless, by someone regarding them as so unpredictable in their consequences that such a run would be as likely to make the problem worse as to make it better, or by someone supporting the idea of a campaign but deeming Mr Nader an unsuitable candidate. It should be easy to see that many such questions would be open to just as wide a variety of answers.

The state of blogging platforms at the end of the twentieth century, combined with my lack of entrepreneurial spirit, scanty computer expertise, even scantier connections to political and media figures whose writing might draw the public to such a site, and nearly non-existent financial resources combined to discourage me so that “The Nader Question” never got off the ground. I hadn’t thought about “The Nader Question” in many years, not until looking at the latest issue of The Nation magazine. It examines Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s campaign from several angles, much as “The Nader Question” would have examined Mr Nader’s candidacy.

Columnist Katha Pollitt and Nation Institute fellow Joshua Holland argue that Dr Stein is unlikely to make an impression on the race, and that voters who cast one of over 100,000,000 ballots for one of the major party candidates will somehow be more likely to influence subsequent national policy. Difficult as it might be to imagine circumstances in which this would happen, it is even more difficult to restrain laughter when Mr Holland claims that the United States opposed the military coup in Honduras in 2009. That coup was led by officers of the Honduran Air Force, a service all of whose aircraft are supplied by the US defense firms.  These aircraft cannot fly without spare parts and other materials provided at regular intervals by these companies. No officer of any air force is going to join an enterprise which, if successful, will ground his or her aircraft.  The idea that the leaders of the coup did not act with firm assurances from the Obama administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, that if successful they would continue their dealings with their aerospace contractors in the USA, is simply a joke.

Seattle City Councillor Kshama Sawant argues that there is a perverse relationship between the Democratic Party and the right wing, that the Democrats regularly provide cover for policies that the public would not accept if proposed by the Republicans and that this relationship has been a necessary a condition for the increasing consolidation of power in the hands of the financial elite in recent decades.  A vote for Dr Stein, and continued support for parties to the left of the Democrats, is an indispensable step towards breaking this link.

Other pieces that do not bear directly on the question of whether voters should support Dr Stein shed light on it indirectly. Four pieces deal with the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet: a 1976 essay by Orlando Letelier; Naomi Klein’s recommendation of the essay; a memorial by Susan George of Letelier‘s work in exile against the Pinochet regime; and Peter Kornbluh’s call for the US government to release the documents it still keeps secret which cover the assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in Washington, DC in 1976 by agents of the Chilean secret service and the collaboration between US administrations under presidents from Gerald Ford through Bill Clinton to keep the particulars of the assassination from the public and to continue security cooperation between the US and Chile.  The active roles the Carter and Clinton administrations took in this cover-up, along with the refusal of the Democrats who held the majority in the in the US Senate for 8 of those 14 year and in the US House of Representatives for the entire period to do anything to stop it, and finally the Obama administration’s continued embargo of these documents, show that Ms Sawant is not entirely wrong when she says that the American right could not perpetrate its worst misdeeds without the assistance of the Democratic Party.

Bryce Covert argues that the welfare reform act signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 has been a disaster for low-income Americans and that we must hope President Hillary Rodham Clinton will undo its worst provisions. This does seem rather like trying to escape bankruptcy by hoping that the thief who impoverished you will refund your stolen goods. It’s true that HRC’s opponent, Don John of Astoria, has shown no inclination to make a change for the better in the welfare system or much of anything else, but neither is HRC likely to do so unless the political reward of doing good outweighs the political cost. If welfare recipients and those who are directly interested in their well-being either do not vote or vote for the Democrats no matter what they do, then they have no political incentive to do anything for them. They won’t act without such an incentive, not because they are evil, but because there are so many other things they could be doing that might perhaps be good and would certainly bring strong political rewards that they will not find the time to do unprofitable good deeds. Only a left of center movement capable of seriously inconveniencing Democratic politicians, a movement partly working inside the party to reward it for moving left and partly working outside the party to impose a costs on it for moving right, can make it rational for the Democratic Party to pay real attention to issues like welfare. That’s how the welfare state was created in the first place, in a time when the labor movement not only gave the Democrats the backbone of their party’s organization but also included major unions that regularly considered endorsing candidates to the Democrats’ left.

