Monday, February 12, 2018

There is no good reason for the US to invade Iran in 2018

The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq was done on false pretenses (revisit this blog's "There was no good reason for the US to invade Iraq in 2003") and made Iraq a more dangerous place.

History repeating itself?

Lawrence Wilkerson wrote for the New York Times on Feb. 5, 2018: "Fifteen years ago this week, Colin Powell, then the secretary of state, spoke at the United Nations to sell pre-emptive war with Iraq. As his chief of staff, I helped Secretary Powell paint a clear picture that war was the only choice..." It was a choice, he continued, "that resulted in catastrophic losses for the region and the United States-led coalition, and that destabilized the entire Middle East."

Thus, when U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, in January 2018 presented U.S. intelligence information, specifically satellite images, to claim that Iran was not complying with restrictions on its military, Wilkerson believes "the evidence fell significantly short."

"It’s astonishing," he wrote, "how similar that moment was to Mr. Powell’s 2003 presentation on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — and how the Trump administration’s methods overall match those of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. He noted that "war with Iran, a country of almost 80 million people whose vast strategic depth and difficult terrain make it a far greater challenge than Iraq, would be 10 to 15 times worse than the Iraq war in terms of casualties and costs."

He concluded: "We’ve seen this before: a campaign built on the politicization of intelligence and shortsighted policy decisions to make the case for war. And the American people have apparently become so accustomed to executive branch warmongering — approved almost unanimously by the Congress — that such actions are not significantly contested."

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Reaction to Mark Lilla's 'The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics'

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics is a well-meaning plea that makes a lot of points that should be taken seriously, but it misses the mark. It is a short book drawn in broad sketches. Some ideas may eventually be vindicated by history, but details of how that is to happen are yet to be provided. If these broad strokes are followed without more specific direction, the plan could instead backfire in a way that Lilla himself probably wouldn’t like.

Writing for the political moment in mid-2017, he identifies the problem: In the United States, for many identity groups, basic human rights and quality of life are violated or threatened in part by conservatives’ political indifference to them. His solution: Liberals need to win elections, local as well as national to create broad support to accomplish nationwide agendas, so they can restore rights to all citizens. The difficulty he perceives is that explicitly talking about these rights somehow causes liberals to lose elections so that they lack political power to enact their principles. He wants liberals to stop self-sabotaging through emphasis on identity politics and to develop a more inclusive, effective brand to attract more voters and accomplish their agenda. He thinks more broad-based appeals to the defense of individual rights, rooted in a shared identity of “citizenship,” should do the trick. Unfortunately, this is not obvious, and he does not succeed in making the case in this book.

In an inspirational passage, he says: “Citizens...are not collateral damage...A citizen, simply by virtue of being a citizen, is one of us. We have stood together to defend the country against foreign adversaries in the past. Now we must stand together at home to make sure that none of us faces the risk of being left behind. We’re all Americans and we owe that to each other. That’s what liberalism means.” (p. 16) Citizens, he says, are not “all alike in every respect”. Different identity groups can “simultaneously think of themselves as political citizens like everyone else. Both ideas can be — indeed, are — true.” (p. 121) Yet, in his view, both self-conceptions cannot be given equal priority on an actionable agenda. He wants liberals to emphasize “political consciousness and strategizing” instead of “symbolic dramas over identity.” (p. 102)

One insufficiency is his choice of the word “citizen.” Not everyone who lives in the United States is a citizen. Even people who do not (yet) have voting rights should be entitled to some recognition and their rights should be respected. But this is, since another term could easily be found or created, a minor point. A greater insufficiency is as follows. As long as we’re talking about the importance of rights, why can’t we argue that conservatives, too, should uphold them, especially if they are often the ones attacking them in the first place? Why is it left to liberals to do the work of basic democracy maintenance? If liberals should aspire to build a big tent of “citizens” who support basic rights, why can’t conservatives adjust their platform to meet similar goals? This should not be a partisan agenda. If everyone, all “citizens,” were to defend basic human rights and equality for all other “citizens,” this would eliminate much false, bad-faith polarization and free up energy for the two parties to distinguish themselves according to more valid, appropriate, and fair ideological differences. People could then vote for the party that offers whatever political solution seems most reasonable to them (taxes, education, healthcare) rather than feeling forced into the party that most validates their right to exist because the other party seems to threaten their personal survival and the underpinnings of democracy. The underlying problem (both in the real world, and in Lilla’s proposed solution) is that the classically liberal value of “stand[ing] together at home to make sure that none of us faces the risk of being left behind” is treated as unique to the Democratic Party. If it were adopted by the Republican Party as well, that would solve a huge number of problems. We could move on to argue about totally different things.

The irony, which I don't think he sees, is that he is convinced of the importance for liberals of dropping their "identity politics" project so that conservatives will stop mocking liberals for it, yet by writing this particular book blaming liberals for their own embrace of identity politics he is handing conservatives the very same joke tied up in a neat bow.

He is validating the perception of identity politics as ridiculous without offering anything to replace it except for a slightly academic-sounding justification of what the All Lives Matter people have been saying (he doesn't mention that slogan/movement; I am bringing it up). "All Lives Matter" was a response by white people who were uncomfortable with saying "Black Lives Matter." They argue that "All Lives" includes "Black Lives," but they are rebutted by simply holding up a mirror to them and showing them that, since they have some issue with acknowledging that black lives matter, they probably don't really think that all lives matter or are unable to effectively organize and advocate on that universal principle. The left has already rejected the All Lives Matter slogan. A "We’re All Americans" slogan looks simply like a warmed-over substitute if we can't get granular about who is a citizen and what we have to do for certain identity groups to ensure that their lives are counted. Lilla understands that the citizenry is comprised of diverse constituencies, many of whom are treated very unjustly and need political solutions which should not be considered "special interests" but rather simply part of what all citizens are owed. Unfortunately, not everyone perceives the whole citizenry as including the sum of all its parts, so when Lilla gives people permission to stop talking about the parts, he is (perhaps inadvertently) giving them permission to forget that the country is diverse and that "all citizens" have many different needs.

