Category Archives: Marketplace of ideas

Cindi gets the Wilson-Quinn memo issue just right

Cindi got it exactly right in this column:

Here’s an excerpt from the column:

So Mr. Wilson was not asking for advice from a target of the investigation, which would have been a resign or be removed from office sort of infraction. And worse.Wilson cropped

What he was doing — what no prosecutor should do — was consulting his political adviser about a criminal case. Mr. Wilson points out that he was not asking how to prosecute a case. He says his concern was to get through the exchange with “a cordial relationship” with Mr. Pascoe intact; and indeed, Mr. Quinn suggested removing some snark and making the letter more diplomatic. (In the end, Mr. Wilson called Mr. Pascoe rather than sending a letter.)

But the underlying topic was still a criminal matter.

Pretend that Mr. Wilson’s consultant had been named John Smith or Jane Jones or anything other than Richard Quinn. Pretend that his political consultant had never met Richard Quinn or Rick Quinn or Jim Merrill. Pretend that Alan Wilson was the only South Carolinian his political consultant had ever heard of. It still would have been inappropriate for Mr. Wilson to consult him. It simply is not acceptable for a prosecutor to seek political advice about anything involving his job as a prosecutor….

The point here is that the memo was sent at a time when there was little or no reason to suspect that Quinn would at some time be a central figure in the investigation. So all that stuff from the Democrats about how Wilson should resign or be fired is off-base.

But it is improper for a prosecutor to seek political advice on how he’s dealing with a criminal investigation. The fact that all elected AGs most likely do it is no excuse.

So, if and when Wilson faces re-election to his post, and voters are tallying the pros and cons as to whether to vote for him, this should go in the “con” column. And that’s about it.

Graham’s healthcare plan: I’m just not seeing it

Graham pushing his healthcare plan in Columbia today.

Graham pushing his healthcare plan in Columbia today.

Y’all know I tend to be a fan of Lindsey Graham, but sometimes I just can’t go along.

The healthcare plan he’s touting is one of those times.

Yeah, I appreciate that he’s been dismissive of what other Republicans have been putting up in their desperation to be able to say they “repealed Obamacare.” And I like that he says “federalism” a lot in advocating for it. And that it’s really, really different from anything the GOP leadership in Washington has come up with yet.

But that’s about it.

Basically, he wants to turn it all over to the states: Have the feds give the states block grants, and let the states decide for themselves what kind of system they want. His plan for getting it through an Obamacare-repeal-weary Senate is to enlist governors to help him push it — he says our own Henry McMaster likes it.

There are a couple things about it that bug me. First, the whole idea of having 50 little systems instead of one big one. To my mind, that throws away one of the greatest advantages of having a governmental system — a gigantic national system that includes everybody (which you’d have if you had real mandates with teeth) gives you economies of scale, and the mother of all bargaining positions when it comes to negotiating costs down.

I asked the senator about that at a press availability he had at his Columbia office today. He replied that costs have risen dramatically in the Medicare and Medicaid systems, so my principle doesn’t work.

This was a general availability for working press, so I didn’t do what I would have done in an editorial board meeting: argue with him. I didn’t say, How do you know costs wouldn’t have risen much higher with 50 separate systems? Nor did I say, if there’s any reform that might lower costs or slow increases, wouldn’t it be easier to implement nationally than in 50 different systems?

And I didn’t get into the essential unfairness of forcing Americans to leave their homes and move to another state if their state doesn’t provide the health benefits they need.

Which seems a scenario South Carolinians would likely face. I ask you, what sort of system do you think we’re likely to get in a state that said “no” to Medicaid expansion — to a deal under which the feds would have covered the whole additional cost for the first three years, and 90 percent of it thereafter? How savvy was that? Do you want the same elected leaders who turned that down designing a system?

I may have voted for John Kasich last year (partly because the decision he made to expand Medicaid), and would do so again given the same primary choice, but I wouldn’t want to have to move to Ohio to get decent coverage. Would you?

Some other topics Graham covered at the presser:

  • Charlottesville. He said Trump missed a big opportunity Saturday to “jump on hate with both feet.” He said the white supremacists think they have an ally in the president, and “Donald Trump’s job is to persuade them that he is not their friend.” He gives Trump credit for saying good things Monday, but that must be followed by action. The administration needs to “come down like a hammer” on hate groups. He wants to see Sessions prosecuting what happened aggressively. “Don’t let these people drag us back into the darkness.”
  • The abandonment of SCANA and Santee Cooper’s nuclear project. Setting aside the fact that what he said may now be out of date, I liked what he said. He said if these two plants and the one in Georgia all fail, “that’s the end of the nuclear renaissance.” And that’s bad news for anyone who cares about global warming or energy independence. He points to France as a country that wisely gets most of its power from nuclear, and notes with satisfaction that at 50 percent, South Carolina already gets a higher proportion of its power from that source than any other state. He doesn’t want to see us, or the nation as a whole, lose that advantage, and asks, “What has happened to our industrial base that we can’t do big things anymore?”
  • “I don’t think war is imminent with North Korea.” But he does worry about the future if Kim is not stopped. He worries less, though, about a direct attack on the United States — he thinks Kim’s generals can restrain him — and more about a future when Kim has the H bomb, and is in a position to sell it to others who may use it. And he puts the onus on North Korea’s big neighbor, saying “China is 100 percent responsible for North Korea.” Without Chinese support, he said, there is no Kim regime.

Identity politics is not the way forward for America

You ever see a Latin American Casta painting? They were used in colonial times to help everyone keep straight in their minds the rigid caste system based meticulously on various shades of racial heritage.

You ever see a Latin American Casta painting? They were used in colonial times to help everyone keep straight in their minds the rigid caste system in the Spanish colonies, based meticulously on various shades of racial heritage.

That would seem to be obvious, wouldn’t it, when we’re speaking of the white supremacists who demonstrated in Charlottesville?

But I mean it more broadly. This comes to mind because of a piece I read in the NYT Saturday, before the violence that led to three deaths.

The column, by Frank Bruni, wasn’t about Charlottesville. At least, he didn’t mention it. It was the sort of piece that steps back from the news and asks where we’re headed. It was headlined “I’m a White Man. Hear Me Out.” As a guy who’s been concerned about the Left’s obsession with Identity Politics for some years now, I was immediately drawn to that headline. And it was a good piece. It began:

I’m a white man, so you should listen to absolutely nothing I say, at least on matters of social justice. I have no standing. No way to relate. My color and gender nullify me, and it gets worse: I grew up in the suburbs. Dad made six figures. We had a backyard pool. From the 10th through 12th grades, I attended private school. So the only proper way for me to check my privilege is to realize that it blinds me to others’ struggles and should gag me during discussions about the right responses to them.

But wait. I’m gay. And I mean gay from a different, darker day. In that pool and at that school, I sometimes quaked inside, fearful of what my future held. Back then — the 1970s — gay stereotypes went unchallenged, gay jokes drew hearty laughter and exponentially more Americans were closeted than out. We conducted our lives in whispers. Then AIDS spread, and we wore scarlet letters as we marched into the public square to plead with President Ronald Reagan for help. Our rallying cry, “silence = death,” defined marginalization as well as any words could.

