Sunday, November 12, 2017

Political Correctness Run Amok Is Destroying Our Country!

This tweet by our Supreme Leader, the Protector of Democracy and the Savior of the American Worker, has sparked hilarity in the tweetosphere.  Which it should.  I mean, wotta snowflake, right?  Comrade Jong Un is just telling it like it is, instead of caving in to Political Correctness like some pussy-hat wearing, virtue-signalling Social Justice Warrior!  That's how he rolls.

Slightly more seriously, like others who found Trump's quotation entertaining, I can't help wondering what he was thinking.  For Trump to complain that Kim Jong Un was being mean to him is like Richard Dawkins complaining that Mary Midgley was mean to him, or like being accused of meanness and cynicism by Roy Edroso's commenters, or like Tony Blair defending Saudi Arabia as an oasis of tolerance in the Middle East as opposed to Iran, which has gone over to the Dark Side.  Or like people complaining about the presence of black people in Asgard in a movie which portrays Thor and the Hulk as BFFs flying from one fantasy sphere to another in a space ship.  Surreality leaves satire fallen flat on its face at the starting line once again.

But then Corey Robin posted some good stuff on Facebook.  (I'd already begun following him on Twitter and intend to get to his book The Reactionary Mind... well, sometime in this millennium.)  For example:
It's interesting to watch the mainstream commentariat—which initially was convinced that autocracy, authoritarianism, and fascism were imminent—inch its way toward a more realistic assessment of the Trump presidency, of how weak and constrained it's been.

In the spring, around the time of the healthcare debacle, Ezra Klein's line shifted from authoritarianism imminent to "yeah, he's being checked, but you won't like Donald Trump when he's checked; he's scary and authoritarian when he's checked." Now it's "Donald Trump may want to be an autocrat but he's too incompetent to deliver."

While the move to some greater apprehension of reality is welcome, the problem remains that the analysis is inordinately personal, not structural or institutional or political. You can see that in lines like these: "What if Trump were focused, disciplined, capable? What if his ends were the same but his means were changed? What if he worked assiduously to build relationships with the intelligence agencies, the military, and congressional leaders? What if he let illiberalism drive his actions even as he carefully chose his words? What if he was able to build a well-staffed executive branch where talented loyalists worked daily to achieve his goals?"

There was a candidate like that: his name was Ted Cruz. There's a reason the GOP rejected him. They loved the fact that Trump was undisciplined, uncouth, a total mess of a man. That was his appeal. So it's just silly to now imagine a Trump who isn't Trump.
This fits with my own take on Trump, and on liberals who concern-troll about his incompetence.  Also on the familiar liberal flip-flopping, which goes back to the beginning of his candidacy, between seeing him as a highly dangerous Supervillain about whom Something Must Be Done, and as a ridiculous orange clown who will inevitably self-destruct in a few Friedman Units from the crushing weight of his own sheer awfulness.

(I have to wonder, though: do liberals indulge in all that deranged ranting and abuse, not out of helpless irrationality but because they saw that it worked for Trump and think that if they make enough fag jokes about him, he'll disappear?  If so, they're even more stupid than I usually think.)

But I have to quibble over Robin's claim that the GOP "loved the fact that Trump was undisciplined, uncouth, a total mess of a man."  As Robin knows, Trump's fans, who indeed loved his lack of discipline and uncouthness, were not only Republicans, and the GOP establishment did not love him.  Just as the Democrats had assumed that the 2016 presidential nomination belonged to Hillary Clinton, the Republicans had assumed that their crown would go to Jeb Bush -- or failing that, to some other party regular.  Many mainstream Republicans repudiated Trump very strongly until he was elected, and then they hitched their stars to him in the largely correct belief that he would go along with their disaster-capitalist, shock-doctrine agenda.

I've been a bit puzzled by the way that many commentators, even on the left like Robin, seem to forget that Trump represented an insurgence within the GOP, just as Sanders did within the Democratic Party.  I gather that the comparison makes the more centrist among them uncomfortable, as though Sanders's message and program were the same as Trump's; though maybe that's because Sanders's mild social-democratic message and program was as outrageous in their eyes as it was in the GOP's.

In another Facebook post Robin pointed out:
As he nears the end of his first year in office, Trump has had the worst average approval ratings of any president since Truman. At the same time, his presidency has seen first-year gains in the stock market not matched by any president since World War II, save Kennedy and George HW Bush, and analysts predict at least another year of strong gains. The gains aren't because of any expectation of tax cuts (since the healthcare debacle, a lot of Wall Street has thought those cuts wouldn't come through) but because of strong corporate earnings and revenues.

So while analysts tell us that the political system is in complete meltdown—on the verge of some form of systemic collapse—profits, earnings, and stocks continue to grow apace. The combination of political anxiety and economic euphoria is interesting. And raises questions:
... which you should read the rest of the post to see.  What interested me first was that when Trump was elected, the stock market plunged, and numerous liberals thought that was great because it would punish Trump's supporters.  But very quickly the stock market rebounded, as Robin says, so are Trump's supporters being rewarded now?

The other thing that interested me was that Barack Obama's apologists cited, as evidence of his great work fixing the economy, the fabulous stock market numbers, the record corporate profits, the low unemployment, the many many jobs created -- just as we are now seeing under Trump, but do Democrats admit even grudgingly that by their own standards Trump is as great as Obama for the economy?  They do not.  There seems to be a rather embarrassed silence from them on the issue, except when they point to the Rust Belt, the opioid epidemic, and similar problems as evidence of Trump's failure (and as the just punishment of the fools who voted for him).  But all those problems are part of Obama's legacy, the other part of it, which affected the mass of Americans rather than Obama's corporate base.  Trump hasn't corrected them, and he won't, but neither did Obama, nor did he worry overmuch about them except to promise to fix them at election time.

Which brings me to a familiar paradox.  It's a commonplace among liberals and progressives that the mass of voters -- Them, the Sheeple -- neither know nor care about the Issues, only about Personalities and their primitive Tribal prejudices.  And yet, as such liberals and progressives also know, because from time to time they appeal to the fact, the overwhelming majority of American voters support progressive views and positions: Medicare for All or even a national health service, higher taxes for the rich, more social and less military spending, etc.  In the past day or two I happened on an article which connected these dots (I'll add the link when I find it), though I don't remember that it proposed any remedy for the problem.

It's pretty clear from such polling data that ordinary citizens do care about issues, and even have surprisingly leftish ideas on what to do about them.  Yet, the commonplace continues, they Vote Against Their Interests!  Why do they do that?  Why did they vote for Hillary instead of Bernie, and for Trump instead of Hillary?

Well, one fair answer would be that politicians have made pretty promises along those lines before, and broken them.  I've argued that Obama, probably more than any other American President, refuted the idea that we could make a better country by voting in more and better Democrats.  From the moment of his election in 2008 he made his dedication to the corporatist sector, to the attrition of civil liberties, and to endless war so clear that only pundits and party loyalists could miss it.  Clinton worked in the Obama tradition.  You could only vote for her to signify your opposition to Trump, not because you really believed she would do what most Americans wanted: decent health care, more social spending, higher taxes on the rich, less military spending and warfare, and so on.  It also was clear that even if Sanders really had no chance of winning the nomination, the Democratic Party made damn sure he wouldn't.

In the face of this, there was no self-delusion at all in voters not liking Clinton  -- though it must be stressed again, since even her most ardent apologists tend to forget it, that she won the popular vote decisively.  Most American voters voted for Clinton, against their interests, because they recognized how dangerous Trump was, and that he didn't stand for most voters any more than Clinton did.  Clinton lost the election because of an anti-democratic institution mandated by the Constitution itself, the Electoral College.  (One of the funniest -- not funny-haha but funny-ouch -- responses I saw to the outcome by liberals was one who wrote that the purpose of the Electoral College was to keep a total fascist moron from getting into the White House.  This, although the actual result of the 2016 election was that the Electoral College put a fascist moron into the White House.  It's the sort of thing that shows that liberals and progressives who jeer at the stupidity of the Sheeple need to curb their own arrogance.)  And given that, again, why should voters believe that Voting Rightly will get them what they want?

