Category Archives: Marketplace of ideas

The LAST thing we need is more partisanship

The usual partisan nonsense is even more pointless than usual in the face of the Trump crisis.

The usual partisan rubbish is even more pointless than usual in the face of the Trump crisis.

There’s an argument I keep having with Democrats lately, on social media and elsewhere.

On one such occasion recently,  I went on at some length in writing. And as y’all probably know, I hate to spend time typing something and then not put it on the blog. So I’ll share it with you.

This was on an email thread started by friend of mine who has a long list of people he regularly shares things with. On this occasion, he was sharing this story from The New York Times: “Who Hasn’t Trump Banned? People From Places Where He’s Done Business.”

Well, I couldn’t read the Times piece because I’d exceeded my free reads for the month, and I have no intention of subscribing. But I was able to read this response from another recipient of the email — someone who you can see is obviously a Democrat (and someone I’m not going to name because I have no indication he meant it to be published):

An answer:  do not normalize the Administration in any way whatsoever.

An answer:  daily resistance.

An answer:  reorganize the left-of-center ship—and well, frankly, be organized—and call failed leadership to account.

An answer:  approach 2018 as if the everything is on the line (it is).  It’s time to stop playing backyard croquet campaigns.

An answer:  Democratic officials need to stop endorsing Republicans.  (I can’t even believe I live in a state where that is necessary to type.)

I responded thusly:

I agree with [the gentleman] that Trump must not be normalized, and that he must be resisted daily — which I certainly do on my blog.

I disagree VEHEMENTLY with his apparent assumption that the answer is more partisanship… Especially his assertion that “Democratic officials need to stop endorsing Republicans…”

There is nothing MORE likely to normalize Trump than to treat this problem as just another inning in the absurd left-right, Democratic-v.-Republican game.

You really need to get out of that “left-of-center” rut and recognize that Trump is a phenomenon that has no place on the left-right spectrum. He is a unique problem, unlike anything this country has ever seen.

And conservatives — real conservatives — are just as capable of seeing that as liberals. If not more so — at least they can see this is not about the usual partisan games.

You need those people — and people like me who reject the whole left-right thing altogether (and are fed up with it) — on your side in the matter of Trump.

This isn’t about winning the next inning of the perpetual game in 2018.

This guy has to go. And you know who has to reach that conclusion? Republicans in Congress.

Yep, we’re a long way from that happening right now. Republican members are tiptoeing around as though in a minefield.

But you and I and everyone who understands what a threat to the nation Trump truly is should do anything and everything we can to give them room to reach the right conclusion.

And every time a Democrat tries to make it about party, that makes Republicans more likely to close ranks. In other words, it normalizes the situation.

You know where you could start to make the situation better? By supporting and encouraging Republicans who have the guts to stand up to Trump. Sure, it’s just Graham and McCain so far, and writers such as Bill Kristol and Bret Stephens. But the more of this bad craziness that Stephens wrote about today that we see, the more likely others are to wake up.

… IF the rest of us don’t chase them back into their partisan comfort zones. Which I see too many Democrats are eager to do.

MORE of the partisan nonsense that has turned off people across the political spectrum, from Sanders’ supporters to Trump’s, is most assuredly NOT the answer to this national crisis.

It’s time to rise above, and help all Americans, not just those of your own ideological ilk, to see what’s at stake…

I wrote all that in response to an email thread on Jan. 31. Since then, I’ve seen more and more instances in which Democrats act like this is business as usual. For instance, there is talk of pulling out all the stops to try to block Neil Gorsuch from the Supreme Court. Which is insane. It shows that these Democrats completely fail to understand what is going on — or, they don’t care.

Gorsuch is a highly qualified nominee and representative of the kind of judge that a mainstream Republican would nominate. If Democrats waste what tiny amounts of political capital they have left (were it gunpowder, they’d hardly have enough for a firecracker) on this, then they’re saying Trump doesn’t pose any sort of extraordinary problem for the nation — because they’d do the same with any Republican president.

It’s hard to think of a better way for Democrats to normalize Trump than to fight Gorsuch with all their might.

Bottom line, it just looks increasingly unlikely that the Democratic Party is going to play any kind of constructive role in helping the country out of this mess. Which leaves it up to the rest of us.

Well, that’s the UnParty response. What’s yours?

Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, Jeffersonians and Jacksonians

If you’d like to soothe your jangled nerves with an interesting intellectual take on WTF just happened to America, you might want to read this piece in Foreign Affairs by Walter Russell Mead, Columbia native and “radical centrist.”

It’s headlined, “The Jacksonian Revolt.”

Mead

Mead

Here’s the short version: We Hamiltonians and Wilsonians (going by Mead’s descriptions, I’m kind of both, which is unsurprising) have pretty much defined America’s prevailing values and role in the world for the past 70 years. We thought this was the natural, proper order of things, and the way everything was trending as well. But while we were thinking globally and in terms of universal principles, there was… I suppose one would call it discontent… at home. The Jeffersonians (a category that includes Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, which clues you in that I’m not one of them) thought this was a wave they could ride to power, but they reckoned without the way the Jacksonians ran in and grabbed the nation by the throat with all the thoughtfulness and refinement of the backwoodsmen who trashed the White House after the original Jackson’s inauguration. (Some of the editorializing in that last sentence is me, not Mead. In case you wondered.)

Mead is not saying anything new, for him or anyone else — I called your attention to him when he made some of the same points more than a year ago. And I’ve spent much of the past year worrying that our country was repeating the horror of the Election of 1828, only more so.

But now that it’s happened, and now that this latter-day Jackson is trashing not just the White House, but practically every aspect of rational U.S. policy in the world, this seems like a good time for a deeper look into what has happened, and is happening.

An excerpt from Mead’s piece:

The distinctively American populism Trump espouses is rooted in the thought and culture of the country’s first populist president, Andrew Jackson. For Jacksonians—who formed the core of Trump’s passionately supportive base—the United States is not a political entity created and defined by a set of intellectual propositions rooted in the Enlightenment and oriented toward the fulfillment of a universal mission. Rather, it is the nation-state of the American people, and its chief business lies at home. Jacksonians see American exceptionalism not as a function of the universal appeal of American ideas, or even as a function of a unique American vocation to transform the world, but rather as rooted in the country’s singular commitment to the equality and dignity of individual American citizens. The role of the U.S. government, Jacksonians believe, is to fulfill the country’s destiny by looking after the physical security and economic well-being of the American people in their national home—and to do that while interfering as little as possible with the individual freedom that makes the country unique. 

Jacksonian populism is only intermittently concerned with foreign policy, and indeed it is only intermittently engaged with politics more generally. It took a particular combination of forces and trends to mobilize it this election cycle, and most of those were domestically focused. In seeking to explain the Jacksonian surge, commentators have looked to factors such as wage stagnation, the loss of good jobs for unskilled workers, the hollowing out of civic life, a rise in drug use—conditions many associate with life in blighted inner cities that have spread across much of the country. But this is a partial and incomplete view. Identity and culture have historically played a major role in American politics, and 2016 was no exception. Jacksonian America felt itself to be under siege, with its values under attack and its future under threat. Trump—flawed as many Jacksonians themselves believed him to be—seemed the only candidate willing to help fight for its survival….

As you can see, his tones are measured as he describes this resurgence of anti-intellectualism in our politics. That’s what I’m talking about when I say you may find reading the piece soothing. Then again, maybe you won’t…

Mead writes politely of the Jacksonians, but Foreign Affairs paired his piece with this image of them celebrating on Election Night.

Mead writes politely of the Jacksonians, but Foreign Affairs paired his piece with this image of them celebrating on Election Night. Even I’m nicer to them than that…

People, can you just chill a bit over court nominations, please?

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So Trump nominated someone last night for the Supreme Court, and it looks like he had good advice and listened to it for a change: I’ve seen no indications at all that this Gorsuch guy is anything other than a qualified jurist. Which means that, in a rational world — barring currently unknown problems coming to light — his confirmation should be routine. Which would be welcome; we have enough turmoil in our public life at the moment.

But then, I read this main story (there were many sidebars) about the nomination in The Washington Post:

President Trump nominated Colorado federal appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court on Tuesday, opting in the most important decision of his young presidency for a highly credentialed favorite of the conservative legal establishment to fill the opening created last year by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia….

WHAT?The most important decision?” In what way, in what sense, in what universe completely lacking in any sense of proportion?