So where does that leave me? Who does that make me? Oppressor or oppressed? Villain or victim? And does my legitimacy hinge on the answer?

To listen to some of the guardians of purity on the left, yes…

Of course, being a thoughtful sort, he disagrees with that assessment. He goes on to explain why, and pretty persuasively, I think. But then, I didn’t need persuading.

I urge you to read the whole column.

I like his ending, so I will share it and hope the NYT regards it as fair use:

… At the beginning of this column I shared the sorts of personal details that register most strongly with those Americans who tuck each of us into some hierarchy of blessedness and affliction. So you know some important things about me, but not the most important ones: how I responded to the random challenges on my path, who I met along the way, what I learned from them, the degree of curiosity I mustered and the values that I honed as a result.

Those construct my character, and shape my voice, to be embraced or dismissed on its own merits. My gayness no more redeems me than my whiteness disqualifies me. And neither, I hope, defines me.

Bruni seemed to expect to get some criticism for his column. That’s something that all opinion columnists expect. His one beef was his concern that too much of it would be of this variety. Shut up, white man. You have nothing of value to contribute.

He had a cautionary example before him: The reaction to a piece written right after the election by Mark Lilla, described by Wikipedia as “a self-described liberal,” was of just that sort — criticism rooted in his white-manness, not in the quality of his arguments.

That essay in November was somewhat optimistically headlined “The End of Identity Liberalism.” What he is describing is something that has by no means ended. But he suggests that its time as a viable strategy for winning elections is past, if there ever was such a time.

Lilla, like Bruni, made good arguments. (Again, I was part of the choir on this, so maybe reaching me wasn’t a major accomplishment.) It’s a longer piece, in which Lilla introduces his theme this way:

But how should this diversity shape our politics? The standard liberal answer for
nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and “celebrate”
our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as
a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American
liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual
identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a
unifying force capable of governing.

One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its
repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.
Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American
interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy.
But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large
vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to AfricanAmerican,
Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic
mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all
of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data
show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted
for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals…

And here’s the kind of future toward which Lilla urges liberals:

We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes
of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base
by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a
vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in
this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly
charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching
on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with
a proper sense of scale. (To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of
hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.)

Teachers committed to such a liberalism would refocus attention on their main
political responsibility in a democracy: to form committed citizens aware of their
system of government and the major forces and events in our history. A post-identity
liberalism would also emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote. A postidentity
liberal press would begin educating itself about parts of the country that
have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion. And it would
take seriously its responsibility to educate Americans about the major forces shaping
world politics, especially their historical dimension…

Amen to that. And I would likewise say “amen” to a “post-identity conservatism.” Personally, I don’t care where it comes from on the ideological spectrum, because I don’t believe in the ideological spectrum, which I see as just another way that short-sighted people seek to divide us.

The liberal, conservative or (oh, consummation devoutly to be wished!) independent who compelling invokes what we have in common as Americans, and builds a vision for our future on it, has my vote.

In The Atlantic: ‘Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?’

dive into phone

Yeah, I know. That sounds like something you’d hear from Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man: “In my day our phones were dumber’n a stump, and we liked it!”

And since I love my iPhone and its big brother my iPad, I was prepared to be dismissive when Ross Douthat recommended the piece on Twitter: I would reject it, and then I would hide it from my wife, who makes a stubborn virtue of only carrying a flip phone.

But it’s actually pretty interesting. And a bit scary.

It’s by a psychologist who has been studying generational differences for 25 years, and who is a bit freaked out by the latest group she’s been investigating: “iGen,” the group born between 1995 and 2012, is more radically different from its elders than anything she’s seen before:

Typically, the characteristics that come to define a generation appear gradually, and along a continuum. Beliefs and behaviors that were already rising simply continue to do so. Millennials, for instance, are a highly individualistic generation, but individualism had been increasing since the Baby Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. I had grown accustomed to line graphs of trends that looked like modest hills and valleys. Then I began studying Athena’s generation.

Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it.

At first I presumed these might be blips, but the trends persisted, across several years and a series of national surveys. The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind. The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world; teens today differ from the Millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time. The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them….

So what was it that caused this shift in 2012? Well, that was the year “when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.”

How are these kids different? Well, they don’t date or hang out with friends. They don’t drive, and are happy to be taken places — if they go anywhere — by their parents. They don’t drink. They don’t have sex.

So, in some ways, they’re a helicopter parents’ dream. Until you think hard about what they are doing: Lying around in their bedrooms staring at their phones. “I’ve been on my phone more than I’ve been with actual people,” one kid says. “My bed has, like, an imprint of my body.”

Another excerpt:

Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

Even when a seismic event—a war, a technological leap, a free concert in the mud—plays an outsize role in shaping a group of young people, no single factor ever defines a generation. Parenting styles continue to change, as do school curricula and culture, and these things matter. But the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy….

Anyway, it’s a long piece, but I recommend you read it.

When I was young, we imagined that future technology — flying cars, starships — would help us dominate the physical universe around us. We didn’t think about it changing our brains, and causing us to turn inward, away from that physical universe.

I see how my own brain has been altered by these devices. I don’t have to remember anything anymore. I don’t have to wonder about anything any more. As quickly as I can say, “I wonder…,” I’m already looking it up. I’ve come to take for granted the fact that I can reach out to anyone and everyone on the planet and express my thoughts, instantaneously. That’s perhaps even more remarkable to me, as someone who did that for a living with older forms, than it is to you. And of course it plays to the kinds of activity that my mind gets off on.

But I’ve known other modes of being. And I shudder a bit to think what it must be like to know no other reality…

Is Mulvaney ‘The most dangerous man in Washington?’

Mulvaney

That’s what Catherine Rampell of The Washington Post claims.

(Well, to be clear, what she means is the second most dangerous man in Washington, which she acknowledges.)

Here’s why:

It’s Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

In terms of both immensity and immediacy, the threat Mulvaney presents is far greater than any of the slow-motion train wrecks happening elsewhere in the administration. That’s because he seems hell-bent on wreaking a global crisis within the next two months.

Not a century from now. Not a decade from now. In two months.

That’s when the government will run out of money needed to pay bills Congress has already incurredaccording to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, if Congress does not act to raise the debt limit.

What would follow? Just a constitutional, political and global financial crisis….

OK. That would be bad. Important safety tip. Although I may not think about financial matters more than I’m forced to, even I understand — apparently better than the administration’s budget guy — why protecting the full faith and credit of the United States is important. But most dangerous? Maybe. But as much as I might be inclined to root for a fellow South Carolinian, I think some of the other people she names have pretty good claims to the title:

It’s not the guy in charge of our nuclear arsenal, who may or may not have realized that was the core of his job description before accepting the post (Rick Perry).

Nor is it the woman meeting with men’s rights advocates (Betsy DeVos).

And it’s not the guy who keeps adding financial assets and meetings with Russian officials to his federal disclosure forms (Jared Kushner).

It’s neither of the guys rolling back climate change regulations and sidelining scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department (Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke, respectively)….

But yeah, what Mulvaney wants to do is bad, almost in the Egon sense, financially speaking…

Why do people hate David Brooks so much?

This is a puzzle to me: Why do people hate David Brooks so much?

