The Democrats Debate

It was so much to take in, with 2 nights and 20 candidates.  Some thoughts.

Biden obviously had a bad night.  Whether it was a bad night, or a sign that his “time is up” for good, only time will tell.

He simply doesn’t project well in that kind of a format. He speaks too fast, he doesn’t take breaks to let his points sink in, and he rattles clearly memorized lines off; he fumbles his words, and runs them together; he says things that don’t make sense (e.g., his first act as president would be to defeat Donald Trump…).

Moreover, from an optics perspective, he just looks old.  Leaning forward, as though he is straining to hear the moderator.  He looked like he was struggling to keep up with the younger (two) generations who are clearly more in their prime.

From an affective standpoint, he seemed wary, almost timid–waiting for others to raise their hands in response to a question, for instance, and even then only half-heartedly raising a finger; cutting HIMSELF off to stay on time, the most un-Biden-like thing imaginable.  In any case, not the bearing you expect from a confident frontrunner and prospective leader. He did not project strength. Trump was watching that–closely.

Then, on substance, he was not only unprepared for obvious attacks, but failed to capitalize when he could have. For instance, when asked about his Iraq vote, he should have said he disagreed with Obama on whether to boost our Troop presence in Afghanistan. In response to Harris’ attack on race, he could have:

1) used it as a “teaching moment,” pointing out how the leftward shift in the party risks devolving into purity tests and extreme positions that alienate the majority of voters, and the Dems voters who helped us take back the House in November; hell, he could have said do you want to know why my poll numbers are so high, Senator Harris? Because voters are smart–they recognize that if we’re gonna get things done we gotta work with people who we disagree with–even people who’s views are abhorrent. That was president Obama’s approach, and they supported him not because of the color of his skin, but because they believed he could get things done. And if we are gonna beat Trump, we have to work together, and not get bogged down in fantasies. People talk about being “woke” nowadays, well, we gotta wake up ourselves, folks. (As David Brooks put it in his post-game analysis, at times it sounded as though they were campaigning for office in Brooklyn, not the country)

2) hit back, challenging her controversial record as AG in CA; instead, he let Harris get away with playing the race card (more on that below…)

I don’t think his candidacy is derailed so much as on the ropes.  The next debate will be crucial. But we have to be really careful of over-reading the moment, given that 1) most voters aren’t paying attention yet, and 2) there’s a pattern of the MSM thinking that Biden’s stepped in it, usually regarding some comment about race or gender that offends the sensibilities of the liberal twitterati, only to find no effect in the polls. The consistent message is that most middle of the road voters, including blacks, just don’t give a shit about the vice president’s politically incorrect indiscretions; they just want someone who will beat this motherfucker.

At the same time, Harris really had a stellar night. She was prepared, poised, powerful, and radiated command and conviction. The debate stage is, unsurprisingly, her element. Her political skills are gradually becoming apparent; she understands the dynamics of political theater–an essential skill in the battle against Trump, the lack of which is a serious liability for Joe, as it was for Hillary. Harris has a great narrative for going after Trump–a fighter for justice. She has the potential to summon and focus the rage of two groups–blacks and women–who rightly feel an acute level of anger and injustice at the president, for what he did to Obama, for his lifetime of racist comments and actions, and for his blatant mysogyny and nefarious thwarting of the first female president. It would be the ultimate humiliation and fuck you to Trump and his followers to have a strong black woman beat him. Harris may well be his kryptonite.

Along those lines, I think that if Harris wants to take control of the race, she should do the following. In the wake of Mueller’s testimony, she should hold a high-profile speech and press conference. The congressional committee’s will not let Mueller leave that chair until he has clearly and straightforwardly answered the following question:  “If there were no OLC policy stating that a sitting president cannot be indicted, would you have recommended prosecution for obstruction of justice?” They have to get Mueller to explicitly state what he implicitly did in the report.

The next day, Harris holds an event. Flanked by a phalanx of former federal prosecutors, some of the several hundred who signed a memo affirming that in their professional judgment the president committed crimes, she calls for the impeachment of the president. She acknowledges that the Senate will not convict–but notes that we cannot let the petty political calculus of the present prevent us from protecting the presidency for posterity.

But there is more. Her first act as president will be to order the department of justice to bring the full force of the law down on the president and his gang, and that should he be convicted by a jury of his peers, she will LOCK HIM UP.

She needs, in other words, to go all in, and she is perhaps the candidate best positioned to do it. And she has what Obama—and Hillary—didn’t:  a killer instinct.

Finally, I think her winning strategy is to get to the left of Biden on racial issues and to the right of Sanders and Warren on healthcare and the economy.

Now all that being said, I think that the press is getting a little too hot and bothered over Harris, for three reasons.

