The New Sheriff

Chief Justice Roberts, President Carter, President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama, fellow Americans and people of the world, thank you. We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people. Together, we will determine the course of America and the world for many, many years to come. We will face challenges, we will confront hardships, but we will get the job done. Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent. Thank you.

So far so good.

Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning because today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people. For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes starting right here and right now because this moment is your moment, it belongs to you.

This is startling, because he is in Washington, and while he is ultimately addressing the American people and the world, he is proximately addressing people in Washington DC and accusing them of being exploiters and usurpers. This is very difficult to know how to respond to because, in the first place, it is essentially true, but in this setting it is not what needs to be said. It is divisive and accusatory. It would be more statesmanlike to adopt the charitable fiction that someone in Washington is not a hired gun of special interests.

In what sense do I say that it is essentially true? To quote from, “Professors Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin I. Page (Northwestern University) looked at more than 20 years worth of data to answer a simple question: Does the government represent the people? Their study took data from nearly 2000 public opinion surveys and compared it to the policies that ended up becoming law. In other words, they compared what the public wanted to what the government actually did. What they found was extremely unsettling: The opinions of 90% of Americans have essentially no impact at all.”

That said, it is highly debatable whether the solution is a new sheriff in town. It seems more likely that this kind of rhetoric will be needlessly antagonistic, and the intelligent and vigorous reforms we need to address our problems will scarcely be broached, let alone pursued.

It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country. What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before.

Everything hinges on who we think the “forgotten” are. If the claim is that our government is founded on the principle of popular sovereignty, but its government has been captured by special interests, then we all are. This is the most charitable reading, and it is the reading that I think Trump intends. But the idea that the entire American people have been forgotten seems peculiar–to the extent that our politics have been captured by special interests, the American people are not so much forgotten as they are ignored. The least charitable interpretation is that “forgotten people” is code for “white people” and that this is an expression of the distress felt when the unjustly privileged feel their privilege, their supremacy, slipping away from them as a result of the righteous demands for social justice by the unprivileged, the oppressed. The problem with this reading is that it is inconsistent with the rest of the text, as we shall see. I think that Trump is identifying a subset of the population with “the American people” but I don’t think that it is whiteness that he is invoking.

At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public. But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

The “forgotten,” I would argue, are being identified with four groups here. (1) African-Americans (who are unnamed, but the text trades on stereotypes about single parent households, poverty, and “the inner city”) who are still underserved by the economic system; (2) the Working Class, who are suffering from the effects of globalization; (3) Millennials, who are confronting not only diminished economic expectations but unprecedented debt burdens due to our method of funding higher education; (4) victims of crime attributable to illegal immigration. The notion that the first three groups confront serious problems not of their own making, and are being neglected by the elites which control our politics is quite plausible. The idea that there is some important nexus of crime, illegal immigration, and self-interested political neglect is far more problematic. Naturally critics of Trump have focused almost all of their attention on his views on immigration as evidence of racism, claiming that the racism is crucial to his appeal. I wouldn’t deny that, but taking this speech at face value, I think what it shows is that Trump’s conception of his mission is organized around several groups who in fact are “forgotten” either because the special interests that control our politics stand to gain nothing by addressing their problems, or because those problems are so intractable that the political system has decided to regard them as acceptable costs to realize other goods. If Democrats want to combat Trump and Trump’s GOP, they would do well to reflect on the differences between the different figures who competed for the Democratic nomination, and what each of them had to offer these three groups. I would go further and say that they would do well to consider the costs and benefits of regarding (1) African-Americans as a captured demographic who need not be served because they have no place else to go, (2) the working class as a useful object of derision to flatter the self-esteem of the educated, middle class Democratic voter, and (3) the interests of the academic-industrial complex and its massively overcompensated and largely useless administrators as more important than the interests of the young people who pay for it all.

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

Ouch. The prose stylist in me finds the use of the word “carnage” instead of “devastation” appalling. While violence and death play a role in the problems alluded to above, it still seems grotesquely overstated, especially since even the crudest understanding of English detects the etymological connection of “carnage” to “meat” or “flesh.”