The cover story is an interview with Senator Bernie Sanders, who of course urges those who backed him in the primary to throw their allegiance to HRC in the general election. I had assumed that the Sanders campaign would end up like the Bill Bradley 2000 campaign, gaining some publicity and intriguing poll numbers in the early going, only to collapse when people started voting. Mr Bradley did not win a single statewide contest, losing every primary, every caucus, and every state convention to the Tennessee Turd, then-US Vice President Albert Arnold “Al” Gore, Junior. I was glad when Mr Sanders won enough votes to show that a very large percentage of the Democratic voter base was so desperate for a change from the Clinton approach that they would vote for a 74 year old Jewish Socialist with a thick Brooklyn accent and only tenuous ties to the Democratic Party.

A candidate in Mr Bradley’s mold, a party regular with a substantial record in high office, a celebrity background as a professional athlete, and no habit of donning labels that large segments of American society regard as equivalent to treason, could well have taken the Democratic Party this year away from the Finance First approach that the Clintons fastened on it almost a quarter-century ago.  I backed Paul Tsongas in 1992, because I thought the time had come for a Finance First approach; I preferred him to Governor Bill Clinton, because Tsongas tried to combine Finance First with as much of the New Frontier/ Great Society liberal agenda as he could. Had Tsongas won, I suspect that the party would have been more flexible in later years, using Finance First in the early 1990s when it made sense, but turning to other priorities as the country’s circumstances changed. A powerful force outside the party would still have been needed to actuate those turns, but at least the party’s leaders would have remembered where the intersections were.

The Atlantic, October 2016

840Molly Ball suspects the political consulting is largely a scam; James Fallows cannot imagine what will happen when Hillary Clinton and Don John of Astoria meet in a televised debate; Iraq War advocate Peter Beinart can explain public distaste for Iraq War advocate Hillary Clinton only by accusing most of the country of misogyny; Jeffrey Goldberg hopes that President Hillary Clinton will send her husband to charm the Israelis and Palestinians into making peace (a result that can apparently be achieved without any substantial change in US policy, let alone in the neoliberal world order; all it takes is personal charm, and a little persistence, and the Palestinians willingness to pretend that this is the country from which they have been living in exile); Derek Thompson claims that American business is becoming less innovative because of the growth of monopolies.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, reviewing the TV documentary series O. J. : Made in Americareminisces about the O. J. Simpson murder case. As a college student attracted to militant black nationalism, Mr Coates had been exasperated by the support so many African Americans showed for Mr Simpson, a man who had never shown the slightest interest in any form of the African American freedom struggle. Here’s an interesting paragraph:

Two things, it seemed to me, could be true at once: Simpson was a serial abuser who killed his ex-wife, and the Los Angeles Police Department was a brutal army of occupation. So why was it that the latter seemed to be all that mattered, and what did it have to do with Simpson, who lived a life far beyond the embattled ghettos of L.A.? I vented in the school newspaper. “Since Simpson’s practices show he clearly has no interest in the affairs of black people,” I wrote, “the question becomes why do blacks have any interest in him?” In those days, I conceived of African Americans as a kind of political party, which needed only, in unison, to select the correct strategy in order to make the scourge of racism disappear. Expending political capital on O. J. Simpson struck me as exactly the opposite of the correct strategy. Looking back, I realize what eluded me. I had lived among black people all my life, but somehow I had come to see them as abstractions, not as humans.

Mr Coates goes on to discuss the way in which the case and its aftermath brought a strange unity to African Americans, not the unity of a political party but a unity with political implications. Putting the case in its historical context as the next major event in race relations in southern California after the Rodney King matter, he says:

The beating of Reginald Denny was vengeance for the beating of Rodney King. And vengeance for King played a role in Simpson’s acquittal, according to one of the jurors, Carrie Bess. But revenge only partly explains Simpson’s last great escape. What I couldn’t fathom in 1994 was a reality that black people around me likely sensed and that Made in America brings into deeply discomfiting focus: that Simpson may well have murdered his ex-wife and her friend, and that the jury got it right in declaring him not guilty.

At the time, I thought that Mr Simpson had certainly murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and that the jury was probably right in acquitting him. The investigation was botched at a hundred points, and, after all, the only question a jury has to answer is whether the case the prosecution has presented is adequate to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the accused is guilty of the charge. I didn’t believe that the evidence and argumentation the prosecution gave the Simpson jury met that standard, and the acquittal seemed right to me for that reason.

The Old Right’s New World

This Labor Day weekend, I made an attempt to catch up on the magazines that have been accumulating around here for the last couple of years. I did come upon some things I wanted to note.

