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Thank You for Protecting Me from Myself

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Two very helpful persons at the Brookings Institution, Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, have written a paper calling for more professionalism and less populism in American public life. The title of the paper claims, “voting makes us stupid.” Really?

Of course, Donald Trump is a walking testament to the stupidity of voters. But their argument goes beyond this. Let’s examine the points in detail.

More Participation Will Not Be Beneficial

The authors go back to, of all people, the Founders as a source of the idea that the Constitution was set up to limit participation. This is true. The Founders feared mob rule almost as much as government tyranny.

Drawing upon ample historical experience, they worried that democracies were vulnerable to demagoguery and prone to instability. Although they insisted that republican government required direct public input, they also constrained and balanced that input.
— Rauch and Wittes

So can we look forward to a shift in the policy of the Brookings Institution to call for a reduction in open primaries and restoration of the selection of Senators to the states?

The People are Incompetent

This is always going to be a seductive idea to a think tank that considers itself a repository of public policy expertise, but leave that aside for now.

This argument actually goes back to Walter Lippmann. In Public Opinion (1922), Lippmann attacked “the doctrine of the omnicompetent citizen.” Lippmann called for a structure modeled on his idea of the British foreign service, where disinterested and independent experts provide policy options to elected officials.

However, there is no such thing as a disinterested expert. The regime Lippmann visualized quickly degenerates into a system where the experts exercise political control because they control the menu of options under discussion.

In practice, the British foreign service wasn’t that great a model. It really worked out like this:

[Bernard] was concerned that the FO [Foreign Office] produces only one considered view, with no options and no alternatives. In practice, this presents no problem. If pressed, the FO looks at the matter again, and comes up with the same view. If the Foreign Secretary demands options, the FO obliges him by presenting three options, two of which will be (on close examination) exactly the same. The third will, of course, be totally unacceptable, like bombing Warsaw or invading France.
Yes, Prime Minister

That is what is going to happen when unelected experts are in control of the policy menu. Even Lippmann had lost faith in experts by 1925, when he wrote The Phantom Public:

[Government] is also subject to the same corruption as public opinion. For when government attempts to impose the will of its officials, instead of intervening so as to steady adjustments by consent among the parties directly interested, it becomes heavy-handed, stupid, imperious, even predatory.

There is really no such doctrine justifying public participation in politics as based on an “omnicompetent citizen.” The authority of the people is not contingent on them passing some sort of civics test. The legitimacy of the government is derived from the consent of the governed. It is not derived from the consent of that subset of the governed that those governing consider qualified.

We have the right to grant or withhold consent, not because we are omnicompetent, but because we have skin in the game. We live with the consequences of government actions. It’s our blood and treasure on the line.

  • In 1953, an Anglo-American effort in Iran instigated the ouster of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. This was undertaken primarily because Mossadegh wanted to extract more concessions from the British. The participants in the American government believed that the British economy was unable to withstand these concessions. However, the end result included both the breakup of the British monopoly on Iranian oil trade and a price increase to show the Shah was not a puppet of the west. Thus, for all the broken china, this foolish misadventure did not even accomplish its original intention. Did the American people really want what was done in their name?
  • In 2016, the Obama administration committed the United States to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 18% under the Paris Agreement. This commitment was made by executive order, bypassing the Constitutional requirement for treaties to be ratified by the Senate. The commitment, which has been revoked by Donald Trump, would have necessarily increased energy costs for American citizens in order to comply with the targets. Why did we want this? The Obama administration knew we did not, which is why it evaded review by our representatives in the Senate.

The People are Irrational

Sure, they are. But the professionals are people, too. How are they not any less irrational than the public at large?

There is a reason that David Halberstam titled his history of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in Vietnam The Best and the Brightest. The best and the brightest can also go wrong. And when they do, the move in greater unison than the public at large. They largely drink from the same wells of information and have similar outlooks. Groupthink is particularly prevalent among professionals.

The authors quoted Lee Drutman: “Informed, individualistic rationality is a chimera.” Actually, rationality in public life in general is overrated. One of the most rational politicians of the past hundred years was Neville Chamberlain. It is perfectly rational to want to avoid going to war to interfere “in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” But history demonstrated it was a bad idea.

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
— G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

More Education Will Not Be Helpful

More than what? In 1918, the National Education Association completed Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. This report called for seven objectives of secondary education, including Civic Education:

For such citizenship the following are essential: A many-sided interest in the welfare of the communities to which one belongs; loyalty to ideals of civic righteousness ; practical knowledge of social agencies and institutions; good judgment as to means and methods that will promote one social end without defeating others; and as putting all these into effect, habits of cordial cooperation in social undertakings.
Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, p. 13.

Yet, here we are 99 years later. Every year students are reported to be in greater ignorance of civics, politics and economics than last. Rauch and Wittes cite a survey showing that most respondents cannot name the three branches of government, identify the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or locate the entity with the power to declare war. Moreover, they cite the common belief that the government spends more on foreign aid than on Social Security or Medicare.

So how is this not an indictment of the existing education establishment? How has the education system delivered on the 1918 goals?

In Public Opinion, Lippmann famously wrote:

It is because they are compelled to act without a reliable picture of the world, that governments, schools, newspapers and churches make such small headway against the more obvious failings of democracy, against violent prejudice, apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows and three legged calves. This is the primary defect of popular government, a defect inherent in its traditions, and all its other defects can, I believe, be traced to this one.

The education system has had a century to remedy the “preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important.” It has not done so, and we can only conclude that it does not want to. Better to keep people in their state of supposed ignorance, and then tell them to leave public policy to the professionals. This is a scam.

It is manifestly unfair to fail to educate people to be effective citizens and then tell them that they can’t participate in political life because they are living in civic ignorance.

