Saturday, June 30, 2018

Racism is a Productive Ideology

The other day, Ezra Klein tweeted this:
He's right. And, though Ezra doesn't come out and say this, the reason the GOP got these victories is because of racism. And xenophobia and Islamophobia and misogyny and all of their other cousins.

That's important to remember. Not in a "these victories are tainted" sort of way, though that's true. It's important to remember because it emphasizes something important about racism. To wit:

Racism is a productive ideology.

It builds things. It makes things happen. It motivates voters, it lubricates alliances, it stirs up passions.  There are times where one can't do certain things one would very much like to do unless one is willing to harness a bit of racism.

That's why standing up to racism requires real moral fiber. Not just because racism is "wrong". But because standing up to racism, in practice, means not availing yourself of certain opportunities and benefits that one greatly desires and which are in your grasp if only you agree to play with some racism.

It's no great thing to oppose racism when it's hurting you. It's not even that difficult to oppose it when it's only hurting others. But it takes real strength to know for a fact that opposing racism will cost you -- will mean losing elections you might otherwise win, will mean that the other party might get a Supreme Court seat that you'd otherwise appoint, will mean that your cherished tax policy won't see the light of day in Congress -- and nonetheless say "no." It's so easy to console yourself with the fact that you "don't like it", that politics "is about making compromises", and that the ends justify the means. Racism flourishes in America because of what it can produce. For it to be rooted out, politicians and leaders must be willing to draw a line and decline its bounty.

That was the test facing the Republican Party over the past few years. Because it's true: had they fought -- really fought -- Donald Trump, they wouldn't be the ones picking this Supreme Court Justice. They wouldn't be in a position to finally overturn Roe. They wouldn't be steering ship on tax policy. They wouldn't be in charge of immigration regulations. They wouldn't be able to purge voters in Ohio or gerrymander to hell and back in Wisconsin. The racist tides Donald Trump tapped into are what put all these things in Republican hands.

It is a test, to turn away from those things. And it is one Republicans failed, abjectly and utterly. They decided that tax cuts and Supreme Court seats were more important. They could not resist the bounty racism could provide for them.

I have no doubt that liberals will face their own form of this test at one point or another. Racism is not just productive for conservatives, and we delude ourselves if we think it is partisan in that way.

But right now, the test was handed to Republicans. And their failure -- their near-complete abdication of responsibility, in fact -- is why they lack the moral character to lead our nation. All of them -- from Paul Ryan to John Roberts to Anthony Kennedy to Mitch McConnell to Marco Rubio to Susan Collins -- faced a moment of moral challenge and completely, utterly, entirely crumbled. They are weak. They are failures. They are profiles in moral cowardice.

That is how they should be remembered. History is faint vindication, but it is what we have. And at the end of the day, they have nobody but themselves to blame for their legacies.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Media is Not Part of the Liberal Family

Max Weber has a quote (Yair Rosenberg just promoted it), regarding the proper role of a teacher:
"The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize ‘inconvenient’ facts--I mean facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions. And for every party opinion there are facts that are extremely inconvenient, for my own opinion no less than for others."
It's a good quote, and it's good advice -- not only for teachers. What it suggests is that among our most difficult deliberative obligations -- with respect to facts and also to opinions -- is to consider alternatives and counters and problems with our position. It does no good to harp on what we already know and what confirms our ideological priors. We must stretch wide to think those thoughts which are hard for us and ours.

However. There's a certain strand of malign media behavior which I think is in some ways attributable to this quote and needs to be addressed. It stems from a distorted understanding by media figures of who the relevant "parties" are and what facts actually are "inconvenient". It seems to me that quite a few major stories -- about growing right-wing authoritarianism, racism, prejudice, and Islamophobia -- are going undercovered because, in the view of many journalists, they're not "inconvenient" stories. It's not that they don't recognize that this sort of behavior is wrong. It's that they think that their wrongfulness is so obvious that there's nothing interesting to talk about.

