Category Archives: Marketplace of ideas

David Brooks’ excellent column advocating ‘personalism’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Lynn Teague on the Legislature’s unfinished business

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

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

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

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

What Remains at the State House

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

Lynn Teague

Lynn Teague

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weak parties, strong partisanship: a poisonous combination

1964_Democratic_National_Convention_2

Back when parties were parties…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it just keeps spinning further out of control….

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

idiot word cloud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, this COULD be the winning formula for Democrats

Can the New Deal Coalition rise again?

Can the New Deal Coalition rise again?

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

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

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

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

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

Leonhardt writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You need a program to keep your ‘conservatives’ straight

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

Douthat

Douthat

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

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

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

John Bolton

John Bolton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Amazon rainforest was shaped by people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The legislative showdown between SC utilities and reformers

solar panels

As long as I’m throwing tweets at you, let’s contrast Henry McMaster’s fatuous nonsense with what’s going on among people at the State House who actually care about issues that matter to South Carolina.

We’ll start with this:

Oh, there goes that Brad Warthen promoting James Smith again! Well, not just him. We’re talking about a bipartisan coalition of actual leaders who are standing up to the pro-utility interests that brought you the Base Load Review Act.

This is what’s going on in the State House in this universe, as opposed to the one Henry lives in. In this universe, there’s a battle going on between people who continue to push the narrow interests of the utility industry and those who’d like us to be able to declare independence from them.

As a blog post over at the CVSC site says:

Let me set the scene for a big showdown that’s about to take place at the Statehouse…

There are two bills…

One bill was practically written by the utility monopolies. Not surprisingly, this bill would reward them for their role in the disastrous V.C. Summer debacle. Also, not surprisingly, this bill was introduced and rushed through subcommittee almost overnight by House members who’ve received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from utility monopolies.

The other bill would promote the growth of solar energy in South Carolina. This bill rewards consumers by treating them fairly and ensuring that our state’s solar energy market will continue to produce good-paying jobs and affordable energy for our families. Not surprisingly, this bill has been challenged at every step….

Here’s a comparison of the two bills:

DY0N0L3UMAASRd8

This Pew typology quiz isn’t nearly as good as the old one

needy

Remember the Pew political typology quiz of a few years back? It was an attempt to classify people by their actual beliefs, getting beyond simple “left” and “right.”

It posed a lot of questions with only two answers and both of them wrong, but I found it intriguing. It placed me in what it called the “Faith and Family Left.” That bugged me because I didn’t like the “left” part — but I thought the “faith and family” part was fair enough. In fact, I liked it. And how often are any of us comfortable with the ways others describe us? Here’s how that category was described:

The Faith and Family Left combine strong support for activist government with conservative attitudes on many social issues. They are very racially diverse – this is the only typology group that is “majority-minority.” The Faith and Family Left generally favor increased government aid for the poor even if it adds to the deficit and believe that government should do more to solve national problems. Most oppose same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana and most say religion and family are at the center of their lives. Compare groups on key issues.

Sounds kind of like me, doesn’t it? Even though it’s the group with the highest percentage of African-Americans (I joked at the time that Pew thinks I’m a black preacher) and I’m the whitest white boy at Bypass High, it felt more or less right. I chafed at some of it, but not all.

But Pew has a new typology quiz now, and I hate it. (Actually, it’s relatively new. I tried last year and hated the results so much I didn’t even write about it. Today, I decided to give it another chance, but it came up with the same stupid answer.) The questions demanding one of two wrong answers are even more egregious, and I simply refused to answer some of them. Which means Pew assessed me on the basis of incomplete information. And this time, it decided I was one of the “New Era Enterprisers,” which right off sort of makes me want to gag.

I ask you, does this sound like me?

This relatively young, economically conservative, Republican-leaning group tends to be relatively moderate on immigration and views about America’s engagement with the rest of the world. Most say U.S. involvement in the global economy is a good thing and that immigrants strengthen the nation. As is the case with other GOP-leaning groups, a majority of New Era Enterprisers reject the idea that racial discrimination is the main reason many black people are unable to get ahead. Nearly two-thirds favor societal acceptance of homosexuality. New Era Enterprisers are less critical about government than other Republican-leaning groups.

