Tender-hearted racists

The only place I run into Americans here is in the synagogue. There is one loud-and-proud right-winger who gets treated to a lot of good-humoured deference. This past Sunday, naturally, he was feeling his oats. I mostly stay out of these political discussions, but after listening to him go on and on about the “elitists” in their “bubbles” who had failed to appreciate the world-historical significance of Donald Trump, I remarked that these were very large bubbles that contained more than half of the US population. He suddenly switched gears and accused me of accusing all Trump voters of being racists, a remarkable feat of projection, given that no one up to this point had mentioned race. No, I said, I’m sure some of their best friends are black.

But I was thinking of this when I recently read this passage in John Ferling’s Jefferson and Hamilton: The rivalry that forged a nation. (Overall, a pretty interesting book, if not especially elegantly or engagingly written) about Hamilton’s attacks on Jefferson in the context of the election of 1796:

Hamilton raised questions about Jefferson and race. He drew on passages from Notes on the State of Virginia to demonstrate Jefferson’s racism.

The context is a society that accepts enslavement of African-Americans, Jefferson owned dozens of slaves, yet evidence of “racism” was seen as a black mark on his character. And Hamilton needed to delve into Jefferson’s writings to find “evidence” that the slave-owner Jefferson was racist. For that matter, Hamilton himself had owned slaves in the past, and probably did even as he was polemicising against Jefferson’s racism.

Anti-racism is self-limiting. As soon as we accept that racism is a terrible thing, there is a natural tendency to absolve pretty much anyone with a name and a face of this evil. Racism exists in the past, or on the fringes of society. People like Trump are just clumsily saying some racist things or appealing to non-PC white voters. (And if he’ll just stop saying racist things for a week or two, problem solved!) Similarly, the NY Times has just today seemed to express sympathy for famous racist and likely Trump cabinet pick, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions:

screenshot-2016-11-17-12-01-28

The poor guy is being trailed by those nasty racial comments. Maybe he can get a restraining order against them!

If you’re not actually burning crosses you’re not a real racist, just as anyone who isn’t Hitler can’t really be an antisemite. (And anyone who recalls the fake-Hitler-diary furore may also recall the breathless coverage that noted the absence of any reference to the holocaust, eager to absolve the Führer of the worst crimes.)

I think often of this exchange from the second presidential debate in 2000:

GORE: …The governor opposed a measure put forward by Democrats in the legislature to expand the number of children that would be covered. And instead directed the money toward a tax cut, a significant part of which went to wealthy interests. He declared the need for a new tax cut for the oil companies in Texas an emergency need, and so the money was taken away from the CHIP program… I believe there are 1.4 million children in Texas who do not have health insurance. 600,000 of whom, and maybe some of those have since gotten it, but as of a year ago 600,000 of them were actually eligible for it but they couldn’t sign up for it because of the barriers that they had set up.

MODERATOR: Let’s let the governor respond to that. Are those numbers correct? Are his charges correct?

BUSH: If he’s trying to allege that I’m a hard-hearted person and I don’t care about children, he’s absolutely wrong.

The words don’t adequately communicate the smarmy expression of offence that Bush displayed. Gore accused him of taking insurance away from 600,000 children. Bush didn’t respond or explain, but simply contended that to mention this fact was to insult him, to call him a “hard-hearted person”.

Freeing ourselves from the grim Brussels bureaucrats…

… because London bureaucrats are so much cheerier. According to a recently leaked memo,

The document, compiled by consultancy firm Deloitte and obtained by the Times newspaper, says Whitehall is working on 500 Brexit-related projects and could need 30,000 extra staff.

On the other hand, according to this document there are are fewer than 33,000 staff in total working for the European Commission. Maybe there are some other “EU bureaucrats” who don’t work for the Commission, but pretty much, the total number of Brussels bureaucrats is very nearly matched by the additional bureaucrats in Whitehall. Small-government conservatives rejoice!

I guess this is what the government meant by stopping the hiring of foreigners to do jobs that British workers can do.

Opinion polling can’t stabilise democracy

Something I’ve been thinking about since the Brexit vote: There was a prevailing sentiment at the time that the British people are inherently conservative, and so would never vote to upend the international order. In fact, they did, by a small but decisive margin. But how was this “conservatism” imagined to act? The difference between 52-48 for Leave and 48-52 is happening in the minds of 4% of the population who might have decided the other way. Except that there’s nothing to tell them that they are on the margin. If you are negotiating over a policy, even if you start with some strategically maximum demand, you can look at where you are and step back if it appears you’ve crossed a dangerous line.