The Return of Intermediaries

Rauch and Wittes make the case for intermediaries in public. Political intermediaries can be elected officials or representatives of political parties. What they call a substantive intermediary has specialist knowledge of a policy area, such as health care.

Political intermediaries are necessary. Here is one Rauch and Wittes omitted: states. The several states are a necessary counterweight to federal power. It is more than time to rediscover the role of states in our political process.

The specialist intermediary would be of value. No one without specialist knowledge is going to make sense of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; I tried. It would be great to have intermediaries who could help the citizen navigate the issues.

The first logical candidate might be the media. Try spending a little less time on having two groups of mouthpieces talk over each other, and devote that time to providing information on how a segment of the economy works. If that seems scary, put on segments at 4 in the morning, when no one is watching anyway, and let us record them.

Want to discuss pricing of prescription drugs? Go through the history of the FDA and the decisions that were consciously made to make sure that new drugs were introduced in the US first. Follow the economic consequences of those decisions. Discuss the new drug application (NDA) process that generates enough paper to fill a semi-trailer. Visit ambulancechaser.com (I am not going to give them free publicity by using their real domain name), where people seeking victim status can be gathered into a class to launch a lawsuit.

Corporatism hated intermediaries and sought to get rid of them at every opportunity, leaving the individual citizens alone with the all-knowing, almighty federal government. We need intermediaries that Brookings hasn’t even thought of.

However, we also need to be able to trust the intermediaries. We require that they are giving us all the information, not just a limited and purposeful set of options (two of which are identical and the third totally unacceptable). We need intermediaries to watch the intermediaries.

Yes, the world we live in requires tradeoffs and choices from among the unpalatable and the disastrous. The belief that ordinary people cannot understand these issues in a nuanced way is a piece of received wisdom. Populism is a rebellion against this, an assertion that legitimacy derives from the consent of the people, whether or not the people express themselves in a way pleasing to those who would wield power over them. Thank God the American people have the sand to push back on the professionals who would undermine them.

Truth, Justice and the American Politician

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There seems to be a lot of confusion and selective hearing about truth, particularly when it comes from politicians. Let’s step back and try to unpack all this.

Hillary Clinton Goes to Bosnia

Here is an excellent case study. In 2008, Hillary Clinton claimed:

I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.
— Hillary Clinton, speech at George Washington University, 2008.

In fact, nothing like that happened. Here is a video of Clinton’s arrival in Bosnia in 1996.

So did she lie? I do not believe that she did. Here rendering is not truthful, but I don’t believe it deserve the status of a lie.

Why do I say that?

I believe that Clinton had an image in her mind of the person she wanted to be, and she remembered what happened at Bosnia in 1996 in those terms. What actually happened was irrelevant.

Cognitive Dissonance

The theory of cognitive dissonance was first put forward by Leon Festinger in 1957. At the time, the idea was truly revolutionary, as psychology was in the grip of behaviorism. Festinger found behaviors that behaviorism could not explain. Subjects would change their opinions to achieve consonance with their previous behaviors.

Festinger, with Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter, had written When Prophecy Fails, a book recording the beliefs of a small cult who had predicted a flood would destroy the world on 21 December 1954, both before and after the non-event. Not only did many cult members refuse to abandon their beliefs when the flood did not occur; they committed to them even more intensely.

Both women were greatly upset by the disconfirmation of the  morning of December 21, Edna Post being hit especially hard. Nevertheless, throughout the period of disconfirmation both these women unquestioningly accepted the messages, predictions, and rationalizations that Mrs, Keech and Dr. Armstrong worked out for the group. Both of them simply repeated the rationalizations of disconfirmation that the leaders elaborated and glowed over the wonder and beauty of the plan. Their faith, too, remained firm all through the time that we maintained contact with them. On January 24, Daisy while en route to Virginia wrote to one of the authors, saying, “Believe me, we certainly have had divine guidance all along the way. We get orders from ‘upstairs’ en
route.” And “Give our ‘best’ to the other two from Minneapolis, Tell them we know the future is ‘rosy.’ We’ve been promised many wonderful things and we still know who our Director is. We go as his guests — his representatives.”
— Festinger, et al., When Prophecy Fails (1956), p. 195.

The behavior of various public figures is often attributed to lying and covering up, but cognitive dissonance offers a better explanation and one that does not require mendacious intent.

It takes some degree of ego to run for national public office. A candidate has to appeal to others, raise funds for the campaign and prevail against hostile counteraction from competitors and their supporters.

Consider a newly elected Senator, arriving into what is often called “the world’s most exclusive club.” There will be overwhelming pressure to believe that he deserves to be there, reinforced by the bubble of staff that the Senator has accrued through the campaign. The realities of politics require that the Senator will have built a narrative about himself, his motives and his actions that can survive the attacks of others, armed with opposition research and seeking to show the voters inconsistent behavior in the Senator’s history.

Now, the Senator will not be able to obtain everything he wants; he must engage in barter and log-rolling, giving his vote on some issues on which he does not agree in order to obtain the support of others for items of higher priority. He must bring home patronage to influential constituents if he is to be re-elected. All these pressures reinforce the need for a narrative that can preserve his own self-image in the face of inconsistent behavior.

Thus, I find it hardly surprising that Clinton remembered herself coming into Bosnia under fire or that Jeff Sessions did not remember conversations with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearings. These people construct narratives about themselves, remembering incidents in terms of the self-image they want to have. What actually happened is irrelevant.

It would seem a damn fool behavior to willfully lie about episodes that can be researched by the press or have video evidence on YouTube for anyone to find. I don’t believe the processing ever gets past the brain stem. The politician first deceives herself. She squeezes her memory of events, forcing them to fit the story about herself that she not only wants to tell others, but needs to believe about herself.

What’s Good for Me Is Good for America

I do not mean to exonerate people for this behavior. If my explanation is accurate, it is actually more disturbing than if the people involved had simply lied. It is saying that they can’t tell truth from falsehood. They have commingled their identities with the country. It speaks to delusions of grandeur.