Really? “This relatively young, economically conservative, Republican-leaning group?” I try to picture that person, and I see John Dean before he started ratting out the Nixon White House. And if I were really a member of this group, I would have little memory of Howard Dean, much less John.

OK, yeah, I favor engagement in the world. But doesn’t that make me more of an old school postwar internationalist? More of a John McCain type? Or a Scoop Jackson, among the Democrats? And yeah, I’m less critical about government — but how does that put me in this group?

The only way it fits, overall, is that this category seems to be less ideological all around.

Pictured above and below are two of the questions I refused to answer. How could I?

Of course the country can do more to help the needy — such as passing single-payer. And it does NOT have to go further into debt to do it. False choice.

The one below is worse. I don’t think racial discrimination is “the main reason” many black Americans have trouble getting ahead. Nor would I for a second say that folks trapped in multigenerational poverty are “mostly responsible for their own condition.” There are many forces that can frustrate a poor person’s best efforts, and to say racism is “the main reason” is to blind yourself to all the others.

Anyway, I don’t have time to think about this any more. I need to run out and start a tech company and make a billion dollars. Because that, apparently, is the kind of young fella I am. A New Era Enterpriser. Sheesh…

racism

Death to emoji! Rage against the death of the word!

This has engendered a certain amount of discussion on social media, so I thought I’d share it here as well:

Of course, I meant “emoji,” because I wasn’t just talking about faces. I had thought “emoji” was just the cutesy shortening of “emoticon” — and my purpose was to wage war on cutesiness — but Wikipedia said not to confuse them.emoji

“Emoticons” are just the hypersimplistic, stylized representations of human facial expressions. And while I don’t much like them, they don’t irritate me the way other tiny images placed in Tweets and texts in place of words do. Things like slices of pizza and party hats and such…

Years ago, I read an article about how Umberto Eco — the semiotician who is best known as the author of The Name of the Rose — was predicting the advent of a post-literate society. This was a couple of decades ago, long before emojis. I seem to remember him talking about the Medieval days when, say, a pub called “The Fox and Hound” would mark itself with images of those animals instead of words, since the proprietor knew most prospective patrons would be illiterate.

Eco predicted we were headed back toward that darkness.

Lately, we hear regularly about the post-literate world that’s coming into being. Increasingly, our devices respond to voice and facial recognition more than typed input.

Well, I’m not going to sit still for the dying of the word. I’m going to rage, rage against it…

download (1)

 

Andy Brack’s piece on Catherine Templeton

brackAndy Brack of Statehouse Report contacted me yesterday saying he was working on a column about Catherine Templeton and wondering whether I had any comments to share. He suggested in passing he might see a parallel between her and Phil Noble (in terms of their stress on corruption in Columbia).

Within minutes, I replied:

The last thing South Carolina needs right now, with the challenges facing it, is someone with no experience in elective public life. And she is wearing that as a badge of honor. Why? Because Donald Trump, which is the worst of reasons, since the man demonstrates every day how important qualifications actually are.

Phil Noble is doing the same. Why? Because Bernie Sanders. Which is another bad reason, when you’re talking about leadership for South Carolina.

More appalling is the fact that I doubt Ms. Templeton is nearly as clueless as Trump. She seems to be an intelligent woman. She’s not a moron, but is willing to play one on TV to get elected.

Which implies that if elected, she’d be willing to govern like a moron. When she knows better.

A person who stoops to conquer makes for an unseemly spectacle. In her case, she’s stooping so low it’s hard to see how she gets back up.

Of course, I’m talking about the gun stuff, and the “my ancestors didn’t fight for slavery (except they did)” stuff. You’re talking more about the anticorruption angle, which causes you to make the comparison to Noble.

There’s an anticorruption case to be made, with the Pascoe probe continuing and the nuclear mess. But it becomes dishonest, and destructive, when the pitch becomes, “Everyone with experience is corrupt, so elect me.”