A referendum offers two alternatives, and one of them has to win. (Of course, a weird thing about the Brexit vote is that only one side — Remain — had a clear proposal. Every Leave voter was voting for the Leave in his mind. In retrospect, the Leave campaign is trying to stretch the mantle of democratic legitimation over their maximal demands.) There is no feedback mechanism that tells an individual “conservative” voter that the line is being crossed. Continue reading “Opinion polling can’t stabilise democracy”

A year of Trump

I decided to go back over my comments on Trump from the past year, to see if there is any insight I had, or anything I missed. I don’t think there’s anything there that seems embarrassing in retrospect. The few people interested can find all my comments under the tag “Trump”. But here are some highlights:

  • Back in March I noted the sexism of the media coverage that portrayed Clinton as weak and Trump as strong, even in newspapers like the NY Times that would not consider themselves sympathetic to Trump.
  • I compared Newt Gingrich’s Trump apologetics to those of Albert Speer on Hitler.
  • I first got really frightened of Trump’s potential when I read the NY Times reporting on Sanders supporters who mostly want politics to be entertaining: “A dark side of me wants to see what happens if Trump is in. There is going to be some kind of change, and even if it’s like a Nazi-type change…”
  • In June I commented on the weird contortions of logic that the Republican establishment used to argue that Trump is not a fundamental danger to American democracy, and the widespread conviction that Trump’s problem was unfortunately inflammatory language, that could be resolved if he would just speak differently.
  • In July I wrote that, while I still expected that Trump would lose, the mere fact that he could get so far reflected deep sickness in American democracy.
  • I commented repeatedly on the false persistent assertion in the media that both candidates are inherently unpopular and nothing could change that. In fact, Trump has been persistently unpopular. Clinton only unpopular when she is involved in a presidential campaign.
  • In October I commented on the weird distortions of probabilistic language and reasoning that political pundits were using to convince themselves that a Trump victory was impossible. Shortly before the election I took up this theme again. “The reality is likely to be somewhere between 2% and 50%. Where it is, is almost impossible to judge… But even 2%, for the risk of a crybaby fascist as president, is far too much. It’s not clear to me how the US can come back from this disaster, even if Trump loses.” “A fundamental problem with the PEC estimate [99+% chance of Clinton victory] is that it clearly puts very little weight on the possibility of model failure.”
  • Trump’s flirting with antisemitism.
  • Trump’s belief that his prodigious intellect allows him to see simple solutions to problems that the eggheads claim are complicated.
  • I was surprised that Clinton ran a so openly feminist campaign. Trump, locker-room talk, and the pathologies of masculinity.

Constraints

Maybe an opportune to repost something I wrote in June. Mitch McConnell had just remarked that Trump was no danger because “No matter how unusual a personality may be who gets elected to office, there are constraints in this country”. It reminded of the famous comment of Franz von Papen, leader of the Centre Party in the Weimar Republic, and the man who advised President Hindenburg to appoint Adolf Hitler as chancellor

Wir haben ihn uns engagiert. … Was wollen sie denn? Ich habe das Vertrauen Hindenburgs. In zwei Monaten haben wir Hitler in die Ecke gedrückt, dass es quietscht…

We hired him to work for us. … What’s the problem? I’m the one who has [President] Hindenburg’s confidence. In these two months we have completely backed Hitler into a corner.

He has such a wonderful way of connecting with the working class…

Advance warning

One of the things that seems to have gotten anti-Clinton forces into the highest dudgeon is the report that one or more questions at a Democratic primary debate were leaked to the Clinton camp. My very own right-wing troll — the only one I’ve had on this generally uncommented-upon blog — expresses (in response to this post) this sentiment to support his contention that polls are all made up.

This was commented upon in tones of offended sense of fairness by Donald “System-is-Rigged” Trump, whose grave concern for Bernie Sanders’s treatment by the Democratic establishment surely presages a cooperative working relationship between the two of them.

Which makes this passage particularly interesting from the NY Times review of Megyn Kelly’s new book:

The day before the first presidential debate, Mr. Trump was in a lather again, Ms. Kelly writes. He called Fox executives, saying he’d heard that her first question “was a very pointed question directed at him.” This disconcerted her, because it was true: It was about his history of using disparaging language about women.

Closing time

Leonard Cohen is dead. Not an untimely or tragic end. But an end.

I never felt like he knew the secret of life. Not even that he knew reasons for hope. But maybe that he was pointing out something head intuited about how to live without hope. (Now may be a good time to go back and read Camus…)

I’ve been listening to his music a lot in the past few weeks. It suited my mood and, I thought, the mood of the times. I first encountered the song Everybody Knows in the soundtrack of the 1990 film Pump up the Volume, and was so impressed by it that I followed the credits to find out who was responsible for the song. Leonard Cohen. Never heard of him.

In those pre-amazonian days it was not an easy matter to find an unknown recording. I went to several record stores before I found a greatest hits CD, which give me my first hearing of Suzanne, So Long Marianne, Who By Fire, and so many more. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. Whereas people argue about whether Bob Dylan’s songs are poetry, with Leonard Cohen it’s not entirely clear whether his songs are really songs. And it’s clear that he was never sure himself, and he always seemed somewhat abashed by the fact, but as long as people thought they were, and wanted to hear him sing them, he’d oblige them.

I eagerly went to share my discovery with a fellow graduate student and folk music enthusiast. I played Suzanne for him. From the first bars he said, “That’s Leonard Cohen. He’s Canadian.” My friend was Canadian. I had no idea that there was such a gap between US and Canadian pop culture experience. I’ve since learned that Cohen has been hugely famous all over Canada and Europe, particularly the UK, since the 1970s.

