9/5/17

The Joy of War

Articles trying to explain terrorism rarely mention how joyous and exciting the idea of going to war can be, particularly to the young, angry, and inexperienced. As the World War I critic Randolph Bourne wrote, “War is the health of the state.”[1]

War, or at least the idea of it, is very enjoyable for many people. You get to dress up in nifty uniforms that make you look great. You receive the praise and admiration of civilians—these days, they even applaud you in airports and other public places. And meanwhile, you’re preparing to play the most basic and beloved type of game: competing against tough opponents. War is its ultimate expression.
Everyone realizes, deep down, that war is hell. But for the young and inexperienced, who naturally feel invulnerable, war and the propaganda that always precedes and accompanies it makes fighting it seem a noble sacrifice for the sake of honorable ideas. You fight to defeat vile and hateful enemies; selflessly protect the innocent; and bravely defend Our Way of Life, Our Religion, our God, the Homeland. Preparing for and fighting war can mold you into a strong, enduring, brave, skillful and admired adult.

More important than we like to acknowledge in this calculus is sadism. The history of warfare (and anything else that allows the unaccountable use of force against others), is replete with wanton cruelty.  These situations may well attract some who have cruel and angry impulses, but they also arouse such feelings in many others. Wars validate such behavior by inspiring fear and hatred of the enemies and providing many apparently legitimate opportunities to behave badly. They may even bring social approval for bad actions, seeing them as just punishment for enemies expected to do the same or worse.

Americans are perhaps especially susceptible to the powerful psychological attractions of the idea of war because, unlike most other countries, we have not experienced it on our soil since the Civil War ended more than 150 years ago. Nor, have many young Americans fought in recent wars, lengthy as they have been. Very few Americans, therefore, have personally experienced the dire consequences of fighting war.

Inexperience also afflicts the young of many other countries, many of whom suffer a degree of hopelessness and despair about their futures that most Americans escape. To some of them, the siren call of jihad sings of noble sacrifice in an honorable cause, and offers an approved outlet for frustration and rage. To defeat terrorism, I think we need to fashion programs in light of these feelings.




[1] As quoted in Franklin Foer, “Why Liberalism Disappoints,” The Atlantic (September 2017), p. 47

8/9/17

He Who Controls the Media

A recent news report indicates Trump’s real plan for the country. It’s not a fantasy to think that he may well be able to carry it out.

The news reported that Sinclair Broadcasting Co. is seeking permission to acquire local TV stations in more than 70% of the nation’s media markets. Sinclair’s owner has a hard right political philosophy, and requires all of its TV and radio stations to carry a “news” broadcast that reports from a paranoid, extremist perspective. Because Sinclair assiduously echos Trump’s own factual and policy preferences, Trump’s majority on the Federal Communications Commission is likely to violate decades of policy by agreeing to Sinclair’s request.

Allowing Sinclair to cover 70% or more of local markets destroys the long-standing FCC policy of preventing one media owner from dominating the nation’s media. Even Fox News lacks that degree of power. And it’s pretty obvious why that long-standing policy exists: He who controls the media controls the voters, which in a democracy means he owns the country.


If you think that’s bad, consider this: The Sinclair action is not isolated. Rather, it seems to be just one element in a much more far-reaching Trump undertaking to control all major news outlets—in practice, to monopolize the news. He already has Fox in his pocket, with the legal power to do the Murdochs grave damage if they challenge him. He has moved to defund the main independent news sources, NPR and PBS, sharply reducing their reach and capability. He labels all the major non-Fox broadcast media, cable news outlets, the national press and their reporters as purveyors of “fake news.” He has moved to cripple their ability to learn what he does by barring them from press briefings, even stopping televised press briefings altogether. And he has launched his own White House news network, and is ramping it up. As one long and obsessively focused on media, Trump has the knowledge, understanding, and desire to emulate Mr. Putin in gaining control of the news. The Sinclair action moves him on the way to doing so. To repeat what I said above, He who controls the media controls the voters, which in a democracy means he owns the country.

7/5/17

Why Are Democrats Still Losing Elections?