The problem is not limited to government; private sector organizations also have to contend with it.

Billy Graham had a man named Grady Wilson who yelled “Horseshit” — however you say that in Baptist — at him whenever he took himself too seriously. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Graham organization has been so successful. I had a Chairman of the Executive Committee who used to blow a launch-caller at me. Every chief executive should find someone to perform this function and then make sure he can only be fired for being too polite. Since the leader must lead the battle against institutionalization, it’s to the leader that you should look for early signs of losing the war. Is he getting confused about who’s God? Polishing up the image instead of greasing the wheels? Preoccupied with the price of the stock? Listening to the public relations department? Short-tempered with honest criticism? Are people hesitating before they tell him?
— Robert Townsend, Further Up the Organization, p. 107.

In my experience, it takes an person of unusual moral strength to accept Townsend’s advice. The key difference being that when private sector organizations go senile, they ultimately fail and are replaced. They don’t take the whole country with them.

There is a great howling right now about truth and facts, but a failure to understand the human behavior that leads to the incidents we have observed. Perhaps it is comforting to think that we have been lied to and ill-served. We the People can believe a narrative about ourselves, that we have been taken advantage of by malicious operators. Throw the rascals out and get in a new lot. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Cognitive dissonance is not limited to people in power. Even nice people like you and I are susceptible.

Written by srojak

March 6, 2017 at 5:22 am

Interviewing Kellyanne Conway

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This video (6:31 long) from Vox was brought to my attention. It raises a number of interesting questions. Laid over with questions about Vox itself and the media in general, we have even more questions. It is a very layered story, and worth some time to dig through the various layers.

Let’s start with the subject at hand, then open the lens to the bigger picture.

Being a Representative

Conway’s role on these shows is to represent the administration. Within a circumscribed, forest-for-the-trees perspective of the role (more on that later), I think she does an outstanding job. She is determined and relentless. When she has a strong hand, she plays it; when she has a weak hand, she bluffs like crazy.

She knows that many of her interviewers want to pin her down. They want to face her. They want to force her to fold, to make concessions. She has no intention of doing that. It’s a test of wills.

I have some experience in representing myself; I represented a software company in sales efforts. Conway is a walking illustration of the very ethos of a successful software sales representative: “They promised you beachfront? You don’t want beachfront. Swampland is the future!”

Being Donald Trump’s Representative

Overlaid on top of this is the fact that she is representing the administration headed by President Trump. I don’t think I am being unfair to Trump by saying that this is no ordinary presidential administration. He consistently promised something out of the ordinary on his campaign, and he is delivering in abundance.

Given the nature of Donald Trump, the person, there are going to be some striking challenges in being his representative. For openers, he pops off at the mouth — or the tweet — much more than the typical organizational leader. Then his representatives have to go forward and try to control the damage.

I believe that Trump did not further his own cause by calling Judge James Robart a “so-called judge”, but he did. I believe that a more nuanced approach to the limitations of the press would have been preferable to calling them “The enemy of the American people.” But Trump doesn’t do nuance. We’ve had years to figure this out. The man is, as of this writing, 70 years old; he’s set in his ways.

So you, the representative, get the task of appearing in front of the press, who are howling like a scalded dog after having been called the enemy of the American people. You can’t unsay his remarks. You can’t disown them. You can’t cut and run. How are you going to navigate this?

So, yeah, Conway “reinvents Trump’s positions into more defensible versions of themselves.” How else would she keep her head above water? Jeff Lord has been doing the same thing as a Trump flack on CNN for the entire 2016 campaign. When Trump made totally outrageous, foot-in-mouth statements that would appear indefensible, Lord simply replaced them with positions from an idealized, Trump-like candidate that existed in his own imagination. What would you do on camera in front of a national audience? Concede the point? That’s not what you’re there for.

Some Perspective on Representatives

None of this is new; it’s just a matter of degree. The British series Yes, Prime Minister contained an episode titled “Official Secrets“, which first aired in 1987. Here is a link to the video. If you’re pressed for time, skip forward to about the 23:00 mark.

Bernard, what made you think that, just because someone was asking you questions, you had to answer them?
— James Hacker, “Official Secrets”

Further on, Hacker instructs Bernard in how to handle difficult questions. He has eight ways to defect questions. The net of his advice is:

If you have nothing to say, say nothing. Better still, have something to say and say it, no matter what they ask. Pay no attention to the question; make your own statement. If they ask the question again, you just say, “That’s not the question” or “I think the more important question is …” Then you make another statement of your own.
— James Hacker, “Official Secrets”

As a representative, you don’t have the option of having nothing to say. So you have to have something to say and force your will to prevail over the will of your questioners. Conway is very good at this.

So Why Invite Her?

The host of the Vox piece says at the end:

Just remember, she’s doing her job. It’s the news shows that keep booking her that are letting you down.
— Carlos Maza

Why do they bring her on? Part of it is the unwritten co-dependency story of how Trump got to be President in the first place. The news networks have 1,440 minutes a day to fill, 365 days a year. They’re crazy for content. They don’t know what else to do.

There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
— Oscar Wilde

Trump has exploited this dependency mercilessly for his entire campaign. By saying and tweeting outrageous things, he dominated his opponents through airtime. While career politicians were cautious and scripted, Trump was spontaneous and outrageous. The received wisdom was that you couldn’t win an election doing that. Evidently, the received wisdom was wrong.

No, having flacks on a news show to evade questions is not helpful to us as citizens. It never was. The extremes of this administration just throw the issue into bright relief. Neither was having teams of opposing flacks to shout at one another and talk over one another during the 2016 campaign. Evidently, it is all the cable channels can think of fill time.

Journalists seem to think that the reporting of peoples’ opinions constitutes reporting facts. It may be a fact that the person you’re interviewing has that opinion, but it’s still an opinion. Postmodern journalism happened long before Donald Trump threw his cap in the ring.

