Category Archives: Marketplace of ideas

George Will harshes Beto’s buzz

The skateboarding man-child.

The skateboarding man-child.

One of the more interesting things about this moment in our history is watching conservative pundits writing about Democrats who — they hope — would have the potential to beat Trump in 2020.

I’m not saying it’s remarkable that they want Trump gone. Any “conservative” who knows what the word means — and too few of those who use it constantly do — would want him out of office yesterday.

I mean it’s interesting because they bring attention to substantive potential candidates who actually might have a chance of winning a general election. Which these days is something of a novelty. Most of the writing about 2020 thus far has been about this week’s shiny new toy, rather than people someone other than a Democrat might vote for.

George Will has devoted several columns lately to elevating the profiles of people who he believes have what it takes. My mentioning Will will cause Doug and bud to bristle — a lot of what I write about does that. But as guys who appreciate numbers and hard facts more than my intuitive leaps, they should pay attention to Will. He’s just as avid a student of electoral stats as he is of the ones that apply to baseball.

His latest effort praises Sen. Amy Klobuchar. He breaks it down without sentimentality or wishful thinking:

Klobuchar is from a state contiguous with Iowa, whose caucuses might, or might not, be as big a deal in 2020 as they have been since Jimmy Carter’s 1976 success in them propelled him toward the presidency. (Early voting for California’s March 3 primary, in which probably 11 percent of delegates to the Democratic National Convention will be allocated, begins the day of Iowa’s caucuses, so some candidates might slight Iowa to court California.) Minnesota also borders Wisconsin, one of the three Rust Belt states (the others are Michigan and Pennsylvania) that Donald Trump took but that had voted Democratic in at least six consecutive presidential elections. She is from the Midwest, where Democrats need help in Michigan (Trump carried it by just 0.3 percent of the vote), Iowa (Trump by nine percentage points) and Ohio (Trump by nine points).

Minnesota has voted Democratic in 11 consecutive presidential elections (since it spurned George McGovern, from neighboring South Dakotain 1972). It has more electoral votes (10) than such swing states as New Hampshire (four), Iowa (six), Nevada (six) and Colorado (nine). But Minnesota’s blueness has been fading: Barack Obama defeatedMitt Romney by eight percentage points in 2012, but four years later, Hillary Clinton defeated Trump by just 1.5 points….

He also notes that she won election last year to a third term by a 24-point margin.

Of course, you know me — I prefer the pithy statement that touches on an essential truth. So my favorite line in the column was this: “In the Almanac of American Politics’ most recent (2015) vote rankings, she was the 27th-most-liberal senator, liberal enough to soothe other liberals without annoying everyone else.” Quite.

But if Will is a guilty pleasure for you, as he is for me, you might like his lede on this one, in which he dismisses one of the Democrats’ shiny new toys on the way to speaking of the more substantial Sen. Klobuchar:

Surely the silliest aspirant for the Democrats’ 2020 presidential nomination is already known: “ Beto ,” a. k.a. Robert Francis, O’Rourke is a skateboarding man-child whose fascination with himself caused him to live-stream a recent dental appointment for — open wide, please — teeth cleaning. His journal about his post-election recuperation-through-road-trip-to-nowhere-in-particular is so without wit or interesting observations that it merits Truman Capote’s description of “On the Road” author Jack Kerouac’s work: That’s not writing, that’s typing.

When Democrats are done flirting with such insipidity, their wandering attentions can flit to a contrastingly serious candidacy…

Ow. That is way harsh. But it hits home.

Anyway, after this, you should check out the respect Will lavishes upon John Delaney, Sherrod BrownCheri Bustos (not as a presidential hopeful, but as an example of what Dems should emulate if they want to win in general), and finally… drum roll… Elizabeth Warren.

Of Warren, he says “Democrats have found their Thatcher — if they dare.” You don’t get higher praise than that, coming from a conservative.

He’s been on something of a pragmatic roll lately…

What did Sorkin say that was wrong? Absolutely nothing…

Zakaria Sorkin

Been meaning to say something about this since it came to my attention a week or so ago.

And like so many things I want to say something about, I don’t get to it, day after day, because there’s too much I want to say about it, and I don’t think I’ll have time, so I never get started. Well, let me take a very quick shot at it.

Basically, the short version is that Aaron Sorkin said some stuff that made sense, and the Democratic Party’s Peanut Gallery got mad at him about it — which illustrated a lot of what’s wrong with the Democratic Party. Which matters because somebody’s got to be the alternative to Trumpism in America, and if the Dems aren’t up to it, I don’t know who that’s going to be. (Probably not the Starbucks guy, if that’s what you’re thinking.)

Here’s the short version of what he said, in a Tweet from one who didn’t like it:

And the short version of the apoplectic reaction is, We don’t wanna grow up!

Far as I’m concerned, if Aaron Sorkin wants to run for something, he’s got an excellent shot at the Grownup Party nomination.

Here’s a clip that’s slightly longer than the one above:

That monologue is a lot like what Will McAvoy said in that opening episode of “The Newsroom.” Rougher, less eloquent, of course, since Sorkin was speaking aloud instead of writing. But it’s largely the same message — we need to get back to being the “Thank God the Americans are here” country.

Someone’s going to have to be what Sorkin calls “the non-stupid party,” since the Republicans — by their embrace of Trump — has so fervently embraced the opposite role.

If the Democrats aren’t smart enough or mature enough to take that on, someone else will have to.

This has a lot of aspects worth discussing — I’m sure there’s more I’ll want to say — but I’d thought I’d at least get it started…

Doonesbury addressed the problem satirically in 1974

A discussion we were having earlier about losing our confidence as a nation made me think of a series of Doonesbury strips from 1974.

Amazingly, I found the exact strips I was seeking on the web. I hope whoever holds the copyright will regard this as Fair Use (it certainly seems so to me).

The characters of the strip are having a costume party. Here’s the first strip:

best1

That was followed the next day by this:

best 2

You can see the same point elaborated upon by the third strip, below.

We were talking previously about how the main character in “The Newsroom,” which I had belatedly started watching, bemoaned the lost greatness of our country, saying in part, ““We built great, big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists AND the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior….””

And I wondered:

And why don’t we do stuff like that any more? Why did we lose our confidence? Was it just Vietnam, or what?

Well, it seems that way back in 1974, Trudeau was sort of saying, yeah, that was it. And saying it in a way that would probably please no one.

Think about what an edgy thing that was to do back in 1974, with the war still going on — but after the U.S. had disengaged militarily (No, Virginia, the war did not “end” when we stopped fighting it.)

No wonder so many papers ran it on the editorial page. There were no other comics like that. And few editorial cartoonists could match this kind of depth and subtlety.

And think about the irony in the message Trudeau was laying out — among the folks who loved his strip (as opposed to the legions who hated it — the real reason so many papers put it in editorial), it was axiomatic that the Vietnam War was an awful thing, that our having gotten involved there was a blot on the national reputation.

And yet here the cartoonist was mourning what we had lost when the enterprise failed. I thought these strips were great at the time, but I wonder now what others thought of them.

In any case, it’s impressive…

bummer

Will we as a country ever do great things again?

Will McAvoy loses it after hearing the pat answers of the 'liberal' and 'conservative' on the panel.

Will McAvoy loses it after hearing more than enough of the pat answers of the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ on the panel.

I really should have had more faith in Aaron Sorkin.

After all, there’s never been anything on television I like more than “The West Wing” (although I’ll note that “Band of Brothers” ties it).

But until this week, I had refused to watch “The Newsroom.” Long ago, when HBO first launched it, I read things about it that made me not want to see it, on the grounds that I thought it would just irritate me no end. But what I read was either a misrepresentation, or I misread it.

When my wife suggested, as I was clicking around in Amazon Prime, that we check it out, I trotted out the objections as I recalled them: First, it was about a TV news anchorman — and you know, I’m a print guy. I don’t even WATCH that TV stuff, network or cable. Next, he was an anchorman who one day loses it and launches into a rant that supposedly “tells the truth” for a change, and nothing is ever again the same for him or his network. That, of course, sounded an awful lot like “Network,” which I’ve always thought was overrated. (You probably have to have been around in 1976 to recall how “brilliant” it allegedly was.) I’ve never yet understood what Peter Finch’s character was “mad as hell” about, or why that supposedly connected with a wide audience. It was gibberish to me — sensationalistic gibberish. Unfocused emotionalism, signifying nothing.

Then there was my memory of the content of the rant on “The Newsroom” — which, as it turned out, was mistaken. As I told my wife, the “truth” he was sharing was paranoid nonsense like what we hear from Bernie Sanders and in slightly different form from Donald Trump, about how everything is fixed and the little guy stands no chance. My memory was clearly wrong. His “truth” was something else that tends to evoke a similarly dismissive reaction in me: a rant about how this is not the greatest country in the world, essentially a rejection of American exceptionalism. (There are a lot of things that prompt similar reactions in me, and sometimes I confuse them.)

Actually, when I relented and watched the show, I saw that even that wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. Here’s what Jeff Daniels’ character Will McAvoy says after being badgered into reacting while sitting on a panel in front of a college audience:

And yeah, you… sorority girl. Just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there’s some things you should know. One of them is: there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force and number 4 in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies. Now, none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are, without a doubt, a member of the worst period generation period ever period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about! Yosemite?!

