Tag Archives: politics

The Death of Truth rings true

real enemy tweet

Michiko Kakutani’s book, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, is the second-best Trump book I’ve read, second to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power, more trenchant than Jonathan Weisman’s (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in the Age of Trump, and infinitely less completely wrong than Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy (review essay). Those are the only ones I’ve read (open to suggestions).

Kakutani is a great writer, and this little book of 11 chapters in 170 small pages flies by. Since she left the New York Times, where she was book critic for many years, her Twitter feed has been a chronology of political crisis and social decay under Trump; reading it all together induces anxiety at the pace and scale of the descent, but also, surprisingly, some optimism that the situation remains decipherable with the tools of intellectual incision that Kakutani wields so well. With lots of good reviews out there, I’ll just briefly point out some things I appreciated.

Kakutani does the disturbing relevant history without histrionics. So there’s Hannah Arendt and Margaret Atwood, Adolf Hitler and Richard Hofstadter, George Orwell and Aldus Huxley, but not with facile linkages and great leaps. Also, she delves into postmodernism and its influences, but doesn’t simplistically blame postmodernism for creating the “post-truth” world (which rightfully concerns Andrew Perrin); rather she acknowledges the cynical uses to which its language may be put, including among some of its proponents, without the casual lumping of Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida, and “multiculturalism” or “relativism,” etc., that you see so often. (One thing you know about Kakutani is that she reads a lot.) Although leftist anti-science attitudes play a role in her story (along with anti-institutionalism generally, anti-vaxxers, and so on), she has no interest in the false equivalency that, for example, blames all kinds of identity politics for injecting subjectivism into politics (the way Goldberg does so absurdly), or puts campus no-platforming on the same plane as the Iraq war.

This is an early first pass at a history of the moment, and Kakutani’s wide reading of relevant history connects tightly with the today’s news from Putin’s Russia to Wikileaks, fake news and Cambridge Analytica, to the “culture wars” debates, the “me generation” and today’s information silos, to political polarization, and the siege of journalism. You may as well read it in one sitting.

One good example: In my essay on Goldberg (now updated) I noted that he falsely described Lee Atwater’s maxim, “perception is reality” as “a cliché of the left.” I was glad to see Kakutani bring that up, in the proper context, because it is a moment that still matters. The contrast between their descriptions is telling, so I’ll lay it down here.

Goldberg writes:

“It is a cliché of the left to say that, ‘perception is reality.’ Well, the perceived reality for millions of white, Christian Americans is that their institutional shelters, personal and national, are being razed one by one. They do not like the alternatives they are being offered. Some fraction may indeed be racists, homophobes, or Islamaphobes, but most simply don’t like what they are being offered because they do not know it or because they do know it but prefer what they perceive to be theirs. And yet people like Sanders insist that resistance to their program is not just wrong but evil. The grave danger, already materializing, is that whites and Christians respond to this bigotry and create their own tribal identity politics.”

Goldberg falsely attributes the “perception is reality” approach to the left, then blames the left for making whites into racists. (With anti-Trumpists like these progressives don’t need enemies.) An accurate reading of that history in its proper context links today’s “perceived reality” to Atwater and the GOP itself, to decades of racist propaganda which the GOP generated and then gleefully weaponized. Here’s Kakutani:

“When the Republican strategist Lee Atwater observed in the 1980s that ‘perception is reality,’ he was bluntly articulating an insight about human psychology that Homer well knew when he immortalized Odysseus as a wily trickster, adept at deception and disguise. But Atwater’s cold-blooded use of that precept in using wedge issues to advance the GOP’s southern strategy – and to create the infamous Willie Horton ad in the 1988 presidential campaign – injected mainstream American politics with an alarming strain of win-at-all-costs Machiavellianism using mass media as a delivery system.” (p. 79)

My historical quibble is in the brief handling of China, where Kakutani includes Mao along with Hitler in the Orwell section on the co-optation of language. The Hitler material is excellent, and ties in well with Putin and then Trump’s big lies. But Mao’s “plan of linguistic engineering” does not fit that pattern. China was mostly illiterate, there was no mass media, and the state that was so forcefully imposing fixed terms and meanings, with simple slogans, was also expanding basic education to hundreds of millions of people, and literally reformed the language to make it more accessible, a change that still pays dividends. No need to spare China the criticism, but the early socialist years doesn’t belong in the category as advanced capitalist countries using the tools of fascism against their own democracies.