Whether you find that particular brand of populism on the left or the right, it’s harmful to public life, and undermines hope for our democracy…

Which caused Andy to do a sort of “Whoa!” and say, “well, I guess you have an opinion!”

Yup. A bunch of ’em.

Here’s Andy’s column. An excerpt:

Just as a burglar might throw drug-laced meat to a vicious guard dog to make it go to sleep, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Catherine Templeton  is using every trick she can to lull voters that she’s right for the state’s top job.

She’s not.  She’s a political burglar.  And she’s dangerous.

Templeton doesn’t have the temperament, experience, tact or moral compass to lead South Carolina to better times.  After months of campaigning, she seems to want to lead South Carolina backwards to a time that embraced racism and the plantation….

Good to have SOME adult supervision for Richland County

Here’s what I don’t like about ideologues is that they don’t know when to make an exception to their rules.

Folks on the left and right dismiss those of us in the middle because they think we don’t believe in anything. I believe in quite a few things — but I know when to make an exception from the principles I espouse.

Cindi Scoppe’s the same way. She and I hold quite a few principles in common. One of them — which you can describe as subsidiarity, or devolution or decentralization or federalism or some other word that’s not coming to mind because I had a beer at lunch — is the idea that, generally speaking, governing decisions should be made as locally as possible.

But there are exceptions. And personally, I prefer the term “subsidiarity” because it assumes exceptions, since the rule is that “matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.” The key word being “competent.” When the smaller entity can’t do the job, the larger one needs to step in. Which came into play in Cindi’s column today about the state Supreme Court jumping on Richland County for misspending penny tax money:

But honestly, even as someone who believes passionately that local governments should have broad authority to act without state interference, I can’t help being relieved to know that there are going to be some grownups looking over the county’s spending.

Not all of it, of course. The County Council still has control over property taxes and restaurant taxes and all sorts of other revenue the county collects.richland-county

It still has the ability, unsupervised by grownups, to sell prime real estate at a ridiculously low price without marketing it, or even announcing that it was on the market, as it did with the former sheriff’s department site on Huger Street.

It still has the ability, unsupervised by grownups, to hire a new transportation director with absolutely no experience in … wait for it … transportation.

It still has the ability, unsupervised by grownups, to spend $1.2 million to renovate its own meeting and office space, and then announce less than four months later that it’s relocating its chambers and the whole complex, bulldozing the adjacent building (to build a new courthouse) and turning the just-renovated space into a ceremonial courthouse.

And to secretly concoct a plan to move some of its offices to a nearly abandoned mall — which might be a good idea, but for the “secretly” part, which applies not just to the specific property being purchased but also to the whole plan. And to wrap it all up with a gaudy “Richland Renaissance” bow that also covers such dubious projects as a business incubator, a critical care medical facility (don’t doctors usually build those?) and, my personal favorite, a competitive aquatics center.

For which the cost is at best speculative. And no funding source has been identified. And about which it agreed to hold a legally required public hearing only after one of my colleagues in the news department kept hounding the county.

But I digress….

Maybe she got that from me. The digressing thing. (In her defense, she’s far more disciplined about it than I am.)

But back to her original point: Yes, it’s good to see the county get some adult supervision. And it could probably stand with a little more. Vote Grownup Party!

I thought Templeton had one good idea. I was wrong…

When I saw that Catherine Templeton had put out a “Conservatives Issues platform” on Monday, I assumed it would be more of the same. Which is to say, another instance of an intelligent woman trying to appeal to the most atavistic blood-and-soil reflexes of a traumatized Republican Party, in keeping with her strategy of trying to out-Bannon Henry McMaster.

Templeton

Templeton

But then I was delighted to see one good idea — or at least, to see what I initially thought was a good idea: The State reported that she wanted to protect “Home Rule.”

I was impressed. Too few people understand the problem of the Legislature’s utter failure to fully implement the Home Rule Act of 1975, maintaining its feeble influence over local matters and keeping local governments weak.