We are one nation and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams. And their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny. The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.

What’s not to like? It’s a bit Volkisch, but would a Democrat want to actually disagree with this sentiment?

For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own. And spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich, while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon. One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.

Where to begin??? The implication is that we can begin to address the problems of the forgotten by dismantling our international relations and institutions, military and economic. This is horrifically misguided.

But that is the past. And now, we are looking only to the future. We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. I will fight for you with every breath in my body and I will never ever let you down. America will start winning again, winning like never before. We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams. We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work, rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor. We will follow two simple rules; buy American and hire American.

If you like the national debt now, you’re going to love it under President Trump. And history shows that you get more fiscal responsibility from divided government than from a party which professes fiscal responsibility controlling all the branches of government. I shudder to think what you get when that very party stops even professing fiscal responsibility.

We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example.

It is refreshing to hear this subtle rejection of the “democratization” policy of the Clinton and Bush administrations, and its underlying imperialist premises. (To be fair, though libertarians and progressives are quick to judge Obama as more of the same, he is the “Nixon” of our time on this: he inherited a massive and idiotic conflict, and while he spent an inordinate amount of time winding it down, he did largely wind it down in the end.)

We will shine for everyone to follow. We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.

Did I say refreshing? Never mind.

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

This is not a terribly popular thing to say, but I endorse this sentiment. The United States is an essentially ideological community, and American nationalism is not and cannot be rooted in ethnic solidarity. Some believe that the way to transcend prejudice is through relentless critique of it, but my impression is that this actually creates the very thing it would dismantle. The ever-contested question is, what is this ideology to be? If we are to transcend the nameless prejudice that I call “politicism,” I propose that we regard our national community as a community consecrated to the furtherance of freedom. This is something that, in the abstract, Left and Right can agree on, and our debate over its meaning can proceed. Unfortunately, President Trump seems an unlikely champion of it, and the language of freedom appears almost nowhere in his text.

The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear. We are protected and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God. Finally, we must think big and dream even bigger. In America, we understand that a nation is only living as long as it is striving. We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining, but never doing anything about it. The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action. Do not allow anyone to tell you that it cannot be done. No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America. We will not fail. Our country will thrive and prosper again. We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow. A new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights and heal our divisions. 

It’s time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget, that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots.

Again, we are to transcend race in a shared national community. However, one would hope that this would not involve any bleeding at all.

We all enjoy the same glorious freedoms and we all salute the same great American flag.

The only mention of freedom thus far.

And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the wind-swept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator. So to all Americans in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, from ocean to ocean, hear these words: You will never be ignored again. 

I confess that I find this moving. There can be no national community if important parts of it are forgotten. And if a Democratic candidate this past year had said “to some of you I say, we didn’t listen, and we are sorry, but we are listening now” that candidate might well have won.

Your voice, your hopes, and your dreams will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way. Together, we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And yes, together we will make America great again. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless America. Thank you. God bless America.


Grief Comes In Many Forms

The stages, popularly known by the acronym DABDA, include:

Denial – The first reaction is denial. In this stage the party believes that its preferred presidential candidate has no shortcomings and can’t possibly have lost the election.

Anger – When the party recognizes that denial cannot continue, it becomes frustrated, especially at rival coalitions. Certain psychological responses of a party undergoing this phase would be: “Was there election fraud? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to us? We’re more highly qualified and sophisticated!”; “Who is to blame? Was it sexism? Was it the white working class? The ‘alt-right’?”; “How could this happen? All the polls looked good!”.

Bargaining – The third stage involves the hope that the party can avoid a cause of grief. Usually, the negotiation for an extended stretch of political power is made in exchange for a reformed policy focus. People still in office and thus facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek compromise.

Depression – “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon, so what’s the point?”; “I miss my Obama, why go on?” During the fourth stage, the party despairs at the recognition of the limits of politics itself. In this state, it may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time mournful and sullen.