To keep it simple, let’s just consider three things this “young presidency” has done that are much more far-reaching in likely effect:

  1. Pulling out of TPP. This has disengaged America from the Pacific Rim, and invited the accelerated rise of China, in a way that is likely to have staggering consequences in this century both for us and for the billions of others affected — economically, strategically, culturally and almost any other “-ly” you care to name.
  2. Sticking a finger in the eye of every Muslim on the planet. Never mind the momentary unjust treatment of 90,000 or so individuals from Muslim countries, or the unconscionably inhumane “no” to refugees. This has indelibly engraved in a billion or so people’s minds that America regards them and their faith as the enemy, the one impression that our last two presidents have gone out of their way to avoid giving, even as they prosecuted the War on Terror.
  3. Naming Gen. Mattis as defense secretary. Just as Gorsuch’s appears to be, this was one of Trump’s rare good calls. Deciding upon such a qualified leader for our military at a time when the world is so unsettled and there are so many places where things can go really wrong really quickly was of the utmost importance. But it was also an historic precedent, since we had avoided naming recent generals to that post for my entire life. (By contrast, presidents have named LOTS of Supreme Court justices who have come and gone in my life, and none of them held immediate sway over the immense power of the U.S. military.)

Speaking of Mattis — despite the semi-Constitutional issue his nomination raised, an issue worthy of respectful consideration, but not one that should have been an obstacle in light of his qualifications, and of the nation’s desperate need of some qualified people at this point in our history — all but one senator had the good sense to confirm him.

And if our nation had good sense, something similar would happen with Gorsuch. Will it?

No, of course not. As another piece in the Post, by the venerable Dan Balz, noted:

The coming fight over his Supreme Court nominee will be fiercer than before.

Yes, it will. Else we would all be shocked. (I, for one, would be pleasantly surprised.) And what is likely to happen will be an utter waste of energy in a time when political capital needs to be saved for so many other more important battles.

My attitude toward Gorsuch is exactly the same as it was toward President Obama’s pick for this seat, Merrick Garland. They were both qualified for the job. They had already been vetted; they had already proved themselves. They had the requisite knowledge and experience, and reputations for probity and good judgment. There were detectable differences in judicial philosophy — differences that in a calm, proportional world would matter only to legal scholars. But both were qualified for the job — far more qualified than most people elected to Congress, for instance.

Whether one or the other was confirmed is not the Ultimate Issue. It’s not Armageddon.

Here’s the way I see it: The vast, vast majority of times the Court decides cases with wisdom and with ultimate respect for the law and for our civilization. Most decisions are unanimous — which seems remarkable to this layman, since the court deals mainly in matters lower courts were unable to settle conclusively. This has been the case over the decades, no matter whether the majority of the court is labeled “liberal” or “conservative.” Controversy exists only in a minority of cases, and most of those are at least decided intelligently, even if not the way you or I would prefer.

This has been true my entire lifetime.

To me, this testifies to presidents and senators having done a phenomenal job of picking good, qualified justices. The political branches have a much better record in this than in any other area I can think of.

Am I unhappy with some of the decisions? You bet. My opposition to Roe v. Wade is well documented here. I object not only to its legalization of abortion, but to the devastating effect that decision has had on our national politics — specifically, to exacerbating the very problem that I’m on about in this post.

(Considered logically, I am if anything even more opposed to the absurd precedent upon which Roe is based — the Griswold decision, which magically “discovered” an absolute right to privacy hiding in the shadows of the Constitution, a right that had somehow gone unnoticed in the nation’s previous 189 years.)

Today, in part because of Roe, we have vast numbers of people — thousands, if not millions of Americans will vote for a president based largely if not entirely on the basis of what sort of justices he or she is likely to name — “liberal” or “conservative.” Which is insane, given the far more immediate and far-ranging powers of the presidency. A president has the power, at every morning of every day, to make decisions that could lead to the destruction of all human life on this planet — and yet people will actually let their vote be decided on a narrow range of factors involved in a decision the president might make once, or maybe twice, in a four- or eight-year period.

It’s ridiculous. It’s far out of rational proportion.

Of course, since I’ve described the devastating effect of that one decision on our nation’s politics, you might say judicial nominations should be treated as seriously as they are. But no. That decision was an aberration. The number of bad decisions made by presidents in the same period of time since, say, Plessy v. Ferguson or Dred Scott is far, far vaster. Which argues that we ought to devote more of our attention and political energy on the 99.999 percent of what a president does, and less on this one.

Maybe Dan Balz and other experienced observers are wrong — just as they were wrong about Trump’s electoral chances.

Maybe the enormity of what Trump is doing in virtually every other area within his authority will shock our political players into having a sense of proportion. Maybe they’ll save their powder for the big battles that must be fought, some of which (who knows?) might even be won by the forces of reason. Maybe this confirmation will be as routine as it should be, as most of them should be.

But I doubt it. There is a vast infrastructure of political advocacy out there that exists purely for fights such as this one. And both political parties are closely wedded to those interest groups, and fearful of not doing their bidding with utmost zeal.

We’ll see…

WSJ’s Stephens on Trump: ‘capricious, counterproductive, cruel and dumb’

Kudos to The Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens, who is continuing to keep the heat on Donald J. Trump, even as some others on the paper’s editorial page — who also know better — seem to have lost the will to do so.Bret Stephens

His piece today, headlined “The Wrong Kind of Crazy,” plays off of the Nixonian global strategy — the “madman theory” — of keeping adversaries in the dark about what you might do in a crisis, which theoretically causes them to tread lightly. In the hands of grounded figures such as Nixon and Kissinger, the approach made some sense. But that was in the case of rational actors — the “madman” part was that you wanted your adversaries to want to act in ways that would keep you rational.

It doesn’t work so well when your president is an ignoramus who basically doesn’t do rational, or at least doesn’t do it any more often than a stopped clock states the right time.

Which brings us to the present day, of course, since this is the first time in our history that we’ve been in such a situation.

Stephens says Trump has done one thing so far that — against a background of Nixonian stability and pragmatism — could have fit in the “good crazy” category: throwing China off-balance with that phone call with the Taiwanese president. As he wrote, If Beijing wants to use ambiguous means to dominate the South China Sea, why shouldn’t Washington hit back with ambiguous devices of its own?”

Unfortunately, practically all of Trump’s brand of nuttiness is “the wrong kind of crazy: capricious, counterproductive, cruel and dumb:”

So much was evident with the president’s refugee ban on Saturday. And with Steve Bannon’s elevation to the National Security Council, and the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s demotion from it. And with the announcement Wednesday that Mexico would pay for the wall. And with the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal on Monday and the aggressively protectionist themes of his inaugural. And with his performance at CIA headquarters. And with his incontinent fixations on crowd size and alleged voter fraud….

That’s quite a list, isn’t it, describing the insane things done by an administration that’s only 11 days old? (And that’s a nice phrase: “incontinent fixations.”)

Just take one item: Replacing the head of the Joint Chiefs with Breitbart’s Bannon on the National Security Council would by itself be enough for me, were I a member to Congress, to start looking into impeachment procedures. That’s just beyond gross.

Anyway, I appreciate that Stephens isn’t going all wobbly…

The theory is, there's good crazy and bad crazy.

The theory is, there’s good crazy and there’s bad crazy.

 

Of course, we don’t know the Russians DIDN’T win it for Trump, either — and that’s the genius in what they did

As serious people do everything they can to persuade Donald Trump and his followers that they must take the Russian attack on the bedrock of our democracy seriously, they keep stressing, in the most soothing tones they can muster:

We’re not saying the Russians threw the election to Trump. We’re saying they tried to, and that’s something that must be taken seriously, however you voted…

I’ve done the same thing here, repeatedly, although with no discernible effect.

And I and others will keep on saying it, because it’s true: We don’t know, we can’t know, whether Russian meddling actually threw the election to Trump.

Of course, there’s an unstated second side to that coin. If we don’t know Putin decided the election, we don’t know that he didn’t, either.

And that’s the side of the coin that I think everyone sort of instinctively understands, and which therefore makes this conversation so difficult.

Here’s the problem: It was a close election, so close that Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College while winning the popular vote. That means any one of a number of factors could, by itself, account for the losing margin.