If she was standing up for Home Rule in South Carolina, it would be the second time in a week that someone had stood up for a long-overdue “Power Failure” reform — the other time being the freshmen’s proposal for a constitutional convention to address fundamental structural problems in our state government.

But I was wrong, as I realized when I saw a release in which Jim DeMint (remember that guy?) was praising her position. This was NOT a case of someone standing up for fixing an actual problem that plagues South Carolina (and which far too few people understand). Nope. She was just touching another far-right base, trying to get the ganglia to twitch.

She was sticking up for “Home Rule” in a way that only makes sense to people who keep up with the latest fetishes of the far right. She, too was seeking a constitutional convention — only in her case on the federal level, and to address nonexistent problems:

  • Make South Carolina a signatory of the Convention of States movement.

“Our Founding Fathers intended for this government to be of the people, by the people, for the people,” Templeton explained. “The U. S. Constitution gives South Carolina the right and duty to make sure the federal government doesn’t interfere where it is not welcome. Today, the federal government exercises control over our very livelihood.  Every day Congress takes more and gives us less. As governor, I will support the current push by conservatives in South Carolina’s General Assembly who are fighting to take back states’ rights from a bloated, bureaucratic, overbearing federal government. While the President fights top down, I join him in our fight from the states up.”

Today, former United States Senator Jim DeMint commended Catherine Templeton’s courage in fighting for conservative values.

“States must do more to chart their own course for the future and reign in the out-of-control federal government.  I commend Catherine Templeton for her wisdom and courage to support the Article V Convention of States Project.  It is the only constitutional way to save our country and our state.”
-Jim DeMint, March 5, 2018

Remember the recent resurrection of Nullification? Well, it receded for awhile, but apparently it’s back. You just can’t keep a bad idea down in South Carolina.

What does it tell us that a bunch of House freshmen can take a bold and risky stand in favor of a sweeping, needed and too-little-understood reform, but a viable candidate for governor of the whole state sketches out a vision that is nothing but one knee-jerk pander after another?

Anyway, she got my hopes up for a second, but then crushed them…

Go read Cindi’s column on the restructuring proposal

It’s a good piece, rightly taking Democratic leadership to task for their ham-handed attack on the freshmen’s proposal, and also showing due hesitation about a convention.

Of course, Cindi agreeing with me on a “Power Failure” issue is not exactly news, but maybe y’all will like the way she explains it better.

So go click on it. Then go to another device and click on it from there. Because I worry that serious, complex reform issues such as this don’t get enough coverage in an age when it’s all about the clicks. Cindi sort of indirectly alludes to that problem within her column:

I mean, if it weren’t for Trav Robertson’s delusional (or deliberately deceptive, or embarrassingly ignorant) rant, how could I get anybody to read about legislation proposed by most freshman legislators to blow up South Carolina’s government and start over?

Actually, now that I put it that way, maybe that’s something you would find interesting…

One hopes. But just to make sure, go read it a few times. And click through when she gives you links to the two bills, and other links.

It ends on a hopeful note. While a constitutional convention may be dangerous, and while this proposal may go nowhere, this year, it’s very encouraging that this many freshmen actually understand what’s really wrong with state government.

Which makes them the savviest freshman class I’ve ever seen. And that gives me a lot of hope for the future, when these lawmakers have more pull — if they can get re-elected. As Cindi puts it:

Cindi recent mugWhat is significant, hugely significant, is that most of our state’s first-term legislators have decided that South Carolina’s biggest problem is that the Legislature has too much power. And they have concluded that the problem is so dire that it warrants the most radical solution they can think of — within the confines of statutory and constitutional law — because the Legislature is not going to voluntarily relinquish a significant amount of power.

What is significant is that these freshmen understand that this whole exercise is a waste of time unless they make voters understand that their frustration and anger about our state’s failures is a result of the way our government is structured. They say they are willing to invest the energy and resources and time to do that.

If they succeed, we won’t need to take a chance on a constitutional convention, because the Legislature will make the changes itself….