Acceptance – “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight a Trump administration; I may as well prepare for it.” In this last stage, the party embraces the loss of the presidency, of Congress, or some other tragic event. People out of power may precede the new administration in this state, which typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the party, and a stable condition of emotions.


[Wikipedia, modified]

A Hypothesis About The Donald

One thing that we do not seem to understand is the magnitude of the distorting effect 9/11 had on everyone’s thinking about foreign policy. However, if we try to think our way back into 9/10, we may have the key to understanding Trump, which could be important since he’s about to have control of both our diplomacy and our nuclear codes.


If you go back to before the 1960s, the two political parties had fundamentally different conceptions of foreign policy. On the whole, the Democrats were more belligerent. Democrats got us into almost every war we fought until the Gulf War, and Republicans got us out of them. The entire mindset that says the world is an arena between the forces of good and evil was a Democrat affliction. Wilson got us into World War One. Roosevelt got us into World War Two. Truman got us into Korea. Johnson got us into Vietnam. The after-effects of Vietnam have confused us in this regard, but Nixon ending the war and opening China was typical of Republican orthodoxy in foreign policy; bombing Cambodia back to Stone Age was not.


The Cold War created a perplexity, however. The natural tendency of conservatives to be isolationist conflicted with the natural tendency of conservatives to be hostile towards communism. This tension finally resolved itself in 1980 when the Trumanesque Cold Warriors went over to the Republicans and came into power under Reagan.  What we have forgotten this far out was that Reagan was a very complicated figure, or rather, what he signified was complicated: he was able to bring together all these different conservative factions which don’t really fit together and forge a unity out of them. But the central faction was the former Democrats who wanted to take the fight to the Soviet Union instead of continuing Nixonian detente. Since we now regard Reagan as the quintessential Republican, aggressive foreign policy seems a part of the package; since we now regard the antiwar protesters who ended the Johnson (D) presidency as quintessential Democrats, peace-making seems a part of the package. In the end, Reagan remained a Republican: just as Nixon went to China, Reagan went to Reykjavik. Republicans themselves are now so affected by liberal interventionism that they can’t even say he made peace with the Russians. They have to same he “won the Cold War.” Well, whatever gets you through the night.


The Reaganesque Cold Warriors were not interested in abortion, or fiscal responsibility, or laissez-faire economics. They were interested in destroying Evil Empires. They tended to be mercantilists in their (mis)understanding of international trade. They tended to accept, as Democrats had long accepted, that big government has a moral mission to improve and emancipate both at home and abroad. That they had come to view the domestic side of this rather differently than Democrats did is less important than the fact that they also “saw like a state” and regarded politics as a moral mission. The interest that these people had in the Middle East, to the extent that it was not influenced by a sentimental attachment to the security of Israel, regarded the Middle East as a Cold War Theater in which Israel (and Iran!) were extensions of American power just as Western Europe was, and Arab nationalism was just a mask for Soviet expansionism. The crucial point here is that if there were no Soviet Union, the Middle East ceases to be interesting as an arena. The habit of regarding Iraq as to-be-destroyed originates in the perception of Iraq as crypto-Russian. This also explains why one would naturally associate Iraq with nuclear war.


If you think your way back into the mindset of 2000, there were many different ways of regarding where we were, but in some sense the neoconservative vision of the world had won. If you were a neoconservative Democrat, you wanted to extend and consolidate the victory over the Russians by enlarging NATO, promoting further development of the EU, further international trade (no more need to prevent trade with the enemy as before, because the enemy was gone). You also wanted to altruistically use accumulated American power for the good: in Yugoslavia, in Rwanda. Well, OK, maybe not in Rwanda. But if you were a neoconservative Republican, while you might have some unfinished business to wind up with former Soviet proxies in the Middle East, the real focus should be on The Coming Conflict With China.