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Faith Is the Substance of Things Hoped For

There's a good new article at Politico on how people in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, who voted for Trump feel about him now.  The headline pretty much says it all: "Johnstown Never Believed Trump Would Help. They Love Him Anyway."

There's nothing surprising in the piece, but it's worth reviewing anyway.  The first thing I noticed was that the defenses his fans offer for Trump are exactly, word for word, the defenses Obama voters made for him.
“I think he’s doing a great job, and I just wish the hell they’d leave him alone and let him do it,” Schilling said. “He shouldn’t have to take any shit from anybody.”
And:
“Everybody I talk to,” [Del Signore] said, “realizes it’s not Trump who’s dragging his feet. Trump’s probably the most diligent, hardest-working president we’ve ever had in our lifetimes. It’s not like he sleeps in till noon and goes golfing every weekend, like the last president did.”
Kruse speaks up:
I stopped him, informing him that, yes, Barack Obama liked to golf, but Trump in fact does golf a lot, too—more, in fact.

Del Signore was surprised to hear this.
“Does he?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
He did not linger on this topic, smiling and changing the subject with a quip. “If I was married to his wife,” Del Signore said, “I don’t think I’d go anywhere.”

He added: “Some of these things are like that thing he said to Billy, Billy Bob, Billy Bud”—searching, unsuccessfully, for the name Billy Bush—“on the bus, that comment he made.” Del Signore shrugged. “He’s a human male. I’m glad he wasn’t saying, ‘Hey, I like little boys.’ You know? So he’s not perfect.”
That's how you do it: when you're confronted with an inconvenient fact, make a joke, change the subject.  (Barack ended the wars!  No, he didn't.  He fixed the economy!  No, he didn't.  Well, those Republicans keep picking on his wife and kids.  And he got Bin Laden.  Sure, he's not perfect; sure, he's a bit of a disappointment.  But at least he's not Bush.)
“They always say they want to bring the steel mills back,” Frear said, “but they’re going to have to do a lot of work to bring the steel mills back.”

He hasn’t built the wall yet, either. “I don’t care about his wall,” said Frear, 76. “I mean, if he gets his wall—I don’t give a shit, you know? But he has a good idea: Keep ’em out.”

He also hasn’t repealed Obamacare. “That’s Congress,” she said.
And the drug scourge here continues unabated. “And it’s not going to improve for a long time,” she said, “until people learn, which they won’t.

“But I like him,” Frear reiterated. “Because he does what he says.”
As she has already admitted, Trump doesn't do what he says.  But she likes him, just as Obama's fans like him, and that's what matters.
Next to Bala was a gray-haired man who told me he voted for Trump and was happy so far because “he’s kept his promises.”

I asked which ones.

“Border security.” But there’s no wall yet. “No fault of his,” the man said.

What else? “Getting rid of Obamacare.” But he hasn’t. “Well, he’s tried to.”

What else? “Defunding Planned Parenthood.” But he didn’t. “Not his fault again,” the man said.

I asked for his name. “Bill K.,” he said. He wouldn’t give me his last name. “I don’t trust you,” he said.
As Kruse says, "They don’t mind his intemperate tweets. They don’t mind the specter of scandal, which they dismiss as trifling nonsense. They don’t mind his nuclear saber-rattling with North Korea, saying they feel safer under Trump than they did under Obama."

Of course they don't mind those scandals, if they were real -- which they claim not to believe, because of the Fake News, but I think they believe them and like them just fine.  The sexy stuff is okay because it proves he's what they consider a normal man, a real man, but the scandals are mostly about money, and a rich guy who cheats and lies and gouges to get ahead is fine with them, as long as they can believe he's on their side -- and they'll believe it no matter what.  Even his failure to come through on his promises is not so bad, because they have plenty of bad guys to blame, and their sense of grievance is stoked some more.  (We've seen the same pattern with Clinton apologists for the past year: it's not her fault, it's the Russians, it's Bernie Sanders the rootless cosmopolitan, it's the sexist Bernie Bros, it's traitors stabbing her in the back just to make a buck.
So many people in so many other areas of the country watch with dismay and existential alarm Trump’s Twitter hijinks, his petty feuds, his penchant for butting into areas where the president has no explicit, policy-relevant role. All of that only animates his supporters here. For them, Trump is their megaphone. He is the scriptwriter. He is a singularly effective, intuitive creator of a limitless loop of grievance and discontent that keeps them in absolute lockstep.
That counts for even more.  Trump speaks for them, especially at his most obnoxious.  When liberals are outraged by his antics, his fans are delighted, not just because he said what he said, but because he made the Politically Correct liberal snowflakes mad.  Just as liberals got all excited when Obama did a little strutting and posturing on the campaign trail, or when some Democratic pol or pundit says something that shuts down the GOP, eviscerates them, schools them; when the Stupid Rethugs are angered and offended by hearing The Truth.  It's why they crow with joy over homophobic anti-Trump jokes; jokes about the size of his hands and the supposedly corresponding tiny wee-wee; jokes about cheese and orange and bad hair and how mentally ill he is.  If Obama was mostly more subdued, his fans put that down to his classy he was, but secretly they wish he had gone on Twitter and put the Rethugs in their place.  If he had, they'd be as thrilled as Trump fans are when Trump says something naughty, something provocative, something a schoolteacher would paddle him for saying in fourth grade.

I know that feeling too, and I'm not immune to it.  What disturbs me, as I've said before, is not so much the transgressive "humor" as that they (neither side) mostly has nothing better to offer after they've let off steam.  And that won't help anyone or fix anything.  So, for example, it was educational -- I was totally schooled -- to read the comments under one of Marcy Wheeler's tweets yesterday.
Though she went on to clarify, "Do think there is difference bt ICIJ & WL. Not clear there is between ICIJ & Intercept. But people should have some basis for distinguishing" many of her commenters ignored it and attacked Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, confused the Paradise Papers with the Panama Papers, and generally dodged her request for a workable distinction between good leaks and bad leaks.  They also quibbled over how many Democrats had objected to Snowden, often claiming that Wheeler had said "all" instead of "most" Democrats.  (I don't know about even "most" Democrats, but I do know that both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned Snowden, mostly dishonestly.)  And so on: these steely-eyed, reality-based types, probably well-educated and well-informed compared to the average American, could not grasp a simple question because it required them to engage in some self-examination.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose tweet led me to Kruse's article, remarked "Re: Trump and economic insecurity..."  I admit, I'm not sure what he meant by that.  It's true that Kruse found a fair amount of open racism among the Jonestown Trump voters he talked to.
Schilling looked at her husband, Dave McCabe, who’s 67 and a retired high school basketball coach. She nodded at me. “Tell him,” she said to McCabe, “what you said the NFL is …”

McCabe looked momentarily wary. He laughed a little. “I don’t remember saying that,” he said unconvincingly.

Schilling was having none of it. “You’re the one that told me, liar,” she said.

She looked at me.

The NFL?

“Niggers for life,” Schilling said.

“For life,” McCabe added.
That's just about exactly as funny as a joke about Mike Pence "taking a knee" for Donald Trump.  (What's funnier is Maggie Frear, who told Kruse, "if I was the boss of these teams, I would tell ’em, ‘You get your asses out there and you play, or you’re not here anymore.’ They’re paying their salaries, for God’s sake."  Those NFL players are not supposed to be playing when they're taking a knee, nor does Frear want them to: she wants them to genuflect properly to the holy flag, which has nothing I can see to do with playing the game.  Del Signore, whose remarks follow Frears', has equally irrelevant complaints.)