First, I don’t have as clear of a vision of where she wants to take the country.  Warren and Buttigieg, in my view, have the clearest vision.  Harris is a little squirmy, particularly around health care, which brings me to the second point.

Harris was, early in the race, seduced by the siren song of single payer, pumped out by the party’s pied piper, Sanders. She has repeatedly played cutesy, signaling support for abolishing private insurance and then walking those comments back post-interview or post-debate. She is being too clever by half, trying to dig into Sanders’ and Warren’s support while trying to leave herself an escape hatch come general election. But I think it’s a mistake. If Biden falters and flames out, Harris and Warren are the two most likely nominees, and both of them are on record raising their hands calling for the end of private insurance.

This is, in a word, madness. For one, the data are very clear:  voters are interested in the concept of Medicare for All, but their support plunges when they here the details, including that they would lose their private insurance. Second, Obamacare is actually popular! Third, calls for incremental fixes to the healthcare system helped the Dems take the House in the Fall. Fourth, Obama never lived down the claim “If you like your doctor, you can keep it” when it turned out that that wasn’t the case for a small minority of voters; imagine what the backlash would be if the plan were to take private insurance away from everyone! It is difficult to conceive of a policy stance that plays better into the GOP’s “socialism strategy” than Medicare for All. Hickenlooper, Bennett (and, the previous night, Crazy Eyes Delaney), despite their irrelevance, correctly pointed out the folly of this approach; my hope was that these centrist pols would go after Sanders like a pincer, without Biden having to punch down (and making Bernie look like the crazy socialist, while Warren would escape unscathed due to the luck of the draw in going the first night)–alas. The correct plan–proposed by Biden and Buttigieg–is to add a public option, which was, of course, the original plan of Obamacare. It moves the system closer to single payer, but allows the shift to happen organically. In short, this stance could be a serious problem for Harris (or Warren) should she become the nominee.

The third reason Harris is problematic is that I think she weaponized race to try and knock Biden down a peg. It made for great television, but it was cheap and unfair. She did what progressives reflexively do to people in the past who, on balance, fought the good fight, but operated under drastically different cultural circumstances. Busing was highly controversial in the 70s, and legislators have to balance their convictions against the will of the people. They should ask themselves this:  what would have happened if there were no Bidens back then to work with those on the right? They fault New Deal progressives for excluding blacks, ignoring the fact that otherwise there would have been no New Deal in the first place.

What is behind this is progressives’ refusal to accept that they are in the minority—in fact, in the minority of the minority.  As Brooks pointed out, a third of the country calls itself conservative, a third centrist, and 26% liberal. They are evangelical in thinking that if they just win the next election, the other half of the country will just disappear. That will never happen. It’s true that in general, progressive policies would benefit the majority, but that means nothing if they can’t get elected in the first place.

And even if they do, on what planet do they propose passing Medicare for All?

The outer limit of fantasy was of course Marianne Williamson calling for “reparations”. If I hear this word one more time out of a candidate’s mouth, I am giving up and buying a MAGA hat. The Congress cannot even agree that today is Saturday, let alone whether and how to give reparations to African Americans. The order of business is, again:  restore the rule of law first, socialist utopia second. Priorities, people!

In short, Harris’ attack was well executed but ill conceived. It is symptomatic of a pattern that progressives fall into at their peril.

Buttigieg did well and offered more evidence that he is constitutionally incapable of not speaking with crystal clarity and perfect grammar. I still have trouble seeing him as the nominee but he should certainly be put in charge of the newly created Department of Making Sense. His dig at the religious right was pointed and potent and was one of the biggest applause lines of the night. His ease and comfort using God-talk (the only one on the stage to do so on either night) once again demonstrated that he brings something different to the table; there is a certain comfort he has talking with more conservative voters that is beyond the grasp of a Booker or a Harris. He is, like Obama, simply at another level, though potentially more dangerous because he is white, clean cut, served in the military, and from Trump country. No one has really mentioned this yet, but a major liability for him is his physical stature; he is short with a light build, and would not cut an impressive figure next to Trump. Sadly, optics like this matter.

Swalwell is an annoying little shit that has no business being up there. His ageist attacks on Biden were shallow and shameful

Michael Bennett made some good points, but also let us know that he recently had cancer. Real way to project strength and vigor. Only a Democrat would be dumb enough to run in that situation and then call attention to it in a debate.