Sure, anyone who writes opinion for a living is going to get his fair share of abuse daily, without taking the trouble to go down to the demonstration.Brooks_New-articleInline_400x400

But David Brooks? Among pundits, he is the most inoffensive of men. He both writes and speaks (in his appearances on PBS and NPR) with a reasonable, somewhat deferential, even self-deprecating tone. He’s thoughtful, not haranguing. He’s fair. You’ve got your views and he’s got his, and that all seems fine with him.

But man the way people (mainly on the left, I think, but I haven’t kept score, so I’m not positive) tee off on him! I’ve read screeds aimed at him that suggest a screw being loose somewhere, or perhaps a personal animus with roots of which I am unaware. They tend to be mostly written by people I’ve never heard of, and I find myself wondering if that’s it — are these people who just can’t stand that this (sort of) conservative has a gig they’d love to have at the ultimate “liberal” newspaper?

Or is it that he’s a type they can’t stand: The successful, middle-aged, moderate white guy who seems fairly comfortable with his role in life — kind of like me, you might say, before I got laid off — and is so low-key that his very imperturbability is a constant goad to them? Are the slings and arrows about trying to, for once, get a rise outta this guy?

I don’t know, but it seems to defy reason.

Take the latest.

Yesterday, Brooks had a column headlined “How We Are Ruining America.” Here’s its premise:

Over the past generation, members of the college-educated class have become amazingly good at making sure their children retain their privileged status. They have also become devastatingly good at making sure the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks….

There’s no bait-and-switch here. The whole column is about this class division, with most of it devoted to the ways, both overt and subtle, that the folks in the privileged class make sure “the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks.”

Wow, I thought. I almost wrote a post about this column, with a headline like, “Whoa! David Brooks is feeling the Bern today!” And because it was coming from Brooks, rather than the usual suspects, I gave the thesis particular attention.

It was a pretty decent, thoughtful, and empathetic column. I was bothered by one graf in it, though, where Brooks was talking about the subtle class cues that keep the uninitiated in their place:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican…

That bothered me for this reason: How on Earth is he to know for sure that the “friend” won’t read the column? And if she does, how is she not going to recognize the anecdote and feel even more humiliated than she would have been had they stayed in the gourmet joint?

But it didn’t ruin the column for me (although it certainly would for her).

This morning, I saw that the Web sort of went ape over that paragraph, and used it as a club to beat Brooks about the head and shoulders, with an occasional knee to the groin thrown in.

This bit from Slate sort of encapsulates the way others read that graf:

One thing that has happened in the past 40 years or so in the United States is that (inflation-adjusted) income for most people has stagnated while the price of housing, health care, and education has risen. Income for high earners has also continued to increase. Meanwhile, middle-class and working-class Americans are now less likely to “move up the income ladder” than they used to be—i.e. we’ve collectively become less likely to have rags-to-riches American dream trajectories during our lifetimes.

New York Times columnist David Brooks asserts Tuesday that this reduction in social mobility is not the result of aforementioned trends but because menus that involve foreign ingredients are too confusing to simple folk who don’t have college educations…

To which I have to say, no, that’s not what Brooks is saying. He’s saying that the very real barriers to upward mobility extend beyond the obvious, even down to small cultural signals that the privileged take for granted.

Which strikes me as coming from a guy who not only cares about this inequality, but thinks about it a good deal, and goes out of his way to look for ways that he might be part of the problem.

But boy, that’s not the way it plays in pieces such as this one (which calls him “the lunch date from hell”) or this one (“such an obnoxious snob”) or this one (“off the rails”).

To quote more extensively from that last one, to give you the flavor:

Come on in, I said. Moral Hazard, the Irish setter owned for photo op purposes by New York Times columnist David Brooks, stood dripping and shivering in my foyer. I half-filled his dog bowl with Jameson and he took it down in several big gulps.

“I had to get out,” he said. “It was starting to get crazy down there. Master’s off the rails and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. He walks around, day and night, mumbling to himself, saying weird stuff about community and prosciutto. People are starting to wonder. Douthat, the former houseboy, jumps into closets now when he sees him coming and Stephens, the new one, hides behind the sofa. Nobody wants to listen to 15 minutes on how Edmund Burke’s Reflections warned us against radicalism and balsamic vinegar. I mean, OK, hear it once and it’s interesting but around the third time, you want to talk about hockey.”…

And it wasn’t just the liberals who seem to make a fetish of trashing this guy. RedState got in on the act, too:

Brooks, the living equivalent of a Brooks Brothers store mannequin whose display rod was removed from his colon so he now thinks he walks around as “one of the people”, has long been oblivious to the working of those operating in a strata below his own. (He once referred to the Belgian beer Stella Artois as a “working class” brand.)

There’s something going on here that goes beyond the tone-deafness of that one paragraph. Whatever it is, it’s visceral, and it’s been out there awhile. I’ve been reading pieces like this one, and, to descend deeper into the gut, this one for years now…

Editing the Declaration of Independence

I spent part of the long holiday weekend rewatching an episode or two of HBO’s John Adams.

Of course, being me, I love the scene that depicts the editing of the Declaration of Independence.

If you’ll recall, Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were appointed as a committee to draft the Declaration. Then, Adams had talked Jefferson into doing the actual writing, citing his skill with the written word and the fact that Adams himself was far too busy (aside from sitting on various committee, Adams was bearing the greatest share of the burden of arguing for independence, while Jefferson never opened his mouth during the debate).

In this scene, Adams and Ben Franklin are getting their first look at what Jefferson has written, and reacting to it, and offering changes. Having been in this situation myself so many thousands of times with writers who sometimes regarded their words as perfect, I enjoyed watching the dynamics.

First observation: Adams starts out by praising Jefferson’s work to the skies — a fitting approach given the document he’s editing, but one that is wildly at odds with my own approach. As Dave Moniz used to say when he worked for me, the highest praise I ever offered of writers’ work was “pretty good.” Maybe I should have tried this approach; it seems to have led to a good result.

Then there is Jefferson’s unnerving passivity through most of the process — an almost autistic lack of emotion. I’ve had writers fly off the handle at my changes, or be philosophically diplomatic about it. But never anyone with this staring, shrugging apathy. Change to “self-evident?” Yeah, whatevs…

Even when Adams says some of it might not be the way he would have said it, but he will still defend every word, Jefferson has no gratitude, but shrugs, “Well, it’s what I believe…”

Nevertheless, Jefferson proves he’s not an automaton when Franklin (being a newspaper editor himself, Ben had a knack for this) finally gets a rise out of him, and Jefferson says, still in that cold-fish voice, “Every single word was precisely chosen. I assure you of that, Dr. Franklin.” To which Franklin, unfazed, essentially says yeah, that may be the case, but you don’t get the final word; we’ve got to get this thing through Congress.

Adams was (in an unaccustomed role for him) cheerleading the document, while Franklin was determined to edit it. Normally, I’m an Adams fan, but in this case, it’s Ben I identified with. You can’t let writers get an exaggerated sense of their own importance. What do they think they are, editors?

Anyway, this is my belated Independence Day post…

franklin-jefferson-adams-writing-the-declarationcropped1

De Tocqueville’s description of what’s wrong with America today

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville

One of the great things about switching to the NYT is that now I can read all of David Brooks’ columns without going over my allotment of free stories for the month.