For example, in both a column about his personal evolution on questions of immigration policy the July 2016 issue of Chronicles and an article about the electoral prospects of the Libertarian Party in the July/ August 2016 issue of The American Conservative writer Justin Raimondo presents the same quote from Murray Rothbard’s speech to the 1992 meeting of the John Randolph Club:

The proper strategy for the right wing must be what we can call “right-wing populism”: exciting, dynamic, tough, and confrontational, rousing and inspiring not only the exploited masses, but the often-shell-shocked right-wing intellectual cadre as well. And in this era where the intellectual and media elites are all establishment liberal-conservatives, all in a deep sense one variety or another of social democrat, all bitterly hostile to a genuine Right, we need a dynamic, charismatic leader who has the ability to short-circuit the media elites, and to reach and rouse the masses directly. We need a leadership that can reach the masses and cut through the crippling and distorting hermeneutical fog spread by the media elites.

I don’t fault Mr Raimondo for presenting this excerpt twice, not only because the pieces are quite different from each other, but also because it is so uncannily like what he and other admirers of Mr Don-John Trump seem to see in their presidential candidate. I am an undisguised social democrat, and do not see much evidence that a tacit commitment to social democracy characterizes the policy-making of either the Democratic or Republican Parties in the USA.

Nor do I think that Mr Trump’s campaign represents a particularly strong challenge to the elites where they are in consensus; on immigration, the one issue where Mr Trump’s position has been fairly consistent and sharply at odds with the leadership of the Republican Party, I tend to agree with those observers, ranging from Slate magazine on the ultra-relaxationist left to John Derbyshire on the ultra-restrictionist right who say that the likeliest outcome of a Trump campaign is an electoral defeat that will push restrictionism to the margins for years to come. I grant it is possible, indeed rather likely, that Hillary Clinton will be such a shockingly bad president, leading the USA into pointless wars and so on, that the Republicans will win a huge landslide in 2020. That would give the Trumpians just enough time to establish themselves as a major part of the Republican Party, and not enough time for the entrenched elites to push them back out.  In that case, the president who follows the Clinton Restoration may have little choice but to throw a sop to the restrictionists every now and then. However, that’s a long way from the kind of epochal change Rothbard prophesied and for which Mr Raimondo hopes.

There are some other interesting bits in recent issues of my favorite “Old Right” reads. In the May 2016 issue of ChroniclesSrdja Trifkovic reviews Dario Fernandez-Morera’s The Myth of The Andulusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (2016,) which along with Sylvain Gouguenheim’s Aristote au Mont Saint Michel (2008) and Raphael Israeli’s Islamic Challenge in Europe (2008) represents a powerful scholarly riposte to happy-talk about Islam. Professor Trifkovic himself is rather fonder of unhappy-talk about Islam than may seem strictly necessary, but even at his angriest he is less obnoxious than are aggressively ignorant Washington figures such as Madeleine Albright and George W. Bush who have spent the last couple of decades setting themselves up as the authorities on what constitutes “true Islam.” No matter how hostile he may be to Islam, at least Professor Trifkovic doesn’t purport to speak as the arbiter of its orthodoxies.

In the June issue of Chronicles, Gerald Russello reviews Barry Alan Shain’s The Declaration of Independence in Historical Contextwhich builds on the thesis of Professor Shain’s 1996 book The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought. Professor Shain argued in that book that the principal influence on American political thinking in the late eighteenth century was Calvinism, and in his new work collects documents that illustrate the extent to which the Declaration of Independence is a Calvinist tract. That thesis may sound familiar to readers of this blog, though I have so far been only vaguely aware of Professor Shain’s work. That looks like a gap in my erudition that I will need to fill post haste!

The August issue of Chronicles included a remarkably charming bit of light literary writing by Derek Turner, of all people. Mr Turner discusses Samuel Johnson and James Boswell’s famous tour of the islands and Highlands of Scotland, comparing their experiences with some recent observations of his own as he visited the same areas.

The September issue of Chronicles features Aaron D. Wolf’s discussion of Don-John of Astoria. Mr Wolf theme is that the word “conservatism,” as used by Republican luminaries who attack Mr Trump for his lack of ideological formation, is an empty one; Mr Wolf appeals to the late M. E. Bradford’s critique of all ideologies, branding every attempt to discover a totalizing set of political values as a reversal of history, an imposition of the present on the past in order to justify whatever one’s favorite political movement happens to be doing at the moment. Like Bradford, Mr Wolf values an attitude of respect for the particular, for particular places, particular times, particular customs, particular people, as an antidote to the brutality that so regularly finds a cloak for itself in the abstract and general language of ideology. Bradford could describe himself as “conservative” because that attitude of respect led him to want to conserve things, not because the word named a program that he was committed to carrying out though the heavens fall.