How bad is it? If Brave New World was warning us about capitalism, and 1984 was warning us about Soviet communism, as Kakutani has it, then it’s ironic that we’re now speeding toward a 1984 scenario even as the capitalist Russian kleptocracy literally parades around the White House (details on Putin’s upcoming visit to be determined). So, it’s bad. (Her conclusion, that only journalism and education can save us, is mercifully brief.) Every week is a crazy unprecedented crisis. Kakutani’s ability to get it down to an organized, linear narrative, with carefully chosen, relevant facts, makes The Death of Truth bracing and clarifying, and well worth a read.

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Abortion is not a holocaust, and feminism is not about convenience

a photo of a cute pig next to a 16-cell human embryo .

Pig (left) and human.

Quick, disorganized comment on abortion.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who opposes abortion rights, recently wrote in defense of the Kevin Williamson, fired from the Atlantic, for saying this, before he was hired:

Someone challenged me about my views on abortion, saying, “If you really thought it was a crime you would support things like life in prison, no parole, for treating it as a homicide.” And I do support that. In fact, as I wrote, what I have in mind is hanging.

Douthat thinks feminists are just as extreme as this, but even worse because they’re on the wrong side (the side in favor of the baby holocaust).

Douthat is concerned that abortion is “justified with the hazy theology of individualism.” When he says that what he’s insulting is feminism. He’s mocking us for being stupid (hazy) atheists who don’t realize secularism is just another theology (like Chris Smith does). And “individualism” refers to the idea that women have rights. Privilege is congratulating yourself for exposing oppressed people’s struggle for liberation as actually being about their individual self-gratification.

In claiming to make a moral argument, he pits this claim to women’s individualistic convenience against the holocaust:

the distinctive and sometimes awful burdens that pregnancy imposes on women have become an excuse to build a grotesque legal regime in which the most vulnerable human beings can be vacuumed out or dismembered, killed for reasons of eugenics or convenience or any reason at all.

There are no men, no patriarchy, in this telling, and that’s telling. It is important to say, which Douthat won’t, that abortion rights are women’s rights, that women’s rights are not about some decadent “individual” rights but about systemic group oppression perpetrated over millennia, especially by religion (especially by Douthat’s religion, Catholicism).

Douthat wants to take the abortion debate to the moral plane of “the killing of millions of innocents” (his phrase) versus feminist selfish self-indulgence. He is egging on his fellow anti-feminists, pushing them to take this extremist position while decrying the extremism of feminists. Organized anti-feminism doesn’t want to say abortion is really really murder because then women will turn against them, because women aren’t idiots. The mainstream abortion rights movement doesn’t want to say fetuses are human because it makes abortion seem worse, plus for early-term pregnancies it’s really not true. Still, we should argue about abortion as if it’s a decision that matters, not only as if it’s the restriction of the right to make that decision that matters. Unfortunately, Roe v. Wade was not decided on the principle that women can take a fetal life when it’s inside their own body, but on the principle of respecting women’s privacy rights to make personal decisions. This makes it harder to have the real feminist argument. I’m with Douthat that we should have a real moral argument, which he in his sneering at “individualism” actually refuses to engage.

Only religion can say all fetuses are instantly human; any scientific understanding exposes this incontrovertibly as just crazy talk. But abortion rights don’t depend on fetuses not being human at all. If you want to take the argument off the religious turf, you have to acknowledge that there is no moral instant when a fetus becomes human — science can’t locate that transformation more precisely than sometime between conception and birth. For that matter, there is no moral bright line between human and animal as far as suffering and death, that separates a human from a chimpanzee from a pig from a dog. (Many of us are, after all, not fully human ourselves, but part homo neanderthalensis.) There is moralizing, but not morality, in approving the grotesquely cruel slaughter of billions of sentient animals for “convenience or any reason at all,” while labeling women who abort sixteen-cell fetuses as murderers.

Ending life is a serious moral decision, of the kind Douthat and others are comfortable letting men take in many ways, in wars, and corporate decisions, and state policies, and slaughterhouses. Abortion rights mean women deserve that responsibility, too. Abortion rights don’t rest on the inconsequentialness of the decision but on the humanity of women. There is no reason to shy away from that. Catharine MacKinnon, who is aging well on this, wrote in 1983:

My stance is that the abortion choice must be legally available and must be women’s, but not because the fetus is not a form of life. In the usual argument, the abortion decision is made contingent on whether the fetus is a form of life. I cannot follow that. Why should women not make life or death decisions?

That’s my attempt to defend abortion rights without relying on euphemism and evasion or the hazy theology of individualism.

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Hitting for the cycle in Trump land

While cautious about the risks the normalizing Trump, I have nevertheless attempt to engage a little with his followers on Twitter, which is the only place I usually meet people who are willing to support him openly. One exchange yesterday struck me as iconic so I thought I’d share it.

