Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Posts Tagged ‘accountability


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Let’s begin with an incident that, although it has had saturation coverage, has not been treated properly. On her TBS show on 30 May, Samanta Bee made this statement directed publicly at Ivanka Trump:

Do something about your dad’s immigration practices, you feckless c—!

The next day, Bee issued this apology on Twitter:

I would like to sincerely apologize to Ivanka Trump and to my viewers for using an expletive on my show to describe her last night. It was inappropriate and inexcusable. I crossed a line, and I deeply regret it.

Let’s accept Bee’s apology literally. Her use of the c-word has been flogged to death in the past four days. Everything that can be said about it has been said about it.

I want to discuss her use of feckless, for which she has not apologized, and for which I do not expect any apology to be forthcoming. According to The Free Dictionary, feckless is defined as:

  1. Careless and irresponsible;
  2. Feeble or ineffective.

In order to accept Bee’s application of feckless to Ivanka, we have to accept that Bee’s position on the immigration practices of the Trump Administration are unquestionably morally correct. At least, that her position is  Then, either Ivanka would be careless and irresponsible in not advocating morality within the administration, or ineffective in the way she was going about advocating morality.

On CNN yesterday, Michael Smerconish interviewed comedian Spike Feresten (who wrote the 1995 “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld). Feresten’s remarks illustrate the thinking from whence this attitude originates:

There’s this popular misnomer that comes from the right, that these are liberal writing rooms, and there not.

The writing rooms that I’ve been in, the Letterman writing room, “Saturday Night Live,” my own show, what we’re doing is right and wrong, not left and right. When I’m sitting down and going hey let’s tow the whole – tell the water, tell the line for the left today.

We look at news and we’re social judges. And this is a right or wrong issue that she’s commenting on and I don’t think we should be caught on the word she used because I think we’re all fine with it. We’re all OK; our ears aren’t bleeding.

We should be caught up with what she was talking about. What she was trying to point out with her humor. And that is this horrible Administration policy, where children and parents are being separated.


I believe that what Feresten meant to say is, “When I’m not sitting down and going hey let’s tow the whole – tell the water, tell the line for the left today.” I will proceed on that basis, and accept the responsibility if I am wrong.

What I most want to call attention to is the part where he said, “what we’re doing is right and wrong, not left and right.” If one really believes this, then one has to claim that those who support the Trump Administration policy accept that what they are doing is morally wrong and are going to do it anyway.

I find this to be a monumentally arrogant position to take. He delegitimizes those who disagree with him. He maintains that it is a question of morality, not subject to politics. We objectively know what is right and wrong. He and Samantha Bee are right, and those who disagree with him are wrong.

It is easy to see how the faultfinding man of words, by persistent ridicule and denunciation, shakes prevailing beliefs and loyalties, and familiarizes the masses with the idea of change. What is not so obvious is the process by which the discrediting of existing beliefs and institutions makes possible the rise of a new fanatical faith. For it is a remarkable fact that the militant man of words who “sounds the established order to its source to mark its want of authority and justice” often prepares the ground not for a society of freethinking individuals but for a corporate society that cherishes utmost unity and blind faith.
— Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951), p. 139.

Hoffer’s landmark study is backed by the experiences of mass movements starting in the Roman empire, moving through the French Revolution with its successive levels of terror and culminating in most violent century since the Dark Ages, in which over 100 million people were put to premature and gruesome death by their own governments. To be cavalier about the consequences of having such moral arrogance and playing an established role in paving the way for it in this country is careless and irresponsible. Bee and Feresten are, in a word, feckless.

There, I said it. And, unlike Bee, I have taken the effort to support my use of the term.

There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.
— Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin (1807-1874)

More immediately, how do you think Trump got his following? He’s primal and instinctive, but he’s no philosopher-king. There are a large number of people in this country who have their own ideas of right and wrong, and they materially differ from the ideas that Bee and Feresten have of right and wrong. It would be a good thing if everyone could get in a room, debate the relative merits and figure out how we are going to move forward as a nation. But that is not what is happening.