Consider a real issue: last year, there was an announced change in Department of Labor policy that was later blocked by a federal court injunction. How much of this issue did you hear on cable news? How much did you read about it in your favorite print outlet?

Vox

The people at Vox are good at identifying behavior from Conway when it comes from people they don’t like, such as Conway. But do not lose sight of the fact that they have their own viewpoint to push — everybody does.

Some further reading:

What is Truth?

Most of us accept something called the Correspondence Theory of Truth. Simply put, if you accept this theory, than in order for a statement to be true, it has to correspond in some meaningful way to objective reality. This requires acceptance of a bundle of premises:

  1. There is an objective reality;
  2. We can know it;
  3. We can all obtained a shared common knowledge of it;
  4. We can take a statement and measure the correspondence with that shared common knowledge of reality, and therefore the truthfulness of that statement.

A full treatment of these implications is going to have to wait for another post, because this is a subject in itself.

It is clear to me, from his conduct, that Donald Trump does not subscribe to this theory. His truth is more pragmatic in nature: what is useful to me right now? This may seem shocking and even immoral, but it has an intellectual lineage going back to William James and Charles Sanders Pierce:

‘The true’, to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving. Expedient in almost any fashion; and expedient in the long run and on the whole, of course; for what meets expediently all the experience in sight won’t necessarily meet all farther experiences equally satisfactorily.
— William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Lecture VI (1907)

So something can be true today, because it is expedient, and then untrue tomorrow, because it is no longer expedient.

I direct the interested reader to the entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Pragmatism for further discussion.

It is not necessary for Donald Trump to have read William James for him to think in this way. The notion has been rattling around out there for over a hundred years.

The question of truth introduces a professional challenge to the journalist: what are you reporting? The truth or someone’s truth?

For the journalist who does accept the Correspondence Theory of Truth, it presents also a personal ethical challenge: what do you do about this? Do the standards of journalism require you to refrain from inserting your own beliefs, or do you have an ethical responsibility upon to advocate your viewpoint as to the nature of truth?

It is clear that many of the people trying to get “the truth” out of Conway and those like her are not formally aware of these issues. They sense something is not quite right, but I don’t think they could articulate what the problem is.

 

 

Written by srojak

February 20, 2017 at 12:45 pm

The Winter of Our Discontent

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Wouldn’t it be great if choices in life were completely obvious? If you were presented with clear, highly differentiated alternatives that were so obvious that the right choice might as well be marked with a big neon arrow?

That rarely happens. Sometimes you have to choose between unclear or even unattractive alternatives. The 2016 presidential election is such a situation.

It is always good, in such situations, to seek to expand your option space. The two-item menu is usually presented by people who have their own agendas, which warrant a healthy skepticism.

It is in this light that I want to consider some recent articles that offer to tell us what we must do.

The Clinton Partisans

First, a pair of pieces from the New York Times.

That first debate seems to have helped Hillary Clinton move ahead of Donald Trump in the polls. However, I know that many of you are asking yourselves:Why is this even a question?
— Gail Collins, “How Could Anyone Vote for Trump?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/01/opinion/how-could-anyone-vote-for-trump.html), 30 Sep 2016.

I will take up the question of how anyone could vote for Trump later on. However, have no illusions that Collins has written a reflective article examining legitimate reasons for dissatisfaction with Hillary Clinton. There simply aren’t any. Collins is an intellectual bully. Not only are people who want to vote for Trump morally defective; so are people who want to vote for Gary Johnson, since he failed her geography test.

When I am confronted by the “not voting” or “protest voting” crowd, their argument often boils down to one of principle: They can’t possibly vote for Trump or Clinton because both are flawed in their own ways.

I know immediately that they have bought into the false equivalency nonsense, and additionally are conflating the casting of a ballot with an endorsement of a candidate’s shortcomings.
— Charles Blow, “The Folly of the Protest Vote” (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/22/opinion/the-folly-of-the-protest-vote.html), 22 Sep 2016.

But if the candidate’s shortcomings are not relevant, what are we voting on? Is it possible that the Trumpkins have a point? Oops, was that my outside voice?

The context of Charles Blow’s remarks are racial issues, so he already has a starting point in identity politics. Blow has staked out his ground rather clearly:

You can’t care about this issue and risk the ascendance of a man who last week was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, a group that in its questionnaire to candidates claims: “Fringe organizations have been given a platform by the media to convey the message that police officers are a ‘militarized’ enemy and it is time to attack that enemy.” The questionnaire goes further: “There is a very real and very deliberate campaign to terrorize our nation’s law enforcement officers, and no one has come to our defense.” This, of course, is cop fantasy, but this group is the nation’s largest police union, representing some 330,000 officers.

Really? Cop fantasy? The Dallas police shootings were on 7 July. The Baton Rouge police shootings were on 17 July. Even the New York Times covered them. Is Blow really not aware?

Or is this the standard identity politics song, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen? Nobody has suffered injustice the way my group has suffered injustice. And, yes, I’ll say it: poor people generally, and Blacks in particular, suffer injustice at the hands of some police, courts and municipalities. But Blow wants to overcome collective treatment of individuals who are black by collective treatment of individuals who are police. Good luck with that.

And, yes, Charles, thanks for reminding me:

There is another truth: That person will appoint someone to fill the current vacancy on the Supreme Court (assuming that the Senate doesn’t find religion and move on Merrick Garland before the new president takes office) and that person will also appoint federal judges to fill the 88 district court and court of appeals vacancies that now exist (there are 51 nominees pending for these seats).

Which is another reason not to want to vote for Hillary Clinton.