Here’s the video. In the context, and in light of his irritation at the pat answers given by the stereotypical “liberal” and “conservative” on the panel with him (irritation with which I fully identified; he could have been me sitting there, losing patience with their stupid game — so by the time he erupts, I’m in his corner), it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. I was willing to keep listening to him. And I was rewarded for that, because what followed redeemed what he’d said before, if it needed redeeming:

It sure used to be… We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reason. We passed laws, struck down laws, for moral reason. We waged wars on poverty, not on poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chest. We built great, big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists AND the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election and we didn’t scare so easy. We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed… by great men, men who were revered. First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”

Right. Absolutely. That’s what I mean by American exceptionalism, and it describes the country I was born into and grew up in. And it evokes the sense of loss I have as I look around me today. (And the outrage I feel at the Trumpistas saying they would “make America great again,” when everything they want to do would accomplish the precise opposite.)

Anyway, I was hooked on the show right there. I’ve still only seen the first episode, but I look forward to watching more.

As I said above, I should have more faith in the creator of “The West Wing.” By the way, when I first heard about “The Newsroom,” I had not yet watched “The West Wing,” and in fact had avoided it for similar reasons. I had heard it was a liberal fantasy of what a presidency should be, and I don’t like that kind of stuff from either left or right. But again, I had been misled. And I’m beginning to think the reason why I keep getting misled about Sorkin is that he writes with an intelligence that other media have trouble describing, because their limited “left vs. right” vocabulary lacks the necessary words.

Having had them inadequately described to me, I simply wasn’t ready for shows that spoke so clearly to me, striking a chord that I’d not been told was there.

I may never like it as much as “West Wing,” but I’m pleased so far.

(Oh, and a brief digression that will only be of interest to fellow Sorkin fans: I think in this one, he managed to avoid a mistake he made in “West Wing.” Remember the pilot? Remember how Josh feels blindsided and gets upset because the White House is about to hire back a woman he used to be involved with? Well, the first episode of “The Newsroom” has the exact same plot point: the network boss has hired a woman with whom McAvoy has a past, and he is at first all bent out of shape about it. But this time, I think its going to work out. On “West Wing,” the woman in question, “Mandy,” was the one and only truly grating, irritating character on the show — and Sorkin wisely “ghosted” her before the season was over. She just disappeared, without explanation. This time, I think the character is going to work — I’ve even gotten to where I no longer expect her to mention “avian bird syndrome.” No need to send her to Mandyville — yet. Apparently, Sorkin learns from his mistakes.)

Anyway, to get to my point, more than 1,200 words in…

Let’s go back to that bit about how “We built great, big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists AND the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior….”

Good stuff.

And why don’t we do stuff like that any more? Why did we lose our confidence? Was it just Vietnam, or what? In any case, I’m ready for us to get it back.

As 2019 dawned, The New York Times ran a piece about 1919. An excerpt:

To promote the idea of interstate travel, a military convoy left Washington for California in July 1919. The New York Times called it “the largest aggregation of motor vehicles ever started on a trip of such length.”

But the convoy broke down repeatedly, and took 62 days to reach its destination. It averaged just six miles an hour, and almost didn’t make it out of Utah. As it turned out, there were almost no paved roads between Illinois and Nevada. Decades later, the officer who led the convoy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, would push for a national highway system as president. Even with a well-publicized divide between red and blue states, we can generally reach each other when we need to, and that is another unexpected result of a pivotal year….

No roads? No problem, to the man who whipped Hitler. We’ll build an interstate highway system. It may have taken him awhile, but he got to it eventually.

The first episode of “The Newsroom” is titled, “We Just Decided To.” I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but it takes us back to something Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell says in “Apollo 13” (one of the best movies ever about what’s special about this country):

From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the moon. And it’s not a miracle, we just decided to go.

We just decided to go. And we went.

This week, the Chinese landed a robot on the other side of the moon. They might as well. We lost interest in the place after 1972 — 46 years ago. Yeah, I know, we have those pictures of Ultima Thule, and that’s cool and worth celebrating, truly. But such accomplishments are too few and far between these days.

We live in a time when the most ambitious proposal to “do something big” is to build a gigantic wall on our southern border. It’s big, all right — you’d be able to see it from space. But as a monument to xenophobia, it diminishes the country. It makes us less than we are. It’s about closing, not opening. It is a big, fat NAY to the universe. It is in fact a profoundly depressing thing to contemplate, seeing what we’ve descended to.

Yeah, Ultima Thule. That’s great and all. But I want more. I’ll close with the words with which Hanks closed “Apollo 13:”

I sometimes catch myself looking up at the Moon, remembering the changes of fortune in our long voyage, thinking of the thousands of people who worked to bring the three of us home. I look up at the Moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?

'We just decided to go: Tom Hanks, as Jim Lovell, ponders the moon.

‘We just decided to go: Tom Hanks, as Jim Lovell, ponders the moon.

Yikes! David Brooks is in a dark place as new year dawns

wolves

Another marketplace-of-ideas post, also from the NYT

David Brooks was in kind of a dark place on New Year’s Eve, when the paper published “2019: The Year of the Wolves.”

Yikes. It starts out with an anecdote from a Willa Cather novel about two Russian brothers who had to come live on the American prairie because back home, they had literally thrown a bride and groom to the wolves when a pack of the animals attacked a wedding party. (Which is about what it would have taken to make me do something as insane as go to live on the American prairie in the 19th century, but we can discuss that another time.)

That sets the tone for the way Brooks foresees 2019:

It will be a year of divided government and unprecedented partisan conflict. It will be a year in which Donald Trump is isolated and unrestrained as never before. And it will be in this atmosphere that indictments will fall, provoking not just a political crisis but a constitutional one.

There are now over a dozen investigations into Trump’s various scandals. If we lived in a healthy society, the ensuing indictments would be handled in a serious way — somber congressional hearings, dispassionate court proceedings. Everybody would step back and be sobered by the fact that our very system of law is at stake.

But we don’t live in a healthy society and we don’t have a healthy president….

All of which is true, but come on, dude, leave us a little room for some optimism as the new year begins…

Of course, one reason I keep backing away from political topics in the wake of the election is that I feel this pessimism, too, and it doesn’t suit me. I like hope, and don’t surrender it blithely.

This week, the Democrats take over the House. I know that for a lot of people — probably including some of the folks I worked alongside of in the campaign — this is in itself a cause for hope.

But for me, it’s a harbinger of bitter division that leads to no good outcome. Now that the Republicans have passed on their chance to stand up to Trumpism — which we really, really needed them to do — every move the Democrats make, however needed or well-advised (or otherwise), will be interpreted as something they’re doing just because they are Democrats.

And that will further harden the widely held attitude that it’s all about this party or that party holding a majority plus one. Which mitigates against any likelihood of pulling the country together so we can get through this.

Looking at the bright side, at least I learned from this column a new word: kakistocracy. You can go ahead and look it up if you like, but fair warning: Doing so won’t make you happy…

Kaplan says it’s time to get out of Afghanistan. But there’s a catch

Time to Get Out of Afganistan” over the byline of Robert Kaplan grabbed my eye this morning. Of course, it did so in part because I’m one of the dummies who confuses him with Robert Kagan. But it was still interesting.

It starts out this way:

Kaplan, not Kagan

Kaplan, not Kagan

The decision by President Trump to withdraw 7,000 of the roughly 14,000 American troops left in Afghanistan, possibly by summer, has raised new concerns about his impulsive behavior, especially given his nearly simultaneous decision to pull out all American forces from Syria against the advice of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. But the downsizing of the Afghan mission was probably inevitable. Indeed, it may soon be time for the United States to get out of the country altogether…

And then continues with words that sound like they should be read aloud by Peter Coyote, as I’ve been rewatching Ken Burns’ series on Vietnam during my morning workouts lately:

No other country in the world symbolizes the decline of the American empire as much as Afghanistan. There is virtually no possibility of a military victory over the Taliban and little chance of leaving behind a self-sustaining democracy — facts that Washington’s policy community has mostly been unable to accept….

Not only that, but he suggests that our efforts there, which provide a modicum of stability for the moment, are actually proving to be an advantage to the Chinese, Pakistanis, Indians and Iranians — allowing them to operate in the area with some safety at our expense — than they are to us and out interests.

But before we stark striking camp and heading for home, read what Kaplan writes further down:

An enterprising American diplomat, backed by a coherent administration, could try to organize an international peace conference involving Afghanistan and its neighbors, one focused on denying terrorist groups a base in South-Central Asia.

It is the kind of project that Henry Kissinger, Richard Holbrooke, James Baker III or George Shultz would have taken up in their day. But it is not something anyone can reasonably expect this administration, as chaotic, understaffed and incompetent as it is, to undertake, especially with the departure of Mr. Mattis….

Oh, well…

Why do people expect history to be so simple?

The Post and Courier this week reports on the latest Winthrop Poll, which finds that South Carolinians “remain divided” over what Civil War monuments and Confederate symbols “even mean.”

“Even” as though knowing what they “mean” is a simple matter. That point is mentioned in the lede, but the story doesn’t get back to it until the last graf:

While half of all respondents said they view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of Southern pride, a sharp racial divide still exists. The Winthrop poll found 55 percent of whites view it as Southern pride but 64 percent of African Americans view it as a symbol of racial conflict….

Well, I’ve got news for you: Everybody’s right. It is a symbol of “Southern pride.” It is also a symbol of racial conflict. The two things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are inextricably linked. As I wrote in 2015, just before the flag came down from the State House grounds:

And what did the flag mean? We know. Oh, news reports will affect that priggish, pedantic neutrality peculiar to the trade: “Some people see the flag as meaning this; some see it as meaning that.” But we know, don’t we? It is a way white South Carolinians — some of us, anyway — have had of saying that, despite Appomattox and the civil rights movement: We can do this. We don’t care about you or how you feel about it.