But go read the whole thing

Promising first step on lifting SC’s solar cap

State House

This was good to see yesterday:

The Chairman of the Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition (PCSC) today applauded a South Carolina House Judiciary subcommittee for its unanimous passage of H. 4421, a bill that would bring more free market solar energy choices to South Carolina consumers.

“In just a few years, South Carolina has become a leader in solar energy growth. I’m thrilled that House members recognize how H. 4421 will continue this positive trend by giving consumers even more free market energy choices,” said Matt Moore, Chairman of the PCSC. “Now the bill moves to the full the Judiciary Committee, where we are confident that despite big power’s objections to energy freedom, House members will support sending H. 4421 to the full South Carolina House for passage.”

That’s James Smith’s bill, called the “SC Electric Consumer Bill of Rights,” that lifts the ridiculous cap on solar energy in South Carolina. The one I wrote about Wednesday.

Moore, the former GOP chair, made a point of thanking Smith along with Republican backers Peter McCoy and Judiciary Chairman Greg Delleney.

It’s a smart piece of bipartisan legislation — I’ve yet to hear a good reason why it shouldn’t pass — and while subcommittee passage is just a start, I’m encouraged by the unanimous vote.

The conservative case for clean energy

The solar panel (get it?): Rep. Nathan Ballentine, Charles Hernick of CRES, Bret Sowers of the SC Solar Business Alliance, Tyson Grinstead of Sunrun, Inc., and moderator Matt Moore.

The solar panel (get it?): Rep. Nathan Ballentine, Charles Hernick of CRES, Bret Sowers of the SC Solar Business Alliance, Tyson Grinstead of Sunrun, Inc., and moderator Matt Moore.

There’s something odd about that headline, isn’t there? One shouldn’t have to make such a case, seeing as how “conservative” and “conservation” derive from the same root.

But our modern politics are sufficiently strange that the case must be made — and increasingly, more conservatives are prepared to make it.

They did so this morning over at the convention center Hilton, at a breakfast co-sponsored by the Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition and Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions out of Washington.

Erick Erickson

Erick Erickson

The program started with a brief keynote by Erick Erickson of The Resurgent (and formerly of RedState), who came to say, “We conservatives don’t have to be afraid of clean energy.” Mind you, “We don’t need to subsidize it” the way he says folks on the left want to do — it’s more about getting out of the way and letting markets do the job.

The main thing standing in the way of that is the owners of the current infrastructure. Erickson, who lives in Macon, says he keeps hearing from Georgia Power, telling him that solar might burn his house down, and anyway, it’s not efficient — it doesn’t work on a cloudy day.

“Why are you so scared of it, then?,” he asks.

After Erickson sat down, Matt Moore — new head of the Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition and former chairman of the S.C. GOP — gave out awards to some conservative friend of clean energy, including my own Rep. Micah Caskey. Others recognized were Rep. Nathan Ballentine, and Sen. Greg Gregory.

Gregory got credit for passage of Act 236 in 2014 — the legislation that allowed net metering in South Carolina. Which was a start toward putting solar on a firm footing in the state.

But the main order of 2018 for these organizations is repealing a problematic provision of that legislation — a 2 percent cap on the amount of energy allowed to be generated by solar, something the utilities insisted on in 2014.

So we heard a lot, during a panel discussion featuring Ballentine and three others and chaired by Moore, about H. 4421, which would remove that cap and let solar compete freely — an idea suddenly quite popular, with SCANA and Santee Cooper in the political doghouse.

We’re getting close to that 2 percent cap, which Ballentine said would cause the disappearance of 3,000 jobs in South Carolina in the installation business (also represented on the panel). That’s one of the reasons he’s for lifting the cap.

He praised H. 4421, saying how good it is to see a “bipartisan effort” behind it.

And it does have bipartisan support. What Nathan did not say, with so many Republicans in the room, is that the bill’s prime sponsor is Rep. James Smith. He was concerned, apparently, that some in his party might oppose it just to keep James from having a big win when he’s running for governor.

Which would be really petty of them, but that’s the state of party politics in the Year of Our Lord two thousand and eighteen. For some people, anyway.