“Polarization” is not a word that appears in his book, but it is popular in other contemporary discussions of partisanship in the United States. Other writers have pointed out that American politics today is polarized by identity more so than by ideology. One reason is that political ideas are difficult to understand and thus the average citizen, despite the democratic ideal of participatory self-government, has never really had the time or attention for such nuance. Today, the party to which a voter gravitates is determined primarily by their personal identity, and the voter then adopts the ideological viewpoints given to them by their party; this was described recently in Achen and Bartels’ Democracy for Realists. It is not immediately obvious that this process is primarily the fault of liberals. Conservatives, too, engage in it. Not only has the Republican Party long appealed primarily to white people, but its dismissal of the interests of other marginalized identity groups has driven those people to the Democratic Party. It is also, therefore, not obvious that the Democratic Party suffers a net loss of voters as a result of this process. They might benefit from it and that is why they encourage it.

Much hand-wringing can be done over polarization. Political affiliation determined by personal identity may indeed indicate some kind of disinterest in or abandonment of the primacy of political ideas and so, from the perspective of those political ideas, identity movements may be an unprincipled approach to political involvement. More pragmatically, hyperpartisanship, especially on the basis of personal identity, has unpleasant and undesirable consequences. Nevertheless, identity politics, insofar as it means well, isn’t necessarily bad at its core, and its causes and effects need to be explored more in depth. Lilla has not locked up an argument that liberals alone can fix the insufficiencies of identity politics nor that liberals’ political fortunes are substantially swayed by whether they fix it.

He acknowledges that the Republicans are playing their own identity games (they “have successfully persuaded much of the public that they are the party of Joe Sixpack and Democrats are the party of Jessica Yogamat”) with the result that “certain federal laws and even constitutional protections are, practically speaking, a dead letter” in Republican areas. (p. 13) This seems to acknowledge how identity politics translate into political power, at least for the right wing, which undermines or at least complicates his argument that it’s a poor strategy for the left.

He does not acknowledge the existence of white nationalism and its historical and present-day influence within the Republican Party. There are hate groups in the United States and, during the last two years of Obama's presidency (while the Trump campaign was active), their total number increased by 17 percent. On the day Lilla's book was published, President Trump responded to an incident in Charlottesville, Va. where a neo-Nazi killed an anti-racist protester, "You had people that were very fine people on both sides." If it is fair to call out the ineffectiveness of left-wing identity-based movements in promoting social cohesion and protecting individual lives, it ought to be fair to call out the ineffectiveness of whatever the president was trying to do when he proved himself unable to provide moral judgment and guidance for the nation on identity issues at a critical moment. They are related because the latter is contributing to the need for the former. Calling out the alleged political ridiculousness of liberal movements that focus on nurturing their members' identities works better if you do not, as Lilla does not, acknowledge the existential threats (including the KKK, neo-Nazis, and their media machines and lightly disguised policy aims) in response to which those liberal movements have grown as a protective response. We need to call out the ridiculousness of mainstreamed hate and proto-fascism and find a political method to eliminate the threat that poses to democracy. (In new releases, see Brian Klaas' The Despot's Apprentice and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's How Democracies Die, both published months after Lilla's book.) Lilla may take it for granted that right-wing extremism is bad, but I'm not sure everyone who reads his book will make the same assumption; probably some conservatives read it and simply point and laugh at his characterization of left-wing ineptitude at their own self-preservation and self-propagation, not seeing that the right wing shares responsibility for the problem of American political dysfunction. If liberals can conceive and launch a more effective response than identity politics, great. But, meanwhile, when we look at Lilla's complaint about liberals' inability to win elections and his choice to blame it on their preoccupation with "symbolic dramas over identity," and we place it side-by-side with his failure to fully call out the horridness of the physical violence and institutional injustice that marginalized identity groups are facing especially in light of the fact that this is coming from the right-wing where it is increasingly mainstreamed, we are missing at least half the story of why elections are fought, won, and lost the way they are these days. There is a neo-Nazi in the room pointing and laughing; will we point at the Nazi, or will we point at the person at whom the Nazi points? In Phoebe Maltz Bovy's closing words in her afterword to The Perils of 'Privilege': "Addressing unconscious bigotry — never the most effective strategy — is altogether hopeless against the conscious variety. And it’s the conscious one," she wrote, dating her words July 29, 2016, "we’re now up against."

Lilla needs to describe the bigger tent he envisions for liberals and exactly how it might be set up. What if there is no partner for dialogue to get off the ground? To what individuals or institutional leaders will the bigger tent possibly appeal?

It would also be of great interest to this reader if he would describe exactly what liberals should do when marginalized people are at risk (whether from overt attacks by conservative individuals or as the result of institutional processes). Should liberals give the appearance of casually ignoring hostile words and actions and unfair processes while “secretly” planning to take political action to fix it? Should they give this appearance of ignoring the problem only during political campaigns when they are the underdogs or also while they are in power? Should they even more explicitly stop defending or outright reject the interests of certain identity groups? At what point do those identity groups get welcomed back? Why would they want to come back, after they’ve been thrown under the bus? Or is Lilla saying that liberals should continue to defend vulnerable people but preferably in a way that identifies them simply as “citizens” and downplays their differences from other, more mainstream identities? How can we credibly explain why someone is vulnerable if we don’t acknowledge the realities of their identity?