Whatever virtues neoconservative Republicans might see in small government, fiscal responsibility and international trade ultimately take a backseat to furthering what are essentially wartime interests. You don’t try to balance the budget by cutting military spending during a war. You might lose the war! You don’t have free trade with a country with which you are at war. You might lose the war! And of course China is a communist dictatorship. (Notice how this inkblot can be viewed. Is China basically good because of economic liberalization, and its style of government is of lesser importance? Or is it basically evil because of its lack of political liberalization, making its economic liberalization worrisome because it makes its tyranny stronger? If you think in the first way, our victory in the Cold War is complete; the latter, and trade with China is a seduction that will lead us to our doom.)


Now I don’t think The Donald is a deep thinker by any means. Reagan was not a deep thinker. But even not-so-deep thinkers have their default assumptions. Trump’s unexpected reaching out to Taiwan is a new and extremely significant datapoint in the task of plumbing the mystery that is Trump. If I am right, it turns out that he is a 9/10/2001 neoconservative Republican. He is what Bush was supposed to be, before Osama Bin Laden dragged him, and us, into the abyss of the Middle East. And what that means is that he thinks trade with China will only help our great enemy defeat us. This means that we have to watch carefully what happens with the TPP. If Trump really does cancel the TPP, then he’s exactly the domestic protectionist without a clue that we libertarians have thought he was all along. But if I am right, if he is a New Cold Warrior against China, then he will surprise everyone by not canceling the TPP… because the TPP excludes China. It’s a strategic attempt to wean us from dependence on China.


So for those of you who miss 9/10/2001, happy days are here again! It’ll be like 1980 all over again! Lots of saber-rattling, lots of military spending, lots of Titanic deficits. There may be a problem though. Reagan “won” the Cold War by spending into oblivion an empire which was on its last legs anyway. China does not resemble the Soviet Union. It is a rising power, and if it resembles anything, it resembles Germany… just before World War One. The process of defeating, destroying, rebuilding, reuniting and re-integrating a normal Germany into the community of nations took the better part of a century, and it wasn’t cheap, in blood or treasure.

Antibrexit: Second Thoughts

As I reflect on this further, I realize that a big part of why I opposed Brexit is because I largely discounted the democratic accountability argument… because a century of libertarian argument equating democracy with socialism had conditioned me to do so. Suppressing democratic politics in order to liberalize trade must be good, right? Isn’t democratic politics all about two people agreeing to steal from a third?

Interestingly, the most compelling arguments for Brexit (as I review them after the fact–I didn’t review them before the fact for the same reason that I haven’t read a biography of Donald Trump to evaluate his desirability as president because the prospect bordered on the unthinkable) are about democratic accountability, and, interestingly, these are the arguments that American Brexit supporters are fastening upon now… and over the past few years I myself have become friendlier to democratic institutions as a vehicle for peaceful conflict resolution (in essence all political institutions are vehicles for peaceful conflict resolution). Naturally I find this a bit ironic, but I will not rail against the hypocrisy, because I don’t believe that all legitimate political and moral goods can be realized without tradeoffs, even if everyone else seems to think so.

So: internal tariff union: good. External tariffs for the union: bad. Price transparency: good. Central banking yoked to social science judgments: bad. Helping spread democracy and capitalism to former totalitarian countries: good. Helping an unaccountable and arrogant technocratic bureaucracy impose a regulatory structure in the name of a false rationality but for the purpose of promoting rent-seeking by the privileged and well-connected few: bad. [bottom line] Preventing nations from doing stupid things: good. Preventing nations from doing seemingly stupid things when they aren’t actually stupid: bad. Of course, one of the virtues of democracy is that it allows a group of people to learn from its mistakes and correct them. Paternalism does not.

It’s all rather complicated, isn’t it? Interesting that others seem not to find it so, but just like me, the drive for coherence among our sacred symbols is powerful. Reality, however, is always far messier.


this-edl-member-repeatedly-failing-to-set-fire-to-a-european-flag-can-teach-us-a-lot-about-ourselves-909-1427802110This blog is in part dedicated to something I’ve called “liberalism, classical and pragmatic.” The phrase “classical liberalism” is code in certain circles for “libertarian.” The question of what pragmatism requires shall engage us shortly. The more immediate question is, shouldn’t a libertarian rail against Brussels and cheer without restraint at the comeuppance its bureaucrats just received by the British referendum which demands that the United Kingdom leave the European Union altogether? As it happens, I’m quite opposed to “Brexit” which has given me some rather strange bedfellows today, and all this demands some explanation.