I will also discuss the question of equivalency between Trump and Clinton further on. But there is one more point to be made about the progressives and their following:

His convention was called “one of the worst ever.” Chris Matthews deemed him “dangerous” and “scary,” Ellen DeGeneres said “If you’re a woman, you should be very, very scared.” His opponent ran an ad against him portraying him as uniquely dangerous for women. “I’ve never felt this way before, but it’s a scary time to be a woman,” said a woman in the ad.

He was frequently called a “bully,” “anti-immigrant,” “racist,” “stupid,” and “unfit” to be president.

I’m referring, obviously, to the terrifying Mitt Romney.
— Karol Markowicz, “How Paul Krugman Made Donald Trump Possible” (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/08/05/how-paul-krugman-made-donald-trump-possible.html), The Daily Beast, 5 Aug 2016.

Progressives have demonstrated that they can intimidate moderate opponents by calling them extremists. Having done so, they have helped cleared the way for genuine extremists who really are the threats that progressives like to holler about. Are you happy now?

The Trump Following

I am going to consider one of the more unique opinion pieces in support of Donald Trump.

A Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances. To ordinary conservative ears, this sounds histrionic.
— Publius Decius Mus, “The Flight 93 Election” (http://www.claremont.org/crb/basicpage/the-flight-93-election/), Claremont Review of Books, 5 Sept 2016.

Yeah, I have rather ordinary conservative ears, and that sure sounds histrionic to me. It also sounds fairly representative of the argument I have heard from various Trumpkins. Let’s examine.

The argument in this article is founded on some rather substantial assertions. What interested me is the fact that the author progressed from these assertions in a very logical manner to his conclusion. The assertions are:

  • Nativism: the author objects foursquare to immigration, and maintains that Tom Tancredo got it right on immigration. I don’t accept nativism, so we’re off to a bad start.
  • Opposition to Free Trade: it is clear that the transition to free trade has been very badly managed, splitting the risk from the reward and dumping the former on those who are least able to manage it. Nevertheless, if you fully costed any practical program of reversing globalization, would you have any substantial political support for that? Yeah, I know — you can say that about almost any political program. And I am going to.
  • Opposition to Military Adventurism: clearly the neoconservative program of nation-building has been a failure in any honest assessment. We were supposedly in Afghanistan to prevent the spread of radical terror groups; now we have radical terror groups in Iraq, Syria, Libya and sub-Saharan Africa. That worked well, didn’t it?

However, the author goes further.

Let’s be very blunt here: if you genuinely think things can go on with no fundamental change needed, then you have implicitly admitted that conservatism is wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong on the nature of politics, and wrong in its policy prescriptions. Because, first, few of those prescriptions are in force today. Second, of the ones that are, the left is busy undoing them, often with conservative assistance. And, third, the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all understand as conservatism.

If your answer— [Matthew] Continetti’s, [Ross] Douthat’s,  [Reihan] Salam’s, and so many others’—is for conservatism to keep doing what it’s been doing—another policy journal, another article about welfare reform, another half-day seminar on limited government, another tax credit proposal—even though we’ve been losing ground for at least a century, then you’ve implicitly accepted that your supposed political philosophy doesn’t matter and that civilization will carry on just fine under leftist tenets. Indeed, that leftism is truer than conservatism and superior to it.
Ibid, italics in original.

This is a charge that we have to take seriously. Conservatism cannot keep on the genteel, self-satisfied path that it has been on. It has to, in the words of the article, “consider anything really different.” But Donald Trump is not just anything.

One of the Journal of American Greatness’s deeper arguments was that only in a corrupt republic, in corrupt times, could a Trump rise. It is therefore puzzling that those most horrified by Trump are the least willing to consider the possibility that the republic is dying. That possibility, apparently, seems to them so preposterous that no refutation is necessary.

The republic has been in trouble for at least 80 years, since FDR figured out how to implement an effective permanent vote-buying political establishment. You are not going to turn it around in one election, even if you find a Solon to run the country. Which I assure you Donald Trump is not.

Recall the earlier article by Markowicz.

It’s absurd to assume that any of this would stop or slow—would do anything other than massively intensify—in a Hillary administration. It’s even more ridiculous to expect that hitherto useless conservative opposition would suddenly become effective. For two generations at least, the Left has been calling everyone to their right Nazis. This trend has accelerated exponentially in the last few years, helped along by some on the Right who really do seem to merit—and even relish—the label. There is nothing the modern conservative fears more than being called “racist,” so alt-right pocket Nazis are manna from heaven for the Left. But also wholly unnecessary: sauce for the goose. The Left was calling us Nazis long before any pro-Trumpers tweeted Holocaust denial memes. And how does one deal with a Nazi—that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.

So it would seem the author wants us to become the extreme, ignorant yahoos the progressives have always claimed we are. But if we did so, would we not already be defeated?

Supporting Donald Trump to turn back progressivism is like using a flamethrower to get termites out of your house. Yes, you will get rid of the termites. You will also get rid of the house.

False Equivalence

Let me now return to the issue of an equivalence between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. No, there is none.

Hillary Clinton promises sunshine and kitten whiskers for everyone. Her behavior is self-seeking, but can be understood rationally. Her behavior is, within limits, predictable.

Every interaction is both an exchange of semantic information and a dance of social positioning, even those, as in science or academia, that strive to be purely the former.

To all appearances, Trump is engaged solely in the latter form of communication, and only in a narrow way: He treats all social interactions as zero-sum games establishing dominance and submission. In every interaction, someone is going to win and someone is going to lose, be with Trump or against him.
— David Roberts, “The Question of What Donald Trump “Really Believes” Has No Answer” (http://www.vox.com/2016/9/29/13086236/trump-beliefs-category-error), 29 Sept 2016.

Donald Trump says anything at any time. It is a semantic game to take an utterance of his and try to work backward to impute its purpose. Publius Decius Mus is fooling himself by thinking that Trump has any commitment to advance his or any other agenda other than Trump’s own self-aggrandizement. The entire concept of lying has no meaning for Trump. Reality is just a genre of television. Truth is whatever is convenient this minute.