Don-John of Astoria is no more a conservative in the Bradfordian sense than he is in any of the ideological senses that the recent leaders of the Republican Party have tried to attach to the term, and Mr Wolf does not try to claim that he is. But he does close his column by finding a redeeming quality in the rise of Mr Trump:

Trump’s statement [that “if you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country”] resonated with a great many of the American people, whose impulse is conservative (regardless of party and ideological affiliation,) and who had to be convinced by ideologues of both political parties that their impulse is immoral and contrary to “conservative” values.

Given that milieu, it’s no wonder that the only candidate who could break through with an argument for immigration sanity was a man of Trump’s character, whose narcissism makes him immune to their ideological attacks.

So it is precisely in the characteristic that would most have horrified Don John of Austria that Don-John of Astoria makes his contribution to the latter-day Battle of Lepanto to which the anti-Islamic writers of Chronicles imagine the West to be heading, rallying the forces of Christendom by throwing a series of self-aggrandizing tantrums.

The July/ August issue of The American Conservative includes not only the Justin Raimondo piece mentioned above,  but also an essay by David Cowan about economist Frank Knight, a pioneer in the study of uncertainty as the precondition for innovation and growth. Along with that is an excerpt from Knight’s work.

The September/ October issue of The American Conservative features Samuel Goldman’s review of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatismby George Hawley. Professor Goldman’s review is full of gems; I’ll quote these four short paragraphs from the middle of the piece, since they seem to form the heart of his case:

Hawley begins with the observation that the historic pillars of the American conservative movement—limited government, an assertively anti-communist foreign policy, and quasi-Christian moralism—have no necessary connection. Beginning in the early ’50s, these elements were packaged together by a group of intellectuals and activists led by William F. Buckley. The story is often told as a process of addition, in which disparate constituencies were brought into a grand coalition. Hawley emphasizes that it was also a process of exclusion, as unsuitable ideas and characters were driven out.

All students of the conservative movement know about the marginalization of Robert Welch and other leaders of the John Birch Society. Hawley reminds readers that the purges did not begin there. National Review was established partly to distance conservatism from the anti-Semitism that bedeviled the Old Right. Its founding manifesto was also a statement of protest against so-called New Conservatives of the 1950s who accepted the New Deal. Secular-minded anticommunists like Max Eastman were theoretically welcome in conservative circles but found their ostentatiously pious tone intolerable. In its first decade, the conservative movement was defined as much by who was out as who was in.

This process of self-definition did not end with the nomination of Barry Goldwater, the first movement conservative to seek the presidency. Since then, Southern nostalgists, critics of the U.S.-Israel alliance, opponents of the Iraq War, and offenders against the movement’s code of racial etiquette have all been treated to quasi-official denunciations. Skeptics of supply-side economics have also been encouraged to make their homes elsewhere. This magazine has its origin in some of those disputes.

One result of this boundary-policing is a “true” conservatism of striking narrowness and rigidity. Its less recognized corollary is the development of a diverse ecology of ideas outside the movement’s ever shrinking tent. Some of these uncultivated growths are bitter and even poisonous. Others might contain the tonic that the right needs to recover its relevance.

“Some of these uncultivated growths are bitter and even poisonous. Others might contain the tonic that the right needs to recover its relevance.” Indeed, many of those the bitter and even poisonous growths flourish in and around Chronicles magazine, and the attention I’ve paid to that magazine so far in this post should suffice to show that I believe that healing tonics may sometimes be distilled from bitter and even poisonous growths.

In the May/June issue of The American ConservativeAlan Mendenhall reviews Paul Gottfried’s Fascism: The Career of a Conceptin which Professor Gottfried neither neglects fascism’s connections to the political left nor denies that it was, after all, a creature of the far right.  That may not sound like much, but lesser writers do often resort to sleight of hand to disassociate labels they accept (and Professor Gottfried does accept the label “rightist”) from odious labels (and no label is more odious than “fascism.”)