What is happening is that people like Bee and Feresten, who have access to channels of communication, use that to promote their point of view, wrapping themselves in the mantle of righteousness (“what we’re doing is right and wrong, not left and right”). As I have documented earlier, people who have a differing concept of right and wrong are fed up with being shouted down and labeled, and plumped for the first person who would stand up and push back, however badly.

Stanley Greenberg, the Democratic pollster who put Macomb County, MI on the political map, went back in 2017 to try to understand what had happened. It takes effort just to peel away the demand characteristics and get a real conversation going.

To learn from these Macomb voters, they had to be able to speak freely. They feel they are under attack – from younger generations in their own families but also in their communities. Some have been ostracized by close family members criticizing them for their vote, others confess they have been “called racist, a xenophobe, homophobe, whatever phobe they could come up with.” One woman’s son was bullied after his 1st grade class held a mock election: “my son hears us and he says, ‘I’m going to vote for Trump,’ and two of the kids in his class started yelling. Like, ‘You’re going to vote Trump? Are you crazy?’ And just started yelling at him.” This is personal.
— Stanley Greenberg and Nancy Zdunkewicz, Macomb County in the Age of Trump

This is the real double standard in American public life. The general tone is that anyone who does not follow the orthodox Progressive line is fair game to be insulted, labeled and denied a hearing.

If Samantha Bee wants to use her show, which is a comedy show about politics, to advocate political positions on public policy, she gets to do that. People who don’t like it can change the channel. But it is a mistake to think that, because those who disagree with her do not get to voice their contrary opinions, that they buy into her version of right and wrong or will allow themselves to be dictated to any more than Bee and those who share her moral norms will tolerate being told where to get off.

People who are good with words like to think that, because they can show greater verbal facility than those who disagree with them, they have all the cards. They think that, because they argue more stridently, more cleverly and more loudly, that they have won the argument. They have not, and 2016 was a proof statement of this. Just because people stop arguing with you to your face, doesn’t mean you have won them over.

It is the height of presumption for Bee to determine the proper order of Ivanka Trump’s priorities for her. It would be entirely warranted for Ivanka to reply: Who died and left you Pope?

If you follow these trends to their logical conclusion, you get two groups of Americans who have utter contempt for each other as moral agents, believe that reasoning is a waste of time and effort and demand resolution now, in the form of total surrender by the other group (“You lost, live with it”). If you’re wondering why people are making YouTube videos forecasting a future civil war, this is why.




Written by srojak

June 3, 2018 at 12:01 pm

Play the Ball, Not the Man

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Roseanne Barr issued a Twitter comment this morning directed at former Obama senior advisor Valerie Jarrett which was crass and outright abusive. She tried to back out of it as a misguided attempt to be funny, but those of us who have grown up know that defense doesn’t work. As a consequence, ABC cancelled her show. But that ain’t all.

Roseanne had something of value to say about how we in this country were not hearing each other, before she abruptly decided to become part of the problem and say things no one needs to hear. Now, everyone who doesn’t want to hear the points she was trying to make can dismiss them by calling her ignorant, racist, or whatever other label is handy.

Roseanne Barr has always been one of us, but with a whole lot more access. She’s got a lot of baggage, but so do many of us. Her whole premise for the Roseanne revival was that this was the voice of Americans who weren’t being heard. Now, the people she wanted to raise that voice to can say, “No, you are not being heard, and with good reason.”

In the past week, Chelsea Clinton said that President Trump was acting “to degrade what it means to be an American.” No, he doesn’t. We have had unfortunate and regrettable people in the office of President before, who did not represent what we are about. James Buchanan, Warren Harding and Barack Obama spring immediately to mind. But they do not define us. We, the People, define us.

What Roseanne did degrades what it means to be an American more than anything Donald Trump has done, because Roseanne is closer to We the People than is Donald Trump. In her apology, Roseanne said, “I am truly sorry for having made a bad joke about her politics and her looks.” There is no call to attack Valerie Jarrett for her looks, and I saw nothing from Roseanne about Jarrett’s politics. I saw an uncalled-for ad hominem attack on Jarrett relating to her race and her faith.

We the People have to stop this. We have to be able to discuss politics with those with whom we disagree. I have written previously about the need to settle political differences. How do we settle our political differences with words if we can’t even have a conversation that does not degenerate into name-calling and outright abuse? How do we have consent of the governed if the governed can’t even talk to one another?