But here's the thing: Kruse also details the extent of "economic insecurity" around Jonestown, which is felt by the Trump voters he talked to.  Unemployment, for example, is relatively low, but still higher than the national average.  The heroin crisis is in full swing too, with 94 overdose deaths last year in the county.  Significantly, given many whites' complaints about entitled, lazy blacks,
Some of the later-in-life blue-collar workers who are still here can be loath to learn new trades. “We’ve heard when working with some of the miners that they are reluctant because they’re very accustomed to the mining industry,” said Linda Thomson, the president of JARI, a nonprofit economic development agency in Johnstown that provides precisely the kind of retraining, supported by a combination of private, state and federal funding, that could prepare somebody for a job in [Bill] Polacek’s [manufacturing] plant. “They really do want to go back into the mines. So we’ve seen resistance to some retraining.”
Bill Polacek, the manufacturer mentioned in that paragraph, told Kruse,
“Right now, if I could find 150 people, I’d put them to work,” ... He needs machinists. He needs welders. “But it’s hard to find people,” he said—people with the requisite skills, people who can pass a drug test.

“We just don’t have the workforce,” said Liston, the city manager. “If they are employable, and have a skill set, basically they already moved out of the area.”
I don't think I quite believe Polacek here: his complaints are typical for employers trying to excuse their failure to provide jobs, but in context his excuses seem reasonable enough.  So yes, racism and economic insecurity are in the mix.  I'm not sure how liberal/left homophobia relates to economic insecurity; maybe its apologists would like to make a case.  I don't think it's that hard to condemn the racism while trying to do something about the economy, but as Polacek indicates, it's not as simple as one could wish to fix the economy.  Trump has no interest in doing it, but neither did Obama or Clinton, except for themselves and their wealthy donors and cronies.  Just like the Trump voters, Democratic apologists were full of excuses and distractions, not to mention mere misrepresentation of Obama's record -- when they didn't just shoot themselves in the foot by touting record corporate profits and stock prices as evidence of Obama's economic greatness.  So it's not exactly surprising that even many working- and middle-class whites who'd voted for Obama decided they wanted a change; their self-deception is not greater than that of Democrats.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Times They Are a-Changing (And The More They Change, the More They Stay the Same)

Following on yesterday's post, quoting the same American-Korean blogger's post:
When I landed at Incheon International I breathed a sigh of relief at the familiarity around me. I left a place that I’ve always thought of as home, a place where traditions crumble and reform in a continual act of self-creation. I’m not sure now whether it’s home or not, but I wonder whether in the end that’s what it means to be a San Franciscan. Allowing the walls of certainty to come crashing down so that you can then rebuild them, piece by piece.
Again, there's probably some rhetorical exaggeration going on here, and I probably notice more change in Korea because I don't live here but simply visit every year or so.  But Korea is changing rapidly: technology, certainly, but also the economy and the politics.  This would have been visible to the blogger even in 2009, but I think it's accelerated since then.  The downfall of President Park Geun-hye under massive popular pressure, but also US pressure even before the accession of Donald Trump, has forced changes in Korean life that are going to continue making traditions crumble.  As a result, many older Koreans are responding just as many older Americans are, and in similar ways.

I observed some of a pro-Trump demonstration in downtown Seoul on Saturday.  It was much smaller than the vast candlelight vigils that helped bring down President Park, and almost all (around 99 percent, I'd guess) of the participants were over 50.  They waved Korean flags with American ones, begged Trump to visit Park Geun-hye (unlikely, since she's imprisoned and awaiting trial), and to restore her to office.  Part of this was nostalgia for her dictator father Park Chung-hee, which accounts for her popularity among elderly Koreans.  (But elderly Koreans also helped bring her down.)

South Korea has been changing, technologically and culturally, ever since the Japanese occupation -- actually since the introduction of Christianity in the 1800s -- and the change has accelerated over the past couple of decades.  The civil war of 1950-1953 shouldn't be overlooked either: it uprooted people on both sides of the 38th parallel, and led to occupation by US troops, who required R&R support: bars, prostitution.  (This morning I saw a complaint in comments on another blog, about how unwelcome uniformed soldiers are in European public accomodations.  I don't want to stereotype, but there's a reason for this: soldiers are trained in violence, they're young and rambunctious, and they feel entitled to let off steam when they're off-base.  US soldiers in Korea, as elsewhere, have a long unsavory record of violence against local civilians, often exacerbated by white racism against black soldiers and the Korean women who served them.  Many in the military also despise the people they supposedly serve.)  Park Chung-hee's forced-march industrialization in the 1960s and 1970s drew many younger people from the countryside to the cities to work in the factories and offices (a normal process in capitalism).  It's something else Seoul and San Francisco have in common: many Seoulites were not born here, but moved here for school, work, or escape from the countryside.  Traditions have been 'crumbling' in Korea under the hammer blows of 'modernity' in the same way they have elsewhere.

But I have to remember that the old people who were at the pro-Park/Trump demonstration are not really traditionalists: they're the generation that benefited, however ambiguously, from modernization.  They got electricity, trains, buses, television (even remote old rural houses have satellite dishes perched on them), refrigerators, washing machines, sanitation, a higher standard of living generally -- until the late 1980s, anyway, when growth began to slow and the Korean conglomerates, or chaebol, decided that the Korean dream was no longer viable, for most Koreans anyway.  They remind me of my parents and their post-Depression and post-WWII experience of change, except that they are my age, not my parents'.  Then the US and its instruments forced financialization on the Korean and other Asian economies, and the Korean Miracle staggered.  Even if it didn't quite fail, it still hasn't recovered.

Some changes have been positive: the shortening of the work week, more opportunities for women, and the like.  Young women, like their counterparts around the world, are less willing to marry than their mothers and grandmothers were, partly for economic reasons but also for "cultural" ones: they're not interested in being subordinate anymore, to husbands or to mothers-in-law.  In this respect they're like many Trump voters, right down to their soft spot for fascism and war.

I know the Korea Dispatch blogger must have been aware of much of this, if I judge by his recommended readings.  And things have changed further since he wrote that last post in 2009.  "Allowing the walls of certainty to come crashing down" is not just what it means to be a San Franciscan, it's also what it means to be a Korean.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Looking, Really Looking; Seeing, Really Seeing

I should have been paying more attention to the sites in my Korean news blogroll.  Some have disappeared, a couple are now Korean-language only, some are still there but stopped posting some time ago.

But I was interested by some of what I found when I looked them over last week.  This American blogger, though he stopped updating Korea Dispatch in 2009, has a good attitude.  I disagree with him on numerous points, of course, but he's less ethnocentric than some American writers in Korea that I've seen.  His suggested reading list is good.  He's married to a Korean woman.  I liked most of what he said in his final post, about the culture shock of returning to his home city of San Francisco after several years away, but this bugged me slightly:
And the faces. All kinds, all ethnicities. So unlike the never-ending sameness of Korea, that maddening, comforting sense of living in a village/nation where everyone is a variation of the same theme. SF felt fragmented, everyone a stranger who neither shared the same tongue, ate the same food… only occupying the same space. In Korea I am a minority; in SF, everyone is.
I realize that he's exaggerating slightly to make a point, and I know what he means, though when I first visited San Francisco in 1997 I was surprised how multiethnic it wasn't.  Yes, there was more variety of human appearance than in the small northern-Indiana towns I'd grown up in, but no more than I was used to after a quarter century in Bloomington, Indiana.  The university draws students from all over the world, and though its relative lack of racial diversity is still a sore point, I was surprised that San Francisco didn't feel so different to me.