Sanders continues to come off, to me at least, as completely ridiculous and unlikeable, and utterly impossible to imagine as president in this or any parallel universe. I simply cannot understand why he is so popular on the left. My jaw hit the floor when he emphatically declared that under Medicare for All, every woman would have access to an abortion. It is not the substance of the policy that is the problem—it is, again, the endless capacity to pretend there will never be any such thing as a general election, when such statements will be dug up and offered as evidence that the Democrats want socialized medicine so that they can kill more babies. Such statements, like pledging to abolish private insurance or decriminalize crossing the border, are made to come off as left as possible, when in reality those voters have nowhere else to go. While Sanders has admirably created a space on the left to give voice to ideas and voices that have long been marginalized in American politics, he—and his supporters—have made it all but impossible to have meaningful conversations about difficult policy issues by putting ideological purity tests front and center. Speaking of immigration…

Don’t get me started.  I’ll let Andrew Sullivan do the talking:

http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/06/andrew-sullivan-democrats-are-in-a-bubble-on-immigration.html

And as David Frum aptly put it in his recent cover story for the Atlantic, if liberals continue to neglect to police their borders, voters will hire fascists to do it for them.

As for night one, Warren obviously stood head and shoulders above the rest. She is at her peak:  fiery, poised, articulate, knowledgeable, imperious. I think it was lucky for her to be the only heavy-hitter on night one. Booker…you try, but you just can’t believe him. He also comes off as a little insane, and please, America will sooner elect a gay married man than a single man. Beto is toast, clearly revealed as the empty suit that he is; it was really one of the worst debate performances I’ve ever seen. Castro certainly did well—he has a strong presence and owned the immigration issue. Klobuchar’s got nothing.

What I’m curious is about is when the hopeless candidates drop out. The winning combinations I see are Biden/Warren, Biden/Harris, Harris/Brown, Warren/Brown.

The Writing on the…Wall: What is Mitch McConnell Thinking?

If, heaven forfend, I were Mitch McConnell, here’s what I’d be thinking…

I know:

  • the Democrats will likely keep the house and
  • take the senate in 2020
  • Trump’s election in 2016 was a historic fluke unlikely to be repeated. Lightning will not strike the same place twice.

From this it follows that the only way to maintain a grip on power is to hold the presidency.

What else do I know?

  • Trump and the GOP won’t be able to get anything done in the next two years
  • The economy will probably tip into recession some time during the 2020 campaign
  • The Mueller investigation will likely conclude within the next few months
  • It is probably going to be damning
  • The House is probably going to impeach
  • The start of the 2020 presidential campaign will unfold against the background of impeachment proceedings, and my senators battling to be re-elected will be facing the headwind of an unpopular president besieged by impeachment and implicated in potentially criminal wrongdoing

We’ve gotten what we wanted from Trump:  deregulation, tax cuts, judges. By rights, we shouldn’t even be in power—it’s a miracle we got this far. Time to cut our losses, board the lifeboats, and paddle out to safety before the ship goes down; but first, help set the charges to blow it up and hasten its sinking…

Privately, my colleagues and I know full well that Trump is not only totally unfit for the job, but probably sort of insane. With the departure of Mattis, we are now genuinely alarmed at what he might do, and how that might damage the party in the long term.

Regarding the shutdown, I can see the writing on the Wall. Trump won’t budge on the Wall, since it’s all he really has left at this point. The GOP has lost the messaging war on this, and Trump owns the shutdown. But we can be part of the solution.

When Pelosi and the House pass the bill to reopen the government, make Trump an offer: “We will pass the bill with 51 votes; if you veto it, we’ll come back with 67 votes to override the veto.” The latter would be humiliating for Trump, a body blow to his authority, potentially crippling to his approval rating, which has sunk to Charlottesville lows. It would seem to be an offer he can’t refuse.

But he will. He is constitutionally (!) incapable of compromising and giving in on a core promise to his base and a foundation stone of his political brand and identity. He would take a veto override on the chin and go out on the trail to rail against the swamp.

At this point, I face a critical juncture: Continue to enable Trump and allow him to further take over the party, or find a way to force him out? Remember that he is an outsider, an interloper—he is just passing through. I need to think about the long term.

I quietly begin a series of secret meetings with the Democratic leadership to negotiate an impeachment cooperation strategy. I need 20 GOP senators to convict—that’s all I need—preferably one’s not up for reelection in 2020, and not from Trump country. They are the sacrifice that must be made, the ones who have to fall on the sword.

Moreover, there is a strategic benefit here: the Democratic candidates are all planning to—itching to—run against Trump. If he’s gone, they’ll be flat-footed. Remove him before the campaign picks up steam, and you change the game. Kasich, Corker, Flake, and who knows who else will throw in and challenge Pence, blame the recession on Trump’s trade wars, and promise to heal the country in a way that the rabid socialist Democrats cannot. They offer a middle ground between Trumpism and socialism.

This is the only way to save what face we can and the only hope for holding onto a slice of power in the middle term.

I try to smile, even though my smile creeps even me out, and it is only ever just a try.