It was a way of telling the world whose state this is

There you have it: both pride and racial conflict.

Oh, and was I saying there was no such thing as a different sort of pride, that in the martial manliness of one’s ancestors? No. That’s all mixed up in there, too. Not that that makes it innocent. Pride is, with good reason, listed as first and most serious of the Seven Deadly Sins. So, you know, not necessarily something to puff your chest out about.

The fact that people do feel so proud of or validated by their ancestors puzzles me. I don’t feel better or worse about myself because I’m descended from Charlemagne (as is, statistically, every person of European ancestry on the planet). I do get a kick out of tracing how I’m descended from him (several ways, in fact, which is also unremarkable), generation by generation. It’s a puzzle, and fun to solve. But am I a better person for being directly descended from him, or from Henry II, or William the Conqueror? Of course not. In fact, while I may not be quite as hostile to monarchy as Mark Twain, I believe there is at least some historical basis for Huck Finn’s assertion that “all kings is mostly rapscallions, as fur as I can make out.”

Queens, too, as I was reminded when I went to see “The Favourite” at the Nickelodeon over the weekend. (Or at least, it was true of those around the queen.) As Huck explained, “Take them all around, they’re a mighty ornery lot. It’s the way they’re raised.” Or perhaps more relevantly, as Hank Morgan said, “Yes, Guenever was beautiful, it is true, but take her all around she was pretty slack.” (One of my favorite Twain lines ever, a perfect example of his way of dragging down romantic pretension with modern matter-of-factness.)

Nor, of course, do I feel bad about myself to be distantly related to such people. I don’t feel responsible for who they were or what they did in the slightest.

Anyway, back to the Confederacy and how we remember it…

That these symbols are about black and white, in the skin color sense, is undeniable. But it’s an error to view them as black or white in the sense of being all this or all that. The world is a more complicated place.

And yet, even smart people are pulled toward trying to make everything all one way or the other.

General Stan McChrystal seems to think so. He thinks you’ve got to go all one way or all the other, as he wrote in The Washington Post recently. His column started this way:

Lee mugFrom my earliest days, Robert E. Lee felt close at hand. I attended Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., and began my soldier’s life at Lee’s alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy. Today, if Lee still lived in his childhood home in Alexandria, Va., we would be neighbors. So it felt appropriate, when I was a young Army lieutenant, that my wife bought me an inexpensive painting of the famed Southern warrior. And from the wall of the many quarters we occupied over 34 years, Lee’s portrait was literally watching over me. Through the lens of military history and our seemingly parallel lives, he was my hero — brilliant, valiant and loyal….

And then, two grafs later, he says:

In the summer of 2017, my wife, Annie, urged me to take down the picture. Disgusted by the images of hate and white supremacy that had descended on Charlottesville in the form of angry, torch-bearing men, she felt that Lee’s picture risked offending guests to our home by sending an unintended message of agreement with the protesters who had sought to preserve a statue of the Marble Man. Initially, I argued that Lee was an example of apolitical loyalty and stoic adherence to duty. But as days passed, I reflected on the way that Lee’s legacy looked to people who hadn’t grown up with my perspective or my privilege. So, on an otherwise unremarkable Sunday morning, I took the painting off the wall and sent it on its way to a local landfill for its final burial. Hardly a hero’s end….

Hardly, indeed.

What do I think? I think if one entertains frequently, one should not have a portrait of Lee hanging where guests would see it, because while a picture is worth a thousand words, they may be different words to different people, and your intent in displaying the image could be wildly misunderstood. And most of us prefer not to be misunderstood.

But consigning it to the trash seems a bit extreme. And I’m not sure what it accomplished. His guests wouldn’t know he had had a portrait of Lee but had thrown it away — unless he told them, which seems a rather priggish, preening, self-congratulatory thing to do. Otherwise, it’s a personal act, and personal statement. And one would think that the respect for Lee that McChrystal had harbored all his life up to that point would keep him from doing such a thing.

I actually have a similar anecdote to tell. Our editorial board room — at least, that’s what we called it back when there was an editorial board — was decorated with past leaders of The State, all from pre-Knight Ridder days, when it was a family owned paper. One of those gents from bygone days wore a small Confederate Flag pin on his lapel.

Occasionally, I would call guests’ attention to it. I wasn’t too worried about them thinking we were neo-Confederates ourselves, given our unmistakable position regarding that flag. I just appreciated the irony, and invited them to do so as well. Eventually, one of our publishers decided to remove it. And I thought that was fine, too. Whether it was there or not did not affect me or who I was or what I thought. But I’m fairly sure he didn’t throw it in the trash. I think it ended up in an unused office, leaning against a wall among unneeded furniture. I don’t know what happened to it since then.

Anyway, I don’t understand why McChrystal thought it had to be one way or the other: Lee all good or Lee all bad. Seems to me it would be more accurate, and more nourishing to the mind, to regard him as one of the most remarkable and fascinating people in our history.

But there it is, that compulsion to see things as all one way or the other.

Let me drag in one more thing — something of a digression — and then I’ll be done.

The same newspaper ran a different item that touched upon this same phenomenon.

It was headlined (at least, in the iPad version I read — other versions treated it more as a subhed) “The Confederacy was built on slavery. How can so many Southern whites still believe otherwise?

It was a long-form magazine piece that involved the reporter following a committed neo-Confederate named Frank Earnest (a name that on its own had to make him an irresistible subject to the reporter and his editors) over the course of a year.

This sort of describes the relationship of the writer and his subject during that year:

As we got better acquainted that week, he explained to me why he thought the Civil War happened, beginning with his core belief that slavery wasn’t the main reason for the conflict. Instead, he argued, secession was a constitutionally permissible response to years of unfair tariffs and taxes imposed on the South by a tyrannical federal government.

Frank considers most journalists to be misguided liberals, and he said he wouldn’t be surprised if I harbored anti-Confederate sentiments. I told him, politely, that the narrative he believes in is an ancient load of bull — that it was promoted by the Confederacy’s adult offspring, the architects of Jim Crow, to burnish their fathers’ legacy and help foster the rebirth of legalized white supremacism in late-19th-century Dixie. Frank said nah, that’s not true. So I said I’d let him tell me his side of the story. I said, “You can explain to me why I’m wrong.”…

Frank tried, and of course failed. His problem is that the facts are not on his side. Just a quick glance through South Carolina’s official declaration of the causes for secession will tell anyone with an open mind that. You don’t have to read it all. Just count the number of times “slave” appears in the document. I’ll go ahead and tell you: 18 times. It was kind of, you know, on their minds.

You may find the piece interesting, particularly as it deals with some of our struggles here in SC over the flag.

But speaking of flags, there was one disturbing thing about the piece. The writer repeatedly referred to the “Stars and Bars” when he apparently meant what we commonly call the battle flag or naval jack, the one dominated by the St. Andrew’s Cross.

One of the most maddening things about debating with neo-Confederates is that they suppose we are ignorant about the “War of Northern Aggression.” In their view, we believe it was about slavery because we just don’t know the facts. They’re wrong, of course, but it would be nice if people who presume to write long pieces in major national publications about how wrong the poor benighted Southerners are would get basic facts right.

I thought about writing to the guy to point out his error, but I knew I’d come across as one of those obsessed neo-Confeds myself unless I did a lot of explaining, and I didn’t feel like it, so I didn’t. And I didn’t need to — someone, possibly Frank Earnest himself — set him straight, so the piece is now accompanied with this editor’s note:

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the term Stars and Bars was used to refer to the most commonly acknowledged Confederate flag. In fact, Stars and Bars refers to a different Confederate flag.

Duh. Meanwhile, Frank Earnest is more sure than ever that them libs who run down the Confederacy just don’t know the facts. Sheesh…

The flag commonly known as the "Stars and Bars."

The flag commonly known as the “Stars and Bars.”

No, seriously, Nikki: I’ve been tuning it out, too

My response this morning to a headline about Nikki Haley may have come across as mocking, or at least facetious:

But the truth is, I HAVE been tuning it out. Or at least, not tuning it in.

Last night, I dropped in as usual to check on my parents, and they were doing something I never do — watching network TV news — and my mother said something about Cohen being sentenced to prison, while none of the others in all this mess had to do time… and I said I didn’t think that was right. I thought I’d heard the other day on the radio that someone had just finished serving a brief sentence and was getting out…

But I couldn’t name the guy. And I really wasn’t sure about it. It was something I had half-heard, without actively listening… although I tend to have good retention of stuff I heard without paying attention — it’s the secret to how I got through school.

When I hear the name of the guy who just got out of jail, I picture this guy. So don't go by me on this...

When I hear the name of the guy who just got out of jail, I picture this guy. So don’t go by me…

(For the purposes of this post, I did a little Googling. Apparently, four people have been sentenced to time behind bars. This was the guy who just got out, after a ridiculously short sentence — 12 days. I can’t tell you anything else about him. Whenever I hear his name, I picture this guy, so don’t go by me.)

Here’s the thing: The whole enterprise seems kind of pointless to me. I mean, I think the Mueller investigation needs to continue, for very serious reasons: We need to know all we can about the Russian effort to disrupt our elections — the 2016 one and especially future ones. We need to get a LOT more savvy about that stuff, and stop being so absurdly gullible as a people.