But I disagree about the "never-ending sameness" of Koreans.  From my first visit in 2001, I was struck by how much variation there was in Koreans' appearance.  I'd already noticed it to some extent among the Koreans I'd met in Bloomington, but once I was in the actual place I could see how different Koreans looked from each other, and this was before younger Koreans really got into dyeing their hair in lighter colors.  (Older Koreans, by contrast, had been dyeing their hair black all along.  Every time I pass a Korean barber shop, I see half-a-dozen older men getting a dye job.  And not only older men: when I got my hair cut last week, a guy about 30 was getting his black hair refreshed.)  What I'm talking about is bone structure, face shape, eye shape (again, even leaving aside the depressingly popular eye-widening surgery so many Koreans get), lip/mouth shape, hair texture, even color.  (Also height and weight.)  Some of my Korean friends, when I've mentioned this, put it down to genetic influence from American soldiers, but I doubt it could have been as extensive as what I see.

But I've also noticed that there's a lot of sameness among Caucasians -- guys with goatees, for example, tend to look alike.  When I'm in all- or mostly-white small towns, I have the same feeling that the blogger had about Korea: never-ending sameness.  People's appearance can be categorized, though I don't have names for the categories, just the awareness that this person looks similar to others I've known or seen.  (That becomes more common as I get older: everyone looks like someone else.)  Some of the similarities cross "race" as well; I think of the laughing old Chinese man in Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet who's a dead ringer for Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot.

Maybe it's just that I look.  Many foreigners I see appear to be drawn into themselves, as if not to draw attention to themselves, maybe afraid that someone will ask to practice their English on them.  (Most of the white people I see are European, though; when I overhear them talking to each other, they aren't speaking English anyway.)  I'm glad to be here, I'm interested in the country and the people, and I interact when I can.  I know I'm not unique in this -- I see foreigners speaking good Korean on TV, and I know some who do in everyday life as well -- but I rarely see it on the street, in the stores, on the subway.  As Thomas Mann had one of his characters say, interest is greater than love.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

He Talks Nice, Still Does His Job

Just a brief return to George W. Bush and the speech that thrilled so many liberals.  I know that its fifteen minutes of glory have passed, what with so much new breaking news, but its time will come again, and one would do well to be prepared.

Readers may recall that one defense of Bush -- offered, let me stress, by liberal Democrats, not Republicans -- was that maybe he was a disappointment, flawed, less than perfect before, but he's clearly changed.  Was blind, but now he sees.  Hallelujah, he's seen the light!  Can't you hateful radicals believe that people change, and should be given a second chance?  And so on.  Here's why I don't find this persuasive.

Early in Barack Obama's first term as president, John Caruso wrote a post criticizing a speech Obama gave in Cairo, setting out his stance on the Middle East.  He followed it up with another in which he claimed to have changed his mind, quoting passages from the speech which showed Obama to be not just a visionary on foreign policy but a rather daring one, even ready to put real pressure on Israel.  He quoted several passages to illustrate:
We have great respect for the commitment that all Muslims make to faith, family, and education. And Americans of many backgrounds seek to learn more about the rich tradition of Islam. [...] I have asked young Americans to study the language and customs of the broader Middle East. And for the first time in our nation's history, we have added a Koran to the White House Library...

Our country's citizens come from diverse backgrounds and cultures, which has enabled us to realize the vision embodied in our first national motto: "E Pluribus Unum," meaning "Out of many, one." ...


Israeli settlement activity in occupied territories must stop. And the occupation must end through withdrawal to secure and recognize boundaries consistent with United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338. [...] Israel should also show a respect, a respect for and concern about the dignity of the Palestinian people who are and will be their neighbors. ...

To overcome dangers in our world, we must also take the offensive by encouraging economic progress, and fighting disease, and spreading hope in hopeless lands. Isolationism would not only tie our hands in fighting enemies, it would keep us from helping our friends in desperate need. We show compassion abroad because Americans believe in the God-given dignity and worth of a villager with HIV/AIDS, or an infant with malaria, or a refugee fleeing genocide, or a young girl sold into slavery.
Having made his case, Caruso then admitted that these bold, idealistic sentiments were not Obama's at all: they were George W. Bush's, expressed in speeches he gave before American Muslim leaders at the White House on October 17, 2005; proclaiming Irish-American Heritage Month in 2002; in the Rose Garden on April 4, 2002; in his State of the Union message to Congress on January 31, 2006.  that first one, by the way, was for an Iftar dinner marking the end of Ramadan; Bush gave one every year of his presidency, continuing a practice begun by the Clinton administration "for which we have to thank a teenage Chelsea Clinton," who'd been studying Islamic culture.  Obama followed suit.  This multicultural sensitivity didn't stop either Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama from killing lots of Muslims, most of them civilians.

The point is that Bush hasn't changed; hasn't reformed; hasn't repented of his previous sins.  He's still as ready to emit gaseous platitudes as he was while committing his many crimes as President.  What has changed is that he no longer has the power to commit those crimes.  If he did, he'd no doubt still be bombing, torturing, invading, just as he did from 2001 to 2009.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

I Am a Fluke of The Universe, and So Can You

Sometimes I suspect I'm even weirder than I've always thought (and often been told).

I'm always baffled when people talk about their lives, or Life, having a purpose.  That we were put here for a reason.  And so on.  Evidently to many people that idea feels reassuring.  To me, if I took it seriously, it would be a prison.  As a gay man, for example, I know that I am expected by both my culture and by science to marry and reproduce heterosexually, to carry on the family name.  That's my function, that's my purpose, that's the reason I'm here. In Christianity, and at least in some other religions, my purpose is to serve and glorify God.  I see no reason why I should do any of these things, and luckily I live in a time and place where I don't have to.

Maybe for most people the idea of having a purpose assigned to them feels good because it's a license to do what they want to do anyway.  I suspect that's what it is.  But with the craving for such a purpose there often goes the feeling of emptiness when you don't know what it is, what you should be doing.  The language of intention, of plan, expresses the idea that someone, human or superhuman, either knows or is competent to decide what your should do with your life, and I see no reason to suppose either that there is such a person, or that I am obliged to obey it if it did exist. Yet it's obvious to me that many, maybe most people, feel a great need to be told what to do.  This need would be what Walter Kaufmann called "decidophobia," the fear of making fateful choices, in his book Without Guilt and Justice (Wyden, 1973).

This need, or desire, or craving, is not an artifact of religion, however: it's a cause of religion, and of other ways people try to give authority to the purposes we invent.  Samuel Delany posted today on Facebook:*
I have read--or rather re-read--a wonderful book: The History of My Shoes, and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory, by Kenny Fries. At first it seems to be two books, one of the relation of Charles Darwin, and his supporter, critic, and sometimes editor, Alfred Russell Wallace, who realized that "Nature . . . does not so much select special various species [natural selection] as exterminate the most unfavorable ones [Herbert Spencer's phrase, 'survival of the fittest"] p. 96."
This weaves through a brilliant discussion of adaptability, in terms of that area often called disabilities.

In a passing discussion of the narrator's homosexual desire, we find comments such as: "'In matters of sex,' sexologist Alfred Kinsey observed, 'everything that you can possibly imagine has gone on and much that you cannot imagine.'"