15 Reasons why Joe Scarborough will run for president in 2020–and win.

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Like many political junkies, I usually start my day with Morning Joe. Over the last few months, I’ve become convinced that not only is Scarborough going to run for president, but that he already is, that he should, and that he would probably win. Handily.

Of course, at one level we live in the world of the permanent campaign, and the race has already begun.  Hard as it is to believe–so powerful was the shock of Trump’s election that, for most of the country, it has still not fully worn off–the 2020 campaign will commence shortly after the midterms.  I predict that some time in early 2019, Scarborough will declare his candidacy on air and suspend the show.

Don’t take it from me. CNN’s Chris Cillizza last summer: “If you wanted to run for president in 2020, you’d be doing exactly what Joe Scarborough is doing right now.”

Continue reading “15 Reasons why Joe Scarborough will run for president in 2020–and win.”

Fake Sense

There are five problems with the Biblical justification of the family separation law policy.

First, Romans 13 is taken out of context and is cherry picking—plenty of Biblical support could be amassed for justifying opposition to unjust laws.

Second, Romans 13 has, historically, been invoked by Loyalists advocating, well, loyalty, to the crown during the American Revolution, and, more disturbingly, by supporters of slavery prior to the Civil War.  And as is well known, Paul supported the institution of slavery.

Third, even if there were clear and unambiguous Biblical support for such a policy, that is not a legitimate justification for any federal law or policy due to the first amendment.  We live in a constitutional republic and a pluralistic democratic society, not a theocracy.  It may be a nation of Christians, but it is not a Christian nation.

Fourth, this justification ignores the difference between morality and legality.  Just because something is legal does not mean it is moral. This has always been an aspect of Judeo-Christian morality and politics, from Moses’ slave revolt against the Egyptians to Christian opposition to infanticide under the Romans to King fighting segregation in America.

Fifth, even disregarding the first amendment, on balance the teachings of Jesus would almost certainly be opposed to such a policy.  The entire thrust of Christian morality tends toward a concern for the poor, the child, the stranger, the disenfranchised, toward mercy and compassion for “the least of these.”  

***

Beyond the Biblical justification, there are problems with the administration’s rhetoric surrounding the policy, as well as its approach to immigration in general.

First, the administration is not “enforcing the law.”  This is not a statute.  It is a matter of discretionary policy, one the administration chose to enforce.  

Second, this is not a problem created by the Democrats. Trump has employed this strategy before, e.g., claiming that the Democrats created the DACA problem.  That’s another lie.  But even worse, it’s really an attempt to extort broader concessions on immigration policy, as I’ll explain below.

Third, this is not a “crisis” in which the president’s hand has been forced.  The administration has deliberately inflated the immigration problem more broadly.  The facts are these:  Immigration across the southern border has declined precipitously in recent years, in large part because the Mexican economy has improved, its birth rate has declined, and deportations spiked significantly—under the Obama administration.  

Fourth, increasing legal immigration, and providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, is good economic and social policy.  First, it is not true, as Trump and co. often claim, that immigrants are a threat to public safety.  The fact is that such people are less likely, on average, to commit violent crimes.  Second, immigration is good for economic growth, which is a function of two things:  population growth and productivity growth. The US birth rate has declined, so the only way to hit the 3% or 4% growth targets Trump and co. desire is to boost immigration. Third, social security has recently started drawing from its trust fund, and in the middle future there will not be enough payroll tax revenue to fund benefits, making the system insolvent. Increased immigration means more young, productive people paying into the system. 

Fifth, the administration is pretty obviously using this policy to extort concessions on immigration in order to be able to campaign on it in 2018 and 2020.  In other words, this is all about The Wall.  The Wall—a solution we can’t afford to a problem that doesn’t exist—is, of course, not about the Wall—it’s about Trump getting re-elected.  

Sixth, there is a long history of conservative politicians cloaking appeals to resentful white voters under the mantle of “public safety,” “national security, “sovereignty,” “law and order,” and the like:  Goldwater’s opposition to desegregation by appealing to states’ rights, Nixon’s southern strategy promising to restore “law and order,” etc.  Trump doesn’t even bother with the ruse—he openly admitted that the invocation of an obscure national security law to justify the tariffs against our allies was in bad faith.

***

All of which is to say that the first mistake–made by proponents–is to try to defend the policy on its merits, and the second–made by opponents–is to object to the policy because it doesn’t make sense.  These aren’t really “policies”—they’re political strategies.  Nearly none of the administrations policies make sense—from trade to taxes to energy to climate to Iran to spitting in the face of our allies to the gutting of the State Department to praising authoritarian rulers to healthcare to immigration—because they’re not concerned with solving problems, but with creating them. 

The Trump administration does not make sense.  They fake sense. 