If you want a businessman to vote for, Gary Johnson is a businessman. Trump is a real estate speculator, an economic rent-seeker and a reality TV star.

Nevertheless, it is damning with faint praise to say that Hillary Clinton is not as bad as Donald Trump. Even with no equivalence between the two, Clinton offers to take the country in a direction that I, for one, do not want to go. I don’t owe my vote to Trump to prevent the election of Clinton, but neither do I owe my vote to Clinton to prevent the election of Trump.

None of the Above

This election, for short-term purposes, is already down the drain. However, pursuant to the points made by Publius Decius Mus, the republic is in trouble and the country is going in the wrong direction. What makes it a wrong direction, rather than just a direction some of us dislike?

I maintain that, as the herald of this site asserts, ideas have consequences. My reading of history tells me that some choices lead to greatness and other choices lead to destruction. I have previously articulated how I know that a day of reckoning must come. The Trump candidacy is only the beginning of what we have to look forward to as the progressive fixation on negative-sum distribution plays itself out and the public square becomes increasingly nasty. It’s baked into the cake now. Decades in the making, it is too late for one enlightened chief executive to avoid, even if such were to be found.

I am most interested in the long game. Do we as conservatives want to alienate voters who we could reach and offer an alternative to progressive dependency, such as Hispanics, in the name of a misguided nativism? I think not. Do we want to risk the nation on Donald Trump, who provides no reason to expect any commitment to conservative principles or Constitutional process? I think not.

Someone on the Sunday shows observed that Donald Trump failed to make any mention in the first debate of the Supreme Court. There is a reason for this: He doesn’t care. He would blow off the court and Congress.

Donald Trump is a one-trick pony. All he knows how to do is negotiate. He negotiates things that should rightfully be non-negotiable, like his contractual commitments to his vendors. He would negotiate the American commitment to NATO and to South Korea. He negotiates what we as citizens have a right to know about the guiding principles of a presidential candidate. I see no evidence that, if elected, he would consider Constitutional law as non-negotiable.

As of this writing, several newspapers have endorsed Gary Johnson, most notably the Chicago Tribune and the Detroit News. The USA Today gave Trump an anti-endorsement, calling him “unfit for the presidency.”

The majority isn’t silent; the government is deaf.
— Unknown

Act well your part, there all honor lies.
— Alexander Pope

If you are repelled by the progressive agenda, this is not the time to cave in to fears and weakness by endorsing a candidate who seeks to exploit fears and weakness. We know that those who do not vote will be labeled as apathetic and cowardly; Gail Collins has already warned us of this. Find someone else with whom to make common cause and do so.

 

Written by srojak

October 2, 2016 at 12:36 pm

The Flat Earth

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How to appraise the media coverage of this election?

I would like to invite you along on a thought experiment. Imagine we had a major party candidate for President who announced that the earth is flat. The candidate dismisses all evidence to the contrary as a fabrication by a conspiracy of interests who want to exploit the American public for nefarious purposes.

This candidate has a ready answer to every piece of evidence you can offer to support your argument, not that her answers are relevant or logically sound. You say we’ve seen pictures of a spherical Earth from space? She asserts that is a government conspiracy. You ask how it is possible for people to travel around the world? She says you’re naïve and such stories are not true. You cite an article in a newspaper questioning her claims? She shoots back, “That failed rag? Are they really still in business?” She asserts that, until you stand in space yourself and see the Earth for yourself, you can’t disprove her claims.

Media outlets are confused as to how they should handle this candidate. By journalistic standards, they should be offering her and her supporters equal time to present their views. However, on this issue, such behavior flies in the face of common sense. They perceive, correctly, that educated audiences are going to find them ridiculous if they offer a credible platform to people making such an outrageous statement.

Some cable channels try different tactics to keep the discussion tethered to sense at some point. One tries an approach where they bring on pilots, who have seen the Earth from the stratosphere. The candidate dismisses them as paid stooges of the establishment. Her campaign dredges up from somewhere a former pilot who is willing to go on the air and claim that it is all a hoax perpetuated by pilots so they can have employment privileges. He’s been in on the scam and he’s telling it all now.

Meanwhile, the candidate’s supporters charge bias against any media outlet who fails to give equal time to their assertions that the earth is flat. Everyone on the payroll may know that the claim defies believe, but if the organization does not give it a platform, the campaign howls that the system is rigged against them.

The subject of the shape of the Earth completely consumes the campaign. There is no remaining time, energy or attention to discuss the opposition candidate. This is unfortunate, because he has a lot for us to discuss. He is secretive and vindictive. In earlier pronouncements, he has stopped just short of saying that he believes the President is above the law. His previous actions attest to a belief that anything is justified to a person in power who has good intentions.

But we won’t be talking about any of that. The entire election has become a referendum on the credulity of the American electorate. We get up on 8 November and go to the polls, already knowing whatever the outcome, America has already lost.

Fortunately, that could never happen here.

Written by srojak

September 18, 2016 at 11:52 am

Imagining American Studies

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I went out looking to see what college students are studying. I chose the University of Texas, whose students are sufficiently educated to walk around in public carrying dildos; besides, as a Texas taxpayer, I have some skin in the game here. I visited the American Studies course offerings, where I found courses on American history, and also courses like these:

AMS 311S • America’s Reality TV

30545 • Kantor, Julie
Meets MWF 2:00PM-3:00PM BUR 436A

Reality Television is the most ubiquitous and popular programming on American Television, garnering 50 percent of prime time viewers in 2013. Though most Americans claim hatred of reality shows, the influence of the programming and its reflection of American culture is undeniable; the shows’ mediated narratives reverberate with American’s desires, fears, and showcase our discourses and discursive production. Through the study of reality television, we can understand ideals and forms of American citizenship, race, gender, sexuality and class. This class will use a variety of disciplines, including American studies, media studies, anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis, and theoretical lenses, such as affect, performance, and Foulcauldian genealogy to unpack the narratives produced by and around these shows. The class will look at a variety of reality programs, including makeover, identity-based (i.e. The Real Housewives, Shahs of Sunset), competition, and therapeutic shows (Hoarders, Intervention, Couples Therapy) to ask questions about American social life and culture. This class will also explore realms of culture and life where we can follow the bleed over of reality television; that these reality stars’ real lives are continually followed on and off the shows speaks to cultural obsessions and fixations that are a part of the reality of American lives.