So, I recommend to you his column today, “The G.O.P. Rejects Conservatism.” It’s about the Senate GOP’s morally and intellectually vapid “healthcare” bill, and it’s good throughout.

But the best bit wasn’t written by Brooks but by de Tocqueville about 180 years ago. He documented how the self-deceptive belief in radical individualism was a problem in our country from the start. Here’s the quote about those proto-libertarians:

“They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”

Yep. Sounds familiar…

Why CAN’T I be a conservative-liberal, or liberal-conservative?

Lincoln was as radical a change agent as this nation has seen -- but his chief goal at every step was to conserve the union.

Lincoln was a conservative liberal. He was as radical a change agent as this nation has seen — but his chief goal at every step was to conserve the union.

The answer is, there’s no reason I can’t. In fact that’s what I am. But dang, it’s hard to explain to people, even though it seems natural to me.

Harry Harris and I were having a good discussion about political labels — ones that people apply to their opponents, and ones they apply to themselves (which can be just as irritating sometimes) — on a previous post. The thread started here.

The last thing Harry said about it was this:

My experience with self-labeled persons has been colored by encountering the very aspect of labeling that you parody. A frequent irritant is the conversion of an adjective (conservative, liberal) into a noun – “a conservative” or a whatever. What is it you want to conserve, Mr Conservative? What liberty do you want to unleash, Mr. Liberal? The assumption of a label, other than as a general description, often leads to a forced skewing of one’s understanding of many important ideas or issues. It often then promotes group-think and seeking-out only opinion or fact that would reinforce the prevailing attitude associated with that label. Many of us are overly binary in our thinking, and I believe the prevalence of self-adopted labels promotes such thinking as we basically throw ourselves in with that group. Then starts the name-calling. Now we feel almost compelled to label “those people” as leftists, liberals, commies, gringos, flat-earthers, knuckle-dragging reactionaries, or tree-huggers. I’m a liberal, Southern Baptist, Jesus-follower. The first few parts of my label are just adjectives. I’m probably more conservative on matters of church polity than my “conservative” Southern Baptist brothers and sisters. I’m more conservative on child-rearing related to behavior and decorum than most – but more liberal on allowing children to question and reject my theology and values. I ran a strict classroom with clear and strongly-enforced limits – but those limits allowed as much discretion and freedom as my students could handle – tailored to the situation. Was I liberal or conservative? I changed my mind and my practices on issues as experience dictated. Was I liberal or conservative? Or did I not let labels get in the way.
Labels can increase polarization, and self-adopting those labels equates to giving in to that polarization in my opinion.

Lots of good points there. My response ran along these lines…

The thing is, despite how irritating it has become to hear them, “conservative” and “liberal” are perfectly good words, implying perfectly good things. If only the people in and around our political system hadn’t dragged them through the mire over the past 50 years.

It’s a good thing to be conservative. It means, more than anything else, that you respect tradition — which is a value I cherish. It means respecting those who went before you, instead of assuming that “progress” means you’re better and wiser than those old dead dudes (which you’re not, especially if you have that attitude). It implies caution and responsibility. It means you don’t go off half-cocked. It means you respect the fundamental institutions of society — the family, the church, and yep, the government and its component institutions, such as the police, the military and the public schools.

“Liberal” also means good things. It means you favor liberty. It means you believe in pluralism, and freedom of conscience — including the views of people who don’t share yours. It means openness to new ideas. It means a willingness to change things if they aren’t as good as they should be. It means being generous. ALL Americans should be liberal, including conservatives, because conservatives believe in our institutions and underlying principles, and the essence of our system is that it is a liberal democracy.

The ideal public servant, in light of all that, would be both liberal and conservative, and I see no contradiction in that. For instance, you can have a deep respect for, and deference to, existing institutions while at the same time wanting to improve them. It means you can be a change agent while being cautious and responsible in your approach to change.

But folks who’ve been brainwashed by our parties, and by media that cover politics like is HAS to be a competition between two mutually exclusive teams (the sports model of coverage, which I despise), aren’t able to conceive of the two concepts going together. Language that should bring us together builds walls between us.

This leads to a great deal of misunderstanding. A lot of folks thought I was nuts, back in 2008, when I said I was happy either way the presidential election came out. The two parties had nominated the two people who I thought were the best candidates — John McCain and Barack Obama. It was the greatest win-win situation I’d seen in my adult life — the choice in November was between the two people we had endorsed in their respective primaries. Force to choose, I chose McCain over Obama — but I was pleased with Obama’s victory. Of course neither man was perfect — no one is. But they were both awfully good.

That made some people think I’d lost it, but I enjoyed it while it lasted.

I am conservative, and I am liberal, or I try to be. We should all strive to be both, as I defined them above. We should use these fine qualities to unite us, not as a means of separating us — which is what I’ve seen, unfortunately, for most of my adult life.

John Adams was a conservative liberal. He was a revolutionary, but a conservative one, who cherished the rule of law.

John Adams was a conservative liberal. He was a revolutionary, but a conservative one, who cherished the rule of law.

The problem is pulling that one lever to vote straight ticket

2 thoughts

For some reason, when someone links to my blog, it sometimes shows up as a comment awaiting my approval. I don’t know why. Anyway, that happened today, and it led to a response from me, so I thought I’d share it.

I was being quoted in the context of a much longer post. Actually, I’m not sure why what I had said fit into this post — as the writer said, it was about conservative propaganda, and as he or she said, my point comes from the center — but it did, so I’m just going to address that portion of the post.

The writer was referring to this post from this past Election Day. It was one in which I (and others) objected to people who actually vote on Election Day “late voters.” I then went on to object to the term “ticket-splitting.” My point was that there should be no such term, that the practice should simply be called “voting.” As opposed to what people who pull the party lever and ignore the ballot itself, thereby abdicating their responsibility to think, to discern, to discriminate, to make decisions about each individual candidate, to vote.

Here’s the passage of mine that was selected for quotation:

You know what I call ticket-splitting? “Voting.” True voting, serious voting, responsible voting, nonfrivolous voting. I am deeply shocked by the very idea of surrendering to a party your sacred duty to pay attention, to think, to discern, to discriminate, to exercise your judgment in the consideration of each and every candidate on the ballot, and make separate decisions.

If you don’t go through that careful discernment, you aren’t a voter, you are an automaton — a tool of the false dichotomy presented by the parties, a willing participant in mindless tribalism.

Sure, you might carefully discern in each case and end up voting only for members of one party or the others. And that’s fine — kind of weird, given the unevenness of quality in both parties’ slates of candidates — but if that’s where you end up.

And here’s what the person quoting it had to say about it:

Kernel of truth:
Human beings are certainly tribal, just in general. The idea that political parties are becoming tribes is an obvious extension of this, especially bolstered by worrying observations like increasing polarization of political opinion in the U.S. and (very likely related) increasing physical separation (segregation) between red (suburbs/country) and blue (cities) tribes. You also don’t have to look very long or hard to find a person who has a basic, surface-level understanding of politics, who doesn’t have an elaborate, well-thought-out intellectual theory of politics guiding their positions (in fact, their positions might be a contradictory mish-mash of things) but know very well who they’re supporting in the next election.