           In an open letter to Thomas Friedman re-posted to these pages (American Counterpoint 6/21/17), Keith poses a challenge. Keith implores Mr. Friedman to use his influence among fellow liberal journalists to tone down their monolithic vitriol a bit  in favor of a more analytic rendering of Republican positions on the issues of the day. Motivating Keith’s suggestion is his own rationalism and a belief that rational arguments usually prevail in fair debate, which in turn is a precondition for sound government. As a partisan Democrat, of course, Keith believes that his party holds the natural advantage in this process, by virtue of its superior ideology, and he rejects unneeded help from a press trying to keep its thumb on the scale. Keith, to his credit,  wants and expects to win fair and square.

               To remain a viable form of government, democracy must eschew censorship in any form. The underlying theory is that open debate will, more often than not, reveal the best ideas from among those competing for control over the levers of political power. Then the voting public will, again more often than not, recognize these ideas and elect people capable of putting them into force. I would carry the theory further and argue that ideas coming from both sides are invigorated by the competition. As a result, whichever side emerges in control of government will be more capable of doing so effectively than it would have with nothing more than its own preconceptions upon which to base policy.

               It’s my own opinion that this vital dynamic largely explains the staying power of liberal democracies, most prominently the United States, in the face the authoritarian systems. Such governments, right and left, have over the years assumed seemly insurmountable power in various countries, only to reveal themselves as in fact too fragile to survive crisis.

               I don’t know whether Keith would express himself in quite these terms or not, but I’m pretty sure he agrees with my basic thinking here. It is, more or less, the meeting of the minds we had several years ago when we agreed to start this blog.
High-Tech Tribalism
               Unfortunately, I fear that both of us may be whistling in the wind in the current political environment here in the United States. Or to employ a more ominous metaphor, maybe we’re whistling past the graveyard. The problem is that effective governing ideas no longer appear to be the objective of our national dialogue. In the article to which Keith was responding in his letter, Thomas Friedman observes that in America today we seem to be descending into a kind of latter-day tribalism in which tribal identity counts for more than ideology. In primitive tribal societies, people don't much care what members of another tribe "think" about anything, only their intrinsic status as friend or foe. While our developing modern tribalism keys off shared biases rather than kinship ties, a lack of interest in what the other side thinks remains as the common denominator. Ideas matter only in so far as they reveal the more visceral underlying attitudes that identify him or her as one of "us" or of "them".

               This binary world view harkens back to orthodox Marxism, which used "class conflict" as the universal lens by which believers could reduce their world to its simple and mutually exclusive elements.  Marxists divided the entire late nineteenth  and early twentieth-century society around them down into Bourgeoisie and Proletariat, with a person's class identity counting for everything and determining what he or she thought on any subject. Since the two classes were  considered inherently at war to the death,  this mental construct was a spiritual cul-de-sac from which violence was the only possible escape. Debating the enemy served no purpose because there was no alternative ground on which accommodation could be reached. Orthodox Marxists believed in violent revolution and dedicated their lives to accelerating the process. This is how the Russian revolution came about and all the dark history that followed from it.
               In twenty-first century America, we seem to be drifting back towards something akin to this form of political interaction,  albeit without the outmoded Marxian pedantry. Where is it leading us?

Portents
               Signs of an answer are starting to appear. On May 30, comedienne and anti-Trump provocateur Kathy Griffin posted an on-line picture of herself holding up in effigy the President's bloody severed head. Her stunt was roundly denounced by almost everyone, including  people on the Left, but she initially tried to defend herself by explaining that it was the job of comedians to move lines and then boldly to cross them. Two weeks later, as if on cue,  the line she violated  was moved and crossed again when James Hodgkinson, a former campaign volunteer for Bernie Sanders, opened fire on a contingent of the Republican Congressional leadership who were gathered to practice for the annual Congressional baseball game. This event has been a friendly bi-partisan tradition in Washington since early in the last century. Mr. Hodgkinson was apparently initially unsure of who was on the field at the time,  and he unleashed his attempted massacre only after receiving assurance the ballplayers were indeed Republicans.