He does provide an interesting take on U.S. history. He interprets it as demarcated by the two most recent political “dispensations,” both of which lasted decades: the Roosevelt era and then the Reagan era. The former’s “four universal freedoms were declared and accepted as obvious by most people: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. This vision filled three generations of liberals with confidence, hope, pride, and a spirit of self-sacrifice. And patriotism.” (p. 35) This was replaced by the latter’s “subliminal revolution” of anti-political individualism. During the Reagan era, people “could no longer quite see the point of arguing about the common good and engaging politically to achieve it.” (p. 26) They no longer trusted the government, casting suspicion on liberalism’s increasing attachment to the idea “that taxes, spending, regulations, and court decisions were always the best way” to serve the public good. (p. 35) Worse, liberals “grew increasingly reliant on the courts to circumvent the legislative process,” the consequence of which is that judicial nominations has become “a highly partisan process, which the right now dominates.” (p. 37) (He does not engage the typical argument that the rights of citizens ought to be decided by courts because the judge is more likely to be knowledgable and fair on principle whereas the electorate will simply vote in favor of its own majority interests and trample on the rights of minorities.) Trump’s election “exposed the emptiness of anti-political conservatism” (p. 54) but what matters for liberals is not simply to claim the moral high ground over Republicans but to find a way to win elections so that “newly won protections for African-Americans, other minorities, women, and gay Americans remain in place.” That should be an “absolute priority.” (p. 110) Liberals “have mastered the art of self-sabotage” (p. 102); most Americans “no longer respond to whatever larger message we have been conveying over the past decades.” (p. 5) He thinks that, following the Trump presidency that seems to be a transitional moment, we are due for a third political dispensation, but he doesn’t quite know yet what form it will take.

He acknowledges that feelings are important in politics, especially in context of the need for politicians and party organizers who are excited about working for “the great American demos...stirring its feelings and gaining its trust” (p. 6). A political dispensation is “grounded in feelings and perceptions that give principles and arguments psychological force,” (p. 22) and when leaders represent it well, “people feel the connection [between the vision and the social reality]. (Understanding it is less important.)” (p. 100) However, feelings are not the whole story. A dispensation is also “capturing something important in social reality. Marx was right about this: material conditions help to determine which political ideas resonate at any historical moment.” (p. 23). Furthermore, for some reason, in context of identity politics, feelings are less interesting to him.

Today, he says, we have movement politics of identity instead of an “ambitious vision.” (p. 6).What is lost is “a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation.” (p. 9) Identity politics can be effective if it is about “large classes of people—African-Americans, women—seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights,” but in the Reagan era, when it happened to be “in harmony with some of the deep social changes that Reaganism responded to” (p. 24), it became “a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition...[that] turn[s] young people back onto themselves, rather than turning them outward toward the wider world.” (p. 9) Before Reagan, Republicans had formed a coalition but “lacked a common vision.” Reagan united them under “an image of a better, morally undemanding life in a less political America” and thus they “became an ideologically unified and electorally potent force”. (p. 43) “Citizenship dropped out of the picture....JFK’s challenge, What can I do for my country?—which had inspired the early sixties generation—became unintelligible.” (p. 66) Identity politics today is “Reaganism for lefties” (p. 96), more “evangelical” than political, as suggested by the term “woke,” which “is a giveaway that spiritual conversion, not political agreement, is the demand.” (p. 114) (This point was also made by Kate Robinson, quoted by Phoebe Maltz Bovy in The Perils of 'Privilege', when she said that “the best way to change people’s behavior is to attack the systems that force them into competition, and that the material self-interest of the working class is a better motivating principle than concepts of sin and redemption.”) “The difference," Lilla writes, "is this: evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” (p. 14) Can they both be equally passionate? For the sake of his argument, he must hope so, since he believes it is crucial to harness public sentiment to achieve political success. We need to care about actual government, as “the founding problem of the United States was that of political identification” (p. 62) and “the main focal point of American democratic politics is and always has been: government.” (p. 106)

Justin Dean Lee writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books said that liberals who (hypothetically) follow Lilla's prescription and give up their "political expressivism" will need to experience "a radical transformation of self" akin to "religious deconversion." He wishes that Lilla's words had reached out more gently to these people: "a stronger seasoning of empathy might have occasioned some advice for those navigating such a discomfiting transition." This resembles the advice of Robert P. Jones in The End of White Christian America when he said that people need to perceive and gracefully understand the feelings of white Christians who are discovering that they no longer have the institutional power and privilege they once did.

He asserts that when people begin by saying “Speaking as an X...” they never finish the sentence by announcing their incompetence. The significance of prefacing one's opinion with one's identity may be due to what Matt Bruenig blogged in 2013 as "identitarian deference": a liberal will "figure out what you want to believe, and then find someone within the appropriate oppressed group who believes as you do. Then say that you are deferring to their voice in this matter. This works as a way of resolving disputes but only by gutting the whole point of ID" which is, according to Bruenig, "that privileged individuals should defer to the opinions and views of oppressed individuals, especially on topics relevant to those individuals’ oppression." When people say "Speaking as an X..." they may be playing that game from the other side, supplying their own opinion as a member of the oppressed class and inviting a liberal to champion it. But it doesn’t seem true that people never announce their incompetence. First, people rarely recognize or announce their incompetence at all; that human limitation isn’t due to identity politics. But consider the type of discourse in which it is common for someone to note that their identity gives them special insight into their own identity group but also that they must admit their relative incompetence about other identity groups and recuse themselves from issuing judgments. The odd thing about Lilla seeming, in this passage, to ask for more identity-based recognition of incompetence is that his overall vision depends on citizens ignoring or transcending those incompetencies because he wants society to come to rational agreement on policies that work for everyone without resorting to identity politics.

He distinguishes the “unconscionable” (p. 127) problems of “racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia” from the 1960s politicization of identity “in the contemporary sense of an inner thing, a homunculus that needs tending to. (p. 62) “[T]hese are our fellow citizens who deserve to be fully enfranchised. That is all any American should need to know — and all we should have to appeal to.” (p. 127) He does not identify, unfortunately, the dividing line between saying something like all citizens should have equal rights regardless of race and gender and whatever other statement supposedly gives undue political emphasis to identity groups. It is important to note that he doesn’t say it is inherently wrong to assign that emphasis, only that, for some reason, it doesn’t win elections. He thinks that bigger tents are usually or more reliably built without identity politics, even though sometimes identity politics has worked in the past.