Tribal chauvinism can be scary — the ability to ascribe Deep Differences between in-group and out-group justifies (and thus creates) violence. People instinctively wish to bridge gaps between groups. Doing so stems future violence and can even be an ego boost to the person capable of doing so — being able to see how both sides are just tribal takes the person able to see it out of the realm of primitive partiality into the era of enlightenment and clear sight free from petty bias.

Why is the use of “tribalism” messed up?
There are at least three things messed up about analyzing political disagreement as largely tribalism.

First thing: it disrupts public democratic discourse by giving people the ability to dismiss people’s positions as born from blind, unenlightened loyalty rather than being sincerely held. The ability to say, “Well, you WOULD say that because that’s your tribe’s Doctrine” is not a good way to engage with fellow citizens’ opinions.

Second thing: it elides the very real differences and very real societal implications that different positions have. Whether Muslims should be banned, in my opinion, really really isn’t a matter of, “Well, you say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to. Who’s to say what’s right, really?” The concept of political disagreement boiling down, ultimately, to tribalism spreads a weird moralized amorality throughout society, where the ability to see the value of both sides becomes valorized (morally lauded) much more than the ability to take a side decisively (such preference for one over the other is close-minded, unenlightened, tribal). I’m not saying being able to see the logic or reasoning behind the other side is bad — I will never ever turn my back on the importance of empathy. But if your idea of enlightenment extends to “seeing through the bullshit of each side impartially” and no further, not to being able to evaluate the merits and awfulness of various positions, choose a side, and fight for the more moral option, your ability to see free from bias serves you and no one else.

The example above finds it unusual that someone would uniformly choose politicians of one party after careful evaluation because the “quality” of candidates varies so much that there is likely to be overlap, which means that a straight ticket will probably select a bad quality candidate over a better quality candidate. However, this doesn’t really make sense to me as someone for whom political positions are the main criteria of “quality” in a candidate. The two parties agree on a lot, but on the issues they don’t agree on, it is very rare for me to agree more with the political positions of a Republican over even a very right-wing Democrat — my notion of “quality” does not suggest there is much overlap at all. It’s true that serious issues like corruption / criminal behavior might make me consider voting for the other candidate, or a very odd politician who runs on issues no other politician has a stance on might warrant a closer look. However, I think the view that political differences seem like the least relevant consideration only makes sense when you’re in the center.

In the place of political stances, there is an unspecific notion of “quality”, and as you can see in the post, the state of being indifferent to political differences is morally valorized.

Third thing: as someone who is not a centrist, I will tell you that you can have zero loyalty for a political party (in fact, actively have an antagonistic relationship with both), and still have a very clear preference for one party’s politics. Having a preference between two teams ≠ being guided by tribalist loyalties. It just means your politics are not located midway between the teams.

Instead of / when you encounter “tribalism” you should:
Recognize that the existence of tribalism as a psychological feature of humans doesn’t negate very real differences between political stances. Recognize that while it’s good deed to reduce partisan bias in the world, there are sometimes things much worse than being partisan, and sometimes doing the right thing means decisively taking a side and fighting for it, rather than saying “well, I can see the value of both sides”.

Yes, I know that a lot of people hate it when I say “I can see the value of both sides,” and they let me know it, but this was not a case in which I was saying that.

Pleased that this writer was approaching my point thoughtfully, but distressed that my actual point had been ignored for the sake of concentrating on a word (“tribalism”) that was neither here nor there, I responded:

I’m glad you found my blog worth quoting, and I appreciate your thoughtful approach.

But you didn’t address my point.

No one’s trying to paper over differences, or call genuine disagreement “tribalism.”

I’m attacking the indefensible practice of party-line voting. I’m talking about people paying ZERO attention to the relative qualities of individual candidates, and simply pulling the party lever, choosing the very worst candidates that party is offering along with the very best. I’m referring a gross form of intellectual laziness, which I would think — given your thoughtful approach — you would abhor.

A person who pulls that lever abdicates the profound responsibility, as a voter, to think, to discern, to honestly compare each candidate to his or her opponent(s).

Sure, I can see how you can be a Democrat and vote for Democrats most of the time because you more often agree with Democrats. But it would be absurd to say, to assume, to believe, that ALL Democrats are automatically better than ALL Republicans, and vote accordingly, without taking a moment to test your proposition with each candidate on the ballot. In other words, without thinking.

If you’re really, really into being a Democrat (and of course it works the same way with Republicans; I’m just choosing the side you’re more likely to go with), then you will usually vote for the Democrat. In a particular election, you might even end up voting for every Democrat, without engaging in intellectual dishonesty. It seems to me unlikely, but then I can’t imagine agreeing with either party — or any party in the world — on everything. But a person who truly leans that way might legitimately do that.

But if he or she has not thought through every choice on the ballot before arriving at that 100 percent, we have an abdication of responsibility.

And then — you ever notice how irritating it can be when you want to change what you wrote in a comment, but there’s no edit feature (yes, I’m trying to be funny)? Well, those of you who complain about it so much can feel a little Schadenfreude at my having experienced it myself today. So looking back and seeing I had expressed something poorly, I had to add, immediately:

Rather than “I’m attacking the indefensible practice of party-line voting,” I meant to say, “I’m attacking the indefensible practice of party-lever voting.” As I go on to say, it’s OK if you end up voting for every candidate of one party or the other — as strange as voting that way seems to me.

The irresponsible thing, the indefensible thing, is doing so without having considered the individual candidates and their relative qualities in each contest on the ballot.

This is how far we are (or should be) toward impeachment

Jennifer Rubin’s on a roll lately. This morning I Tweeted this out:

If you don’t read anything more of her piece, read these two grafs:

We now have a situation in which multiple, highly respected GOP officials — Coats, Pompeo and perhaps Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein — will have a remarkably consistent story showing a frantic and persistent president pestering them to derail an ongoing FBI investigation.

In the case of President Richard Nixon, a recording of a single directive for the CIA to squash the FBI investigation of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters was dubbed a smoking gun….

Yeah. Assuming these stories remain consistent, we don’t just have a smoking gun — we have a whole battery of them.

Of course, Trump utterly lacks the sense of honor and grasp of reality that led Nixon to resign.

Speaking of grasp on reality, another good piece from a Post writer who generally gets put in the “conservative” camp (although as always when it comes to describing intelligent people, that’s an oversimplification):

This column does a couple of things. First, it tells of Kathleen’s conversations with a friend who, like pretty much the whole Trump base (which keeps him at about 39 percent approval, and WAY higher among Republicans, which is why impeachment will take longer than it should), is blind to how unhinged their guy is — or almost blind: The friend thinks Trump would be fine if he’d just stop Tweeting.

Yet, as Kathleen points out, the Tweets are our window into the real Trump:

So, yes, on one hand, Trump must stop tweeting. On the other, how else would we know how truly demented the man is? Luckily, it’s not too late to save the country, yet. But if Jack is worried about the president’s tweeting, it may be time for congressional Republicans to acknowledge what has long been obvious, declare the man incompetent and deliberate accordingly….