               Bernie Sanders immediately and, I believe, sincerely condemned the attack. But doesn't he understand his own movement well enough to know that his incessant casual use of the term "revolution", however benignly he himself might imagine it, promises bloody red meat to certain of his followers?  It was Chairman Mao in revolutionary China who once, poking fun at some of his own bourgeois supporters,  drolly pointed out to them that revolution isn't a dinner party.

De-Humanization Of The Enemy
               In the background to all this is the so-called "antifa" (for anti-fascist) agitation that has been gaining momentum since Trump's election. This is the movement driven by the guys is the ISIS-style black coats and full face masks who keep popping up in various places to shout down conservative speakers or intimidate Trump supporters. Fascism was actually a discrete political movement among radical Italian nationalists prior to World War II. The Communists of the day, however, generalized the word and eagerly took it up as a catch-all epithet with which to tar anyone perceived as standing in the way of their road to power. Even moderate Social Democrats, more-or-less equivalent to our modern-day American liberals, found themselves labeled, incomprehensibly, as "Social Fascists". The enemy could never be seen as human.

               In twenty-first century America, the hard left has modernized in many respects, having mustered a glitzy social media presence for example, but its adherents have retained the old-fashioned heavy-handed tactical style of their political forebears,  as well as their odd love for the indiscriminant word "Fascist". Trump is, of course, a "Fascist".
               It's not being lost on too many people, certainly no Republicans, that for all the talk about Trump's supposedly incendiary style, most of the true incendiary behavior during the past year has been coming from the Left. During  the Presidential campaign, it was Trump rallies, not those of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, who were repeatedly disrupted by abrasive outsiders. The media tried to blame Trump himself for most of this, but people could see what was happening and quietly stored away their thoughts.

Is The Liberal Media Inadvertently Destroying The Democratic Party?
         Democrats still can't quite seem to understand why they're losing elections. The same pollsters who stroked them with promises of Hillary Clinton's impending landslide in 2016 have ever since been reassuring them with data about Trump's deepening unpopularity. And as during the campaign,  the liberal media keeps dropping these data points into its echo chamber and magnifying the sound into a roar. Yet Democrats continue to come up short whenever actual votes are tallied.

               Most recently, Republican Karen Handel won the special election held for the Georgia Congressional seat vacated when Tom Price stepped forward to join Trump's cabinet. This election had been widely heralded as a referendum on Trump's presidency, and Democrats were breathless in anticipation of good news, especially after pouring in enough big money from outside the state to turn the contest into the most expensive congressional election in the nation's history. However, the costly hot thrust was all for naught. Furthermore, this was only the latest in five special elections that have occurred since the onset of Trump's reign, and the Democrats have managed to lose every one.

               What's going on? Trump's weird and disordered Presidency should be a golden opportunity for Democrats emerge as the adults in the room and bring back some balanced dignity to American politics. It should be easier than ever for them to start winning elections again. Instead, they seem to be pandering to their Hollywood faction and tolerating if not encouraging fringe elements like BLM and radical LGBT activists, the antifa people, and  the monomaniacal Trump-haters.
               Liberal dominance of the mainstream media, that should be an asset for them,  has instead become a liability because it's making them look like bullies. CNN sounds like Pravda in its 24/7 blaring of the anti-Trump party line. The impeachment process started before Trump had even assumed office,  like a show trial getting underway ahead of any crime. Amazingly, the media is allowing Trump actually to bring credibility to the ludicrous victim's posture he often affected during the Presidential campaign.

               Well-heeled voters in places like Georgia's sixth district, by no means the heart of "Deplorables" country, had to have been appalled by all this. Traditional Republicans, independents, and even moderate Democrats must be wondering what the two parties are even about anymore. Only the Trumpites and Bernie's people seem to think they know. People are getting caught up in the tribal passions and voting, increasingly it seems against Democrats,  without even understanding why. Politicians on both sides are no longer addressing our minds. They are speaking to our ids, and the appeal is subconscious.