Frankly, I’m having trouble imagining any good reason why anyone would oppose such commonsense legislation. Maybe you can think of one, but I can’t.

The bill is supposed to come up in subcommittee again Thursday…

the room

About bars closing at 2 a.m. in Columbia

For my second post of the day based on Twitter, I’ll give you something I retweeted this morning:

Kevin Fisher

Kevin Fisher

First, let me tell you of a sorta kinda indirect conflict I have. Or at least, apparent conflict: Phill Blair, co-owner of The Whig, is one of my elder son’s oldest friends, and one of the leading opponents of an earlier closing time for bars in the city. (For that matter, Free Times has a much closer connection than that his partner Will Green, but no one makes a secret of that or anything.)

And their argument is this: Their bar, which benefits from staying open later, would be penalized when it isn’t one of the bars causing the problems the policy is designed to address — which is more of a Five Points thing. (Phill and Will, let me know if I didn’t state that clearly.)

Of course, that flies in the face of my Grownup Party instincts, which embraces such concepts as “Nothing good happens after 2 a.m.” So I tend to lean toward what Kevin is saying:

In case you didn’t know it, we are very much the outlier on this issue, with Charleston and Greenville both requiring bars to close at 2 a.m.

Yet somehow the hospitality industry in those cities has survived and thrived without serving alcohol past 2 a.m. That’s right, all the bar activity on the peninsula in Charleston and all the bar activity on Main Street in Greenville comes to an end at 2 a.m.

What do their City Councils know that ours doesn’t? Maybe how to run a city, for starters.

Kevin was as wrong as wrong can be in the column before this one. If there was a perfect example of an issue that should NOT be decided by referendum, it’s the Dominion-SCANA deal. But he’s on more solid ground this week.

Is the U.S. a failed state? In a number of ways, it seems so

E.J. Dionne says we are, at least with regard to one issue: “On gun violence, the United States has become a corrupt failed state.”Dionne

But the problem is broader than that.

Sure, we have demonstrated that we are completely incompetent to keep children from being murdered en masse in our schools, which is about as basic a failure as you can find. If our political structures are completely incapable of accomplishing that job, what good are they? The New Yorker was right to proclaim last week that “America’s Failure to Protect Its Children from School Shootings Is a National Disgrace.”

But our failures to protect the things that must be protected in order to have a civilization go beyond that. Look at a few other examples of where we’re failing at the basics:

  • Despite Alexander Hamilton’s promises, the Constitution utterly failed to prevent a malevolent, staggeringly unqualified, amazingly self-involved, unbalanced ignoramus from becoming president. We’ve never had such a political failure before in our entire history. We’ve never even come close. And before Nov. 8, 2016, most of us couldn’t imagine it.
  • Thanks to the election of said ignoramus, our security apparatus is crippled in its ability to stop the Russians from continuing to undermine our democracy with tactics that, in the pre-internet, Nixonian era, was called “ratf___ing.” That’s because acknowledging the problem would hurt the tender feelings of the ignoramus.
  • Oh, I’m not blaming Trump. I’m blaming the people who voted for him, and the extreme polarization that led them to do such an immensely destructive thing. Last year, one idea was uppermost in the minds of those who voted for Trump, Bernie Sanders and Green Party nominee Jill Stein, all three of whom were pushing the idea that our national institutions could not be trusted (which is why the Russian trolls tried to help all three, not just Trump).
  • Which brings us to the one thing most responsible for that polarization (or at least, it’s tied with the fact that in the internet era everybody seems to believe they’re entitled to their own facts, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dictum notwithstanding): Partisan gerrymandering. Decades too late, our courts are starting to look at this problem, but how many of us believe that our incumbent representatives won’t find ways around whatever the courts may do?
  • Talk about failing at the basics: How many years did we go without Congress passing a normal annual budget? Oh, but wait! What about the historic recent bipartisan spending agreement? Well, it was accomplished by all involved getting what they wanted, as though unprecedented deficits didn’t matter. No hard decisions were made, because our system no longer supports doing that.
  • I won’t even get into the way his country is shrinking in the estimation of both friends and foes abroad. I could blame Trump and/or Sanders for that, but remember: Even Hillary Clinton, who knew better, was trashing TPP by the end. Why? Because our politics had become that dysfunctional.