Although the instinct for protection and survival of the species most often explains the desire for procreational sex, there have been a myriad explanations for homosexual desire. To Western science, homosexuality, both in animals and humans, is an anomaly, an unexpected behavior requiring some some sort of explanation, cause, or rationale. But to many indigenous cultures around the world, homosexuality is a routine and expected occurrence in both humans and animals. Biologist Bruce Bagemihl has shown that a good deal, if not most heterosexual sex in both animals and humans is without procreative intent. Thus, homosexual sex is not so different from most heterosexual sex. Except for the cultural context that labels it so. (p 113)

The book first came out in 2007, but with its discussion of things like ADD, social Darwinism and eugenics, it seems even more relevant than it once was. Before my retirement, from time to time I taught sections of it. Rereading the whole of it from end to end today, I wish now that I had devoted entire terms to it.
I haven't read Fries's book (and I can't tell where the quotations from it begin and end here), but it sounds interesting and important; it sounds as if his take on these questions might be similar to mine, though it easily might not.  I hope to find out.  If I didn't already have a large backlog of interesting and important books to read, I'd get to it now.  But soon.

Someone else commented under Chip's post:
We are non-reproductive but essential to the larger well-being of the community, just as neuter insects are to a beehive or an ant colony. Darwin's 'sympathy' as a secret to human success = Harry Hay's "subject-subject consciousness".
It's sad and a bit strange to me that people find it so difficult, even terrifying, to stand on their own, as it were.  (Kaufmann again: etymologically "decidophobia" is a fear of falling.)  "We have a right to be here becuz Evolution." Or becuz Science. Or becuz Nature.  Or becuz Indigenous People.  Whose purpose, and where did they get it from?  It doesn't really matter why there are gay people, why there's gender, or anything else. We are the First Cause for culture, the buck stops here, and there's no need to invoke Evolution, or our genes, or other cultures to justify ourselves.  We don't have to justify ourselves; we're here.  Get used to it.

I don't want to live in an "indigenous" culture; I don't assume that the niche it would assign me would be any less repressive than the ones my own culture tries to impose.  But again: my culture now has freedoms and possibilities that no indigenous culture can offer.  I don't care whether Evolution or Nature planned me, for here I am.  (As I've said before, if I exist, I'm a product of evolution and nature.  It's not really possible to be otherwise.)

In the psychologist Carol Ozama's brilliant book The Ontogeny of Information (Duke, 2000) she shows how biologists have persistently tried to make genes, or DNA, or evolution, into a First Cause, updating the traditional Argument for Design for a scientific age; or into a homunculus that controls and guides organisms.  The efforts keep failing, but they can't seem to stop; they mostly don't even realize they're doing it, which suggests that they're driven by a deep, pre-rational need for a superior being to order and direct them. If there were a designer, or a homunculus with a joystick in my pineal gland, there is no reason to assume that they know what they're doing any better than I do.

Even when people get rid of gods, we can't seem to stop relying on them, inventing new ones and pretending that they invented us. We are a fluke of the universe, we have no right to be here -- but that's okay, because neither does anyone else: our existence has nothing to do with rights.

*Chip is dyslexic, and he doesn't proofread his Facebook posts, so I've silently corrected obvious slips of spelling etc. here.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

If You Have Faith, You Shall Turn a Mountain Into a Molehill

While browsing a site I use to track lower prices on ebooks, I found two books that, although I'm not going to buy them, added something to my claim that mainstream Christianity is built on, and still is comfortable with conspiracy theories.

The first is Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality by Richard Rohr, published by what appears to be a Catholic press (and it turns out from a glance at his other titles that Rohr is a Father, a Franciscan Friar in fact).  According to the online blurb, Rohr "uncovers what the Bible says about morality, power, wisdom and the generosity of God in a manner that demands a life-changing response from believers. Rohr offers his readers a Christian vision of abundance, grace and joy to counteract a world filled with scarcity, judgment and fear a vision that can revolutionize how we relate to ourselves, others and the world."

There's a lot of bullshit there, but I invite you to take notice of the verb "uncovers."  There's nothing all that suspicious there: much of Christian doctrine appeals to revelation, which means the same thing: the Biblical Greek verb for revelation, apokalypsis, has the sense of "uncovering."  The theme of things formerly hidden but now revealed to believers runs throughout the New Testament; one of the most significant to me is Matthew 11:25, where "Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes."  

The idea that important spiritual knowledge had been hidden, by God and by Jesus himself, to be revealed to the Elect for their salvation, a major theme in Christian doctrine, has obvious usefulness.  Originally it justified the newness of Jesus and his cult.  Why weren't these things known before?  Because God hid them until the time was fulfilled, specifically so they could be revealed by Jesus and his followers; not to "the wise and prudent," but to ignorant, unlettered "babes."  Donald Trump's vaunted appeal to uneducated voters has much the same function: you've been ignored and mocked for too long so I'm going to give you the keys to the kingdom; you're so much better than the pointy-headed liberal intellectuals; their so-called knowledge won't save them -- as long as you follow me.

So aside from the frisson that comes from the feeling that you're getting access to hidden knowledge, being invited into to the ultimate in-crowd, there's the obvious marketing function of the scam.  It made The Da Vinci Code a best-seller: The Church has hidden these things from you to keep you in the dark and maintain its power, but now these truths will set you free.  As the historian and biblical scholar Morton Smith wrote, secrecy is a feature of all societies; part of its appeal for children is the glee that comes from having a secret, that grownups don't know about even though they think they're so smart.  But there are secrets at all levels of society.  Rohr's use of hiddenness seems a lot simpler and more harmless than this, though; for him it appears to be a marketing cliche, one as familiar to Christian believers as Christmas Mass.  Most likely his book will consist largely of stuff his readers have heard many times before, dressed up a bit with the pleasure that something hidden is being revealed by a genial friar.  Look at Jesus' purported revelation, in Mark 4, of the secret meaning of the Parable of the Sower; it's a sermon illustration, a tissue of platitudes that hardly lives up to the fanfare.

The other book I noticed today was Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ by John MacArthur, published by the staid Christian Bible publisher Thomas Nelson.  Here's the description:
A COVER-UP OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS...

Centuries ago, English translators perpetrated a fraud in the New Testament, and it's been purposely hidden and covered up ever since. Your own Bible is probably included in the cover-up!

In this book, which includes a study guide for personal or group use, John MacArthur unveils the essential and clarifying revelation that may be keeping you from a fulfilling -- and correct -- relationship with God. It's powerful. It's controversial. And with new eyes you'll see the riches of your salvation in a radically new way.

What does it mean to be a Christian the way Jesus defined it? MacArthur says it all boils down to one word:

SLAVE

"We have been bought with a price. We belong to Christ. We are His own possession."

This -- "fraud," "cover-up," "hidden" -- is exactly the kind of rhetoric that The Da Vinci Code used, for which conservative Christians denounced it.  MacArthur, however, is a conservative evangelical, and his book garnered blurbs from the Southern Baptist divine Albert Mohler (remember him?), the prolific conservative evangelical preacher R. C. Sproul, and an African-American, apparently Episcopalian vicar named the Rev. Dr. Dallas H. Wilson, all gushing about MacArthur's courage in throwing down the word "slave" as the paradigm for Christian believers.  As far as that goes, he's right: the New Testament frequently refers to the believer as the slave of Christ.  I presume that the "fraud" he's referring to is the translation of the Greek doulos as "servant," rather than "slave."  Free-agent servants seem not to have been a feainture of the Greco-Roman societies around the Mediterranean; to be a servant was to be a slave, owned by your master until you were either freed by him or managed to save up money enough to buy your freedom.  Even in the sixteenth and seventeenth-century England that gave us the Authorized (aka "King James") Version of the Bible, servants didn't have the kind of freedom that the word now connotes -- no one did -- and slavery was still legal anyway.  