This is why what Roseanne wrote is so important and so destructive. You want to call out Valerie Jarrett for what she believes, what she advocates and what she’s done? That is all fair game. Her gender, faith, ancestry and ethnicity are not.

Written by srojak

May 29, 2018 at 4:06 pm


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Events of the past year, and discussions about those events, caused me to take a deeper look at the subject of nationalism.

Is It a System of Political Organization?

To discuss nationalism, we have to agree on what we are discussing. This turns out not to be all that simple.

The idea of nationalism depends on the conception of the nation. By 1700, in Europe, some nations were clearly identifiable: France, Spain, Poland, Russia. Others were very confusing. Was Great Britain one nation, two (England + Scotland), three (+ Ireland) or four (+ Wales) ? Was Brandenburg rightly part of Prussia or Germany?

Nations such as France and Russia were identifiable from a common ethnic heritage. But the United States came into existence because of an idea of government. What was to demarcate the membership of the United States as a nation? There has always been some disagreement as to who could really be a citizen of the United States.

Nevertheless, by 1900 the nation-state dominated the world landscape. Those who did not have their own nation-state and were subject to rule by others longed for nationhood of their own. Over the course of the twentieth century, many of them obtained this, although not without much turmoil and some bloodshed.

Or Is It an Attitude?

Overlaid on top of this, to some extend out of necessity, is the attitude of the citizen toward the nation. Since the nation is more abstract than the clan, the nation requires a greater degree of emotional commitment from the citizen than does the clan or the nation would be irrelevant. The French Revolution would have been strangled in its cradle if it did not demand commitment from the citizens. This commitment revolutionized war, because the nation-at-arms could mobilize far more soldiers than the neighboring kingdoms.

Human nature being what it is, the citizen wants to believe that his nation is the superior nation, that his nation can tell any other nation where to get off. This attitude has often been identified as part of the package of nationalism. Einstein called nationalism “the measles of mankind,” likely focusing on the attitudinal aspect. This attitude has also been identified by various terms, such as jingoism or chauvinism.

While I recognize that others have considered the political organization and the attitude bundled together, I do not find it analytically useful to do so. Hereafter, my discussion of nationalism shall be confined to the political structure and not the attitude.

Alternative Sovereignty Structures

A sovereign political entity can make laws and engage in foreign relations. It has relationships with the individuals belonging to it where:

  • They identify themselves as belonging to the entity;
  • They accept the legitimacy of the entity to make laws, demand obedience and tribute and otherwise claim their allegiance.

The nation-state has been so predominant a unit of political sovereignty that it is useful to consider alternative possible forms.

The Clan

There are still places in the world where people identify themselves as members of a clan rather than citizens of a nation. In such places, the concept of citizenship as we know it has no meaning. Others in your clan are your people, whom you will rely upon to keep strangers off your back.

My brother and I against my cousin;
My cousin and I against the stranger.
— Arab proverb

In such an environment, if your people can’t count on you when the chips are down, you won’t be able to count on them, either. It is dishonorable to cut and run from your obligations to your people. All the various folk stories and fables from different cultures where the older, wiser man invites the younger men to break a bundle of sticks as a bundle are meant to reinforce this.

The Dynasty

The dynasty is larger than the clan, but still more personal than the nation. As it is personal, people owe service to the person of the king or lord. The king can have tenants-in-chief, such as dukes or counts, and delegate down. But you can’t have too many levels of delegation or the personal relationship, which is the glue that holds it together, falls apart.

Even as late as the 1800s, ordinary people in dynasties such as Russia or Austria felt a bond of obligation to the Tsar or Emperor. But it was fraying under the pressures of modernity and scale. The dynasties were growing bureaucracies, and while both bureaucrats and lords demand service, only lords offer service in return. The bond was also literally being alienated, in both senses of the word: estranged and converted into a fungible commodity that could be exchanged for money. The dynastic bond works better under feudalism than capitalism.

Britain and France led the world down two divergent evolutionary directions from the dynasty. France continued to be a dynasty, with unresolved conflicts regarding the rights and duties of different classes of subjects, until the conflicts blew up in 1789.

