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.


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.

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.


Great Moments in Cinema, XV

Starling: You were telling me the truth back in Baltimore, sir. Please continue now.

Lecter: I’ve read the case files. Have you? Everything you need to find him is there in those pages.

Starling: Then tell me how.

Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius: Of each particular thing, ask what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?

Starling: He kills women.

Lecter: No! That is incidental. What is the first thing he does? What needs does he serve by killing?

Starling: Anger. Social acceptance. Sexual frustrations.

Lecter: No! He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer now.

Starling: No. We just…

Lecter: No, we begin by coveting what we see every day. Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?

Starling: All right, yes. Now please tell me how…

Lecter: No. It is your turn to tell me, Clarice. You don’t have any more vacations to sell. Why did you leave that ranch?

Starling: Doctor, we don’t have any more time for any of this now.

Lecter: But we don’t reckon time the same way, do we, Clarice? This is all the time you’ll ever have.

Starling: Later. Now please listen to me. We’ve only got five…

Lecter: No. I will listen now. After your father’s murder, you were orphaned. You went to live with cousins on a sheep and horse ranch in Montana. And?

Starling: And one morning I just ran away.

Lecter: Not “just”, Clarice. What set you off? You started at what time?

Starling: Early. Still dark.

Lecter: Then something woke you, didn’t it? Was it a dream? What was it?

Starling: I heard a strange noise. What was it? It was screaming. Some kind of screaming. Like a child’s voice.

Lecter: What did you do?

Starling: I went downstairs. Outside. I crept up into the barn. I was so scared to look inside, but I had to.

Lecter: And what did you see, Clarice? What did you see?

Starling: Lambs. They were screaming.

Lecter: They were slaughtering the spring lambs?

Starling: And they were screaming.

Lecter: And you ran away?

Starling: No. First I tried to free them. I opened the gate to their pen, but they wouldn’t run. They just stood there, confused. They wouldn’t run.

Lecter: But you could – and you did, didn’t you?

Starling: Yes. I took one lamb and I ran away as fast as I could.

Lecter: Where were you going, Clarice? –

Starling: I don’t know. I didn’t have any food, any water and it was very cold, very cold. I thought… I thought if I could save just one, but… He was so heavy, so heavy… I didn’t get more than a few miles when the sheriff’s car picked me up. The rancher was so angry, he sent me to live at the orphanage in Bozeman. I never saw the ranch again.

Lecter: What became of your lamb, Clarice?

Starling: He killed him.

Lecter: You still wake up sometimes, don’t you? Wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs?

Starling: Yes.

Lecter: And you think, if you save poor Catherine, you could make them stop, don’t you? You think if Catherine lives, you won’t wake up in the dark ever again to that awful screaming of the lambs.

Starling: I don’t know. I don’t know.

Lecter: Thank you, Clarice. Thank you.

 — Silence of the Lambs

Strategic Faux Self-Criticism

The handful of people who have read anything here know that I’ve been attacking what I call “politicism” for a long time. But  most of this “attacking” is probably too low-key and too convoluted to do much good as anything other than self-expression and navel-gazing. This guy seems to be pretty clear and direct, i.e., better. So read him. The only thing I keep wondering about is why we continue to idiotically look for genetic predispositions for Red Tribalism and Blue Tribalism (insert every criticism of heritability of IQ research HERE) and not even begin to ask the more obvious socioeconomic questions about who benefits (my own hypothesis is that “what’s the matter with Kansas” is that you keep exploiting it, and suffer from self-deception all the while). My own attempt to start making sense can be found here.