Interesting thing (to someone who cares about the little decisions involved in editing): On the Post iPad app, the headline leading from the main page to the Parker piece was “If Trump stops tweeting, how will we know how demented he really is?” — as you can see below. Then when you got to the column itself, the hed said far less: “If Trump stops tweeting, how will we know who he really is?” When I went to Tweet it, the app offered me the hed that said less. I changed it to the one that stated the case….

demented

We have public libraries. Why not public broadcasting?

Last night's reception at the library.

Last night’s reception at the library.

Last night I was pleased to attend a reception unveiling the remodeled portions of Richland Library, which also served in a way as a celebration of the fact that the library was recently named one of the nation’s best.

The library is indeed something that we have to be proud of in this community, even though some of us (ahem!) aren’t allowed to check books out because we sleep across the river. Seriously, though, it’s awesome. (At this point I must note that ADCO did the library’s rebrand awhile back, and my daughter-in-law works there.)

Anyway, this came back to mind this morning when I was reading George Will’s Sunday column harrumphing about funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (“Public broadcasting’s immortality defies reason.”)

He trotted out all the usual libertarian, market-oriented objections, such as:

  1. It might have been all well and good in the 1960s, when it was started as part of LBJ’s Great Society (about which, as you’d expect, Will has snotty things to say). Back then, it increased most people’s TV choices by 33 percent. But if it were gone today, it would reduce folk’s choices from, say, 500 channels to 499.
  2. The elite snobs who like it are generally affluent enough to pay for their chosen recreation and edification themselves, without forcing Joe Sixpack to cough up taxes for it.
  3. If Big Bird et al. have value (and Will is willing to stipulate that they do, in a market sense, which to him is what counts), advertisers and broadcasters would line up to eagerly purchase them and take over would CPB cease to be.

Here’s how I answer those:

  1. That’s like saying we don’t need libraries because there are (or used to be) bookstores, and Amazon. Well, yes, those things are fine enough for those who can afford them, but they have a tendency toward the lowest common denominator — reality TV and other garbage. Occasionally, commercial TV has started to do what CPB does — remember how A&E and Bravo started out, before sliding into what Will would term inanition — but the market has yet to produce anything that regularly airs such material as “King Charles III” or “The Civil War” (just to name a couple of personal faves; you may have others.)
  2. Sorry, but even if everyone doesn’t want it, public amenities — from parks to libraries to public schools — are there to better our communities in ways that the market will not. And Joe Sixpack has the same ability to vote for what he wants our tax money to be spent on that I do. Not everyone will agree with every expenditure, but these are the little trade-offs involved in living in communities rather than as hermits. The government (in this country) is not some separate thing out there doing things to us. It is us, and every one of us has the right and the obligation to express what we want it to do — which I am doing at this moment. (Oh, and not all elite snobs are made of money, just as an aside in response to an assertion that is neither here nor there.)
  3. Yes, they may, and then we’d have to watch commercials every 10 seconds. And eventually, all that we would get would be the content that maximized profits, and we’d lose other things that might make a little money but not enough, things that very well be the best of the lot. The marketplace gives us all sorts of wonderful things, from iPads to, um, iPhones (if I had more time, I’d surely think of something else), but I think an important function of the public sphere is to give us good things that the market will not. And if you wonder what sorts of things those might be, go watch some PBS or listen to NPR.

Finally, Will makes a point that in the abstract is devastating and unassailable, especially if you’re a journalist:

America, which is entertaining itself to inanition, has never experienced a scarcity of entertainment. Or a need for government-subsidized journalism that reports on the government. Before newspaper editorial writers inveigh against Mulvaney and in support of government subsidies for television and radio, they should answer this question: Should there be a CPN — a Corporation for Public Newspapers?

Well, no, of course not. But then, we’ve long made a distinction between the press and the use of the public airwaves. The Fairness Doctrine and so forth.

Still, it’s a powerful argument: Government-run news, globally, is the mark of the totalitarian, repressive state.

But then we have the actual fact, right in front of us, of PBS and NPR news programming. And to any objective observer (especially a professional one), they are of such such vastly higher quality than commercial broadcast news that it’s stunning. They are every bit as fair and impartial if not more so, and the depth and quality puts everything (except the better print outlets) in the shade.

It shouldn’t be so. But in reality, it is.

I’m reminded of something The New Republic published a few years back: “Enough Acton: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, except when it does not.” (Of course, some of my friends will object that the magazine said so in support of the Iraq invasion, so there’s that — but it was still a very true observation, a warning against overgeneralization.)

Government-backed media is a scary thing. Except PBS news is so very good. I don’t know how to explain it, but I know that — as an informed observer of news — I’d be sorry to lose that source. (Also, consider — this is news that gets a subsidy from government. As disturbing as that sounds, it’s a far cry from government-run news, which is something I do take an absolute, Actonesque stand against.)

And ultimately, that’s what I have to say about public broadcasting overall. At our house, except for maybe the weekly cold open on SNL, PBS is the only broadcast TV we watch at my house. We use our TV for that, and Netflix and Amazon. That’s it. And the reason why is that the rest of the broadcast universe offers nothing else as good.

And whatever the abstract arguments presented pro and con, I don’t want to lose that. So, to the extent I get a vote, I say let’s keep it.

Library 1

‘Trump the Thucydidean’ — OK, yeah; I hear it…

Occasionally, I get a little glimpse into what Trump voters object to when they behold the folk they see as out-of-touch elites — particularly those whom their spiritual godfather George Wallace called “pointy-headed intellectuals.”

An interesting discussion came on “On Point” this morning, just as I was arriving at the office. I’m sorry I didn’t have time to listen to the whole thing. One of the guests was Graham Allison titled “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” It’s about what may be the inevitable coming clash between these two behemoths, and you can hardly find a topic more important than that. Here’s an excerpt from a 2015 magazine article in which the author set out the concept:

When Barack Obama meets this week with Xi Jinping during the Chinese president’s first state visit to America, one item probably won’t be on their agenda: the possibility that the United States and China could find themselves at war in the next decade. In policy circles, this appears as unlikely as it would be unwise.

Thucydides

Thucydides

And yet 100 years on, World War I offers a sobering reminder of man’s capacity for folly. When we say that war is “inconceivable,” is this a statement about what is possible in the world—or only about what our limited minds can conceive? In 1914, few could imagine slaughter on a scale that demanded a new category: world war. When war ended four years later, Europe lay in ruins: the kaiser gone, the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved, the Russian tsar overthrown by the Bolsheviks, France bled for a generation, and England shorn of its youth and treasure. A millennium in which Europe had been the political center of the world came to a crashing halt.

The defining question about global order for this generation is whether China and the United States can escape Thucydides’s Trap. The Greek historian’s metaphor reminds us of the attendant dangers when a rising power rivals a ruling power—as Athens challenged Sparta in ancient Greece, or as Germany did Britain a century ago. Most such contests have ended badly, often for both nations, a team of mine at the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs has concluded after analyzing the historical record. In 12 of 16 cases over the past 500 years, the result was war. When the parties avoided war, it required huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger but also the challenged….

It’s one of those Big Ideas that explain the importance of so many others. It explains why President Obama, and Hillary Clinton before she went all Bernie, rightly saw the Trans-Pacific Partnership as so important — you know, the thing Trump killed without a thought the moment he took office.