The easiest question to answer is, if the EU redistributive schemes and the Commission regulations are bad, but free trade is good, then why not see exiting and replacing membership with a free trade deal between the UK and the EU as an unalloyed good? And the short answer is, I don’t believe that will happen. Part of the problem here is because the EU serves a multiplicity of functions, and its members have lots of reasons for not wanting to see it unravelled. If it is perceived as easy to leave and just re-negotiate trade agreements, it will unravel. Since the other member states don’t want that, they have a pretty good incentive to punish the UK as much as possible for leaving to disincentivize others who might want to leave. The fact that there is a long long history of little love lost between the UK and the Germans and French will make this an easy step to take. You might think that the other 27 countries would be as concerned about losing the British market to export to as the British should be concerned to lose access to their markets… but they’ll be far more concerned about the prospect of losing access to the other 26 markets. Better to cut off the gangrenous limb than to let the infection spread.

The broader historical question is, how do you understand what the EU is fundamentally. Well, here’s a question for you. Suppose I gave you this choice: you could have the United States exactly as it is, with all its shortcomings, or you could have 50 independent nations run by populist demagogues: which would you prefer? A lot of conservative antistatist rhetoric resembles anti-abortion rhetoric: it’s safe because you’re pushing back against something so powerful (the federal judiciary) that you don’t have to worry about any possible downside to pushing back too hard and actually destroying it. But suppose you could? Suppose that the next time you turned on Fox News, the United States simply ceased to exist? Hurray! No more onerous regulations! No more abortion rights! No more same sex marriage! Yes, but at the same time, 50 foreign policies, 50 currencies, 50 borders with barriers to immigration, and (if Etel Solingen is to be believed, and I do believe her) eventually endless war. What, after all, characterized Europe for 1500 years before the EU? If you’re a Nietzschean a return to endless war would have its upside I suppose.

When discussing domestic politics I almost invariably favor keeping things at the state level–for example I supported same sex marriage but believed that it should be created on a state-by-state basis. This emphasis of mine should not deceive you: I think our system of federalist dual sovereignty is awesome, even if the federal level has gotten too big for its britches. If you agree, it is worth noting that the burdens imposed by the EU are far less onerous than those imposed by the US federal government. If we had a constitutional convention tomorrow and replaced the US constitution with an “American Union” treaty, and 50 co-signatories, we’d have more local control, not less. The downside is that Congress would have less power. But you hate Congress anyway, right?

The EU emerged out of Europe’s encounter with totalitarianism. One of its crucial functions was to facilitate the transition of former communist countries in Eastern Europe to becoming “normal” European nations. If you look at the accession criteria, they are organized around a broad consensus of what it means not to be a totalitarian country: free markets, multi-party democratic elections, rule of law, civil liberties. It is not just about peace and immigration: it’s about everything that we are. And holding out the carrot of access to markets as an incentive to adopting these core Western political values actually spread these values more effectively than anything short of Allied troops physically occupying a former totalitarian country ever had. Some might say more so.

The people of the Ukraine had a revolution just for the privilege of being able to have a relationship with the EU. Vladimir Putin hated that. Today Vladimir Putin is a little happier than before.

But the deeper philosophical question is: why can’t you simply be 100% pro freedom and direct limitless hatred at the slightest deviation from it? The short answer is pragmatism, but why is that? Why can’t we just all agree to be 100% pro freedom? And what possible harm can come from being uncompromising? Simply this: it is a Hobbesian, or if you prefer, a Nietzschean world. The appetite for power is ineradicable. The tendency of states to concentrate power is ineradicable. The tendency of states to compete with each other for power is ineradicable. The only way you can carve out a space for individual freedom in the world is through institutions and the institutions themselves must possess a minimum requisite amount of power themselves, or else those who would be free become easy prey for those who care nothing for freedom.