We need, then, a shared vision, beyond just “values, commitment, policy proposals.” These days, the right wing offers that kind of vision to its followers, but liberals have “abdicated” in the attempt to capture hearts and minds. (p. 7). Reagan won because of “the imaginative connection he made with the public that transformed those ideas into an epiphany, a vision of a new way of national life, masquerading as an old one.” (p. 22) As Lilla was writing the book, he noted, the Republican Party’s homepage had an 11-point “Principles for American Renewal” document while the Democrats less prominently featured links to different identity groups, offering “seventeen separate messages.” (p. 11) Liberals need to articulate “principles that everyone can affirm” even when specific groups are the intended beneficiaries. (p. 15) We need language “for invoking the common good or addressing class or other social realities,” not just to distinguish identities. (p. 31)

Using the example of women as a group with their own interests, Lilla advocates the political approach of seeing that women “have a distinct perspective that deserves to be recognized and cultivated, and have distinct needs that society must address.” In movement politics today, people instead learn “that one cannot generalize about women since their experiences are radically different, depending on their race, sexual preference, class, physical abilities, life experiences, and so on.” (p. 86) Movement politics was successful in achieving its political aims from the 1950s to the 1980s, but we should not “project an imagined trend outward into the future.” (p. 105) Since the 1980s, movement politics has produced “the social justice warrior,” someone “whose self-image depends on being unstained by compromise and above trafficking in mere interests.” The problem with this approach, as he sees it, is simply that political institutions are more powerful than movements. No matter how righteous or charismatic a movement leader may be, he or she must be aide by “system politics and public officials sympathetic to movement aims but willing to engage in the slow, patient work of campaigning for office, drawing up legislation, making trades to get it passed, and then overseeing bureaucracies to see that it is enforced.” (p. 109)

While he says he supports rights for marginalized groups, he criticizes the way these groups often about securing their rights. This criticism is so imprecise that it is difficult to understand what he means. He says “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity,” (p. 129) a criticism he supports with one sentence mentioning some generalities about this enormous grassroots movement. Part of his objection was that Black Lives Matter once publicly criticized Hillary Clinton, regarding some matter he does not describe, during her presidential campaign. Left-wing solidarity surely serves the important pragmatic purpose of winning elections, but why should that render citizens unable to publicly criticize a politician? The citizens in question here were, by implication, probably black citizens, and the omission of the political question over which they disagreed seems to suggest that black citizens are never supposed to publicly criticize Democratic leadership over anything. For black people to keep their mouths shut all the time would be not liberal solidarity but sycophancy and, while it might be in the short-term service of Democrats, it's ultimately not in the service of democracy.

He also says that transgender people have been “given temporary totemic significance” (p. 91) in the political arena, something he does not explain at all. This statement is (a) confusing because transgender people need to care about the significance of their own existence all the time (not just for one election cycle, and definitely not never), all the more so if their own political leaders don't do some of the caring for them, and (b) not persuasive because, if “totemic” is here synonymous with “conceptual” or "emblematic," it sails past the obvious fact that transgender people see themselves existing in reality and not just in the realm of what other people believe about them. The book's only other reference to transgender people is that they "suffer far worse" injuries and indignities than being threatened on the street, a statement that at least acknowledges that they have material existence and face actual problems and thus are not merely totems in other people's imaginations, but remains extremely vague (falling short of the sobriquet of "fact") and does not justify anyone in drawing any particular conclusion about them. As a result, Lilla's truism that, when discussing any important principle with a political opponent, “there are usually other, equally important principles that might have to be sacrificed to preserve this one,” (p. 118) rings ominously. It isn’t just principles that are being sacrificed. After all, he said that the overarching principle of liberalism is (or should be) a version of no citizen left behind. If we begin compromising away sub-principles, we have to ask: What citizen is to be sacrificed? Is it the one who isn't fully visible? Apart from the seven words quoted here, transgender people are not described or defined at all in the book and there is no reason to think that the average reader understands who they are, apart from the fact that they are being pointed at and called out as being somehow inherently ridiculous, usually by the right, now by the left. Those who remain invisible and misunderstood are the most easily sacrificed. That is what is alarming about passages like this, the author's possible good intentions notwithstanding.

This is how he brings us into "All Lives Matter" territory (though he doesn't mention or advocate that slogan). If we don't show that we are able to give full attention to people who have particular identities, those people have no reason to be convinced that other citizens really believe that their lives matter.

In an earlier opinion piece for the New York Times called "The End of Identity Liberalism" (Nov. 18, 2016) published a week after the election of Donald Trump, Lilla was more pointed in his comments regarding transgender people. He said that "American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing." He went on to say: "Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the 'campus craziness' that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. [emphasis added]...How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in 'His Majesty'?" And this: "However interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own." And: "To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms." That's a lot of commentary on transgender people without defining who they are or what their needs are, especially for a single opinion article that is supposed to be about liberalism more generally. Most people do not know what a transgender person looks like but, if we take Lilla's word for it, most people are pretty sure that a transgender person's perspective has nothing to do with the world's political future. Moreover, in this same opinion piece, he mentions the Ku Klux Klan and hedges on its relevance to today's identity politics, seemingly suggesting that supremacist attitudes are a chicken-and-egg game in which the Klan was indeed "the first identity movement in American politics" and yet today some of the blame falls on those liberals who advocate for "the omnipresent rhetoric of identity" which prompts "white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored" and consequently liberals "should be prepared to lose" this face-off. I would counter that blaming liberals for the inefficacy of their protective response to forces of hate (whether those forces show their face over the barrel of a shotgun as through membership in the KKK or are a notch more subtle as with white people who feel that their whiteness is threatened but have not marched with a torch) gives more aid and comfort to the other side than it gives wise counsel to those who deserve encouragement since it appears to validate those who react with indignation toward Black Lives Matter protests and the possibility of unexpected genitalia in the public washroom when instead he ought to be asking them to question their indignation (but then, I guess, he would be practicing identity politics). I would also counter that we deserve, at the very least, facts to support the allegation that we bring hate upon ourselves just for declaring our existence.

The August 2017 book as compared to the November 2016 opinion piece is a bit dialed back in its overtly dismissive attitude toward marginalized people, perhaps in reflective adjustment to the media controversy that erupted after the 2016 publication and his probable realization (so I speculate) that the Roosevelt/Reagan/Third Dispensation analysis is more valuable and more warmly received than the recommendation to throw people under the bus, but the thesis has not changed.