Maybe if I’d studied conversation or text analysis more I would be less amazed at how individuals acting alone manage to travel the same discursive paths with such regularity. In this case a Trump supporter appears to spontaneously recover this very common path over a short handful of tweets:

  1. I don’t believe your facts
  2. If they are true it’s no big deal
  3. Obama was worse
  4. Nothing matters everyone is corrupt

The replies got jumbled up so I use screenshots as well as links (you can start here if you want to try to follow it on Twitter).

Ivanka Trump tweeted something about how she was going to India. Since I’m blocked by Donald but not Ivanka, if it’s convenient I sometimes do my part by making a quick response to her tweets. I said, “Your representation of the US in India epitomizes the corruption and incompetence of this administration.”

iv1

The responses by @armandolbstd and @dreadGodshand are very typical, demanding “proof” about things that are obvious to basically informed people. I made the typical mistake of thinking we could talk about common facts, using the word “literally” a lot:

iv2

OK, so then I got sucked in with what I thought was the most obvious example of corruption, leading @dreadGodshand into the whole cycle:

iv3

Interesting how the “ok, maybe it’s true but so what” thing we hear constantly strikes him as suddenly a new question. And from there on through no-big-deal to Obama-was-worse to nothing-matters:

iv4iv5

And he concluded, “I’m not hating obama for it. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s designed that way to help their parties. Who really cares?”

This reminds me of the remarkable shift in attitudes toward immoral conduct among White evangelicals, who used to think it was a very big deal if elected officials (Obama) did immoral things in private but now (Trump) shrug:

iv6

People do change. But I don’t put that much stock in changing people, and contrary to popular belief I don’t think that’s how you have to win elections. In the end defeating Trumpism politically means outvoting people who think like this, which will be the result of a combination of things: increasing turnout (one way or the other) among people who oppose him, decreasing turnout among people who support him, and changing the number of people in those two categories.

You might think this example just shows the futility of conversations like this, but maybe I’m missing some opportunity to get through. And it’s also possible that this kind of thing is demoralizing to Trump supporters, which could be good, too. So, live and learn.

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Trump blocked me on Twitter and that violates the Constitution

On Twitter, users have the option of blocking other users, which prevents them from viewing the blocker’s tweets, getting notified when they tweet, and participating in the comment thread below the blocker’s tweets. Apparently, Donald Trump’s Twitter account has started blocking people who criticize him. As of yesterday, I’m one of those people.

blocked

Yesterday, the Knight First Amendment Institute, a new outfit with a hefty endowment at Columbia University, sent a letter to the President outlining why this practice violates the First Amendment and demanding that he unblock users. You can read the letter here, but the gist of it is that the President’s account operates as a “designated public forum” for the federal govnernment and that suppressing speech on the basis of people’s political beliefs in that context is illegal. (See coverage here and here, and an argument against this logic here.)

Here is Trump spokesperson Sean Spicer explaining that Trump’s tweets are “official statements by the President of the United States”:

My case illustrates how Trump created a public forum, used for official purposes, and then excluded me from participating in that forum on the basis of my political opinions.

When Trump was elected I made a case for “drawing a new line through the political landscape: for versus against Trumpism,” and oriented my political activity as a citizen accordingly. It turns out that the most efficient way I could get this message out was in the Trump threads on Twitter, by making simple memes stating opposition to Trump or mocking him. It’s not a sophisticated operation, but it didn’t take up very much of my time, and for the effort I think it had good results. (Maybe because my Twitter identity is “verified” or I have a relatively large number of followers, my tweets seemed to appear near the top of the thread if I posted them promptly.)

And I discovered that the Trump Twitter threads are a place to meet and argue with real people, strangers from other bubbles, about the most pressing issues of the day. Sure, most of the dialogue is pointless shouting and insults, which I am naturally way above, but not all of it, and for every person shouting there are many people reading along, who may be influenced by what they see. (For example, think of the young people living in Trump families described so well by Amy Harmon.)

My memes and statements were viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, according to Twitter’s analytics, often appearing right below a Trump tweet. Clearly, this is not what the President wants, but just as clearly it is one small part of how democracy works these days. Here are a few examples of images I made and posted, or comments, with links for people who aren’t blocked so you can see them, screen images to avoid that (if you follow the links you can see the discussion in the threads).

From June 4:

2

From June 3:

1

From June 6:

3

From June 2:

4

From May 31:

5

From May 28:

6

From May 18:

7

From May 16:

8

From May 13:

9

From May 7:

10

You get the idea. Maybe putting up these memes feels like carrying a sign at a protest, but in this case it’s a political forum organized by the President and limited to those he selects based on their political statements. I don’t know how this legal argument will fare in the courts, if it gets there, but in this case as in so many others, his actions are bad for democracy.