In other words, it’s not only possible but perhaps likely that all of the following elements had to be present to get Trump to an Electoral College win:

  • Let’s start with the biggie: The fact that the Democrats nominated the most hated major-party nominee in modern history, except for Donald Trump himself. This is the major factor that, while it couldn’t give him the win (since he was despised even more), it kept him in the game from the start. All other factors after this are minor, but remember: the whole thing was so close that it’s possible that every minor factor had to be present as well.
  • Clinton’s private server. Assuming this had to be present, she doomed herself years ago.
  • Her fainting spell. Here the Russians were, working like crazy to spread rumors about her health, and a moment of human weakness hands them this beautifully wrapped gift.
  • Comey’s on-again, off-again investigations. I’m not saying he was trying to sabotage the election, but if he had been, his timing couldn’t have been better.
  • The anti-qualifications madness sweeping through the electorate across the political spectrum. This populist surge produced both Trump and Bernie. In this election, solid credentials were a handicap. And poor Hillary had a great resume, as resumes have historically been judged.
  • The Russian operation, which gave us a drip-drip-drip of embarrassments (none of which would have amounted to anything alone) with the hacked emails, and a really masterful disinformation campaign as Russians blended into the crowd of alt-right rumormongers.

Could Trump still have won if you took away the Russian efforts — or the FBI investigations, or Hillary’s pneumonia, or any other factor? Well, we don’t know. We can’t know — an individual decision to vote a certain way is composed of all sorts of factors. I can’t give you a breakdown, with percentages, weighting every factor that goes into my own voting decisions — even though I’ve had all that practice over the years explaining endorsements. So I certainly couldn’t do it in assessing the decisions of millions of voters out there. And there’s no way to correlate the effect of any single factor meaningfully with the actual vote totals in the states Trump won.

So we don’t know, do we? The Russians think they know, which is why our intelligence establishment detected them high-fiving each other over Trump’s victory. But they can’t know, either. They certainly didn’t know they’d accomplished their goal before the vote, because they were geared up to sow doubts about the legitimacy of what they expected to be a Clinton victory.

It’s safe to say Trump wouldn’t have won if those other factors hadn’t been present. But I don’t see how we will ever know whether Russian meddling put him over the top.

And as much as anything, that is the most brilliant stroke by the Russians. The effect of what they did can’t be measured. Consequently, they have us doubting ourselves, flinging accusations about motives and completely divided in our perception of reality. We’ll probably be fighting over this for as long as this election is remembered.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I will again, for Bryan’s sake if no one else’s: In the Patrick O’Brian novels he and I enjoy so much, a favorite toast for Royal Navy officers in the early 19th century was “Confusion to Bonaparte,” or just, “Confusion to Boney.”

The ideal codename for the Russian operation messing with our election would be “Confusion to America.” Because there’s no doubt that they have achieved that

"Confusion to Boney!"

“Confusion to Boney!”

The Not-So-Great Man Theory

'GREAT:' Regarding the most frequently cited exemplar of the Great Man Theory, I propose a toast: 'Confusion to Boney!'

‘GREAT:’ Regarding the most frequently cited exemplar of the Great Man Theory, I propose a toast: ‘Confusion to Boney!’

The Washington Post has this item today, headlined “How James Comey and Loretta Lynch made Donald Trump the president of the United States.” Seems a bit of an overstatement, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The beginning is provocative:

This morning Sari Horwitz has what may be the most comprehensive account yet of what happened behind the scenes as FBI Director James Comey decided to essentially hand the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump. It’s an extraordinary story, one that provides an important lesson that goes beyond this one election: Political events with sweeping consequences are determined by individual human beings and the decisions they make. That may not sound surprising, but it’s a profound truth that we often forget when we look for explanations in broad conditions and trends (which are still important) or theories about dark and complicated conspiracies that don’t exist….

So basically, Paul Waldman — who wrote this opinion piece — is coming down fairly firmly on the side of the Great Man Theory, as opposed to explaining events in sweeping cultural or social terms.

Or in this case, since the man in question is Comey and a lot of us are really ticked at him, the Not-So-Great Man Theory…

NOT-SO-GREAT: James Comey

NOT-SO-GREAT: James Comey

 

… but lay off my Starbucks, George!

In his latest column, George Will makes similar points to ones I made in my last post, about our national orgy of conspicuous consumption. (And thank you, Thorstein Veblen! I’ve always thought that was a great term — and not just because of the alliteration.)

He concludes it thusly:

In any American city large enough to sustain a social ecosystem of snobbery, there is a magazine to guide fastidious consumers to “the five best craft breweries” or “the five best artisanal cheese shops.” Heaven forfend that anyone should have to settle for the sixth-best. For discerning tipplers, there are artisanal ice cubes. In San Francisco, The Mill, a cafe and bakery, offers artisanal toast for $4 a slice. It is to die for, say the cognoscenti.

Where will the positional economy end? It won’t. Stanford University professor Francis Fukuyama notes that it is a peculiarity of human beings that they desire some things “not for themselves but because they are desired by other human beings.” Hamsters have more sense. This characteristic of our species — the quest for recognition by distinguishing oneself from others — provides limitless marketing possibilities because for many wealthy people, “the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches.” So wrote Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations,” published in the resonant year of 1776.

And I’m down with all that. My one beef is that the thing that got him mounted on what Bryan would term his high horse was… my beloved Starbucks.

He was indignant that Starbucks is going to have these special, exclusive places called “roasteries” to attract the true poseurs among caffeineheads.starbucks_corporation_logo_2011-svg

Yeah, OK, those places do sound a bit pretentious. But a lot of people think regular ol’ Starbucks is pretentious and conspicuous, in the Veblen sense. And you know what? It isn’t. It’s just great coffee, and it’s consistent — I know that if I walk into a Starbucks in Columbia or Charleston or Memphis or New York or even London or Bangkok, I will get the same great cup of coffee.

Also — the really snooty people claim allegiance to their local, nonchain coffeehouses, and I suppose they’re all right in their way. But the service is better at Starbucks, and so is the coffee, IMHO. And I know I’ll get that same experience wherever I go.

As for the cost, people go on about $6 cups of coffee. Yeah, I suppose some of those slow, indecisive people I sometimes get behind in line are paying that and more for their over-elaborate soda-fountain drinks. But a cup of coffee — which is what I buy there, just black coffee — costs about 2 bucks. Which is about the same I pay for a large cup at Lizard’s Thicket. And a refill’s only about 50 cents.

So there…

‘The Perils of Empathy?’

The other day, I mentioned the effort to make SC roads safer in the name of Glenn Forrest Rabon, Jr., a young man who was killed on a road that everyone had known needed an upgrade.

I neither endorsed nor argued against the proposal, because the petition didn’t give me sufficient information to evaluate the proposal. And I wasn’t going to back the idea just because there was a sympathetic story attached.

Doug Ross went further, saying:

There’s something about naming these laws after people that just seems a little too self-centered for me. Calling the report on road conditions the “TRIPP Report” goes even further. Must we make this into an emotional “how can you refuse to support our dead son” campaign?

I wouldn’t put it exactly the way Doug did, but I think he and I had a similar problem with the petition. It’s not a matter of “self-centered,” exactly. But it’s governing by emotion rather than reason, and I see that sort of thing as problematic. At a moment in our history when the country just voted an expression of their viscera into the White House, I suppose that makes me a bit quaint, but…

Anyway, I was reminded of this when I read a piece in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend headlined, “The Perils of Empathy.” At first I assumed the author was, like Doug, a fan of Ayn Rand, which I most assuredly am not. After all, her followers regularly decry altruism as a bad thing.

But that’s not what the piece was about. It was all for compassion, just not empathy — or at least, not empathy taken to places where it should not go. Here’s what it was saying:

Our empathic responses are not just biased; they prompt us to ignore obvious practical calculations. In studies reported in 2005 in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, researchers asked people how much money they would donate to help develop a drug that would save the life of one child, and asked other people how much they would give to develop a drug to save eight children. The research participants were oblivious to the numbers—they gave roughly the same in both cases. And when empathy for the single child was triggered by showing a photograph of the child and telling the subjects her name, there were greater donations to the one than to the eight.

He felt our pain, but was that a GOOD thing?

He felt our pain, but was that a GOOD thing?