It's arguable, then, whether the first English translators had fraudulent intent in using "servant" as they did; they probably would not have been misunderstood.  As time went on, "slave" and "servant" became more distinct in their meanings, and slavery was abolished first in England and then in America, "servant" in English Bibles acquired an apologetic function.  (Another factor was probably the social and intellectual changes that turned Christianity from a matrix you were born into and couldn't leave into a voluntary association like a lodge.  But that's another subject.)  Christians didn't want to give the impression that God approved of slavery, though it took a good deal of straining at gnats and swallowing of camels to argue that the Bible doesn't take slavery for granted.   In that sense MacArthur isn't wrong to speak of deception, but it's the same kind of apologetic deception involved in explaining away other "hard passages" and doctrines.  Again, his rhetoric is just a marketing ploy.  It lets conservative evangelicals feel the same naughty thrill that fans of The Da Vinci Code got to feel, that they are being initiated into the Truth that murky others tried to keep from them, leaving them safe in the arms of orthodoxy.

It's okay to use conspiracy-theory rhetoric, then, as long as the revelations you're about to make are this toothless.  Christians who imbibe MacArthur's revelations won't probably change their lives as Christians much, if at all: there's already a strong authoritarian streak in their religion.  For the reader, when you see a book by a Christian publisher touting the frauds it will dispel, it's a good idea to keep your hand on your wallet.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Doing a Joyful Jig

Jon Schwarz has a new article at The Intercept about a fascinating short documentary film about a pro-Nazi rally in New York City's Madison Square Garden in 1939.  Jon gives the historical background in the article, and links to the film so you can watch it from there.

I'm not nearly as horrified by the film as Jon says I should be.  For one thing, I am pretty sure I'd heard of this "Pro-American Rally" before, and I'd certainly heard of the pro-fascist Roman Catholic priest Father Coughlin, whose wildly popular radio program publicized the rally and helped fill the Garden.  I also know something of the popularity of Nazism in this country: of the stalwart working Americans who would rather have lost the war than work next to Negroes, and of the leading American politicians and business figures who found fascist dictators strangely alluring, both before and after World War II.  More recently I can hardly help being aware of white Americans who are not at all bothered by neo-Nazis' draping themselves in Old Glory and the Stars and Bars along with the swastika, defending Confederate memorials in the name of the White Christian Reich.  The people who do so probably wouldn't call themselves Nazis, but they're clearly willing to make common cause with them, just as their grandparents were.  Or maybe not -- I don't know how their grandparents felt.  But these people are standing now in the American Nazi tradition, which goes back to the 1930s.

I have a few quibbles with Jon's article, though.  At one point he writes:
This is a ferocious, simian exhilaration that can only be felt by someone who is emotionally a child. But there are always many chronological adults waiting for someone to give them permission to lay down the burden of an individual adult’s consciousness. To tell them: We’ve located the culprits causing all your frustration and pain. They look like us, like humans, but they’re not. They’re wearing a disguise. Dissolve with us into this howling mass of protoplasm, and you will be responsible for nothing.
Whether Jon or I like it or not, those people are human -- that's just the problem.  And he knows it, since in the very next sentences he write, he says: "This has happened, at various scales, innumerable times in our species’ history. It’s more profoundly a part of us than anything we think of as “politics.”  So it's not only human, it's "profoundly" human.  And pretending otherwise is not only demagoguery, it's racist: Othering human beings by denying their humanity is how racism works.  As Walter Kaufmann wrote, not only is the criminal like you, you, alas are like the criminal.  We've located the culprits causing our humiliation and pain: they were in Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939, in Charlottesville in August 2017, and so on.

Acknowledging my common humanity with Nazis doesn't mean that I don't oppose them, that I won't criticize them, that I don't see them as dangerous.  (Nor does defending their right of free speech mean that I support them, as many crypto-fascists on the left will claim.  It's the same claim made by fascists on the right, of course: if you defend the rights of homosexuals, you must be a homosexual; if you defend the rights of black citizens, you're a nigger-lover.  Yet both factions see themselves as fundamentally different from each other.)  It means that I know I can't defeat them by assuming they're not human.

The passage I quoted above refers to an incident at the rally:
Then one man, 26-year-old Isadore Greenbaum, rushes the stage. Kuhn’s uniformed minions immediately and beat him. At some point, as the New York police grab Greenbaum and hustle him offstage, his pants are pulled down. Kuhn [the main speaker at the rally] smirks, and the audience erupts in glee...
Perhaps the central moment of “A Night at the Garden” is a shot of a young uniformed boy on stage. He is maybe 8 years old, and part of the Bund youth; he appears smaller and slighter than the others. As the crowd humiliates Greenbaum and drags him away, the boy looks around for affirmation that he is not alone. Then he does a joyful jig, rubs his hands together, and performs his dance again.
This is repugnant, of course, but I couldn't read about it without thinking of liberal Democrats indulging in similar eruptions of glee when some right-winger gets his comeuppance, or even when some smirking hack like Stephen Colbert makes a fag joke about Donald Trump.  Or when a white racist, arrested for assault, or even just fearing arrest, bursts into tears -- if his pants had been pulled down, there'd be joyful jigs by liberals and progressives all over social media.  As there are today, over the first indictments handed down by Robert Mueller, by people who are overestimating how significant they are.  But it doesn't matter: what matters is Bam! Boom! Oh, burn!  As if politics were a spectator sport, our team against their team, which I have to admit it is.  And when they think a right-winger has been humiliated, eviscerated, shredded, why not dance a victory jig, even nothing has been achieved.

Which is why, although I'm disgusted by the mistreatment and humiliation of Isadore Greenbaum, I question his good sense in jumping up onto the stage.  As I've asked before about protestors who fantasized that they, one man or woman, would take Trump down by speaking out at one of his campaign rallies, what did they think they were going to achieve if no one had molested them?  It's another resort to politics as pure spectacle.  Would Clinton fans have felt that she had been decisively defeated if some Trump fan had jumped up onto the platform of one of her campaign rallies?  Far from it: they'd have been outraged by the white patriarchal assault on a strong woman, and on all women.  If someone depantsed him as he was dragged away, there'd be joyful jigs all over social media.

Lest someone try to say so, this is not about "moral equivalence."  The principle of free speech is not about the moral content of your speech, though people all over the political spectrum have immense difficulty grasping this elementary idea.  You can, and should, criticize the content of other people's speech -- though you should also be self-critical about your own.  Freedom of expression makes no guarantees that what is said will be good.  If anything, it guarantees that much of what is said will be bad.  It just means that the State is not allowed to to regulate it.  (We badly need some legal limits on the power of private entities to regulate speech.)

One commenter complained in that direction: "With your rhetoric on shutting down nazi events surprised you don't condemn Isadore Greenbaum, Jewish man who rushed the stage".  Well, that's the question.  If it's okay for him to do it, or for a woman to shout "Black Lives Matter" at a Trump campaign rally, then it's okay for a Trump supporter to yell "Hitlery" at a Clinton rally.  The issue is consistency: what one side is allowed to do, the other side must also be allowed to do.  If liberals condemn the Right for fostering a climate of hate, they are not allowed to foster a climate of hate themselves.  Boasting about your own hypocrisy is even worse: it's exactly what Trump supporters do, so you're congratulating yourself for sinking to their level.  I don't "condemn" Greenbaum; I just don't think he was very smart.  I don't believe he was thinking, and we can't afford not to think -- not in 1939, not now.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Our Atrocities Are Not Atrocious Because Our Motives Are Good

The danger of Trump is, everybody looks good by comparison, everybody can stand up and look like a hero, I mean, I live in Canada, right? So I know.  So I think the logic needs to be, we're not gonna give you a pass because you're better than Trump. We're gonna demand so much more of you, because of Trump...
There's been some attention to a recent Economist/YouGov poll which found that 51% of Democrats have a favorable view of former president George W. Bush, compared to 42% who do not.  A new Fox News poll "puts Bush at 48/46 among Dem voters, 50/43 among Clinton voters."  Predictably, politically correct haters in the pay of Putin, like Glenn Greenwald and myself, were displeased.