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How I choose sides like it’s 1934

The best way to be sure that 2017 is not 1934 is to act as though it were. —Adam Gopnik

nyt-8-20-1934

New York Times, August 20, 1934.

Jeremy Freese observed back in November:

These are both true. Racism, xenophobia, misogyny, suppression of dissent, these are not new. But Trump and Trumpism also represent a turn toward all that plus an assault on constitutional democracy. It’s the resurgence of the bad side of America plus a new authoritarianism that makes it harder to resist the normal bad. I don’t need to detail this here, but I’ll quote a little more from Gopnik:

Assaults on free speech; the imprisoning of critics and dissidents; attempts, on the Russian model, likely to begin soon, to intimidate critics of the regime with fake charges and conjured-up allegations; the intimidation and intolerance of even mild dissidence (that “Apologize!” tweet directed at members of the “Hamilton” cast who dared to politely petition Mike Pence); not to mention mass deportations or attempts at discrimination by religion—all things that the Trump and his cohorts have openly contemplated or even promised—are not part of the normal oscillations of power and policy. They are unprecedented and, history tells us, likely to be almost impossible to reverse.

So, what does that mean? I think it means we take Gopnik’s advice and act like this is 1934. And John Lewis is right. If that turns out to be wrong — a false-positive read on the catastrophicness of the situation — that’s a better mistake to make than the false-negative mistake of not taking it seriously enough until it’s too late.

It means we need new strategic principles. For me, that means drawing a new line through the political landscape: for versus against Trumpism.

Which side are you on

If you are against Trump, you are on my side. Not on my side in every way or every issue, but where it counts most right now. If you’re against abortion rights, against welfare, against environmental protection, I disagree with you on all those things, and I’ll say that when we get a chance to talk. But to the extent that you march against Trump, vote against Trump’s agenda, speak out against Trumpism, or give money to organizations that do those things, you’re on my side.

I want to focus on opposing repression of dissent, corruption (and Putin), police or military abuse, and assaults on democratic norms, especially with regard to freedoms and protection for racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants. If you accidentally say something racist or sexist while you’re speaking out against Trump, we can discuss it on the side. If you support policies I hate on other issues, but you are willing to vote against Trump’s nominees or his agenda, or candidates who back him, I will speak up for you. We will argue about the rest later. And if you’re only weakly against Trump, thank you. I encourage you to stick with it and try to bring someone else along with you.

On the other hand. If you’re poor and your community is being left behind by global capitalism, with rising mortality and drug addiction, disappearing jobs and crumbling infrastructure, but you support Trump and his movement — you are not on my side. I would love to support policies to help people in your situation, and work with members of those communities that oppose Trumpism. But if you’re marching or voting for Trump, or supporting candidates or organizations that do, or fighting against immigrants or democratic institutions, I’m against you. We can work on your problems later.

It’s really bad that it’s come to this, because it means less progress, and real regression, on important issues and policies. But it’s where we are, and the sooner we get out of here, alive, the better. I could be wrong, and I’m willing to hear why I am. I don’t think you can convince me that this is really business as usual, but I’d love to be wrong on that.

But I don’t want anti-Trumpism to be just another partisan talking point. I’m not calling him a “fascist” just because I don’t like him, or even because I really don’t like him, or because he’s going to sign a repeal of Obamacare. Sure, some Democratic Party partisans are just taking advantage of the panic over Trump to wrangle leverage over the usual issues. Glenn Greenwald is right that some are too credulous about the intelligence dirt on Trump, too trusting of the CIA. But this false equivalency from him shows that he doesn’t take Trumpism as an out-of-bounds threat:

…all of this [Democrats embracing the CIA stuff] illustrates that while the Trump presidency poses grave dangers, so, too, do those who are increasingly unhinged in their flailing, slapdash, and destructive attempts to undermine it.

That’s like saying, “Trump’s Muslim registry poses grave dangers, but so, too, do liberals who think wearing a safety pin makes them awesome anti-racist allies.” That’s out of whack. There has never been a political or electoral majority in America without racists; we’re going to need to be on the same side with a lot of racists to beat Trump and Trumpism. (In the end, though, winning against this might give us a good push in the right direction.)

I know we will see a lot from Republican-controlled government that looks normal-bad, things I would be complaining about if Jeb Bush had won, too. But Gopnik is right to sound the alarm at the collapse of resistance to Trump among “respectable” Republicans. The political alliance between regular Republicans and Trumpist authoritarianism makes for a more powerful rush away from normal awful American politics and toward something that’s hard or impossible to come back from. These are not “the normal oscillations of power and policy.”