But I’m not terribly optimistic that that’s going to happen in a post-truth America.

And anyway, I sense that the reason other people pay so much attention to this investigation and its resultant prosecutions is that they think it has bearing on Donald Trump’s fate.

It doesn’t, near as I can can see. If you’re counting on, say, impeachment, dream on. Impeachment is a political act, and the Senate is in thrall to Trump. And even if the Dems had succeeded in capturing the Senate, impeachment would not have been a viable option. It probably would have exacerbated the sickness in our body politic that produced Trump.

The political significance of the Cohen prosecution has nothing to do with violation of campaign finance laws. It has to do with him paying off a porn star at Trump’s behest. That’s something we knew before the election, and it had zero effect on the people who voted for him. As it continues to do.

That’s how low we have sunk as a country. And you might say my dropping of names of Watergate figures was an act of nostalgia on my part, a longing for a time when facts mattered, and the nation had standards.

I watched “All the President’s Men” again the other night. Such a wonderful film, on so many levels. The wistfulness I feel watching it goes far beyond remembering the days when newspapers were healthy and vital. It goes to a time when, if the public learned that people in and around high public office did bad things, that was it.

Once it reached the Oval Office, and the non-denial denials weren’t working any more, Nixon was toast. And being the master politician he was, he knew that. So he resigned. And in retrospect we can see that maybe he did so in part because of something missing today — a sense of honor, a wish to avoid putting the country through the trauma of impeachment.

We didn’t lose that all at once. It took time. And Democrats who congratulate themselves on still having standards should remember that 20 years ago one of their own did NOT resign, despite having been caught in impeachable acts, including brazenly lying to the American people.

Things are worse now, of course. Facts at least still mattered a bit in 1998. They don’t now, with a shockingly large portion of the electorate.

I appreciate what Mueller is trying to do, and I appreciate him, as sort of the last Boy Scout, a guy who still believes in the importance of facts.

But I just can’t get interested enough to follow the details. So I’m like Nikki there…

 

 

OK, Mr. Fukuyama, you’ve got my attention

I subscribe to an app for The New Yorker on my iPad, and it is through that that I read the magazine.

Through that, but not on that. I mean through the subscription, but not on the app. Although I read practically everything else — The State, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and sometimes The Guardian and the Post and Courier — via their respective iPad apps, I usually interact with this subscription through a completely different mechanism. Oddly enough, through email alerts. I read practically nothing else that way. In fact, I’ve recently embarked on a ruthless campaign of unsubscribing from every email list that I once, however fleetingly, had thought would interest me.

But not The New Yorker. I can’t explain it to you, but they seem to have hit on a formula that engages my interest where other emailers have failed miserably. One of the interesting features of this formula is that the articles the messages link me to are not all from the most recent issue. The emails mine the entire archive of the magazine; the items they lead me to read may have run months, years, even decades ago. And they tend to be fascinating. (Also, this approach supports the way I see the world of ideas: If it was worth saying last year, or in 1939, it’s worth saying today. Worthwhile ideas are timeless.)

Anyway, this week I was led by an email to read an item from back in September of this year, headlined “Francis Fukuyama Postpones the End of History,” with the subhed, “The political scientist argues that the desire of identity groups for recognition is a key threat to liberalism.”

Well, y’all know how I feel about identity politics, so I dug in eagerly, and after a brief rehash of Mr. Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis of three decades ago, I got to the nut grafs:

Twenty-nine years later, it seems that the realists haven’t gone anywhere, and that history has a few more tricks up its sleeve. It turns out that liberal democracy and free trade may actually be rather fragile achievements. (Consumerism appears safe for now.) There is something out there that doesn’t like liberalism, and is making trouble for the survival of its institutions.

Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama

Fukuyama thinks he knows what that something is, and his answer is summed up in the title of his new book, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The demand for recognition, Fukuyama says, is the “master concept” that explains all the contemporary dissatisfactions with the global liberal order: Vladimir Putin, Osama bin Laden, Xi Jinping, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, gay marriage, isis, Brexit, resurgent European nationalisms, anti-immigration political movements, campus identity politics, and the election of Donald Trump. It also explains the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, Chinese Communism, the civil-rights movement, the women’s movement, multiculturalism, and the thought of Luther, Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, and Simone de Beauvoir. Oh, and the whole business begins with Plato’s Republic…

Which made me think, I need to go read that book. Even though I know that with such books, I tend to find satisfaction in the way the idea is presented in the first chapter (actually, more like the introduction, because the first chapter usually starts getting into the weeds), and then lose interest. I’m like, “Got it!,” and I want to move on before the explication drags on for the next 20 chapters or so.

In fact, in this case I may even be satisfied with the idea as set out in the two grafs above. You know how it is with those of us who are so “N” on the Myers-Briggs scale as to be off the chart: I perceive rightness in those few words and am immediately ready to applaud and move on to the next thing.

But not Louis Menand, the gentleman who wrote the article. In fact, the words I quote above are immediately followed by these:

Fukuyama covers all of this in less than two hundred pages. How does he do it?

Not well….

Frankly, I’m not enough of an intellectual, public or private, to follow Mr. Menand’s objections. They have to do with esoteric considerations of certain terms used by Plato, Hegel and an influential 20th-century dude named Alexandre Kojève.

Alexandre Kojève

Alexandre Kojève

Along the way, he sort of loses me the way, say, arguments between difference feminists and “do-me” feminists over which possesses the purest understanding of feminism. Or whatever. I like esoteric things. In fact, I was very excited back in school when I first learned the word “esoteric” because it gave me a term for describing some things that I liked. But even a good thing can be run into the ground.

All of the objections seem beside the point to me. They don’t really refute the idea that all those movements and phenomena described above are related to the identity impulse. Not so I can tell, anyway.

In fact, Mr. Menand helps me figure out a way to remove the fly in the ointment of the passage I like so much above. I was bothered somewhat by the fact that ideas and movements I tend to dismiss, or even abhor — such as campus identity politics and the election of Donald Trump — are described as springing from the same source as the civil rights movement.

But Menand helps me dismiss that concern, perhaps inadvertently, with this:

Wouldn’t it be important to distinguish people who ultimately don’t want differences to matter, like the people involved in #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, from people who ultimately do want them to matter, like isis militants, Brexit voters, or separatist nationalists? And what about people who are neither Mexican nor immigrants and who feel indignation at the treatment of Mexican immigrants? Black Americans risked their lives for civil rights, but so did white Americans. How would Socrates classify that behavior? Borrowed thymos?

Ah. Perfect. Those thoughts suggest to me a standard: The legitimacy of a movement or phenomenon linked to identity can be determined by the extent to which reasonable people outside the group can agree with it, even advocate it.

Nice. Neat. Perhaps too neat. Perhaps it appeals because it gives us old white guys a potential role to play. But I like it, and I think I’m going to stop while I’m enjoying it, before the objections that I sense are about to pounce on it from the shadows do their worst….

Read fast! Scientists say we’ve only got two minutes…

Dr. Manhattan in the press conference scene.

Dr. Manhattan in the press conference scene.

On a previous post, our own Norm Ivey proposed a new qualification for public office — “that all government officials must have a scientific background.” Mr. Smith demurred, saying “A background in science does not provide any unique insight into the public good.”

I’m with Mr. Smith. The science boffins are all very well and good within their respective fields. They can help you win a war with a handy gadget from time to time, for instance.

But I don’t see them as having any sort of particular skill at, say, keeping us out of a war in the first place. When it comes to diplomacy and politics, give me someone schooled in the humanities, with a particularly strong grounding in history and highly developed word skills.

Mixing science and politics gets you weird things like the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I was thinking about how silly that device is while watching “Watchmen” while working out one morning this week. Remember the press conference scene in which Dr. Manhattan is asked for a reaction to the fact that the scientists have moved the Clock to “four minutes to midnight?” The super-duper hero is dismissive:

My father was a watchmaker.

He abandoned it when Einstein discovered that time is relative.

I would only agree that a symbolic clock…

…is as nourishing to the intellect…

…as a photograph of oxygen to a drowning man.

OK, so that analogy doesn’t really work. Maybe the person who wrote that bit of dialogue was a scientist rather than a wordsmith.

Anyway, what I would say is that the Clock attempts to quantify the unquantifiable. It has NO application to the real world. There’s no way to make use of such information.

800px-Doomsday_clock_(2_minutes).svgYou doubt me on this? OK, let’s test it scientifically. Right now the Clock says it’s two minutes to midnight (which is way WORSE than in the movie when everyone is expecting nuclear war, by the way). Now that you know that, wait two minutes. Has nuclear war occurred? No? Wait another two minutes. Test the proposition several times, if you like. You’ll find it’s not scientifically sound….

(And don’t tell me I’m being too literal. I’m just trying to play by the rules of science, which is pretty useless if it’s not literal, measurable, empirical. Which is why it gets itself in trouble when it ventures into metaphor.)

Oh, wait: I see the scientists have tried to improve their odds of being right by enlarging the symbolic meaning of “midnight” to denote global climate change as well as global thermonuclear war. So… since climate change is already happening, they guarantee that they are “right,” in a sense. Which, in a temporal sense, makes for an entirely different dynamic from the nuclear war metaphor.

Sheesh.