A few days before the school shooting, to Doug’s annoyance, I applauded when Ross Douthat wrote a column essentially saying that the inundation of our youth in pornography is not an unavoidable physical law of nature, but a man-made problem that we could address if we simply had the resolve.Douthat

My point wasn’t to call for a war on porn. I think we have bigger problems. My point was that he was standing up to one of those things that cause us to shrug and say, There’s nothing we can do! Like school shootings, or hyperpartisanship, or the politics of hopelessness.

And he was saying, if we really make up our minds to do something, we can.

I liked that idea, or the attitude behind the idea. The attitude that we don’t have to accept being a failed state. But unfortunately, at the moment, in some important ways, that’s what we are.

Liberal friends, here’s an example of left-leaning irrationality

Some of my liberal friends here are constantly on my case for what they call my “false equivalence.” They believe they are not contributing to the careening, irrational polarization of our era — it’s the extremists on the other side who are entirely to blame.

Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat

Which, of course, isn’t true. Yep, the Republicans (or a lot of them) have been getting weirder and weirder in recent years, but  there are plenty of people on the left who are happy to keep pushing them away.

Conservative columnist Ross Douthat of The New York Times wrote a provocative column a day or two back. Basically the thrust of it was this: As objectionable as Stephen Miller is, maybe he needs to be at the table if a viable immigration compromise is to be reached. For years, we’ve tried fashioning a comprehensive solution without the nativists at the table, and nothing has passed. Maybe it’s time to try something else.

He concludes, “But a bargain that actually reflects the shape of public opinion, not just the elite consensus, can only happen with someone like Stephen Miller at the table.”

This sent a lot of people ’round the bend, causing Douthat to spend much of the next few hours answering critics on Twitter. Some engaged what he actually wrote. But here’s what Salon said:

In case that Tweet embed doesn’t show you what I’m seeing (a frequent problem I’ve noticed), the headline of the Salon piece is “To Ross Douthat, white immigration is the only good immigration,” and the subhed is “A New York Times columnist praises the whites-only rhetoric of Stephen Miller.”

I responded to that Tweet by saying, “That’s not what he wrote and it’s not what he meant. He was WRONG, but he didn’t commit the evil of which you accuse him…”

The closest Douthat comes to “praising” Miller is when, after nothing that about a third of Americans, like Miller “want immigration reduced,” he writes this:

And there are various reasonable grounds on which one might favor a reduction. The foreign-born share of the U.S. population is near a record high, and increased diversity and the distrust it sows have clearly put stresses on our politics. There are questions about how fast the recent wave of low-skilled immigrants is assimilating, evidence that constant new immigration makes it harder for earlier arrivals to advance, and reasons to think that a native working class gripped by social crisis might benefit from a little less wage competition for a while. California, the model for a high-immigration future, is prosperous and dynamic — but also increasingly stratified by race, with the same inequality-measuring Gini coefficient as Honduras….

But that is immediately followed by this:

With that said, illegal immigration has slowed over the last decade, and immigration’s potential economic and humanitarian benefits are still considerable. And it’s also clear that many immigration restrictionists are influenced by simple bigotry — with the president’s recent excrement-related remarks a noteworthy illustration.

This bigotry, from the point of view of many immigration advocates, justifies excluding real restrictionists from the negotiating table…

… which leads to Douthat’s point that doing so hasn’t worked; maybe actually negotiating with these people could.

I read that as damning Miller with something harsher than faint “praise.”

Overall, I consider Miller and what he wants to do beyond the pale, because of the ugly nativism that animates the anti-immigrant position (and yes, in this case we’re talking anti-immigrant, not just anti-illegal immigrant). What he wants to achieve shouldn’t be dignified with serious consideration.

But it doesn’t make you a racist or a fan of racism to suggest that he should be let into the conversation.

And saying, in no uncertain terms, that it does is itself an example of the kind of extremism that’s driven our country apart.