In normal times, it can be good strategy to pick fights within the more progressive party in a two-party system, because the majority coalition is all blandness and weak principles, and there’s a lot of room for debate within that. But now, like it’s 1934, we need as big a majority as we can get. That’s what it means to refuse to normalize Trump.

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Electoral representation by demographic group

I’m told that one point of our electoral system is to ensure representation of small states. That’s why small states get two senators even if they have tiny populations, and why each state gets at least three electors in the electoral college (equal to the size of their Congressional delegation). You could make a case for finding ways to make sure small groups are represented, even over-represented, because otherwise they would be ignored. So you discount California voters to make sure Wyoming voters get to be part of the process.

Regardless of the history, which suggests the electoral college was created to protect the interests of slave owners, it’s now the case that Whites have more power in the electoral college, because they dominate the small states. As Lara Merling and Dean Baker show, Blacks have 5% less representation, Latinos have 9% less, and Asian Americans have 7% less representation than Whites.

So it is unfair in its results by the contemporary race/ethnic distribution, but that’s not a fixed quality of the system (it’s merely very durable). Underlying the premise, though, is the idea that the identities to be represented are geographic in nature. There are some issues that have geographic boundaries, like land use or climate-related questions, but the point of an analysis like Merling and Baker’s — like much of Civil Rights law — is that identities also adhere in demographic groups, by gender, race/ethnicity, and age. So the geographic system creates inequities according the demographic system. I don’t see why we should prioritize the geographic in our electoral system, now that geography is so much less of a defining feature in our communication systems and popular culture.

What if we redid the electoral system by the demographic categories of gender, race/ethnicity and age, and then let geographic groups complain if they end up underrepresented, instead of the other way around? Before you write to the governor (again) and demand that I be fired: This does not even rise to the level of a suggestion, it’s literally just a thought.

Here’s how it would look, if we divided 435 seats across 40 demographic identity states, using data from the 2015 American Community from IPUMS.org*:

newhor

Compared with the 114 Congress (the one finishing now), this one is more diverse, with 224 instead of 108 women, 56 versus 38 Latinos, 24 versus 13 Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 8 versus 2 American Indians. Only Blacks fare a little worse, dropping form 47 to 44. This also gives us a great improvement in age diversity, as the current average age in the House is 57 and this distribution implies an average age of something like 47.

For comparison, here is the Electoral College we would get under this system, which simply adds two electors to each of these House of Representatives districts, representing their Senate delegations:

newec

Now instead of fighting over New Hampshire or Wyoming, presidential candidates would campaign for swing-groups such as middle-aged American Indians, or young Latinos.

This system would also have a built in version of term limits feature, as people who aged out of their districts presumably would have to run in the next age group up. People who changed gender or race/ethnic identity could also switch districts.

Someone could take some voter or opinion data and figure out how our elections would turn out with this (if someone already has done this, please add it in the comments).


* Because they rounded to zero, I added one House seat to old American Indian men and women, and took one away from middle-aged White women, the largest group. Note also that we might have to redistrict this when the race categories change, as they are expected to in 2020, to add Middle Eastern / North Africans (MENAs).

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Not-too-racist Whites of America: Do you want to be that person?

Everyone is at least a little racist. But hardly any Whites really actively want to hate Blacks and people from other racial-ethnic minority groups. And I bet that includes a lot of people who are thinking of voting for Trump. So this is for people who don’t want to be haters, or even seen as haters.

Think about it this way: Voting is pretty symbolic. Your individual vote is really not going to make the difference. But it says something about who you are, to yourself at least, and to anyone else who knows.

So look at these polling results for African Americans in five key states. Between 2 and 5 out of every 100 Black voters says they support Trump:

blacktrumpsupport

If you vote for Trump, because you’re angry about politicians who never get anything done, or you don’t trust Hillary, or you think it’s time for a change in Washington, think about this: do you want to spend the next four or eight years knowing that you voted against virtually every Black person who you will know or meet during that time?

Maybe they’re wrong. But I think, if you’re not the hating kind, it might gnaw at you, and you might feel better if you didn’t take that stand against them. I’m not trying to change your political views in a short blog post, but I do think we’ll get along better – and you will too – if you don’t vote for Trump.


Sources:

NYT/Siena: North Carolina, 9/16-9/19

Detroit Free Press: Michigan, 9/10-9/13

NYT/Siena: Florida, 9/10-/14

Monmouth: Georgia, 9/15-9/18

UMW: Virginia, 9/6-9/12

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