It's A Matter Of Time
               Meanwhile, people like Keith and myself sound increasingly quaint trying to engage one another in rational debate, as though policy still mattered.  We'll keep at it, however, even if no one much cares. If, as I suggested above, a vigorous democratic process is key to national survival in the face of crisis, then our politicians had better break out of their dysfunction and pick up  the ball. There are enough existential threats lurking in the world right now that advent of serious crisis of one sort or another is only a matter of time. If our nation then is still locked in its present state of paralysis, the world's oldest continuous constitutional democracy will at last be consigning itself to the history books.

6/21/17

Letter to Thomas Friedman re lack of moral authority and trust

Mr. Friedman, if the lack of moral authority in our leaders is the core problem, what about President Obama? We have plenty of fine people vying to serve in leadership positions, but the smears against Nancy Pelosi that apparently kept the Georgia seat Republican indicate that good character is not enough. I think the problem arises more from a lack of mutual discussion for which the press, including the NYT, shares some of the blame. Although a staunch opponent of many Republican positions, I do want to understand their thinking. Are they really all, without exception, venal people without a moral core who do whatever is most expedient and profitable for themselves? Or do principles, facts, and logical reasoning underlie the positions they take, however cruel, unjust, and destructive those may seem to me? I search the Times and other liberal publications in vain for articles that take their serious thinking (not their discredited nonsense) seriously. You, Mr. Friedman, are in a great position to begin explaining their reasoning, and critiquing it appropriately and respectfully, and if you do it may lead us all to a more civil and productive discussion than the name-calling, disinformation, and character assassination that now prevails.

6/2/17

The Trump Gang is not Conservative

It is a serious mistake to consider the Trump-Pence-McConnell-Ryan-Tea Party gang “conservative,” as in just a more intense form of skepticism about the value of government action. This gang is not conservative. It is radical, breaking as starkly from the political and philosophical values of America since at least the time of Abraham Lincoln as the Russian Revolution did from the Czarist rule, or the French Revolution from the Bourbon monarchy. 

David Brooks has it right that this gang views political life as a Hobbesian nightmare, a zero sum struggle of all against all, in which the only morality is winning, defined as gaining wealth and influence. Forget about the equal worth of all people, or the concept of inalienable rights. The only right the Trump gang believes in is the right of the wealthy, powerful, and connected to pursue their self-interest without regard for the consequences to others. Hence the Trump gang’s admiration for brutal dictators who have murdered their citizens and its utter disregard for truth.

In their view, out of every 1000 American citizens approximately 10 are “winners.” Perhaps 200--mostly the owners of small business--are, in Lenin’s term, “useful idiots” who support the winners' dominance despite the harm their policies cause to their self-interest. Another 200 or so are dupes to be tricked with distractions and lies. The rest of us are enemies to be jailed, deprived of our vote, or otherwise nullified. 

The Trump gang aims for a return to feudalism, in which dominant barons and their families, plus retainers, lived vastly better than everyone else. Everyone else--peasants, serfs, and slaves--lived short, miserable, unhealthy, and unfree lives. Trump gang feudalism is based not just on the traditional sources of baronial wealth--land and plunder--but also business monopolies and privilege. And instead of small fiefdoms ruled by deadly force, they have gained and expect to hold power by duping voters in democracies-in-name-only. But otherwise, it’s the same world of virtually universal misery as the Middle Ages.

As to the Paris Climate accord, we mistakenly accuse Trump and his gang of denying climate change. They don’t have to deny it, they simply don’t care about it. As long as Koch Brother money flows, it doesn't matter to them If millions of Bangladeshis and islanders drown, hundreds of thousands of Americans lose their lives and/or property in tornados, hurricanes, and coastal innundations, and millions or billions of other people become victims of wars over water and other resources. The Trump gang, the Koch Brothers, and their retainers will be safe and comfortable in gated communities on high ground. 

In short, as they see it we are not in anything together; we are separate, rivalrous, and wolfish. They forget that in a feudal world even kings and queens had to live harsh, dangerous, diseased, and uncomfortable lives. But they never heard of Chaucer or Boccacio.