The March/April issue of The American Conservative includes Richard Gamble’s review of John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.  Evidently Professor Wilsey argues that the USA should let go of religious ideas that incline it to militaristic enterprises around the globe, but adopt religious ideas that will incline it to humanitarian enterprises around the globe. As a student of the thought of Irving Babbitt, Professor Gamble recognizes in this proposal an exchange of one indulgence of the expansive temperament for another, and sees in the apparently benevolent expansive humanitarianism the barely-concealed potential for warfare. He calls instead for what Babbitt endorsed, a truly humble policy that is founded in self-restraint and self-denial.

 

Minority voting

Writing for The Atlantic, Matthew Delmont considers “What African Americans lost by aligning with the Democratic Party.” It’s a brief piece, but makes important points about the limits of the Democratic Party’s collective vision of race relations in the USA, and the ways in which those limits have exacerbated regional and class divisions among African Americans.

I would just like to add one point. It would be illogical for African Americans to vote otherwise than as a bloc supporting one party with 90% or more of their votes. Illogical, because in each of the fifty states and in most other jurisdictions around the USA, African Americans are a numerical minority. Say African Americans constitute 10% of the vote in a given state, and that there is no ethnic bloc voting in that state. If African Americans give one candidate 5.1% of the vote and the other 4.9%, that .2% difference will matter only in the most closely divided election. It will hardly be worth any candidate’s while to address issues of special concern to the African American community in pursuit of so small a reward, especially since white voters tend to be quick to see any effort to appeal to African Americans as a sign that politicians are neglecting their interests. Even an African American vote that divides 6% to 4% will give politicians little incentive to risk alienating the touchier segments of the white vote by focusing on specifically African American issues, since many or most undecided African American voters would be concerned chiefly with issues that are as important to whites as they are to African Americans.

By voting solidly for the Democrats, African Americans do lose the interest of the Republicans, and do wind up tied to some unattractive politicians. But they also constitute the single most powerful voting bloc within the party. In the Deep South, where whites vote almost as solidly Republican as African Americans vote Democratic, the institutional Democratic Party is a space where African Americans can influence events on a national and international scale. This in turn gives African Americans in those states an incentive to value loyalty to the institutional Democratic Party. We saw the results of this several weeks ago, when Bernie Sanders, who joined the Democratic Party only last year after decades in politics as an independent, lost every southern primary by enormous margins to Hillary Clinton, who, having been Secretary of State under the current Democratic president and wife to the Democratic president before him, is as much a symbol of the institutional Democratic Party as is any red, white, and blue cartoon donkey.

Ethnic bloc voting is not peculiar to African Americans and to whites in the Deep South, of course. It is the norm wherever the largest ethnic group does not form so large a supermajority of the voting population that it can be confident it will dominate whatever government emerges from an election. In the northern states of the USA, a significant percentage of whites vote for the Democrats, knowing that while African Americans might have more influence and more representation in Democratic state governments than in Republican ones, most of the leadership will still be white, and whether the leaders are white or not, they can hardly hope to stay in office long if they alienate a significant percentage of the otherwise-available white vote. In southern states, where African Americans are a much larger percentage of the population, if a quarter or less of whites voted Democratic, that might be enough to install a Democratic state government. Most of that government’s support would come from African American voters, and so its first order of business if it were to survive would be to address itself primarily to the concerns of African Americans.

I remember public discussion in the USA leading up to and away from the Iraqi elections of January 2005. Before the elections many experts warned that elections in Iraq at that time would, in effect, be an ethnic census, in that Shia Arabs would vote for the Shia coalition, Sunnis would vote for the Sunni coalition, and Kurds would vote for the Kurdish coalition. After the election, observers pointed out that precisely this had happened. Much of that commentary hinged on the phrase “at this time.” An election held “at this time” would be little more than an ethnic census. I wondered what time might come when it would not be so. The hated Steve Sailer likes to quote an August 2005 interview in which Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew said that “In multiracial societies, you don’t vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion.” I first saw him quote that in August 2005, when that Iraqi election was still fresh in my mind, which is one of the reasons why that line made an impression on me (and why I am still in the habit of reading Mr Sailer’s blog.)

If African Americans ever do break away from the Democrats, it’s hard to see where they will go. Wherever they do go, it will probably be in their best interests to go there as a bloc, since demographic trends don’t suggest that African Americans will be a supermajority of the USA’s population any time soon. Indeed, all current trends suggest that the African American share of the population will continue to decline throughout the remainder of this century.

I say something about politics and something about religion. No sex or money, though.