Britain had to confront its structure during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714). Britain had been formed one hundred years before as the personal dynastic union of England and Scotland under the Stuarts. Now the English Parliament did not want any more Stuarts after Anne, because they were all Roman Catholic. Where did that leave Scotland? Where did that leave Britain? Anne had pushed for negotiations aimed at keeping England and Scotland together, and the 1707 Act of Union officially recast the two realms as a unified nation. Thereafter, political development continued in the English direction, with Parliament collecting power at the expense of the monarch.


On the other end of the scale, there is internationalism. After the disaster of World War I, the idea of internationalism became attractive to many people as a possible means to end war. Certainly, if all the world were ruled by one government, there could not be wars between states because there would only be one state.

Whether or not it would end violent conflict was a different question. We don’t need two states to have violent conflict. All we need is an aggrieved minority and a ruling group who are unable to work out their differences any other way and resort to violence. Syria is the standout example of this, but there have been others.

All rulers in all ages have tried to impose a false view of the world upon their followers, but they could not afford to encourage any illusion that tended to impair military efficiency. So long as defeat meant the loss of independence, or some other result generally held to be undesirable, the precautions against defeat had to be serious. Physical facts could not be ignored. In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics, two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four. Inefficient nations were always conquered sooner or later, and the struggle for efficiency was inimical to illusions. Moreover, to be efficient it was necessary to be able to learn from the past, which meant having a fairly accurate idea of what had happened in the past.
— George Orwell, 1984

You might also want to think twice before promoting a plan to end war. As Orwell, speaking in the voice of Emmanuel Goldstein, pointed out, the possibility of a war your country can lose is the ultimate guarantee of your right to your own sanity.

The Settlement of Political Differences

Persuasion and rational argument look appealing as a means of settling political issues. However, they presume that there is some shared common ground among the participants upon which a persuasive argument can be based. If two sides with opposing viewpoints disagree on everything, including norms and even facts, it is very hard to resolve the differences with words. Both sides go home muttering about how arguing with idiots is like playing chess with a pigeon.

Most people don’t like conflict, so they try to put off resolution of political issues, kicking the can down the street if they have to. Unresolved political issues pile up and get noisy. They nag and demand resolution. If a political issue must be resolved and cannot be resolved with words, there is only one way remaining: violence. One side prevails, and the others go under.

Violence is very unpleasant, and I don’t want to be cavalier about contemplating it. Violence is what the internationalists are hoping to avoid. However, not having nations does not guarantee the avoidance of violence. It may make violence certain, as you rope together all kinds of people with no shared norms, values or moral foundations into a single polity which must be subject to a single law. How are they going to get any kind of agreement? How are they going to persuade one another rationally and peacefully?

“How will the other EEC countries feel about having to carry identity papers? Won’t they resist too?”
Sir Humphrey felt not. “The Germans will love it, the French will ignore it, and the Italians and the Irish will be too chaotic to enforce it. Only the British will resent it.”
Yes, Minister, “The Writing on the Wall”

Just bringing all of Europe together collects people with very different senses of the entitlement to privacy and the obligation of law, among other differences. It was always going to be a rickety structure that could shelter all of them under one common legal framework. And, because Britain has a political tradition that does not allow the politicians to ignore the people completely, or to keep asking the people a question until they get the “right” answer, it was inevitable that the British people drew a line under their sovereignty and said, “You will not go further.” Which is what happened in the Brexit referendum of June 2016.


Written by srojak

April 18, 2018 at 10:33 pm

What Do You Want from Your Government?

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Years ago, in The Economist, I saw this list of positive attributes of a government:

  1. Stability: the government has the ability to provide continuous governance over time. This is not to say that the individual people in power stay in power, but that there is a continuity of principle over time even as people doing the governing shift in an out.
  2. Security: the government protects its citizens and their property from violence:
    1. Caused by internal agents, such as criminals and criminal organizations;
    2. Caused by external agents, such as foreign governments.
  3. Predictability: the government provides a legal structure that offers citizens understandable and predictable consequences of their actions. You take this action, you get that outcome. You can know it in advance and plan accordingly.
  4. Accountability: everyone in the government is either directly answerable to the citizens through election or reports up a bureaucratic structure to someone else who is directly answerable to the citizens.
  5. Transparency: the citizens can see into operations of the government. We can find out what the people who govern us are doing so that we can decide whether or not we want that to continue to be done.