This is porn. Students can watch reality TV and then come to class and signal their virtues by unpacking the narratives with the appropriate attitude of Foulcaudian disdain.

AMS 311S • Imagining Public Education

30565 • Pinkston, Caroline
Meets MWF 1:00PM-2:00PM BUR 436A

The last sixty years have been a remarkable and tumultuous period for American public education. From the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools to the more recent controversies over charter schools and high-stakes testing, public education has spent much of the last half-century right in the middle of national debates about equality, justice, and democracy. A recurring narrative in these debates is that our public schools are failing, and that fixing them is crucial to solving other longstanding issues of poverty and racial injustice.

Where does this narrative come from?  What stories and images contribute to the way we understand the importance of public schooling and its apparent failures? What’s at stake when we imagine a “failing” public school – or, for that matter, a successful one?

This course will examine contesting representations of public school in American culture from the 1960’s to the present day.  This will not be a course in the history American education. Our main purpose, instead, will be to investigate cultural perceptions of the state of public education, in pop culture, in the news, and beyond. What’s the relationship between the stories we tell about public education, the policy that determines what happens in schools, and broader cultural anxieties about race, childhood, and social justice? We will consider sources including film and television, policy briefs & journalism, nonfiction texts & memoir, children’s literature & school curriculum.

Well, then a course in the history of American education is a necessary prerequisite, to provide some context for evaluating the various cultural perceptions rather than simply cataloging them and engaging in bull sessions about them.

AMS 321 • Bad Lang: Race, Class, Gender

30640 • Garza, Thomas
Meets MW 11:30AM-1:00PM CLA 0.126
(also listed as C L 323, LIN 350, MAS 374, REE 325, WGS 340)

Maledicta: (Latin. n., pl. maledictum, sg.), curse words, insults; profane language of all kinds.

When is a word “bad”? Why can one person use a “bad” word with impunity, and another cannot? What marks such usage as acceptable or not?  How do race, socioeconomic class, and gender play into the use of “bad” language in the US? This course undertakes the examination of modern usage of language that has been designated as “bad” through social convention. Usage of forms of obscenities and profanity in popular usage will be examined in an attempt to come to an understanding of how the products of US popular culture portray maledicta in situational contexts. Through an examination of various texts culled from print, film, and music, participants will study the context and use of “bad” language and attempt to determine the underlying principles that dictate its affect and determine its impact on the audience. Though the majority of texts and usage will be taken from English-language sources, several non-English examples of maledicta from Mexican Spanish and Russian will also be examined for contrast and comparison.

NB: This course examines texts that contain usage of obscenities, profanity, and offensive language. Students who do not wish to be exposed to such language in use should not sign up for this course.

From this you make a living?

If American Studies is meant to encompass contemporary as well as historical subject matter, I fail to see how it can be complete without understanding the area that is central to most Americans’ lives: working. In this light, I have some courses I would like to see offered that may deepen the students’ practical understanding of contemporary America:

AMS 330 • Crap Jobs

Students will work in retail and experience a rotating shift schedule, and will be expected to move their other commitments around to meet the demands of their assigned shifts. Students will interact with the public, reporting to sets of assistant managers with a variety of skill levels in management and personal interaction. The student must be employed at the job at the end of the term to receive a passing grade.

AMS 340 • The Job Site

Summer only

Students will work directly with skilled tradespeople in an open-air job site under the hot Texas sun. Students will experience the culture of the job site, where they will be outnumbered by people who do this for a living, and learn how the tradespeople transmit, uphold and enforce their cultural and behavioral norms on newcomers.The student must be employed at the job at the end of the term to receive a passing grade, and the workers will be aware of this.

Courses such as this might cause college students to learn a new meaning of the word privileged: being in college, you are privileged to have options other than these to look forward to for the rest of your life.

 

Written by srojak

August 28, 2016 at 11:50 am

For What Office Is Hillary Clinton Running?

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I watched the acceptance speeches of both candidates at their respective conventions. Hillary Clinton’s speech was not as scary as the speech given by The Ego That Ate Cleveland. Still, there were several disturbing themes in her speech that ought to give us pause.

Clinton’s speech laid out a deeply considered program for a priest-king. I though we were electing a President, a chief executive whose function is to execute the will of Congress. There is a substantial separation between the two.

Michael Wolff, writing in The Hollywood Reporter, summarized the speech this way:

Her speech, proper homework for anyone actually paying attention, proposed that the nation elect her because she was a good person, one without a clear point of view other than an eagerness to help: a do-gooder good at do-gooding.

Wolff is right about the homework, so let’s dig in. All quotes are from Clinton’s speech, as rendered by this link from the Los Angeles Times.

Lauren Manning, who stood here with such grace and power, was gravely injured on 9/11. It was the thought of her, and Debbie St. John, and John Dolan and Joe Sweeney, and all the victims and survivors, that kept me working as hard as I could in the Senate on behalf of 9/11 families, and our first responders who got sick from their time at Ground Zero.

In this campaign, I’ve met so many people who motivate me to keep fighting for change. And, with your help, I will carry all of your voices and stories with me to the White House.