In a way, Europe’s conundrum is analogous to our own. There was a time when the burden of federal power on the states was lighter, and that meant that people power could prevail on the state level. One of the things the people did with their people power was support slavery. Emancipation came not from the slaveholders being persuaded that slavery was wrong, or even that it was not in their very long term best interests–it came in the form of Union troops. It came from a MORE POWERFUL GOVERNMENT. Because if the Union government had been less powerful, it would not have come… oh perhaps someday, but cold comfort to those who would still die in chains in the meantime. Whether all this was a good thing or a bad thing is easy… if you think slavery was awesome, or if you think one legacy of Lincoln’s achievement, a government powerful enough to enact FDR’s and LBJ’s social policies and a federal judiciary powerful enough to impose its values against people’s will, is awesome. That is, if you don’t care about freedom much at all, but about other things. If you do care about freedom, the question becomes FAR MORE DIFFICULT, but on balance, I’m glad the Union won the Civil War, I’m glad that we won WW2, I’m glad that we won the Cold War… and that, as a result, the EU exists.

The solution to the problem that the EU represents is not its destruction, but its improvement, its all-too-slow movement towards greater democratic accountability: a stronger European Parliament to balance the Commission and the Council. And I think that will probably be one of the results of Brexit, because while the previously arrogant elites running it will be keen to punish the UK, or even help tear it into its component bits, it will also see the warning for what it is and move to accelerate democratic accountability out of fear. That’s all to the good.

American conservatives today are cheering Brexit for the same reason that they blithely talk as if the absolute abolition of the United States government would be a good thing, as if all the things that happen because it is there would continue to happen if it weren’t there… because there is no prospect that calling for such a thing will have any real consequences for them.

In postscript let me say a few words about alternative responses to everything I’ve said. If you are a real Marxist, then you will presumably agree with me that the EU is ultimately both an effect of and an instrument of capitalism and American power, and as a result anything that weakens it would be a good thing. I respect you, noble adversary! Not only are you honest, but you see certain things more clearly than your kumbaya-singing brothers and sisters who think that the EU is an effect of, and an instrument of niceness. Conversely, if you are a Christian pacifist, and you think that pragmatic compromise with power to enhance freedom is the the Devil’s way, and that the only right thing to do in the face of power is to surrender completely… and hope that at the end of history God will set it all to rights, I also respect you. But if you are a Brexit cheering conservative today, whether in England or the United States, and you aren’t a Christian pacifist, I fear you may be mistaken. We in the United States will not pay much of a cost: we’re going to enter into a trade pact with the EU, not the UK, and so like many conservative reactions, this will be a matter of expressive values, while the hated elites get on with the job of managing capitalism (I almost said “thankless” job but of course there are goodies to be doled out–it’s still “crony capitalism” we’re talking about, yes indeed). But for the people of Britain, I fear that their tantrum will prove to be the absurd conclusion of a century of decline: once, the sun never set on the British Empire. Soon, I fear, the sun will set on Great Britain itself. I pray that it will not set any time soon on the architecture of freedom that a century of struggle, American struggle notably but not exclusively, helped to create, and which still represents the best hope for a decent life for hundreds of millions.


I’m beginning to think that the fundamental difference between a progressive and a conservative (in America) is that the former says “that has absolutely nothing to do with me” about the suffering caused by communism, and the latter says “that has absolutely nothing to do with me” about the suffering caused by slavery. And each will insist that the sympathies which come easily to them are natural and appropriate, and the ones they resist are merely a ploy by their enemies to weaken them.

Thus are we all creatures of the specific form our defensiveness and lack of imagination takes.

Can You Hear Me Major Tom? Ctd.