They do not assess the factual lay of the land and decide on how best to solve problems; they assess what their voting and donor bases believe to be problems—and what will best distract, divide, and confuse the public–and then fixate on and inflate those faux problems.  The most important, long-term structural problems—reducing income inequality, funding a new infrastructure plan, combating climate change, and building a globally competitive American renewable energy economy—are neglected.

Finally, the policy is needless, and needlessly cruel, and in this way it is vintage Trump. While the Bible is an inappropriate legal foundation, its invocation in this debate is actually crucially important, because it can shed light on just how heinous, inhumane, and morally retarded Trump is as a person and as a president. What irony that the
party that claims to be so animated by family values has thrown its lot in with a twice-divorced man, a serial adulterer with porn stars and Playmates, and a bully who relishes inflicting pain on powerless people seeking asylum by separating families.

***

What we need, of course, is not a physical wall, but a moral one.  Trump can rip up trade deals, flout democratic norms, cancel regulations, and perhaps even obstruct justice and collude with a foreign power to sabotage our electoral process.  But the most important long-term damage he is doing is to undermine our respect for the differences between true and false and right and wrong.

Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America, Part VI

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the final installment.]

VI. Study Near

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Last summer, America celebrated the 200th birthday of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau did not study abroad. Somewhat like Kant, he spent most of his life confined to a small territory. He went to Harvard, just a few miles down the road from his home in Concord, Mass. But in a way, Thoreau did study abroad; he just didn’t go very far. Thoreau’s study abroad was a mere two miles from his hometown: a modest wooden cabin he built in the woods by Walden Pond. Though he didn’t go far, he stayed a long time: two years. While commonly regarded as a founding father of American environmentalism, Thoreau was also a passionate advocate for what we today would call social justice. His time at Walden changed his perspective on Concord. Living on the fringes of town, he saw first-hand evidence of the marginalization of Concord’s vulnerable residents, including Irish immigrants and Native Americans. And, of course, he made a sustained case for civil disobedience a few years later. It may be a stretch, but perhaps Thoreau intuited what Pope Francis would confidently declare a century and a half later: that environmental and social justice go hand in hand. His time in the near abroad revealed the imperfections of the near.

We have little trouble finding the familiar in the foreign. We are terrible at finding the foreign in the familiar. If travel is not at least a little bit scary and hard and humbling, it’s not travel. It’s tourism. The challenge is not making sense of the new place. It’s not being a tourist at home. This was Thoreau’s signature talent—to daily encounter his tiny territory as an exotic land rich with mystery, never fully known. Travel, rightly done, can teach us how to inhabit our homeland with reverence and awe.

If I were speaking with a student coming back from study abroad, I would ask them some of the following questions: Not where did they go, but why? Not what did you get out of it, but how did it get to you? Who got to you? What stories struck you? What demands do they make on your own? On your country’s?

Ultimately, I suspect that human rights draw their power not from logical arguments, abstract moral principles, or international agreements—important though these are–but from the experiences of recognition, the memories that ravel about them, and the stories we spin from their ragged thread.

Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America, Part V

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the second installment.]

V. The “BC Bubble” and the Hero’s Journey

If there is a moral ideal as hallowed in the Western tradition as human rights, it would be the Christian ideal of neighborly love. We tend to interpret this as, at least, not hurting people and not taking their stuff, and at most, being nice. We typically take the first part as the easy one. Of course we love ourselves! The challenge, we assume, is loving others. But as is usual with Jesus, things are not what they seem, and true wisdom is the opposite of conventional wisdom. The real challenge is loving ourselves, which is only possible through seeing ourselves as we truly are—as vulnerable, suffering, dependent, flawed, mortal, human. We tend to regard our “humanity” in abstract, or perhaps even biological, terms—as a class or species we belong to. But our recognition of our own humanity is actually an intimate affair, something spied far from the madding crowd.

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Pope Francis expressed his understanding of this deep truth in his response to the question, “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” His reply: “I am a sinner.” We tend to put saints and popes and heroes on pedestals, but they’re all flawed, too. In his study of the Argentinian dictatorship, The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War, Federico Finchelstein writes,

In contrast with many other Latin American countries, the Catholic Church was one of the main backers of the junta [in Argentina]…. The basis for this alliance rested on a notion accepted by most Argentine bishops at the time: any condemnation of human rights violations was a threat to the homeland and God…. The intimacy between God and the military nation was emphasized at the time, and Pope Franics, who as Father Bergoglio was the most important Jesuit in the country, never spoke out against this.

Even the best of us are in constant danger of the primordial avoidance. Our egos block us both from a genuine encounter with the neighbor, and a genuine encounter with ourselves. When we pile on additional layers of culture, nationality, religion, class, etc., the wall thickens even more. What maintains superficial bonds with the few undermines deeper bonds with the many.