The Blogger Formerly Known as IOZ argued, sensibly enough, that "This reveals exactly nothing useful about people's political leanings or attitudes except that they are mercurial", because "People have recently heard some okay things about GWB, who they've barely heard about in 8+ years. So, okay, they 'approve.'"  I'd agree more if so many Democrats (including pretty much all the ones I know on Facebook) haven't been defending and justifying this change in attitude.

The usual response, unsurpisingly, is that Bush wasn't as bad as Trump. "No doubt due to a comparison." "It's simple a lizard looks pretty cute and harmless next to Tyrannosaurus Rex." "This is only because we're now dealing with pure crazy in the WH. Even Bush looks ok next to Trump. Sad."  Or: Bush lied to us more elegantly.  This one is particularly funny because Dubya infuriated Democrats back in the day by his often incoherent speaking ("Is our children learning?", "nukular"), his Commander-Codpiece posturing, his clumsy and offensive humor ("Some call you the elite; I call you my base"; "No WMDs over here"; "'Please - don't kill me'")

One of Greenwald's critics wrote, "So I guess we have to hate him for the rest of our lives. No one gets a break at the Intercept right?" (It isn't "have to," it's "get to.") This was a common lament of liberals I know after Bush's recent speech sort-of-denouncing Trump: C'mon, can't you accept that people change? If liberals want to slobber over Bush's probably ghostwritten discovery of high Amurrican ideals, that's their lookout and their right under the Constitution.  As it says right there, The Intercept shall make no law restricting liberals' right to slobber on war criminals.  No one has to hate him if they don't want to.  What's significant is that they are indignant if someone else does hate him.  Let's have some freedom of hatred around here, okay?

And, as I've said often before, "hate" is irrelevant.  Making it personal is a handy distraction from attending to policies and actions.  I believe I've mentioned the young college student I once knew who refused to discuss Bush's policies and actions because she had once attended a dinner in the Governor's mansion when Bush was governor of Texas, and she liked him. That was very nice and all, but what does it have to do with -- just picking an example off the top of my head -- lying in order to start a few wars that cost hundreds of thousands of lives?  As Greenwald wrote years ago, "'trust' is appropriate for one's friends, loved ones, family members and the like -- but not for politicians."  Most of us have no personal connection to politicians at the national level anyway; we shouldn't evaluate them by our reaction to their simulacra on TV and computer screens, but by what they do. What Bush did as President, much of which stands condemned by his speech, should be judged harshly -- all the more so because he has not faced any accountability for it.

When Greenwald wrote with bitter sarcasm, "Stop being so judgmental and purist. They were well-intentioned war crimes. And W jokes with Obama and Ellen", someone took a different tack.  "Question," wrote a user called muddletoes. "Hypothetically speaking, do you see no moral distinction pertaining to the motives which lead to a war crime? Is a G. W. Bush as culpable as a Bashar al-Assad?"

Greenwald didn't reply as far as I saw.  I and some others took the question on.   "I absolutely believe that many sides in many wars are completely indifferent to whether or not they are 'right'. I think that it's a mistake to assume that an equivalent moral calculus exists on both sides," muddletoes wrote. "That's actually the crux of my question to GG. Granted the premise that the US under GWB committed war crimes, and were mistaken to believe that their actions were moral, does it make no difference that a requirement of their reasoning was that their actions be moral?"  The remarkable aspect of per questions is the assumption that the Bush regime believed that their actions were moral, and that, say, Assad does not.  (There's also an assumption that everyone in the Bush regime had the same beliefs on that score.)  When I declared that Bush's actions were amoral, muddletoes brushed that objection aside: "There are contexts in which you could argue that, but on the other hand it doesn't seem like a very useful summation when comparing their actions to, for instance, any of the genocides of the 20th century."  The trouble is that Assad's crimes don't really compare to other genocides of the 20th century either; certainly muddletoes offered no calculous for deciding.

I don't know how muddletoes knows Assad's motives, which are probably as unknowable in the final analysis as Bush's.  This al-Jazeera article probably tells as much as anyone can:
We know from his semi-regular longform interviews that he sees himself as carrying the flame of Syrian unity against a conspiracy of foreign actors looking to destroy Syria.

We know that he denies the existence or use of barrel bombs as he does reports of his government blocking aid to Syrian civilians around the country.

We know that his consistent line is that he is fighting against terrorists and his future will be decided by the Syrian people and nobody else.
In other words, Assad denies that he does bad things, and appeals to noble values like fighting terrorism, appealing to the judgment of the Syrian people; essentially the same rhetoric used by Bush (or Obama) to justify their wars.

I have a question of my own about this, which I've asked in various forms before: If the Bush gang had such noble motives, why did they choose to lie about the reasons for invading Iraq?  They knew perfectly well they were lying, as shown by their evasions, and those of their apologists, when the lies were exposed.  The use of lies to generate popular support for unjust wars is commonly invoked as one of the characteristics of the genocides of the 20th century, which would put Dubya in their camp rather than distinguish him from them.  One must also ask whether high ideals can ever justify aggression, attacks on civilian populations, torture, disappearances / rendition, abrogation of civil liberties at home and abroad, etc.  It's precisely such actions which discredit any pretensions to moral purity.  muddletoes complained that person was being accused unfairly of making an "endorsement of Bush."  I don't think it's unfair at all; I think that trying to ameliorate Bush's crimes by a purely hypothetical claim that he was acted out of a concern for justice is, if not an endorsement, certainly an apologia for him.

I wrote that I consider such questions a distraction, one beloved of apologists for American crimes.  "Is a G. W. Bush as culpable as a Bashar al-Assad?" is like ranking football teams, making a list in order of your favorite Beatles songs, or asking whether Predator or the Terminator is more badass.  These are popular American pastimes, but they're irrelevant to the serious problems we face; certainly they're not an acceptable response to them.  Even if Bush deluded himself about the criminality of his actions, that doesn't make him less culpable; or if it does, it might at most shorten his appropriate prison sentence from, say, one hundred consecutive life sentences to ninety.  In the absence of reliable information about the innermost thoughts and motives of either man, it's impossible to compare them, and unimportant.  Assad is not an American ex-President, and Bush is.  As an American, Bush is my business in a way that Assad can't be. 

It's also hard for me to see how Trump could make Bush look any better, if one isn't dedicated to a willed amnesia that erases Bush's actual offenses, which aren't limited to the invasion of Iraq or the "war on terror."  Many Democrats clearly are.  His economic policies, for example, were disastrous both for American citizens and for people around the world.  If he now attacks Trump without acknowledging his own culpability, he's just throwing up a smokescreen; if Democrats let him get away with it, they discredit themselves.  Certainly their judgment, their conviction of superior knowledge and rationality compared to the stupid Rethuglicans, is open to serious question.  That's not news, of course; it's just continuity.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Fake News in the Seventeenth Century

I just finished reading The World on Paper: The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading (Cambridge UP, 1994) by David R. Olson, which I happened on at a library book sale and turns out to be even more interesting than I expected.  It's one of those wide-ranging books that casts light on many matters.  Not only does it address the psychology of reading and writing, it puts them in historical and cross-cultural context, with forays into their relation to modern Western science and art.