To me, it just underlines the silliness of the whole business. At the very least, it lacks precision

Max Boot is now a free man

Meant to post earlier this week about Max Boot’s column headlined: “I left the Republican ideological bubble. I don’t want to join another.” An excerpt:

Max BootNow that I’ve left the Republican Party, I am often asked why I simply haven’t become a Democrat. In part it’s because I don’t agree with the progressive wing of the party: Some of them are as protectionist, isolationist and fiscally irresponsible as President Trump. But it’s also because, after having spent my entire adult life in one ideological bubble, I don’t want to join another. I refuse to make excuses for Trump — and I don’t want to be tempted to make excuses for a future Democratic president, either, as so many did for Bill Clinton after his sexual misconduct…

Of course, one doesn’t have to succumb to such foolishness to identify with a party, but there is that danger.

That arises from the intellectual dishonesty that party identification fosters. One falls into the habit of supporting (or at least failing to oppose) the stupidest things advocated by members of one’s own party, and opposing the wisest notions that arise from the other. Boot uses similar words to describe the problem:

One gets the sense, as my Post colleague Jennifer Rubin wrote, that if progressives championed the theory of gravity, conservatives would denounce it. In fact, public-opinion research suggests that many Republicans would be likely to support climate-change solutions if they were proposed by Republican leaders — and conversely many Democrats would be likely to oppose them even if they would have backed the very same policies when put forward by Democrats. We’ve already seen the parties flip positions on Russia because of Trump. That is the danger of ideology, and why I strive for an empirical, non-ideological approach instead, even if that leaves me in a political no-man’s land where I am sniped at by both sides.

Frankly, I didn’t think of Boot as being stuck in GOP thought ruts to begin with. He has seemed independent-minded for some time. But I’m glad that he feels he’s been freed of such habits.

Anyway, welcome to the UnParty, Max…

Another sad thing: My sojourn in a Trump-free world is over

James Smith and Mandy Powers Norrell told me they wanted to bring me onto their campaign in a meeting on June 26 in Mandy’s legislative office in the Blatt building.

I don’t know what brought it up, but at some point I said something like, “One thing I feel sure of, you don’t win this election by talking about Donald Trump.”

“THANK you!” said Mandy. Apparently, she’d heard too many people give her advice that differed from that. Being from a county that went overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016 — but one that loved her enough that she faced no opposition from either party for her House seat this year — she saw us as having nothing to gain talking about you-know-who.

The pattern was set there and then. Henry McMaster would be about Donald Trump, and Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton, and abortion, and other names and ideas that divide us on the national level. We would talk about South Carolina issues that we face in common — SC schools, SC healthcare, energy for SC, our roads and other infrastructure. This would not be a simple matter of political expedience in a red state — the truth was that those issues were the reasons James and Mandy were running. They wanted to provide leadership on issues that matter to South Carolina, not play the stupid 24/7 national partisan talking-points game. Everything about their public lives up to that point underlined that fact. This was who they were.

There would be times in which it was impossible to completely avoid that person’s name, or the policies he propagates — such as when his tariffs threatened some of the best jobs in South Carolina — but our emphasis would be on emphasizing Henry’s refusal to distance himself from those policies.

Within the campaign, if someone embarked upon a sentence that could not end logically without acknowledging the existence of the person who is currently POTUS, we — and especially the candidates — would usually handle it by calling him “45.”

So, I spent a blessed 14 weeks, plus a day or two, without having to think about him. It was wonderful. It wasn’t hard, because I didn’t have time to think about him. I didn’t have time to think about the things I needed to think about, much less the occupant of the White House. I spent most of my breakfast reading time on The State and the Post and Courier, and neglected my usual Washington Post and New York Times. I’d skim those national outlets, but I wouldn’t dig in.

The only thing that marred my bliss from being in a Trumpless universe was the reporters who wanted to drag him, or other national shouting-match issues, into this far better world. “What does James think about Brett Kavanaugh?” “What effect is Trump having on your race?” Or the ultimate “have you stopped beating your wife” question, “Are you for or against abolishing ICE?” (Usually, these came from national outlets — the last one from the right-wing Daily Caller, which seemed to do little but ask such questions — and I felt OK ignoring those. Nothing against national journalists, but unless they were asking about something that bore on the job of governor of South Carolina, they were a waste of my scarce time. But occasionally, to my great dismay, such questions came from South Carolina outlets. Sometimes I ignored those, too; mostly I answered with our campaign’s raison d’être: “We are completely focused on South Carolina issues…”)

But now, those happy days are over. There’s little in the SC papers to interest me — certainly nothing to absorb me with the intensity of the campaign — and I’m drifting back to those opinion pieces in the Post, the Times and elsewhere.

And you know who keeps coming up there, in pieces by writers from across the political spectrum. With a certain resignation, I allow myself to think about what they’re saying. And occasionally, someone says something worth saying.

As you know, I rather enjoy Ross Douthat’s High Tory-but-unpredictable approach to things, and I thought he made a good point here the other day:

Generally, Donald Trump’s Twitter beefs are an expense of spirit and a waste of breath. But a minority of them are genuinely edifying, and illustrations of his likely world-historical role — which is not to personally bring down our constitutional republic, but to reveal truths about our political situation, through his crudeness and goading of others, that might be harbingers of the Republic’s eventual end…

Indeed. The problem with Trump isn’t Trump himself. When he was a national joke on both the left and the right, someone everyone could safely ignore, everything was fine. The problem is that enough voted for him to make him president. The problem is out there, in the electorate.  That is the thing that could be the sign of the Republic’s end. He is just a sort of canary in the coal mine, except that the warning isn’t that he’s keeling over, but that he thrives, at least with a dangerously large segment of the population.

The rest of Douthat’s piece is worth reading as well, particularly his evocation of the danger posed by “the steady atrophy of legislative power and flight from legislative responsibility” on Capitol Hill.

I was a bit disappointed today by neocon Jennifer Rubin. Her headline, “Trump’s incoherence is too much — and it’s getting worse” — drew me in because it made me think the piece would concentrate on his constant abuse of the English language, a topic always near to my heart. She started promisingly enough:

Jennifer RubinPresident Trump has never been a model of consistency or coherence. However, as pressure builds both from looming investigations and the impending transfer of power in the House from the Republican majority to the Democrats, his ability to maintain even the pretense of normalcy and rationality begins to crumble. That’s true on both foreign and domestic policy, giving the impression of a president teetering on the brink of a complete meltdown….

But on the whole coherence wasn’t the issue so much as erratic behavior and policy inconsistency. So, you know, the usual stuff…

Then, from the center-left, we have E.J. Dionne’s piece today, “This is the only Trump syndrome we need to worry about.” The syndrome he means is “denial — a blind refusal to face up to how much damage Trump is willing to inflict on our system of self-rule, and on our values,” with particular concern expressed for “the cost to the United States of abandoning any claim that it prefers democracy to dictatorship and human rights to barbarism.”

I think the part I liked best, though, was when E.J. specifically pointed to the very same problem Douthat lamented, the abdication of responsibility on the part of the legislative branch:

E.J. DionneTrump’s crude statement backing the Saudis was too much even for many in the GOP. “I never thought I’d see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) wrote on Twitter.

But Republicans have said all sorts of things about Trump and then backed off when it mattered. (See: Cruz, above.) They have long tolerated the praise he regularly lavishes on dictators. They have been eager to moonlight themselves as Trump PR firms as long as he delivered tax cuts and judges….

Anyway… I’ve been dragged back into the world where people talk and write about Trump. I suppose I should take solace from the fact that at least some smart people are doing so thoughtfully — although whether their thoughtfulness is enough to light our way out of this mess remains to be seen…

Again, we see what should be obvious: Politicians are people

This is related to David Brooks’ “personalism” column I brought up the other day.

More than that, it’s an evocation of a theme I frequently bring up in my quixotic effort to foster a sort of politics that isn’t about the partisan lie that breaks everything down to an absolutist battle between angels and devils, black and white. You can find some of my future references to this by searching this blog for the phrase, “politicians are people.”hJIDR8t4_400x400

And yeah, I know it sounds dumb every time I say it, but try to bear with me anyway, because while I may seem to be saying something everybody knows, too few of us act like we know it.

I don’t know state Rep. Katie Arrington. If I’ve met her, I don’t recall. I haven’t had direct dealings with her — again, that I recall. I don’t seem to have mentioned her in the 13 years that I’ve been blogging. She follows me on Twitter, but I don’t follow her (something I may amend after I’ve posted this).

Before this morning, therefore, all I really knew about her was that she was the woman Donald Trump backed against Mark Sanford. Which was not exactly something to recommend her to me. Here was Sanford doing something I approved of for the first time in years — standing up to Trump — and she took him down for it.

In other words, I was aware of her about on the level of the description in this headline this morning on my Washington Post app:

Katie Arrington, GOP lawmaker who defeated Sanford, seriously injured in car accident

But now, suddenly, we are reminded that this symbol of the cause keeping the GOP in line behind Trump is a human being, and one whom people who know her care about. Not just her family or friends, not just Trump supporters and not just Republicans.

The first sign of this for me was from my own representative, Micah Caskey:

Now lest you think, aw, he’s a Republican and is kowtowing to the Trump crowd, note that his last Tweet before that was this:

No, no one should be surprised that Micah Caskey, whom I regard as an excellent representative in almost every way, would reach out with compassion to a colleague at such a time. It has nothing to do with political alliances.

That is supported by such tweets as these:

And finally:

Yeah, go ahead you scoffers and dismiss all that as empty, insincere posturing by politicians. But here’s the thing: I know these people, even though I don’t know Rep. Arrington. And here’s another thing: They didn’t have to do this on a Saturday morning. No one was sticking a microphone in their faces and demanding that they take a position.