At Boston College, it is customary to refer to the “BC bubble.” Apparently, the bubble is now portable: I hear students, faculty, and administrators report that for many of the popular study abroad destinations, such as Spain, BC students tend to clump together and, on weekends, skip around to other cities, bringing, in effect, the comforting connections of home abroad. While it is natural to want to maintain connections to the familiar, we should ask what is lost by bringing too many buffers, too many life-preservers, too much of the familiar to cling to that it saps the power of the adventure.
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The mythologist Joseph Campbell liked to talk about what he called the “Hero’s Journey.” He believed that at the heart of all great stories—myths, epics, fairy tales, fictions—was a universal pattern. This basic archetype, the “monomyth,” has a threefold structure: 1) departure, 2) initiation, 3) return. Departure is the call to adventure, where the hero is drawn or casts herself into the unknown, a dark underworld, a zone of great power and great danger. There she encounters challenges that evoke qualities of her character and unlock parts of herself she didn’t even know were there. The descent is disorienting, and she must resist the temptation to retreat back to the light-world of the surface. But if she persists, she meets a great trial that, if survived and completed, initiates her into a new order, gives her deep insight, new eyes, a fresh perspective on herself and where she came from. Only from the bottom of the ocean can she finally see the surface. This hard-won pearl in hand, she returns home, sharing her wisdom with the community. Without that plunge into the unfamiliar, she would not have really gone anywhere. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. As Campbell liked to say, “If you’re falling, dive.”

Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America, Part IV

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the fourth installment.]

IV. Human Rights in the Classroom

There is a kind of eternal frustration bound up with teaching ethics. In Plato’s dialogue, Meno, Socrates asks whether virtue can be taught (short answer: No.). In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle insists that the purpose of the inquiry is not to learn what virtue is, but to become good. The moral virtues cannot be transmitted through instruction, but must be acquired through habituation. Teaching ethics in a university classroom might then appear as a fool’s errand. The challenge is to puncture the air of unreality that pervades an academic setting, to help students see how and why these matters—of virtue and vice, of justice and injustice, of human rights—matter, and are bound up with their own lives. The assumption is that that same air of unreality pervades our everyday lives, and that regular puncturing can make us more awake and aware and responsive to reality. The goal, in short, is to make it real.

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Continue reading “Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America, Part IV”

Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America, Part III

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the third installment.]

III.  Them—Us–I

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The most powerful part of the faculty seminar, for me, was our visit to Villa Grimaldi, a sprawling estate on the outskirts of the city, tucked into the lap of the Andes, that had been converted into a detention and torture facility immediately after the military coup. Our tour guide, Pedro–a tall, poised man with observant, piercing blue eyes—was not only highly knowledgeable, but a great storyteller. About 20 minutes into the tour, when we first came to the torture chambers, his diction shifted: “And this is where we spent most mornings.” His use of the second person pronoun continued for the next several minutes. I traded glances with some of my colleagues, knowing we were thinking the same thing: “Is he using that language for effect, or was he actually a prisoner here?”

Our suspicions were confirmed several tour stops later, when Pedro began to tell his story. How he’d been taken. How he’d been imprisoned and tortured. How he’d been moved from one facility to another, spending a full 16 months in the regime’s detention system.   How he’d been released, yet stuck in a zombie-like stupor for a long time afterward. How he’d learned, years later, that the reason the regime released people in such a condition was to strike fear into the population. And how, finally, he had come to the US, expressing his gratitude to the late Senator Ted Kennedy for his fierce opposition to human rights violations in Chile.

One of the most striking things about Pedro’s story was the ambivalence he felt toward the United States. On the one hand, the CIA helped foment the coup that led to his imprisonment and torture. On the other, Ted Kennedy’s valiant efforts enabled him to come to the US and put his life back together. America provided the kindling for the fire that burned him, and helped him heal from those very wounds. This ambivalence reflects a tension in America’s self-identity: as nationalistic, self-aggrandizing empire, or as cosmopolitan champion of human rights. Or perhaps the reality is more complicated: the attempt to beat back left wing politics in Latin America through covert support of rightwing dictatorships could be seen as part of the geopolitical struggle against communism, a threat to human rights. In any case, Pedro’s story complicated any simple picture of my country’s relation to his.

But what was most striking was not just his story, but how we told it. There was no theoretical discussion about human rights, no political theory or policy analysis, no history lesson. There was only a singular story of suffering, relayed from one person to another.  And the many stories of suffering he told us.  Stories of kidnap, torture, murder, rape.

And this.

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One of the cruelest methods of the Chilean and Argentinian dictatorships was “disappearing” prisoners, which chiefly meant drugging them, throwing them onto a plane, and dumping them in the Pacific ocean. For a long time, however, many doubted this actually happened, racking it up to a rumor meant to demonize the dictatorship.  Reports that the disappeared had had heavy objects, such as large rocks and pieces of metal from railroads, tied to their backs to sink their bodies began to trickle out from survivors of the detention camps.  These reports were hauntingly confirmed when officials began to dredge the ocean floor miles from shore.  While flesh, bone, and clothing were all worn and washed away, the only sign of human life left behind was a single button, encrusted in the rock.

Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America, Part II

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the second installment.]

II.  The Age of Neo-Illiberalism

Preparing to leave for a day of museums and tours recounting the atrocities of Chile’s military dictatorship under Pinochet, a headline from that morning’s New York Times caught my eye: “To Trump, Human Rights Concerns are Often a Barrier to Trade.”

Nowadays, it is hard not to hear the phrase “human rights” as hollow. Abroad and at home, the specter of illiberalism has descended. According to political scientist Larry Diamond, the world has been in a “democratic recession” since 2006. From Turkey to Russia, from the Philippines to the Netherlands, from France to the UK and, of course, the United States, the forces of populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism are, for the first time in seven decades, challenging the liberal international order. As Robin Niblett writes in a recent article in Foreign Affairs,

the architects of the [liberal international order] sought to promote not just economic development and individual fulfillment but also world peace. The best hope for that, they contended, lay in free markets, individual rights, rule of law, and elected governments, which would be checked by independent judiciaries, free presses, and vibrant societies.

We are playing at trading the “West”—the post-World War II liberal system erected by the Allies to foster economic interdependence in order to prevent civilizational war, protect human rights, and foster prosperity–for “Westeros”—the fictional world of Game of Thrones, a Hobbesian state of nature riven by warring families and fiefdoms, tribes and warlords, where force and fraud are the cardinal virtues.

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According to this worldview, human rights are a luxury we cannot afford to care about. We must look out for #1. America first, humanity second.

Call it the age of “neo-illiberalism.”

Whether this phenomenon is a trend or a tectonic shift, only time will tell. But as Niblett warns, “liberal democracies cannot postpone difficult political decisions any longer. They need to fix themselves first if they are to sustain the liberal international order.” Conservative writer and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush David Frum, in what is perhaps one of the most important reflections on the Trump phenomenon that every American should read–is even darker: “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered.”

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It is difficult to convey to students, who by this point are too young to have any memory of the day, just how different the country was before 9/11. I was a sophomore at BC that year, getting ready for class that day (a philosophy course called Romanticism and Idealism, of all things). Before I left for class that day—before the towers fell—it’s safe to say that the dominant historical narrative was Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” At that time, the country was still flying high off of the “holiday from history” that characterized the 1990s. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, there just wasn’t much of world-historical consequence going on. Fukuyama’s thesis, put forth in a 1992 book, was that the end of the Cold War signaled the end of history: not in the literal sense that time would stop, of course, but that History understood as a contest between competing ideologies was effectively over. The combination of liberal democracy and capitalism had proved to be the most desirable and sustainable way to organize human life, and the remainder of history would be a gradual process of its global spread.

Short of nuclear war, it is difficult to imagine a more deadly blow to this thesis than 9/11. Indeed, after the twin towers fell and al Qaeda had been identified as responsible, the “return of history” was promptly proclaimed. Samuel Huntington’s alternative narrative, the “clash of civilizations,” was resurrected. According to Huntington, geopolitics can be understood through the analogy of plate tectonics: there are certain cultural plates forged through millennia that, over long stretches of time, will inevitably collide. The West was not Civilization, a star destined to draw all lesser satellites into its orbit, but just one civilization among many.

The events of the last two years have thrust us back into Huntington’s world. Or so conventional wisdom has it. But we would do well to remember the other half of Fukuyama’s story. As Paul Sagar suggests in a recent article in Aeon,

Rarely read but often denigrated, [The End of History] might be the most maligned, unfairly dismissed and misunderstood book of the post-war era. Which is unfortunate for at least one reason: Fukuyama might have done a better job of predicting the political turmoil that engulfed Western democracies in 2016 – from Brexit, to Trump, to the Italian Referendum – than anybody else.

Attention is typically focused on the title of Fukuyama’s book—“The End of History”–which he cribbed from Hegel. Little is devoted to the subtitle—“the Last Man”—which he took from Nietzsche. “The most universal sign of the modern age,” Nietzsche wrote, is that “man has lost dignity in his own eyes to an incredible extent.” Fukuyama elaborates the notion of the last man and the risks it poses:

The life of the last man is one of physical security and material plenty, precisely what Western politicians are fond of promising their electorates. Is this really what the human story has been ‘all about’ these past few millennia? Should we fear that we will be both happy and satisfied with our situation, no longer human beings but animals of the genus homo sapiens?