I find myself really rather annoyed by the, I suppose inevitable, emergence of moralistic mentions of gayness in connection with David Bowie, which so far have taken three forms. First, of course the Westboro Baptists have to weigh in. I wouldn’t even take note of this were it not for Bowie’s lifelong preoccupation with Christianity, and spiritual seeking in general. When I learned that they were hoping to find something to picket in connection with him, I tweeted to them a link to a Youtube of Bowie’s heart-felt Christian hymn “Word on a Wing” in the futile hope that they might enjoy experiencing what the Christian sentiment of humility feels like for once. Though the Westboro Baptists’ plan to picket the funeral is mooted by the fact of a private ceremony, their attitude has found eloquent expression in Father Rutler’s ignorant, rambling, and pretentious essay at the conservative Catholic webzine The Crisis, and was sharply satirized by an Onion cartoon. But almost as bad were the secular responses of claiming that his essential nature as a politically progressive gay icon was being suppressed, or, even more hilarious, that as a straight man, we need to struggle with the question of whether he should be condemned for “cultural appropriation” or not. It may seem strange, but I don’t find these three different responses all that different from one another, and find it hard not to disdain them all. All three think that standing in moral judgment is the most important thing in the world, certainly more important than art, and that the most important thing we can do with sexuality is judge it from a moral perspective. I find myself torn between just sighing “oh for fuck’s sake” (which seems an almost literally apt curse) or urging these folks to relax and go get laid. Or read some Nietzsche and learn what it means to stand on their own two feet for a change. Bowie was the anti-essentialist par excellence, and he always did the most difficult thing, which was to refuse to be trapped in other people’s definitions and conceptual categories, to refuse to seek permission to be whoever he needed to be at any particular point in time. Yes, he explored his sexuality when he was young. He also explored cocaine, and a lot of other things. But he was fundamentally an artist, not a moralist. He was really every thing he said he was at each point in time that he said it; properly understood, there was no contradiction between his one time desire to flirt with the objectifying male gaze and champion our now dying outsider gay culture, at another time to say that it was a misunderstanding to define him as being about a desire for sex with men, and at yet another time to seek pleasure, comfort, and companionship (I believe the word here is “love”?) in the arms of, and at the side of, a black woman. (To see these trivial responses through my eyes, imagine if all three of them were instead about his alleged essential nature as a miscegenist.) When I see all these various folks with their self-righteous obsessions trying to tackle and limit him, I can’t help but think of Jerzy Kosinski’s idea of the “painted bird” that the other birds in all innocence try to peck to death. Bowie had the courage to be himself at all times, and the adventurousness to keep becoming new things, and a part of that was the ability to regard whatever he was interested in doing and being at any given time as far more important than what other people thought. As Berkeley Breathed’s Steve Dallas, hilariously dolled up as Ziggy Stardust, said this morning: deal with it twinkle toes.

Can You Hear Me Major Tom?

12507256_10208601067605657_643250472282739489_nI haven’t slept. I want to try to write up some sort of account that can explain why some people are reacting this way to the people who are not reacting this way. I will say that there is this line that comes to mind, from Ossie Davis’ eulogy for Malcolm X (paraphrasing): “he was our shining prince.” It was not primarily about liking the music and the other things he did, though of course we were fanatics for them. He was one of the great personalities “fit to stand the gaze of millions” (as Stanley Cavell once said of Cary Grant). But rather than being a man who “carries the holiday in his eye,” Bowie’s magnetism was born of a confidence that braved a broken landscape within, a confidence that anything, no matter how dreadful or undermining, could be transformed into something meaningful and pleasurable, because this particular center of consciousness in the world thought itself supremely worthy of existing, regardless of what it was conscious of. That confidence underlay a tremendous artistic fertility and ambition, a tremendous restlessness, the central achievement of which was to take Modernism in the arts and make it popular, expressive, and accessible, thus giving the lie to the thesis that Modernism has to be elitist or fraudulent. For many of us, Bowie’s restlessness was educational, and we learned about all sorts of developments in art and music and literature just because he had become enormously excited by them and mentioned them, whether it was ambient music, or German Expressionism, or William S. Burroughs, or something else. He is the only pop star to have two of his albums transformed into successful classical symphonies by one of our leading composers, and the only pop star who had a museum show retrospective, not about his paintings, but about his very existence. From the beginning he conveyed a sense of vulnerability and alienation that on some level we all possess just by virtue of being human, and transformed it into a sense of dignity and importance deriving from our awareness of that very vulnerability. For someone who seldom acted, he had a handful of the most iconic moments in cinema of our time, whether it was as the stranded extraterrestrial who quietly explains that he misses his children, the army major who triumphs over the madness of war and its ethos with a kiss, or the weary Roman governor condemning “just another Jewish politician” to die on a cross. Though the press always characterized him as endlessly mutable, appropriative, and false, he always seemed to me to be essentially the same, always hiding in plain sight, always himself… and his existence seemed a kind of continual triumph over an underlying and imperishable sadness that is perhaps the only truly rational response to a world such as this. There will never be another like him.