This list is a starting point. You may believe something is missing. Perhaps justice leaps out at you; we can discuss that, although we also have to discuss what we mean by justice.

A libertarian minimalist government and a highly paternalistic welfare state could both provide these five attributes. So there is also a need to discuss the degree of scope the citizen has to determine her own life results, and this is not present in the foregoing list.

Nevertheless, we can take these five attributes and get a good argument going by simply trying to prioritize them. They require tradeoffs. For example, security and transparency are inherently opposed. Agents who would do harm to citizens thrive on transparency, so that they can know what the government security apparatus does. However, there has to be enough transparency to support accountability.

Similarly, stability, predictability and accountability often oppose one another because the polity itself is not predictable. So if the government is to offer stable and predictable protections to minorities within the polity, this may aggravate the majority. A government that is totally accountable to the people may not uphold these protections.


Politics is the process by which we come to enough collective agreement to make decisions that affect everyone in the collective. Nationally, we have to determine how we want to make the tradeoffs among these five attributes. The people in positions of responsibility in the government have their own ideas about them; do those ideas align with ours? If not, what are we going to do about it?

Due to our Enlightenment heritage, the word politics has a smelly connotation. Bill George, who teaches at Harvard Business School and used to run Medtronic, says we ought to put country before politics. This is a common enough sentiment. What would it mean in real life?

If we were all wired the same way, we would all agree on what we ought to do as a country. We would all rank order the five attributes above the same way and set the same tradeoffs. We would all define justice the same way. We would all want the same relationship between the individual and the state.

Many Enlightenment thinkers hoped that progress would reveal optimum answers to these questions. Knowing these answers, there would be no need for politics, because we would rationally agree on how to proceed. In 1878, Friedrich Engels wrote in Anti-Dühring:

The first act by virtue of which the state really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a state. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not “abolished”. It dies out.

This is the origin of the idea of withering away of the state. We all agree on what to do, so “the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things.” Government is superfluous, because all rational citizens share a common agreement of what the entire collective ought to decide.

However, since we do not observe the promised convergence to a common agreement, this is not achievable. There is not going to be a universally shared understanding of how difficult societal tradeoffs ought to be made. What the rationalist program actually calls for is to take the politics out of politics.

The Rehabilitation of Politics

Instead, I am calling for engagement with politics. I am asserting that there is a right way and many wrong ways to be political, just like there is a right way and many wrong ways to be religious.

A person who walks around all smug and sanctimonious because of religious convictions is doing it wrong. A person who says that any religion is just as good as any other religion is also doing it wrong: in Roman Catholicism, this is the sin of indifference. We are called to believe that we are right in our beliefs, without asserting that all who believe otherwise are necessarily evil.

All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being right; but, thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them? Can we cast our votes with their view, and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?
— Abraham Lincoln, “Cooper Union Speech“, 1860.

Similarly, in politics, there is a balancing act to be done to hit the sweet spot between the strident “We’re right; they’re wrong” and the spineless “Who am I to have an opinion?” The Cooper Union Speech is my favorite Lincoln speech because I find that he did hit that sweet spot. He recognized that there were Americans who believed as fervently that slavery was right as he believed it was wrong, without rendering those who disagreed stupid, evil or crazy, and at the same time without a misguided call to compromise on principle. He was ready to compromise politically as far as leaving slavery in place in the states that already allowed it, because he foresaw secession and civil war if this was not done. But, in principle, there could be no compromise; we were either going to have legalized slavery in this country or we weren’t. In fact, we could not avoid secession and civil war. Four years later, Lincoln would come to see the war as a divine judgement on a nation that had tolerated slavery.

I believe that this is what We the People have to do. We have to be able to have reasoned discussions with those who disagree with us. We can settle our differences with words or with bullets. There is no third option.

We believe that political power is derived from the consent of the governed. If the governed cannot even have an intelligent conversation among ourselves with those of us who differ in our beliefs and priorities, how can we consent to anything?