Empathy is activated when you think about a specific individual—the so-called “identifiable victim” effect—but it fails to take broader considerations into account. This is nicely illustrated by a classic experiment from 1995, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Subjects were told about a 10-year-old girl named Sheri Summers who had a fatal disease and was low on a wait list for treatment that would relieve her pain. When subjects were given the opportunity to give her immediate treatment—putting her ahead of children who had more severe illnesses or who had been waiting longer—they usually said no. But when they were first asked to imagine what she felt, to put themselves in her shoes, they usually said yes.

We see this sort of perverse moral mathematics in the real world. It’s why people’s desire to help abused dogs or oil-drenched penguins can often exceed their interest in alleviating the suffering of millions of people in other countries or minorities in their own country. It’s why governments and individuals sometimes care more about a little girl stuck in a well (to recall the famous 1987 case of Baby Jessica in Midland, Texas) than about crises that affect many more people….

The author goes on to say that “Most people would agree, on reflection, that these empathy-driven judgments are mistaken—one person is not worth more than eight, we shouldn’t stop a vaccine program because of a single sick child if stopping it would lead to the deaths of dozens.”

Indeed.

We don’t have to be hard-hearted. As the piece also notes, “Empathy can be clearly distinguished from concern or compassion—caring about others, valuing their fates.”

But we need to evaluate something called, for instance, “So-and-so’s Law,” where “So-and-so” is an emotionally appealing person who has suffered from the lack of such a law. We must always ask whether what is being proposed would actually help other so-and-sos, and whether it is the best way to help and whether the law does more good in the aggregate than it does harm.

Good points, but ones which may sometimes be counterintuitive…

Tony thinks we’ll be OK. Let’s hope he’s right, as usual

Tony has always been one to feel our pain.

Our pal Tony has always been one to feel our pain.

Bryan calls my attention to the fact that while my main man Tony Blair is very concerned about the state of liberal democracy in Europe, he thinks his American friends will weather the Trump crisis:

WASHINGTON — Former British prime minister Tony Blair warns that political upheaval from Great Britain’s Brexit vote in June to the collapse of the Italian government on Sunday signals the most dangerous time for Western democracies in decades….

It has been a year of unexpected victories by populist and nationalistic forces that are challenging the establishment: passage of the referendum pulling Britain from the European Union, the election of Donald Trump as president in the United States, defeat of a measure in Italy that prompted the prime minister to announce his resignation.

And in the Austrian election Sunday, the candidate representing the party founded by former Nazis lost — but after commanding 46% of the vote….

“I’m less worried about America than I am about Europe; I’ll be very frank with you,” he said. “America is such a strong country and you’ve got so many checks-and-balances and you’ve got such resilience in your economy and so on; you guys will do fine, I’m sure. In Europe, we have systems that are at a point of fragility that troubles me.”…

Tony’s almost always right. Here’s hoping he is this time. Although for once, I doubt him. Rome thought it was big enough and strong enough and had checks and balances, too…

NO! The problem is NOT that the election was ‘divisive’

I’m getting sick of people saying this, so I need to speak up.

A story today in The Washington Post by the eminent Dan Balz, headlined “Raw emotions persist as Donald Trump prepares for his presidency,” repeats a fallacy that needs to be countered:

But everyone knew or should have known that the wounds from an election that was as raw and divisive and negative as campaign 2016 would not be quickly healed…

No, no, NO!

The problem is not that the election was “divisive,” or even “negative.” Those factors have been givens in American politics in recent decades. We’ve had negative campaigns across the country since the early 1980s, when the old guideline that a candidate would damage himself if he “went negative” died and was buried. Lee Atwater rose during those days, but the rule was being broken by others, such as Robin Beard, who used creative, negative ads against Jim Sasser in the 1982 Senate race in Tennessee (where I was at the time), gaining national attention but failing to win the election (which briefly seemed to confirm the old commandment against negativity).

As for divisive — well, it’s been pretty awful ever since the election of 1992, when bumper stickers that said “Don’t Blame Me — I Voted Republican” appeared on cars even before Clinton was inaugurated in January 1993. Since then, the parties have not been satisfied merely to disagree, but have increasingly regarded leaders of the opposite party to be illegitimate and utterly beyond the pale.

So it is that the terms “divisive” and “negative” say nothing about the recent election; they do not in any way distinguish the presidential election of 2016 from any contest that preceded it.

And yet we all know that this election was different from every one that preceded it in American history, right? So how do we describe that difference?

THIS is the difference, folks.

THIS is the difference, folks.

Well, it’s really not all that hard — although describing the underlying causes is more difficult. The difference is Donald Trump.

This was an election between a relatively normal, reasonably qualified candidate, and a grotesquely unfit one — a crude, rude, petty, childish, ignorant, unstable man who had done nothing in his life that in any way prepared him for the job.

You can complicate it if you wish. Feminists want to characterize Hillary Clinton as a groundbreaking candidate of historic proportions — which is silly. She was as conventional as can be: As a former senator and secretary of state, you don’t even have to mention her time as first lady to describe her qualifications. She was Establishment; she was a centrist (center-left if you prefer); she was someone completely at home in the consensus about the role of the United States in the world that has prevailed since Harry Truman. The main thing is, she was qualified.

Yes, she was the second most-hated major party nominee (second to the man who beat her) in the history of keeping track of such things, which is an important reason she lost. Some people who should have known better hated her so much that they were able to rationalize voting for the astonishingly unfit Trump in order to stop her, so that was definitely a factor. But aside from that, she was a normal candidate, from the usual mold, a person who people who knew what they were about — such as Republican foreign-policy experts — were comfortable voting for, knowing the nation would be in reasonably safe hands.

She was business-as-usual (which also helped sink her, as we know), while Trump was a complete departure from anything that had ever before risen its ugly, bizarrely-coiffed head to this level in American politics. It wasn’t just a matter of resume. This man got up very early every morning to start making statements — by Twitter before others rose, out loud later in the day — that absolutely screamed of his unfitness. A rational employer would not hire someone that unstable to do anything, much less to become the most powerful man in the world.

I need not provide a list of his outrages, right? You all remember the election we just went through, right?

TRUMP is what distinguishes this election from all others. TRUMP is what people are trying to get over — which we can’t, of course, because he’s now with us for the next four years. I ran into a former Republican lawmaker yesterday — a member of the revolutionary class of 1994, the original Angry White Male revolt — who expressed his utter bewilderment and sense of unreality that has been with him daily since the election. To him, as to me, the fact that Trump won the election can’t possibly BE a fact. Nothing in our lives prior to this prepared us for such a bizarre eventuality.

Yes, there are complicating factors — the populist impulse that has swept the West recently, which sometimes seemed would prevent Hillary Clinton from winning her own party’s nomination, despite her socialist opponent’s clear unsuitability and the fact that it was understood in her party that it was Her Turn. The roots of that are difficult to plumb. As is the fact that the GOP was bound and determined to reject all qualified candidates and nominate someone completely unsuitable — if not Trump, it would have been Ted Cruz, whom tout le monde despised. Both factors can be attributed to the populist obsession, but contain important differences.

So yes, there was a force abroad in the land (and in the lands of our chief allies) that was determined to sweep aside qualifications, good sense and known quantities in favor of the outlandish. And that helped produce Trump.

But still, particularly if you look directly at what happened on Nov. 8, the difference is Trump himself.

And that MUST be faced by anyone attempting to explain what has happened.

Ever since he started closing in on the nomination, I’ve been begging everyone in the commentariat and beyond to resist the lazy temptation to normalize Trump, to write or speak as though this were just another quadrennial contest between Democrat and Republican, to be spoken of in the usual terms. I was hardly alone. Plenty of others wrote in similar terms about the danger of pretending this election was in any way like any other.

And now, we still have that battle to fight, as veteran (and novice) scribes seek to describe the transition to a (shudder) Trump administration in the usual terms, even though some have admirably noted the stark difference. (I particularly appreciated the Post piece yesterday accurately explaining the similarities between this unique transition and Reality TV. — which is another new thing, folks, as we slouch toward Idiocracy.)

It’s a battle that must be fought every day, until — four years from now, or eight, or however many years it takes (assuming our nation even can recover from this fall, which is in doubt) — a normal, qualified person is elected president.

Is this really where the light of liberal democracy grows dim?

In a comment earlier I wrote about how concerned I am about the course of my country — and of the world. More so than I’ve ever been in my more than six decades on this planet.