And in their concern, I realize she’d not just a headline or a campaign or a position. She’s someone they’ve worked with face-to-face, day after day. She’s someone they’ve encountered as a real person.

And through the concern of people I do know as people, I am brought to a fuller understanding of Katie Arrington as a complete, three-dimensional human being, someone who exists fully and independently of the headlines about her.

And having my awareness of her thus deepened, I hope and pray for her full recovery, and that of her friend who was injured, and that the family of the driver who was killed be comforted in their loss.

Yeah, I know that on a certain level what I’m saying sounds idiotic. Of course people show their concern, sincerely or insincerely, when someone they know is seriously hurt. This proves nothing. But try to see what I’m trying to point out: that most of the time, most people don’t see these people as fully-realized human beings, but rather as caricatures. And if our system of deliberative democracy is ever to have a chance to recover and be functional, we have to see through that, and see people as whole, so we can deal with them effectively and constructively.

Dumb as it sounds, I’m going to keep saying it, because on a critical level where we need to be interacting productively, too few of us act as though we truly realize it: Politicians are people.

And this one is hurting right now…

David Brooks’ excellent column advocating ‘personalism’

Cindi Scoppe and I used to go back and forth over the enduring value of op-ed columns.

Her view was that if they’re good, they’re good, and if she had to wait two or even three weeks to get a good column into the paper, she’d do it.

I saw them as far more perishable. With syndicated columns, I didn’t want our readers to see them more than a day after they were first published elsewhere. I had a prejudice in favor of columns from the Washington Post Writers Group, because they sent them out in real time, as soon as they went to the Post‘s own editors, so we were able to publish George Will, Kathleen Parker and Charles Krauthammer in the same day’s paper as the Post. The New York Times, by contrast, didn’t move their columns on the wire until after we were done with our opinion pages — so the best I could do was run Tom Friedman and David Brooks a day after they were in the Times.

Past that, even when a column was really good, it would tend to lose out to something fresher if I were picking the columns that week.

There are arguments for both points of view, of course, and the relative value of the opposing approaches could vary according the particular column. Today, I’m very happy that today The State ran a David Brooks column that first appeared on June 14, a whole week ago. (It was his column before the column that I mentioned in the Open Thread two days ago — therefore quite moldy by my usual standards.)

I had missed it when it first ran. And it wasn’t perishable at all.

The headline was “Personalism: The Philosophy We Need,” and it won me over from the start:

One of the lessons of a life in journalism is that people are always way more complicated than you think. We talk in shorthand about “Trump voters” or “social justice warriors,” but when you actually meet people they defy categories. Someone might be a Latina lesbian who loves the N.R.A. or a socialist Mormon cowboy from Arizona.Brooks_New-articleInline_400x400

Moreover, most actual human beings are filled with ambivalences. Most political activists I know love parts of their party and despise parts of their party. A whole lifetime of experience, joy and pain goes into that complexity, and it insults their lives to try to reduce them to a label that ignores that.

Yet our culture does a pretty good job of ignoring the uniqueness and depth of each person. Pollsters see in terms of broad demographic groups. Big data counts people as if it were counting apples. At the extreme, evolutionary psychology reduces people to biological drives, capitalism reduces people to economic self-interest, modern Marxism to their class position and multiculturalism to their racial one. Consumerism treats people as mere selves — as shallow creatures concerned merely with the experience of pleasure and the acquisition of stuff….

Yes! And going back up to his mention of journalism at the top…. most news coverage is as guilty as any of these other culprits of trying to cram people into boxes that aren’t made to fit them. As I’ve said many times, too many journalists write about politics the way they would about sports: There are only two teams, and you have to subscribe to one or the other — Democrat or Republican, left or right, black or white. And one is always winning, which means the other is losing — you’re up or you’re down.

Which I hate. One of my motives for blogging is the same as my aims when I was editorial page editor: to provide a forum where we could talk about the world and public policy in different, fairer, less polarized and more accurate terms. The truth is that almost nothing about human affairs is black or white. And I’ve always wanted to provide a forum where that aspect of truth could reign, and lead to more productive conversations.

In this column, Brooks is talking about the same thing I’m talking about when I say “people are people.” Which sounds vaguely stupid, I know, but I mean they’re not just “liberals” or “conservatives” or members of this team or that team, or predictable because of some demographic accident — they’re complicated.

And I think the only way we can write and talk about people and public affairs is to acknowledge that complexity at all times — to get past the black and white and not only deal with the gray, but with the full range of color and combinations of colors.

Anyway, you should read the full column. It’s full of good bits on the meaning of life and other things that are hard to squeeze into so few words. It’s so good I suspect the Brooks haters have been out in force trying to tear it apart over the past week. I’ll close with the ending:

The big point is that today’s social fragmentation didn’t spring from shallow roots. It sprang from worldviews that amputated people from their own depths and divided them into simplistic, flattened identities. That has to change. As Charles Péguy said, “The revolution is moral or not at all.”

Amen.

Lynn Teague on the Legislature’s unfinished business

When I saw this Tweet yesterday, it gave me an idea:

In my church, we confess every week as follows: “I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do…”

That last part is where I, personally, fall down the most. So I take it seriously.

I asked Lynn if she would write us a blog post on what our lawmakers “have failed to do.” She kindly obliged, and here’s her report:

What Remains at the State House

The General Assembly just canceled their scheduled return to Columbia for May 23-24 to work on unfinished business. The conference committee on S. 954 and H. 4375 has been scheduled for Wednesday, but there will be no meeting of the whole House and Senate until the end of June. What haven’t they done? What should they be doing before the days dwindle down to a precious few?

Lynn Teague

Lynn Teague

Their work for the remainder of 2018 is defined by the sine die resolution, passed before their departure from Columbia on May 10. Under that resolution, they can return to deal with the state budget, anything related to V. C. Summer, legislation to make the state tax code conform to changes in the federal tax code, bills that have been passed in both houses and are now in conference committee, and some local legislation. They have given themselves until November to do this. That is far too late for some of the remaining bills.

First, the state needs a budget. The government won’t shut down if the budget doesn’t pass by July 1, but it would surely be better to let agencies know what they have to work with at the start of the fiscal year. The budget also includes important provisos that are there in part because the General Assembly failed to pass other needed bills. Legislators should be working now to resolve their differences on those.

What else should legislators do when they return? They must surely bring our tax system into conformity with changes in the federal tax code, either by reconciling H.5341 and S. 1258 in conference or by writing a new bill. This is an area in which failure to act could be costly for South Carolina’s citizens.

And then there are the utilities. Of course, the utilities, which everyone said were the sole focus of the 2018 session. And yet, bills to resolve both short-term and long-term issues arising from the catastrophic failure of V. C. Summer remain to be passed. Some of the delay can be attributed to differences between House and Senate. Some can be attributed to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that was not inclined to haste. I wouldn’t say that they were slow, but substantial parts of the Greenland ice sheet collapsed between meetings. So now a significant amount of work remains to be done.

S 954 is best known for the ongoing battle between House and Senate over the amount of a temporary rate suspension, whether 13% or 18%. With each passing day, we pay more to SCANA for something that we aren’t getting because this isn’t resolved. However, in the long term the more important aspect of this bill is the PSC schedule, which would give all participants certainty of a schedule to resolve the complex issues surrounding SCANA and its exorbitant rates. This schedule is especially important given SCANA’s stonewalling of discovery requests from intervenors and the Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS) at the PSC, delaying the ability of stakeholders to examine material evidence.

Other surviving utility bills include H.4375, amending the Base Load Review Act (BLRA) that made the V. C. Summer catastrophe possible. Retroactive repeal would be lovely, but is pretty surely unconstitutional. The most important elements of H. 4375 are preventing future use of the BLRA and introducing a definition of prudency, a central concept in evaluating whether SCANA’s costs at V. C. Summer were legitimately incurred. Another bill, H. 4379, creates a consumer advocate and removes the serious conflicts currently embedded in the ORS mission statement. The first two of these bills are on the agenda for the Wednesday conference committee, but H. 4379 is not yet in conference. Legislators must be working to resolve their differences on these bills before proceedings at the PSC and in the courts move further forward.

Those are the absolutely necessary bills for June. We are sure that legislators expect to dig in and move fast when they return to Columbia, but there is a lot to do. November is too late for much of it. July is too late for some of it.

Two other important utility bills, H. 4377 and H. 4378, were never heard in Senate Judiciary subcommittee, but nevertheless could and should be taken up under the sine die resolution. No one has indicated any intention to do this, but it is possible and needed so it is worth mentioning. H. 4377 makes important changes to strengthen the qualifications of members of the PSC and improve their access to information. We need that. PSC members shouldn’t be just representatives of local areas there to look out for local interests, they must be technically and legally competent to address the complex issues before the PSC.

H. 4378 revised the membership of the powerful State Regulation of Utilities Review Committee (PURC) that oversees the whole regulatory system. It gives the Governor appointments to this important body and ensures that legislators are not a majority on the committee. We badly need this. However, at present H.4378 does not go far enough. We should also prohibit members of PURC, their immediate families, and the businesses with which they are associated from receiving income, donations, or gifts from any regulated monopoly. At present they can receive all of these benefits from the industries that they oversee. This should end, now.

So, with all that time until November, there is no good reason for the General Assembly not to take up these other bills and actually reform our regulatory system.