Still, knowing all that, when I heard the author mention how “Thucydidean” Trump was being, I thought, “OK, now I hear it. I see what all the anti-intellectuals are on about…”

E.J. Dionne is right: Let’s get this over with…

I wholeheartedly agree with what E.J. Dionne had to say last night. Excerpts:

Trump has caused a catastrophe. Let’s end it quickly.

There is really only one issue in American politics at this moment: Will we accelerate our way to the end of the Trump story, or will our government remain mired in scandal, misdirection and paralysis for many more months — or even years?E.J. Dionne

There is a large irony in the politics behind this question. The Democrats’ narrow interest lies in having President Trump hang around as close to the 2018 midterm elections as possible. Yet they are urging steps that could get this resolved sooner rather than later. Republicans would likely be better off if Trump were pushed off the stage. Yet up to now, they have been dragging their feet.

The reports that Trump asked then-FBI Director James B. Comey to drop his investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn may finally be concentrating Republican minds….

Nothing could be worse than slow-walking the Trump inquiries. The evidence is already overwhelming that he is temperamentally and intellectually incapable of doing the job he holds. He is indifferent to acquiring the knowledge the presidency demands and apparently of the belief that he can improvise hour to hour. He will violate norms whenever it suits him and cross ethical lines whenever he feels like it.

He also lies a lot, and has been perfectly happy to burn the credibility of anyone who works for him. White House statements are about as believable as those issued regularly by the Kremlin….

My worry is that to do it right — whether we follow the impeachment route or Ross Douthat’s suggestion of using the 25th Amendment (which has a lot of appeal to me, if doable) — may take time. Not only to dot all the legal i’s, but for a miracle to happen — for Trump’s base, which thus far has been immune to evidence, finally sees the light. Otherwise, we’re just in for more horrific turmoil and division.

But that said, we probably can’t wait for that unlikely eventuality. E.J.’s right. ‘Twere best done quickly

You can sort of tell Bret Stephens is no longer at the WSJ

Sally

Or maybe you can’t. His title was deputy editorial page editor, but I don’t know how editorial decisions are made at that paper, so I can’t say whether he had any influence over board positions, much less a decisive one. There is evidence to indicate his influence didn’t extend far beyond his own columns — even though, for a period last year, the Journal did seem genuinely interested in stopping Trump.

In any case, the paper’s editorial about Lindsey Graham’s hearings on Russian meddling in our election, flippantly headlined “When the Senate Met Sally” (you can read the whole thing here), was rather lacking in deep concern about what Sen. Graham was (from what I’ve read and heard) legitimately focused on — the Russians.

And it ended with a conclusion that was as pure a Republican talking point as you could find — trying to distract from what the Russians did to how we knew about it, or at least how we knew about Michael Flynn’s role:

So far the only crime we know about in this drama is the leak of Mr. Flynn’s name to the press as having been overheard when U.S. intelligence was eavesdropping on the Russian ambassador. Mr. Flynn’s name was leaked in violation of the law after he was “unmasked” by an Obama Administration official and his name was distributed widely across the government.

We don’t know who did the unmasking, but on Monday both Mrs. Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper admitted that while in office they had personally reviewed classified reports about “Mr. Trump, his officials or members of Congress” who had been “unmasked.” Both also admitted that they had shared that information with others in government, though they did deny leaking to the press.

We thought readers might like to know those details in case they go unreported anywhere else in the press. The unmasking of the names of political opponents is a serious concern, and the American people need to know how and why that happened here.

That’s the sort of thing the Trump White House would put out, if it had its act together and was capable of projecting a coherent, consistent message. Which, as we know, it isn’t.

Oh, and by the way… As for that childishly petulant “in case they go unreported anywhere else in the press,” I was fully aware of it before I got to the WSJ. I think I first read of Republicans’ fixation on that point in The Washington Post. Anyway, the Journal knows (or should know) better than to say such things as that. It’s more what you’d expect to see in a Tweet from Trump himself, not serious writing by anyone who knows what he’s about…

graham yates

George Will’s diagnosis of Trump’s ‘dangerous disability’

A lot of readers don’t like George F. Will. They find him haughty, imperious and supercilious, and his writing dense, showy and vague.

But when he takes some of those qualities and packs them into a pointed diagnosis of just what is wrong with Donald J. Trump, he can be a pleasure to read. And edifying to boot.

Take today’s column, “Trump has a dangerous disability,” in which he writes:

It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either. This seems to be not a mere disinclination but a disability. It is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence….

Amen to all of that, especially that first sentence. That, after all, is the problem: Not that Trump might have the wrong idea about this or that, but that his brain doesn’t really do ideas, can’t process or express them clearly, and lacks the informational foundation for forming them in the first place.

More:

George WillWhat is most alarming (and mortifying to the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated) is not that Trump has entered his eighth decade unscathed by even elementary knowledge about the nation’s history. As this column has said before, the problem isn’t that he does not know this or that, or that he does not know that he does not know this or that. Rather, the dangerous thing is that he does not know what it is to know something….

Absolutely. And here’s the big finish:

Americans have placed vast military power at the discretion of this mind, a presidential discretion that is largely immune to restraint by the Madisonian system of institutional checks and balances. So, it is up to the public to quarantine this presidency by insistently communicating to its elected representatives a steady, rational fear of this man whose combination of impulsivity and credulity render him uniquely unfit to take the nation into a military conflict.

I share this partly because the piece was a pleasure to read, but also because some of you seem genuinely puzzled that I don’t just accept that Donald Trump is president of the United States, calm down and move on.

I don’t do that because I see clearly that it is my duty to be “insistently communicating to [my] elected representatives” just how unacceptable this state of affairs is. Every citizen who perceives the danger has an obligation “to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either.”

Oxymoronic group blasts Pelosi for being tolerant

I noted in passing this morning that Nancy Pelosi was being very sensible and open-minded when she split with her party’s new chair on whether Democrats would be allowed to think for themselves on abortion. An excerpt from the story I read, demonstrating the very human, respectful approach she took:

Pelosi“I grew up Nancy D’Alesandro, in Baltimore, Maryland; in Little Italy; in a very devout Catholic family; fiercely patriotic; proud of our town and heritage, and staunchly Democratic,” she added, referring to the fact that she is the daughter and sister of former mayors of that city. “Most of those people — my family, extended family — are not pro-choice. You think I’m kicking them out of the Democratic Party?”…

Of course, there are always enforcers of political dogma ready to jump down a reasonable person’s throat. The most ironic such rebuke I’ve seen comes from the oxymoronic Catholics for Choice, which can always be relied upon to put a surreal twist on the news:

As Catholics, we are dismayed by Minority Leader Pelosi’s out of touch and self-serving statements that throw women and their right to make their own moral decisions under the bus.

Let’s be clear—unity in diversity of thought is an important value in America and what any political party should seek to nurture. However, a party that claims the mantle on social justice and civil liberties cannot turn its back on women’s moral autonomy and the right to make conscience-based decisions. Women’s rights are human rights and they cannot be traded away based on short-sighted political calculations. Minority Leader Pelosi’s claim that ‘abortion is a fading issue’ is also downright irresponsible when women’s access to abortion services is under attack across America by restrictive legislative proposals and efforts to limit providers, especially for the poorest women….