It’s not just Trump — he’s just a glaring, ugly sign of it. Take a step back, and reflect: Who came in second in the GOP primaries? The only guy who gave Trump any kind of a run for his money as the worst candidate ever — Ted Cruz. All the better-suited candidates were stuck in single digits. And the Democrats have nothing to brag about — they put forward the second-most (second to Trump) despised candidate in the history of such things being measured. And she had trouble putting away a cranky old socialist to get that far.

How can I blame Trump when the real problem is that millions of people voted for him? I actually almost feel sorry for this bizarre figure, because he truly had zero reason to expect that he’d actually end up in this position.

I mean seriously: If you don’t even go deeper than his hair, you can tell at a glance that the country’s really, really in trouble. This is what will lead us?krauthammer

And the rest of the world, too. As Charles Krauthammer wrote today, “After a mere 25 years, the triumph of the West is over.” The promise of 1991, with the Soviet Union finally collapsing and the U.S. leading a broad coalition against Saddam in Kuwait — the New World Order in which Civilization, led by the City on a Hill, would enforce its values against aggressors — is behind us.

The United States is pulling back, and the bad guys just can’t wait to flow into the vacuum. In fact, they haven’t been waiting — in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine or the South China Sea. Or even in our own backyard.

He sums it up this way, blaming BOTH Obama and Trump:

Donald Trump wants to continue the pullback, though for entirely different reasons. Obama ordered retreat because he’s always felt the U.S. was not good enough for the world, too flawed to have earned the moral right to be the world hegemon. Trump would follow suit, disdaining allies and avoiding conflict, because the world is not good enough for us — undeserving, ungrateful, parasitic foreigners living safely under our protection and off our sacrifices. Time to look after our own American interests.

I think he’s trying a little too hard at false equivalence there, but at the same time, while Obama’s a smart guy who knows how to say the right things (unlike, you know, the other guy), there has been a noticeable tinge of “Oh, this country isn’t all that special” in his stance toward the world. A tinge that some of you agree with, and with which I couldn’t disagree more. But if you’re right, if the United States isn’t all that special — if it can’t be relied upon as the chief champion of liberal democracy — then the world doesn’t stand much of a chance. Because there’s always somebody wanting to be the hegemon, and the leading candidates running to take our place are pretty much a nightmare.

ISIS is a wannabe and never-was on that score. Russia wants to be a contender again, instead of bum, Charlie. But my money has long been on the oppressive authoritarians of the world’s largest country, China.

One of the first editorials I wrote for The State — maybe the first — when I joined the editorial board in 1994 was about the disturbing signs I saw of the Chinese buying friends and influencing people right here in our hemisphere, the long-forgotten Monroe Doctrine notwithstanding. I was worried that nobody else in this country seemed to see it, thanks to the fact that few of my fellow Americans ever took a moment to think about what happens to the south of us. (Side note: We wrote a lot about international affairs when I joined the editorial board; when I became editor, we would focus far more closely on South Carolina, which needed the scrutiny.)

Well, more people have noticed it since then. But not enough people. And not enough of the ones who have noticed care. President Obama, to his credit, started his “pivot” to focus on the Pacific Rim. That was the smart thing to do for this country’s long-term interests, and those of liberal democracy in general. China needs to be countered, with both soft power and, when necessary, hard.

Probably the most chilling paragraph in Krauthammer’s column is this one:

As for China, the other great challenger to the post-Cold War order, the administration’s “pivot” has turned into an abject failure. The Philippines openly defected to the Chinese side. Malaysia then followed. And the rest of our Asian allies are beginning to hedge their bets. When the president of China addressed the Pacific Rim countries in Peru last month, he suggested that China was prepared to pick up the pieces of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now abandoned by both political parties in the United States….

TPP was smart policy, encouraging our allies in the region to join with us in confidence, tying themselves more closely with U.S. interests in the face of the Chinese challenge. And this year, neither party was willing to stand up for it — even though one of the nominees (the one who lost, of course) knew better. If she’d been elected, at least we’d have had the chance of her breaking that bad campaign promise.

We painstakingly fashioned that strategic instrument, then dropped it like a hot potato when the populists began howling. And China is preparing to pick it up. And maybe you don’t, but I feel the Earth’s center of gravity shifting in the wrong direction.

Oh, but hey, Carrier’s not moving a plant to Mexico — at least, not completely. So everything’s OK, right? We’ve entered the era of short-term, inwardly focused international goals. Or something…

Fareed Zakaria on ‘The two sins that defined this election’

fareed_zakaria_peabody_awards_2012_croppedHere’s another thing I recommend if you’re looking for good commentary on the election.

I complained yesterday that I found most of what I was reading unsatisfactory. Perhaps the best, most helpful piece I’ve read yet was this one by Fareed Zakaria, headlined “The two sins that defined this election.”

By way of spoiler, the two sins are:

  1. The utter disdain in which elites held Trump voters.
  2. The real racism that was at work in support for Trump.

So, as you see, he has criticism for both sides.

You should read the whole thing. An excerpt:

Over the past three or four decades, the United States has sorted itself into a highly efficient meritocracy, where people from all economic walks of life can move up the ladder of achievement and income (usually ending up in cities). It is better than using race, gender or bloodlines as the key to wealth and power, but it does create its own problems. As in any system, some people won’t ascend to the top, and because it is a meritocracy, it is easy to believe that that’s justified.

A meritocracy can be blind to the fact that some people don’t make it because they have been unlucky in some way. More profoundly, it can be morally blind. Even those who score poorly on tests or have bad work habits are human beings deserving of attention and respect. The Republicans’ great success in rural communities has been that even though they often champion economic policies that would not help these people — indeed, policies that often hurt them — they demonstrate respect, by identifying with them culturally, religiously and emotionally….

 

What I ended up saying to Rotary

capital-rotary

Your suggestions — especially Kathryn’s — led more or less directly to my drafting the words below, which I delivered to the Capital Rotary Club at the Palmetto Club early this morning.

I pretty much zipped through the prepared stuff in order to get to my favorite part — questions. But here’s what I started with:

I was asked to come talk about the current election, and I hardly know where to start.

I think I’ll start with PREVIOUS elections.

We’ve been talking quite a bit on my blog this week about The State’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton on Sunday – or rather, to put it more accurately, The State’s endorsement of the person running against Donald Trump. The paper has no love for Secretary Clinton.

Of course, my responsibility for The State’s endorsements ended when I left the paper in 2009, but it remains a subject that highly interests me.

It was noted in the editorial that this was the first time the paper had endorsed a Democrat for president since 1976.

Someone – a person I’m pretty sure almost always votes Democratic [is that fair, Kathryn?] – asked on my blog why we endorsed all those Republicans. Which is a fair enough question to ask me, since I don’t like either party, and think they have both been enormously destructive to the country in recent decades.

I could only answer for the elections in the years when I was on the editorial board, so here goes:

In 1996, We liked Dole better than Clinton – although by the end, I had my doubts about Dole, and asked Tom McLean, who was then editor, to write it instead of me, which he did. But personally, I still voted for Dole.

In 2000 — We liked Bush better than Gore – as a board, anyway – personally I was rather noncommittal. I was lukewarm on Bush because I had much, much preferred John McCain to him, and had argued very strenuously for endorsing McCain in the primary. We had endorsed Bush instead, which was probably the biggest argument I ever lost as editorial page editor. Also… I worked in Tennessee in the 70s and 80s and got to know Al Gore, interacted with him a good bit, and liked him. But after eight years as Clinton’s vice president, I liked him less. On election night, I remember the lead changing back and forth, and at each point, I couldn’t decide how I felt. I only knew that when the Supreme Court decided Bush had won Florida, I was relieved, and grateful to Gore for promptly conceding at that point.

2004 — We disliked Kerry more than we disliked Bush (if you look back, you’ll see most of the editorial was about Bush’s flaws, but ultimately we didn’t trust Kerry on national security – and for me, that tends to trump everything)

2008 — My man John McCain was running, although we liked Obama a lot. That was really an unusual election for us at the paper. For once, the two candidates we had endorsed in their respective party primaries back at the start of the year faced each other in the general. So we were happy either way, but I had been waiting 8 years to endorse McCain, and I wasn’t going to miss my chance. Besides, Obama was untested. We trusted McCain’s experience.

In 2009, I was laid off from the paper for the sin of having too high a salary when the paper was desperate to cut costs. So I wasn’t involved in 2012, or this year.