I’ve recently been participating in two discussion threads at The American Conservative. In a thread on Noah Millman’s blog, I’ve been laying out a theory that Florida Senator Marco Rubio will either win virtually every state in the Republican Party’s presidential nominating contest, or he won’t win any states at all. It all hinges on whether he can pull an upset win in the Iowa caucuses. My comments are here, here, and here.

In a thread on Rod Dreher’s blog, I’ve been talking about how the request by the “Primates” of the Anglican Communion that the leaders of the Episcopal Church scale back their participation in the Anglican Communion’s policy-making structures raises questions about how we can tell whether formal organizational bonds are helping or harming efforts to unify Christians, and if we decide that a particular structure is doing more harm than good, how we can dissolve it without making matters even worse.  My comments are here and here.

I’m not going to vote for a Republican for president in any case, and I think Mr Rubio would do an especially bad job in the White House.  The fact that I have worked up a theory about his prospects, therefore, just goes to show what a political junkie I am.  The other topic is of more direct personal interest to me, since I am a member of the Episcopal Church, and I find some value in the “Anglican” label.  Still, I discuss that topic also in terms of political strategy.

The coming age of liturgy

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan writes about the difficulty of making a career as a standup comedian touring US college campuses.  The trouble seems to be that college students have internalized a corporate ethic which recoils from controversy. It makes sense; if, as we so often hear, the point of higher education is to qualify for a professional career and rise in wealth and status, then there is no place for controversy in higher education, since there are very few bosses who want to spend their time listening to complaints about their employees.

I suspect that the future, if we continue to have a world in which people are rewarded for making complaints about controversial or distasteful or offensive public remarks and penalized for being named in such complaints, will be one on which American culture becomes more liturgical.  Not necessarily at worship services, but in public life generally.  More and more, public conversations will take the form of recitation of approved formulas, with specific roles assigned to specific people to make particular versicles and particular responses.  Deviation from the prescribed pattern will be strongly discouraged.

Meanwhile, conversations in which new information can be communicated, minds can be changed, and decisions can be made will still take place, but not in public.  Decision makers will meet informally, in places to which people whom they do not know and trust do not have access, and will speak in private codes which would make little or no sense if overheard.  Of course, this system will tend to shut women and people of color out of real power, and to block social mobility generally.  So I suppose most of the people promoting the sort of thing that will lead to this would consider that a failure on their part.

There’s an irony here, in that people who call themselves “neoreactionaries” tend to inveigh passionately against what they are still pleased to call “political correctness,” though many of them have switched over to the sarcastic term “social justice warriors.”  The world NRx guys say they want to see, in which democracy is phased out, a white male elite reasserts itself, and values like transparency and accountability fade in importance seems to be precisely the endgame to which the “social justice warriors” are leading us.

It’s more than you did

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chronicles, May 2015

The latest issue of this Old Right journal bears Geertgen tot Sint Jans’ (circa 1465-circa 1495) lovely painting “The Holy Kinship” on its cover.

Last month’s issue featured an article in which Claude Polin traced the intellectual influence of Calvinism in the early USA.  A letter in this month’s issue objects that some of the Calvinist ideas Professor Polin discussed there were not representative of John Calvin’s own thinking.  Professor Polin’s response to this is a succinct and admirable statement of one of the basic tenets of intellectual history:  “Either there never was any true Calvinist besides Calvin, or Calvin generated an attitude that was not his, but was logically derived from his writings.”

Steve Sailer (known to some who read this blog simply as “the hated SAILER”) writes about Thomas Jefferson’s contributions to the system of land ownership and property registration in the early USA, a system which Mr Sailer argues has given the USA a crucial advantage in economic development.  Mr Sailer’s argument that the abstract nature of the grid plan along which Jefferson led the USA’s lands to be surveyed made for a far more efficient structure than the more concrete metes-and-bounds system it replaced makes a odd counterpoint to Chronicles‘ editor Thomas Fleming’s column, in which he declares Jefferson’s similarly abstract, anti-historical views on inheritance to be of a piece with the exaltation of the nuclear family that has enabled the destruction of traditional kinship bonds and therefore of traditional community structures and traditional gender roles in today’s world.  Both Mr Sailer and Dr Fleming agree that Jefferson’s ideas have led to the rise of capitalism, but while Mr Sailer’s chief concern is extolling the prosperity that capitalism has brought, Dr Fleming’s emphasis is on capitalism’s destruction of those bonds and identities that have traditionally ennobled human life.