In sum, one can easily get on board with Lilla’s idea that Americans should support each other’s basic rights — whether for the “positive” reason of our shared American identity or for the “negative” reason that our more specific identities should not matter — but, as I see it, there is no reason why this vision should be limited to the Democratic Party. The Republican Party also needs to embrace it and get real about what it implies for the policies they endorse. Furthermore, we can all look forward to a new, post-Trump political dispensation guided by a vision that is so inspiring and unifying (let us hope) that it might eliminate the need for identity politics, but this book doesn’t even provide the slogan for that new vision, let alone an explanation of it or a strategy for selling it.

Mark Lilla. The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. HarperCollins: August 15, 2017.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Conscience and Religious Freedom...isn't

On Jan. 18, 2018, the Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that its Office for Civil Rights would have a new "Conscience and Religious Freedom Division." The idea of a need to protect "religious freedom" has been around for a while. Outwardly, it is based on the concern that a religious person might be forced to do something that violates their conscience or religious belief. Political scientist Andrew Lewis said recently:

"Federal religious freedom laws gained some steam in the mid-1990s, and a decent number of conservatives were involved in them, but there was very little public awareness that they were going on.

It’s not until you see the legalization of same-sex marriage that you see this real drive to protect religious freedom. The day that the Obergefell case was decided...They knew that they were losing this cultural battle and this was a way to preserve what they thought was their orthodox faith in action."

During the 1990s and 2000s while same-sex marriage was debated nationally, many people claimed to oppose legalizing it on the premise that clergy should not be forced to perform same-sex weddings. This threat was never real, since clergy have always been free to refuse to marry people (divorcees and interfaith couples) and to impose religious requirements on the couple before and during the wedding. Since same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, no clergy have been forced to perform one. The obviousness of the non-threat did not stop it from seizing people's imaginations. Having lost the same-sex marriage battle, Christian conservatives now aim for "religious freedom" laws to ensure that religious people are not forced to do...well, anything that they claim offends their beliefs.

For now, the new HHS division does not directly create or change laws (though it might encourage them). It is supposed to enforce whatever federal laws exist. Its activities will depend in part on what federal laws are created or struck down and what complaints are filed. Its new website does not contain a comprehensive list of all possibly relevant laws, so it is hard to predict what will happen.

The agency is already being selective about how it promotes what it does. Its website talks a bit about abortion and euthanasia and the nondiscrimination provisions in the Affordable Care Act that relate to them, but it doesn't mention the ACA’s Section 1557 which forbids discrimination based on markers including “pregnancy, gender identity, and sex stereotyping" and whose enforcement has been in question since Trump’s election. Its website doesn't mention transgender people at all, but this is one of the points at issue in the public consciousness. If that part of the ACA is repealed, the new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division will have responsibility for enforcing the right of healthcare workers to discriminate against people based on pregnancy and gender.

Drilling down through the website’s complaint process reveals a list of a wide range of relevant employment situations including agencies for adoption, foster care, and social services; mental health centers; drug rehabs; homeless shelters; nursing homes; researchers; insurance companies; and pharmacies. This suggests that religious people anticipate wanting to reserve the right to deny service based on a client’s identity or behavior, not just on specific procedures.

Someone might want the birth control pill or the "Plan B" pill to interrupt a possible pregnancy. Someone might want pre- or post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV. It would be good if one's pharmacist would dispense it. The pharmacist's prerogative to make judgments about others does not seem to outweigh the client's prerogative to make choices about their own life. That doesn't seem to be a good definition of political freedom.

If a cosmetic implant ruptures it would be nice to think that one could just get it taken out without starting a debate about whether the patient is really a woman, whether it's really an emergency and exactly how many hours are estimated to remain to allow a different healthcare staff to be recruited,, whether repairing it counts as a sex-reassignment surgery as opposed to only removing it and sending her elsewhere to get it fixed. What kind of moral calculus is that, and what is the benefit? It is much simpler to accept that this is a person who needs the same kind of treatment as anyone else with that problem. But the insistence on so-called "religious freedom" is the endorsement of just that kind of presumptuous, time-wasting, anxiety-provoking, us/them polarizing moral calculus, and there is now a federal agency to attempt to culturally legitimize it.

The scope of the types of discriminations allowable under "religious freedom" is likely to increase. State laws branded under the same “religious freedom” concept are not all healthcare-specific. Some apply more broadly to general business dealings. So, even though this new federal agency may not have the mission of enforcing state law, we should pay attention to how the idea of "religious freedom" is variously interpreted and what versions politically succeed.


Monday, January 15, 2018

What is 'the paradox of voting'?

Going to the cinema alone

The three-screen cinema is showing Robot Laser Wars, Legal Drama, and Giggles the Bear. You’re hoping for Robot Laser Wars; it’s something you can only see without your spouse, who wouldn’t appreciate it. When you arrive, there is a confusing sign saying “Next showing sold out.” You’re unsure which of the three films is sold out. Before you approach the ticket window, you privately rank your preferences so you’ll have a second choice ready to go in case it’s your first choice that’s sold out. It’s not hard. You’ll settle for Legal Drama. You feel much too old for Giggles the Bear.

If your spouse were in the same situation alone at the cinema, you’re sure that Legal Drama would be his first choice, and furthermore that he’d rather see Giggles the Bear before setting foot in Robot Laser Wars.

And your child? She’s still young enough to prefer Giggles the Bear. She might be entertained by Robot Laser Wars as a second choice, but she’d have no comprehension of or attention for Legal Drama.

The purpose of a “first, second, third” preference ranking is obvious. Regardless of which film is sold out, you know which of the two available films you want. If your first choice is sold out, you want your second choice. If your second or third choice is sold out, it’s no problem—you still want your first choice.

It barely rates mentioning but, for the record, and because it will be relevant later: Since you place your first choice over your second choice, and your second choice over your third choice, it stands to reason that you place your first choice over your third choice. For you, personally, Robots still beats Giggles regardless of your middle preference for Legal.