Another way to explain our preference for Republicans over the years, a very simplistic one: we were essentially a center-right board, and as long as the GOP remained a center-right party and the national Democrats were so ideologically liberal, we would tend toward Republicans. But I don’t like that overly simple explanation because I don’t like the liberal OR conservative labels, and we prided ourselves on being pragmatic. [I then went on a brief digression of our official point of view, which we called, rather oxymoronically, “pragmatic conservatism.”]

This brings us to today.

The general thrust of the editorial page remains the same as in my day. The core of the editorial board is Cindi Scoppe, and the joke during our many years working together was that we were two people with the same brain. Of course, there are different people involved along with her (Mark Lett, Sara Borton, Paul Osmundson), but the general editorial positions remain the same.

And in this election cycle, the paper did the only thing it could do under the circumstances: It endorsed the only person on the planet in a position to stop Donald Trump from becoming president of the United States.

As I said, the paper was pleased to endorse Republicans as long as it remained a sensible, center-right party. This year, the GOP completely went off the rails, and nominated a man who really isn’t any kind of conservative: an abysmally ignorant – and unwilling to learn – bully who considers attacking people who have criticized him personally as his top priority. A man who admires tyrants, who would abandon our allies, throw out nuclear nonproliferation policies that have served us since 1945, who plays to xenophobia, who would institute religious tests for entering the country, and the list goes on and on.

But that seems like a good place to stop and take questions. I’d love to get questions about local politics, but I can speak to national ones as well. Whatever y’all prefer…

My audience did not disappoint, but provided enough good questions to keep a likely interaction going until time was called. We pretty much stuck to national politics, which I guess was to some extent my fault, for having started us in that direction. But the discussion was interesting, relevant and civil. And you can’t beat that…

I thank my optometrist, Dr. Philip Flynn, for inviting me, and the Club for putting up with me this morning.

Zuckerberg’s right about diversity, although I question his judgment

In defending Facebook for having Trump supporter Peter Thiel on its board, Mark Zuckerberg said:

“We care deeply about diversity. That’s easy to say when it means standing up for ideas you agree with. It’s a lot harder when it means standing up for the rights of people with different viewpoints to say what they care about,” Zuckerberg wrote in a post visible only to Facebook employees, a photograph of which was shared on Hacker News on Tuesday.

“We can’t create a culture that says it cares about diversity and then excludes almost half the country because they back a political candidate,” Zuckerberg continued….

Absolutely. Diversity of thought is the most important kind — and too often, the kind people have the greatest trouble accepting. If you have a wide variety of skin colors and a perfect balance of gender, but everyone in your group thinks exactly alike, you have utterly failed to achieve a diverse result, and your group is weaker because of it.zuckerberg

Zuckerberg probably should have stopped there, though. He kind of lost me when he went on to say, “There are many reasons a person might support Trump that do not involve racism, sexism, xenophobia or accepting sexual assault.”

Are there? At this point, it’s getting a little hard to see those “many reasons.” Hard for me, anyway; perhaps the vision of others is sharper.

So let’s assume those many reasons exist. There’s another problem here.

Diversity of thought, of ideas, is indeed critically important. It is essential, in a liberal democracy, to respect those who see things differently. (And to accept it if they win an election.)

But in 2016, we’re not experiencing a contest of ideas. We’ve gone well past that. We’re experiencing an election in which one of the major-party nominees is a man of demonstrably contemptible character, not just somebody you or I may disagree with on matters of policy.

And there’s a point at which, to the extent that we respect our own ability to reason and to form opinions that may or may not differ from the opinions of others, we have to make a judgment.

And in doing so, it’s legitimate for us to question Mr. Thiel’s judgment in continuing to support Mr. Trump despite shock after shock. And to question Mr. Zuckerberg’s for defending having someone of such questionable judgment on his board.

Mr. Thiel, and Mr. Zuckerberg, are entitled to their opinions. And we are entitled to ours…

The harshest words yet about Trump in the WSJ?

It’s interesting to watch the way The Wall Street Journal has dealt with the phenomenon they struggled so mightily to resist back during the primaries — having Donald Trump as the GOP standard-bearer. And Hillary Clinton, whom they have vilified for so long, as the only sane alternative.

One of their editorialists recently took the plunge, noting that rational people truly have no alternative:

The end of the election is now in sight. Some among the anti-Hillary brigades have decided, in deference to their exquisite sensibilities, to stay at home on Election Day, rather than vote for Mrs. Clinton. But most Americans will soon make their choice. It will be either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton—experienced, forward-looking, indomitably determined and eminently sane. Her election alone is what stands between the American nation and the reign of the most unstable, proudly uninformed, psychologically unfit president ever to enter the White House….

But while he doesn’t quite go to the logical conclusion and say “vote for Hillary,” the WSJ’s Bret Stephens, deputy EPE, has perhaps gone farther than anyone in trashing the alternative.

Today, he likened Trump’s conspiracy-mongering to Joe McCarthy and Charles Lindbergh (the Nazi-loving, anti-Semitic Lindbergh, not the “Lucky Lindy” version). In other words, he invoked some of the darker strains of Western prejudice, specifically with regard to Jews:

Here, then, was the real Donald, fresh off his self-declared unshackling from the rest of the GOP. No longer will the nominee content himself with pursuing petty mysteries such as President Obama’s birth certificate or Alicia Machado’s alleged sex tape.

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens

Now he’s after the Compleat Conspiracy, the one that explains it all: the rigged election, migrant Mexican rapists, the lying New York Times, thieving hedge funds, Obama-created ISIS, political correctness, women insufficiently attractive to grope, Chinese manufacturers, the Clinton Foundation. If it isn’t voting for Donald Trump and has recently crossed an international border, it’s a problem.

It did not escape notice that Mr. Trump’s remarks smacked of darker antipathies. A reporter for the New York Times suggested that the speech “echoed anti-Semitic themes.” The Daily Stormer, which bills itself as the premier publication of the alt-right, was less delicate, praising the speech for exposing the mass media as “the lying Jewish mouthpiece of international finance and plutocracy.”

But one needn’t accuse Mr. Trump of personal animus toward Jews (there’s no evidence of it) to point out that his candidacy is manna to every Jew-hater. Anti-Semitism isn’t just an ethnic or religious prejudice. It’s a way of thinking. If you incline to believe that the world is controlled by nefarious unseen forces, you might alight on any number of suspects: Freemasons, central bankers, the British foreign office. Somehow, the ultimate culprits usually wind up being Jews….

He adds that “a Trump administration would give respectability and power to the gutter voices of American politics. Pat Buchanan would be its intellectual godfather, Ann Coulter and Ms. Ingraham its high priestesses, Breitbart and the rest of the alt-right web its public trumpets. American Jews shouldn’t have to re-live the 1930s in order to figure out that the “globalist cabal” might mean them.”

As I say, he doesn’t quite get to the point of, “So vote Clinton.” Which would be weird, if we lived in a rational world…

The interesting debate we could have had, under other circumstances

immense-power

Let’s set aside for a moment this contest of character and pretend we have the luxury of talking about ideas in this presidential election.

Were that the case, the most interesting moment in last night’s debate would have come at this point:

RADDATZ: … This question involves WikiLeaks release of purported excerpts of Secretary Clinton’s paid speeches, which she has refused to release, and one line in particular, in which you, Secretary Clinton, purportedly say you need both a public and private position on certain issues. So, Tu (ph), from Virginia asks, is it OK for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance on issues? Secretary Clinton, your two minutes…

Let’s set aside the loaded wording of the question (“two-faced”), and look at the underlying issue, which speaks to the nature of leadership and the ways we communicate in a representative democracy.

Can an honest person have a public position that differs from what he thinks in his heart of hearts? Yes, he (or she) can. In fact, there are times when he or she must.

As a longtime editorial page editor, I’m quite familiar with this. Most of the time, our editorial position was consistent with my own personal position. But we operated by consensus — I was not the only member of the board — and what we ended up with was not always exactly what I thought. I deferred to my colleagues, at least to the extent of modifying the position so that we could get everybody on board. And once the decision was made, I did not publicly say things to contradict it, because that would have militated against our consensus. I had a duty as leader of the board not to undermine its positions — even on the extremely rare occasions when our official position was very different from my own, such as when we endorsed George W. Bush over John McCain in 2000.

But my care with my utterances in order to keep the board together was nothing compared to what a president faces.