Lynn is more diplomatic about all that than I would be, but she sure knows her stuff, and I felt a post from her would be far more informative than one from me…

Weak parties, strong partisanship: a poisonous combination

1964_Democratic_National_Convention_2

Back when parties were parties…

Our own Karen Pearson said some very true things in this comment:

I’m all for keeping “parties ” out of it. We’re far too far along the way of voting for party instead of person. The candidates are forced to go farther and farther left or right in order to win a prime spot in their own party. This response encourages each party to go become even more “liberal” or “conservative.” Which means that in the next election the division becomes even greater, and ultimately excludes one side or the other from any possible voice in the ruling party. The ability of government to function disintegrates. Then we all stand around and decry our representatives because they can’t get anything done. This is madness.

She’s absolutely right, talking about the parties we have today. But her excellent points remind me of a phrase I’ve been hearing a good bit in recent years, most recently in a Dana Milbank column this morning in The Washington Post:

Political scientists have observed that American politics has deteriorated into an unstable combination of weak parties and strong partisanship — dry brush for the likes of Trump and Blankenship to ignite. The 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform restricted party fundraising, and the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling in 2010 essentially destroyed parties by giving everybody else freedom to spend unlimited sums to buy politicians. The moderating influence of parties was replaced by the radicalizing influence of dark money.

Related to this, partisanship in Washington escalated, aggravated by partisan redistricting that puts almost all House members in safe seats where the only threat comes from primaries. Primary voters tend to favor extreme candidates — who, once in Congress, turn politics into warfare.

Democrats suffer from the weak party/strong partisanship phenomenon too, as seen in the Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) campaign’s squabbles with the Democratic National Committee and the recent efforts by some Sanders followers to taint any candidate supported by the party. But the problem is most severe among Republicans…

Oh, excuse me. I meant this phrase: “an unstable combination of weak parties and strong partisanship.” Milbank cites “political scientists,” plural, but the phrase seems to have started on its current rounds with Julia Azari, a political science blogger and prof at Marquette University. As she put it a few days before the 2016 election, “The defining characteristic of our moment is that parties are weak while partisanship is strong.” And as she said, that’s a bad combination.

Y’all know I don’t think much of parties. But that’s largely because of what they’ve become. If they were more like what David Broder used to reminisce about, reliable institutions for winnowing candidates and putting forth the strongest ones — institutions that answered the question, “Who sent you?” — I wouldn’t hold them in such contempt.

We’re not just talking about the most dramatic case — the GOP’s utter helplessness to keep Donald Trump from waltzing in and taking their presidential nomination. A weak GOP is what gave us the Tea Party — which toppled party stalwarts left and right. It’s what weakened John McCain’s hand and made him think he had to pick Sarah Palin as his running mate instead of Joe Lieberman. More recently, it’s given us Roy Moore, and now this Blankenship yahoo in West Virginia. Line up enough know-nothing extremists behind you, and the party is helpless.

And Democrats, don’t think you’re immune. Some of the same forces weakening the GOP have been at work on your party for a long time. The Bernie bros whine about how the party leadership tried to cheat their guy out of the nomination. What stuff. In a time of strong parties, Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have had to spend a moment’s thought on Bernie Sanders. She’d have been a shoo-in, and she wouldn’t have done any of that pandering to extremes, such as turning against TPP.

Look back at my post about James and Micah. If the Democrats had a strong party, I would just go ahead and vote for Micah in the Republican primary, knowing that James had the Democratic nomination for governor locked up — everybody who is anybody in the party is lined up solidly behind him. But as polls have shown, Phil Noble — and to a lesser extent Marguerite Willis — have a shot (a long shot, but a shot) at denying it to him. Or at least forcing him into a runoff — which given the weakness of their candidacies should be impossible.

You don’t believe those polls? Well, I’m not convinced by them, either. But folks, this is the South Carolina Democratic primary electorate, the crowd that gave you Alvin Greene. A lot of people gave then-chair Carol Fowler hell for not preventing Greene from sneaking in and taking the U.S. Senate nomination. But what could she have done?

And folks, Alvin Greene wasn’t entirely a fluke. Such absurd things happen when parties are this weak.

Milbank is wrong to blame the problem on money, by the way. Sure, that can exacerbate the problem, but the fact is that Broder and others were writing about this in 1991, long before the campaign-finance developments that Milbank bemoans.

A lot of trends have gone into destroying parties. The rise of radical individualism and decline of institutions in general have done a great deal to undermine parties’ ability to produce the best candidates — as has the growth of excessive faith in direct democracy (such as primaries usurping the decision-making prerogatives of conventions), which has been a long-term problem throughout our history.

Lately, the decline in traditional news media (this morning on the radio, I heard the number of professional journalists plying their trade in this country was now half what it was 15 years ago; I’m shocked the number isn’t far lower than that), combined with the rise of new media that make every Tom, Dick and Harry his own publisher, have accelerated the problem. Not caused it, but further pushed a wheelchair that was already going downhill pretty fast. The cost for extremist flakes to go it alone is now lower than ever.

Combine all that with partisan redistricting, which forces the people who get elected under party banners to become more and more extreme, and the result is that our electorate is filled with people who have little loyalty to and no deference toward parties as institutions, but who are filled with passionate, increasingly extreme partisan sentiment, defining themselves as the only good people, and those who vote for candidates of that other party as the enemy.

And it just keeps spinning further out of control….

What does it say about me that I didn’t know what ‘idiot’ meant?

idiot word cloud

I love discovering things about words. I love it the way… well, probably the way some of y’all like football. I get a rush out of it, and I can’t stop talking about it.

The discovery I made this morning is a big one, full of meaning, a discovery that sends tentacles of understanding into a lot of things that matter to me. It ranks up there among my most exciting word finds ever, right alongside when I learned the word “esoteric” in high school. (For years I had wanted a word for that concept, and I finally had one. I confess I overused it for some time after that.)

This morning, I learned what “idiot” means. Or rather, what it meant originally, which for me tends to be the same thing.

I can’t believe I didn’t know this before. I feel like such an… well, you know….

I learned it from TV, of all places. At the very end of the fourth and last installment of the documentary mini-series “Bobby Kennedy for President,” which I was watching while working out on the elliptical this morning. At the very end, Kennedy aide William J. Arnone says:

One thing that Robert Kennedy taught me, Robert Kennedy would say, ‘The word, “idiot” in Greek, you know what it means? “One who is not involved in politics.”‘ But he instilled in me that you must be involved in politics. Must, must, must. You cannot be on the sidelines.

I thought, wow — that’s just too good to be true. But it isn’t. That’s what it meant to the ancient Athenians. A person who wrapped himself in the personal, the private, and turned his back on politics and the community was called an “idiot.” Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Idiot is a word derived from the Greek ἰδιώτηςidiōtēs (“person lacking professional skill”, “a private citizen”, “individual”), from ἴδιοςidios (“private”, “one’s own”).[1] In ancient Greece, people who were not capable of engaging in the public sphere were considered “idiotes”, in contrast to the public citizen, or “polites”[2]. In Latin the word idiota (“ordinary person, layman”) preceded the Late Latin meaning “uneducated or ignorant person”.[3] Its modern meaning and form dates back to Middle English around the year 1300, from the Old French idiote (“uneducated or ignorant person”). The related word idiocy dates to 1487 and may have been analogously modeled on the words prophet[4] and prophecy.[5][6] The word has cognates in many other languages.

An idiot in Athenian democracy was someone who was characterized by self-centeredness and concerned almost exclusively with private—as opposed to public—affairs.[7] Idiocy was the natural state of ignorance into which all persons were born and its opposite, citizenship, was effected through formalized education.[7] In Athenian democracy, idiots were born and citizens were made through education (although citizenship was also largely hereditary). “Idiot” originally referred to a “layman, person lacking professional skill”. Declining to take part in public life, such as democratic government of the polis (city state), was considered dishonorable. “Idiots” were seen as having bad judgment in public and political matters. Over time, the term “idiot” shifted away from its original connotation of selfishness and came to refer to individuals with overall bad judgment–individuals who are “stupid“. According to the Bauer-Danker Lexicon, the noun ίδιωτής in ancient Greek meant “civilian” (ref Josephus Bell 2 178), “private citizen” (ref sb 3924 9 25), “private soldier as opposed to officer,” (Polybius 1.69), “relatively unskilled, not clever,” (Herodotus 2,81 and 7 199).[8] The military connotation in Bauer’s definition stems from the fact that ancient Greek armies in the time of total war mobilized all male citizens (to the age of 50) to fight, and many of these citizens tended to fight poorly and ignorantly.

Wow. My whole life, I have tried to learn and become one of the polites, and to urge others to do the same — with mixed success on both counts. Often I’ve done so overtly, such as when I set out my dichotomy about the contrast between people who see themselves as consumers and those who see themselves as citizens. Sometimes it’s less overt, but I’m always arguing that one of the first things a person must learn as a member of a community is how we are all inescapably connected. (Not that we should be, but that we are. And politics is what we do in light of that fact.) To me, becoming a fully realized, worthwhile human being is to a great extent about understanding and embracing that connection, becoming a fully mature member of a community and seeking ways to make community interactions more positively effective.

All this time, all these words, and I didn’t know until today that a person who pursued the opposite of that was, from the dawn of Western civilization, called an “idiot.” Right up until the late 19th century, when it started to mean a person of very low intelligence.

By the way, in researching this, I found this piece, which led this way:

In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, respondents were asked what word immediately came to mind when they thought of Donald Trump: The No. 1 response was “idiot.” This was followed by “incompetent,” “liar,” “leader,” “unqualified,” and finally, in sixth place, “president.” Superlatives like “great” and a few unprintable descriptives came further down on the list. But let us focus on the first.

