Thursday, January 19, 2017

America Cares

It demoralizes these people all over the world, and it leads people to conclude this, which is damaging, and it hurt us during the Cold War, and that is this: America cares about democracy and freedom as long—as long as it’s not being violated by someone that they need for something else.

That cannot be who we are in the 21st century.
Senator Marco Rubio
To which my response is: "Why not? That's who we've been from the 18th through the 20th centuries."

The quote "Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests." has been attributed to Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, and while I have no idea if he actually said it, it strikes me as a fairly accurate understanding of how international politics works. And, as near as I can tell, "democracy and freedom" are not numbered among the permanent interests of the United States. Diplomatic language tends to remind me of the old Soviet joke "the authorities pretend they are paying wages, workers pretend they are working," in that it often comes across as one diplomat pretends to be speaking plainly and other diplomats pretend to believe them. In this sense, it strikes me as naïve, at best, to believe that the United States genuinely cares about democracy and freedom in other parts of the world, especially when other concerns (notably security) are on the table.

Affluence tends to bring with it an understanding of what one has to lose, and therefore a certain level of risk aversion. And the practice of freedom and democracy in one nations has its risks for other nations, because people may pursue their own interests at the expense of people outside their borders. And, for many people the world over, this is precisely the modus operandi of the United States - and that includes any number of people within the United States. The idea that America will screw over anyone it has to in order to maintain access to oil supplies is a common trope. And while there are many people who disagree with the idea that the United States would go to extremes, such as genocide, in pursuit of energy, getting the best deal for itself, even if that means injuring the locals is more or less expected.

And perhaps, at the end of the day, that become the issue. The support of democracy and freedom in other parts of the world has noticeable costs, and political systems that rely on the popularity of individuals and parties to fill public offices tend to lead to a downplaying of expenses.
Celebrity means the ability to surround yourself with people whose short-term finances depend on pleasing you. There's nothing about fame that encourages dissent or hard truths.
Ta-Nehisi Coates "Thoughts on the Rihanna-Chris Brown Collaboration" the Atlantic, Wednesday, 22 February, 2012.
And while politics isn't exactly like celebrity, politicians, like a celebrity's entourage, have to make sure that they're keeping the people who elected them happy. And that's often why politicians offer up "hard truths" that are generally hard only on people who aren't in the audience or their broader constituencies. Maintaining a regime of constantly, and effectively, supporting "those 1,400 people in jail in China, those dissidents in Cuba, the girls that want to drive and go to school" that Senator Rubio mentioned in his words, along with "people that are suffering and they’re hurting" around the world would not be free. And it wouldn't be cheap. It would, in the end, ask a lot of people in the United States. Because the United States is not in a position where it asks nothing of the rest of the world. And ratcheting up the costs for China, Cuba or the Islamic world to get what they want from us means that they would ratchet up the price that we would pay to get what we want from them. Sure, we we're able to cut Cuba off, without too much harm to ourselves. But Cuba is tiny in the grand scheme of things. Bigger countries are bigger deals in that regard.

A commitment to democracy and freedom when grilling a potential Secretary of State is cheap. It plays well for the people back home, precisely because it doesn't ask them to pay anything. But actually walking the walk on the world stage is another matter entirely. And political posturing is a poor substitute for what it will actually take.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


You have to admit that "Trump's lust for respect makes national unity implausible" is a pretty good headline if you're looking to attract a left-leaning crowd to read an opinion piece. And it delivers - sort of. One of its closing lines is as follows:
The presidency, normally a job for people with thick skins and a nose for insincere flattery, promises to only heighten Trump’s sense of entitlement to respect and exacerbate his inevitable resentment when he doesn’t receive it.
But headlines can be deceptive - or they can be changed. When I encountered Mr. Goldberg's opinion piece on my phone, the title was just as I spelled it out above, "Trump's lust for respect makes national unity implausible." I read it, and found the headline to be somewhat misleading, honestly. The article is just as much about Representative John Lewis, and his partisan response to the President-elect, if not more, than it is about Donald Trump.

When I made it home, and looked up the article online, I quickly found it, but with a different title: "Why National Unity Remains So Elusive." It was posted on the National Review, and it came with an interesting, and descriptive subtitle: "The presidency has become the biggest prize in the culture war, and that doesn’t lead to unity." And the page description reads as follows: "Donald Trump and John Lewis: Culture Wars Deepen Party Polarization."

I'm not sure whose idea it was to market the piece with a different headline. Maybe the National Review protects theirs and doesn't allow them to be reprinted, and so Tribune Content Agency, LLC, which appears in the copyright notice for the piece, decided to write their own headline. But given that if an editor started at the beginning of the piece, they'd have to read more or less all the way through it to get to the part where Mr. Goldberg criticizes Donald Trump's sense of entitlement to respect, it seems unusual that they would have missed the equal-opportunity criticism that Mr. Goldberg levels. (But now I'm curious - is there a separate headline that excoriates Representative Lewis making the rounds on right-wing media sites?)

Although, given the overall tenor of the column, left-leaning readers looking for a full-throated takedown of the President-elect are likely to be disappointed. While the piece does have some things to say about the soon-to-be occupant of the White House, it's Representative Lewis who comes in for most of Mr. Goldberg's disapproval. Although the article quickly gets to the point that: "Trump will be the third president in a row to promise to unite the country, and he will almost certainly be the third in a row to fail," which I think is undoubtedly accurate, and it will be worth sticking around to see if that turns out to be at all consequential. (After all George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama were the first two in a row to promise unity and fail, and the place hasn't burned down yet.)