The president of the United States daily, if not hourly, faces situations in which it would be grossly impolitic, unwise, and even harmful to the country to say precisely what he or she personally thinks or feels about a situation. A president must be diplomatic, not only with representatives of other nations, but with multiple contending and overlapping constituencies right here at home. This is why a president is surrounded by people who are talented at helping choose precisely the right words needed to help move things in a desired direction. It would be grossly irresponsible, indeed a dereliction of duty and perhaps a deadly danger to the country, for a president simply to spout off from the gut without pausing to temper the message (see “Trump, Donald”).

People who don’t work professionally with words are sometimes pleased to call carefully moderating one’s speech “lying.” Those of us who work with words know better. You can say the same true thing many different ways, and how you choose to say it can make all the difference between communicating effectively and having the desired effect, or failing miserably.

Back to the debate

Secretary Clinton responded this way to that loaded question:

As I recall, that was something I said about Abraham Lincoln after having seen the wonderful Steven Spielberg movie called “Lincoln.” It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th Amendment. It was principled, and it was strategic…

Did you see the film? If so, you know there was a lot more to Lincoln than the fine words in the Gettysburg Address. He may have been the most skilled, determined, clear-eyed, illusionless man ever to hold the office — and the most effective. (The only two men I can imagine coming close to him in these regards were FDR and LBJ.)

The film shows Lincoln involved in the noble task of permanently saving our country from the stain of slavery, going beyond what fine words or even four years of unbelievable bloodshed could accomplish. The Emancipation Proclamation had been a stratagem in winning the war (and one he had held back from issuing, with flawless timing, until the political climate was ripe for it), an ephemeral, self-contradictory thing that did not truly free the slaves. He needed something that went far beyond that; he needed to amend the Constitution.

And he pulled out all the stops — all the stops — in getting that done. Set aside the unseemly spectacle of promising government jobs to lame-duck congressmen — that was routine horse-trading in that day. Let’s look at the central deception — and the word is apt — that was essential to getting the 13th Amendment passed.

Lincoln knew that once the war ended, Congress would see little need to ban slavery — and the war was in danger of ending before he could get it done. In fact, a delegation led by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens was on its way to Washington to sue for peace. It would in fact have arrived if Lincoln hadn’t ordered Union troops to detain it some distance from the capital. While the delegation cooled its heels, Lincoln worked feverishly to get his amendment passed.

At a critical moment in the debate in Congress in the film, a rumor spreads that there is a Confederate peace delegation in the city. This threatens to defeat the amendment. Lincoln tells Congress that not only is there no such group in Washington, but that he does not expect there to be. He conveniently leaves out the fact that the reason he doesn’t expect there to be is because he has issued orders to that effect.

Another instance in which Lincoln has a public position differing from his private position is with regard to Republican power broker Francis Preston Blair. The reason the Confederate delegation started on its journey to begin with was that Lincoln had reluctantly allowed Blair to reach out to Richmond. Why had he done that? Because Blair urgently wanted peace, and Lincoln needed his support to keep conservative Republicans in line on the amendment.

So… Lincoln did these things — playing every angle, and saying what needed to be said to the people who needed to hear them –, and rather drawing our disapprobation for having done so, he is rightly revered.

As I said above, the only two presidents I can see even coming close to Lincoln in terms of political skill and effectiveness were Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Which reminds me of a contretemps from 2008. An excerpt from my column of January 20 of that year:

It started when the senator from New York said the following, with reference to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.”
The white woman running against a black man for the Democratic Party nomination could only get herself into trouble mentioning Dr. King in anything other than laudatory terms, particularly as she headed for a state where half of the voters likely to decide her fate are black.
You have to suppose she knew that. And yet, she dug her hole even deeper by saying:
“Senator Obama used President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to criticize me. Basically compared himself to two of our greatest heroes. He basically said that President Kennedy and Dr. King had made great speeches and that speeches were important. Well, no one denies that. But if all there is (is) a speech, then it doesn’t change anything.”…

Hillary Clinton was not my choice for president that year. Several weeks later, we endorsed Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination (right after endorsing John McCain — whom we would later endorse in the general — for the Republican).

Her point was that fine words (such as those with which her opponent excelled) are well and good, but if you want to see a good thing get done, you need someone who will roll up sleeves, dig in and do what it takes. Which LBJ never shied away from.

When she was a fresh grad at Wellesley, Hillary Clinton was dismissive of politics being the art of the possible. As she grew up, ran into brick walls of opposition and in other ways found how resistant the world could be to fine words and finer sentiments, she learned. Her concept of what it took to get things done — and of what things were doable — matured.

Hence what she said in that leaked speech.

I don’t say this to defend Hillary Clinton personally. As I said, I wanted to raise a point that we might discuss were we in a different situation. But we’re not in a different situation. Right now, our representative democracy faces supreme degradation, and possibly worse, if Donald Trump is elected. So we have that appalling threat to deal with, and fine points and ethical ambiguities are not the order of the day.

So pretend that speech — the one to the paying audience, not to Wellesley grads — was delivered by someone else. Think for a moment about the ideas being expressed, not the person expressing them.

It’s a question that all of us should wrestle with as we grow and mature. When I was a young and cocky editor, very free with my thoughts on everything, and to hell with whether others agreed, my then-boss posed me a question: Would you rather be right, or effective?

Of course, I wanted to be both. But what about when you can’t be?

Our proud American tradition of anti-intellectualism

know-nothings

There’s a piece in The Washington Post today about the rise of denial in our society, as in denial of climate change, the efficacy of vaccines, the Holocaust.

What grabbed me, though, was the subhed “Anti-intellecualism on the rise.” That drew me because my study of history all those years ago in college deeply impressed me with what a powerful theme that has been in our history (particularly coming into its own when the flat-Earther Andrew Jackson beat John Quincy Adams in 1828).

Anyway, to quote from the piece:

In the United States, anti-intellectualism dates back to the founding fathers, when Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans favored the wisdom of the common man over the expertise of the elites, embodied by Alexander Hamilton. Since then, the American population has tended to support a belief that ‘regular people’ know best and experts are suspect. This notion flares up when we think that our core values are under attack, as with McCarthyism, and today — with immigration, cyber security and other national concerns — it seems to be back with a vengeance….

Yeah, we’ve noticed. Although the chief evidence, it seems to me isn’t suspicion of vaccines, but the rise of Donald Trump, to whom facts are inconvenient, hostile things.

And let me hasten to say, had I lived in Jefferson’s day, I’d have been a Federalist…

On ‘truthiness’ and the 2016 election

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What is truth?” asked Pilate, and washed his hands. Sometimes I ask the same question, because it’s not always as simple as people like to think it is. At least, not in politics. (As a Catholic, I accept that the One of whom Pilate asked the question did trade in actual Truth.)

I had the chance to explore that a bit over at WACH-Fox studios this morning. Cynthia Hardy asked me to participate in a discussion of truth, lies and the current presidential election for the weekly TV version of her OnPoint show. Catch the show on WACH Sunday morning at 8:30. (Hey, you can DVR it, can’t you?)

At this point, I don’t recall precisely what was said during the taped segments, because we were talking about all this before and after the taping, and during breaks. But here are some of the points I made at some time or other while I was there:

  • Someone raised the question of why, with so many of his statements being easily proved to be false, Donald Trump’s followers still accept, and even cheer, them. I mentioned the point, made here so often before, that even though most of us once accepted Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dictum that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” people today believe they are entitled to the “facts” they prefer, and gravitate toward those who offer them such.
  • Continuing on that point, I said we should think in terms of the Stephen Colbert concept of “truthiness.” Trump regularly says things that are wildly untrue, but his supporters eat it up because his claims strike them as “truthy.” It’s what they want to be true, and they appreciate him for saying it is, and never backing down on the point.
  • I tend to look askance at all these people who propose to do “fact-checking” in real time. First, even if one can determine incontrovertibly whether a statement is true or not, getting the job done frequently takes a lot of time. Not all facts can be instantly Googled. And sometimes — quite frequently — there is no pat answer. Some things are demonstrably untrue — for instance, we are spending tens of billions updating our nuclear arsenal, in direct contradiction of something Trump said in the debate Monday night. On the other hand, some assertions are more slippery, more matters of opinion. For instance, the NYT tried to “fact-check” Mrs. Clinton’s assertion that the U.S. needs an “intelligence surge” to stop homegrown terrorists before they act. The Times said we already collect and share more intel than ever. Perhaps so, but if something happens because we didn’t know something that might have enabled us to prevent it, how can one say we had enough intel? That said, there is the eternal debate over how much we need to protect people from snooping. Since Snowden, we’ve unfortunately erred in the wrong direction on that, but striking a balance will always be difficult. Bottom line, I can give you a pretty good answer to whether what she said was true if you give me 1,000 words or so to do it. Anything less and I’m shortchanging you. But be forewarned that the answer will contain a lot of my own opinion. Why? Because it’s that kind of question.
  • Elaborating on that: People who think it’s easy to separate fact from opinion should try editing editorial pages for a couple of months. The challenge is this: You’re publishing a lot of stuff written by nonprofessionals with strong opinions — letters to the editor and their big brothers, guest columns. If you’re me, you’ll have a rule against letting people make assertions of fact that are false in the course of expressing their opinions. Frequently, in the proofreading process, one of the editors — some of the top, most experienced journalists in South Carolina, when I was doing it at The State — would cross out something in a letter or oped because it was false. But then a terrific argument would ensue as we editors disagreed over whether that point was a matter of fact, or of opinion. In the latter case, we’d allow the writer to say it. These matters were never easily settled, because if you’re intellectually honest and doing your best to be fair to people and not dismissive of their views, it’s complicated.
  • It’s seldom black and white. Even lies have gradations. That’s why The Washington Post‘s pinocchio_1respected Fact Checker feature has levels. A “lie” can earn one, two, three or four “Pinocchios,” with four denoting something that is completely false. Then there is the rare “Geppetto Checkmark” for things found to be completely true. And these judgments are subjective. I forget the “fact” in question, but a couple of months ago, they gave Donald Trump four Pinocchios for something that, having read their findings, I thought should only have earned him two or three. (Of course, even if they had amended that would, Trump would still be the all-time record-holder for four-Pinocchio statements.)

I could go on and on, but there’s real work to be done. I’ll check back in and see what y’all think…

Samuelson comes out for a wall — and actually makes a decent argument, unlike you-know-who

Robert Samuelson has joined his Washington Post Writers Group colleague Charles Krauthammer in saying that maybe a wall along our southern border isn’t such a crazy thing after all.

Of course, he does so based in facts and political realities rather than bluster and xenophobia, but that’s because he’s a rational person, and not Donald Trump. And it makes him worth listening to:

Just because Donald Trump isn’t qualified to be president — and just because much of his agenda is hateful and undesirable — doesn’t mean that everything he says is automatically wrong. Some of his ideas deserve consideration and enactment. One of these is building a wall across our southern border with Mexico….

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Robert J. Samuelson

The crucial question is: If we had a wall, what would we get for it? The answer: A wall probably represents our best chance of reaching broad agreement on immigration policy, a subject that has frustrated Congress and the two most recent presidents….

Without a wall, it’s doubtful that Republicans would enter meaningful negotiations on immigration policy — and without Republican participation, the stalemate would continue. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 63 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters supported a wall and only 34 percent opposed it. The distrust is deep. Republicans think Democrats don’t truly care about stopping illegal immigration; they mainly want “amnesty” for existing undocumented immigrants. In the same Pew poll, 84 percent of Democrats and those who lean Democrat opposed a wall….

In other words, we may need to build the wall because the GOP, now fully in the grip of Trumpistas, will never agree to the rational parts of immigration reform without it. To put it another way, we don’t need a wall, but they’ll never stop thinking we do, and we need to move on and deal with some actual problems.

No, Samuelson hasn’t gone ’round the bend. He knows as well as the rest of us how absurd Trump’s approach is:

Let’s be clear on one issue: Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for the wall is absurd . No self-respecting Mexican president would accept it. If one did, the wall would become a subject of endless bickering between the two countries as to who actually owned and controlled it. The fact that Trump made this so central to his proposal suggests that he’s simply grandstanding….

Indeed. But Samuelson, economics writer that he is, says that the ridiculous amount of money that a wall would cost could be a good deal in the long run:

If we could buy an immigration bargain for $25 billion, or even a bit more, it would be a fabulous deal. That’s the opportunity facing the next president. But we won’t make it any easier by stigmatizing the one change — a wall — that could be the foundation for compromise….

Barton Swaim on how Kaepernick fails to make his point

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Columbia’s own Barton Swaim has yet another nationally published opinion piece out there, headlined “Kaepernick’s symbolism misses the point,” in The Washington Post today.

And unlike Kaepernick, Barton hits the mark.

You know how I’m always blathering about how I think street protests, among other unseemly forms of expression, are generally unhelpful? That’s what Barton’s on about. And the problem, as he identifies it, is imprecision. Quite right.

Noting that Kaepernick now protests that he was misunderstood, Barton writes:

He was right. It was a misunderstanding. And that’s precisely the problem with symbols and symbolic gestures in the realm of political debate — they’re understood by different people in different ways, and not always in ways consistent with original intent. By choosing not to stand (he sat on the bench during the anthem for the Aug. 26 game against Green Bay and knelt during the anthem for the Sept. 1 game in San Diego), Kaepernick wants to say something about racial injustice. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told the NFL Network after the Packers game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Kaepernick evidently has some strong views on this subject, but what are they, exactly? Does he believe, say, that most Americans are racists? That most police officers target African Americans for harassment? That the United States as a whole deliberately and systematically persecutes African Americans? Somehow I doubt he would agree with any of these things without qualification — and yet they are all rational inferences from his refusal to honor the flag of a “country that oppresses black people and people of color.”…

Indeed. Barton is a wordsmith, and seems to share my horror at the thought of expressing oneself without being specific and explanatory.

And yet we are surrounded by people doing precisely that, from tattoos to grand public gestures. Harrumph.

In an age when there is no barrier to blogging, for instance, there is no excuse for failing to explain oneself — especially when one has done something that shouts only one thing clearly: “Look at me!”

As young mothers tell toddlers, use your words.

Now, changing the subject slightly, Barton’s piece goes on to say:

When pressed further to explain his views after the Chargers game, he wasn’t helpful. What was he trying to convey? “The message is that we have a lot of issues in this country that we need to deal with. We have a lot of people that are oppressed. We have a lot of people that aren’t treated equally, aren’t given equal opportunities. Police brutality is a huge thing that needs to be addressed. There are a lot of issues that need to be talked about, need to be brought to life, and we need to fix those.” President Obama reinforced that message on Monday. “If nothing else,” the president said, “what he’s done is he’s generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about.” Reminding Americans that they need to “talk about” and “deal with” a problem that already consumes them is not, perhaps, the wisest of political exhortations. And in any case, one wonders what nation in the history of the world has not had dire “issues” that needed to be talked about and dealt with. Has there ever been a nation sufficiently issue-free to merit Kaepernick’s reverence?

I call your attention in particular to this bit: “Reminding Americans that they need to ‘talk about’ and ‘deal with’ a problem that already consumes them is not, perhaps, the wisest of political exhortations.”

I’ve been told for all my adult life that we need to “talk” about race in America. And you know me; I have generally obliged without hesitation. I can talk all day and all night about such a thing, and on occasion can even bring myself to listen.

But I bring the point up now because, right after reading Barton’s piece this morning, I saw this other opinion item in the Post, headlined, “It’s time to stop talking about racism with white people.” Excerpts:

Why are we losing solid hours out of our day, wearing our fingertips numb on keyboards and touch screens in an attempt to explain to some dense dude-bro why “All lives matter” is a messed up and functionally redundant response to “Black lives matter”?…

If Colin Kaepernik’s decision to stand against social injustice by sitting during the National Anthem has shown us anything else, it’s that much of white America is more bothered by our methods of protest than they ever will be about the injustices we’re protesting. Let’s dispel the notion that if we only protested better, white people will miraculously become more receptive of our message and less scornful of our audacity in speaking out….

Black people, it is long past time for us to start practicing self-care. And if that means completely disengaging with white America altogether, then so be it….

Zack Linly seems to have given up on making himself understood at a fairly early age (I’m going more by the way he expresses himself in seeing him as young, but for all I know he could be as old as Brett Bursey). Which is sad. Because as Barton suggests — even though he, too, seems a bit weary of the conversation, we need to communicate better about these things.

But there’s hope! Mr. Linly and Mr. Swaim seem to have some promising common ground, judging by the cover photo the former chose for his Facebook page. They both have a sense of the futility of some street action. But then, I could be misunderstanding this message, too…

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