Consider the recent debates about "civility" in the public square. It's come up primarily with reference to the ethics of a private restaurant owner (quite politely, by all accounts) asking Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her establishment (oddly enough, that seemed to get more negative attention than protesters quite loudly haranguing Kirstjen Nielsen at a Mexican restaurant). And because it's come up in that context, liberals have been quite annoyed that it's come up in that context, as opposed to, say, the fact that Congress contains a man who was criminally convicted for body-slamming a reporter, or another man who's happily retweeting Nazis. Or, you know, everything the President of the United States ever says ever.

Under any objective metric, these are far more serious breaches of "civility" than Maxine Waters urging people to confront Trump administration officials in public settings. One can think -- quite abstractly -- that the question of whether restaurant owners should refuse to serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders is ponderable while acknowledging the obvious truth that it doesn't rank in the top 200 highest priority moral questions that the media should be placing on the public agenda -- even confined to the "civility" subcategory. Given that fact, there's something facially outrageous about devoting any non-trivial amount of journalistic attention to Sarah Huckabee Sanders' dining options over and above other, obviously higher-priority stories.

To that point, though, I think many media members would issue the following retort: Yes, body-slamming a reporter or being a bit of Nazi fanboy is obviously wrong. But that's the point: it's obviously wrong. It's not interesting -- who even disagrees? By contrast, the reporters probably know a ton of people who laud Maxine Waters or the Red Hen. That issue, consequently, has stakes -- it's interesting in a way that talking about physically assaulting reporters isn't. A similar motivation probably explains the New York Times' infamous "Most Americans Want Legal Status for 'Dreamers.' These People Don't" profile. From the vantage of the journalist, sympathy for Dreamers is the obvious position -- it scarcely needs explanation. Wanting to see them deported? That's novel. That's interesting. That's a truly alternate point of view.

Hence, the reason these -- objectively low-priority -- liberal (alleged) breaches of civility (or what have you) get the media attention that they do is, in a sense, precisely because they aren't viewed as self-evidently terrible. By contrast, the argument goes, nobody needs to be told that Dana Loesch is a thug or that Mitch McConnell utterly lacks any sort of principles beyond partisan hackery.

And let's be clear: within the liberal "family", that sort of introspective consideration is valuable. We should be considering the thoughts that are hard or inconvenient for us, we should be forcing ourselves to contemplate arguments or positions that challenge our own (conservatives should do the same). And the journalists, whom (I strongly suspect) are generally left-of-center in their private commitments, think that's what they're doing. They're not going to waste time confirming what's already known -- that there are some psychopaths in the Republican caucus who are pretty much avowed White Supremacists, or that there is a growing right-wing endorsement of explicitly authoritarian language towards the media as "enemies of the American people", or that undocumented immigrants remain human beings and do not deserve to be caged up and torn from their families. That's easy. What's hard is the act of forcing other members of the "family" to deal with truly inconvenient, facts and perspectives, ones that don't come naturally.

But here's the thing: journalists are not part of the liberal family. Not professionally, anyway. In their professional capacity, their job isn't to uncover the facts and narratives that are inconvenient for themselves or their tribe. Or more aptly, their "tribe", so long as they're acting as journalists, is the entirety of the United States. Which means that, for much of their audience, it is quite "inconvenient" that Republican Congressman Steve King is a White Supremacist, and it's quite "inconvenient" that Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte physically assaulted a reporter, and it's quite "inconvenient" that the Trump administration's Muslim ban was explicitly based on racism and the Supreme Court has now decided that's okay. That these facts may seem too obvious, too much like conventional wisdom, to the journalist, or even to all the journalist's friends, is utterly immaterial. Because as it happens, they're apparently not obvious for large swaths of the country.