Contemporary uses of the word “idiot” usually highlight a subject’s lack of intelligence, ignorance, foolishness or buffoonery. The word’s etymological roots, however, going back to ancient Greece, suggest that, in the case of the president, it may be even more apropos than it might first seem….

And of course, the original sense of the word speaks to the objection I have to Trump. He is a man who spent the first 70 years of his life pursuing his own private interests and satisfying his own appetites. Almost everything about the ways he violates presidential, political and moral norms arises from that utter inexperience in, and disdain for, civic life. He has shown a sort of idiot savant (to use the word a different way) flair for a certain kind of politics, but it arises from a lifetime of avid self-promotion, and therefore arises from his pursuit of private rather than public benefit. (In Star Wars terms, you might say the Dark Side of politics is strong with this one.)

This is fascinating. So much more can be said about it, but I’ll stop now and share this much with you…

Yes, this COULD be the winning formula for Democrats

Can the New Deal Coalition rise again?

Can the New Deal Coalition rise again?

David Leonhardt had a good piece in the NYT last night. He promoted it this way:

There’s a roiling debate about whether Democrats should move to the political center to win back Trump voters or focus on energizing the party’s progressive base. On some issues — like abortion, guns and immigration — Democrats really do face this difficult choice. The policies that excite progressives alienate many of the white working-class voters who swung the 2016 election to Donald Trump, and vice versa.

But there is also one huge area where no such tradeoff exists: economic policy….

In the column itself, he asserted  that economic stagnation and inequality added up to “the defining problem of our age, the one that aggravates every other problem. It has made people anxious and angry. It has served as kindling for bigotry. It is undermining America’s vaunted optimism.”

And people across the political spectrum have lost patient with timid, incremental approaches to the problem. Which helps to explain both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Leonhardt writes:

Some observers remain confused about all of this. They imagine American politics as a simple two-dimensional spectrum on which Democrats must move to the center. But every issue isn’t the same. Yes, there are cultural issues, like abortion and guns, on which the country is classically divided. On these, moving to the center, or at least respectfully acknowledging our differences, can help Democrats. Representative Conor Lamb recently showed how to do it in Pennsylvania.

Economic policy is different. Most voters don’t share the centrist preferences of Washington’s comfortable pundit class. Most voters want to raise taxes on the rich and corporations. They favor generous Medicare and Social Security, expanded Medicaid, more financial aid for college, a higher minimum wage and a bigger government role in job creation. Remember, Trump won the Republican nomination as a populist. A clear majority of Americans wants the government to respond aggressively to our economic problems….

So, the smart thing would be to drop the topics that divide us — the culture war stuff, the Identity Politics, the “pussy hats” and such — and set out a vision for a rising tide for all.

But are national Democrats willing to do that? The occasional Conor Lamb aside, it remains to be seen.

In South Carolina, it’s not such a leap. SC Democrats — those who have actually served in office and understand political realities — have long understood that they have to reach across superficial barriers and appeal to as many voters as possible. You wonder why I like James Smith for governor? One reason is that he manifests that smart, inclusive approach. He’s identified with issues that could benefit all of us, such as trying to liberate renewable energy from artificial caps.

This is underlined when you look at his opposition: Phil Noble hits Smith for not being orthodox enough, for instance for being (allegedly) insufficiently hostile to gun-rights advocates. Noble is one of those Democrats who wants to divide the electorate into sheep and goats. Marguerite Willis seems to be pinning her hopes on getting women to vote for her simply because she’s a woman — despite Smith’s strong support within that largest of demographics.

So, the question is whether Democrats — on the state as well as the national level — are willing to take Leonhardt’s sensible advice, and identify themselves with issues that unite rather than divide. Mind you, he’s not talking about moving to a hypothetical center, but embracing issues with broad support among everyone but the most libertarian folks on the right.

I think they will in South Carolina, but polls tell us that’s far from certain. And nationally? I just don’t know…

You need a program to keep your ‘conservatives’ straight

And in his recent column that Cindi ran in The State today, Ross Douthat provides such a program.

Douthat

Douthat

And that’s a handy thing, because people bandy these words about rather carelessly. For instance, nowadays some liberals call anyone on the right a “neocon,” I suppose because they’ve decided that “neocon” means “somebody I don’t like.” But it’s as intellectually unsound as Trump defenders who actually seem to think that everyone who criticizes their boy is a “liberal.”

Anyway, here’s the relevant part of the Douthat column. This material will be on the six-weeks test:

Foreign policy conservatives can be grouped into four broad categories. The first group, the genuine paleocons, are the oldest and least influential: Their lineage goes back to the antiwar conservatism of the 1930s, and to postwar Republicans who regarded our Cold War buildup as a big mistake.

John Bolton

John Bolton

The last paleocon to play a crucial role in U.S. politics was the Ohio Republican Robert Taft, who opposed NATO and became a critic of the Korean War. Pat Buchanan tried to revive paleoconservatism in the 1990s; The American Conservative magazine and the Cato Institute carry the torch in intellectual debates. But the tendency’s only politically significant heir right now is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

Except that even Paul, wary of the label, would probably describe himself instead as a realist, linking himself to the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush — internationalist, stability-oriented, committed to the Pax Americana but skeptical of grand crusades, and open to working out cynical arrangements rather than pushing American power to its limit.

This cynicism explains why realists have found their chief rivals among the neoconservatives, a group best defined as liberal anti-Communists who moved right in the 1970s as the Democratic Party moved left, becoming more hawkish and unilateralist but retaining a basic view that American power should be used for moral purpose, to spread American ideals.

Thus neoconservatives despised the Nixon White House’s realpolitik; they cheered Ronald Reagan’s anti-Communism; they chafed under George H.W. Bush’s realism and backed humanitarian interventions under Democratic presidents; and most famously they regarded the Iraq War as a chance to democratize the Middle East. And then when that war went badly, they became the natural scapegoats …

… Even though some of the most disastrous Iraq decisions were made by members of the fourth conservative faction, the pure hawks, the group to which John Bolton emphatically belongs. The hawks share the neocons’ aggressiveness and the realists’ wariness of nation building; they also have a touch of paleoconservatism, embracing “America First” without its non-interventionist implications….

Here’s hoping the NYT forgives me that long quote; I think it fits within the context of Fair Use.

I just thought Douthat set out the four types fairly clearly and helpfully. He did so in a column about John Bolton headlined “A Hawk Takes Flight.” I urge you to go read the whole thing, and to subscribe to The New York Times, to keep them off my back about that long quote…

The Amazon rainforest was shaped by people

This is just a by-the-way thing, for people who haven’t picked up on it…

The Washington Post yesterday had this story headlined, “Archaeologists discover 81 ancient settlements in the Amazon.” It said in part:

Fifty years ago, she said, “prominent scholars thought that little of cultural significance had ever happened in a tropical forest. It was supposed to be too highly vegetated, too moist. And the corollary to those views was that people never cut down the forests; they were supposed to have been sort of ‘noble savages,’ ” she said.

“But those views have been overturned,” Piperno continued. “A lot of importance happened in tropical forests, including agricultural origins.”…

Though conservationists often speak of this region as having been a “pristine” landscape, studies by de Souza and others suggest that indigenous people influenced and enriched the rain forest for hundreds of years….

Surprising? Only if you indeed think of the pre-Columbian Americans as “noble savages” who barely touched the land they lived on.

But in fact, researchers have been debunking that view for years.

If you haven’t read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, you should. That 2005 book, followed six years later by the equally fascinating 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, endeavored to bring us laymen up to date on what modern researchers were learning about this hemisphere before Europeans came to stay.

It’s been several years since I read it, but I remember two main points, new things, that I learned from it:

  • The American population before 1492 was many times as large as previously estimated. But Europeans, the people who wrote the history, never met these people. That’s because, thanks to inter-tribe trade, European diseases wiped out millions — entire villages, entire cultures — before the newcomers even encountered them. (Europeans would land on a coast, coastal Indians would be infected by their diseases and pass them on to inland tribes they traded with. Thus, European diseases raced well ahead of actual Europeans.) That’s one reason the conquistadores were able to conquer. The Incas, for instance, had been ravaged by disease to the point that their empire was on the verge of collapse before Pizarro arrived.
  • The Indians had a dramatic effect on the land before the arrival of whites. They were big users of slash-and-burn land management, including in the hallowed Amazon rain forest. In fact, much of the jungle found by white settlers was only a generation or two old, having grown up after the local land managers died off.

I may be misremembering a detail or two, since it’s been 1491-coverawhile since I read it. But I think I have the broad outline right. One of the most dramatic assertions I remember from the book was that the Little Ice Age the planet experienced from the 16th to the 19th centuries was at least in part caused by this sudden drop in human population in the Amazon basin, which allowed the rainforest to surge, taking in more carbon dioxide and lowering global temperatures.

Of course, this debunks one notion many tree-huggers are fond of — that the awful, heedless white man is destroying the planet by killing the rainforest, which the nature-loving folk who went before would never have done. (Or, if it doesn’t debunk it, at least adds layers of complication. Apparently, the Indian methods were more sustainable.) At the same time, it reinforces the idea that what humans do and don’t do affect global climate.

All of which reinforces my long-held belief that life is more complicated than most people give it credit for being.

I know I’ve recommended this book before, but the Post story reminded me of it, so I’m recommending it again. It’s fascinating to learn that things you thought you knew were so, are not…