David Bowie, 1947-2016

Islam, Toleration, and Terror

There may be a problem with our tolerationist stance towards Islam. It is rooted in our intellectual strategy for dealing with Al Qaeda, who claimed authority on the basis of interpretation of scripture–it was a “rabbinical” authority. But one man’s fatwa is another man’s intemperate, misguided bullshit. Since many Muslims simply ignore the claims of religious accuracy offered by such groups (which can be either Shia or Sunni), our stance, which was that this is an interpretation of Islam, not Islam itself, was a powerful one.

But ISIS does change the equation in a way that Western liberals have not quite caught up with. ISIS does not claim to be interpreting scripture and tradition more accurately than other, more temperate interpreters; ISIS claims to be the Caliphate. That is, they claim their leadership has immediate religious authority, and that it is simply all Muslims’ duty to obey it directly, whatever it demands. There’s no room for interpretive controversy here. You either accept that they are the Caliphate or not.

The problem that this poses is that we can’t contest the claim by saying that they don’t represent the real ethos of Islam because whether they do or not is actually religiously irrelevant. You can only contest it by saying that (Sunni) Islam is false, and no one is ever the Caliph, or by saying that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not himself the Caliph, though perhaps someone else someday could be; in other words, by asserting a contrary religious claim. You see, subsuming a group under tolerationist separation of church and state is made awkward when the group itself does not accept the very idea of separation of church and state. As soon as ISIS goes away, we can return to the liberal narrative, because no Muslim owes any special loyalty to any particular group or individual, absent a Caliph, and can in the meantime give their political loyalty to secular Western states as needed. But ISIS has not yet gone away. (And to say that this whole topic is unimportant because so few people accept that al-Baghdadi is the Caliph is to misunderstand the nature of the problem; “33% of young British Muslims expressed a desire to see the resurrection of a world-wide caliphate.”)

Although a lot of Westerners are not aware of this, this problem does not arise with Shia Islam, which does not accept the idea of a Caliphate at all; as a result, all Shia religious authority is “rabbinical.” This would seem to suggest that if we are going to undertake the fool’s errand of playing the Great Game in the Middle East, we might want to rethink our attitude towards Iran, which is Shia, and thus in principle more open to reform via interpretation. Since in effect what is going on in the Middle East today is a grand Sunni versus Shia war, we might at least consider rethinking our strategy, which appears to be to be on everyone’s side, so that we are guaranteed to win… and lose, come what may.

Welcome to the clash of civilizations. The problem with trying to reconcile our own preferred liberal attitudes with framing Islamophobia as xenophobia is that it is conceptually dependent upon a religious dialogue with Islam itself which secular liberals are loathe to take seriously, being secular, and incompetent to pursue in any case. But the time has already come when saying “reasonable people can differ about what Islam requires” is inadequate. That claim itself presupposes that we are still in a world in which there is no Caliph. The claim to be the Caliphate is an ideological claim of an entirely different order, and Western liberals are forced into the awkward position of rejecting it in order to restore the status quo ante in which our tolerationist rhetoric still made sense. The ultimate source of our tolerationist ideals, John Locke, understood the problem well himself, when he said: “It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure.”

For an alternate view, see my old friend Juan Cole on the same subject.