Ironically, conservative media critics are right about one thing: journalists need to stop thinking of themselves as part of the liberal family. It's that self-identification that creates a paradoxical problem of conservative media bias. It emerges when private liberal political beliefs conjoin with the professional understanding that it's the journalist's job to unsettle received wisdom and disturb pat answers. The result of that cocktail is that journalists persistently undercover the "obvious" conservative wrongdoings (what are they really "disturbing"?) and overreport on relatively trivial liberal ones (it may be small fries, but it least it's a challenge).

This same dynamic is also why the charge of a conservative bias is so baffling and easily dismissed by journalists. Of course, part of it is because they're private liberals themselves, so how could they be biased against liberals. But part of it is because the locus of the critique feels like a complaint about journalists doing their job right -- tackling the hard issues, forcing people to think the hard thoughts.

And the thing is, that is the right way to be a journalist -- they're not wrong about that. The problem is that they're not actually successful at forcing people to grapple with the inconvenient thoughts -- they only think that they are because their sense of what counts as a hard issue and a hard thought is distorted by the false belief that they're just liberals talking to other liberals.

They're not. They're journalists talking to the country. And for this country, right now, the things that seem so "obviously" wrong are deemed by many to be entirely right.

A good journalist should think about how to unsettle that wisdom.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

What We Put There Ourselves

The Supreme Court's decision in Trump v. Hawaii is a disgrace.

There are many things to be said on this disgrace -- what it means, where it takes us going forward. But for now I'll limit myself to one: the refrain one has been hearing a lot over the past two years, on issues ranging from the Muslim ban to the practice of caging immigrant children. "American doesn't do this." "This is not who we are."

I respect the instinct behind those sentiments. But I think they're wrong.

These are appeals to what exists "in the soul" of America. Much like the convicted criminal whose friends plead to the judge that he's "really" a good guy, much like the internet provocateur who tearfully insists that "in her heart she knows she's not racist", these are appeals to let an unseeable and intangible essence trump actual behavior and practice.

To that endeavor, the great philosopher Richard Rorty had a cutting retort: "There is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves."

Does America countenance banning immigrants on basis of the faith? Do we allow for asylum-seeking children to be caged?

Yes, clearly. America does do this. We're doing it right now. If we don't like what that says about us, then it's up to us to change it. There is nothing deep down inside us except what we decide to put there. It got there through us, it can only be removed by us.

The problem with this appeal to what lies "deep down" is not that our essence is actually corrupt -- I don't believe America is "essentially" (unavoidably, irretrievably) racist any more than I believe that we're "essentially" non-racist. The problem is that when we believe that something "deep down" is in fundamental tension with these sorts of practices, it suggests that there is some sort of natural arc that will resist them for us -- absolving us from putting in the hard work of doing the resistance ourselves. Or worse: it seductively promises that these things can't be happening here because "that's not who we are." It becomes tautology that an act of the United States of America can't truly be racist precisely because "that's not who we are."

But it's wrong. It is who we are, right up until the moment that it isn't. There's nothing deep down inside us that prevents us from being a racist, bigoted, prejudiced nation. It is not destiny, or character, or essence that makes America what it is. It is our choices, our decisions, our behavior, our practices.

I predicted the Supreme Court would uphold the travel ban. And I made another prediction as well:
15 years after the ruling, it will stop being cited. 30 years after the ruling, it will become part of the anti-canon. 45 years after the ruling, it will be beyond obvious that it was an embarrassment, but fortunately, the sort of embarrassment we as a nation have thankfully outgrown. 
And 60 years after the ruling, we'll do it again -- or something very much like it.
Until we learn the lesson of Korematsu -- the actual lesson, not the limp pseudo-history Chief Justice Roberts offered in a lame attempt to act as if he was overruling the case as opposed to renaming it -- we'll keep on repeated the cycle.

There is nothing deep down inside of the American system or way of life that checks against a Korematsu -- or a Trump. There is no intrinsic resistance, no arc of the universe inexorably pressing the other way. There is simply us -- our choices regarding what America is, and what it isn't. That, and only that, is what exists inside of us. "Who we are" as a nation is no more and no less than what we choose to put there ourselves.