Clyde Wilson, editor of The John Calhoun Papers and an unreconstructed defender of the Old South, may be the last person you would expect to speak up in favor of the view that agents of the US government killed Martin Luther King, Junior, yet that is precisely what he does in his review of John Emison’s The Martin Luther King Congressional Cover-Up.  Professor Wilson seems to believe that the Central Intelligence Agency orchestrated the assassination, pointing out that the agency had a file on small-time criminal James Earl Ray, the supposed gunman, and that the two federal judges who were, “years apart,” poised to reopen the case died of sudden heart attacks, which are “a standard tool of the CIA.”  Professor Wilson also refers to two other notorious 1960’s-era activities of the American national security state, Operation Northwoods, a Joint Chiefs of Staff plan to carry out terrorist acts in the USA and blame them on Fidel Castro, and Cointelpro, a Federal Bureau of Investigation project overseen by W. Mark Felt, who was among other things the FBI’s liaison with the Joint Chiefs.  For my part, if there was a high-level conspiracy to kill Martin Luther King, I suspect Mark Felt was its mastermind and the offices of the Joint Chiefs were its nursery.  Professor Wilson closes his review with a lament about all the crimes whose true provenance we will never know because high US officials saw to the destruction of evidence, the intimidation of witnesses, and the railroading of convenient suspects; his first example is the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  Many documents connected with the assassination of Martin Luther King are sealed until 2029; until they have been opened and examined, I think it is premature to put the King assassination into the same baleful category.

Scott Richert writes about Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which, unlike the federal law and the many state laws of the same name, does not apply only to civil suits to which the government is itself a party, but to a wide variety of lawsuits between private citizens.  Mr Richert, responding to the widespread fear that the law would enable unjust discrimination against sexual minority groups in Indiana and the consensus in favor of legal protection for such groups against discrimination which this fear revealed,* argues that the growth of civil rights protection for sexual minorities is the result of a strategy on the part of big businesses in the USA.  These businesses want the benefits of a reputation for friendliness to sexual minorities, but don’t want competitors to carve out a niche in which they could exploit any costs that such a reputation might entail.  So, big businesses want to advertise their own “gay-friendly” programs, while outlawing or stigmatizing any “unfriendly” programs competitors might come up with.

*I commented on the Indiana law here when it was first passed.

The Atlantic, May 2015

The Atlantic is largely written from the viewpoint of the rich, and this month’s issue is no exception.  But then, the rich are not a monolithic group, and it can be instructive to think about the differences that separate one subgroup of them from another.  After all, it is in their conflicts and contests that spaces sometimes open up in which the rest of us can make our voices heard.

A profile of Michele Roberts, head of the players’ union in the National Basketball Association, brought to my mind Yogi Berra’s remark, “The players don’t deserve it, but the owners don’t deserve it more.”  It also includes a concise explanation of the economics that give the owners the upper hand as they collect billions and leave the players with millions:

Despite (or perhaps because of) their athletic gifts, players have little incentive to engage in a protracted fight with the league. LeBron James may be a talent like no other, but even his prowess will not last long, which means a strike or a lockout could be devastating to his earning potential.

“The problem is that basketball players have an average career of four years and an average salary of $5 million per year,” says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. “Given that and given that these guys love to play basketball, they don’t really have the basis to stay unified for a substantial period of time. They’re saying, ‘You want me to risk half a season so my salary could go from $5.1 million to $5.2 million?’ That’s going to be Michele Roberts’s main challenge.”

Tim Harford reports on businesses that scalp reservations for tables at fashionable New York City restaurants, and asks why restaurants shouldn’t charge for reservations.  The only reason I can think of is that it might take some of the sport out of it.  A table at a fashionable NYC restaurant is the prize in a game with rules and tactics known only to a few, and is as such a sign of one’s initiation into that select company.  If such tables were awarded to the highest bidder, well, if you’re one of the richest people in New York, everyone who might see you at a fashionable eatery already knows that about you.  You can’t add anything to the reputation you already have by simply buying another expensive thing, while winning at the reservation game may show that you are still youthful enough to go to the trouble of playing the game and still wily enough to win it.  So making reservations simply a money game might reduce the attractiveness to super-rich New Yorkers of the most fashionable restaurants,  Whether that would make NYC restaurants more or less profitable overall I don’t know, but it certainly would reduce the premium that the most fashionable restaurants can charge.