How ‘America First’ helps bring about the Chinese Century

China's Rambo: The piece in The New Yorker leads with the wild success of a new film in which the Chinese hero flexes muscle abroad...

China’s Rambo: The piece in The New Yorker leads with the wild success of a new film, “Wolf Warrior II,” in which the Chinese hero flexes muscle abroad…

Last night, New Yorker journalist Evan Osnos was on Fresh Air, talking about his new piece in the magazine headlined “Making China Great Again.” The subhed of the piece is “As Donald Trump surrenders America’s global commitments, Xi Jinping is learning to pick up the pieces.”

No kidding. All the way home as I listened, my reaction was essentially “Duh!” I mean, everything he was saying about the way Trump has damaged U.S. standing in the world — and elevated that of China and others who can’t wait to fill the vacuum — was obvious. Anyone would know that this would be what would happen as a result of his “America First” idiocy.

Except, abundant evidence exists that this is not obvious to everyone. So I thought I’d share. And I learned a lot of details about how the predictable has actually played out. It’s particularly interesting to hear him talking about how Chinese leadership has figured out where all Trump’s buttons are, and manipulated him to their advantage at every turn.

Here’s the basic thrust of the New Yorker piece:

China has never seen such a moment, when its pursuit of a larger role in the world coincides with America’s pursuit of a smaller one. Ever since the Second World War, the United States has advocated an international order based on a free press and judiciary, human rights, free trade, and protection of the environment. It planted those ideas in the rebuilding of Germany and Japan, and spread them with alliances around the world. In March, 1959, President Eisenhower argued that America’s authority could not rest on military power alone. “We could be the wealthiest and the most mighty nation and still lose the battle of the world if we do not help our world neighbors protect their freedom and advance their social and economic progress,” he said. “It is not the goal of the American people that the United States should be the richest nation in the graveyard of history.”

Under the banner of “America First,” President Trump is reducing U.S. commitments abroad. On his third day in office, he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a twelve-nation trade deal designed by the United States as a counterweight to a rising China. To allies in Asia, the withdrawal damaged America’s credibility. “You won’t be able to see that overnight,” Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, told me, at an event in Washington. “It’s like when you draw a red line and then you don’t take it seriously. Was there pain? You didn’t see it, but I’m quite sure there’s an impact.”

In a speech to Communist Party officials last January 20th, Major General Jin Yinan, a strategist at China’s National Defense University, celebrated America’s pullout from the trade deal. “We are quiet about it,” he said. “We repeatedly state that Trump ‘harms China.’ We want to keep it that way. In fact, he has given China a huge gift. That is the American withdrawal from T.P.P.” Jin, whose remarks later circulated, told his audience, “As the U.S. retreats globally, China shows up.”

For years, China’s leaders predicted that a time would come—perhaps midway through this century—when it could project its own values abroad. In the age of “America First,” that time has come far sooner than expected….

This is something I’ve worried about for a long time. One of the first editorials I ever wrote for The State, probably in January 1994, was about the way China was quietly insinuating its way into positions of influence around the globe, including in our own Monroe Doctrine backyard — Latin America. But at least for the next 23 years, we had leaders who understood why this was a problem (as we had my whole life), and were taking steps to counter it — such as with the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, of which TPP was a critical part.

I never dreamed that we’d have a president who on Day One (OK, Day Three) would just trash it all, and invite China to jump in with both feet. Trump was so eager to do this that he even took a moment out of his busy first-week schedule of loudly proclaiming that his inauguration crowd had been the biggest ever.

And why does it worry me (one or more of my relativist friends will ask)? I always feel a little absurd having to explain it, but I feel a lot better living in a world in which the global hegemon is the planet’s greatest liberal democracy than in one dominated by the oppressors in Beijing. So should all of you who like to exercise your freedom of expression here on this blog. It’s that simple. Or rather, it’s that, and my belief that the rest of the world is better off with the U.S. playing the role China wants to play.

I recommend you listen to the radio interview and read the piece in The New Yorker. Then let’s discuss…