Quote of the Day: Justice Jackson in the Steel Seizure Case

No comment other than to note that Justice Jackson took time off from his duties as a Supreme Court Justice to be the lead prosecutor in the Nuremberg Trials:
Executive power has the advantage of concentration in a single head in whose choice the whole Nation has a part, making him the focus of public hopes and expectations. In drama, magnitude and finality, his decisions so far overshadow any others that, almost alone, he fills the public eye and ear. No other personality in public life can begin to compete with him in access to the public mind through modern methods of communications. By his prestige as head of state and his influence upon public opinion, he exerts a leverage upon those who are supposed to check and balance his power which often cancels their effectiveness.
Moreover, rise of the party system has made a significant extraconstitutional supplement to real executive power. No appraisal of his necessities is realistic which overlooks that he heads a political system, as well as a legal system. Party loyalties and interests, sometimes more binding than law, extend his effective control into branches of government other than his own, and he often may win, as a political leader, what he cannot command under the Constitution. Indeed, Woodrow Wilson, commenting on the President as leader both of his party and of the Nation, observed, "If he rightly interpret the national thought and boldly insist upon it, he is irresistible. . . . His office is anything he has the sagacity and force to make it."
I cannot be brought to believe that this country will suffer if the Court refuses further to aggrandize the presidential office, already so potent and so relatively immune from judicial review, at the expense of Congress.
But I have no illusion that any decision by this Court can keep power in the hands of Congress if it is not wise and timely in meeting its problems. A crisis that challenges the President equally, or perhaps primarily, challenges Congress. If not good law, there was worldly wisdom in the maxim attributed to Napoleon that "The tools belong to the man who can use them." We may say that power to legislate for emergencies belongs in the hands of Congress, but only Congress itself can prevent power from slipping through its fingers. 
The essence of our free Government is "leave to live by no man's leave, underneath the law" -- to be governed by those impersonal forces which we call law. Our Government is fashioned to fulfill this concept so far as humanly possible. The Executive, except for recommendation and veto, has no legislative power. The executive action we have here originates in the individual will of the President, and represents an exercise of authority without law. No one, perhaps not even the President, knows the limits of the power he may seek to exert in this instance, and the parties affected cannot learn the limit of their rights. We do not know today what powers over labor or property would be claimed to flow from Government possession if we should legalize it, what rights to compensation would be claimed or recognized, or on what contingency it would end. With all its defects, delays and inconveniences, men have discovered no technique for long preserving free government except that the Executive be under the law, and that the law be made by parliamentary deliberations. 
Such institutions may be destined to pass away. But it is the duty of the Court to be last, not first, to give them up.
343 U.S. 579, 653-65 (1952).

Monday, June 25, 2018

Which Comes First, The Progressivism or the Democratic Vote?

I'm a bit late on this question, but this is a great explainer from Daily Kos Elections on why yes, Democrats should be targeting (among other places) affluent suburbs as part of the strategy to turn America blue. It is responding to an NYT editorial which suggested such targeting would cause the Democratic Party to abandon important progressive values, since affluent suburban (coded as White) voters are thought to be prime constituencies demanding policies harmful to poorer or brown citizens.

The DKE piece does a good job problematizing several assumptions in the NYT article (including the belief that these suburban districts are all uniformly or predominantly White), but I particularly like the way it pays attention to voter psychology. 

One might think that people come to beliefs on clusters of issues, and then vote for the Party that best matches their preferences. And sometimes that's true -- but usually only for a small band of exceptionally salient issues which the voter cares a lot about. On other issues -- the vast majority --the causality runs in the opposite direction, with people tending to follow their team. Hence, if people identify as "team Democrat" they'll likely shift their views towards consensus Democratic Party positions. This is one of the reasons why White Democrats have in fact shifted hard to the left on issues of racial justice in America over the past few years -- that position is now part of what it means to be on "team Democrat", and so self-identified Democrats adjust their views accordingly.