Ross Douthat, of all people, asks “Will Pope Francis Break the Church?”  Close to half the article consists of concessions that most of the remarks quoted in the press as evidence that the pope is a bold reformer are exactly the same as remarks that his two immediate predecessors made, while a sizable chunk of the remainder are things he never actually said at all.  But Mr. Douthat still tries to play up the “reformer pope” storyline that has been running in world media for over two years now.

A profile of Justin Trudeau, leader of Canada’s opposition Liberal Party, includes this paragraph about polling data comparing his image with that of the current prime minister, Stephen Harper:

Earlier this year, pollsters asked Canadians which party leader would be best in various roles. Trudeau—who has, since joining parliament, smoked pot, gotten a tattoo, and practiced yoga in front of the parliament building—was the top choice for vacation buddy, dinner guest, pet-sitter, movie recommender, and wilderness survivor, and was rated “most likely to stop and help if your car was stranded.” Harper got picked for head of a company and contract negotiator.

Considering the relative importance in a prime minister’s working day of, on the one hand, management and negotiation, and, on the other, vacation buddying, dinner-guesting, pet-sitting, movie recommending, wilderness surviving, and roadside assisting, one may as well say “Harper got picked for prime minister.”

On the magazine’s website, Robinson Meyer offers suggestions on “What to Say When the Police Tell You to Stop Filming Them.”  Included is a link to the American Civil Liberties Union’s very handy guide on photographers’ rights.

What’s happening in northern Nigeria?

The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office put out this map of Nigeria a couple of weeks ago

What’s happening in northern Nigeria? Eric Draitser, founder of the website Stop Imperialism, seems to have an answer, and he shares it with readers of Counterpunch in this, the first of a series of articles he promises to contribute there.

Mr Draitser lists three major factors that have made the rise of Boko Haram possible:

First, there is Nigeria’s domestic politics, and the issue of Boko Haram and the perception of the government and opposition’s responsibility for the chaos it has wreaked.  With elections scheduled to take place in February, Boko Haram and national security have, quite understandably, become dominant issues in the public mind.  The mutual finger-pointing and accusations provide an important backdrop for understanding how Boko Haram fits both into the public discourse, and into the strategies of political networks behind the scenes in Nigeria, and the region more broadly.

Second is the all-important regional political and economic chessboard. In West Africa – an area rich in strategic resources – there are a few interested parties who stand to gain from Boko Haram’s ongoing attacks which amount to a destabilization of the entire Nigerian state.  Nigeria’s neighbor Chad has recently come under heavy scrutiny from Nigeria’s military apparatus for its purported role in financing and facilitating Boko Haram’s expansion. Chad sees in Nigeria potential oil profits as it expands its own oil extraction capabilities throughout the Chad Basin – a geographical region that includes significant territory in Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger.  Of course, major oil companies, not to mention powerful western nations such as France, have a vested interest in maintaining their profits from West African oil. 

Finally and, perhaps most importantly, is the continental and global perspective.  Nigeria, as Africa’s most dynamic economy, presents major opportunities and challenges for key global powers.  For China, Nigeria represents one of its principal investment footholds in Africa. A key trading partner for Beijing, Nigeria has increasingly been moving out of the direct orbit of the West, transforming it from a reliable, if subservient, Western ally, into an obstacle to be overcome.  Coinciding with these developments has been the continually expanding US military presence throughout Africa, one that is increasingly concentrated in West Africa, though without much media fanfare aside from the Ebola story.

Mr Draitser goes on to explain how the destruction of the Gadhafi regime in Libya destabilized the whole region to the north and east of Nigeria, transforming Chad from a subordinate player in North African politics into a revisionist power.

Compare with the FCO map above

Mr Draitser’s piece is the single most illuminating thing I have found about the situation in Nigeria, and I am very glad to have seen it.  I do feel constrained to quote from something I read the same day, a blog post in which Rod Dreher, referring to discussions of conflicts in the Muslim world, including northern Nigeria, complains that “most people on the secular Left simply do not understand how religion works.”  That isn’t to say that we have to take the actors in these conflicts at their word when they claim that their motives are entirely religious, and certainly the conflict in Nigeria would not be possible without the economic and geopolitical facts on which Mr Draitser focuses.  What I suspect is simply this, that it is a mistake to leave religion out altogether when we are analyzing a situation like this.

Be that as it may, I very much look forward to Mr Draitser’s next installment.  He refers to a forthcoming “Part Two”; I hope there will also be a Part Three, Part Four, and as many other parts as he can manage.