His concern was that, on the one hand, we might become a nation consumed by consumerism, cocooned in comfort, withdrawn from the realm of politics and detached from reality, unconcerned with any greater purpose for our lives or countries or species. Maximize pleasure, minimize pain, and whatever you do, don’t talk or think about religion and politics. Having abandoned God, Nietzsche wrote that the modern world subscribed to the “religion of comfortableness.” The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was filled with hamburgers, Candy Crush, and porn. This is the end of history as secular eschaton of escapism and entertainment. Think Wall-E.

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Writing this before the personal computer–before widespread internet access; before the smartphone; before Facebook; before the descent of digital disruption onto everyday life in the last decade—Fukuyama’s warning is prescient. And, when we look at what he has to say about another potential pathway, eerie: “Or is the danger that we will be happy on one level, but still dissatisfied with ourselves on another, and hence ready to drag the world back into history with all its wars, injustice, and revolution?”

This regression, Fukuyama thought, might transpire due to the return of an element modernity represses—of megalothymia, “a desire not just for respect and proportionate recognition, but a need to disproportionately dominate over others in ostentatious and spectacular ways.” His example of an individual possessed by megalothymia is eerier still. Sagar:

In describing the shallow celebrity culture, the essential emptiness, of the habitat of the last man, Fukuyama had a particular example in mind. He went to the same individual for illustration when looking for an archetype of megalothymia – who else but ‘a developer like Donald Trump’.

Sagar lays out the alternatives as Fukuyama saw them:

It was possible that the last men at the end of History might sink down into a brutish contentment with material comforts, rather like dogs lying around in the afternoon sun…. But they might well go the other way. There was every chance that the last men (and women) would be deeply discontented with their historically unprecedented ease and luxury, because it failed to feed megalothymia. If the last men went this way, they would become bored by what Fukuyama called ‘masterless slavery – the life of rational consumption’. The spread of egalitarian values that went along with secular democratic politics would open up spaces of severe resentment – especially, we might now postulate, among those who had lost their traditional places at the top of social hierarchies, and felt cheated of the recognition that they believed they were owed.

An unattributed quote has been circulating around the internet over the past year or so: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” The expansion of egalitarianism poses a perceived threat to the previously empowered—politically, economically, and culturally.

The collapse of confidence in international institutions and the sacredness of human rights flows from the collapse of confidence in national institutions, the decline of democratic norms, the cessation of civility, the deficit of decency, and the recession of the respect that all take root in one place: the primal experience of recognition. Recognition that pierces through all distinctions of race and religion, culture and class, ability and age, distinctions that express but do not exhaust our identity.

The identity politics and “intersectionality” of today’s far Left, and the ethno-nativism of Trumpism (I hesitate to call it today’s far Right out of a conviction that it is an ideologically inchoate beast that lurks about the fringes of our political spectrum) both miss this essential element. Trumpism is fueled by a megalothymic mélange of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia, not to mention a misguided economic protectionism. But the flip side of the quote above is this: “When you are accustomed to oppression, revenge feels like justice.” The rage that fuels the ascendant identity politics of the left is resentful and reactionary in its own way; hence the prevalence of online lynch mobs quick to tar and feather anyone who departs from intersectional orthodoxy. Helen Pluckrose nails it:

It is regrettable that intersectionality in practice so often manifests in restrictive ideological conformity, exclusionary tactics, hostility, tribalism and even racist abuse. It’s regrettable because liberalism could be benefitted by specialist attention to the ways in which specific groups within society are advantaged or disadvantaged. However, focus on group identity and experience should not come at the cost of respect for the whole world of human ideas and experience and every individual’s right to access and subscribe to any part of it. Until intersectionality respects diversity of ideas as well as of identity and supports every individual’s right to hold any of them regardless of their group identity, it cannot be said to represent anything except its own ideology.

Both the far Left and Trumpism traffic, in various ways, in what Martin Luther King, Jr. termed false senses of superiority and inferiority. Both are irrational; they seize upon arbitrary identity markers—race, class, nationality—to construct moral hierarchies. Both, in different ways, are illiberal. And both miss the universalist element, the standpoint from which human rights flow: the ground-root experience of recognition.

Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the first installment.]

I.  Comfortably Numb

I never studied abroad as a BC undergraduate, which was probably for the best, since I had vague designs of going to Australia (primarily to surf, of course). I felt honored to be invited to participate in the faculty seminar in Latin America, and decided to treat it as the study abroad experience I never had. Preparing for the trip, I found myself asking more basic questions: what is the point of study abroad? How does it fit into the greater purpose of college? And what does all of this have to do with human rights? I wondered: beyond the facts and statistics and history of the dictatorships and their litany of human rights violations, what will I learn of great value that I can bring back to my students? It wasn’t until weeks after I’d returned that I recalled a scene from the film Calvary that crystallized the most important thing I learned.

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