Going to the cinema with your family

Now look at what happens when the family goes to the theater together. You retain your individual preferences:

You:Robots > Legal > Giggles
Spouse:Legal > Giggles > Robots
Kid:Giggles > Robots > Legal

You first need to find out which film is sold out so you can rule it out. Given the two remaining films, you’ll take a majority-wins vote. If everyone votes their own interest, the vote will come down 2 against 1.

If the contest is between Robots and Legal, Robots win.(You and your kid will vote that way.)
If the contest is between Legal and Giggles, Legal wins.(You and your spouse will vote that way.)

So, if the contest is between Robots and Giggles, won’t Robots win? After all, if the group prefers Robots over Legal, and Legal over Giggles, doesn’t it stand to reason that the group prefers Robots over Giggles? That’s how it works for you as an individual when you rank your first, second, and third choices. It’s just what it means to rank your individual preference. To you, Robots is the best, so it remains the best. It is better than second-best and definitely better than third-best. It seems as if that's what the group believes, too. And yet...that’s not always how it works for a group. In this scenario:
If the contest is between Robots and Giggles, Giggles wins.(Your spouse and your kid will vote that way.)

Effect on elections

Individual preferences seem to operate by slightly different rules when they are aggregated into a “group preference.” This is called the paradox of voting. As Pierre Lemieux puts it, in the situation above: "The electorate is irrational even if each voter is rational....'We as a society' is more a casino roulette than a rational actor."

When a society doesn't have a clear preference about which direction is best, narrowing the available choices down to two and then holding a majority-wins election is one way to reach a short-term solution, but it won't resolve the long-term question about which direction really is best. The society will keep cycling the question and rehashing the debate. They really don't agree and the only way to pretend there's a majority census is to artificially narrow the options or change the framing. If there is a way to bring people to consensus, it may require a novel approach (such as teaching people to empathize with each other's wants and needs); holding yet another election probably won't do it.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Fire and Fury #4 - Trump's relationship with the media

In Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff describes the president's complicated relationship with the media.

Years before the campaign, when Trump was famous as a New York real estate mogul, he had sought the limelight. Roger Ailes said that, to Trump, “the media represented power, much more so than politics". Wolff relates:

"The media long ago turned on Donald Trump as a wannabe and lightweight, and wrote him off for that ultimate sin — anyway, the ultimate sin in media terms — of trying to curry favor with the media too much. His fame, such as it was, was actually reverse fame — he was famous for being infamous. It was joke fame."

Furthermore, he was known for his bankruptcies.

"Whereas he [Trump] had before been the symbol of success and mocked for it, now [in the 1990s] he became, in a shift of zeitgeist (and of having to refinance a great deal of debt), a symbol of failure and mocked for it. This was a complicated reversal, not just having to do with Trump, but of how the media was now seeing itself. Donald Trump became a symbol of the media’s own self-loathing: the interest in and promotion of Donald Trump was a morality tale about the media. Its ultimate end was [New York Observer editor Peter] Kaplan’s pronouncement that Trump should not be covered anymore because every story about Donald Trump had become a cliché."

The presidential campaign was different. His former celebrity was not a fulfillment in itself. Journalists now expected him to make factual statements. He was bedeviled by "the media, which, with its conclusion of a misbegotten and bastard presidency, believed it could diminish him and wound him (and wind him up) and rob him of all credibility by relentlessly pointing out how literally wrong he was. The media, adopting a 'shocked, shocked' morality, could not fathom how being factually wrong was not an absolute ending in itself."

He was in a bind:

"Trump craved media approval. But, as Bannon emphasized, he was never going to get the facts right, nor was he ever going to acknowledge that he got them wrong, so therefore he was not going to get that approval. This meant, next best thing, that he had to be aggressively defended against the media’s disapproval. The problem here was that the more vociferous the defense — mostly of assertions that could easily be proved wrong — the more the media redoubled its attacks and censure. What’s more, Trump was receiving the censure of his friends, too."

"The fabulous, incomprehensible irony that the Trump family had, despite the media’s distaste, despite everything the media knows and understands and has said about them, risen to a level not only of ultimate consequence but even of immortality is beyond worst-case nightmare and into cosmic-joke territory." Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner had been subject to the same media pressures as New York celebrities, "never quite understanding why they should be the butt of a media joke, and now," together in the White House, "the target of its stunned outrage."

Meanwhile, when his allies were the subject of media criticism, "he blamed them and their inability to get good press."

Trump wanted to be universally praised in the media. He did not understand that, in politics, some outlets would always be positive and some would always be negative.

"The conundrum was that conservative media saw Trump as its creature, while Trump saw himself as a star, a vaunted and valued product of all media, one climbing ever higher. It was a cult of personality, and he was the personality. He was the most famous man in the world. Everybody loved him — or ought to. On Trump’s part this was, arguably, something of a large misunderstanding about the nature of conservative media. He clearly did not understand that what conservative media elevated, liberal media would necessarily take down. Trump, goaded by Bannon, would continue to do the things that would delight conservative media and incur the wrath of liberal media. That was the program. The more your supporters loved you, the more your antagonists hated you. That’s how it was supposed to work. And that’s how it was working. But Trump himself was desperately wounded by his treatment in the mainstream media."

The polarization left Americans with a difficult decision of whom to trust. There were now "two unreliable narrators dominating American public life," as Wolff put it, if you accepted the argument of Mark Hemingway in the Weekly Standard: the President-elect, who "spoke with little information and frequently no factual basis," and the media, which treats everything he does as, "by default, unconstitutional or an abuse of power."

The president's need for positive attention from all directions revealed that he

"quite profoundly seemed unable to distinguish between his political advantage and his personal needs — he thought emotionally, not strategically. The great value of being president, in his view, was that you’re the most famous man in the world, and fame is always venerated and adored by the media. Isn’t it? But, confusingly, Trump was president in large part because of his particular talent, conscious or reflexive, to alienate the media, which then turned him into a figure reviled by the media. This was not a dialectical space that was comfortable for an insecure man."