Written by srojak

February 3, 2018 at 4:42 pm

Stories of Sex and Power

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Is American society really changing? After Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, John Conyers and all the others, are we really getting to a milestone of cultural change?

I don’t think it is the beginning of the end, but I hope it is the end of the beginning.


Here is the ideal situation: nobody has to hate going to work because she expects to be groped, fondled or otherwise intruded upon by someone whom she is afraid to confront because he has situational or institutional power. Obviously, we are not there yet.

I would like the current crop of public shamings to lead to the above ideal situation. I don’t believe we are going to wake up on 1 January 2018 and magically be in that place, but we can make substantial progress.

Establishment of Guilt

Roy Moore is our first serious test case. He is accused of making sexual advances on underage girls some decades ago. He has hunkered down and is denying the charges all the way. One America News wants him to have the benefit of due process and be considered innocent until proven guilty.

I completely understand their objection. However, since I wasn’t born yesterday, I also know that he would have been able to exempt himself from due process as a DA and a judge.

One of his accusers claims:

 “I was terrified. He was also trying to pull my shirt off. I thought he was going to rape me. I was twisting, I was struggling, and I was begging him to stop,” she said. “At some point, he gave up. He then looked at me and he told me, he said, ‘You’re just a child,’ and he said, ‘I am the district attorney of Etowah County, and if you tell anyone about this, no one will ever believe you.'”

— Source: NBC News

Even if that didn’t actually happen, how would we ever get to the bottom of it? There have been so many predators who said, “I am ____, and if you tell anyone about this, no one will ever believe you.” And they have been right for all these years. This is not OK.

So a sexual predator with power and influence is not ,likely to be brought to account by normal due process. Now what are we left with? Put up with it?

I am sure that many of Moore’s defenders think he is being picked on because he is hated by both Democrats and establishment Republicans. So what? Did he do the deeds or didn’t he?

We are not going to ever get this into a court and get resolution; certainly not the same way as if a common Alabama plumber or mechanic had been accused of the same offense. Until we can, maybe persons with power and influence have to be brought down under these conditions.

If Moore really didn’t do what he is accused of, I regret the damage of the accusations. We are going to see some excesses before this is over. We are going to see people being falsely accused.

However, if there is no formal venue where such people can be brought to account, then there has to be a messy and informal venue. Allowing this behavior to continue is not acceptable.

People get wrongly accused of crimes all the time. Some of them do not have the power, influence and means to fight the accusations effectively. Take a moment to think about them.

The Appropriate Punishment

Another aspect we have to work out is what the appropriate punishment is for various offenses. In the past, the appropriate punishment was none, and we are not OK with that anymore. So we effectively have no precedent.

Is one incident of a man in a position of power forcing himself on a woman a hanging offense? If not, how many incidents establish a pattern? Does contrition matter? Does the amount of time between then and now enter into consideration?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. We will, as a society, have to answer them.

Written by srojak

November 29, 2017 at 11:13 pm

Personal Loyalty in Government

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CBS News estimates that about one-fifth of the country is solidly behind President Trump. Of this subset of the population, they report that 55% “believe government and law enforcement officials should take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution and president,” as opposed to pledging loyalty to the Constitution alone. Given an adult population of 209 million, by my reckoning, that would be 23 million adult Americans holding this belief. I find this deeply disturbing.

There are about 4,000 politically appointed positions in the administration. Those in the executive branch serve at the pleasure of the president.  Although he can dismiss them at any time, there can be political consequences for doing so. Managing a federal department is not the same as managing a family business. The removal of a highly respected senior staffer can demoralize those who had been working for her, unless there are reasons the survivors can respect and these reasons are communicated well.

A requirement of personal loyalty to an individual President would take the political appointees in the direction of a Führerprinzip, in that it would communicate that the will of the executive takes priority over the appointee’s concepts of right and wrong. Furthermore, the door swings both ways; an executive politically hostile to your interests as a citizen could also demand such loyalty from political appointees.

Attention, 23 million Americans: rethink this idea immediately. It would represent a significant further step to make politics “a civil war by other means,” and we are far along on that path already. The Constitution was designed to prevent a majority from running roughshod over a minority. It deserves the highest loyalty of those who serve in government.

Written by srojak

May 23, 2017 at 5:10 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?


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