I have been back and forth through Article II of the Constitution, and I just can’t find the part that says that the actions of the President should be informed by the thought of various citizens she personally knows who have encountered hardships. What about the people whose hardships are not known to the President? Shall we have National Appeal Day, during which we all present our pleas for executive relief?

At my first full-time software development job, the VP of Development liked people with whom she had a bond and looked out for them. Just coming in, doing your job quietly and going home was the road to ruin. She used such people like tools. The key was to be a person with real needs to her. She could make that work in a shop of about ten people; it is completely unworkable in a nation of 300+ million. Yet I thought of this model of executive behavior often while listening to Clinton speak.

My primary mission as President will be to create more opportunity and more good jobs with rising wages right here in the United States… From my first day in office to my last! Especially in places that for too long have been left out and left behind.

In my first 100 days, we will work with both parties to pass the biggest investment in new, good-paying jobs since World War II.  Jobs in manufacturing, clean energy, technology and innovation, small business, and infrastructure.

Since government is not a wealth-producing entity, what devices would be available to Clinton to create jobs? What are they going to be manufacturing and innovating?

Nevertheless, her ability to spend the money is going to be sharply circumscribed. She still wants affordable health care for everybody. And, to top it off:

If you believe we should expand Social Security and protect a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions… join us.

We’re not just going to protect Social Security; we’re going to expand it. Call and raise! So after all those entitlement sweets are handed out, there won’t be any room for stimulus spending.

Bernie Sanders and I will work together to make college tuition-free for the middle class and debt-free for all! We will also liberate millions of people who already have student debt.

So the people who are never going to go to college and whose kids are never going to go to college are going to pay more for other people’s kids to go to college? Yeah, that will be a hit with the Trumpkins.

Why do we have an education system that fails to prepare kids to be effective economic participants by the time they graduate high school? Can’t much of the undergraduate program, particularly core course materials, be moved up and taught in high school?

Come to think of it, why do we have citizens graduating high school and knowing so little about the Constitution that they don’t understand the roles of the President and Congress? I don’t believe this is what Jefferson had in mind. I am damn sure it is not what John Adams had in mind.

Why do we have kids graduating high school thinking that we can vote ourselves rich?

It’s just not right that Donald Trump can ignore his debts, but students and families can’t refinance theirs.

She has a point there.

And here’s something we don’t say often enough: College is crucial, but a four-year degree should not be the only path to a good job. We’re going to help more people learn a skill or practice a trade and make a good living doing it.

That sounds like a great idea. If she is elected President, what means does she have available to accomplish that?

In the mid-90s, the Chicago Tribune ran a series of articles about families where one of the kids wanted to learn a trade instead of going to college. There was a lot of back-and-forth discussion about the relative merits of going to college vs. learning a trade. However, to me the most important finding of the series was this: Not one family who was interviewed would allow their last names to be used in the article. So whatever came out of people’s mouths about the advantages of going into a skilled trade, it was a sufficient source of shame to the families that they didn’t want their names attached to it.

How would Hillary Clinton cause millions of Americans to reverse their attitudes? What levers would she have available to her to raise the perceived social standing of people in trades up to the level of, say, entry-level white-collar workers? Would she declare them statutorily exempt by executive order, and therefore free from having to punch a clock? If she did, what would happen to overtime for those who are presently qualifying for it?

There are an awful lot of teachers hanging around the Democratic Party. Could Clinton convince them to treat the parents in trades with the same respect as the white-collar, university educated parents? Would she even try?

I will be a President for Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. For the struggling, the striving and the successful. For those who vote for me and those who don’t. For all Americans.

If she really means this — if these are not just high-sounding empty words — here is the place to start: Understand that what you and your friends think of as justice is what many of us find to be injustice.

When I was in school, I had a classmate, Greg, who was really good at math. The only thing he was good at was math — and physics, which is basically applied math. Our Algebra 2 teacher would not give Greg the 99 he earned because, as she explained it, he didn’t work for it. He didn’t have to, and he still earned it. To the teacher, she was acting out of justice, but to us, it was injustice.

The repackaging of Hillary has been going on for some time. Apparently, we are witnessing the release of Hillary Clinton 5.0. All the Clinton loyalists want to assure us that she is sincere, earnest, well-intentioned, caring, and people-centered. Let’s believe them, because there is no risk in doing so. Believing this about her tells us nothing useful as citizens. Earnest, caring, well-intentioned people also go wrong. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Just like in high school: what happens when the well-intentioned teacher who wants to change the world bumps up against people who just don’t see the world the way she does and don’t see the change she wants to implement as a good thing?

[Clinton’s mother] made sure I learned the words of our Methodist faith: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.”

Sounds great: God-fearing, moral and well-intentioned. But when you peel back the surface, you find problems. A woman cannot serve two masters: God and the State. We know the State can use its police power to compel people to do what their leaders believe they should want; this has been a driver for progressives since Herbert Croly. There are a lot of themes here that are troublesome when you peel back the smiling surface layer. The slogan “Stronger together,” for example, is disturbingly reminiscent of “Strength through unity,” a core principle of fascism.

Earnest, caring and well-intentioned are great qualifications for a priest-king. A President is not supposed to need them. A President exists to execute the will of Congress and uphold the Constitution.

And in the end, it comes down to what Donald Trump doesn’t get: that America is great – because America is good.

Does Clinton really believe that America is good? It is impossible to square that with her actions and her statements. At all evidence, America needs Hillary or America won’t do right. Without her earnest, well-intentioned hand on the tiller, the country is just going to sink into a swamp of exploitation, ignorance and injustice.

It is that moral purpose that helps her reconcile cutting any corner, because the end justifies the means. We don’t trust Hillary Clinton because she doesn’t trust us. She thinks she knows better than we what we should want for our country and has to get through this excruciating campaigning process somehow so that she can wield executive power and force her vision down our throats.

 

 

 

Written by srojak

August 7, 2016 at 11:10 am