Fire and Fury #3 - The president's odd behavior

Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury documents some unusual behavior from the president.

Questions about relevant knowledge and mental fitness

Wolff marvels that he was elected president while "wholly lacking what in some obvious sense must be the main requirement of the job, what neuroscientists would call executive function....He had no ability to plan and organize and pay attention and switch focus; he had never been able to tailor his behavior to what the goals at hand reasonably required. On the most basic level, he simply could not link cause and effect." Moreover, "while he was often most influenced by the last person he spoke to, he did not actually listen to anyone. So it was not so much the force of an individual argument or petition that moved him, but rather more just someone’s presence..." As a result, he had accumulated little relevant knowledge. "Almost all the professionals who were now set to join him were coming face to face with the fact that it appeared he knew nothing....Whatever he knew he seemed to have learned an hour before....Trump, the businessman, could not even read a balance sheet, and Trump, who had campaigned on his deal-making skills, was, with his inattention to details, a terrible negotiator..."

"Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate. (There was some argument about this, because he could read headlines and articles about himself, or at least headlines on articles about himself, and the gossip squibs on the New York Post’s Page Six.) Some thought him dyslexic; certainly his comprehension was limited. Others concluded that he didn’t read because he just didn’t have to, and that in fact this was one of his key attributes as a populist. He was postliterate — total television. But not only didn’t he read, he didn’t listen. He preferred to be the person talking."


"For anything that smacked of a classroom or of being lectured to — ‘professor’ was one of his bad words, and he was proud of never going to class, never buying a textbook, never taking a note — he got up and left the room."

The young people working on his campaign said that Trump had bragged about never having listened to a single speech given by Obama.

In an interview while campaigning, Trump could not say how important health insurance was on his agenda. "Maybe it is in the top ten...Definitely top twenty for sure." Roger Ailes said, "No one in the country, or on earth, has given less thought to health insurance than Donald."

Trump favored gut instinct over "expertise, that liberal virtue...Of course, nobody really believed that, except the president himself." Furthermore, for him, "as for many showmen or press release entrepreneurs, the enemy of everything is complexity and red tape, and the solution for everything is cutting corners."

In one instance, when Roger Ailes recommended John Boehner — the Republican who had departed as Speaker of the House only five years earlier — Trump did not recognize the name. Rupert Murdoch "thought he was a moron — at least until he became president," when he had to cozy up to the president. All the key players in the White House, Wolff writes,

"had traveled through the stages of adventure, challenge, frustration, battle, self-justification, and doubt, before finally having to confront the very real likelihood that the president they worked for — whose presidency they bore some official responsibility for — didn’t have the wherewithal to adequately function in his job....The debate, as Bannon put it, was not about whether the president’s situation was bad, but whether it was Twenty-Fifth-Amendment bad."

Wolff recounts that, "in his first weeks in the White House, an inattentive Trump was already trying to curtail his schedule of meetings, limit his hours in the office, and keep his normal golf habits." Over the first year of the presidency, concerns about the president's mental fitness grew. "The worry among staffers — all of them concerned that Trump’s rambling and his alarming repetitions (the same sentences delivered with the same expressions minutes apart) had significantly increased, and that his ability to stay focused, never great, had notably declined — was that he was likely to suffer by such a comparison."

Hiring his children

Before the inauguration, Ann Coulter tried to explain to him: "Nobody is apparently telling you this. But you can’t. You just can’t hire your children." Later, Wolff wrote, everyone had to face

"the essential and obvious point: although the junior first couple were mere staffers and not part of the institutional standing of the White House, they thought and acted as if they were part of the presidential entity. Their ire and increasing bitterness came from some of the staff’s reluctance — really, a deep and intensifying resistance — to treat them as part and parcel of the presidency. (Once Priebus had to take Ivanka aside to make sure she understood that in her official role, she was just a staffer. Ivanka had insisted on the distinction that she was a staffer-slash-First Daughter.)"

To his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump assigned the project of Israeli-Palestinian relations. This "was not only a test, it was a Jewish test: the president was singling him out for being Jewish, rewarding him for being Jewish, saddling him with an impossible hurdle for being Jewish — and, too, defaulting to the stereotyping belief in the negotiating powers of Jews."

Perception that he generally approves of impulsive, chauvinistic, aggressive behavior

Trump wanted to dismiss the idea of giving the diplomat John Bolton an appointment because he didn't like Bolton's mustache. Bannon quipped that a rumor that Bolton "got in a fight in a hotel one night and chased some woman" might actually improve his standing in Trump's eyes.

Of his third marriage, Trump told friends that "the more years between an older man and a younger woman, the less the younger woman took an older man’s cheating personally."


Trump is "a man whose many neuroses included a horror of forgetfulness or senility," and he eats at McDonald's because he is afraid of being poisoned.

Refusal to clearly condemn neo-Nazis

The Charlottesville protests in August organized by Richard Spencer had the theme "Unite the Right," intended "to link Trump’s politics with white nationalism." After a racist killed an anti-racist protester, Trump said that "both sides" had credibility. Wolff writes: "As Richard Spencer had correctly understood, the president’s sympathies were muddled. However easy and obvious it was to condemn white racists — even self-styled neo-Nazis — he instinctively resisted." (Of his own ethnicity, he once defined "white trash" as "people just like me, only they’re poor.") When he gave a second speech to clarify, Wolff describes him this way: “Resentful and petulant, he was clearly reading forced lines.” He reveals that, on Trump’s trip back to Manhattan’s Trump Tower, “his mood was dark and I-told-you-so. Privately, he kept trying to rationalize why someone would be a member of the KKK — that is, they might not actually believe what the KKK believed, and the KKK probably does not believe what it used to believe, and, anyway, who really knows what the KKK believes now? In fact, he said, his own father was accused of being involved with the KKK — not true. (In fact, yes, true.)” After that, one of Trump's business councils "was hemorrhaging its CEO members" and someone advised him "to at least make it look as if shutting it down was his decision," so Trump tweeted "that he was disbanding it."