How do you take a statement like that seriously when it starts, “As Catholics…?” But of course, the purpose of this organization is to convince you to accept that proposition.

I ask you: Did any part of that statement feel “Catholic” to you? In style and voice, did it sound like something, say, Pope Francis would say? No. In tone and word choice, it read as though it had been written by an indignant college sophomore interning at NARAL.

A digression: I may need to borrow someone’s Dictionary of Current Ideology. Set abortion aside. How does an individual person have something called “moral autonomy?” Is not the essence of morality that we are responsible to one another for what we do? (Where do they get this cant?)

Nice try, Nancy, attempting to make your party a little more tolerant and open. This world is full of people who simply will not stand for that sort of thing…

One of the toughest questions in journalism (or advertising)

The split-second in question.

The split-second in question.

This intrigued me, because it poses one of the toughest questions I used to deal with as an editor:

In a self-congratulatory ad marking his first 100 days in office, President Trump labels major television networks “fake news.” So CNN is refusing to sell the president airtime to show the commercial.

“CNN requested that the advertiser remove the false graphic that the mainstream media is ‘fake news,’” the cable channel said in a statement. “The mainstream media is not fake news, and therefore the ad is false and per policy will be accepted only if that graphic is deleted.”…

I’ve been there. But as an editor, rather than as a gatekeeper for ads.

As editorial page editor, a substantial portion of the space I was in charge of was devoted to copy generated by people who didn’t work for me — op-eds, and letters to the editor. We always had a lot of copy to choose from in filling that limited space, and we gave priority to fresh views, and particularly those that disagreed with something we had said.

If we had just criticized someone editorially, and that person asked for some of our space to respond, that response went to the front of the line.

But sometimes, there was a problem. Sometimes in answering us, the writer said things that weren’t true. And we weren’t going to let our limited space be used to say things that weren’t true.

We especially weren’t going to let people use our space to mischaracterize what we had said. We went to a lot of trouble to shape the positions we presented to readers and we agonized over exactly how to present them — we weren’t about to let people claim we’d said something we hadn’t said, and give the lie credence by publishing it on our pages. We wouldn’t let a writer say, “They called me a big, fat idiot” when we had not even implied that the gentleman was big, fat, or any kind of idiot.

Trouble is, it’s not always that simple. Sometimes you write X and someone reads Y, no matter how hard you worked to make your point clear. Still, we weren’t going to let people waste our space arguing with Y when no one had said or even suggested Y. Which quite often they wanted to do.

This led to some pretty intense discussions with the writers, and on occasion to an impasse in which the writer withdrew the piece and went around telling anyone who would listen that those jerks at The State refused to publish a dissenting opinion.

Which of course was another lie. We very much wanted alternative, and especially dissenting, opinions. We just weren’t going to allow alternative facts.

Argue all you want with what we said. But don’t waste everyone’s time (and more to the point, our valuable space) arguing with what we did not say.

Not that facts and opinions are always easy to separate. We had some pretty intense arguments among us editors over that. I’d be reading a proof, and stride into the office of the editor who had allowed the piece onto the page and say, “He can’t say this; it’s not true.” And my colleague would say, “It’s an opinion, not an assertion of fact.” And we’d go ’round and ’round, and I’d generally err on the side of letting the reader have his say. And the next day kick myself when another reader would point out that something false had been said on my page, and that we had a sacred duty not to allow that. And I’d be like, Yeah, but he really thinks it’s true, and he and a lot of other people act and vote on that assumption, and if I’m going to educate all readers as to how such people think so that we can all understand each other, they need to be able to present their arguments… And sometimes I’d convince myself, and sometimes not.

Anyway, these kinds of questions are not easy. Telling truth, and making sure what others say on your medium is true, isn’t easy…

Robert Samuelson reminds us vegetables must be eaten

I wish to call to your attention this piece by Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post Writers Group.

An excerpt:

SamuelsonLet’s be clear: America is an undertaxed society. Our wants and needs from government — the two blur — exceed our willingness to be taxed. This has been true for decades, but it’s especially relevant now because the number of older Americans, who are the largest beneficiaries of federal spending, is rising rapidly. Unless we’re prepared to make sizable spending cuts (and there’s no evidence we are), we need higher taxes.

To the extent that President Trump’s proposed “tax reform” obscures or worsens this inconvenient reality, it is a dangerous distraction. We cannot afford large tax cuts, which are pleasing to propose (“something for nothing”) but involve long-term risks that are not understood by the president or, to be fair, by economists. Piling up massive peacetime deficits is something we haven’t done before. We cannot know the full consequences….

Looks like Samuelson’s bucking to be named patron saint of the Grownup Party, noting matter-of-factly that not only are vegetables good for us, but we must eat them.

By the way that line, “America is an undertaxed society,” goes double — no, triple, nay, 100 times — for South Carolina. I just thought I’d point that out for those still confused, especially the senators who think you can’t raise a tax that badly needs raising — the gas tax — without lowering some other taxes that has nothing to do with it.

Sorry to see Bret Stephens get rough reception at NYT

The last couple of weeks, it occurred to me briefly to wonder why I hadn’t seen any Bret Stephens columns in The Wall Street Journal. I chalked it up to the fact that I don’t look every day, and maybe I wasn’t looking on the right ones.

That wasn’t it.

It seems that Stephens, the WSJ deputy editorial page editor whom I’ve been praising over the past year for his principled criticism of Donald Trump, has left the paper.

He left to write for The New York Times, where readers have not made him welcome, according to a third paper, The Washington Post:

The New York Times thought it was bringing a fresh voice and some ideological diversity to its influential op-ed pages when it hired conservative columnist Bret Stephens from the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago.

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Bret Stephens

Readers weren’t impressed by Stephens’s debut column, to say the least.

The cancel-my-subscription outrage flowed freely after Stephens challenged the certitude about climate science in his first piece for the newspaper on Friday. While acknowledging that the planet has warmed over the past century and that humans have contributed to it, he wrote, “much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future.”…

This news prompts three reactions from me:

  • Why did Stephens leave the WSJ for the NYT? Was it merely a better opportunity, or had he been made to feel unwelcome at the Journal? I would hate to think it was the latter, because he had been one of the best reasons to read the Journal, especially over the past year.
  • What caused him — and, to the extent they had involvement, his editors — to choose this topic for his debut column? Was an anti-Trump column considered, but rejected as seeming like pandering to his new audience? Did he deliberately decide to be more in-your-face, to announce his presence as a new voice? Perhaps these questions don’t interest you, but as I’m someone who has spent years thinking about such things — which message to go with and when — they do me.
  • As for all you howling New York Times readers: Get over yourselves. Has your safe space been invaded? Good.

In searching for more info about Stephens’ move, I ran across quite a bit of fulminating against him and his first column, describing the latter as weak and poorly reasoned.

I thought the piece was fine. Its point, for those who claim to have a problem finding it, was this: If you find yourself being 100 percent certain, or close to it, about something, perhaps you should question yourself more.

Seems like a good choice for a first outing, considering the writer and his new venue. It was even prophetic, in the part where he wrote, “By now I can almost hear the heads exploding….”