So, for example:
[O]nce a representational format had been developed for factual description, as exemplified by Boyle, for example, that form could be exploited for literary purposes.  Jonathan Swift’s A modest proposal gives no indication that it is irony; it adopts all of the features of an honest proposal.  Even more impressive are the imaginative accounts of imaginary voyages such as those of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Fiction is a new kind of allegorical writing in which literal meanings, that is meanings which normally report truth, are used to report things known to be false.  Medieval allegorical writing, such as Pilgrim’s Progress, made prominent the fact that the writing was allegorical by providing characters with names like Pilgrim and Envy; the story never pretended to be factually true.  Fiction, on the other hand, often pretends to tell the truth.  There is nothing in the fiction to indicate that the account is not factually correct.  Fiction remains allegorical in the sense that the reader comes away thinking he or she has learned something about reality but the reader knows that, counter to its appearance, it is not a factual narrative report.  Consequently, some literary sophistication is required to see truth, now allegorical truth, not factual truth, in fiction; to the uninitiated it appears to be a lie … [229]

And:
Similarly, right into the school years [children] continue to have difficulty understanding irony.  Sarcasm presents less difficulty presumably because it is marked by a strong, sneering intonation.  Sarcasm without intonation is irony.  Children tend to take ironic utterances either as literally true or as lies … To interpret an utterance as ironic requires that the listener or reader grant both that the utterance is not true and that the speaker does not believe it to be true nor want the listener to take it as true and yet that it be taken as informative [252].
As Olson also points out, many adults continue to have difficulty understanding irony.  On reading these passages I thought of the confusion many adults exhibit about satire.  Many people resent it, because they "take ironic utterances either as literally true or as lies."  I think of Harvey Fierstein's grumpy indignation when he learned that the meme he'd posted of Ted Cruz endorsing businesses' right to discriminate on religious grounds was actually satire: "Maybe I'm just tired, but I don't find that kind of crap at all amusing.  These are people's lives and reputations."  I don't believe that he doesn't find such "crap" amusing, as long as it mocks people he wants to see mocked, or that he cares about Cruz' reputation.  (Or was it his own reputation he was worried about, since he's a comic actor and writer revealing that he has no sense of humor?)  I also think of the Clinton Democrats who took an Onion piece at face value, although it clearly from the Onion and they knew full well that the Onion does satire.  And I think of all the people who have trouble recognizing satire and irony, while fancying that they're smarter than illiterate, ignorant Rethugs.  Learning to recognize irony doesn't come naturally or easily, and Olson goes on to discuss the failure of most schooling to equip students to deal with the complexity of the things they will read -- not just rarefied literary material, but day-to-day stuff.

Not many people had access to the Internet when The World on Paper was published twenty-three years ago, and far from hampering literacy the Internet has made tougher demands on readers' abilities to make sense what they read.  Much of the fuss over "fake news" springs from confusion about the different kinds of text and video purporting to be news that people will encounter: there's satire like the Onion, which imitates the format of print and TV news for pointedly humorous purposes, there's fraudulent material like the dishonestly-edited videos put by organizations like Breitbart, and there's supposedly real news by respectable institutions like the New York Times or CNN that ranges from the honestly erroneous to the disingenuous to fraudulent stories like Judith Miller's articles that laundered Bush-regime propaganda about Iraq into news (or "news"), which might just as well have come from Breitbart.  And more, none of it really new.  So it's hardly surprising that most people, whose education in literacy was intended to prepare them to read newspapers, fill out forms, and follow recipes, not to to evaluate what they read, have trouble applying their skills in the stormy media seas.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee (Slight Return)

As numerous people have warned, efforts to ban "hate speech" are going to backfire; indeed, they already have.  Today Glenn Greenwald linked to an article about a Canadian Muslim university student who's being disciplined by her school for "for supposedly 'hateful' FB post about Canadian history."  He added: "Lesson here for the left: implementing hate speech penalties will be used against you. For the right: much censorship is against the left."

According to the article Masuma Khan, a vice-president of the Dalhousie Student Union, responded to a criticism of a DSU decision not to participate in Canadian 150th Anniversary celebrations by posting on Facebook that "white fragility can kiss my ass. Your white tears aren't sacred, this land is." The university investigated, and "Khan said she was given the option to undergo counselling and write a reflective essay after the Halifax-based school conducted an investigation into a complaint about her online comments, but she says she refused."
"It was really offensive, to be honest, for the university to tell me that they're going to teach me how to talk about racism in a more collaborative way, when racism is very harsh … there's no nice way to talk about it," the 22-year-old Muslim woman said.

"We're going to do everything we can to let Dalhousie know that this is not OK and it's not appropriate."
I'm not sure how far to believe Khan's account about the restorative justice measure offered to her; according to the article, it appears to have been a first, informal step before the university held a formal hearing.  And I don't think I do particularly trust her word.

The funny part is, by the criteria of those who want to suppress hate speech (probably including herself), Khan's post was hateful.  If someone had written a post addressing her in those terms, I can imagine the fuss that would have ensued.  Khan's complaint about her punishment sounds exactly like a whiny white guy complaining about Political Correctness running amok, right down to the claim that she was just telling it how it is, that's how she rolls.
​"I'm not apologetic for voicing my opinion and using free speech to tell my support systems on my own social media how I feel," Khan said.
"There's a lot of folks that feel that racism doesn't exist anymore, but I think I'm here to be frank and say, 'Hey, that's not reality.'"
As the article quotes her, she stopped just short of accusing the University of Political Correctness before reverting to Culture of Therapyspeak.
Khan said she doesn't regret the online post, but recognizes that it may have hurt some people. That wasn't her intention, she said; she was simply trying to reflect her own experiences dealing with racism.
Nor did it occur to her, evidently, that she herself is just one more Old World colonialist occupying "sacred" lands.

It's hard to decide where to come down on this story.  Like Greenwald, I think college students should be allowed to express their views without being punished for them.  The trouble is that so many college students (like their elders) believe that they should be allowed to express their views freely, but others, those they disagree with, should not.

Can Khan dish it out but not take it?  Would she insist that a white racist should be allowed to respond to her in the same terms she feels justified in using?  I'd bet she can't, and wouldn't.  But even if she can, and would, I would criticize her for her post.  Like so many of our supposedly Internet-savvy youth, she evidently thinks that what happens on Facebook stays here.  If her post were posted privately where only her "support system" could see it, she would have a case, but the article doesn't say, and I suspect the fact that it resulted in this disciplinary action indicates that it wasn't restricted.

But that's not really the issue.  I've addressed the question of civility around here numerous times, and in particular the significance of people venting on social media.  Replies to Greenwald's tweets took on the issue of what online speech should be regulated and suppressed.  Harassment and threats, for example.  The trouble here is that harassment is somewhat subjective, and stopping it requires that some third party adjudicate whether it took place.  Even threats.  Gamergate led to some discussion of the horrific threats directed to others online, and those are what I'd call clear cases.  But what about less clear cases, like the nice Christian liberals who said on Twitter that they wanted to commit violence (via) against Paul Ryan for his icky views about poor people?  I feel pretty sure that if Rethugs had declared the same desires about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, those same Christian liberals would have been infuriated.  In order to decide what constitutes a threat, or harassment, someone has to make a judgment, and not everyone will be happy with those judgments.  There is no way to delegate that job to computer software; there is no mechanical procedure for evaluating the complaints.  From what I see, Facebook's software produces plenty of false positives, that is, it finds harassment and threats and bad thoughts where human beings do not.  But the Internet is too big for human beings to monitor it.  And do you want Facebook employees -- probably overworked and underpaid to boot -- reading everything you post?

Since Khan's obnoxious post wasn't meant as a contribution to debate, let alone dialogue, I can't judge it or her too harshly.  But her attempts to dismiss, let alone justify it as if it were meant for her opponents' eyes suggest to me that she wouldn't do much better in a public forum.  "There's no nice way to talk about [racism]," she told the CBC.  I don't know about niceness, but in public debate one must restrain -- or better, redirect and channel -- one's anger and focus on what is being discussed.  In an important sense, that is what Khan is at a university to learn, and Dalhousie is not out of line in disciplining her to do it properly.  It's not easy, it's not always pleasant, and even many highly credentialed intellectuals fail to do it adequately.  But just throwing feces at one's opponents isn't rational debate.  I'm not saying Khan should be silenced: she is.