Lack of organization in the White House

Roger Ailes believed that Trump, unlike seasoned politicians accustomed to playing complex organizational games, "was undisciplined — he had no capacity for any game plan. He could not be a part of any organization, nor was he likely to subscribe to any program or principle. In Ailes’s view, he was 'a rebel without a cause.' He was simply 'Donald' — as though nothing more need be said."

Making it unclear who was running the show led to "both chaos and Trump’s own undisputed independence." Wolff explains that

"not really having an organization was the most efficient way to sidestep the people in your organization and to dominate them. It was just one irony of his courtship of admired military figures like James Mattis, H. R. McMaster, and John Kelly: they found themselves working in an administration that was in every way inimical to basic command principles....Then there was Bannon, conducting something of an alternate-universe operation, often launching far-reaching undertakings that no one else knew about. And thus Priebus, at the center of an operation that had no center, found it easy to think there was no reason for him to be there at all."

Is it effective? Sort of. "It was the chaos of just doing things that actually got things done. Except, even if you assumed that not knowing how to do things didn’t much matter if you just did them, it was still not clear who was going to do what you wanted to do. Or, a corollary, because nobody in the Trump administration really knew how to do anything, it was therefore not clear what anyone did."

Indeed, the reason Wolff was able to write Fire and Fury is that, while Trump "encouraged this idea" of getting "formal access to the White House," Wolff was unable to find a person who had the authority to grant or deny it. "Hence I became more a constant interloper than an invited guest — something quite close to an actual fly on the wall — having accepted no rules nor having made any promises about what I might or might not write." Beginning soon after the inauguration, he "conducted more than two hundred interviews" in the West Wing.

People had to figure out how to make him happy

"...the common purpose of the campaign and the urgency of the transition were lost as soon as the Trump team stepped into the White House. They had gone from managing Donald Trump to the expectation of being managed by him... [there were] few specific ideas about how to turn his themes and vitriol into policy, nor a team that could reasonably unite behind him. ... In the Trump White House, policy making, from the very first instance of Bannon’s immigration EO, flowed up. It was a process of suggesting, in throw-it-against-the-wall style, what the president might want, and hoping he might then think that he had thought of this himself (a result that was often helped along with the suggestion that he had in fact already had the thought). ... Hence, she and everyone else was translating a set of desires and urges into a program, a process that required a lot of guess work. It was, said Walsh, 'like trying to figure out what a child wants.'"

"This became a staff goal — to create situations in which he was comfortable, to construct something of a bubble, to wall him off from a mean-spirited world."

After nine months of Trump's presidency, "it was very hard to hire anyone of stature to replace the senior people who had departed. And the stature of those who remained seemed to be more diminutive by the week."

Fire and Fury #2 - Trump never intended to win the election

In Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff argues that Donald Trump never intended to win the 2016 presidential election.

Wolff contends that Trump thought that Clinton had the better campaign ("They’ve got the best and we’ve got the worst") and that he never wanted to be president so his campaign "was not designed to win anything." He only wanted to become "the most famous man in the world" and possibly have his own cable network featuring Kellyanne Conway, which he could easily achieve by losing. The Republican Party establishment could then revert to business as usual and Steve Bannon could lead the Tea Party. He promised his wife Melania that he would not win, a prospect she feared would disrupt her personal life. Victory, in fact, would raise liabilities: Mike Flynn had accepted a $45,000 speaking fee from Russians while campaigning for Trump, and Trump's campaign manager Paul Manafort had also historically had income that raised questions. Trump had to be persuaded to loan his own campaign $10 million (for him, a small sum). Trump explained to Roger Ailes that losing the election "isn’t losing. We’ve totally won." When his aide Sam Nunberg asked “But do you want to be president?,” Trump seemed to believe that "there didn’t need to be an answer because he wasn’t going to be president," as Wolff summarizes it. Unfortunately for Trump and for the country, "They were not ready to win." He cleverly says that they "had, perhaps less than inadvertently, replicated the scheme from Mel Brooks’s The Producers."

Immediately after winning, it seemed that Trump was "perhaps not yet appreciating the difference between becoming president and elevating his social standing". Unfortunately, "[t]he transmogrification of Trump from joke candidate, to whisperer for a disaffected demographic, to risible nominee, to rent-in-the-fabric-of-time president-elect, did not inspire in him any larger sense of sober reflection."

Nunberg, unwilling to call Trump "good," "intelligent," or "capable," would say only that "he’s a star." As Wolff put it, he was unable to "parse factions of support and opprobrium" which limited his political ability, but he had at least one talent: "He was a force of personality. He could make you believe." One powerful colleague found he needed "to adjust his view of a man who, for more than a generation, had been at best a clown prince among the rich and famous."

Yet he was made vulnerable by his accidental success. "In early February, an Obama administration lawyer friendly with Sally Yates remarked with some relish and considerable accuracy: 'It certainly is an odd circumstance if you live your life without regard for being elected and then get elected — and quite an opportunity for your enemies'." Trump became paranoid. He “would sour in the evening after several hours of cable television. Then he would get on the phone, and in unguarded ramblings to friends and others, conversations that would routinely last for thirty or forty minutes, and could go much longer, he would vent, largely at the media and his staff. In what was termed by some of the self-appointed Trump experts around him — and everyone was a Trump expert — he seemed intent on 'poisoning the well,' in which he created a loop of suspicion, disgruntlement, and blame heaped on others.”

Bannon spoke of the problems with Trump’s anti-establishment approach. As Wolff phrased it, “In the course of the campaign, Donald Trump had threatened virtually every institution in American political life.” The president had believed “that one man could be bigger than the system. This analysis presupposed that the institutions of political life were as responsive as those in the commercial life that Trump was from — and that they yearned to meet the market and find the Zeitgeist.” The Washington institutions, by contrast, seemed more resistant to change. Bannon said: "Trump is a man against institutions, and the institutions know it. How do you think that goes down?" In short, Trump had campaigned on an anti-establishment promise but he never intended to win and had no plan for taking down the establishment.