Leonard Cohen’s words and music have accompanied my life ever since. With my partner of many years we bonded, early on, over noticing that we were sharing a snack of tea and oranges. A few years ago I was amazed that he had started producing albums and performing again. Beautiful new songs — the lyrics all his, the melodies mostly his collaborators, something he’s been doing since the 1980s. An unflinching openhearted reckoning with life and death, with the 20th century in all its horror and beauty. Religion, psychology, and eroticism. Jewish and Buddhist and Christian. Texts like

Show me the place, help me move away this stone.
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone.
Show me the place where the word became a man.
Show me the place where the suffering began.

and

I let my heart get frozen
To keep away the rot.
My father says I’m chosen,
My mother says I’m not.
I listened to their story
of the Gypsies and the Jews.
It was good, it wasn’t boring,
It was almost like the blues.

But I always come back to the Leonard Cohen lines I first heard:

Everybody knows the dice are loaded.
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows that he fight was fixed
The poor stay poor and the rich get rich
That’s how it goes.
Everybody knows.

Everybody knows the boat is leaking
Everybody knows the captain lied
Everybody’s got this sinking feeling
like their father or their dog just died.
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
and a long-stemmed rose.
Everybody knows.

The NY Times has posted a link to a 1995 profile that includes this quote

I’ve always found theology a certain kind of delightful titillation. Theology or religious speculation bears the same relationship to real experience as pornography does to lovemaking. They’re not entirely unconnected. I mean, you can get turned on. One of the reasons that they’re both powerful is that they ignore a lot of other material and they focus in on something very specific. In these days of overload, it’s very restful to know, at last, what you’re talking about.

And maybe just one more verse of Everybody Knows:

Everybody knows that you love me, baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Ah, give or take a night or two
Everybody knows that you’ve been discreet
but there’s so many people you just had to meet
without your clothes.
Everybody knows.

And from Closing time:

It’s partner found and it’s partner lost
There’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops
It’s closing time…

I swear it happened just like this
A sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
The gates of love they budged an inch
I can’t say much has happened since
But closing time.

Being demographic

People have been saying for a long time that the Republican strategy of ethnic nationalism is running out of room, because of increasing proportions of ethnic minorities. I noted during the 2012 election how odd it was that some groups of people were considered to vote “demographically”, while others (white Protestant men) were assumed to vote on the basis of a broad array of concerns. According to the demographic fallacy, minority groups have special interests that are very important to them, but only of peripheral interest to the majority. Too much pandering can piss off the majority, but targeted appeals can motivate the minority, potentially to very high percentages, but there is no way to motivate the majority en bloc. After the 2012 election there were any number of comments of the sort “To win the presidency, Republicans need to make up their deficit among black and hispanic voters. They are losing them at such a level that (with changing povulation composition) a future Republican candidate would need to win the white vote at implausible levels to win a majority.” Now it appears that this argument is exactly wrong, for three reasons:

  1. As Trump correctly intuited, white people are also susceptible to ethnic appeals. And if you can motivate them as an ethnic group, they’re the biggest, baddest one of all. Meanwhile, the Democrats appeal to ethnic minorities was maxed out. The pervasive undercover racism of the Republican party gave Obama a huge edge among hispanics and blacks; naked racism, religious exclusion, and threats of deportation by Trump couldn’t move it any further, but could pull in vast numbers of white voters who share his racist world view and are relieved to hear it expressed openly. Those of us who move in educated circles should have taken more seriously the assertions early on that “Trump says what everyone really thinks”. Obviously, we didn’t know what people were thinking.
  2. Similarly for women. The model of what I called “demographic thinking” in politics is  I’m not the first to notice that women are not actually a minority. The power relations (yay intersectionality!) nonetheless seem to justify seeing the struggle for women’s rights as analogous to the struggle for rights of ethnic minorities.
    Feminists may have gotten suckered by a figure-ground second-sex fallacy with regard to women voters. If you think of males as the default, and women as the “minority”, then an openly misogynist candidate like Trump would seem to turn out the women to vote against him. But most of those women have been having to compromise with and make excuses for Trump-like figures in their lives — in their families — their whole lives. Some will recoil in horror, but most will continue to make excuses. And the women voters lost may be balanced by just as many men gained.
  3. It’s perfectly possible to maintain a semblance of democracy while entrenching the power of a minority to rule over the majority. Many countries have done this. With the single exception of 2004, the Republicans have not won a plurality in a presidential election since 1988. Democrats received a majority of the votes for representatives in 2012 and (probably) 2016. Nonetheless, the Republicans have attained unrestricted control over nearly the entire federal government, and very little stands in the way of further restricting voting rights to maintain their control and civil rights of minorities, expanding the political influence of the wealthy, to maintain their power indefinitely.

The electoral college was designed to leverage the 3/5 compromise to increase the power of southern slave-holding states in presidential election. Now, under very different circumstances, it is still serving this function.