We see this all the time -- a recent prominent case is the surge in favorable Republican sentiment towards Vladimir Putin, almost certainly driven not by any considered judgment about the merits of Putin but rather by the sense that Russia and Putin are "on their team" and anti-Russia and anti-Putin sentiment are associated with Democrats. The almost complete absorption of southern Evangelical political ideology into that of the Republican Party is another case. On the other side, Muslims have become considerably more liberal on social issues since 9/11 -- not coincidentally, they've also moved from a Republican to a Democratic constituency at the same time stemming from the GOP's open embrace of Islamophobia. One suspects that a similar dynamic accounts for American Jewry's general across-the-board liberalism -- I'd love to attribute it to some intrinsic progressive characteristic of my people, but it's probably more a function of what segments of American society welcomed us onto their team and what segments pushed us away.

This account of how social groups develop political ideology is not the most popular secret in Political Science. It suggests that the route to political change isn't deep reflection on matters of truth and justice but simply relatively passive games of "follow the leader" and partisan feedback loops. But results are results. And in the case of progressive commitments on issues of racial justice, the more White suburban voters view themselves as consistent Democratic voters, the more likely they'll be to back progressive political commitments across the board.

Westworld Season 2 Thoughts

Another season of Westworld is in the books. And since I need to at least semi-regularly offer pop culture commentary as dessert for the political vegetables that are this blog's standard-fare, I figured I'd share my thoughts.

*Mild Westworld spoilers follow*

* Last season, my line on Westworld was that it was a very good show that was held back because it clearly thinks it's a great show. If anything, this season I revise that estimate downwards. To borrow from another reviewer, Westworld is a show that just adamantly refuses to step back and get out of the way of its own story. The interweaving timelines and flashbacks and fragmented memories and self-absorbed mystique is pretentious at the best of times and more often than that actively aggravating. You have a good story -- have the self-confidence to just tell the damn thing!

* Having just praised the story, I'm going to register another complaint here: The show's view of human (and, for that matter, robot) nature is so relentlessly negative that I have trouble relating to it. It also feels a little bit dated. Five or so years ago we were still obsessed with the "anti-hero", but since then there's been a flurry of shows -- mostly comedies, admittedly -- that are considerably more positive about the human condition (Parks and Rec, Brooklyn Nine Nine, The Good Place). So when Westworld's message is basically "everyone is awful, and if you try to be even slightly less awful you'll be exploited and then brutally murdered", it doesn't feel bold, it just gets tiresome (RIP Elsie).

* Speaking of, I felt like at the end they finally leaned into Doloros being an actual monster -- which was pretty evident pretty early on in my view -- but it sure took awhile. Her story is that of anti-colonial rebel who becomes every bit the murderous bloodletter and tyrant that she initially was reacting against. A decent arc actually, so long as the show recognized it was telling it, but it ended up lacking distinction because everybody on the show is the worst.

* All of this is why Maeve's plotline was the best of the season. For one, it was definitely the most linearly told -- see, you don't need ninety cross-cutting flashbacks to make for an interesting story. But Maeve's plot is one of the only ones that deals with the theme of strength and power in an interesting way. Maeve makes herself strong -- the show never valorizes weakness in any character -- but she's one of the few strong characters who uses her strength for a purpose beyond simply trying to redirect the orgy of violence elsewhere.

* Oh, the orgy of violence. "The violent delights," indeed. I'm not a huge fan of graphic violence, but I can handle it if it seems thematically necessary (I'm okay with Game of Thrones, for example). On Westworld, this season -- it felt gratuitous. Maybe just me.

* Actually, the real theme of Season 2 is that giving someone a gun and dressing them up in a fancy costume does not make them into a tough guy. I'm talking, of course, of Delos "security", who are almost comically useless with those machine guns. Question: if Delos security got into a battle with the stormtroopers from Star Wars, would anyone die?

* Teddy going to robot heaven and Doloros not being there is the most Teddy ending imaginable. Nothing truly good ever happens to Teddy.