In the end, I guess, it's a simple reminder to remember that columnists and authors rarely write the headlines that accompany their pieces. And the people who do may have their own motivations.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


Friday, January 13, 2017

The Meaning of Tears

When someone says of others: "Their tears mean nothing to me," I see all of the excesses of history. All of its oppression, cruelty and atrocities. Not because there is a causal link; the perpetrators of the worst of human history went far beyond merely the ability to ignore others' suffering. But because the oppression, cruelty and atrocities of history, in nearly every case, required more than just those people who were willing to turn their hand to the infliction of pain upon others. They also required the enthusiastic approval, servile (or self-serving) acquiescence or willful ignorance of those who refused to assign any meaning to the tears brought forth by that pain.

It is tempting to see, in the worst of history, a vast sea of active participants, hateful and snarling, twisted by rage and bitterness into abominations utterly unlike ourselves. But the truth is simpler. Most are loving, kind and compassionate people, who simply found room in their hearts to, this one time, make an exception.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Arena of Ideas

Milo Yiannopoulos has written a book. That this book exists is pretty much all I know about it. I don't know what the title is, or even what it's about, let alone whether it's fiction or non-fiction. I know that Simon & Schuster said that they would publish it - because that seems to be what's newsworthy about this whole situation. There are calls for boycotts, people lining up their arguments about whether or not this is about the freedom of speech and/or the freedom to publish, if the answer to speech one doesn't like is more speech to counter it, blah, blah blah.

A few years back, I critiqued an essay by Mr. Yiannopoulos, in which he complained about the "sharing economy." I've pretty much entirely forgotten the piece in question, I'm okay with that, given that I didn't really see much to recommend it at the time. One of my comments was this:

Suffice it to say, as also with many things like this, Yiannopoulos takes the world that he wants to live in, and extrapolates that out to a moral imperative that everyone should subscribe to, so much so that rejection, or even questioning, of it becomes a moral crime that must be attacked and stamped out, lest it spread like a cancer.
And that's what I'm going to reexamine here. Because there are "many things like this" in life, and interestingly, I think that we're looking at another one of them. Presuming, since it makes sense to do so, that this isn't all a deep-cover operation designed to make whatever it is that Mr. Yiannopoulos has written into a New York Times Best-Seller, I ask why level any heat against Simon & Schuster? Sure, I can understand the grousing about the publisher being willing to "stoop so low to make a buck as to publish this purveyor of vile hate speech," but the teapot tempest that this flap is stirring up is going to wind up in a lot more bucks being made. Perhaps the complaint is that a well-known publisher, by putting their brand on Mr. Yiannopoulos' book, is helping to "normalize" what he's saying.

And that gets back to the observation I'd made about Mr. Yiannopoulos' article back in 2013. His critics, I think, takes the world that they want to live in, and extrapolate that out to a moral imperative that everyone should subscribe to, so much so that rejection, or even questioning, of it becomes a moral crime that must be attacked and stamped out, lest it spread like a cancer. And a "reputable" publisher like Simon & Schuster aid in that potential spread.

For all that Dennis Johnson, the small publisher that NPR quotes in their article, says, "Nobody in the protest is saying 'you have no right to be published. You have no right, Simon & Schuster, to publish this guy, and this guy, you have no right to be published' — nobody's saying that." I think to a degree, that's exactly what's being said. What I suspect is being sought here is to deny Mr. Yiannopoulos a platform. (I also suspect that it's too late for that.) Because while Mr. Johnson and other people protesting the publication of the book understand Mr. Yiannopoulos to be a "purveyor of vile hate speech," I think that there is a fear that there is a significant audience of people who won't find it so vile, and that among them are people charismatic enough or persuasive enough to convince yet more people that they shouldn't find it vile, either. That it is, in effect, a Lovely Awful Thing; an objectively wrong, but intrinsically appealing, way for other people to behave. And I say "other people" intentionally. I think it's rare for people so say, "Hate speech should be kept out of the mainstream discourse, because I can't be trusted to not internalize the messages."

Sometimes, I think that there a view of social progress that likens it to pushing a boulder up a volcano. Until it's safely nestled into the crater at the top, it's always in danger of rolling back down to the bottom at the slightest provocation. This strikes me as going hand-in-hand with a view of people as being insufficiently invested in the progress that has been made - to the point of always being ready to backslide, with alarming rapidity, to reprehensible, but easier or more profitable, practices of the past. To be sure, I am not of the opinion that the social structures of, say, 1750 could never again rear their ugly heads. I am of the opinion, however, that it will take quite a bit of time for them to claw their way out of their graves. And that we'll be able to see the shift happening, if we're paying attention.

I'm of the opinion that "silencing" and "censorship" are functions of the State, rather than of the populace. Especially today. If Simon & Schuster decide that they won't put out his book after all, Mr. Yiannopoulos could easily self-publish it if he wanted to, and he likely has enough of a following that he could break even on doing so. Whatever ideas he's looking to get out will get out. And I suspect that no-one who genuinely views what he is saying as vile will be swayed by the name of a given publisher. And if there is a large enough population of readers who won't view it as vile that it becomes an issue, that, in and of itself, is the problem that the protestors need to worry about. And virtue signalling won't solve it for them.